• U.S.

War on Drugs: Day of Reckoning

10 minute read
Cathy Booth/Miami

It is just after 8 a.m. on Sept. 23, 1985. Ken Kennedy, assistant special agent in charge of Miami’s Drug Enforcement Administration office, is cruising down I-75, the Everglades Parkway, in his big blue Olds Delta 88. Over his two-way radio, Kennedy hears the squawk of an Air Force Black Hawk helicopter that is tracking a drug-laden plane from Colombia. The dope runner decides to land his plane on an unfinished section of I-75, not far from where Kennedy happens to be. “The copter guys are yelling, ‘We have him!’ ” recalls Kennedy. “And I’m looking everywhere trying to find this guy.”

Kennedy snaps on his blue roof light and hits the gas. Within minutes, he reaches the Cessna 441. Its props are still turning, but the pilot has fled into the dense, swampy undergrowth. Dressed for the office in a suit and loafers, Kennedy pulls a Walther PPK from his ankle holster and gamely wades in, immediately losing a shoe to the muck. Reinforcements soon join him, and the search goes on for hours. Though the pilot manages to evade them, Kennedy and his colleagues seize nearly a ton of cocaine from the abandoned plane.

They didn’t know it then, but that was the start of one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of U.S. law enforcement: the capture and prosecution of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, head of the Panama Defense Forces and “Maximum Leader” of his country. The Cessna’s pilot, captured four months later, provided the first testimony linking the strongman to drug running. On Sept. 3, almost six years after that steamy chase, Noriega will walk into downtown Miami’s federal courthouse to face a 12-count indictment. He is charged with taking $4.6 million in payoffs between 1981 and 1986 and turning Panama into the ultimate full-service center for Colombian drug lords, offering everything from secure landing strips and labs to money laundering and passports for dealers on the run. If convicted on all 12 counts, Noriega faces 145 years’ imprisonment and $1,145,000 in fines.

Noriega’s court appearance will be all the more amazing because few expected to see him stand trial when the indictments first came down in 1988. The State Department, with President Reagan’s approval, tried to negotiate his quick departure from power by offering to drop charges. But Noriega wouldn’t budge. On Dec. 20, 1989, in what was probably the most destructive and expensive manhunt in history, George Bush launched a full-scale invasion of, Panama. Two weeks later, wearing a nondescript T shirt and handcuffs, Noriega was whisked to Miami, where his pockmarked face and glassy-eyed gaze were captured in a police mug shot of Prisoner No. 41586. For the first time in history, the U.S. was about to try the leader of a foreign country.

For the past 20 months, Noriega has been awaiting trial in what has been dubbed the Dictator’s Suite, a two-room cell behind rows of barbed wire at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, south of Miami. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, he is considered a prisoner of war and thus receives 80 Swiss francs (U.S.$50) a month from the U.S. government — more than enough to pay for a steady supply of his favorite cookies, Oreos. He spends his time studying classified documents, talking on his government-tapped phone and watching Spanish-language soap operas. Like many a cornered scoundrel, he claims to have undergone a sudden religious conversion.

On the face of it, bringing Noriega to justice seems to be an unqualifiedly good idea. Who wouldn’t applaud the downfall of an odious dictator and the return of Panamanian democracy after 21 years of military rule? Unfortunately, things are not that simple. From Noriega’s seizure in Panama to his long incarceration without bail, the U.S. government’s relentless pursuit of the general has been a cause for concern to civil libertarians and constitutional experts.

“By the time Noriega gets done with the system, this case will do more damage to American justice than he could possibly have done as a dictator,” complains New York University law professor Burt Neuborne, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Justice Department officials insist that the deposed tyrant will be tried strictly on the merits of the indictment, but some in Washington admit that the trial is profoundly political. “The guy was a de facto head of state,” says an Administration official. “So how can you say the trial isn’t political?”

That is precisely what the defense team, headed by Noriega’s flamboyant lead counsel, Frank Rubino, has been saying all along. Rubino, one of Miami’s savviest drug-case lawyers, claims the charges were manufactured because of Noriega’s refusal to commit Panamanian soldiers to an invasion of Nicaragua at the request of the U.S. “Just a drug case, huh? Do you believe in the tooth fairy too?” says Rubino. “Like it or not, General Noriega has been an asset of the CIA, the National Security Agency and other government agencies for 20 some years.”

Especially troubling to the government is the defense strategy of dredging up Noriega’s role in covert U.S. operations just as the Iran-contra scandal is re-emerging. Where the trail will lead no one knows. Noriega was an important player in the training and resupply of the Nicaraguan rebels. An earlier investigation into Noriega’s gunrunning was discouraged by Washington, primarily because of former White House aide Oliver North’s involvement; but rumors of drug running by CIA pilots to pay for contra guns have persisted. “The story has never been proved or disproved, but there is the nagging wonder,” says a former Central American diplomat. “If it proved true, the mess could end up on George Bush’s back.”

Four years ago, in fact, when Bush was running for the presidency, questions about what he knew of Noriega’s drug-running activities while he headed the CIA and while serving as Vice President dogged his campaign. Some cynics believe the Administration will cut a secret deal with Noriega to avoid explosive disclosures at a trial that is likely to drag on into the 1992 presidential campaign. Others, like former Panamanian President Ricardo de la Espriella, disagree. “I don’t think Noriega has anything on Bush,” he says. “It’s a bluff. It will be Noriega’s word against Bush’s. ((Noriega)) is destroyed.”

Hoping to expose Noriega’s links to Washington, defense lawyers have been battling all summer behind the closed doors of U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler’s ninth-floor chambers in Miami. Their goal: winning the release of classified documents. But many of the texts already made available have hardly proved revealing. Censors have taken a giant white-out brush to entire pages on Noriega’s dealings with Bush, North and the late CIA Director William Casey. In a 41-page order that is still secret, Hoeveler this month % gave the defense access to classified documents that Rubino claims will help him prove that Noriega dealt with drug traffickers as part of a Washington- sanctioned arrangement. “Many of the things General Noriega did,” Rubino argues, “he did for and on behalf of the U.S. government.”

The government has already admitted that Noriega was paid $320,000 by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency for information that ranged from “incidental” to the Panamanian government’s stance in the canal negotiations in 1976. The defense, however, claims that the general also had control of an $11 million slush fund from which, on Washington’s behalf, he allegedly supplied the Nicaraguan contras and spied on Castro. Prosecutors are braced for any such bad-news revelations and expect the CIA, DEA and DIA to have some dirty laundry aired.

Leaked debriefings from Noriega’s inner circle shed considerable light on his many shady dealings, from arms transactions with Libyans and North Koreans to intelligence-sharing with the Cubans. But none of his former high-ranking officers say Noriega ever moved drugs or even formed a partnership with the Colombian drug lords. Former Major Felipe Camargo did confirm that Noriega received a multimillion-dollar bribe from Colombian drug lords in 1984 in exchange for safe haven in Panama. But Camargo also said the only bid by the general’s men to get into the drug business in a major way was an unsuccessful attempt by Colonel Julian Melo to process cocaine at Darien in Panama.

Though Noriega may disclose embarrassing details about his ties to Washington, his chances of beating federal case 88-79-CR look dim. The Justice Department and the DEA have launched a full-court press against him, with at least a dozen federal prosecutors and 25 DEA agents working on the case for the past year and a half. Although the State Department long viewed the Noriega indictment as a handy political stick with which to oust a greedy and unsavory ally, the Miami prosecution team sees it as a pure and simple drug case. “The alpha and omega of this case is narcotrafficking and personal enrichment,” says Tom Cash, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Miami office. “This case will be based on what Joe Friday in Dragnet used to say, ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ “

To assemble those facts, DEA agents have tracked down more than 1,000 leads in Texas, Mexico, Chile, Canada, Germany, France, Belgium and even South Korea. Prosecutors have lined up a formidable rogues’ gallery of drug dealers, $ dope pilots, shady businessmen and former Noriega military cronies to testify against him. The star witness will be Panamanian pilot Floyd Carlton Caceres, who claims he was the general’s point man with the Medellin cartel. In addition, six of the 15 men indicted along with Noriega have been convicted and have turned state’s evidence in exchange for a promise of leniency.

“General Noriega,” grouses Rubino, “has been the greatest get-out-of-jail card ever.” Rubino estimates that the government cut as many as 70 special deals to get testimony against the general. Tony Aizprua, the pilot whose plane landed on I-75, served no time at all, while Noriega’s trusted bagman Lieut. Colonel Luis del Cid got his 70-year sentence reduced to a 10-year maximum. Another defendant who is presumably trying to cut a deal is Ricardo Bilonick, a Tulane-educated lawyer who was whisked back from Panama last week to face charges of running cocaine on his Panamanian cargo airline, Inair.

To a number of legal experts, the prosecutors’ zeal in pursuing the case has raised troubling questions about America’s justice system. Judge Hoeveler has said he is “deeply concerned about the image that this case seems to be acquiring, that the defendant is not going to be able to get a fair trial.” Two issues in particular have prompted delays in the proceedings: Noriega’s inability to pay lawyers because his bank accounts were frozen, and the taping of his attorney-client phone calls from prison.

The civil liberties aspect of the Noriega case is “unprecedented and somewhat disturbing,” says Charles Maechling Jr., a specialist in international law. Lawyers point specifically to Noriega’s long pretrial incarceration without an opportunity for bail. Some experts are also worried that Noriega’s lawyers haven’t fully explored his POW status or the jurisdictional question of kidnapping him and bringing him to Miami to trial. “How would we feel about Libyan squads coming to the U.S. to extract Islamic justice?” wonders Alfred Rubin, professor of international law at Tufts University.

No doubt Bush would have preferred Noriega to follow the Duvaliers and Marcoses into a disgraced if opulent retirement. Instead the Administration will have the general trumpeting his accusations in court for at least the next six months and then through a lengthy appeals process. If there’s any consolation for Bush, it is that no one expects Noriega to go free.

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