Latin America

Ex-Panamanian dictator Noriega faces trial for union leader’s murder

Heliodoro Portugal’s body was found in 1999 following his disappearance 29 years earlier

Noriega is taken to a Panamanian prison in December 2011.
Noriega is taken to a Panamanian prison in December 2011.R. A. / AFP

Jailed former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega will face trial on May 21 for the murder of a top union official who was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1970.

At the time Noriega was head of the Panamanian National Guard’s espionage unit and worked as an informant for the CIA during the US intelligence agency’s offensive against communist guerrillas in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Now 81 and in poor health, Noriega has been held in a Panamanian prison since 2011 following his extradition from France, where he served a brief prison sentence on drug trafficking charges.

Union leader Portugal was last seen on May 14, 1970 at a café in downtown Panama City

He will go on trial alongside seven other former military officers for the death of union boss Heliodoro Portugal, whose body was found in 1999 during an excavation at a prison in the eastern part of the country.

A Truth Commission ordered the dig as part of its investigation of Panamanians who were murdered or disappeared during the military dictatorship that governed the isthmus nation from 1968 to 1989.

According to Panama City daily La Prensa, the former Panamanian leader, who was deposed after a US-led invasion ordered by President George Bush in 1989, will face a “jury of conscience” along with former National Guard officials Melbourne Walker, Moisés Antonio Correa, Aquilino Sieiro Murgas, Pablo Garrido, Lucinio Miranda, Pedro Del Cid and Gabriel Correa.

Portugal was last seen on May 14, 1970 at a café in downtown Panama City. At the time, General Omar Torrijos ruled the country after leading a military coup against democratically elected President Arnulfo Arias Madrid in October 1968.

As a loyal soldier to Torrijos, Noriega quickly rose in the ranks and became chief intelligence officer for the western region of Panama. His position allowed him to forge connections with the CIA, which would eventually lead to his downfall.

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After Torrijos’ mysterious death in an air accident in 1981, Noriega’s rise in the National Guard continued and two years later he became head of the renamed Panama Defense Forces.

Following Noriega’s brutal crackdowns on the opposition, Bush ordered a military invasion of Panama and the arrest of the military leader, who had been indicted in Miami on federal drug trafficking charges.

He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years. After an early release, he was extradited to France in 2011 where he faced a seven-year sentence on drug-related charges. But negotiations between the US, French and Panamanian governments the following year allowed Noriega to return to his native country where he has been in custody since.

A Truth Commission empaneled to investigate abuses carried out by the Torrijos and subsequent Noriega regimes concluded that at least 110 murders and disappearances took place between 1968 and 1989.

In 2008, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Panamanian government to pay $190,000 in compensation to Portugal’s family.