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?

For his part, Castrell says he never intended to lie about the arms deal; he just didn't remember it until he saw the DENI document. "I still don't remember it that well," he says, laughing. "This wasn't a deal worth millions of dollars. I wish it had been. It was nonsense. We did it as a sort of adventure. We were motivated by our youth."

Michael "Pat" Sullivan, the lead U.S. prosecutor in the Noriega trial, deems Castrell's testimony "pretty collateral stuff that had little or no bearing on the outcome of the trial." He adds that it was more an opportunity for "lawyer one-upmanship" by Malman over Rubino. Still, twelve years after his youthful weapons peccadillo and almost two years after General Noriega was convicted of eight counts of conspiracy and drug trafficking, Castrell must live with the fact that on the witness stand at least, he did not help his friend at all.

The telephone has been instrumental in helping Castrell overcome the death of his wife and the incarceration of his former commander. Today, like most days, he'll sit for hours in his little office, answering every call with a boisterous greeting and laughing it up with a wide circle of friends and business associates. Castrell assures one caller that he is keeping busy with a small import-export company he started shortly after arriving in Miami and a newer venture involving the forwarding of freight to countries throughout Latin America. But details of the businesses, both of which involve separate partners, are not forthcoming, neither in the rest of the telephone conversation, nor in a subsequent interview. No matter how innocuous the subject might seem, somewhere not very far down the line, Castrell is bound to draw the blinds.

Whenever his computer monitor sits idle for more than a minute or so, a message flashes across the screen in ever-altering patterns: "Olga is the boss." Castrell tells a caller that he plans to marry next month. "It's true," he later affirms, but that's the only information he's willing to divulge about his fiancee, save for the fact that Olga is Peruvian and a fellow import-export entrepreneur. Nor does he offer to identify any of the several friends who come and go as they please in his townhouse, pausing to say hello in his office or marching right past into the kitchen to whip up lunch. What is clear is that Castrell has established plenty of connections in Miami, a major accomplishment considering the fact that until recently, he faced a threat of deportation to his native land, where he would almost certainly be jailed on arrival.

In late October and early November of 1991 the Panamanian press was filled with articles about an arms cache found in Castrell's home in the Chanis neighborhood of Panama City. The arsenal reportedly included AK-47 and M-16 rifles, RPG-7 rockets, and, most alarming, Chinese-made SAM-7 missiles capable of bringing down helicopters. Although Panamanian judicial police had raided the residence in October after receiving a tip that cocaine traffickers were using it, no drugs were found. Several Colombians and Panamanians living in the house were taken into custody; one news story quoted the head of the judicial police as saying the group may have been involved in a plan to overthrow President Guillermo Endara. Almost immediately Panamanian authorities issued an order for Castrell centsn's detention pending further investigation. The order still stands despite the continuing efforts of Francisco Zaldivar, Castrell's attorney in Panama, to overturn it.

To this day, mention to Castrell of the arms cache, especially the surface-to-air missiles, elicits first laughter, then anger that threatens to explode into rage. "As a military man, I had stored my military equipment [at the house] -- uniforms, army vests, boots, helmets -- but not arms," Castrell simmers. He had rented the house through a real estate agent, he adds, and he had no idea who was living there. "This raid was conducted as a means to pressure me, to persecute me because of my friendship with Noriega and my position in the former government. This is the judicial terrorism that exists in Panama."

In May 1992 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) denied Castrell's request for asylum, filed one year earlier. At a subsequent deportation hearing in Miami on December 1, 1993, Castrell contested the decision before U.S. Immigration Judge J. Daniel Dowell. As evidence of political persecution of his client, attorney Edward Montoya introduced several newspaper articles about the raid, pointing out inconsistencies between them. "They couldn't even agree on the number of people captured," the lawyer now notes. "It was a farce."

Montoya also presented four letters from Panamanians, including one written by a prominent congressman from the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), formerly headed by Noriega. Every letter stated that the former air force major would face "judicial persecution" were he to return to Panama. The lawyer pointed out that some 40 former military officers have spent years in jail awaiting trial for alleged crimes committed under the Noriega regime.

Nancy Frankle, the INS lawyer in the case, argued that judicial prosecution by a democratic government supported -- indeed put in place -- by the United States was not the same as political persecution. She also noted that Castrell's four children -- two girls and two boys aged fifteen to twenty-two -- lived with relatives in Panama, which demonstrated that Castrell himself was under no threat there. Judge Dowell, evidently, thought otherwise. "Through the letters, the clips, and Castrell's own testimony, we were able to convince Judge Dowell that there was specific political persecution being aimed at him," Montoya says now. "We had a tough standard to meet, but I knew we had a good case." Dowell declined to discuss the case with New Times. Frankle, who has since been transferred to San Francisco, initially agreed, but later changed her mind.

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