The Justice Department’s securing of a criminal indictment of Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro reminds us that when it comes to the U.S. government’s regime-change operations, coups, invasions, sanctions, embargoes, and state-sponsored assassinations are not the only ways to achieve regime change. Another way is through a criminal indictment issued by a federal grand jury that deferentially accedes to the wishes of federal prosecutors.
The best example of this regime change method involved the president of Panama, Manuel Noriega.
Like many corrupt and brutal dictators around the world, Noriega was a partner and ally of the U.S. government. In fact, he was actually trained at the Pentagon’s School of the Americas, which is referred to in Latin America as the School of Assassins. He later served as a paid asset of the CIA. He also served as a conduit for the U.S. government’s illegal war in Nicaragua, where U.S. officials were using the Contra rebels to effect a regime change in that country.
But like other loyal pro-U.S. dictators, Noriega fell out of favor with U.S. officials, who decided they wanted him out of office and replaced with someone more to their liking.
The big problem, of course, is the one that always afflicts U.S. regime-change aspirations: Noriega refused to go voluntarily.
U.S. officials knew that it would look bad to simply invade the country and effect a regime-change operation through force of arms. Undoubtedly, they considered a state-sponsored assassination through the CIA, which specialized in that form of regime change, but for whatever reason that regime-method wasn’t employed.
So, the regime-changers turned to the U.S. Justice Department, which secured a criminal indictment against Noriega for supposedly violating America’s drug laws. The U.S. rationale was that the U.S. government, as the world’s international policeman, has jurisdiction to enforce its drug laws against everyone in the world.
On December 20, 1989, the U.S. military invaded Panama to bring Noriega back to the United States to stand trial on the drug charges. One might consider the invasion to be one gigantic no-knock raid on an entire country as part of U.S. drug-war enforcement.
An estimated 23-60 U.S. soldiers were killed in the operation while some 300 were wounded. An estimated 300-800 Panamanian soldiers were killed. Estimates of civilian deaths ranged from 200 to 3,000. Property damage ranged in the billions of dollars.
But it was all considered worth it. By capturing Noriega and bringing him back for trial, U.S. officials felt that they had made big progress in finally winning the war on drugs. Equally important, they had secured the regime change that had been their original goal. At the same time, they sent a message to other rulers around the world: Leave office when we say or we’ll do this to you.
Noriega was convicted and received a 40-year jail sentence. When his lawyers tried to introduce evidence at trial of his close working relationship with the CIA and other elements of the U.S. national security state, not surprisingly federal prosecutors objected and the judge sustained their objections. Better to keep those types of things as secret as possible.
Alas, Noriega’s conviction and incarceration did not bring an end to the war on drugs, as this crooked, corrupt, failed, and racially bigoted government program continues to this day. Moreover, as Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro might soon find out, the drug war continues to provide an effective way for U.S. officials to effect regime change.