PANAMA CITY — For 11 days, dozens of officials and diplomats from the United States, the Vatican and Panama conferred around the clock while their advisers pored over constitutions, canon law, extradition treaties and legal precedents--all in an effort to end the agonizing standoff with deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega.
But the crisis in Panama City ultimately became a contest of wills between two men--a self-proclaimed "maximum leader" and a gentle but stubborn Spanish-born priest. And in the end, the man of the cloth bettered the man of the gun.
Senior officials credit Archbishop Jose Sebastian Laboa, the papal nuncio who once headed a Vatican tribunal that investigates miracles, with maneuvering Noriega through a series of turning points that persuaded him to leave the Vatican embassy and surrender to U.S. forces.
"I believe that Father Laboa was the most instrumental person in making this happen," Maj. Gen. Marc Cisneros, the commander of the U.S. Army South and the lead American negotiator in Panama, told a news conference in Panama on Thursday.
A senior State Department official in Washington added: "Once the Vatican made clear it would not grant him asylum but would not turn him over to us, we knew it all depended on Laboa. He somehow had to convince Noriega to voluntarily give up.
"Getting Noriega to leave of his own free will was a horrendous obstacle," the official said. "There were many (in the U.S. government) who said he wouldn't be able to do it. They were convinced that Noriega would rather come out with guns blazing or even take people inside the nunciature hostage in exchange for his own freedom.
"But this time Laboa worked his own miracle."
Laboa personally made the decision to grant Noriega refuge in the palm-fringed Vatican mission on Christmas Eve, mainly to neutralize Noriega's threat to wage a prolonged guerrilla war from the northern Panamanian jungles.
But the 66-year-old priest from the rugged, mountainous Basque region of Spain also turned out to be more effective than American forces in getting Noriega out.
He did it by playing his own game of psychological warfare--a one-man version of the good-cop, bad-cop routine--according to a European envoy who was in the embassy daily.
During the first part of Noriega's stay, Laboa applied crude pressure and veiled threats, according to the envoy and U.S. officials.
Noriega was denied the right to use the telephone, either to take incoming calls from his U.S. lawyers or to contact his family, which had taken refuge in the Cuban Embassy.
He was kept incommunicado, denied access to newspapers or radio. And the television set in the Spartan, white room on the second floor of the three-story mansion where he was lodged was broken.
Uzi Is Locked Up
He was denied the right to wear a uniform, and the Israeli-made Uzi submachine gun he brought with him was locked in a safe. He was dressed instead in plain T-shirts and trousers, and the sole adornment in his room was a crucifix.
As part of the strategy, Laboa, along with another priest from the embassy, stood outside Noriega's room and discussed his dismal prospects in voices loud enough for him to hear, the European diplomat said.
The conversation included a reference to Anastasio Somoza, the deposed Nicaraguan dictator who was assassinated shortly after his forced exile in 1979, the diplomat said.
"The heat was applied literally," a State Department official said. "Even his air conditioning was turned off. It had to be a humbling experience that demonstrated in stark terms how vulnerable he was."
Noriega quickly became "downcast and moody," according to Marcos G. McGrath, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Panama.
It was during this period that Laboa applied the first concrete pressure on Noriega, in the form of two letters.
The first was signed by Laboa and relayed to the U.S. Army, authorizing American forces to raid the embassy if the nuncio felt threatened by Noriega or his supporters who also had holed up inside the mission.
Laboa then orchestrated a campaign to convince Pope John Paul II--in a letter from Panama's bishops--that the grounds for asylum should be refused.
That letter was sent shortly after Laboa told Noriega that the Vatican would probably not grant asylum to the former dictator as a political or diplomatic refugee, the official said.
Letter From Bishops
"The letter from Panama's Catholic bishops, which urged the Vatican not to recognize Noriega as a political or diplomatic refugee because of the criminal charges against him, helped sway the Vatican," McGrath said.
Noriega was indicted on drug charges by U.S. grand jurors in February, 1988.
After winning assurances from the Bush Administration that the 12-count indictment against Noriega would not call for the death penalty, the Vatican notified all parties that it would not allow the dictator to stay in the embassy for a prolonged period and that it hoped for swift resolution of the crisis.