Panama City, Panama. Manuel Noriega is back in his Panamanian homeland after nearly 22 years, sitting in a prison cell in a country he ruled as a personal fiefdom until US troops invaded, took him prisoner, and hauled him off to a Florida jail.
A few protesters gathered outside El Renacer prison as the 77-year-old former general was spirited inside on Sunday night after an extradition flight from France, yet the overwhelming mood among his countrymen seemed to be indifference.
While some people banged pots and honked car horns in Panama City’s downtown in a symbolic gesture of disdain for Noriega, most Panamanians on the capital’s crowded streets were out holiday shopping.
Noriega, who served 17 years in US prison for drug trafficking and nearly two years in France for a money-laundering conviction, now has begun serving three 20-year sentences in Panama for the killings of political opponents in the 1980s.
Officials whisked him into prison without letting anyone see him, a move that irritated some of the protesters outside.
“We are disappointed at the excessive security that kept us from seeing the prisoner,” said Aurelio Barria, a member of the old opposition to Noriega.
“Why not let him be seen? What are they hiding? We want to see him handcuffed in a cell,” Barria told the local TVN news channel.
Later, officials took journalists into the prison to watch from a distance as Noriega, accompanied by guards while sitting in a wheelchair, checked possessions he brought with him from France.
President Ricardo Martinelli said Noriega “should pay for the damage and horror committed against the people of Panama.”
Noriega returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to US troops on Jan. 3, 1990.
The government, once a revolving cast of US-backed military strongmen, is now governed by its fourth democratically elected president.
El Chorrillo, Noriega’s boyhood neighborhood and a downtown slum that was heavily bombed during the 1989 invasion, now stands in the shadow of luxury high-rise condominiums that have sprung up along the Panama Canal since the United States handed over control of the waterway in 2000.
The rotting wooden tenements of the community have been replaced by cement housing blocks. Noriega’s former headquarters have been torn down and converted into a park with basketball courts.