Noriega now a prisoner in Panama
Panama City - More than two decades after the US forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many of those he once ruled with impunity, an irrelevant man.
Some Panamanians feel hatred for the former strongman and rejected American ally; a few others nostalgia. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed like few people had any strong feelings at all.
There were no legions of admirers at Panama City's Tocumen airport when the Spanish Iberia airlines' flight touched down, delivering him from Paris' La Sante prison after a stopover in Madrid. The crowds in the capital on Sunday were of holiday shoppers.
Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the US and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of political opponents in the 1980s.
The real Noriega
An elevated platform was set up at the prison so journalists could watch him enter, giving Panamanians what likely was their only glimpse of the man who once ran the country like his private fiefdom.
Authorities sowed confusion at the prison by first wheeling in a person thought to be Noriega in a wheelchair, covering him with what appeared to be a coat so his face could not be seen. But then a convoy arrived about a half an hour later, triggering speculation the first person was a decoy.
Roxana Mendez, the interior minister, later told the TVN news channel it was Noriega was in the second convoy.
"We reiterate that we had to safeguard the physical safety of Noreiga," she said.
The lack of a view of Noriega afforded by the tight security frustrated some Panamanians.
"We are disappointed at the excessive security that kept us from seeing the prisoner," said Aurelio Barria, a member of the old opposition to Noriega, who was once known for his snappy military uniforms and nationalistic swagger.
"Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell," Barria told TVN.
‘He must pay’
About a dozen protesters, identifying themselves as relatives of army officers shot by Noriega's forces, gathered at the prison's main entrance. One held a sign saying "Justice, Noriega, Killer." Another woman shouted "Die, you wretch! Now you're going to pay for your crimes."
President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega "should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama."
Downtown, some people could be heard banging pots and honking car horns, a symbolic gesture of repudiation that activists had suggested to show their rejection of Noriega.
The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to US forces on January 3 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
El Chorrillo, Noriega's boyhood neighbourhood and a downtown slum that was heavily bombed during the 1989 invasion, now stands in the shadow of luxury high-rise condominiums that have sprung up along the Panama Canal since the United States handed over control of the waterway in 2000.
Noriega's former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.
A forgotten dictator
While some Panamanians are eager to see punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.
"In politics, he won't have any great impact, because the people of Panama have other concerns," said Marco Gandasegui, a sociology professor at Panama's Centre for Latin American Studies.
Noriega was a valuable US ally in the 1970s and 1980s, helping the US combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help, and also acted as a back channel for US communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.
But as the Cold War waned, Noriega became a more powerful and unforgiving dictator at home.
Tensions developed between the strongman and US officials, who also had been aware for some time that he was also working with the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.
Noriega was convicted on the US drug trafficking charges two years after the invasion, and served 17 years. He received special treatment as a prisoner of war and lived in his own bungalow with a TV and exercise equipment.
When his sentence ended, he was extradited to France, which convicted him for laundering millions of dollars in drug profits through three major French banks, and investing drug cash in three luxury Paris apartments.
In Panama, Noriega was sentenced in absentia for the murders of military commander Moises Giroldi, slain after leading a failed 1989 rebellion, and Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent found decapitated on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.
He also was convicted in a third case involving the death of troops who aided one of his opponents in a rebellion, and could be tried in the deaths of other opponents.
Unlike his minimum-security digs outside Miami, Noriega's cell at El Renacer will be spartan.
Noriega "will be located in an individual cell, without luxuries and in similar conditions to the rest of the inmates," Interior Ministry spokesperson Vielka Pritsiolas said.