Spadafora was once a critic of Panamanian military leader Omar Torrijos, but later served as his Vice-Minister of Health. He was also a member of the Sandinista uprising and toppling of the Nicaraguan Somoza dictatorship, but later became a fighter against the Sandinistas due to their increasing communist influences. His achievements as a guerrilla fighter gained him respect by the CIA, but he was not one to be bought by American ideologies either. Despite surviving wars in West Africa, Guatemala and Nicaragua, it was his fearless pursuit of Manuel Noriega in his native Panama that ultimately led to his horrific end.
Spadafora’s Evidence of Noriega’s Corruption
In the weeks prior to his murder, Hugo Spadafora compiled evidence of Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking. He met with DEA officials in Costa Rica as well as a journalist to provide a dossier of evidence. However, the information was apparently not worthy of following up further. Frustrated, Spadafora planned to return to Panama to broadcast his findings.
We now know that Noriega was heavily involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, racketeering, espionage, blackmail and sordid deals with American officials. Given the potential implication of American operatives in Spadafora’s dossier, many commentators have suggested that the suppression of information benefited multiple parties. The potential individuals involved in Spadafora’s subsequent murder are explored in a blend of fact and fiction in The Noriega Tapes.
Hugo Spadafora’s Murder
On September 13th 1985, Spadafora chose an unfortunate day to return to Panama. It was a Black Friday, and the events that occurred spread a chill throughout Panama and beyond.
Spadafora travelled from San Jose in Costa Rica to the Panamanian border at Paso Canoas. He had lunch at “Los Mellos” and warily crossed the border, carrying a briefcase that contained his dossier of evidence. Multiple witness accounts confirm that he boarded a bus to David, and that he was followed by a Panamanian soldier nicknamed “Bruce Lee”. At both the Jacu and La Estrella military checkpoints, Spadafora was pulled off the bus by “Bruce Lee” and physically assaulted in the presence of other soldiers.
When the bus reached La Concepcion, Spadafora was pulled off a third and final time. He managed to give the bus driver’s assistant a handful of coins to pay before raising his passport in the air.
“My name is Hugo Spadafora, and I am being detained without charge!” he shouted in Spanish to the growing crowd.
Spadafora was taken away through the crowd by soldiers and never seen again.
When his decapitated body was found beneath a bridge a day later, it bore the marks of unspeakable torture. Police recovered his teeth nearby, but his head was never found. Needless to say, neither was the briefcase.
You can find further information about Hugo Spadafora’s murder, as well as its influence on the plot for The Noriega Tapes, in the author interview.
Manuel Noriega’s Conviction
Manuel Noriega was ultimately convicted in absentia in 1993 of ordering Spadafora’s torture and murder, but the truth about his untimely end is still shrouded in mystery.
It made sense that Noriega had a lot to gain from Spadafora’s death. But so did the CIA. He was a man who couldn’t be bribed, couldn’t be silenced and wouldn’t back down. And the CIA had many secrets that they wished to keep that way.
Following his death the theories as to who was responsible descended into sleazy propaganda. From the wild claims of a German “witness” who couldn’t remember key details when interviewed, to theories that he was killed by Muammar Gaddafi for unpaid debts, confusion reigned. Those ultimately responsible – and there were likely many – escaped due scrutiny.
The Noriega Tapes begins with Spadafora’s final day, before exploring journalist Owen Ellis’s investigations into the doctor’s murder. While the story and its protagonists are fictional, the questions raised and events explored are disturbingly real.
Spadafora’s legacy as a martyr and example of political silencing lives on today; read Matt Pulver’s article on the similarities between Hugo Spadafora and the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi here.
See the video trailer for The Noriega Tapes below: