Getting to Know the Major

Rodolfo Ulises Castrell is capable of evincing a wide range of emotions, from levity to rage, with only a slight change of expression. His eyes will narrow or widen almost imperceptibly. The lines of his mouth turn upward or downward into mirror versions of a gradual arc. But for all the facial subtlety, there is never any mistaking his mood -- or rather the mood he wishes to convey. He reveals it in glimpses, suddenly leaning forward into a shaft of light from his desk lamp, remaining there for only a moment before shifting back in his chair, enveloped by shadows. Today, as usual, the blinds in Castrell's office alcove are drawn against the sunlight that pours relentlessly down on his townhouse, located in a sprawling complex on the edge of a barren stretch of West Dade. The dirty brown wall-to-wall carpet is barely visible, likewise the ripped-away patch near the door that reveals the concrete beneath. A black metal desk lamp and a glowing computer monitor emit just enough light to illuminate the proud symbols of this man's exile, yet still keep the shabbiness at bay.

Atop Castrell's large wooden desk is a pen-holder inscribed with a map of Panama, the nation's flag, and a winged shield that bears the letters FAP, the abbreviation for the Panamanian Air Force, in which Castrell served for more than two decades. Mounted on the wall is a silver platter presented to Castrell while he was Panama's ambassador to Israel, a post he held from 1988 until the U.S. invasion of Panama in late December 1989. The platter is etched with the names of Castrell's colleagues, including the then-U.S. ambassador to Israel, William A. Brown. Beside the platter is a ceramic plate with a drawing of black binoculars ringed by the slogan "Inteligencia Militar A Siempre Alerta." One piece of memorabilia is placed above all the rest -- a photograph of Castrell and his former boss, both men standing in dress whites against a dark background. The picture was taken in 1984, when Castrell was a captain in charge of air force operations. "Al Capitan Ulises Castrell y familia, con aprecio y buenos deseos por su superaci [with esteem and best wishes for your continued success]," reads the penned inscription, signed "Manuel Antonio Noriega."

Since General Noriega's April 1992 conviction on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges, Castrell has become a sort of phone factotum for the former Panamanian leader, a stalwart as strong as any prison wall between the General and the outside world. Every day he takes at least one call from Noriega, in order to inform the prisoner about countrymen passing through Miami who would like to pay him a visit, or reporters seeking an interview. After a brief discussion, Noriega will instruct his former officer how to respond to the requests. A telephone conferencing feature allows Castrell to hook up other people with whom the General would like to speak.

In the shadows behind his desk, the square-jawed outline of Castrell centsn's face looks much as it does in the ten-year-old photograph. Only when he leans into the light does it become clear that the years have added a few lines and a slight sagging around the eyes. But there remains a youthfulness in his attire -- a bright green polo shirt, slightly darker green corduroys -- and in his face, which reflects nuances of glee as he picks up the phone to say hello to an old friend.

"You heard I received [political] asylum," Castrell gabs, referring to a recent ruling by a U.S. immigration judge. Castrell's lawyer, Edward Montoya, argued successfully that the former Panamanian Air Force major's years of service to Noriega would result in political persecution were he to return to his home country. Some Panamanians disagree with that assessment, but no one would argue with the fact that Castrell must contend with legal problems in Panama, where he faces an order of detention in connection with an arms cache allegedly found in his home after the invasion.

Castrell flatly denies hiding any weapons in his house in Panama, but he knows plenty of people who have more than a few guns in their closets. Still chatting in Spanish with his old friend, he grabs a pen and a piece of paper and scrawls three large, bold letters -- "CIA" -- holds the sheet to the light, and grins. Then, just as quickly, Castrell's pen connects the ends of the "C" to the "I" and draws a square around what is now an ink glyph. Even his smile becomes an uncertain memory. He drops the pen when his other phone rings.

Into one of two receivers now pressed against his ears, Castrell says "Buenas tardes" to the 58-year-old man he still obviously considers his boss, confined to a cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Dade. Through a complicated electronic maneuver that involves another call from Noriega and a trip by Castrell into his drab kitchen, the former major arranges a three-way conference call between himself, the incarcerated general, and their mutual friend. Snippets of conversation, meaningless in themselves, are followed down the hallway from the kitchen by low rumbles of laughter. Finally Castrell himself returns, picks up the office extension, and fills in Noriega about the day's news and requests. A reporter from Fox Television's -- Current Affair wants an interview. "I told him that you weren't giving any right now," Castrell says. Noriega does agree to speak to a New Times reporter who happens to be in the room, provided the questions are limited to the General's friendship with Castrell.

Noriega's voice is an attenuated trickle of sound over the telephone line. "He [Castrell] is a man with high personal morals and dignity," says Panama's ex-ruler. "We speak on a daily basis and he helps me a tremendous amount. He also helped during my trial by giving testimony that countered some of the lies told by other witnesses." There is a note of impatience in the General's voice -- "mucho gusto, ¨eh?" -- as he says goodbye.

Having bidden his own farewells for the day, Castrell hangs up. But before the conversation turns to other topics, he wants to make it plain that his service to Noriega is voluntary, motivated by gratitude, admiration, and sympathy, not economic interests. "He's alone now," says the ex-major. "He's closed off and needs spiritual and moral support, which I should give to him as a friend and as a man. When he was chief, everyone was his friend, but now no one wants to have anything to do with him. I believe that in this life a man cannot deny friendships."

Since he moved to Miami from Israel shortly after Noriega's capture, Castrell has dedicated himself to helping the General, even acting as an unpaid assistant for Noriega's legal defense team and sitting through most of the trial, testifying near the end of it. He has also played chauffeur to Noriega's wife Felicidad. Mrs. Noriega has kept a low profile after a hidden camera caught her snipping buttons off women's jackets at Burdines in March 1992. She has her own immigration problems, Castrell explains; the government of Panama will not renew her passport, and U.S. authorities refuse to grant her permanent residence. Aside from that tidbit, he has nothing to add about her or her three daughters. "We've established a more familial relationship," he says. "I visit them several times a week. But these are private matters that are better left alone."

The retreat, this time into silence, illustrates what makes Rodolfo Castrell so valuable to Noriega, according to a former Sandinista who knows both men. Castrell's errands would be useless, posits the ex-rebel, if he did not know how to keep his mouth shut. "Castrell is one of those important and increasingly rare people who have done things for Noriega and never talked," explains the man, who says he got to know Castrell during the late Seventies and early Eighties while purchasing arms in Panama. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he adds that the major was not a member of Noriega's inner circle but rather "the second circle," those who carried out orders. "Castrell centsn, for example, would know who was meeting together in a hotel room but not necessarily what they were saying," the former arms buyer says. "He would send the planes but not necessarily know what they were carrying." He adds that Castrell probably carries some delicate information around in his head nevertheless. "Everyone knows that people like Castrell could not be close to Noriega if they had not at some point done big favors for him. But who knows what type of favors? That's the secret they must keep."

Mention such secrets, and a pained look falls like twilight over Castrell's face. "No, no, no, no, no, no," he murmurs. Several old friends may have worked for the CIA, others may have been convicted later of trafficking in arms or narcotics, but he knew nothing about those activities, Castrell maintains. These were personal friendships, he stresses, developed over the course of what he describes as a straightforward military career that began under Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, who had come to power in a 1968 coup. Five years earlier, at age sixteen, Castrell centsn had entered the Lyman Ward Military Academy in Camp Hill, Alabama. Even as a child, he says, he dreamed of becoming a member of the Panamanian military. That dream became an obsession when, after graduating from the military academy and spending a year at Columbus College in Columbus, Georgia, he returned to Panama on the heels of the coup and watched as Torrijos's mild political and economic reforms, as well as the nationalism stirred by U.S. control of the Panama Canal, started to transform the country. Torrijos, who had begun his military career as a lowly provincial guard, was the first Panamanian leader who did not come from the so-called rabiblanco or "white-tail" elite, a small group of families, mostly of European descent, who had ruled Panama since its independence in 1903. Instead Torrijos reached out to those of his own mestizo background and succeeded in consolidating the support of much of Panama's working and middle classes, including the national guard rank and file. "Torrijos was our spiritual leader," Castrell says proudly. "He was the one who formed us, made us. And he was an unpretentious man. He spoke to everyone."

In 1969 Castrell's father, a lieutenant colonel who had retired from the national guard to pursue a diplomatic career under Torrijos, took his son to a party at the presidential palace and spoke to the General on his behalf. Torrijos needed pilots, and so Castrell was admitted to the air force with a rank of second lieutenant and sent almost immediately to military air training schools in Argentina and Brazil. He was made one of Torrijos's personal pilots at a time when the General was becoming an internationally known figure as a result of his negotiations with the United States over the fate of the Panama Canal. "There was a lot of movement in the country," Castrell remarks, going on to name some of the VIPs he piloted around Panama during their frequent visits. They included writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene, the latter of whom favorably described both Torrijos and his impassioned era in Getting to Know the General.

Castrell, meanwhile, was getting to know Noriega, Torrijos's increasingly powerful intelligence chief, at Friday happy hours at the air force headquarters in Panama City. And on the job. "We pilots had to deal with Noriega quite a bit over the question of Torrijos's security," Castrell remembers. "And many times Noriega was aboard when I was the pilot."

Castrell also met several clandestine wheeler-dealers: the late Cesar Rodriguez, for instance, a Panamanian who flew arms to the Sandinista revolution before graduating to smuggling cocaine for the Medellin Cartel; and Mike Harari, an Israeli living in Panama. Harari had been the leader of the Mossad hit squad ordered to hunt down the Palestinian terrorists who had murdered eleven athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Instead the squad killed an innocent waiter in Norway. Harari later turned up in Panama, where he became an intimate of both Torrijos and Noriega. Such shadowy connections would both help Castrell and haunt him.

For two years after Torrijos's death in a July 1981 plane crash, Castrell continued to fly as pilot for Noriega and other Panamanian commanders as they jockeyed for power. In 1983 Noriega, who had emerged as the military strongman behind the figurehead president, promoted Castrell to captain and gave him the job of chief of air operations. He held the post for only a year before Noriega named him military attache to Argentina, where he served through June of 1988. During that time, he says, he grew closer to the man he still calls Torrijos's political heir. "As part of my functions, I had to have more direct contact with General Noriega to pass on intelligence," Castrell recalls, refusing to comment about precisely what type of intelligence he was passing along. "We were already friends, but we went along, identifying more with each other and getting to know each other better."

Noriega trusted Castrell enough to promote him to major and later to name him to the important post of ambassador to Israel, where he continued to provide intelligence, even as Panama descended into chaos. After the U.S. indictment of Noriega on drug charges in early February 1988 and his surrender to U.S. forces on January 3, 1990, the new government of President Guillermo Endara kicked Castrell centsn out of both the armed forces and the diplomatic corps. There was more bad news A Castrell's wife, Maria Luisa Cajar de Castrell centsn, was diagnosed with cancer. Without anything to keep him in Israel, Castrell brought his wife to Miami in September of 1990. Castrell maintains that his decision to move to Miami had nothing to do with Noriega, who was awaiting trial in a cell at the Miami federal courthouse: "I came here, not because of any political or economic motives, but because this was the best place for my wife to be treated. I wanted to stay out of politics until things calmed down in Panama."

His wife became sicker over the course of the next two years, and finally, in December 1992 she left for Panama, where she died two months later. "She was feeling very bad," Castrell recalls. "She wanted to spend her last days with her mother and her family and to be buried in her own land. I knew when I said goodbye to her it was the last time." Although Castrell speaks of his wife's death without betraying any emotion, his attorney, Edward Montoya, says his client's military bearing and stoicism should not be confused with a lack of feeling. "This man endured a lot of emotional pain in his family life," Montoya observes. "And he found himself alone here in a strange country." The former Panamanian Air Force major found solace in a lost cause and an old friend who was in even more desperate need than himself.

Frank A. Rubino, Noriega's chief defense counsel, decided to put Rodolfo Castrell on the stand almost as an afterthought. For months, as Rubino and Jon May prepared their client's defense, Castrell had been stopping by their offices at least once a day to offer his help. Rubino found the former air force major useful indeed. Among the attorneys' aims was to show that Noriega could not have known about every drug shipment that passed through Panama. "The U.S. was going to make the argument that Noriega should have dedicated himself solely to drug interdiction," explains Rubino. "But Noriega, like the leader of any country, had to delegate duties. He couldn't and didn't dedicate himself to one thing. We needed people like Castrell to focus on the details of who was actually running the different parts of the country. We spent a lot of time with Castrell, maybe ten or twelve meetings. We relied on him quite a bit for his intimate knowledge of the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces]. We would take him PDF documents and he would help us sort them out."

Donald Winters, who was the CIA's senior officer in Panama from 1984 to 1986, can't recall ever meeting Castrell, but he says that any air force major close to Noriega probably knew more about the intricacies of government operations than most members of the General's inner circle. "You have to understand the way the PDF was structured," says Winters, now a partner with CTC International Group, a business-analysis firm based in West Palm Beach. "The guys who really did the work were the majors. That's the way Noriega worked -- he gave mid-level commanders charge over specific areas so that no one would gain too much power."

Castrell's area of expertise was air operations, which he commanded in Panama from 1983 to 1984. According to testimony given during Noriega's trial by Col. Lorenzo Purcell, a government witness and the former head of the Panamanian Air Force, it was on the General's orders that 23 captured cocaine lab workers were sent back to their home country of Colombia aboard his private jet, a Boeing 727. The workers had been captured by the PDF in a May 1984 raid on the laboratory in the Darien province on the Colombian border. Eventually Noriega would be convicted, among seven other counts, of having accepted a four-million-dollar bribe from the Medellin Cartel to protect the laboratory. Witnesses testified that he had asked Fidel Castro to mediate in the inevitable dispute with the cartel after the lab was raided. It was Castrell centsn, the air operations chief, who arranged to transport the lab workers back to Colombia. Rubino, who had photographs of the handcuffed Colombians being boarded onto a propeller plane, decided at the last moment to put Castrell on the stand to testify about the make of the aircraft. When questioned by Rubino on the stand, Castrell told the jury that it was a four-engine cargo plane with propellers, not Noriega's private jet.

Rubino had achieved his purpose, it seemed, but he had made one crucial mistake; he had failed to check sufficiently into the dark alleys of Castrell's past. On the prosecution's side, Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Malman had explored some of those back streets and had been waiting patiently down one of them for the opportunity to cross-examine Noriega's friend. In an exchange that was to become a bone of contention between Malman and Rubino, the assistant U.S. attorney began by suggesting that Castrell had attended the entire trial in order to stare down government witnesses. Castrell denied the accusation. But he did admit to having chauffeured Mrs. Noriega and said he'd developed a close relationship with her husband. "Yes," Castrell affirmed. "I am a friend of General Noriega's. I do not deny it."

Malman did not stop there. He was interested in Castrell's other contacts, particularly Cesar Rodriguez, the pilot who transported first arms, and then drugs, with Noriega's alleged approval. Rodriguez had been found dead in Medellin in March 1986; now Malman was preparing to bury the credibility of a man who had done business with the smuggler. After establishing that Castrell had first met the pilot in 1970, Malman asked the witness if in May of 1982 he became involved with Rodriguez in a deal to send arms to the Colombian guerrilla group M19.

"No, sir," Castrell answered.
Malman produced a document from the Departamento Nacional de Investigaciones, better known as DENI, the Panamanian equivalent of the FBI. It showed that in May 1982, under investigation by superiors, Castrell admitted to having collected in his home 35 rocket-propelled grenades, 6000 rounds of 7.26-millimeter bullets, and 51 60-millimeter mortar shells. At the time Castrell told a Panamanian investigator the arms were for personal use, but under continued questioning by Malman he admitted that he and a partner, Jose Trujillo, had agreed to sell them to Cesar Rodriguez for $36,000.

Upon further questioning, Castrell conceded that his superiors had caught him and told him he would be discharged if he ever trafficked in arms again. But he denied Malman's suggestion that he was banished to Argentina because of the deal. And he also denied what Malman had already told U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler during a conference at the bench A that Noriega had become angry, not because Castrell had been trafficking in arms, but because he had not been given his cut from the sale.

It was widely acknowledged that in the late Seventies and early Eighties Noriega's Panama was a stopover for arms destined first for Sandinistas, and later for Salvadoran guerrillas. In 1981 Noriega had found it easy to extend the network to the M19.

Nevertheless Rubino was unprepared for Malman's line of questioning and he objected to it repeatedly, arguing unsuccessfully before Judge Hoeveler that what Castrell did or did not do in 1982 was irrelevant. In his book about the Noriega trial, The Case Against the General, San Francisco-based legal reporter Steve Albert writes that at the end of his cross-examination of Castrell, "Malman looked away from the jury with a grin of victory on his face."

Rubino, who acknowledges that the cross-examination took him by surprise, says he is still angry about it. "I consider it one of the most immoral acts by the prosecution during the entire trial," the attorney says with characteristic bluster. "I put Castrell on for the limited purpose of testifying about that plane. I had a photo of people handcuffed to its floor, for heaven's sake. The government knew that its witness was wrong, but instead of admitting it they had to go into every detail of Castrell's past. Talk about getting sidetracked!"

Replies Malman: "When you put a witness forward on behalf of a defendant, you take the witness as you find them. If the defense was unable to uncover, as the government did, facts about Castrell's past, well, caveat emptor."

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.

A source from the U.S. State Department, however, is more than willing to talk about Panama's judicial system -- as long as he is not quoted by name. Though he acknowledges some problems, he asserts that several Noriegistas, the dictator's former military subordinates, have been tried and convicted in what the U.S. government views as fair trials. "I don't believe that judicial authorities in Panama would tolerate using the system in an improper manner in order to exact revenge even on the Noriegistas," says the source. "That's really straining for a conspiracy when in fact the system is just slow."

And several people in Panama disagree with Montoya's assessment of his client's situation. In fact, they argue, Castrell did not have much of a case at all. "I would like to meet this lawyer," ventures an attorney who has practiced immigration law in Washington, D.C., and who now lives in Panama. "He must be a real hotshot," she says of the 29-year-old Montoya, a lawyer with Montero, Finizio, Velasquez and Weissing who admits to having more experience in personal-injury litigation than asylum claims. The attorney, who did not want her name used for this article, explains that although the Panamanian judicial system, like many others in Latin America, is "Kafkaesque" in its inefficiency, former Panamanian military members are not the only prisoners detained for long periods without trial. She cites findings by human-rights groups indicating that 75 percent of prisoners in Panamanian jails have not been tried. And she adds that in fact, several of the detained military officers have had a hand in prolonging their own time behind bars. "Because they have money, they have been able to hire lawyers who know how to use every dilatory tactic to stave off a conviction," says the immigration attorney. Dowell's decision, she maintains, was simply wrong.

"How can you grant political asylum to someone running away from a court trial when there are thousands of deserving applicants [from other countries] who are denied it?" the attorney asks angrily. "Here we are granting it to someone from a friendly Western democratic country, albeit one with a screwed-up judicial system. But let's face it A people are not being strung up by their thumbs down here. This guy [Castrell] is a big boy who obviously has a lot of connections. He should be able to defend himself in Panama."

Otilia de Koster, a Panamanian human-rights worker who strongly opposed the Noriega regime, agrees that Castrell's asylum claim was weak, but she is uncomfortable discussing it over the phone. "It's bugged," she explains quickly. "I'll send you a fax." The document, bearing the letterhead of de Koster's "Centro de Investigaci centsn de los Derechos Humanos y Socorro Juridico de Panama," offers some "preliminary information" about Castrell: "Everything about him points to an intelligence connection between him and Mike Harari, Noriega intimate and Mossad officer. In view of Noriega's relations with the CIA, your subject may have CIA connections. Such connections...may well have been behind his receiving political asylum in the U.S." De Koster's fax also repeats her telephone warning -- "as for communications, one must consider all phones tapped" -- before offering the services of a Panamanian law student "who can do research for you at a minimal cost."

Such cloak-and-dagger antics draw only derision from Castrell , who nevertheless acknowledges that he has considered Mike Harari a personal friend since the days of Torrijos's government. "He's an unaffected person, a good man," Castrell adds, "but I never had any other than a friendly relationship with him and his family." The Panamanian bristles at any suggestions that Harari or any other friend helped him win asylum. "I was able to resolve that situation on my own," he says brusquely. "I didn't have anything to talk about with such people. Nor did I give them any information or anything. I don't know anything. I entered this country with nothing to hide."

Castrell makes little effort to conceal his contempt for his country's current crop of politicians -- President Endara, Vice President Guillermo "Billy" Ford, and Ricardo Arias Calder, the Christian Democrat and former vice president who resigned in December 1992. All supported the U.S. invasion and according to Castrell they have been persecuting him and other members of the PRD ever since. In an interview before he formally was granted political asylum, Castrell was also willing to show his anger. "Just as these men have persecuted me, I will soon return to Panama and persecute them," he asserted in a low, steady voice.

Such statements bother Montoya. "I've told him I don't want him doing anything that might endanger his status," says the attorney. "He asked me right after the trial if he could return to Panama every now and then, and of course I told him no, not if he wants to keep his political asylum intact."

But Castrell may not need asylum for very long. A January poll of 1025 Panamanian voters showed PRD candidate Ernesto Perez Balladares leading the presidential race with 29 percent of the vote compared to 16 percent apiece for his two closest rivals, singer and actor Ruben Blades and Ruben Dario Carles, a 72-year-old former comptroller general who resigned last November. The poll, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based pollster Rob Schroth for a Panamanian television station, has a margin of error of plus or minus three points. Schroth says that although anything can happen between now and the May 8 election, Balladares, nicknamed "El Toro," is likely to win a five-year term unless the opposition rallies behind one candidate soon. And although El Toro has condemned Noriega for leading the PRD astray, Schroth says that most Panamanian politicians expect his election to result in some sort of amnesty for former military officers, including Castrell centsn, who served under the General. "No one feels that El Toro is a vengeful person," Schroth says. "But as in all Latin American democracies, to the victor belong several spoils."

In the wake of receiving asylum and perhaps in preparation for his return home, Castrell again endeavors to obscure his tracks. His statement about seeking revenge against his enemies, like the CIA notation, it would appear, is no longer extant. "No, I will not persecute those men," he says now. "That task will be left up to God." He credits Noriega for helping him dispel his rage. "We speak about a lot of spiritual things," Castrell says. "He gives me advice and fills me with tranquility. He's the one who told me I should let God take care of revenge."

But Castrell is firm about returning to Panama. "I want to regain my position in the military and to work again for my country," he says. And he goes against the opinions of many legal experts by predicting that Rubino and May's upcoming appeal of Noriega's case will be successful and that the General himself will eventually return to Panama. Perhaps for that reason, he continues to guard his boss's reputation as closely as any secret. Unsmiling, the Panamanian exile offers one last suggestion before closing the door to his dark townhouse: "Don't write anything that's going to harm the General.


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