If you’ve ever had a sibling that’s gone through a heavy metal phase, you can understand how frustrating it is to hear those distorted guitar riffs and brain-melting drum beats at all hours of the day. But did you know that heavy metal was once used by the United States to force a Panamanian dictator to give himself up? That’s right, the musical stylings of Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, and other heavy metal bands were once weaponized to take down Manuel Noriega, the de facto ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989.
Psychological studies have shown that playing loud and aggressive music for long periods of time can cause sensory overload, blurring the lines of reality and making it difficult to resist requests from adversaries. While some researchers insist that these methods have no long-term effects on the psychological well-being of the individual they’re used on, former prisoners who have experienced these sorts of “sound torture” tend to disagree.
Regardless of the ethical question of whether or not it’s alright to use loud music to coerce our enemies into doing what we want, it’s fairly astounding and ironic that the same music that you may listen to while you’re cruising in your Chevy pickup or sipping from a bottle of Jack Daniels was actually used to force a powerful dictator to give himself up. And I get it, as much as I love hearing Sweet Child O’ Mine or Runnin’ With the Devil on the radio every once and a while, I’d probably get pretty tired of it after several non-stop hours too.
Let’s take a look at how Manuel Noriega, the United States Army, and some of your favorite heavy metal bands all came together on one fateful day.
Manuel Noriega’s Rise to Power and Eventual Downfall
Manuel Noriega was born in 1934 to a poor mestizo family from Panama City. Later, he became an officer in the Panamanian army, where he formed an alliance with Omar Torrijos. In 1968, Torrijos led a military coup against President Arnulfo Arias and established Manuel Noriega as the chief of military intelligence. After Torrijos’s death in 1981 and several years of political unrest in Panama, Noriega became the de facto ruler of the country in 1983.
While ruling over Panama as dictator, Noriega was known to have been coordinating with severa United States intelligence agencies, and even became one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s most valuable informants. He also helped distribute illegal weapons, military equipment, and cash to United States military forces that were stationed throughout Latin America. At the time, internal conflicts were going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and so President Reagan found his alliance with Noriega very advantageous while protecting the United States’s interest in those two countries.
During their coordination, the United States government would reportedly pay Noriega between $100,000 and $200,000 every year for his information. However, after it was discovered that the United States was not the only country whose government Noriega was collecting information for (he was also giving intelligence to enemies of the United States including Cuba, Libya, and Nicaragua), the relationship between Noriega and the United States quickly began to deteriorate in the late 1980s. Additionally, the millions of dollars that Noriega was racking in from his drug smuggling operations did not sit well with American politicians.
In 1988, Noriega was indicted on charges of racketeering, money laundering, and drug smuggling in federal grand juries held in Tampa and Miami. The United States demanded his resignation as a result, and there was even a presidential election held in Panama in 1989 to establish a new President of the Republic. One of the candidates in the election who was outspokenly anti-Noriega, Guillermo Endara, was attacked in public by Noriega supporters, and Noriega himself did not acknowledge the election and refused to resign from his de facto dictatorial post.
The defiant actions were the final straw for the United States government, which launched an invasion into Panama in December of 1989, hoping to force the surrender of Manuel Noriega. And this is when some of your favorite heavy metal bands were called upon to serve their country.
The Takedown of Manuel Noriega
While the United States claimed publicly that the reason for their invasion was to avenge the death of a marine who was killed in the El Chorrillo neighborhood in Panama City, the invasion had actually been planned for several months before the marine’s death. The invasion would prove to be the largest military action taken by the United States since the Vietnam War. And while the United Nations General Assembly condemned the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law,” a CBS poll showed that around 92% of Panamanian adults supported the move.
The invasion began with a series of bombings that targeted Noriega’s private vehicles, intended to make it more difficult for Noriega to escape. The day after the invasion began, Noriega’s deputy Colonel Luis del Cid fled to the city of David, where he later negotiated a surrender. Manuel Noriega himself tried desperately to elude the grasp of the United States military. He even used lookalikes and voice recordings to make it more difficult for the armed forces to ascertain his whereabouts.
When the United States military was able to pinpoint Noriega’s location in Panama City, he pulled a very clever move. Knowing that the United States was forbidden by treaty to invade the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, Noriega sought refuge in the embassy and was granted sanctuary by Archbishop Jose Sebastian Laboa, the papal nuncio. Unable to enter the embassy, the Delta Force of the United States formed a perimeter around the Vatican Embassy, and a great ten-day stalemate ensued.
Left with limited options, the Delta Force soldiers began to employ sound warfare to try to coax Noriega out of his sanctuary. They tried revving the engines of Humvees parked outside the embassy, continually landing helicopters nearby, and, eventually, playing heavy metal rock music at extremely loud volumes.
The music came courtesy of the Southern Command Network, the radio station catered to United States soldiers posted in Central America. Apparently, the soldiers stationed around the Vatican Embassy started calling in requests, some of them for their comedic value. Among the hits played over the radio were I Fought the Law by The Clash, All I Want Is You by U2, Panama by Van Halen, If I Had a Rocket Launcher by Bruce Cockburn, The End by The Doors, and Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi.
The full playlist of the songs that eventually broke Noriega is preserved in George Washington University’s National Security Archive, and it’s also available on Spotify. Other artists prominently featured during the stalemate, which was called Operation Nifty Package, were The Doors and Guns N’ Roses.
On January 3rd, 1990, Manuel Noriega, who was rumored to be a lover of opera, agreed to surrender and was detained and taken to a prison cell in the Miami federal courthouse to await trial. After being found guilty at trial, he was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami until he was extradited to France in 2010. Manuel Noriega died of a brain hemorrhage in 2017 at the age of 83.
Other Times the United States Military Used Music Warfare
Operation Nifty Package was not the first time that music was weaponized in warfare. Militaries around the world have been playing music during battles for centuries. And, in fact, the United States military has used music in similar scenarios to Operation Nifty Package many times throughout history.
During the 51-day standoff in which the United States military tried to force the surrender of David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians cult, they famously played pop music outside of the cult’s compound, including Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.
The United States military also blasted heavy metal into the town of Marjah, Afghanistan in 2010 to try to force the surrender of Taliban members hiding in the area. Thin Lizzy and Metallica were apparently among the bands played throughout the town. Metallica singer James Hetfield has even said that he’s proud that his music was used to aid United States military forces.