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.

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Stan Yarbro