He was described as a man who “dangled the power of life and death over his fellow countrymen and murdered anyone who stood in his way…” By the end of the 1970’s, Manuel Noriega had earned a reputation as the most feared man in Panama.
In 1983, he promoted himself to general and gained control of the government. A prominent critic of the military was mysteriously murdered in 1985. In 1988 a U.S. grand jury in Florida indicted Noriega on charges of racketeering and drug laws and money laundering. December 1989 U.S. forces invaded Panama and arrested Noriega, who was taken to Florida to stand trial.
April 1992 Noriega was found guilty of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. It was the first time in history that a U.S. jury had convicted a foreign head of state of criminal charges.
He was sentenced to 40 yrs in a Miami prison and ordered to pay $44 million to the Panamanian government. A French court sentenced Noriega and his wife to 10 years in jail along with a $33 million fine. That same year, the Panamanian high court announced that it would seek to have Noriega returned to that country to make sure he served time there for murder. Noriega is still in federal prison in Florida, in a two-room isolation cell.
While he was awaiting trial, he was given a copy of a Spanish New Testament. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Soul Winner’s New Testament, Clift Brannon. Brannon and an interpreter came and were allowed to visit Noriega for 6 hours in the Metropolitan Correctional Center of Dade County, Florida. 2 months later, Noriega took a Bible correspondence course. After he finished the course, Noriega requested permission of the prison authorities to be baptized. Cliff Brannon wrote to the US District judge in Miami to get permission, and for permission to bring in a baptistry. American Rehabilitation Ministries of Joplin provided it. A month later, October 24, 1992, a portable baptistry from ARM arrived at the Federal Court House in Miami. A Deputy Marshall brought Manuel Noriega into the courtroom. Surrounded by 12 guards, he got into the baptistry. Cliff Brannon preached on the meaning of baptism followed by prayer and Scripture reading. Brannon then baptized Noriega.
Before being escorted back to his maximum security cell, Noriega was allowed to give a brief testimony. He said:
“Before, Jesus to me was only an image of that which was learned from Catholicism… All was transformed when on Tuesday, January the 16th, 1990, Dr. Cliff asked me in a telephone conversation… “Do you know that Jesus loves you?” Today, this is what He means to me: He is the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, who arose from the grave and is at the right hand of God the Father and who above all things He is my Savior, and has mercy on me, a sinner.”
Joe Garman still gets a card from Noriega twice a year.