May 27, 2003
The drama, the irony and the black humor of the final days of the reign of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio "Tony" Noriega become the stuff of fiction in God's Favorite, a novel from New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright. For 20 minutes the policeman sat with the villagers watching the golden frog. As long as the frog did not move, the Indians from the village did not move, and therefore the policeman waited, knowing that there was no need to hurry.
If he broke the frog's spell it might be seen as a bad omen, and so he rested on his haunches, as he remembered doing in his own village many years before. The frog seemed to be growing ever more powerful as it defended the little patch of sunlight that squeezed through the guayacan trees in the ravine. Its ancient wedge-shaped face pointed directly at the policeman, as if he knew that the matter now rested between them.
But the frog was in no hurry, either. He was in a paradise of flies. He was sleepy from eating, and the lids bobbed on his gold-slitted black eyes, but he gripped the sides of the large canvas mailbag like a miser clutching his purse. Two human feet protruded from the mailbag. "And who discovered this?" the policeman said in a low voice. After a pause the oldest of the men responded, "The boy. He came to fish in the river." The policeman saw a child half-hidden behind his mother's dress. "At what time of day?" "It was evening." The policeman absorbed the fact that a night and part of the morning had passed before anyone had come to El Roblito to notify him.
Perhaps they wanted to own this mystery for a while, before giving it to him. Certainly the frog had not been sitting here all that time. The policeman glanced at his camera and thought about taking photographs of the scene, but then he saw the villagers shift like grass stirring in the slightest breeze, and so he relaxed again into mindlessness. He was scarcely aware of how much time passed before a cloud shadowed the mailbag and the frog leapt into the ferns, but when the villagers abruptly rose to their feet, he understood that he could now go about his work.
The policeman unrolled a yellow tape that he tied to bushes and trees in a rough square around the crime scene. This was what the villagers expected, and they nodded approvingly, having seen such actions on television. The policeman took his time. He was alone in this outpost, and he did not feel that he had the authority to order the villagers to leave. Also, he enjoyed making a show of professionalism. He put on rubber gloves and took out a plastic bag from his kit, along with a pair of tweezers. There was a gum wrapper on the ground that he picked up and examined.
"Has anyone been down here?" he asked in general. The Indians looked at one another, and the same old man responded, "No." The policeman took photographs of the footprints on the edge of the ravine, then walked down to the riverbank to get water for the plaster casts. He knew what the villagers were waiting for, but he also knew that their anticipation was worth savoring. They would not hurry him. He could tell from the tire tracks that the body had been dumped out of a truck with double tires on the back, and already that worried him, because the only such trucks he knew of in the area belonged to the Panama Defense Forces. He did not want to find one of their victims.
It was also obvious that the body was meant to be found. There were hundreds of square miles of jungle around them, places few humans had ever passed through, but this village was just across the border of Costa Rica, along a road everyone used. It appeared that the body had been driven across the river and dumped in the nearest ravine. Done quickly but carelessly. With arrogance. This also worried him. Finally the policeman moved through the electric curtain of flies. He looked closely at the weave of the mailbag.
There was some printing on the underside that he could just see, so now he touched the bag and felt the sodden heaviness. It took real force to turn the bag to one side, so that the twisted, naked knees of the corpse inside were now pointing upward, and the bare, exposed feet were hanging on the air. U.S. Mail, it said on the bag. The policeman lowered the bag into its original position and sat back on the ferns. Presently, he stood and began to tug roughly at the bag, but the body was stiff and ungainly and did not come loose willingly. He had to grasp one of the legs to work the knees through the opening.
He did not like to touch the dead, and he could sense the villagers withdrawing a bit into their own reluctance. It was not like anything else. The hardness of the limbs felt wrong and alien. The hair on the dead man's legs was repulsive to him, but he could not stop until he had gotten the body out of the bag. His audience was quietly insistent on this. Now that the bloody legs were out, the policeman pulled again on the corners of the mailbag, and he felt the canvas surrender its cargo. He heard the villagers gasp, and one of the women screamed, but his own thoughts had not yet focused on what he was actually seeing.
The wrongness was blinding his senses. And then he understood that the corpse's head was gone. He did not mean to vomit, it just came out of him, perfectly naturally and spontaneously. He stood gaping in surprise at the sight and at his own violent reaction. Then he came to himself and began to do the things he knew he was expected to do. He took pictures. It helped to see the corpse through the lens; it was as if he were viewing something in another element, underwater, as it were. The body was covered with purple contusions and deep wounds that were not meant to kill. The genitals were swollen to the size of mangoes. The policeman did not want to think about what the man had endured before death spared him.
He knew that he was going to become very drunk tonight. When he had taken enough photos of the front, he took a breath, then heaved the body over. Now he saw something else that he didn't want to see: F-8 was crudely carved into the dead man's back. The policeman stood. He reached into his evidence bag and took out the gum wrapper, which he dropped back onto the ground. There would be no further investigation.
The library of the papal nunciature was a pleasantly formal room, and although the building lacked the most basic tropical appliances--central air-conditioning and a dehumidifier--the library itself remained remarkably cool and free of mildew, a sanctuary from the steam-bath climate and the unnerving, noisy vitality of Panama City. The library floors were made of Italian marble, and the walls of thick limestone bricks in the classic colonial style.
Here is where Monseñor Henri-Auguste Morette, the official representative of the Vatican, spent most of his working days. Morette was 71 years old, and although he was still hearty and erect, lately he had begun to bend and shrink with age, so that his hatchet nose and great Gallic ears appeared to have been borrowed from a much larger man. His skin--so unsuited to the tropics--was starkly pale and marbled with blue veins, and his thin, white hair lay close to his skull.
All this pallor was in shocking contrast to his shining dark eyes and his riotous, exclamatory black eyebrows, which gave him a look of predatory ferocity. Many vanquished opponents had underestimated Morette's cunning and resourcefulness. His native talent for intrigue had been sharpened to a fine edge by 12 years of Vatican politics. Within this intimate arena, Archbishop Morette had been a figure of speculation and controversy. His excoriating intelligence and snapping wit set him apart from the bureaucratic herd, and his linguistic skills--he was fluent in five languages--made him indispensable within the Vatican Secretariat of State.
Even his most jealous colleagues had marked him as a future member of the College of Cardinals, while conspiring to limit his influence. In the end, however, it was Morette who brought himself down, through a turn of events that would otherwise have seemed like a great advance. He gained an appointment to the powerful--and much feared--Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which at that time was conducting a purge of free-thinking theologians, particularly Latin American liberationists. It was a job he attacked with characteristic vigor.
At his hand, many of the finest priests in the church were expelled or humiliated into submission. Morette personally took no position on the great doctrinal battle in which he played one of the leading roles. It was not his task to debate theology, only to implement policy. Gradually, however, he began to notice the change in the expressions of his colleagues when he entered a room or sat at the table with them for dinner. They were afraid of him. Some hated him. He could see them struggling to be civil. There was a penalty to be paid for serving his office so efficiently.
Morette recognized the forces that were being arrayed against him, and recognized that his own position was becoming increasingly hopeless. He would be sacrificed. Like a marauding knight on a chessboard, he had accomplished his mission. Now he would be taken. In the larger game it was a tactical necessity. The attack came in the form of a whispering campaign. His faith was called into question. This did not surprise him. He had never been pious. He quickly made a confession of his loss of faith and was sent to a kind of spiritual rehabilitation center on the southern coast of Sicily.
When he returned to Rome six months later, his standing was so reduced that he was transferred back to the Secretariat of State, which banished him from the center of power to this remote, rather disgraceful posting. Much like a prisoner facing a lengthy sentence, the Nuncio had arrived in Panama with a crate of books and crossword puzzles in various languages, which he hoped would occupy years of exile. Included in the crate were 37 volumes of Aquinas.
He had told himself that Aquinas was going to be his great pursuit; he had remembered the Summa Theologica as his passion in seminary; but after forcing himself through 400 pages of commentaries, he put the books back on the shelves. In a subversive frame of mind, he then thought of writing his long-postponed, definitive treatise on the history of appearances by the virgin, but he discovered that he somehow had lost interest in the Marian cult as well. The artifacts of belief seemed only curiosities now; there was nothing vital there to grip his interest.
For long stretches of time, the Nuncio confined himself to his study, watching Mexican soap operas and playing bridge by correspondence. By nature, however, the Nuncio was not a hermit. He was a man of the world. He enjoyed good wine and lively talk. To his surprise and immense pleasure he soon awakened to the fact that both were readily available in this amusing little country to which he had been pocketed. Panamanians rarely took themselves seriously--a delightful quality. They were dedicated to pleasure and business and the multilayered intimacy of society.
The entire country was Rome all over again, the Nuncio thought, soft and shallow but also beautiful and dear. In his brief time here, the Nuncio had come to realize that there were really two Panamas, one of appearances and the other an underworld of secrets. There was, for instance, the nominal Catholicism that most of the country adhered to, and yet beyond that mask of orthodoxy there was a primitive and highly inventive spiritualism, which was everywhere--the country was steeped in it.
The Nuncio could stand on his balcony and see the hand-painted buses rushing past with their vivid depictions of Indian legends and tribal gods. Nearly everyone he met in the country consulted a spiritual guide of some sort--an astrologer, a fortune-teller, a voodoo priest. He even knew some nuns who wore amulets around their necks, a practice he tried in vain to stamp out. The Nuncio had the feeling that modernity was a transitory condition in Panama, and that the country's magical past, like the jungle, was chewing at the margins, always threatening to break through and reclaim the vulnerable campsite of civilization.
From his balcony the Nuncio could also see the heavy freighters chesting through the Bay of Panama toward the canal. One could follow their wakes as they wobbled shoreward, until the waves crashed against the seawall at the foot of the towering financial district. This was one economy, built on shipping, import-export, duty-free shops, tourism, bananas, and the mighty American military presence. Behind the façade of legitimacy was another, much larger economy, one of numbered bank accounts and laundered drug profits. Smugglers and arms dealers swaggered through the hotel lobbies.
Pilots for the drug cartels paraded through the jewelry stores on Via España buying gaudy trinkets with great green rolls of Yanqui dollars. Guerillas who were engaged in one revolution or another sat at the same gaming tables with Middle Eastern weapons merchants and CIA officers and Colombian cocaine dealers. Like peacock tails, extraordinary fortunes opened themselves for display in the form of fantastic seaside palaces and country retreats.
One took care not to inquire too closely about the sources of wealth or to comment on a sudden improvement in a person's financial status. In such an intimate nation, people tended to be complexly related by blood or marriage or both, so it was easy to give offense even to the most decent citizens. Real political life had been smothered by two decades of military dictatorship, which hid behind a counterfeit democracy. There was a congress and a president who came to power through graft and fraud. Indeed, that was the whole point of political office.
Most Panamanians accepted this with a shrug or a wink, as if the concept of government was a kind of genial farce, not to be taken seriously. The Nuncio supposed that this fatalism must be a predictable consequence of the artificiality of Panama's creation. The country had not even had the opportunity to fight for its independence; it had simply been snatched away from Colombia by the Americans and fashioned into a surprised and awkward and wholly unprepared republic. It was no accident that General Noriega had been chief of military intelligence before he made his grab for power. Intelligence was the one commodity everyone traded in this two-faced commonwealth.
The Americans had listening posts burrowed into the green volcanic hills above the city, from which they could overhear conversations all over Latin America. Satellites and high-flying aircraft with high-speed lenses patrolled the skies. Antennae studded the mountains like the spines of a hedgehog. But the Americans were by no means the only spies in Panama. The Japanese and the Taiwanese depended on the canal as a lifeline to Europe, so they monitored every political development, spending millions each year to keep their interests alive and their paid lackeys in office.
No one could even guess how many Cuban agents and informers there were in the country, not to mention the Mexicans and Colombians and Israelis and Russians and even South Africans. The entire country was like an espionage trade fair. And the Nuncio loved it. He adored the secrecy, the scheming and plotting, the intricate connivings, the hidden meanings that made life in Panama a study in human duplicity. In this, his Vatican training served him well.
After 10 years in Panama, he had become the most recognized and trusted diplomat in the city, gaining a reputation for his craftiness and his access to juicy intelligence --qualities deeply prized in a country that dines on gossip. Many of the Nuncio's sources were reporters, dissidents, or fallen political figures who had, at various times, come knocking at the back door of the old stone mansion at the corner of Avenida Balboa and Via Italia, where they might wait out the latest government purge.
At this very moment the Nuncio was harboring at Vatican expense a columnist for La Prensa as well as two former members of the cabinet who had been there for nearly seven months, draining the wine cellar of many of its finest labels. Aside from his network of political refugees and the deeply guarded but sometimes surprisingly useful information garnered from the confession box, the Nuncio had trained his staff to cultivate sources. Even the nuns brought in useful bits from time to time, rumors picked up from the schoolchildren--it was surprising what you could learn about a country by listening to its children--or complaints in the marketplace.
But the Nuncio's prize student in the art of espionage was Father Jorge Ugarte, a handsome young Salvadoran whose talents reminded the Nuncio of himself nearly 50 years ago--cool, intelligent and dispassionate. With training and encouragement, Father Jorge might attain the offices that the Nuncio himself had once aspired to. In fact, it was Father Jorge's step that the Nuncio recognized echoing in the marble hallway, and presently the handsome priest entered the room and shut the pocket doors behind him. "It's raining," Father Jorge announced superfluously. He was drenched.
"Just the walk from the bus stop." Without asking, he took a seat in the silver brocatelle wing- back chair opposite the desk. The Nuncio started to protest, but thought better of it. He knew he had a reputation for being finicky; and besides, his affection for the young man inclined him to forgiveness. He thought Father Jorge one of the most interesting, attractive, and original young men he had ever met. Father Jorge had been orphaned in El Salvador during the cruelest civil war in Central America and had taken refuge in a Catholic orphanage.
The nuns, seeing his extraordinary promise and his natural piety, had arranged to send him to Madrid for schooling, where he was Europeanized and fashioned into an intellectual. A mestizo with dark Indian skin and liquid black eyes, which he hid behind round tortoiseshell glasses, Father Jorge still bore a slight trace of Castilian accent, which somehow added to his charm without making him appear at all pretentious. "You've heard the news, of course." The Nuncio nodded.
That very morning the city had been electrified by the report that Panama's most famous revolutionary, Dr. Hugo Spadafora, had been murdered. "He was on his way to the capital to make charges against Noriega," said Father Jorge. "Everybody knew that he had been promising to reveal the connections between the General and the narcotraffickers." "Yes, I heard him on the radio last week. He said he had a briefcase full of evidence. What do you know about it?"
"These remarks come to me privately, but they are not under seal," Father Jorge said, betraying no emotion behind the shiny, round lenses. "Let us say they are observations of one who was intimate with a certain lieutenant." The Nuncio had given his secretary permission to spend part of each week ministering to the poor in El Chorrillo, a vast slum in the center of town that surrounded the Panamanian military headquarters.
He thought it might add to his protégé's portfolio when the Holy See began looking for prospects. Happily, there was an unexpected dividend in this part-time assignment: many soldiers came to the Corrillo parish to pray, as did their women--the wives and girlfriends and mistresses who were such invaluable sources of intelligence, especially for Father Jorge, whose dark good looks and scrupulous chastity made him a sought-after curiosity in female society. "
As we know, Hugo left Costa Rica on Friday, the 13th," Father Jorge continued. "He took a taxi across the border and had a serving of rabbit stew in a small cantina. Then he boarded a minibus for the capital. It appears that he got as far as Concepción. He was taken off the bus by a PDF officer and escorted to military headquarters. That is the last sighting of the living Hugo Spadafora. Three days later his headless corpse was discovered in a U.S. mailbag on the Costa Rican border." "Unburied?" "Exactly, dumped on a riverbank, obviously meant to be found.
By the way, I have secured the coroner's report," said Father Jorge, trying to suppress the note of triumph in his voice as he passed the photocopied document to the Nuncio, who eagerly snatched it up. "As you can see, he was quite extensively tortured." "And raped, I see," the Nuncio said as he examined the report, which was slightly damp from Father Jorge's clothing. "Yes, apparently they severed his hamstrings so he couldn't resist. And when they finished they drove a stake up his ass."
The Nuncio cast an uncritical but surprised look at his secretary, who never, in the Nuncio's memory, had ventured anything like a vulgarity. The impassiveness of the young priest's expression assured the Nuncio that he was merely speaking clinically, with his usual harrowing exactitude. "At the end, a PDF cook cut off his head," Father Jorge added. "Are we to make anything of that?" asked the Nuncio. "The entire country is in love with witchcraft. No doubt they believe that there is some juju to be gotten from such practices." "I believe it's just a show to terrify the masses."
"Perhaps," said the Nuncio, "but before the drug money came to Panama, Noriega would never have stooped to this. This is not his style." He reached for one of Sister Sarita's sugar wafers and held it in front of him, as if it contained some vital mystery. "But as long as he is out of the country, he can maintain that he knew nothing about the assassination." "I doubt that will help him." The Nuncio placed the coroner's report in a slender drawer in the center of his desk, which he locked with a key he kept in the pocket of his cassock. "The great Hugo Spadafora," he said meditatively. "You know, this time I think the Little General has gone too far."
Dr. Jürgen Spracht, the world-famous Swiss dermatologist, carefully unwrapped the gauze from the face of one of his most difficult cases-M.N., as he was known in the medical literature, a middle-aged Latin man badly scarred by multiple lesions of acne vulgaris that continued to erupt long after adolescence. It was a challenging case, one that Spracht had been working on for nearly a dozen years with admittedly modest success. "Ja," he said as the gauze lifted to reveal a raw red scab covering the patient's entire face. "It's clearing, it's definitely clearing."
The patient started to smile, but the scab cracked like a boiled egg. M.N.'s eye's registered a bolt of pain. "Not moving ist best," advised Dr. Spracht. "No expression. Even talking ist nicht so gut." The patient grunted in response. "Now the nuss will apply special ointment, and we will bandage all over again. Agweed? No movement." As a blonde nurse in a gratifyingly tight lab coat leaned over and began to swab a stinging green unguent on the throbbing wound, ignoring the muzzled cries of pain, the door opened, and a very alarmed receptionist stuck her head in.
"There's an emergency call for General Noriega!" she announced. "I am busy," the patient said through clenched teeth. "It's the president of Panama," the receptionist exclaimed in an awed voice. "Nicky, what the ---- do you want?" the patient asked as Dr. Spracht held the phone to his ear. On the other end of the line there was a brief transatlantic pause, then President Nicolás Ardito Barletta responded, "Tony, I have serious news. Something very important has come up. Incidentally, Roberto is also on the line." "Hi, Tony!" said Roberto Díaz Herrera, the colonel who has second in command of the Panama Defense Forces.
"What is the problem?" Tony demanded. "Hugo Spadafora has been murdered," Barletta said in a strangely neutral tone of voice. "Good," said Tony. "This is good." "Uh, yes, of course we agree, but the people are not taking it so well," Barletta continued. "I don't know if you can hear the honking outside. I'm holding the phone out the window for you." Tony listened to the cacophonous traffic outside the presidential palace and the distant chanting of his name.
"There is great agitation," Roberto added unhelpfully. "The people hold you responsible." "Listen, Nicky, I can't talk about this now," said Tony. "You should call me in New York next week." "Next week!" said Barletta. "Tony, what we're saying is that the situation in Panama is very unstable," said Roberto. "Maybe it is more important for you to be here than in Paris, or Switzerland, or New York, or whatever." "We think either you should come home right away, or else " Barletta's voice trailed away significantly.
©2000 by Lawrence Wright. God's Favorite: A Novel by Lawrence Wright (ISBN 0-684-86810-5) was published by Simon & Schuster, New York.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lawrence Wright (A&S '69) is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of five books, including Remembering Satan, based on an article that won the National Magazine Award for reporting and the John Bartlow Martin Award for public-interest magazine journalism. A resident of Austin, Texas, Wright is currently working on a book about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org