In the first episode of the documentary series Spy Ops, the makers cover Operation Jawbreaker, which removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan months after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The success of the operation forced Osama bin Laden to leave Afghanistan and seek refuge in Pakistan. This sets the precedent for the show, as we get to watch and understand the famous spy operations.
Spy Ops Episode 2 is about Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was accused of drug trafficking and aiding many drug cartels. In December 1989, the President of the USA directed the American military to carry out extended missions in Panama to save American lives. The press conference at the White House also mentioned that they are determined to preserve the integrity of the Panama treaty signed between the two countries in 1977 and restore the democratic process after apprehending the dictator, Manuel Noriega. It is implied that a series of events took place in Panama that escalated the diplomatic tension between the United States of America and Panama.
What is the history of the Panama Canal?
The Panama Canal project was started by the French, but they ended up having to abandon it because of the weather and the French people were vulnerable to many tropical diseases in the region. The Americans essentially finished working on the project, and the canal opened in 1914. The history of the Panama Canal is essential to this story, for it allows us to view the entire conflict from the American perspective. There are Panamanian experts as well who speak in detail about the repercussions of the construction of the Panama Canal, which was initially a US-controlled region.
This was the first conflict in the region since a treaty was signed between President Jimmy Carter and the then-dictator of Panama, Omar Torrijos. The treaty stated that the United States of America would have control over the canal up until the year 2000. General Marc Cisneros was the head of the treaty, and he was stationed in the region to enforce it. The troops allowed military control over the region, which was essential for American businesses and commerce. The CIA and the American military were the biggest shareholders in the Panama Canal zone, which put Torrijos slightly on the back foot.
Who is Manuel Noreiga?
In pop culture, dictator Manuel Noreiga is known as one of the many autocrats in the Latin American region who gained tremendous power. We get to see the actual history of the man who went from being a friend to a foe of the United States of America. The history of this man is also crucial to understanding what made him go against one of the two biggest superpowers in the world during the Cold War.
Manuel Noriega rose to power thanks to the USA and the political power games they played. He was also a part of the team that countered narcotics activities in the region. He provided plenty of information to the CIA officials stationed in the country that could help them crush pro-Soviet and nationalist sentiments. Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA station head in Panama, states that Manuel Noreiga eventually started helping the drug cartels pass through the canal zone. It implies that the man sort of became a double agent.
Noriega started his journey by becoming the chief of the secret service under the leadership of Torrijos and grew to become the most influential person in the country. His position of power allowed him to be good at propaganda, deception, networking, and getting in touch with the sources. He took full advantage of the power assigned by Torrijos, and we wonder if he became too popular for his own good. It seems he figured he could form a group of allies that would come to his aid if he becomes the next leader of Panama.
Did Manuel conspire to assassinate Omar Torrijos?
Manuel’s close ties with Cuba were America’s biggest concern. Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War era. Years after attaining power, Noreiga became a liability rather than an asset because the CIA was quick to understand the double game the man was playing. We wonder if he was remotely involved in the death of dictator Omar Torrijos in a plane crash. There are plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding his death, which many claim was an assassination.
The most common theory is that the CIA’s involvement in getting rid of Omar and replacing him with Manuel Noriega, who had become a popular figure in the country. The other theory has people speculating about Manuel Noriega’s role in the death of his leader to get hold of the power. Panama back then was a strategic location for commerce, and access to this zone brings absolute might.
Manuel Noreiga soon became unreliable because of his fickle nature, even though the CIA offered him a handsome amount in exchange for classified information. Since he was a key player in the region, the USA and CIA chose to ignore their misgivings. Manuel fast-tracked the transition of power after Torrijos’s death, which proved that he was corrupt. It is obvious the man was waiting to take over as the Chief of Panamanian Defense, a position that gave him absolute power over the armed forces of the country.
What was the need for ‘Operation Just Cause’?
Manuel Noreiga soon became the face of drug trafficking when he took advantage of the canal for the transportation of drugs. This implied that he was receiving kickbacks from various drug cartels. The man becomes too conceited in his quest to attain substantial power in the region. The rampant transportation of narcotics created havoc in the USA and certain parts of Europe as well. This did not sit well with the Reagan administration, which was vehemently against the drug supply and abuse. It can also be assumed that Manuel Noreiga could no longer be controlled by the CIA, which led to a vicious campaign against the supreme leader of Panama.
Manuel Noriega refused to train contras in Panama as requested by the CIA and the American government. This rebuff meant that he’d started undermining the USA as his powerful ally. He started oppressing and suppressing all his political opponents. This is a standard tactic used by dictators who plan to rule the country for many years. Slowly, resistance was formed by an American citizen, Kurt Muse, living in Panama, who discreetly broadcasted a radio program called ‘The Voice of Liberty’. This radio show encouraged the people of Panama to speak up against the atrocities carried out by Noriega.
This broadcasting program was backed by the CIA, and it helped the intelligence agency gather support that could eventually help them depose the leader. The CIA looked for every opportunity to put Noriega out of power, and they would stop at nothing. The governments in the United States changed, but Noriega remained in power for a long time, which allowed him to annul an election because he was sure the results would not be in his favor. This is a typical strategy utilized by dictators all around the world. They create an atmosphere of fear to make sure all the dissenting voices are crushed.
An incident involving the death of an American Navy officer in Panama triggered the Bush administration to activate “Operation Just Cause”. The officer was killed by the Panamanian defense forces, which led to the invasion of the country. The elite Delta Force also began a manhunt to capture Manuel Noriega. The invasion showcased the real face of Noriega, who went underground to avoid capture. He let his people and the armed forces down by not standing tall till the end. The invasion would not be complete unless Noriega was found, and the CIA tried every trick in the book to get him out of hiding, including using his mistress, Vicky.
Which country provided Manuel Noreiga with asylum?
Spy Ops Episode 2 ends with Manuel Noriega requesting asylum from the Vatican Embassy, which was known for sheltering those who believed in the Catholic faith. Noriega used his Catholic card to make sure he would remain untouched in the area, which is a part of the holy land of the Christian faith. This was a rather tacky strategy, but it was also his last hope to evade capture.
Thankfully, the CIA and the American army had to do nothing; the Panamanians were adamant about capturing him alive and probably killing him as an act of mob justice. The fear of the Vatican Embassy being overpowered by the locals forced Manuel Noreiga to finally surrender in full military regalia. ‘Operation Just Cause’ was a success because the American forces, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), were able to make the arrest and end Noriega’s reign.
The CIA never missed an opportunity to get rid of leaders like Manuel Noriega, who posed a threat to their power in the region. They made sure to amplify all kinds of resistance so that the results went in their favor. In this case, the Panamanians who were against Noriega’s autocratic rule did more than half of their job for the US government and the CIA.
General Marc Cisneros claims to have no regrets about being one of the men responsible for the downfall of Manuel Noreiga. He feels the man deserves a longer sentence for the atrocities he has committed. He also admits to the collateral damage that the people of Panama and the Americans in the country had to face. General Marc Cisneros is a military man, and he must remain pragmatic about the situations they get into. He believes there is no good war or bad peace. It implies that war and peace are subjective terms, and it depends on who benefits the most.
Manuel Noriega was charged under United States jurisdiction, and he remained in an American prison for 40 years. He was also detained in a French prison and later extradited to Panama, where he served his time at the Panama Canal Zone jail. Manuel Noriega eventually died of cancer. The CIA is happy that Panama is one of their success stories because they were able to restore democracy. The people’s mandate in Panama mattered the most after many years of being oppressed.