WASHINGTON — Panama's leader, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, has obtained payoffs and hidden profits of millions of dollars for himself and a group of Panamanian associates by selling government services and influence, according to a former top Noriega political adviser and aide, Jose I. Blandon.
Those services include passports, visas and airport landing rights and merchant marine identification cards for crew members aboard Panamanian-registered vessels, said Blandon, who for several months late last year was Noriega's secret emissary to the Reagan Administration.
In more than eight hours of interviews last weekend, Blandon charged that Noriega had used his 4 1/2-year reign as military commander in chief and de facto ruler of Panama to convert the government into a "criminal enterprise."
After what were described as repeated death threats, Blandon and his family on Sunday were placed under 24-hour guard, sources said. Noriega fired Blandon last month as Panama's consul general in New York.
Blandon testified for about five hours last Thursday before a federal grand jury in Miami investigating Noriega's alleged ties to the multibillion-dollar Latin American drug trade. Federal prosecutors are expected to seek an indictment soon, sources said.
Noriega has repeatedly denied any involvement in drug trafficking or other corrupt activities.
U.S. officials confirmed Monday that Blandon, 44, was close to Noriega and they said they have found Blandon to be credible.
Blandon characterized Noriega's alleged involvement in drug trafficking as only one component of a systematic pattern of corruption.
He said Noriega and his associates derive profits and commissions from hidden interests in Panamanian businesses. In particular, Blandon said, they are active with firms that operate in Panama's duty-free trading zone, through which millions of dollars in high-technology goods are moved.
Noriega, who was the head of Panama's military intelligence for 13 years, placed aides in key positions that give him control over the police, immigration, the airports, harbors and passports and visas. Simultaneously, Blandon said, Noriega put together a network of civilian business associates who became his links to the drug trade and private commercial firms.
Blandon said Noriega provides sensitive information obtained from the CIA to Cuban intelligence. "The only thing he protects is the names of CIA officers in the U.S. Embassy," Blandon said, because Noriega wants to maintain his channels to the agency.
As an example of one of Noriega's money-making schemes, Blandon said Panama sells visas for $4,000 each to Cubans hoping to emigrate to the United States. The Cubans use the visas, for which the official fee is $10, to enter Panama and then travel here. In the last few years, he said, 20,000 visas have been sold--which would add up to $80 million.