PANAMA CITY, Panama – More than two decades after the U.S. 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.
Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States 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.
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.
The director of Panama’s prison system, Angel Calderon, eventually gave journalists a view of Noriega from a distance.
“The inmate Noriega is there,” Calderon said, gesturing toward the former leader who was sitting in a wheelchair. Calderon said Noriega was refusing to wear a prison uniform.
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.”
The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. forces Jan. 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
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