Noriega was born into a poor family of Colombian extraction. Educated at one of the top high schools in Panama, he was awarded a scholarship to the Chorrillos Military School in Lima. Noriega participated in the military coup that toppled the government of Arnulfo Arias and paved the way for Torrijos’s rise to power. Noriega was instrumental in defeating a later coup attempt to unseat Torrijos. For his loyalty, Noriega was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was named chief of military intelligence, in which position he established contact with the U.S. intelligence service. As the head of the Panamanian intelligence service, Noriega also was known for the tactics of intimidation and harassment that he used against opposition groups and their leaders, by the late 1970s he was considered to be the most feared man in Panama. When Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, Noriega vied with other military and civilian leaders to gain the upper hand. In 1983 he succeeded to the command of the National Guard, unified the armed forces into the Panamanian Defense Forces, and promoted himself to the rank of general.
Fighting continued for four days, at times heavy, with U.S. casualties running into the hundreds and Panamanian into the thousands. Noriega evaded capture for a few days but ultimately took refuge in the Papal Nunciature. Under pressure from Vatican officials, Noriega surrendered to the Vatican Embassy in Panama City on January 3, 1990. In a deal worked out with the U.S.-created government headed by Guillermo Endara, U.S. authorities brought Noriega to Miami for trial. However, legal obstacles and technicalities delayed the trial into the early 1990s. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. He was sentenced to 40 years in a Miami prison, and was ordered to pay $ 44 million to the Panamanian government. The trial was not without controversy, however. In late 1995 charges of bribery were brought about. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was told that the Cali drug cartel had paid a witness, Ricardo Bilonik, to testify about Noriega's ties to the Medellin cartel, Cali's rival. Federal prosecutors have determined that the bribery charges are not enough to justify a new trial.