After fleeing arrest for various political crimes, former military ruler of Panama Manuel Noriega took refuge in the Apostolic Nunciature, the diplomatic quarters of the Holy See in the Vatican Embassy. The infamous dictator thought that the Embassy, along with his top advisors and political leaders of his regime, would provide him a safe haven from the US Military.
Manuel Antonio Noriega is infamous for his corrupt political agenda, drug trafficking, racketeering, and illicit weapons, and military arms trade. He also had close relations with the CIA as their informant before the US invaded Panama.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush administered the invasion known as “Operation Just Cause” to capture Noriega and to protect the integrity of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties, resulting in total chaos and thousands of casualties.
On December 23, 1988, Noriega arrived at the Vatican Embassy at 3 pm. The Papal Nuncio Monsignor Sebastiano Laboa, who was a high diplomatic representative of the Vatican, had no intention of handing over him to the US authorities.
Noriega’s plan was to flee from the Apostolic Nunciature to another nation controlled by the Vatican in South America, no matter how absurd it was that the Roman Catholic church would protect a political criminal like him. For ten whole days, Noriega sat in his room quietly reading the Bible and counting on the Vatican to grant him a diplomatic escape mechanism.
The Apostolic Nunciature’s diplomatic quarters are dubbed as “sacrosanct grounds” under International Law, which meant no military forces can enter the site. Noriega threatened the Papal Nuncio with guerilla warfare if he didn’t grant him asylum. Unfortunately for Noriega, the 4th Psychological Operations Group of Special Operations Command used a very unconventional method for driving the dictator out of the embassy: rock ‘n’ roll music.
As a last resort by the Special Forces, giant speakers, amplifiers, and a radio which blasted loud music were set up around the perimeter outside of the Embassy. The “secret weapon” was placed outside because it would violate International Law and be declared as an act of war against the Vatican.
Amusingly enough, the ludicrous psychological warfare actually worked. For days, AC/DC, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Billy Idol, and almost every popular hard rock song could be heard for miles, driving Noriega and the Catholic priests insane. “Panama” from Van Halen, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” could be heard blaring at near-deafening levels.
The Nuncio also wrote to the US Military to storm the property if his life was threatened by Noriega. At one point, the Nuncio threatened Noriega that he would evacuate the building along with the priests and staff, and move to a Catholic high school to declare it a new embassy. This would have revoked the “sacrosanct” immunity the premises had and leave Noriega vulnerable.
After three days of rock ‘n’ roll, Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa convinced Noriega to leave the premises and surrender himself to the US military. The Holy See wrote a complaint letter to George H. W. Bush to order the army to cease this childish torture and the rock music stopped after three days. Manuel Noriega surrendered on January 3, 1990.
Noriega was granted a permission to phone his family in the Cuban Embassy and they were exiled to the Dominican Republic, given that he had surrendered. He left the building with only a Bible in his hand and he walked toward the fence where the US authorities were stationed. They described him as “a broken man”, wearing only a tan uniform. They tackled him to the ground and he was taken to Howard Air Force Base by helicopter.
This absurd undertaking by the US military infuriated Roman Catholics worldwide, and the National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, called the psychological harassment “a low moment in US Army history”, declaring the military’s approach silly and undignified.
Even though the method for forcing a dictator out of diplomatic grounds was an unconventional tactic on behalf of the US Army, Noriega’s gruesome criminal acts were considered enough of a justification for the ridiculous deafening torment.
His U.S. prison sentence ended in 2007, with extradition requests by Panama and France. He was found guilty of murder and money laundering and was sentenced to seven years in jail as of July 2010. On December 11, 2011, he returned to Panama.
One can only imagine how threatening the songs were: The End by The Doors, You’ve Got Another Thing Coming by Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear The Reaper, Chuck Berry’s No Place To Go, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Led Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come and Heart’s Who Will You Run To. No wonder the sheltered dictator was forced to surrender, as the Catholic Priests had the “honors” of listening to quality music at ear-splitting volumes.