General Noriega, dictator of Panama was gone. But did he leave his favorite mansion?
An invitation from Donna and Bill to a housewarming at Noriega’s old mansion in the jungle — who could resist?
Of course we’d be there. And now we were on the way.
Afternoon journeys in Panama are always problematic during the rainy season. After lunchtime, towering Pacific thunderstorms march inland, like the scions of Zeus, hurling thunderbolts and torrential downpours.
Descending from our mountain home above the town of Boquete, nestled in a valley at 4,000 feet on Volcan Baru, we looked south. An ominous black monster was rising up over the nearby town of Dolega, flashing its electric claws and sending dogs cowering under the beds. Heading west, we hoped to outrun it.
The invitation came from our friends Donna and Bill Strong, who arrived in Panama sporting a new marriage and considerable financial success. Bill, the consummate salesman, amassed a small fortune in high tech and indulged his new wife in her every ambition as a theater director and actress.
But Bill had his own plans for their life style. He insisted on a really, really special house.
The object of Bill’s desire, now-deceased dictator Manuel Noriega’s former “party house.” Located deep in the mountains of Chiriqui Province, it was quite unusual for Panama. An expansive two-story structure with sweeping Japanese-style roof beams and vast expanses of glass, overlooking a vista of lawns and gardens, the majestic Volcan Baru rising in the distance. Among other things, Noriega was a student of Japanese architecture.
In the 1960s, Panama’s western province of Chiriqui was a wild and mountainous rain forest. The only city worthy of the name, David (pronounced Da-veed), was a ramshackle collection of coastal fishermen, farmers and smugglers, sitting astride the Interamericana, still the only proper main road in Panama.
Crossing from Costa Rica to Panama at Paso Canoas, the “Interamerican Highway” meanders through Chiriqui along the Pacific coast, 300 miles to Panama City and the canal. From there, it never reaches Columbia, petering out in the impassible and dangerous jungles of the infamous Darien Gap.
From either side of this potholed two lane “highway,” a twisted and uncertain network of unimproved tracks radiated like ribs clinging to a fish spine after being mauled by a hungry cat. Downhill toward the ocean, mangrove swamps, bamboo fishing huts and the gnawing black waves of the cold Pacific. Across the highway and up the mountain, muddy ruts snaked into the cloud-shrouded jungle of the steamy, brooding Volcan Baru. Travelers often found them washed out or buried in huge mudslides by the torrential rainfall. 200 inches per year is normal, but sometimes, 300.
A 1968 military coup brought General Omar Torrijos to power in Panama, replacing the inept civilian government. For faithful service, Torrijos granted command of the David military garrison to a young lieutenant, Manual Noriega.
Muddy and dilapidated, this backwater outpost became the launching pad for the career of the man destined to become the dictator of Panama, Manuel Antonio Noriega. “Tony” was a short-stature product of the barrio, scarred by youthful acne. He harbored life-long resentment against the elite, wealthy and attractive “40 families” who ruled Panama.
What he lacked in physical presence, Noriega made up for in ruthless ambition.
Thousands of years before, an immense eruption blew 3,000 feet off the top of Volcan Baru. 25 cubic kilometers of mud and rock cascaded 40 kilometers down to the ocean at David, leaving a sloping sand and rock deposit hundreds of feet thick all the way back to the caldera. Over the years, the soft sediment eroded into a radiating series of impenetrable deep canyons separated by narrow ridges, the only place where one could build roads, farms and houses.
We turned right off the Interamericana and headed up the slopes of Volcan Baru to town of Potrerillos, en route to the Noriega mansion. The gods of the Road Builders had drawn an almost-straight line from the coast, 4000 feet up to Potrerillos. Then, thanks to the gods, they paved it.
We always enjoyed the trip to Potrerillios, driving up through lush green pastureland. Comical floppy-eared Panamanian cattle grazed in meadows bordered by beautiful stone walls, hand built from volcanic rocks that fell like rain during the many eruptions of the great Baru.
A few hundred meters on either side of the road, from one unwary step to the next, the meadows ended in sheer vertical cliffs, disappearing hundreds of meters below into the steamy canyons. At the bottom, wild whitewater rivers, like liquid knives, carved ever deeper into the soft rock.
Something from Jurassic Park, only more fantastic for being real.
As we drove, our conversation returned to the history of Panama and the unusual dictator who had built his mansion high in these mountains.
In 1969, General Omar Torijos left the country to attend a horse race in Mexico. A group of disloyal officers informed Noriega of their plot to seize power before Torillos returned.
Deftly playing both sides, Noriega informed his boss and arranged for a smuggler pilot to pick him up in Mexico City. They would fly at night below radar over the Pacific Ocean, to a remote dirt landing strip near the town of Volcan in Chiriqui, 500 kilometers west of Panama City.
Early in the morning of December 19th, without radio or lights, a small twin engine plane piloted by a drug smuggler and carrying the president of Panama, flew low over the Pacific swells. Crossing the coast, the expert smuggler navigated to the familiar jungle airstrip. He made a short radio signal.
Noriega’s troops, lined up along both sides of the runway in their jeeps, turned on their headlights, lighting the way and welcoming General Torrijos back to Panama.
The popular general returned to Panama City in a triumphant military motorcade and reclaimed his position as undisputed leader of Panama.
As a reward, Torrijos promoted Noriega to head of military intelligence, where he joined the general staff in Panama City. Noriega exploited his position and power with ruthless vigor. Torrijos referred to him as “my thug.” But on July 31, 1981, General Omar Torrijos met his end in the style of a classic CIA hit.
On the way to visit an Indian village over the mountains, his Twin Otter airplane exploded in mid-air. Little did Omar suspect that the man he adored as “my thug” was CIA since high school.
Now the thug was running Panama. But Noriega was no ordinary gangster.
In addition to his early training at a military academy in Peru, he read the literature of power, from Lau Tsu to Machiavelli. He was a devotee of the black arts, surrounding himself with practitioners of voodoo and witchcraft.
Visitors claim to have seen shrunken heads in his office along with voodoo dolls of his enemies. Fair warning for those who might cross him.
As we drove up the mountain, the plateau widened and farms appeared, deep in the woods. Soon the town of Potrerillos. Town is giving it the benefit of the doubt.
A dozen homes and an open air gymnasium line the road. The only businesses were a few of the ubiquitous “tiendas,” home shops that are really just large open windows with an awning. We wave to folks young and old, sitting and chatting on stools, sipping sodas or beer in the soft afternoon sunshine. Their saddled horses lounged under the trees, munching on the local wild grass.
Soon our landmark appeared, a large pink bougainvillea hiding a tiny road sign proclaiming “El Banco,” the final town at the edge of the jungle.
Leaving the smooth pavement transported us back to the reality of travel in back country Panama. The concept of a “dirt” road really doesn’t exist. In Spanish, locals call them “calles de piedras,” roads of stones. Any vestige of dirt is washed away by the unrelenting rain, leaving sharp volcanic rocks, like psychopathic paving stones. This jarring surface is punctuated by stretches of deep muddy ruts and unpredictable water-filled potholes, some a hundred feet long.
The many streams may or may not have bridges as sophisticated as a few boards suspended on railroad tracks. The remaining eight miles took more time than the first forty.
It seemed like forever, jolting and splashing through the rolling landscape of rural dairy farms and orange groves. Then, El Banco at last — a few houses, a tienda and a school. Beyond, nothing but jungle.
Leaving the last pretense of civilization, we dove into the darkening late afternoon canopy. Melodic bird songs gave way to the rasping, staccato cacophony of the insects who own the night.
Next, the vine-covered remains of Noriega’s old military guard post, designed to discourage prying eyes. Important guests came by helicopter.
Deeper into the jungle, an incongruous cream-colored wall emerged on the right, following the road. Then a formal entry gate, open for the party. Finca La Pagoda at last, the former country estate of General Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Passing through the entrance, the road wound along the edge of a steep valley filled with banana trees, their tops hiding the river below. Soon the Noriega mansion came into view, lights playing across the wide lawns.
Finding a space among the SUVs and pickups parked along the road, we were drawn to the sound of Latin music emanating from a large open-sided bodega. A hundred or so guests chatted and sipped cocktails under the roof, an island of light, music and people floating on a sea of deep green grass.
Bill Strong was not shy about getting what he wanted in life. After paying a price that the locals called “gringo loco,” Bill and Donna undertook a renovation of the Noriega mansion and grounds so detailed it might be thought a new construction. An authentic suit of armor guarded the main entrance. From inside, Bill thundered out Bach fugues on “The most expensive electronic organ that Yamaha makes.”
Donna intercepted us and led the way across an adorable humped Japanese-style bridge to the bodega. “I’m so happy you could make it — you’re just in time for our tour of the catacombs. But first, let’s get you some drinks.”
As we relaxed and greeted our friends, Bill made his entrance and signaled the band to stop playing.
“My friends, welcome to La Pagoda. Donna and I are so happy to see you all here tonight. We have a couple of special treats for you. During our remodeling, we discovered secret passages and tunnels under the house. In a few minutes, Donna’ll lead a tour of our catacombs for those who’re interested. Then later, we have a special surprise — a surprise just as much for us as for you.”
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough secret tunnels to know that they’re dark, damp and narrow. To keep our spirits up, a crew of delightful waiters and waitresses followed along with platters of wine and hors d’hovers. The dank tunnels looked like escape routes from the house, with some side rooms that might have been arms caches. See one, seen them all.
In the fading light of the afternoon, the western sky manifested a red sunset spectacle over Volcan Baru. The opposite horizon filled with towering black thunderheads, growing as they marched up from their Pacific nursery, flashing their forked tongues and rolling reverberating thunder balls up the canyons.
By eight o’clock the party was reaching its climax. Bill and Donna circulated through the house dinging small triangles and herded everyone into the dining room and adjacent hallway. With a quorum achieved, Donna addressed the crowd:
“My friends, Bill told you we have a special treat for tonight. A couple of weeks ago, during the last stage of remodeling, we discovered something hidden under the staircase.”
With a dramatic flourish, Donna reached down and pushed on a secret panel. It popped out and came away, revealing a concrete pedestal supporting a rusty three foot tall metal safe.
Bill chimed in, “We figured it must’ve belonged to Noriega, but we didn’t have any idea how to open it. After thinking it over, we decided to stage the grand opening at this party. Whatever it is, good, bad or nothing, you’ll find out along with us. So we invited Carlos, the locksmith, to come tonight and open it for the first time.”
A ripple of anticipation ran through the crowd — what might it be? Money? Drugs? Guns? The chatter of anticipation built as the locksmith applied his stethoscope to the metal door and spun the dial. Carlos pushed down on the latch. With a decisive click, the latch relinquished its grip. Long-unused hinges wailed in agony as the hesitant door swung open.
Instantly, but only for an instant, the crowd fell absolutely silent.
Color drained from Bill’s face, eyes bulging, mouth hanging limp. Donna let out a gasping shriek, joined by others, then “oh my god” and “holy shit.” No one took their eyes off the safe for even a second.
It was completely empty, save for one object. Sitting directly in the center, staring balefully out at the crowd, was a well preserved and decidedly shrunken — human head.
Even with its wrinkled skin, sunken, glowering eyes and wild mane of scraggly hair, it was unmistakable to those who knew.
Within seconds, murmurs rose among the Panamanians:
“…wealthy, handsome doctor…”
“…Noriega hated him…”
“…tortured on the beach…”
“…beheaded… body left in mailbag…”
“… a ditch on the Costa Rica border…”
“…Noriega on vacation in Europe…”
“…head never found…”
Bill was gasping as if the open safe was sucking the air out of the room. Summoning all his energy, he pushed Carlos away and slammed the door closed. Roused to action, Donna stepped in, turned to the crowd, and announced, “Folks, I think we should all go down to the bodega for a drink!” Arms spread, she and Bill herded the stunned and now chattering crowd out of the house and into the darkness.
Whatever else happened that night is lost to my memory. But the sight of that head really put the hook in me. The evening was over, but as we drove home, I knew my Noriega story had just begun.
If you liked this story and would like to read more stories about Panama and its facinating characters and history, by all means give it some claps.