QUESTIONS ARISE OVER THE U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO OUST PANAMA’S GEN. NORIEGA
GREG W. TAYLOROctober161989
A FUMBLED COUP
QUESTIONS ARISE OVER THE U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO OUST PANAMA’S GEN. NORIEGA
For more than four hours last week, it seemed as though Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega had lost his iron grip on the country that he has ruled since 1983. A small team of Panamanian military rebels, determined to drive him from office, was holding him hostage in his own headquarters. Blackhawk helicopters from the U.S. army’s nearby base swept the skies around Noriega’s bullet-riddled compound, and American troops blocked roads into the city, as the rebels broadcast a victory statement from captured television and radio stations. Then, only hours after the first shots were fired, it became apparent that the coup had failed, and Noriega emerged unscathed and in full control after beating off the second attempt in 18 months to oust him.
Afterwards, there was extensive questioning of the extent of American involvement in the coup attempt. Some critics charged that the Americans, with 12,000 troops guarding the Panama Canal, had not given enough support to the rebels. Others said that there should not have been any U.S. involvement at all. Republican Senator Jesse Helms said that the rebel officers holding Noriega actually offered to turn him over to the Americans.
But, said Helms, poor intelligence and communications had upset the plan, a charge that was denied by Defence Secretary Richard Cheney.
The coup attempt began about 7 a.m. on Oct. 3, when as many as 300 heavily armed soldiers attacked the central military headquarters, a walled compound where Noriega was staying. The rebels apparently held the general and other senior officers in an area near the centre of the compound for four hours.
Meanwhile, American troops blocked two of the major routes to the headquarters, ostensibly to protect American lives and property, but actually—as U.S. officials later acknowledged—to prevent troops loyal to Noriega from surrounding the rebels.
But the Americans failed to block a third artery, leaving a clear path for Noriega loyalists to reach the compound.
By midmorning, rebel officers had begun talking face-to-face with American officials about the fate of Noriega. Whether or not they
offered to hand Noriega over, as Helms and others claimed, remained in doubt. One U.S. intelligence official, briefing members of Congress, reportedly said that a CIA message had been garbled, so that the word “won’t” was read as “want,” giving the impression that the rebels were willing to hand over Noriega when in fact they were not prepared to do so. But Cheney dismissed that theory and said flatly, “They were not prepared to turn him over to the United States.” He added, “They wanted him to retire quietly inside Panama.”
Some U.S. officials said it was clear that the coup leaders were not seeking democratic reform. The officials theorized that the junior officers behind the attempt were frustrated because their careers and pay increases had been blocked by senior officers who they felt should have been forced to retire. And in fact, a statement broadcast after the rebels took over the radio and television stations at about 11
a.m. said that they planned to retire Noriega and other senior officers.
Noriega, 51, was recruited and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1960s, when he was a junior National Guard officer. He has a reputation as a cunning, ruthless officer, well-versed in American intelligence practices. In 1983, he became head of the military establishment, the Panama Defence Forces, and the country’s effective ruler.
In June, 1987, after Noriega’s second-in-command, Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, accused him of corruption and human-rights abuses as well as illegal trafficking in arms and drugs, Washington turned against him. Then, in February, 1988, two federal grand juries in Florida indicted him on drugtrafficking charges, connecting him with Colombia’s notorious Medellin drug cartel.
But despite U.S. economic sanctions imposed last year, along with a $ 12-million fund that Washington has provided to support anti-Noriega political forces, the general has remained solidly in power. He uses brute force and intimidation to crush his enemies. When a group of military rebels attempted to overthrow him on March 16, 1988, Noriega easily turned them back.
In the May, 1989, presidential election, Noriega’s candidate, Carlos _ Duque, was defeated by Guillermo x Endara, leader of the opposition Dem| ocratic Alliance. But Noriega swiftly g declared the election invalid, and pipe£ wielding members of his so-called Dig-
nity Battalions—a civilian strong-arm force—bludgeoned Endara’s vice-presidential running mate, Guillermo Ford, in front of a crowd that included several photographers. Their pictures of a bloodied and defenceless Ford were widely published and caused outrage around the world.
Last week, following the initial reports of the dictator’s overthrow, Panamanians began celebrating in the streets of Panama City. The cheering stopped abruptly when the rebel broadcasts suddenly ceased. By that time, troops from three battalions loyal to Noriega had surrounded the military headquarters and were pounding it with machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The rebels, realizing that their attempt was doomed, either fled—at least five took refuge with the Americans—or surrendered.
Among the men who surrendered to Noriega personally was the coup leader, Maj. Moisés Giraldi Vega. Various' Panamanian sources said that Noriega shot Giraldi dead on the spot. The two had previously been close friends, and Giraldi had been instrumental in putting down the abortive 1988 coup attempt.
After his victory last week, the triumphant Noriega appeared at the steel-barred window of his command post and gave a doubleclenched-fist wave to a crowd of several thousand that had gathered in the street below. The majority of the crowd appeared to be government workers, and only a few of them cheered as Noriega made his appearance. “We were told to take the afternoon off to come and salute him,” said one worker, who declined to be identified. “It really wasn’t an invitation one should refuse.”
Noriega blamed the attempted coup on “the permanent aggression and penetration by the forces of the United States.” But in Washington, President George Bush denied that strenuously. “There were rumors around that this was some American operation, and I can tell you that is not true,” he said. Later, however, White House aides and Cheney himself acknowledged that the U.S. military had agreed to support the rebels nonviolently by blocking the roads. Bush did not comment further, beyond saying: “As I look at all the information,
I wouldn’t have made a different decision.”
Cheney also said that the Americans had learned from Giraldi and his wife, Adella, that a coup was planned. He added that the warning reached the White House only on Oct. 1, but later, U.S. officials in Panama said that the Americans had received the first indication more than two weeks earlier. However, be-
cause of Giraldi’s previously close connections with Noriega, some U.S. officials expressed suspicion that his warning was a trap to embarrass the Americans by luring them into some clearly unwarranted military action.
But Helms, for one, charged that the United States should have acted more decisively once the coup attempt was launched. Likening the apparently bungled U.S. response to a Keystone Kops comedy, he said, “Once again we have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” But Secretary of State James Baker declared, “If you are going to risk American lives, it is the President’s view that you do so on your own timetable.”
By the end of the week, it seemed clear that U.S. intelligence failures had hampered the military’s ability to play a more active role. Inside observers said that several key U.S. intelligence and military officers in Panama, including the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, were new to the area and did not know which Panamanians to trust. As well, some officials in Washington said that the White House had failed to put together a team of foreign-policy and military experts to monitor the overthrow attempt and formulate a U.S. response. One result of that situation, observers said, was that when the rebels asked for help, there were long delays before they received a reply. In fact, some Washington critics said that the rebels may have launched their attack with so few men because the Americans had convinced them that they would provide full support.
By Friday afternoon, the streets of Panama were calm, with little evidence of the fighting. Even the bullet holes in Noriega’s headquarters had been repaired and painted over. Lt.Col. Arnulfo Castrejon, chief of the high command’s defence and security commission, told reporters that he was one of the officers who had been held prisoner by the rebels before being freed by loyal troops. “Panama is in a very festive mood now,” said Castrejon. And, describing Noriega, he said: “He has a divine power. That is why he prevails.” As for the officers who had tried to overthrow Noriega, he said ominously, “They will pay the full price for their treason.”
As he spoke, several dozen alleged plotters were reportedly undergoing interrogation, and several opposition politicians were temporarily under arrest. Privately, many Panamanians expressed dismay that Noriega remained in power. And in Washington, administration officials admitted that the events of Oct. 3 had shown that the Bush administration had a lot to learn about crisis management. Said one: “This was our first bloodletting, our first real-time crisis operation. We’ve learned some things that we need to improve, and we’ll improve them.” Given Noriega’s strength and ruthlessness, the White House, the state department, the Pentagon and the CIA plainly had a lot of hard thinking to do.
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