Getting to Know the Major

To Panama's incarcerated Maximum Leader, he is a link to the outside world. But who exactly is Rudolfo Castrell?

Noriega's voice is an attenuated trickle of sound over the telephone line. "He [Castrell] is a man with high personal morals and dignity," says Panama's ex-ruler. "We speak on a daily basis and he helps me a tremendous amount. He also helped during my trial by giving testimony that countered some of the lies told by other witnesses." There is a note of impatience in the General's voice -- "mucho gusto, ®eh?" -- as he says goodbye.

Having bidden his own farewells for the day, Castrell hangs up. But before the conversation turns to other topics, he wants to make it plain that his service to Noriega is voluntary, motivated by gratitude, admiration, and sympathy, not economic interests. "He's alone now," says the ex-major. "He's closed off and needs spiritual and moral support, which I should give to him as a friend and as a man. When he was chief, everyone was his friend, but now no one wants to have anything to do with him. I believe that in this life a man cannot deny friendships."

Since he moved to Miami from Israel shortly after Noriega's capture, Castrell has dedicated himself to helping the General, even acting as an unpaid assistant for Noriega's legal defense team and sitting through most of the trial, testifying near the end of it. He has also played chauffeur to Noriega's wife Felicidad. Mrs. Noriega has kept a low profile after a hidden camera caught her snipping buttons off women's jackets at Burdines in March 1992. She has her own immigration problems, Castrell explains; the government of Panama will not renew her passport, and U.S. authorities refuse to grant her permanent residence. Aside from that tidbit, he has nothing to add about her or her three daughters. "We've established a more familial relationship," he says. "I visit them several times a week. But these are private matters that are better left alone."

The retreat, this time into silence, illustrates what makes Rodolfo Castrell so valuable to Noriega, according to a former Sandinista who knows both men. Castrell's errands would be useless, posits the ex-rebel, if he did not know how to keep his mouth shut. "Castrell is one of those important and increasingly rare people who have done things for Noriega and never talked," explains the man, who says he got to know Castrell during the late Seventies and early Eighties while purchasing arms in Panama. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he adds that the major was not a member of Noriega's inner circle but rather "the second circle," those who carried out orders. "Castrell centsn, for example, would know who was meeting together in a hotel room but not necessarily what they were saying," the former arms buyer says. "He would send the planes but not necessarily know what they were carrying." He adds that Castrell probably carries some delicate information around in his head nevertheless. "Everyone knows that people like Castrell could not be close to Noriega if they had not at some point done big favors for him. But who knows what type of favors? That's the secret they must keep."

Mention such secrets, and a pained look falls like twilight over Castrell's face. "No, no, no, no, no, no," he murmurs. Several old friends may have worked for the CIA, others may have been convicted later of trafficking in arms or narcotics, but he knew nothing about those activities, Castrell maintains. These were personal friendships, he stresses, developed over the course of what he describes as a straightforward military career that began under Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, who had come to power in a 1968 coup. Five years earlier, at age sixteen, Castrell centsn had entered the Lyman Ward Military Academy in Camp Hill, Alabama. Even as a child, he says, he dreamed of becoming a member of the Panamanian military. That dream became an obsession when, after graduating from the military academy and spending a year at Columbus College in Columbus, Georgia, he returned to Panama on the heels of the coup and watched as Torrijos's mild political and economic reforms, as well as the nationalism stirred by U.S. control of the Panama Canal, started to transform the country. Torrijos, who had begun his military career as a lowly provincial guard, was the first Panamanian leader who did not come from the so-called rabiblanco or "white-tail" elite, a small group of families, mostly of European descent, who had ruled Panama since its independence in 1903. Instead Torrijos reached out to those of his own mestizo background and succeeded in consolidating the support of much of Panama's working and middle classes, including the national guard rank and file. "Torrijos was our spiritual leader," Castrell says proudly. "He was the one who formed us, made us. And he was an unpretentious man. He spoke to everyone."

In 1969 Castrell's father, a lieutenant colonel who had retired from the national guard to pursue a diplomatic career under Torrijos, took his son to a party at the presidential palace and spoke to the General on his behalf. Torrijos needed pilots, and so Castrell was admitted to the air force with a rank of second lieutenant and sent almost immediately to military air training schools in Argentina and Brazil. He was made one of Torrijos's personal pilots at a time when the General was becoming an internationally known figure as a result of his negotiations with the United States over the fate of the Panama Canal. "There was a lot of movement in the country," Castrell remarks, going on to name some of the VIPs he piloted around Panama during their frequent visits. They included writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene, the latter of whom favorably described both Torrijos and his impassioned era in Getting to Know the General.

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