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The former strongman of Panama, Manuel Antonio Noriega, is nearing the end of his prison term. He's due for release from a Miami prison in September. Noriega was captured after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. He's been serving time for drug trafficking and racketeering. But when his time's up, he may not exactly walk free. France wants to jail Noriega for money laundering. And this week, the U.S. government filed extradition papers. Noriega's lawyer says he will fight the order. He says Noriega is a prisoner of war who must be returned home.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia Navarro visited Panama, where Noriega's fate is stirring a lot of interest and worry.
LOURDES GARCIA NAVARRO: So I'm standing in front of Manuel Antonio Noriega's house in Panama City in an area called Altos del Golf. And the place looks utterly abandoned. The grass in front of me is uncut. It's brown. The tiles on the quite grand, colonial-style structure are cracked and broken. The front door is open to the elements, so that the wind and the rain can come in. It not only looks as if no one has come here for years, but it also looks like no one is really preparing for Noriega's return.
In the intervening years since Noriega has been in prison, this country has transformed itself into a regional, economic powerhouse. Still, in a strange twist of fate, the son of Noriega's mentor and predecessor, General Omar Torrijos, is now in office.
President Martin Torrijos belongs to Noriega's own party. And quite a few of the people in his government are former Noriega officials. His minister of public works was once the commandante of the Dignity Battalions, Noriega's paramilitary forces. The president says that if Noriega returns home, he will serve time for a conviction in the deaths of two political opponents in the 1980s.
President MARTIN TORRIJOS (Panama): (Through Translator) For many years now, Panama has been asking for Noriega's extradition. If he arrives in Panama, he will have to faces the charges that are pending against him.
NAVARRO: When pressed about concerns in Panama regarding Noriega, Martin Torrijos added...
Pres. TORRIJOS: (Spanish spoken)
NAVARRO: I see that you are more worried about Noriega than the Panamanians, he said.
And that is the government line here. Noriega doesn't matter. But of course, he does. Already in Panama, there are accusations that the Panamanian government cut a deal with the U.S. to have him extradited to France, so as to avoid the headache of having him back here altogether. It's a charge that it and the U.S. embassy in Panama City denied. Still, for Noriega's old adversaries, there is a suspicion that Panama can't or won't see him pay for his crimes.
Mr. TERRENCE FORD(ph): I would fear for the fairness and the equity of our system if he did come back. I'm not sure he would get justice. I think he would get favoritism.
NAVARRO: Terrence Ford is a prominent Panamanian who was a foe of Noriega's. He was beaten by his forces, knocking out his front teeth.
Mr. FORD: I'm rather afraid that he might be welcomed with open arms by people. And I don't think that would be good for Panama. He had a lot of people who liked him, a lot of people who followed him, a lot of people who thought he was good for Panama. He also had a lot of people who thought he was very bad for Panama.
NAVARRO: Noriega's history in this tiny, Central-American nation is a complicated one. He was in the employ of the CIA for years. And Noriega alleges that he was removed from power through the U.S. invasion because he wouldn't play ball with American efforts to fund the Nicaraguan Contras during the conflict there. Noriega was convicted in a U.S. court of drug trafficking and money laundering. And his reign was characterized by sometimes brutal repression. Still, there are those who remember him fondly.
In a McDonald's in a poor section of the capital, Elvia Gayle de Best says she's waiting for Noriega's return and planning to greet him with placards and fanfare. She says she knew the man Noriega and not the dictator. They exchanged letters for many years.
Ms. ELVIA GAYLE de BEST (Former leader, Batallion de Dignidad): (Through Translator) If you take away a dictator and put in a democracy, and you see that during most of that time, the people lived in worse conditions than what we're talking about here. The military people were more sensitive to the poor people than those so-called democrats.
NAVARRO: There seems to hardly be overwhelming support, though. Those planning with her perhaps number about 25 people, she concedes. On Panama's streets, many of the people I speak to seem much more ambivalent. They are wondering what there is to gain or to be lost if their most infamous son is finally brought home.
Lourdes Garcia Navarro, NPR News, Panama City, Panama.
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