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's area of expertise was air operations, which he commanded in Panama from 1983 to 1984. According to testimony given during Noriega's trial by Col. Lorenzo Purcell, a government witness and the former head of the Panamanian Air Force, it was on the General's orders that 23 captured cocaine lab workers were sent back to their home country of Colombia aboard his private jet, a Boeing 727. The workers had been captured by the PDF in a May 1984 raid on the laboratory in the Darien province on the Colombian border. Eventually Noriega would be convicted, among seven other counts, of having accepted a four-million-dollar bribe from the Medellin Cartel to protect the laboratory. Witnesses testified that he had asked Fidel Castro to mediate in the inevitable dispute with the cartel after the lab was raided. It was Castrell centsn, the air operations chief, who arranged to transport the lab workers back to Colombia. Rubino, who had photographs of the handcuffed Colombians being boarded onto a propeller plane, decided at the last moment to put Castrell on the stand to testify about the make of the aircraft. When questioned by Rubino on the stand, Castrell told the jury that it was a four-engine cargo plane with propellers, not Noriega's private jet.

Rubino had achieved his purpose, it seemed, but he had made one crucial mistake; he had failed to check sufficiently into the dark alleys of Castrell's past. On the prosecution's side, Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Malman had explored some of those back streets and had been waiting patiently down one of them for the opportunity to cross-examine Noriega's friend. In an exchange that was to become a bone of contention between Malman and Rubino, the assistant U.S. attorney began by suggesting that Castrell had attended the entire trial in order to stare down government witnesses. Castrell denied the accusation. But he did admit to having chauffeured Mrs. Noriega and said he'd developed a close relationship with her husband. "Yes," Castrell affirmed. "I am a friend of General Noriega's. I do not deny it."

Malman did not stop there. He was interested in Castrell's other contacts, particularly Cesar Rodriguez, the pilot who transported first arms, and then drugs, with Noriega's alleged approval. Rodriguez had been found dead in Medellin in March 1986; now Malman was preparing to bury the credibility of a man who had done business with the smuggler. After establishing that Castrell had first met the pilot in 1970, Malman asked the witness if in May of 1982 he became involved with Rodriguez in a deal to send arms to the Colombian guerrilla group M19.

"No, sir," Castrell answered.
Malman produced a document from the Departamento Nacional de Investigaciones, better known as DENI, the Panamanian equivalent of the FBI. It showed that in May 1982, under investigation by superiors, Castrell admitted to having collected in his home 35 rocket-propelled grenades, 6000 rounds of 7.26-millimeter bullets, and 51 60-millimeter mortar shells. At the time Castrell told a Panamanian investigator the arms were for personal use, but under continued questioning by Malman he admitted that he and a partner, Jose Trujillo, had agreed to sell them to Cesar Rodriguez for $36,000.

Upon further questioning, Castrell conceded that his superiors had caught him and told him he would be discharged if he ever trafficked in arms again. But he denied Malman's suggestion that he was banished to Argentina because of the deal. And he also denied what Malman had already told U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler during a conference at the bench A that Noriega had become angry, not because Castrell had been trafficking in arms, but because he had not been given his cut from the sale.

It was widely acknowledged that in the late Seventies and early Eighties Noriega's Panama was a stopover for arms destined first for Sandinistas, and later for Salvadoran guerrillas. In 1981 Noriega had found it easy to extend the network to the M19.

Nevertheless Rubino was unprepared for Malman's line of questioning and he objected to it repeatedly, arguing unsuccessfully before Judge Hoeveler that what Castrell did or did not do in 1982 was irrelevant. In his book about the Noriega trial, The Case Against the General, San Francisco-based legal reporter Steve Albert writes that at the end of his cross-examination of Castrell, "Malman looked away from the jury with a grin of victory on his face."

Rubino, who acknowledges that the cross-examination took him by surprise, says he is still angry about it. "I consider it one of the most immoral acts by the prosecution during the entire trial," the attorney says with characteristic bluster. "I put Castrell on for the limited purpose of testifying about that plane. I had a photo of people handcuffed to its floor, for heaven's sake. The government knew that its witness was wrong, but instead of admitting it they had to go into every detail of Castrell's past. Talk about getting sidetracked!"

Replies Malman: "When you put a witness forward on behalf of a defendant, you take the witness as you find them. If the defense was unable to uncover, as the government did, facts about Castrell's past, well, caveat emptor."

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