The Bizarre Capture of a Drug Dealing Despot

As the 1980’s turned into the 1990’s, it was fairly clear that the “War on Drugs” America had been waging for two decades was failing.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan had given a good go of it by trying to focus on the youth with the “Just Say No” campaign, but the data indicated that just about the same number of people were using drugs at the end of the 1980s as they were at the start of them.  When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he vowed to escalate the intensity of the effort by the federal government to stop America’s drug plague.  During his four year Presidency, Bush increased the federal drug control budget from $5 billion to $12 billion.  He even  made a prime time, televised address to the country where he talked about ramping up the efforts against illegal drug use in America, and even brandished a bag of crack cocaine to the country from his desk in the oval office.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

President Bush also felt the key to success was to go after the highest levels of dealers and profiters off drug sales to America.  Going after low level dealers wasn’t really proving effective, and we needed to go after the whales not the minnows of the operation.  Many of these people were to be found in Latin America.  He exponentially increased the counter narcotics budget of the department of defense, which between 1982 and 1992 grew by over 100,000 percent.  This leads us to Panama, and one of the strangest operations ever conducted by the U.S. military…..all in the name of the “war on drugs.”

Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the United States had a complicated relationship in the 1980s.  He had often been an ally of the C.I.A. and it’s covert operations in the region to stop the spread of communism.  At the same time, he was funneling information and aid to many of our rivals in that area of the world and beyond.  He had sold American classified information to to enemies like Cuba, Libya, and several terrorist organizations.  The Reagan administration grew tired, cutting ties with him in the mid 1980s.

In February 1988, two separate grand juries indicted him on charges of trafficking drugs into the United States.  After this, Noriega took a series of measures to taunt and challenge the United States.  Over the next year, there were over 600 reports of harassment against U.S. Citizens and military personnel in Panama.  The Panamanian military even pulled over a convoy of 21 school busses carrying American children, most under the age of 12 and held them at gunpoint for several hours.  In December, 1989, Panamanian forces shot and killed a U.S. marine, Roberto Paz.  This was the final straw for President Bush.

On December 19, 1989, President Bush ordered Operation “Just Cause” for the capture and arrest of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega so that he could be returned to the United States to face trial on drug trafficking charges.  Noriega was with a prostitute when he heard a commotion and looked outside to see several hundred American paratroopers landing.  He fled quickly wearing only boxers, a t-shirt, and flip flops.  Noriega eluded the American forces for five days by staying in his secretary’s apartment.  When he heard American forces approaching there, he fled to a Dairy Queen in Panama City.  From there he called Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa, the Papal Nuncio to Panama (Diplomatic representative of the Pope) to request asylum.  Laboa sent a car to pick him up, and Noriega sunk low in the back seat for the ride the Papal Nunciature. (Essentially the embassy of the Vatican)

United States forces surrounded the complex, but were in a difficult position.  Imagine if they tried to use force to overtake the building and capture Noriega, especially on or around Christmas.  The American forces set up camp, Noriega refused to come out.  The situation appeared headed to be a very long one.

Then they brought in Rock and Roll.

Upon learning that Noriega was an opera lover and a hater of American Rock and Roll, they began to bring in truck loads of huge, stadium concert sized speakers.  They blasted songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns and Roses, “I fought the law” by the Clash, “You Shook me all night long” by ACDC.  They loudly played American rock and roll non stop for three days.


Noriega would later say that he was unfazed by the music, but the others in the Nunciature were significantly perturbed.  They convinced the Americans to turn off the music, and promised that they would try to get Noriega to surrender.  By January 3, over 10,000 angry Panamanians had gathered outside the building.  Laboa kept pleading with Noriega to surrender, reminding him of past leaders  like Benito Mussolini who had been captured and abused by their own people.  Finally, late on the evening of January 3, 1990, Manuel Noriega walked out and surrendered to the American forces while holding a bible and a tooth brush.  He would spend the rest of his life in prisons in the United States, France, and Panama until he died in May of 2017.

The American military has used the psychological weapon of loud rock and roll on several occasions since, including at the Branch Davidian Complex stand off in Waco, Texas in 1993, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  It is hard to determine how effective it has been as a tactic, but blasting rock and roll is never and entirely bad thing.

Here is the  playlist the troops used in their attempt to capture Noriega, from George Washington University:

(You’ve Got) Another Thing Coming – Judas Priest
Blue Collar Man – Styx
Danger Zone – Kenny Loggins
Dead Man’s Party – Oingo Boingo
Don’t Look Back – Boston
Electric Spanking of War Babies – Funkadelic
Heaven’s On Fire – Kiss
If I Had A Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn
In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin
Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Judgment Day – Whitesnake
Jungle Love – Steve Miller
No More Mister Nice Guy – Alice Cooper
Paradise City – Guns & Roses
Panama – Van Halen
Paranoid – Black Sabbath
Refugee – Tom Petty
Renegade – Styx
Run Like Hell – Pink Floyd
The Party’s Over – Journey
This Means War – Joan Jett
Wanted Dead or Alive – Bon Jovi
Wanted Man – Ratt
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
We’re Not Gonna Take It – Twisted Sister
You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
Your Time is Gonna Come – Led Zeppelin

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