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.

Early last year I located Armando again in Washington and he agreed to talk without ground rules, though he later asked me not to name him for fear that the imprisoned general would somehow retaliate. It was Armando -- savvy, urbane, well-known in Washington diplomatic and political circles -- who would turn inside-out everything I'd learned about the Noriega case.

"I don't have any independent evidence about Noriega," he said. "I don't think he was dealing drugs. I don't know that he killed Spadafora. I doubt very much the National Security Agency was monitoring him or even had the capacity to do it. It didn't matter at the time. It was all a machination, a manipulation of the system."

On a subfreezing day in Washington, we met for lunch, several weeks after I'd first been to Judge Hoeveler's house. We walked against the wind along a downtown avenue and came to a stylish Italian grill. After the preliminaries, he shook his head and spoke directly to the point. "There was a conspiracy to get Noriega -- not an American conspiracy, but a Panamanian conspiracy, and I was a part of it," he said. "I'm amazed no one found me sooner. You're the first." Armando never explained afterward why he was willing to talk to me that day and tell me his role in Noriega's downfall. I think he felt a mixture of pride and guilt.

Armando explained the "Panamanian conspiracy," which he said began in the winter of 1985-86 and was orchestrated by members of the country's oligarchy. For most of Panama's history -- from its independence in 1903 until a 1968 military coup led by Noriega's mentor, Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos -- the country's mostly white, wealthy upper class, known as the rabiblancos (Spanish for "white tails") controlled politics and finance. The Veinte Familias, as they were known, owned everything the government did not, including banks, the chief industries, plantations, the tourism sector, and print and broadcast organizations.

After the 1968 military coup, the wealthy families lost political sway, though not their grip on the economy; by the late Seventies, they had begun to cultivate ties within Torrijos's party and to reinsert themselves in the political landscape.

Torrijos died in 1981, setting the stage for three years of instability before elections were held in 1984. By then the all-powerful Panamanian Defense Forces, headed by Noriega, backed Nicolas Ardito Barletta, a former World Bank vice president who had close ties to the United States. His opponent was Arnulfo Arias, a two-time former president, as well as a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. In an election widely described as a fraudulent, Barletta was declared the winner. The Reagan administration uttered no complaints. Former president Jimmy Carter -- who would criticize Noriega for election corruption in 1989 -- attended Barletta's inauguration.

But Barletta lost popular support when he announced severe tax hikes that resulted in riots across Panama. In September 1985 Spadafora was killed, and Barletta was caught between charges from the Spadafora family that Noriega had engineered the murder and a desire to save his presidency by not embarrassing the military. He failed on both counts. Meanwhile, Noriega, still touring in Europe, faced troubles of his own at this crucial time. Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, his second-in-command, was using Noriega's absence to foment a mutiny against him. The general returned to Panama and swiftly removed Barletta from office, despite threats from U.S. officials about the consequences.

The president went into exile. So did Diaz Herrera, for his role in plotting mutiny. "Killing," said CIA station chief Winters, "was not the m.o. for the Panamanian Defense Forces. They didn't like violence."

Next in line for the presidency was Vice President Eric Ardito Delvalle, an immensely wealthy industrialist. For more than a year, Delvalle supported Noriega, but the rabiblancos appealed to the new president's traditional allegiance to them. Delvalle had family pressures to turn against Noriega as well. His daughter was married to the son of Gabriel Lewis Galindo, a former Panamanian ambassador to the United States. By then, Armando told me, Lewis had also joined the conspiracy against Noriega. (Lewis served as Panama's foreign minister after the U.S. invasion; he died in 1996.)

The pressure on Delvalle to break with Noriega heightened after a February 4, 1988, announcement of a ten-count drug conspiracy indictment in Miami against the general. Two weeks later Delvalle met with Elliott Abrams, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. On February 25 Delvalle tried to oust Noriega in a nationally televised broadcast. Instead the president was himself forced into exile in Miami.

Against the backdrop of these years, Armando was working as a diplomat in Washington. His official status prevented him from acting as a foreign lobbyist, much less working overtly against Noriega in the United States. But he was active behind the scenes. His first opportunity came three months after Spadafora's murder, when Winston Spadafora, the dead man's brother, traveled to Washington to lobby Congress for Noriega's ouster. He accused Noriega of having ordered the murder; he used Sanchez Borbon's columns as his source. But Winston spoke no English and didn't know Washington. A mutual friend asked Armando to help.

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