Uncertain Justice

Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.

At that second meeting the judge asked me my opinion of the trial. I spoke bluntly. The proceedings had consisted of circumstantial evidence, I said. The government had coerced some witnesses and offered attractive plea bargains to others. "There was a trial hidden behind the trial," I argued. And then I ran down the list of witnesses and discrepancies in their testimony. I spoke for a long time.

The judge responded on two tacks: First, he said, I hadn't addressed the matter of the verdict. It had by no means been a foregone conclusion that the jury would convict. Then he switched gears and reminded me of allegations in the media that Noriega had ordered the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, his protege-turned-political opponent. In 1993 a Panamanian court had found Noriega guilty in absentia of Spadafora's decapitation murder eight years earlier. Even if what you say is true, the judge seemed to suggest, there were other charges against him, including murder.

"But your honor," I said, "there's a question whether Noriega was involved in that murder." The judge expressed skepticism, and I vowed to investigate.

I spoke to every source I could find for information about the murder of Spadafora, a colorful physician who had fought in Marxist guerrilla movements as an ideological mercenary in Angola and Nicaragua. Spadafora broke ranks with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua after they took power in 1979; he then joined other disillusioned former Sandinistas in fighting against them. By 1985 he was working with U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras based in Costa Rica.

Spadafora owed his job in the Panamanian Health Ministry to Noriega but severed ties with him when Panama stopped providing a stipend to his mercenary contra brigade. At the time of his death, he was working with U.S. operatives close to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Reagan administration point man on contra aid. Spadafora became outspoken in his charges that Noriega was corrupt and involved in drug trafficking. But there were charges that the contras were involved in drug trafficking as well.

The Panamanian murder verdict against Noriega came on the heels of the acquittal, for lack of evidence, of seven soldiers accused of Spadafora's murder. (Their release sparked a series of demonstrations in Panama; eight weeks later the same evidence that had been deemed insufficient to convict them was used to prove Noriega's guilt.) Much of what was reported about the case came from political gossip columns written by Panamanian journalist Guillermo Sanchez Borbón, who later collaborated with U.S. writer Richard Koster on a 1990 book about Noriega, In the Time of Tyrants. These two claimed it was Noriega who ordered the murder of Spadafora during a telephone call from France while on a two-week trip that also took him to England, Switzerland, and the United States. The call, they said, was intercepted and recorded by the supersecret National Security Agency, and they quoted the general as saying, "What do you do with a rabid dog ... you cut off its head."

But in separate interviews with me, neither man was able to identify a source for the telephone quote. Koster cursed me for even asking; Sanchez Borbon offered a more thoughtful answer. "It is a political book, not a historical book," he said. "It has its inexactitudes." He suggested that Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Seymour Hersh might have been the source.

Before contacting Hersh, I made a round of calls to other sources familiar with the Spadafora case. They included then-U.S. ambassador to Panama Everett Briggs; Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Panama at the time; and Col. Al Cornell, the now-retired U.S. military attache stationed in Panama during the Noriega years.

Each said he'd read Sanchez Borbon's columns only as politically driven gossip. Each said he'd seen no evidence that Noriega ordered or was responsible for Spadafora's murder. (Cornell, in fact, said he'd conducted his own investigation of the killing. While he told me he thought Noriega's military had its corrupt elements, he added that the country was actually one of the most progressive in terms of social programs, and a model for Latin America.) Nor had any of them reported suspicions to Washington. None of them had heard or seen a tape intercept of Noriega's alleged phone conversation. I asked each if he would have been in the loop had there been such a tape. "Of course," was the reply.

So I contacted Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigative journalist who first reported on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for the New York Times. "I never heard of Sanchez Borbón, and who the fuck are you?" Hersh said when I called him. (I'd been apprised of Hersh's engaging telephone manner.) He was more friendly in a subsequent call and said he'd never reported on the intercept in question. Then he suggested I speak with a well-placed Panamanian diplomat who had been the original source for Hersh's influential June 1986 report about corruption in the Noriega regime.

I'll call him Armando. We first met in Washington in 1989 while I was covering a debate at the Organization of American States about whether it should adopt economic sanctions against Panama, based on Noriega's negation of May 7, 1989, national election results after it appeared his own candidate would not win. Armando was a friendly source who enjoyed banter with reporters and was known to provide objective insider information.

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