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Panamanian eager for Noriega's return

COLON, Panama — COLON, Panama -- With a wistful gaze, Elvia Gayle de Best gently unfolded the handwritten one-page letter. One paragraph hints of a once-passionate friendship torn apart by prison. It's too intimate, she said, to be reproduced in a newspaper. The letter ends with the words "subliminal kisses." It's signed "Mantonor."

That would be Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator captured in a 1989 invasion by U.S. troops, who is serving a 30-year sentence in Miami on drug charges.

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Noriega, 70, is scheduled to be released early, on Sept. 9, for good behavior. What happens afterward is unclear. The Panamanian and French governments want him to serve prison sentences for other crimes.

But de Best, 55, who kept her friendship with Noriega a secret for almost two decades, and a small group of Noriega supporters are speaking out on his behalf and saying that they hope to greet him with flowers, not handcuffs.

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She said Noriega looked out for poor people like her in a way that Panama's later leaders had failed to do.

"A rich person," she said, "can never perceive Noriega like us poor folks saw him."

Over the past 17 years, Noriega has quietly served his sentence in an apartment-like cell at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami, equipped with exercise machines and a television. His lawyer, Frank Rubino, says his client wants to return to a life of quiet retirement in Panama.

That might not happen.

U.S. officials say the French government plans to file an extradition request so he can serve a sentence there for allegedly moving Colombian drug money through Panama to banks in France.

Panama wants Noriega to serve prison terms for, among other things, the murders of critic Hugo Spadafora and 10 leaders of a failed 1989 coup against the dictator. Opinion polls in Panama suggest that more than 60 percent of Panamanians want Noriega to go to prison here.

"These are firm sentences that [Noriega] needs to come serve," said Panamanian Vice President Samuel Lewis Navarro.

The Panama City that Noriega would find if he returns here has a Miami air, with gleaming SUVs, jammed restaurants and soaring high rises. The economy is booming, the country just signed a free-trade agreement with the United States and the Panama Canal is getting a big expansion.

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President Martin Torrijos, son of Gen. Omar Torrijos, the country's ruler from 1968 to 1981, is popular. Noriega, the National Guard's intelligence chief under Torrijos, took over after Torrijos died in a 1981 plane crash.

But 37 percent of Panama's 3.2 million citizens live below the poverty line, according to government statistics.

In de Best's hometown of Colon, on the Caribbean end of the Panama Canal, tourists are bused directly to the duty-free enclave, and its once-glamorous French architecture appears to wilt in the tropical heat. The official poverty rate for the predominantly Afro-Panamanian city is 43 percent.

"We have problems that are worse than a dictatorship," said de Best, who twice ran for mayor of Colon and now does community work for children of drug-addicted parents. The elected governments that succeeded Noriega have "made us yearn for the days of military rule. It should not be this way."

She said she'd exchanged more than 100 letters with the jailed Noriega, interrupted only by Panamanian censors from 1999 to 2004. When the censors finally let the letters through, Noriega had scrawled an angry complaint on the envelope that he'd sent 19 unanswered missives.

De Best knows that there were rights abuses under Noriega. But she said the military was more caring for the poor and that the streets were safer.

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She said Noriega, now a born-again Christian, probably was more interested in going door to door to spread the gospel than in furthering any personal ambitions.

De Best says Noriega deserves a warm return home, and she is organizing the Colon chapter of a "National Welcome Home Committee" known as "an embrace in freedom." So far, two such committees have been formed, and the idea is to have one in each of Panama's nine provinces.

"Noriega," she said, "is coming to receive his embrace."

De Best met Noriega in July 1988, when she was a Panama Canal security officer and member of Noriega's infamous "dignity battalions," bands of street thugs that beat up members of the opposition.

"We looked into each other's eyes and connected," she said of her first encounter with Noriega, who considered himself an Afro-descendant like de Best. He would visit her, she said, and she cooked meals for him.

After Noriega's ouster, the dignity battalions faded away and de Best lost her job. She sold Caribbean-style pickled pigs' feet on the street to raise her three children.

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She dismisses the drug-trafficking charges against Noriega, arguing that the price of cocaine on Panama's streets plunged after he was arrested.

De Best says the free-Noriega movement has several thousand adherents throughout Panama. But she acknowledges that only 60 Colon residents have signed petitions and that an organizing meeting June 5 drew only five activists. She said she was just getting started and that there would be a snowball effect as his release date nears.

"Folks have mixed feelings about this," she said, "I have been attacked; I have been criticized. But whatever happens, he is going to be released."


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