PANAMA CITY — Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the controversial commander who dominates this small but strategic nation, rose to power from a shadowy world of espionage, intrigue and deadly secret struggles.
Outside Noriega's office there used to be a sign with the words, "If your enemy surrenders, it is because he couldn't kill you."
As chief of Panama's intelligence service in the 1970s, Noriega had a reputation for steely calculation and cold-blooded cunning. Those characteristics are said to have helped him reach the pinnacle of power in 1983, when he became commander in chief of the Panamanian National Guard.
Critics charge that Noriega has often used his guile and his power in sinister and illicit ways. In the last few weeks, that reputation and the general's career have become matters of interest in Washington after the American press published a flurry of allegations about him.
The accounts have accused Noriega of helping to smuggle narcotics, laundering drug money, trafficking in arms, spying for Cuba, rigging an election and ordering a political opponent beheaded.
Many of the allegations, attributed to anonymous officials in Washington, have been circulating in Panama for years. Noriega, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, has denied them all. He has said repeatedly that the latest publicity is part of a plot to discredit Panama and to keep it from assuming full control over the Panama Canal in the year 2000, as it is scheduled to do under its 1977 treaties with the United States.
The political opposition in Panama has responded to the international attention by calling on Noriega to resign and demanding an investigation into the accusations. But the opposition is weak and divided and has not so far been able to turn the issue into a cause for mass protest.
The government and the armed forces have begun a vigorous countercampaign and are hammering home the nationalistic notion that the attacks on Noriega are really aimed at Panama.
The National Legislative Assembly, dominated by the military-backed Democratic Revolutionary Party, adopted a resolution in support of Noriega. Romulo Escobar Betancourt, president of the party, declared, "I know Noriega personally, and I know that he is a man of great integrity."
Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, military chief of staff, said in a television interview that the allegations against Noriega are "nothing more than a repetition of lies, a slander campaign."
'Chaos and Sedition'
Diaz Herrera added: "We know that there is a group of Panamanians that would like to gallop down the avenues of chaos and sedition, and we have plans to stop this. We are firm and sure at the side of our commander."
Army press spokesmen have given reporters copies of a May letter to Noriega from John C. Lawn, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, thanking the general "for the vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy that you have adopted, which is reflected in the numerous expulsions from Panama of accused traffickers, the large seizures of cocaine and precursor drugs that have occurred in Panama and the eradication of marijuana cultivations in Panamanian territory."
Noriega, 48, is the only general in the Panama Defense Forces, as the National Guard was officially renamed in 1983. Like most senior officers, he enjoys a standard of living that is obviously beyond the reach of his military salary, estimated at no more than $40,000 a year.
He lives in a palatial, Spanish-style house, covered with red tiles and surrounded by a white wall, in the fashionable Altos del Golf neighborhood of Panama City. He keeps a collection of tropical birds in his front yard and a collection of paintings inside.
Country, Beach Homes
He also has a country home in Chiriqui province and a beach house at Playa Blanca. He drives BMW automobiles with tinted glass and drinks Scotch. He does not smoke, but he sometimes gives away Cuban cigars with his name and rank on the label.
"He loves luxury," a former associate said, and he and others familiar with Noriega's affairs said they believe he has made money in drug smuggling. They acknowledge, though, that they know of no proof.
The former associate said that Noriega uses his power to facilitate the transshipment of drugs through Panama, which is a geographical bridge between North and South America.
"It isn't that he is directly tied to drug trafficking," he said. "He looks the other way while it passes through."
The late Cesar Rodriguez, known to have worked as Noriega's private pilot, had a reputation for gun-running and drug-smuggling. Rodriguez and the son of retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, Noriega's predecessor as military chief, were the victims of an apparently drug-related murder in Medellin, Colombia, last March. The Medellin area is a notorious base for cocaine smuggling.
A 'Circumstantial' Link