PANAMA CITY (AP) – Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is nearly forgotten, languishing in a steamy jungle prison near the interoceanic canal while the country enjoys democracy and economic prosperity a quarter-century after the strongman was toppled by a U.S. military invasion.
The U.S. intervention known as Just Cause began 25 years ago on Saturday, on Dec. 20, 1989, and ended with Noriega's surrender to American drug agents on Jan. 3.
Much has changed in Panama since then, with six consecutive presidents democratically elected in the nation of 3.5 million people. Its economy has become one of the fastest growing in Latin America, rising at an average rate of about 8 percent annually amid a multi-million-dollar real estate and construction boom. The United States peacefully transferred full control of the canal to Panama in 1999.
On Saturday, President Juan Carlos Varela became the first Panamanian leader to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion. He announced the government would form a commission to consider demands put forth by their families, such as declaring the date a national day of mourning.
"My presence is an effort to unify the country, heal wounds, seek justice," Varela told reporters after a memorial Mass. "Even though 25 years have passed, it is clear that mourning has not ended due to issues that remain unresolved."
The invasion killed 314 Panamanian soldiers and 200 civilians, the government says, while the U.S. military reported losing 23 American soldiers. Local human rights organizations estimated that more than 1,000 Panamanians died.
Families of the victims have asked the government to support their call for a formal apology from Washington, to establish a truth commission to confirm the number of dead, and to build a monument to honor the lives lost.
Noriega, now 80, is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars. Originally arrested on charges of working with Colombian drug traffickers, he is serving a 20-year maximum term on combined sentences for murder, embezzlement and corruption, and still faces trial for the killing of an opponent and the disappearance of two others.
The former strongman's attorneys and doctors have tried without success to persuade the courts to let him serve his time at home because of his advanced age and fragile health. Doctors hired by relatives say he has a benign brain tumor and heart trouble and he has been hospitalized several times — for hypertension, flu and bronchitis — since being repatriated from France in December 2011.
Noriega, a one-time CIA asset who controlled Panama from 1983 to 1989, became an embarrassment for the U.S. after he began working with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel.
In the waning days of the Cold War, Noriega was seen by U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration as an ally against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, but eventually fell out with Washington. Shortly before Christmas 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion to oust Noriega. The dictator holed up in the Vatican Embassy, and U.S. forces blasted it with incessant loud rock music until he surrendered the following month.
Taken to Miami, Noriega was convicted of helping the Medellin cartel ship tons of cocaine into the United States, and served 17 years in prison. After serving his U.S. sentence, France convicted Noriega of money laundering and he spent 1½ years there before he was sent back to Panama to serve time for charges in his homeland.
Noriega is the only person over 80 serving time in a Panamanian prison, even though judges can allow an inmate aged 75 or older to serve time at home, said Ezra Angel, one of his defense attorneys. Angel says Noriega spends his time in cell reading the Bible, and is sometimes visited by local and foreign religious leaders.
In the El Chorrillo neighborhood, where U.S. forces bombed the strongman's headquarters and accidentally set fire to nearby wooden houses, residents now worry more about the area's poverty and gangs than the former dictator.
"The man is now old and he's paid more than 20 years in jail," said Jose Rivas, a 61-year-old bicycle mechanic who lives in the neighborhood. "What danger does he represent now?"