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Noriega returns home, irrelevant

The ex-dictator came back to Panama 22 years after his ouster, facing more jail time.

PANAMA CITY, Panama - More than two decades after the United States forced him from power, Manuel Noriega returned to Panama on Sunday as a prisoner and, to many he once ruled with impunity as a dictator, an irrelevant man.

Some Panamanians hate the former strongman and rejected American ally; others are nostalgic. But as he returned to his native country for the first time since his ouster, it seemed as if few people had strong feelings.

There were no legions of admirers at Panama City's Tocumen airport when the flight touched down, delivering him from Paris' La Santé prison after a stopover in Madrid.

Noriega, who has served drug sentences in the United States and a money-laundering term in France, was whisked by helicopter to the El Renacer prison to serve out three 20-year sentences for the slayings of opponents in the 1980s.

Downtown, some people could be heard banging pots and honking car horns, a symbolic gesture activists had suggested to show their rejection of Noriega.

The 77-year-old former general returned to a country much different from the one he left after surrendering to U.S. forces Jan. 3, 1990. The government, once a revolving cast of military strongmen, is now headed 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 condominiums.

Things were different in the 1970s and 1980s, when Noriega became a valuable ally to the CIA. At that time, Noriega helped the United States combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help and acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.

But as the Cold War waned, Noriega became a more powerful and unforgiving dictator at home. Tensions developed between Noriega and U.S. officials, who had been aware for some time that he was also working with the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.

On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists. Twenty-three U.S. troops, 314 Panamanian soldiers, and 200 civilians died.

Noriega hid in bombed and burned-out neighborhoods before he sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. troops playing loud rock music. When he gave up he was flown to Miami for trial on drug-related charges. Noriega was convicted on the U.S. drug-trafficking charges two years after the invasion, and served 17 years.

When his sentence ended, he was extradited to France, which convicted him for laundering millions of dollars in drug profits.

In Panama, Noriega was sentenced in absentia for the murders of military commander Moises Giroldi, slain after leading a failed 1989 rebellion, and Hugo Spadafora, a political opponent found decapitated on the border with Costa Rica in 1985. He also was convicted in a third case involving the death of troops who aided one of his opponents in a rebellion, and he could be tried in the deaths of other opponents.