PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ He roared like a lion, but when it was time to fight he scurried like a mouse, running from hole to hole as U.S. paratroopers tried to trap him.

''He repressed us for years and then he humiliated us by giving up without a fight,'' said taxi driver Pedro Hernandez. ''I never supported him, but he should have fought.''

There was no final power play and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega didn't go down in a blaze of bullets, a fitting end for someone to be romanticized in Latin American folklore once his political crimes and other sins are forgotten.

''He did not even have the guts to kill himself,'' said housewife Martiza Martinez.

Instead of the name ''commander of dignity'' his cronies gave him because he stood up to Americans, Mrs. Martinez said he was the ''commander of indignity.''

Although most Panamanians were opposed to the military strongman who named and fired six presidents like shop supervisors, they almost believed his nationalist rhetoric of fighting to the death.

He was said to enjoy a crisis, and it seemed that was the case as he survived threat after threat to his reign. Many expected him to die fighting, to be ''carried out of the barracks face up.''

Noriega was defiant and mocking when the United States indicted him in 1988 on drug trafficking charges. He vowed ''our life for Panama'' and said the U.S. accusations were masking designs to renege on the Panama Canal treaties and maintain the U.S. military presence in Panama.

For more than a year Noriega repressed all dissent, silenced all opposition, survived two coup attempts and got away with annulling the May 7 election his candidates lost. He portrayed himself as David fighting the American Goliath, arms in the air, ever the winner.

In the end, even his government-run newspapers and radio stations almost believed the propaganda. Noriega became a hero, a man who could do no wrong, the savior of Panama while the Americans were stupid, their soldiers cowards, drug addicts and AIDS carriers.

So his flight to the Vatican's embassy on Sunday to seek asylum was an anticlimax not only for his supporters, who hoped he would take to the hills and lead an insurgency war, but also to detractors who wished him dead.

''I did not think he was going to be such a coward,'' said a government official who had sympathized with Noreiga and requested anonymity bacause he wants to keep his job in the new U.S.-backed government.

''It was a big bluff,'' said Judith Alvarez, who said she was still ''nervous'' even though Noriega was closeted in the Vatican mission. ''I will feel safe when I see him behind bars.''

Many Panamanians felt it was more a question of the Americans suffering him until their patience ran out. That happened on Dec. 16 when members of Noriega's security forces killed an American soldier in civilian clothes near Panamanian military headquarers.

U.S. Army South commander Maj. Gen. Marc Cisneros, a Mexican-American from Texas who considered Noriega an affront to Latin America, angrily demanded an explanation and an apology and threatened military reprisal.

But when 26,000 U.S. troops invaded the country one week ago, Noriega was surprised. And there were not many in his 15,000-member Defense Forces willing to fight for him.

Most units surrendered, although the 1,800 or so who fought back surprised the Americans with their stubborn resistance.

But according to U.S. officials, Noriega never led the troops in battle. When the first shots were fired, he fled and spent the next six days running from place to place as U.S. soldiers combed the city looking for him and his associates, most of whom were turned in by angry neighbors.

And Panama City paid a high price.

El Chorrillo, a populous low-income barrio of old wooden structures around the Panamanian military headquarters, was leveled by the guns of the U.S. Army's Sheridan tanks. The number of dead in the neighborhood, known for its Friday night street celebrations, will never be known.

Moaned taxi driver Hernandez: ''All those people died because of this coward.''