The Master of Blackmail

Manuel Noriega - The Noriega Tapes

Manuel Noriega: The Voyeur

He was the shadowy man in the corner of the bar, drinking alone and quietly observing. Unnoticeable beside the rings of Old Parr whisky on his coaster was a notepad and pen. He was carefully writing notes about his captain’s drinking habits, the names of his mistresses and his boasts about his contacts in the CIA. The notes may never be needed, but he had them just in case.

Throughout his rise through the ranks of the Panamanian Defence Forces, Manuel Noriega was an underestimated outcast. The bastard son of an alcoholic father and sickly mother, he was used to being condemned and ignored. But every mocking comment and nickname referring to his ‘pineapple face’ only fuelled his ambitions. Through ruthless determination and networking with government figures he received a place at the Peruvian Military Academy. His skills for observation and dubious morality earned him an income from the CIA, supplying information on pro-Castro leftists.

In 1962 Major Omar Torrijos rescued Noriega from criminal charges for rape in Panama, and found him to be a loyal and reliable enforcer. Torrijos assigned him the role of overseeing intelligence gathering for the US on banana growers in Bocas del Toro and Puerto Armuelles. His objective was to uncover any communist influences, and his cruel tactics were highly effective.

Tape Recorder The Noriega Tapes

Manuel Noriega: The US Asset

Expertly recording dirt on communist sympathisers, Noriega became a valuable US asset. The US put him through extensive training in counterintelligence under officers in Fort Gulick, psychological operations at Fort Bragg and military intelligence for officers in the School of Americas in Panama.

Noriega’s dark side was no secret as reports circulated of him sexually torturing prisoners and raping a beauty queen in a field after awarding her the prize. But this was forgotten as a coup in 1968 saw Torrijos take over as Panama’s dictator.

Noriega’s loyalty to Torrijos was continually rewarded, and it paid off as Noriega expertly diverted a coup attempt in 1969. Noriega discovered that the US backed the coup attempt, and he gathered telegrams of congratulations that Panamanians had sent to the coup makers. He added these to his catalogue of secrets used for blackmail. This catalogue burgeoned as Noriega began buying off CIA agents and American soldiers, purchasing recordings by American officials during the Panama Canal negotiations and selling information to the Cubans.

Under Torrijos he had free reign, and the monster grew.

Knife and Tape Recorder The Noriega Tapes

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega were the perfect odd couple – one was a likeable, disorganised salesman and the other was a cold, calculating mastermind. Noriega took delight in playing the Americans and the Cubans. Before long his focus expanded to include Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, through which he funnelled himself a secret fortune.

With unlimited funds, Noriega’s voyeurism evolved into highly sophisticated surveillance. Reel-to-reel tapes, bugs and a network of spies gave him the ability to know everyone’s secrets, and ultimately become the Master of Blackmail. By 1980 he was one of the most feared men by those in the White House, yet he was still being paid by the CIA.

"Noriega knows where we are, but we don't know where he is."

Omar Torrijos, 1975

Manuel Noriega: The Dictator

Noriega will always be a suspect in the death of Omar Torrijos in a mysterious plane crash in 1981. But without his former mentor’s advice Noriega ruled with frightening volatility and paranoia. The horrific assassination of Doctor Hugo Spadafora in 1985 became a catalyst for Noriega’s slow downfall, and the revealing of his clandestine drug trafficking operations, money laundering and double-crossing of his allies.

It was inevitable that Noriega’s fall would be dramatic. However the plumes of fire and ash in December 1989 were far more excessive than the world could have imagined. In January 1990 Noriega was transported to Miami, his wrists handcuffed and his pride dealt a final humiliating blow. But beneath the ashen, hollow eyes of his infamous mug shot were more secrets than his prosecutor, a young Robert Mueller, would ever truly uncover.

The US Invasion of Panama

Why would the United States invade a small Central American nation, killing over a thousand civilians and causing remarkable destruction, to arrest just one man? After all, this was a man who had long been on the CIA payroll, who had personally lounged with George H. W. Bush, and who had assisted the US in fighting communism in Latin America. Was there a more sinister reason for his capture and silencing?

The answer to those questions will never truly be known. Noriega passed away in 2017 in a Panamanian prison, and despite publishing his memoirs through the biographer Peter Eisner, the intricacies of his dealings with the CIA remain an enigma. What is certain is that behind the bars of Miami and French prisons Noriega was not going to release anything classified. For the man who knew too much, jail was by far the most convenient place for him to be.

Destruction from the US Invasion of Panama
Manuel Noriega's Union Club in Casco Viejo, destroyed in the US Invasion of Panama. Photo: Lance Karlson

The Noriega Tapes

Based on these true events, The Noriega Tapes is the ‘Narcos of Panama’ – a thrilling tale of murder, conspiracy and Caribbean adventure where fact blends seamlessly with fiction.

When an outspoken critic of the Noriega regime is murdered in 1985, the investigations of a fledgling Canadian journalist lead him into the underworld of the CIA. His quest is rekindled a generation later, when an English dancer learns of her mother’s previous life in Panama.

The Noriega Tapes Panama Novel

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