PANAMA CITY, Panama — The military rallied around Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega today after he was indicted in Florida on narcotics trafficking charges, but opposition leaders predicted that the indictment will hasten his downfall.
The Panamanian Defense Forces, through a military-controlled newspaper, denounced what it alleged was a "shameful burlesque" orchestrated by Washington against Noriega.
Federal prosecutors in Miami unsealed an indictment today accusing Noriega of receiving $4.6 million to protect cocaine shipments, launder drug money and provide a haven for leaders of Colombia's Medellin cartel smuggling ring. A second indictment unsealed in Tampa accuses Noriega of conspiracy to import and distribute more than 1 million pounds of marijuana.
Noriega, as commander of the Panama Defense Forces, is the power behind the civilian administration of President Eric Arturo Delvalle. He has run the country since 1983.
The general told CBS News on Thursday that the indictment "is strictly a political act aimed at frightening me and other nationalistic Latin American leaders who dare to criticize the United States."
After the indictment was unsealed today, several military vehicles took up positions outside the Panama City offices of a leading group calling for the resignation of Noriega.
Opposition in Action
Opposition spokesman Manuel Burgos said that four military vans carrying about 12 soldiers each were stationed outside the Chamber of Commerce, headquarters of the Civic Crusade, a coalition of about 200 business, labor and political groups. The coalition had called for a demonstration to push for Noriega to quit if he were indicted.
Burgos said by telephone from the Chamber of Commerce that the soldiers were across the street and had not made any move to enter the building.
"We don't know what their intentions are," he said.
The government, through articles and editorials in pro-government press, has repeatedly warned it would not tolerate "inciting delinquency or rebellion."
U.S. Atty. Leon Kellner, who announced the Miami indictment, said of Noriega: "He utilized his position to sell the country of Panama to the drug traffickers."
Also charged in the 12-count indictment were 15 others, including cartel leader Pablo Escobar Gaviria and a top Noriega aide, Capt. Luis del Cid.
Named but not charged in the Miami indictment was Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who allegedly intervened to settle a 1984 dispute between Noriega and Colombia's notorious Medellin cocaine cartel after a cocaine processing laboratory was seized in Panama's Darien Province.
Evidence was insufficient to indict Castro, Kellner said, who added that the investigation is continuing.
Noriega could face up to 145 years in prison and fines of more than $1.1 million if convicted on all charges, said prosecutors, who concede that it is unlikely Noriega could be extradited.
The military-controlled Panamanian newspaper Critica said today that Washington's campaign against Noriega was designed "to establish a puppet government that would ignore the obligations of the Panama Canal Treaties of 1977."
Ricardo Arias Calderon, president of the Christian Democratic Party and a leading opponent of Noriega, said the indictment will isolate Noriega.
"It is very difficult to imagine Latin American military people and governments dealing with him in any significant way from here on," he said. "I think it will transmit a clear message to members of the Panamanian military that they have little to gain in continuing to sustain his leadership."