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.

I went back to see Judge Hoeveler in his chambers last month to tell him the results of my inquiries. He said he'd bought my book and put it on the shelf with the others. He still hadn't read any of them.

I told him about my conversations with Armando and his discussion of the conspiracy with Blandon. "Ugh, Blandon," the judge responded. He remembered the case of the purloined tapes and his unprecedented decision to use judicial prior restraint, that is, impeding the publication of news on legal grounds. "It's ironic, because the record will show that I'm greatly interested in the First Amendment," Hoeveler said. "I think my ruling in that case will be considered on narrow grounds and hopefully will not be used as a precedent."

I told the judge that I was turning up less and less support for the Noriega conviction, and I broached the subject of English jurisprudence and "unsafe" convictions, an argument used to free some of those convicted of being terrorists with the Irish Republican Army. Under appeal, English courts have ruled in favor of convicted terrorists because of widespread doubt that a guilty verdict was accurate.

"I think perhaps you're becoming somewhat of an advocate," Hoeveler told me, "scratching at the case, perhaps to see what just isn't there.

"The jury saw a very strong case presented by the government," he added. "And they had to deal with what they had to deal with. I do think [defense attorney] Rubino did a fine job. I'm not sure anyone could have won that case."

His own role, he explained, had been that of an "umpire" and did not include making decisions about political issues. There had been an indictment, he said, and his job was to make sure that indictment was presented fairly to the jury. In his pretrial rulings Hoeveler had noted, and continues to argue, that political overtones did not exempt Noriega from facing criminal drug conspiracy charges. "I was not interested in the political aspects of the case," he told me.

He remains, however, intensely curious about the outcome of a possible Supreme Court hearing, in which the issue of jurisdiction -- whether the United States had the right to try Noriega in the first place -- should loom large. "I think jurisdiction will be the most important question if the court decides to hear the case," Hoeveler said.

Whether or not the Supreme Court hears the case, the judge added, there is one more avenue open to Noriega. Under federal sentencing guidelines, his attorneys can request a sentence reduction. The judge gave no indication on how he might rule on reducing Noriega's sentence. "After all of that takes place," the judge said, "I think perhaps you and I should sit down again and talk some more."

With that, the judge had one final question. "How is Noriega, by the way?" he asked.

"He faces his time like a soldier," I replied.
It had been four months since I'd last seen Noriega. Then out of the blue, he called me last week to tell me that a producer from cable television's History Channel had asked for an interview. Noriega was worried because the producer was working with Richard Koster, the writer whose version of events in the Spadafora case was influential in building a case against him, a version that was later discredited. The producer was also talking to other opponents, including Guillermo Endara, who was sworn in as president on a U.S. military base after the invasion. "I want them to hear from an independent point of view, like yours," the general said. "You're not pro-Noriega. You've done your own investigation without me and come to your own conclusions. That is all I ask."

I wasn't convinced that a History Channel report -- narrated by Charlton Heston, no less -- would do much to change received wisdom: that Noriega was the devil, and the devil had gotten his due. For me there were too many unanswered questions about the trial and about U.S. motives and actions, though some things were clear: The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the 1989 invasion of Panama. Twenty-six Americans and no one knows how many Panamanians died. (Estimates of Panamanian dead range from 246, according to U.S. figures, to human rights reports of more than 2000. The figure published most recently in Panama is 500.)

Still, Noriega's story doesn't go away. A Los Angeles television producer recently contacted me, saying he plans to start a publicity blitz to have the general's case reopened. There have been movie proposals and plays, and now author and anti-Vietnam War activist David Harris is writing a book of his own about events leading up to the invasion.

There were questions I wanted to ask Noriega. I thought about asking if he would agree to protect Armando so they might sit down and talk. I didn't. And I wanted to ask the judge to meet with them both someday, to see if the words would make any more sense that way. I didn't. A deposed general, a judge, a diplomat -- all reciting a version of the truth. I can see them together: Hoeveler pondering questions he has trained himself not to ask; Armando hoarding the conceit of a victory in relative anonymity and wondering to what degree he helped spur the U.S. invasion; and Noriega, seemingly powerless to do anything in his own defense.

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