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?

Castrell, meanwhile, was getting to know Noriega, Torrijos's increasingly powerful intelligence chief, at Friday happy hours at the air force headquarters in Panama City. And on the job. "We pilots had to deal with Noriega quite a bit over the question of Torrijos's security," Castrell remembers. "And many times Noriega was aboard when I was the pilot."

Castrell also met several clandestine wheeler-dealers: the late Cesar Rodriguez, for instance, a Panamanian who flew arms to the Sandinista revolution before graduating to smuggling cocaine for the Medellin Cartel; and Mike Harari, an Israeli living in Panama. Harari had been the leader of the Mossad hit squad ordered to hunt down the Palestinian terrorists who had murdered eleven athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Instead the squad killed an innocent waiter in Norway. Harari later turned up in Panama, where he became an intimate of both Torrijos and Noriega. Such shadowy connections would both help Castrell and haunt him.

For two years after Torrijos's death in a July 1981 plane crash, Castrell continued to fly as pilot for Noriega and other Panamanian commanders as they jockeyed for power. In 1983 Noriega, who had emerged as the military strongman behind the figurehead president, promoted Castrell to captain and gave him the job of chief of air operations. He held the post for only a year before Noriega named him military attache to Argentina, where he served through June of 1988. During that time, he says, he grew closer to the man he still calls Torrijos's political heir. "As part of my functions, I had to have more direct contact with General Noriega to pass on intelligence," Castrell recalls, refusing to comment about precisely what type of intelligence he was passing along. "We were already friends, but we went along, identifying more with each other and getting to know each other better."

Noriega trusted Castrell enough to promote him to major and later to name him to the important post of ambassador to Israel, where he continued to provide intelligence, even as Panama descended into chaos. After the U.S. indictment of Noriega on drug charges in early February 1988 and his surrender to U.S. forces on January 3, 1990, the new government of President Guillermo Endara kicked Castrell centsn out of both the armed forces and the diplomatic corps. There was more bad news A Castrell's wife, Maria Luisa Cajar de Castrell centsn, was diagnosed with cancer. Without anything to keep him in Israel, Castrell brought his wife to Miami in September of 1990. Castrell maintains that his decision to move to Miami had nothing to do with Noriega, who was awaiting trial in a cell at the Miami federal courthouse: "I came here, not because of any political or economic motives, but because this was the best place for my wife to be treated. I wanted to stay out of politics until things calmed down in Panama."

His wife became sicker over the course of the next two years, and finally, in December 1992 she left for Panama, where she died two months later. "She was feeling very bad," Castrell recalls. "She wanted to spend her last days with her mother and her family and to be buried in her own land. I knew when I said goodbye to her it was the last time." Although Castrell speaks of his wife's death without betraying any emotion, his attorney, Edward Montoya, says his client's military bearing and stoicism should not be confused with a lack of feeling. "This man endured a lot of emotional pain in his family life," Montoya observes. "And he found himself alone here in a strange country." The former Panamanian Air Force major found solace in a lost cause and an old friend who was in even more desperate need than himself.

Frank A. Rubino, Noriega's chief defense counsel, decided to put Rodolfo Castrell on the stand almost as an afterthought. For months, as Rubino and Jon May prepared their client's defense, Castrell had been stopping by their offices at least once a day to offer his help. Rubino found the former air force major useful indeed. Among the attorneys' aims was to show that Noriega could not have known about every drug shipment that passed through Panama. "The U.S. was going to make the argument that Noriega should have dedicated himself solely to drug interdiction," explains Rubino. "But Noriega, like the leader of any country, had to delegate duties. He couldn't and didn't dedicate himself to one thing. We needed people like Castrell to focus on the details of who was actually running the different parts of the country. We spent a lot of time with Castrell, maybe ten or twelve meetings. We relied on him quite a bit for his intimate knowledge of the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces]. We would take him PDF documents and he would help us sort them out."

Donald Winters, who was the CIA's senior officer in Panama from 1984 to 1986, can't recall ever meeting Castrell, but he says that any air force major close to Noriega probably knew more about the intricacies of government operations than most members of the General's inner circle. "You have to understand the way the PDF was structured," says Winters, now a partner with CTC International Group, a business-analysis firm based in West Palm Beach. "The guys who really did the work were the majors. That's the way Noriega worked -- he gave mid-level commanders charge over specific areas so that no one would gain too much power."

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