The Manuel Noriega Trial (1991): Selected Links & Bibliography
by Cindi Ernst


Manuel Antonio Noriega-   Manuel Antonio Noriega was born to an accountant and his maid in a poor section of Panama City, Panama, in 1934.  When he was five he was given up for adoption to a schoolteacher.  He attended the National Institute High School, with aspirations of becoming a doctor.  Noriega's family could not afford medical school so he accepted a scholarship to attend the Chorizos Military Academy in Peru.  In 1962 he graduated with a degree in engineering.   Noriega received intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in 1967, and also took a course in psychological operations (Psyops) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Career- In 1967 Noriega was commissioned in the Panama National Guard and promoted to lieutenant in 1968.  Noriega worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the late 1950’s to the 1980’s.  He was on the CIA payroll for most of this time, although the relationship did not become contractual until 1967.


Noriega retained U.S. support until February 4, 1989, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicted him on federal drug charges.  The U.S. saw Noriega as a double agent and the state Department nicknamed him “rent-a-colonel” and believed that he gave information not only to the U.S. and U.S. allies, Taiwan and Israel, but also to communist Cuba.  He also sold weapons to the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1970’s. 

Noriega in the 1980’s promoted himself to a full general.  He was a close ally of the United States and pledged to help the Reagan administration in their efforts to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

After the Iran-Contra Affair, Noriega became a liability to the United States.  In 1988, the DEA indicted Noriega on charges of drug trafficking.  The next year, Noriega voided national elections.   President George H. W. Bush stepped in and authorized a military invasion of the Caribbean nation with the sole purpose of deposing the dictator.  A standoff occurred and Noriega surrendered to U. S. forces on January 3, 1990.

Events Leading Up To Noriega’s Capture- On December 20, 1988 around 12:45 am, the U.S. armed forces began one of the costliest and deadliest arrest missions in recent history.  Twenty-five thousand American troops invaded Panama with orders to capture General Manuel Antonio Noriega.  He surrendered after two weeks of holing up in the Papal Embassy.


Manuel Noriega’s Trial- Noriega’s trial was held from September 6, 1991- April 9, 1992.  He was charged with: drug trafficking, racketeering, and conspiracy.  Judge William M. Hoeveler presided over the trial which was held in Miami, Florida.  The verdict came back as guilty and Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in prison.  His sentence was later reduced to 30 years, and further reduced to 17 years.

One of the chief prosecutor’s of the trial, Michael Sullivan derided Noriega as a “small man in a general’s uniform,” who gave his “permission, authorization, and encouragement to a scheme to transform his nation into an international cocaine trafficking and manufacturing center.”

In a surprise move the defense counsel Frank Rubino waived his right to deliver an opening statement to the jury.  His reasoning behind this move was to wait until the prosecution had revealed its entire hand before deciding the direction that the defense would take.

Significance of Trial:  This was a landmark trial which marked the first time that a former head of a foreign government had ever faced criminal charges in an American court of law. 


Picture of Noriega after finding Christ in prison

Manuel Noriega Now-   On Wednesday, April 8, 2009, a federal appeals court ruled that Noriega could be taken to France to face money laundering charges.  This ruling rejected the former Panamanian dictator’s bid to return to his native country of Panama.  Noriega’s attorney Jonathan May of Miami said an appeal was likely.    At the end of all legal proceeding the courts will make a recommendation to U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to decide if Noriega will be released back to his country of Panama or be extradited to France to face charges of money laundering.


Additional Links-

Additional Readings-

Dinges, John. Our Man in Panama: How General Noriega Used the United States and Made Millions in Drugs and Arms.  New York: Random House, 1990.

Harris, David.  Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever.  Boston: Little, Brown, 2001

Kempe, Frederick.  Divorcing the Dictator: America’s Bungled Affair with Noriega.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1990.

Noriega, Manuel, and Peter Eisner. America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega.  New York: Random House, 1997.

Famous Trials Website