In 1989, Panamanian leader and de facto dictator Manuel Noriega decided to take refuge in the diplomatic apostolic nunciature of the Holy See while being hunted by American military officers. When Pope John Paul II refused to hand over the dictator, the military resorted to, depending on who you ask, a loud and violent approach: They relentlessly lambasted the Holy See…with rock-and-roll music. -roll day and night.

A de facto authoritarian ruler of Panama

Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno was a de facto authoritarian ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989 until he was arrested. His rise to power began when in 1968 Panamanian National Guard Commander Omar Torrijos overthrew elected President Arnulfo Arias in a coup. Noriega was a supporter of Torrijos, and he was first made captain after proving his loyalty to him when in late 1969 a coup was launched against the leader and Noriega worked to ensure that Torrijos, who went to Mexico on vacation this time, would not lose his power. After 18 months, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed head of military intelligence.

Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos shake hands after signing the Panama Canal Treaty. (White House Photographpublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1981, Torrijos negotiated the Torrijos-Carter Treaties which guaranteed that control of the Panama Canal would pass to Panama after 18 years. The growing militarization of the Panamanian government and its involvement in drug trafficking was overlooked by the Carter administration due to its interest in signing a new treaty being negotiated at the time, the Panama Canal Treaty.

When Torrijos died in a plane crash on July 31, 1981, Florencio Flores Aguilar inherited the position but was quickly removed from office in a low-key coup in March 1982. It was Ruben Paredes who took over while Noriega became full colonel and chief of staff of the National Guard. In August 1983, Paredes handed the job over to Noriega, believing it would allow him to run for president. Well, the joke is on him because after taking on his new position, Noriega told Paredes he wasn’t going to. Thus, Noriega became the de facto dictator of Panama.

Relationship with the United States

At first, Noriega’s relationship with the United States grew as he won favor with the Reagan administration, which sought allies in the Central American region after the emergence of Marxist revolutions in Nicaragua. and El Salvador supported by the Soviet Union. Noriega supported the United States by allowing the CIA to establish listening posts in Panama and by helping American allies of the Salvadoran government against the left-wing insurgent called the National Liberation Front Farabundo Marti. He even allowed US bases in the Panama Canal even with the existence of Panama Canal treaties that were supposed to restrict them in the area.

At the same time, Noriega’s involvement in the drug trade increased dramatically with its peak in 1984. He would transport cocaine to the United States, covered by escalating conflicts in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and in Nicaragua. When exposed by journalist Seymour Hersh, he scaled down his drug ladder operation. He even ordered a raid on a cocaine factory in Panama to prove he was against illegal drugs. The United States bought the show and he was even invited to Harvard as a lecturer in 1985 for a conference on the role of the military in the Central American wars.

His relationship with the United States began to deteriorate when he ordered the murder of a doctor and political activist, Hugo Spadafora, who was also a supporter of Torrijo but was a personal enemy of Noriega because he had discovered and revealed his links to drug trafficking. The Reagan administration had a high regard for Spadafora, and they weren’t exactly thrilled to hear that he had been beheaded. The relationship deteriorated further when the United States began to suspect in the late 1980s that Noriega was supporting other intelligence services, particularly the Cuban government under Fidel Castro. In 1988, he was indicted on drug trafficking charges by US federal grand juries.

Then the May 1989 presidential election was held and Noriega tipped the election results in favor of his former business partner Carlos Duque instead of the opposition candidate who was Guillermo Endara. Then-president Jimmy Carter denounced Noriega, who responded when opposition leader Endara marched in a triumphant motorcade the following day. His team was badly beaten by Noriega’s paramilitaries called the Dignity Battalions. The United States recognized Endara as the new president and negotiated Noriega’s resignation. After several months of lengthy conversations later, it was clear that Noriega had no intention of quitting. The Panamanian government then passed a resolution that a state of war existed between Panama and the United States. And so, on December 20, 1989, the United States, now under President George Bush, launched its invasion of Panama. The triggering point was when Panamanian Defense Forces opened fire on a vehicle carrying four US service members as they were on their way to dinner at a hotel in Panama City. A naval officer was killed and a naval officer was injured. A Navy SEAL officer and his wife who witnessed the attack were arrested. The Navy SEAL was beaten to death and his wife was sexually assaulted. Twenty-seven thousand soldiers marched and 300 planes flew overhead.

The next day, President Bush ordered the US military to prepare to overthrow Noreiga from power in five days. In the Canal Zone, the U.S. military began to take up aggressive positions in the base, refusing to stop at PDF checkpoints and conducting security drills in an effort to incite Noriega to commit further acts of provocation against the United States.

On December 20, Just Cause operations began employing some 27,000 U.S. troops and 300 aircraft, including the first combat use of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.

Deliver the clever package

On the fifth day of the invasion, as American forces swarmed the country looking for him, Noriega sought refuge at the Apostolic Nunciature in Panama. Due to the treaty, American soldiers were not allowed to invade the Holy See Embassy. Because of this, they instead formed a perimeter in the area. After bombing his boat and destroying his vehicles, Operation Nifty Package was born.

Manuel Noriega is escorted aboard a US Air Force plane by agents of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). (unknown, United States Air Forcepublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The plan: to harass Noriega (who was said to despise American rock and roll music) by blasting it day and night to exert psychological pressure on him to surrender. The army did this by taking control of the armed forces radio station in the canal zone. It seemed that the papal nuncio Monsignor Laboa got fed up after three days and may have convinced Noriega to surrender or be expelled, which he obliged himself to do. The approach has not gone without criticism as it has infuriated Roman Catholics around the world. Brent Scott, the national security adviser, called the approach “a low point in the history of the US military,” saying it was foolish and unworthy. It took a personal request from the Pope to President Bush to end the musical assault after 3 days.

If you’re curious what kind of songs were in the Operation Nifty package, they would be songs from Clash, AC/DC, Guns and Roses, and Jethrow Tull. For some reason it was never released as a soundtrack album.

Noreiga surrendered after 10 days and was immediately flown back to the United States on a C-103 Combat Talon aircraft bound for Miami. Noriega would serve 17 years in a US prison before being extradited to France to face further charges, then to Panama where he received another 60-year sentence. He died in Panama at 83, still a prisoner of complications following brain surgery

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