In 1984 Noriega permitted the first presidential elections in 16 years. Arias was the apparent winner, but after many delays in the vote count and suspected tampering, Nicolás Ardito Barletta, Noriega's candidate, became another puppet president. Eleven months later, Noriega allegedly deposed Barletta and replaced him with the first vice president, Eric Arturo Delvalle. By the spring of 1987 the second in command of the PDF, Roberto Díaz Herrera, had publicly accused Noriega of drug-related activities, murdering opponents, and rigging elections. In February 1988 Delvalle attempted to dismiss Noriega, who was being publicly condemned by factions within and outside the country for his oppressive measures. In the United States, Noriega was indicted in the same month on counts of drug trafficking and racketeering. Delvalle's action resulted in his own dismissal, by orders of the Noriega-dominated National Assembly, and he was forced to take refuge on a U.S. military base, from where he continued to claim that he was the legal president.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan refused to recognize Delvalle's successor, and in March 1988 he imposed sanctions, including the elimination of preferential trade for Panama and the withholding of canal fees. On March 16 an attempted military coup failed to overthrow Noriega, and paramilitary groups intensified their terroristic tactics against antigovernment demonstrators.
On August 12, 1985, Noriega stated that the situation in the country was "totally anarchic and out of control;" he also criticized Ardito Barletta for running an incompetent government. Observers speculated that another reason--and probably the real one--for the ouster of Ardito Barletta was FDP opposition to the president's plan to investigate the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a prominent critic of the Panamanian military. Shortly before his death, Spadafora had announced that he had evidence linking Noriega to drug trafficking and illegal arms dealing. Relatives of Spadafora claimed that witnesses had seen him in the custody of Panamanian security forces in the Costa Rican border area immediately before his decapitated body was found on September 14, just a few miles north of the Panamanian border.
Because of uneasiness within the FDP over the Spadafora affair, Noriega, using Ardito Barletta's ineffectiveness as an excuse, pressured Ardito Barletta to resign, which he did on September 27, 1985, after only eleven months in office. Ardito Barletta was succeeded the next day by his first vice president, Eric Arturo Delvalle Henríquez, who announced a new cabinet on October 3, 1985.