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The General watched CNN and put me on his hit list

Charles Jaco reports from Panama City on Gen. Manuel Noriega's failing reputation in the United States five months before the attempted coup against the Panamanian strongman in October 1989  

(CNN) -- The clouds of tear gas hugged the street four stories below us like a wet wool blanket. Every few minutes a Panamanian Defense Force Huey (UH-1 helicopter) would swoop low over downtown, the searchlight in its belly creating a spot of dirty incandescent daylight on the rubble-splattered avenues.

We could hear the splinter and crack of doors being broken down, accompanied by guttural shouts and the occasional scream.

My friend the U.S. Navy Commander looked sideways at me as he leaned on the balcony railing. "You know they'll get pretty nasty if they find you. We should get you out of the country tomorrow."

It was October 1989. Gen. Manuel Noriega had just stolen the presidential and parliamentary elections in Panama and was solidifying his position by arresting dissidents, jailing political opponents and using military intelligence officers to lead groups of released convicts with the Orwellian name of "Dignity Battalions."

They were breaking down doors and smashing windows looking for anyone who Noriega had declared an Enemy of the State. That included me, since the General was extremely unhappy that examples of his transparent electoral theft had ended up in my pieces on CNN.

Pistols for insurance

I had known the Commander in another life. He decided that my staying at his place with a pair of loaded .45s on the coffee table was a safer bet than trying to make a run for the border on my own. He stuffed one pistol in his belt and tossed me the other.

"Let's get supper. They can't see inside the tinted windows on my four-by-four. And I'm an officer so I outrank any of them. I'll even put on a uniform for a little added security."

I looked down at the .45. "So why do we need these?"

"Insurance," he said. "Besides, if I'm wrong, they'll want to get a piece of Mister-CNN-Big-Shot."

It was my first introduction to CNN's global reach. Noriega and his general staff had been watching my pieces and live shots, so they reacted immediately.

In fact, I was preparing for a live phoner with Atlanta when a friend with the Wall Street Journal called and told me to get out of the hotel a.s.a.p., because the Dignity Battalions had orders to get me.

Escape and gratitude

I remember thinking how hard it was to be grateful for instant audience feedback when the audience was Noriega and his henchmen.

In May 1989, soon after Noriega used force to overrule the popular vote of the 1989 presidential elections, this Panama newspaper reported Jaco had been expelled from the country  

CNN expressed concern for my safety, not the story, whenever I was able to contact Atlanta during the three days I was in hiding.

International News Vice President Jeanee von Essen told me the company was grateful for my work. I asked if it was grateful enough to give me a raise. She said Ted Turner was never that grateful.

I finally got out of Panama when the Commander -- in starched dress whites -- drove me to the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command. I tried to look bored and buried my nose in one of the three Panama City daily papers with my photo on the front page.

A 17-year-old Panamanian soldier with bad acne barely glanced at me as he waved us past the final roadblock.

I managed to leave the next day on a military transport bound for South Carolina, where CNN had a chartered plane waiting.

Noriega's Dignity Battalions  

We flew to Atlanta, where the producers threw me on the air immediately. I tried to remove my photographer's vest that was still reeking of tear gas, but the stage manager said he liked the look. I plopped into one of the anchor chairs and filled in the blanks for the next few minutes.

I was hauled upstairs to the morning editorial meeting. They gave me a standing ovation. Tough guys don't cry, so I just sniffled a little.

Two weeks later there was an unsigned note inside my slightly larger than usual paycheck.

It read, "Sometimes Ted is that grateful."

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