PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was a shrewd and ruthless survivor, and it was often said that he would prefer death to losing power.

Even after U.S. troops invaded Panama last week, he broadcast a defiant message from hiding, vowing ''to win or die - not one step back.''

On Sunday, Noriega came out of hiding and sought political asylum at the Vatican embassy in Panama City.

During his tenure as ruler of Panama he eliminated political opposition, nullified the May 7 elections when they were going against him and repeatedly defied the United States, which indicted him on drug trafficking charges in February 1988.

In a speech after the indictments in Floria, Noriega brandished a machete above his head and slammed it down on the podium, again using the phrase ''Not one step back 3/8''

It had long been known that ''Tony'' Noriega enjoyed a crisis and it was widely said he would prefer death to losing power. He reveled in thumbing his nose at the United States, which he called ''the colossus of the north.''

Noriega, who comes from El Chorrillo, the Panama City district where the Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters is located, created a mystique that won him the nickname ''The Man,'' the English word his initials spell.

Noriega wrapped himself in nationalism, saying it was part of the historic mission of his generation to take control of the Panama Canal. Under an accord with the United States, Panama is to take over the canal by the year 2000. Noriega claimed his enemies were plotting to abrogate the canal pact.

He said Washington wanted to oust him to make it easier for the United States to renege on the canal treaties.

On Oct. 3, elements of the 15,000-man Defense Forces he commanded rebelled and claimed they had deposed him, but troops loyal to him suppressed the rebellion and he personally accepted the rebels' surrender.

During his last crisis in May after the opposition swamped his candidate the annulled presidential elections, Noriega was seen standing alone before the tomb of his patron, Gen. Omar Torrijos.

The epitaph on the tomb is: ''I don't want to enter heaven. I just want to enter the Canal Zone.''

Torrijos, who seized power in a 1968, signed the 1977 accord with former President Carter to turn over the canal. Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981, and Noriega became commander of the Defense Forces in 1983, giving him de facto control of the government.

Noriega was raised by foster parents and joined the Defense Forces in 1962. His ascent began when he caught the attention of Torrijos, then an ambitious young officer.

In his climb to the top, he dealt with everyone from the CIA to Colombian cocaine cartels.

Less than a year after Torrijos took power in 1968 coup, he made Noriega, then an obscure major, chief of intelligence with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

It was like having the keys to the city. Noriega immediately began compiling dossiers on everyone who counted in Panama. The job also gave him close contact with U.S. intelligence agencies, and he formed powerful alliances.

One U.S. official who dealt with Noriega at the time, on drug enforcement efforts, said Noriega was polite but when it came to something he wanted, he was ''the coldest man I ever met.''

After Noriega became the Defense Forces commander, he acquired a fleet of expensive cars and a home in an exclusive neighborhood.

His financial interests reportedly included a vast array of businesses including hotels, casinos, a television station, radio stations, maritime services, duty-free liquor stores and prostitution.

Rumors about his personal life were plentiful, but there were few facts. Even his age was disputed. The general has said he is 51, but the date in his high school yearbook would make him 54.

He is married and has a daughter who lives in the Dominican Republic.

Although wealthy, he worked hard to develop a populist image modeled on the revered Torrijos, spending weekends meeting with residents of towns and villages in this nation of 2.2 million.

Noriega often speaks of his humble origins and characterizes his domestic opponents as rich and white. ''The humble, the poor and the blacks, they are the utmost authority of the people,'' he once said.

As the standoff with the United States dragged on, Noriega enjoyed underlining what he termed Washington's helplessness, despite the 12,000 troops it stationed in Panama.

Noriega exercised power with ruthless assurance. He closed newspapers for months at a time. Presidents served at his pleasure.

Rumors of opposition inside the Defense Forces were met with purges and reorganizations. ''Kisses,'' was how he described the bullets fired in an attempted coup in March 1988.

The United States, long his ally, began to distance itself after the headless body of one of his opponents, Hugo Spadadora, was found in a U.S. mailbag in Costa Rica in 1985.

A full break came in February 1988, when two federal grand juries in Florida indicted Noriega on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.

The domestic opposition began to intensify its campaign against Noriega and Washington imposed crippling economic sanctions, but Noriega didn't budge.

An intelligence source in Washington said that in the months leading up the October coup attempt, there had been reports of a deterioration in Noriega's mental state, including increased paranoia and constant drinking.

Through his control of the Defense Forces, he was named chief of

government on Dec. 15 by a rubber-stamp assembly. It said his leadership was needed to confront a ''state of war'' caused by U.S. economic sanctions and other efforts to oust the general.