The General in Miami, 2000

One of a kind, this story begins at its end, in the here and now of Miami, where the afternoon rain sizzles off the pavement and cruise ships dock for weekends on Biscayne Bay, flags limp, smothered in warmth on all but the very worst of days, the air heavy with the breath of swamps long since paved over; Miami, jumping-off place for America’s hemispheric underbelly, where all directions point south, the evenings end with breakfast, and the fast lane runs bumper-to-bumper from the beach to the jungle and back; Miami, no holds barred, where if it weren’t for “under the table,” there would be no table at all; Miami, nose open and packing heat, where twenty-dollar bills are moved around town by the suitcaseful and almost anything goes as far as it is able and not much farther. Miami, where this story started and finished and without which, of course, this would be no story at all.

Here, south and west of Miami International Airport, the Orange Bowl, Coconut Grove, and the Policemen’s Hall of Fame, inland, right next door to the Metropolitan Zoo, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, sixty-five years old, former commander in chief of the Panama Defense Force, identified on his Interpol arrest warrant as “de facto ruler of Panama,” is confined in the Miami Federal Correctional Institution, separated from the nearest public  thoroughfare by a dozen locked doors, a double Cyclone fence, and several rows of impenetrable razor wire. Rarely visible even to the other inmates, the General lives in a single-story building adjacent to the prison hospital, in his own private suite of four converted cells, with its own private fifteen-foot-square patio where he grows vegetables in a pot and takes the morning sun, sweat running into his collar, sometimes wearing his uniform, sometimes not.

General Manuel Antonio Noriega is the only officially recognized prisoner of war currently held by the United States of America under the rules of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War and the only such military prisoner ever to serve simultaneously a prison sentence meted out and administered according to the strictures of American civilian law.

The General’s unique status entitles him to living conditions comparable to the quarters provided a soldier of his rank in the United States Army, as well as the right to dress in his Panama Defense Force regalia, including his general’s shoulder boards, even though the Panama Defense Force has long since ceased to exist. It also entitles him to regular visits from the International Red Cross and to a monthly stipend of some sixty dollars from the government of the United States, which crushed the Panama Defense Force and captured him in the first place.

There is no other prisoner in the federal prison system treated quite the same way.

Nonetheless, the General’s story ends as all prisoners’ stories do, over and over again, day in and day out, always the same way – his fate long since decided, even though the General himself was little more than a bystander to much of what eventually brought him to this place. And, of course, by the end of this once crowded story, he is the only one left in it, a famously ugly little bastard from the hardscrabble dead end of the Panama City slums – with a face that looks like somebody lit it on fire and then extinguished the blaze with an ice pick – now an American icon, anointed by combat, forcibly  transplanted, and stuck in time, off the tourist track, just a left turn going south on the 15000 block of South West 137th Avenue, virtually invisible to the America that once put a million-dollar bounty on his head and hunted him down because he was, in the words of the commander of the 20,000-man army sent to arrest him, “a truly evil man” who wore red underwear “to ward off the evil eye.”

The General’s eventual sentence for violating nine counts of the United States Criminal Code and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was reduced on appeal in 1999 from its original forty years to thirty and, so far, he has finished almost a decade of those thirty here in his private cell block next to the prison hospital, watching his television, riding his stationary bicycle, and taking escorted walks on the correctional institution’s grounds when the rest of the inmate population is locked down and can get no closer than a distant view of him out a few barred windows, his shortness almost lost in the heat ripples and muggy sightlines, flanked by whatever jailers have been assigned to keep him under close watch. Back in his private cell block, the General has his own phone, on which he can only call out, and the guards listen to all his calls except those to his attorneys. He talks mostly with his  wife and his three daughters, as well as his girlfriend and her family, often patching through to Panama or the Dominican Republic on his attorneys’ switchboard to get a little privacy. He occasionally signs notes with his initials, MAN, and the designation, “POW 0001.”

None of this is expected to change soon.

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