Feature

How they see us: Sending Noriega to France

The U.S. is extraditing Manuel Noriega to France instead of Panama, a move the former dictator spent the last three years fighting and one that prevents a full accounting of his crimes in his own country.

The U.S. this week announced that it was extraditing Manuel Noriega to France instead of Panama, a decision that “leaves a bad taste in the mouth,” said La Estrella de Panamá in an editorial. When our former dictator, arrested in a U.S. invasion in 1990 and convicted of drug trafficking and racketeering, finished serving his sentence in a Miami prison in 2007, both France and Panama requested his extradition. France had convicted him in absentia of laundering more than $3 million in drug profits by buying French real estate. But Panama also convicted him in absentia of money laundering—as well as of “vastly more serious crimes,” including corruption, embezzlement, and even ordering the murder of political opponents. “The Americans’ motives are not very clear.” Do they simply “care more about Europeans than about Panamanians?” Whatever the reason, the decision has cost us our chance at justice. Noriega is 76, and he could serve up to 10 years in French prison. The nation he once plundered and oppressed will probably never see him again.

If so, it will be our own fault, said Melquisedec Quintero in Panama’s El Siglo. Why isn’t the Panamanian government making a fuss? Noriega himself wanted to spend his last years here at home, where he could serve out his sentence under house arrest. That would also mean “answering for crimes committed in this country.” He spent the past three years fighting the extradition to France in U.S. courts, but lost—even though international law “ought to give priority to Panama’s request” over France’s. Yet this week Noriega was flown to Paris, and our government simply shrugged. Vice President Juan Carlos Varela said Panama “respects the decision” to send Noriega away.

The truth is, the Panamanian government doesn’t want him, said Paulo Paranagua in France’s Le Monde. And the U.S. certainly doesn’t want him to go home. For years, rumors have swirled that the U.S., France, and Panama were all party to a “secret deal” to send Noriega to France after his U.S. prison term ended. Were he to face justice in Panama, his testimony “could compromise many prominent Panamanian politicians and businessmen,” as well as expose the full extent of U.S. blundering in its dealings with him. After all, it’s now widely known that Noriega was a CIA operative from the 1960s until 1988, when the Drug Enforcement Administration indicted him on drug-trafficking charges. American officials evidently didn’t realize Noriega was “working as a double agent,” funneling information to Cuba and Libya. But they surely must have known that he was dealing with Colombia’s Medellín cartel and turning Panama into a narco state. Noriega is “an embarrassment for the U.S. and for Panama.” By shipping him to France, they can make that embarrassment disappear.

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