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.

One such Panamanian pilot, Floyd Carlton Caceres -- who now lives somewhere in the United States under the federal witness protection program -- had been the linchpin for the original Miami indictment against Noriega. But at trial Carlton faltered under cross-examination. He first claimed that Noriega had agreed to accept $100,000 for allowing him to fly four loads of cocaine from Colombia to Panama. But under attack from Noriega's attorney, he admitted he'd received no protection, had never told Noriega about the shipments, and that, in fact, Panamanian soldiers had arrested him on his final flight.

Carlton's contra ties, meanwhile, had been disclosed in Washington at Kerry's Senate subcommittee hearings. But the details -- including Carlton's friendship with Spadafora and his work as a pilot with a Miami-based contra supply airline, DIACSA, which had received two State Department contracts totaling $41,130 to fly aid to contras -- were deemed inadmissible by Hoeveler. Politics, he said, was not relevant in a drug indictment. When Noriega's attorney hit Carlton with a series of questions about his gun-flying activities and asked if Oliver North was involved, the judge sustained prosecution objections. Hoeveler grew testy as lead defense attorney Frank Rubino persisted. "Just stay away from it," the judge snapped.

And then there were charges -- which came out only after the trial -- that the U.S. government had made deals with the very Colombian cartels it had sworn publicly to destroy. One of Carlton's associates was a former Panamanian diplomat and businessman named Ricardo Bilonick, who operated IN air, a private-plane dealership based at Panama City's Paitilla Airport. Bilonick admitted as part of a plea bargain that his planes carried drugs through Panama to the United States. What made Bilonick's testimony so damaging to Noriega was that, unlike the other drug dealers, he was not in jail. He turned himself in for prosecution, saying at the time that he wanted to clear his guilty conscience.

It wasn't until two years after Noriega's conviction that a letter surfaced, written to Miami prosecutors by a lawyer for the Cali cartel. The letter detailed a deal between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the cartel whereby Bilonick would be offered up as a "dynamite witness" against Noriega -- who faced charges of conspiring with members of the rival Medellin cartel -- in exchange for a plea bargain in the case of Cali cartel leader Luis Santacruz "Lucho" Echeverri, captured in Miami in a separate drug case. For Bilonick's part in bringing about a leniency deal, the cartel also paid him $1.25 million -- an offer he probably couldn't refuse. The cartel had only one condition, wrote Echeverri's lawyer, Joel Rosenthal, in the letter to the Miami prosecutors. "I cannot stress to you how critical it is to this agreement that my client's role and identity be kept secret.... The appearance will be that you have made a deal with the Cali cartel to secure the cooperation and specific testimony of a witness against the Medellin cartel."

And thus slowly unfolded one part of a pattern of the trial outside the trial. Even my official sources, DEA personnel among them, began to tell me something was wrong with the Noriega prosecution.

At a journalism seminar less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Panama, I met Gen. Fred Woerner, retired head of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command. I asked him why the United States had launched its invasion. He said President Bush needed the invasion to boost approval ratings, especially after having been so completely ineffective in dealing with Noriega. The administration had failed to force the general's ouster; Noriega walked away from negotiations with the State Department to leave the country; he had outmaneuvered the Americans' ten-million-dollar investment in opposition candidates for the 1989 Panamanian presidential elections by ignoring the ballot results; finally, he had narrowly escaped an October 1989 coup attempt when Gen. Colin Powell, on his first day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to promise support to the coup plotters. Noriega just kept thumbing his nose at Bush.

"It was political, the wimp factor," said Woerner, who resigned from the army in September 1989 rather than lead the invasion four months later.

Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Panama during Noriega's tenure, told me in an interview last week that the Bush administration had turned down his proposal to avert an invasion and use his personal relationship to negotiate with the Panamanian leader. "I was asked [by superiors at the CIA] when I was in London if I would be available to go to Panama and make one last effort to talk him into exile," Winters said. But then, he said, an interagency squabble erupted, and the State Department decided to send its own negotiator. "If I had gone -- you sit up all night with him and keep talking and lay the cards on the table and tell him the jig is up -- I think we might have had a chance," Winter said.

Since my first visit with Judge Hoeveler, I've spoken to at least four dozen other sources, both in Panama and the United States. They include former DEA officials, CIA agents, U.S. military officers, an official at the Defense Intelligence Agency, even a member of Mossad who monitored the Israeli spy agency's operations in Panama. "We do not believe Noriega did any of this drug-dealing," the Israeli source said.

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