WASHINGTON — Two federal grand juries Friday announced indictments of Panama military strongman Manuel A. Noriega and 16 associates, including leaders of the infamous Medellin narcotics cartel, on drug smuggling and money laundering charges.
The racketeering indictments, returned by grand juries in Miami and Tampa, Fla., marked the first time a top official of a government crucial to U.S. foreign policy interests has been charged in U.S. courts.
Gen. Noriega is accused of exploiting his position as commander of the Defense Forces of Panama to allow narcotics traffickers to ship massive amounts of cocaine and marijuana through the country to the United States and to help launder millions of dollars of drug profits through Panamanian institutions.
Linked to 1984 Murder
The Miami grand jury charged that Noriega also gave refuge to members of Colombia's Medellin cartel who were linked to the 1984 murder of Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. And it said that Noriega and members of the cartel had a cocaine business dispute that was mediated in June, 1984, by Cuban President Fidel Castro.
U.S. Attorney Leon B. Kellner in Miami said that he has "hope" that Noriega can eventually be brought to the United States for trial, although that would require a significant political turnabout in Panama. That nation's constitution currently bars such extradition.
Noriega has headed Panama's Defense Forces, formerly called the National Guard, since August, 1983. The military post overshadows the office of president, currently held by an elected civilian, Eric A. Delvalle.
"In plain language, what (Noriega) did was use his position to sell the country of Panama to the traffickers," Kellner told a press conference. Citing "the avalanche of narcotics that enters this country," he said: "They are destroying our children with narcotics and that has to stop."
Noriega, 49, whom U.S. officials have urged repeatedly to relinquish power, has blasted the U.S. investigation as a politically motivated effort to meddle in Panama's internal affairs.
Lt. Gen. Frederick F. Woerner Jr., who heads the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in Latin America, said that Noriega's opposition, the Civil Crusade, "will use it . . . as further assured evidence of their accusations against Gen. Noriega and as an indication of U.S. support for their position."
U.S. officials have said that they have considered the possibility Noriega might take political or diplomatic reprisals against U.S. interests in Panama but that they believe a major move to be unlikely.
Woerner said he foresees no threat to the safety of the 10,000 American service personnel and their families stationed in Panama, where the Southern Command is headquartered.
The charges against the Panamanian leader were based on investigations spanning more than a year by the U.S. Customs Service, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and included testimony by a number of Noriega's former associates and by smuggling operatives who had been arrested in individual cases.
In the Tampa indictment, Noriega and Enrique Pretelt, a Panamanian businessman and close associate of Noriega's, are charged with approving and assisting in a scheme to launder millions of U.S. dollars realized from smuggling 280,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States in June, 1983.
They are also accused of agreeing with other conspirators to arrange for smuggling 1.4 million pounds of marijuana into the United States in 1984.
The indictment alleged that Noriega authorized the shipment of 400,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia through Panama into the United States, disguised as a containerized cargo of plantains, a banana-like fruit. A containerized shipping vessel was purchased and Noriega approved paying $185,000 to Panamanian customs officials to carry out the scheme, prosecutors allege.
But the plan was scrapped with the July, 1984, arrest on drug-smuggling charges in Tampa of Steven Michael Kalish, a major figure in the operation. Kalish, who has become a government witness, testified last month before a Senate subcommittee on Noriega's alleged role in drug smuggling and money laundering.
The Miami indictment alleged that Noriega received more than $4.6 million to protect cocaine shipments flown from Medellin, Colombia, though Panama to Florida and other unspecified destinations in the United States.
He also was charged with arranging for sale to the cartel of ether and acetone--chemicals used in the refinement of cocaine--that had been seized by Panama's Defense Forces.
The Miami case, government sources said, depends heavily on the testimony of Floyd Carlton Caceres, who allegedly flew drugs from Colombia to Panama and money from the United States to Panama for the cartel under Noriega's protection.