Speed Reads

the life and times

Manuel Noriega had a staff witch

Manuel Noriega, once the merciless dictator of Panama, spent the last years of his life feared by no one. "Nobody even knew who he was, hardly," historian R.M. Koster told The Miami Herald.

Noriega ruled as a military dictator from 1983 until he was ousted by U.S. troops in 1989; he died late Monday at the age of 83 after a failed brain tumor surgery in Panama, where he was under house arrest after previously spending years in both American and French prisons.

But long before that, Noriega cultivated an image of being an "assassin, a rapist, a torturer, [and] even a deadly practitioner of black magic," The Miami Herald writes. On that last point: "Noriega was the only chief of state in the Western Hemisphere who had a staff witch, imported from Brazil."

"Noriega is like a malevolently smiling Wizard of Oz, blowing the smoke and whistles to manipulate his own image from behind a curtain," wrote journalist John Dinges in his biography Our Man In Panama. He once even allowed an American reporter to — apparently jokingly — examine his head for a Satanic 666 marking.

None was found, which surely didn't surprise the general, who believed his origins were loftier. "Ego sum qui sum," he once told a Panamanian journalist in language that echoed God's speech to Moses from inside a burning bush in the Biblical book of Exodus. "I am who I am. I am Manuel Antonio Noriega. I always have been. ... There is nothing enigmatic about me." [The Miami Herald]

Read more about Noriega's rise and fall at The Miami Herald.