Panama said on Tuesday it will fight to bring Manuel Noriega back home after a US judge approved his extradition to France, but the opposition believes a secret deal was struck to keep the ex-strongman as far away from here as possible.
Noriega, 73, is a "hot potato" a little over a year from general elections in Panama, and would be a "divisive" factor in local politics, political observer Raul Leis said.
Noriega in power "favored many people not only in politics but in the economy, and when he was an intelligence agent he gathered a lot of information" making him a powerful "irritant," Leis said.
Panama had mixed feelings on Tuesday about a US judge's approval of a US government request to have Noriega extradited to France to face 10 years in jail for money laundering.
Noriega, who was arrested in a US invasion of Panama in January 1990, will be released from a Florida jail on Sept. 9 after serving 17 years for drug trafficking.
Panama had also been seeking Noriega's extradition to face 40 years prison time for murder, human-rights abuses and corruption committed during his 1983-1989 rule.
While Noriega still commands popularity especially among Panama City's poor districts where his military regime was seen as helping the downtrodden, most Panamanians would have him face time for the crimes he has been convicted of.
"We would have liked to see him here behind bars, paying for all his crimes," Anticorruption Front president Chito Enrique Montenegro said.
And most Panamanians, 64.7 percent in an opinion poll published on Friday, believe a secret deal was struck between Washington, Paris and Panama City to prevent Noriega's return, where some of his ex-allies are in power.
But Vice President and Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis denied this and said the government was insisting that "Noriega be sent to Panama."