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The Widow of a Slain Rebel Leader Looks Back in Anguish After the Failed Coup in Panama

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The last time Adela Bonilla de Giroldi saw her husband he was headed for his own rendezvous with destiny. It was the night of Oct. 2, and Maj. Moisés Giroldi Vera, an officer in the Panama Defense Forces, was about to launch a coup against the country’s brutal dictator, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Sitting in their car on a street in Panama City, the Giroldis kissed and said their farewells. Adela recalls telling her husband, ” ‘I hope everything goes well and you come back to me.’ Then we said goodbye again and I saw him go away.” Heading toward his showdown with Noriega, Major Giroldi didn’t look back.

Of course, things did not go well, and Giroldi, 39, never returned. Within a day the coup had turned into a fiasco, and the rebels were forced to surrender. By some accounts, it was Noriega himself who executed Giroldi. But for Adela, 36, forced to seek sanctuary in the United States, the agonizing episode did not end there. Under fire for failing to act decisively in support of the rebels, U.S. officials maintained that Major Giroldi and his fellow conspirators had bungled the operation and hinted that the leaders were little better than Noriega himself. Giroldi’s widow found herself not only grieving for Moisés but also defending his memory.

Adela acknowledges that she and her husband embraced Noriega when he came to power six years ago. “Army officers and troops got more benefits,” she explains through an interpreter. “Noriega had great plans.” So did the Giroldis. They had met at a Catholic youth group outing when Adela was 15 and Moisés was 18. After an on-again, off-again courtship, they married in 1975. Determined to forge a career, Adela studied to be a secretary and eventually landed a job as an operations manager at the National Bank of Panama. Meanwhile, Moisés rose through the ranks. All in all, life was good. “We had all our needs met,” says Adela. “Two cars and a housekeeper who watched the children while I worked.”

The Giroldis grew increasingly aware of the corruption that infested the Noriega regime and of persistent allegations that linked the general to drug traffickers. Still, when a band of officers attempted a coup in March 1988, Giroldi helped crush the revolt, largely because he believed the rebel leader would be no improvement on Noriega.

Later, says Adela, she and her husband became more disenchanted with the general—both on account of his corruption and because of his inability to solve the country’s deep economic and political problems. Indeed, even the military began to feel the bite of financial cutbacks. Sometime late last summer, Major Giroldi began planning his move. Four days before the coup, Adele recalls, “I thought something must be the matter, so I asked him what was wrong.” “I didn’t want to tell you until the last minute,” her husband answered, “but we have decided to have a coup against Noriega.”

Adela agreed to help. She says that two days later she made contact with U.S. officials through an acquaintance at Fort Clayton, the U.S. Army base in the Canal area. Later, Giroldi himself went to the base. Among his requests were that after the coup began the United States send planes over three Panamanian airports in a show of support and that U.S. troops block three critical access roads around the capital. After going over the details with American officials, he told his wife, “Everything’s fine.”

On the morning of the coup, Adela bundled her three children—Moisés Jr., 13, Josué, 10, and Karina, 8—into the car, along with her younger brother and father. The children wondered why they were leaving without their schoolbooks. “I’m taking you all to the doctor,” Adela told them. Instead they headed for Fort Clayton. Arriving at 8 A.M. as fighting erupted in Panama City, Adela and the children were ushered into a house. Not knowing how the coup was going, and fearing the worst, Adela told the children what their father was doing. “They cried and asked, ‘Why my father? What if he dies?’ ” she says. “I told them, ‘If he dies it will be for a great cause.’ ”

As things developed, U.S. troops blocked two roads but left the third open. No planes were scrambled to help, and by midafternoon the coup was a failure. Adela says she did not learn her husband’s fate until three days later, when her sister-in-law appeared at Fort Clayton. “What happened to Moisés?” Adela asked. The young woman could only lower her eyes. Afterward, U.S. officials refused to let Adela off the base to claim her husband’s body, fearful that Noriega’s goons would arrest her. The next morning they whisked the family and some 35 other Panamanians connected with the coup into exile in Miami.

The controversy over the episode is likely to linger. A central point of dispute is whether the rebels ever intended to give up Noriega for extradition on drug charges. According to Adela, her husband’s men captured the dictator and then phoned U.S. Southern Command headquarters “to coordinate the hand-over point.” But, she says, American officials delayed and “my husband surrendered because he wanted to avoid deaths.” In fact, Washington sources have said, the coup plotters never promised to turn over Noriega but planned to send him into internal exile. Confusion also remains over how much tactical support the rebels requested and what assistance U.S. officials did or did not agree to supply.

In any case, Adela concedes that the United States is not wholly responsible for the failure of her husband’s coup; some blame, she says, rests with the failure of other Panamanian troops to support the rebels. “I leave it to the conscience of those who did not act,” she says. For now, her thoughts are on trying to comfort her children, especially Karina. “She was the love of her father’s life,” says Adela. “She doesn’t know how to express how she’s feeling.”

—Bill Hewitt, Meg Grant in Miami