A paid informant to the CIA, Manuel Noriega assisted the United States in its support of the Nicaraguan Contras against the leftist Sandinistas in the 1980s. Relations deterioriated after the Iran/Contra scandal and revelations about Noriega’s role in drug trafficking. After indicting him in 1988, the US invaded Panama in 1989 and arrested Noriega, putting him on trial in the US. He was later extradited to France and then to Panama, where he remains imprisoned for crimes committed while in power. Longtime Nation contributor Michael Massing—his essay on investigative journalism in our 150th anniversary issue is a must-read—wrote a report, “Noriega in Miami,” for the issue of December 2, 1991.

If convicted on all counts, Noriega could receive up to 140 years in prison. A draconian sentence, it might seem—unless one puts it in the broader context of Panamanian politics. One of the great ironies of the Noriega trial is that it ignores the man’s really serious crimes—his intimidation of opponents, his stealing of elections, his crackdown on the press, his plundering of Panama’s wealth. As a drug trafficker, Noriega was a modest player. As a tyrant, he was indeed a giant in Panama. Should he spend the rest of his days in prison, justice will, in a sense, have been served. It should, however, have been left up to the Panamanians to make that decision.

April 9, 1992

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.