MIAMI — Panama's strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega sold his country to traffickers smuggling drugs into the United States, federal prosecutors said after two indictments naming him were unsealed Friday.
In Miami, Noriega was charged in a 12-count indictment with taking at least $4.6 million in payoffs from the Medellin Cartel of Colombia to protect cocaine shipments, launder money, supply drug laboratories and shelter the gang's leaders from law enforcement.
"General Noriega controls Panama, (and) he utilized his position to sell the country of Panama to traffickers," U.S. Atty. Leon Kellner charged Friday. "He has control of law enforcement, of customs, of immigration. Obviously, this is unprecedented."
The indictment said that at one point Noriega went to Havana so Cuban President Fidel Castro could mediate a dispute with the cartel over bribe money.
A parallel indictment in Tampa accuses Noriega of accepting part of a $1-million bribe and importing or trying to import 1.4 million pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Kellner said the indictments "make it clear that no one is above our laws."
Noriega said in Panama City that the charges were nothing more than "a joke and absurd political maneuver," and added that the whole affair was "in strict accord with political interests of the government of the United States."
Maj. Edgardo Lopez Grimaldo, spokesman for the Panamanian military, quoted Noriega as saying the charges were "totally false, no more than another step in the plan to menace and terrorize nationalist leaders and Latin American patriots who dare to confront the United States."
Extradition of Noriega is unlikely, since a 1904 treaty between the countries does not oblige either state to extradite its own nationals, said State Department deputy spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley in Washington.
Noriega, however, apparently took the charges seriously enough to ask three of Miami's top criminal defense attorneys to fly to Panama to speak with him about the case.
Oakley used the occasion of Noriega's indictment to renew the (U.S.) Administration's appeal for political change in Panama.
"U.S. policy remains the same: We support efforts toward democratization in Panama. We encourage the military to step back from its political role and to allow the strengthening of Panama's civilian political institutions," she said.
Noriega could face up to 145 years in prison and more than $1.1 million in fines if convicted on the Miami charges, which include conspiracy, racketeering, importing drugs and traveling to further the conspiracy.
15 Others Face Charges
Fifteen other people, including Noriega aide Capt. Luis del Cid and Pablo Escobar Gaviria, reputed leader of the Medellin Cartel, also face charges in that case.
Only one of the 16 people named in the Miami indictment is in custody. David Rodrigo Ortiz Hermida, allegedly Escobar's pilot, was arrested last year on the Caribbean isle of Guadeloupe after being caught with a cocaine shipment, according to prosecutors. He is being held by French authorities.
One American, Brian Alden Davidow, of Miami, was indicted and is being sought. The others are Colombians or Panamanians, Kellner said.
The indictment details how Noriega went to Havana so Castro could mediate a dispute with angry cartel leaders after Panamanian troops seized a drug laboratory in Darien province that the general had been paid to protect.
Probe Is Continuing
"The evidence presented to the grand jury was not sufficient to indict Mr. Castro," Kellner said, but he noted that the investigation was continuing.
The indictment says Noriega, both before and after he took control of Panama in 1983, "utilized his official positions to provide protection for international criminal narcotics traffickers," including the Medellin Cartel, said to be responsible for 80% of the cocaine reaching the United States.
Kellner said Noriega received payoffs from cartel leaders Escobar and Jorge Ochoa Vasquez to protect cocaine shipments flown from Medellin, Colombia, through Panama to the United States. Ochoa and Escobar were indicted in Miami in 1986 on separate federal drug charges, but remain at large.
Noriega also allegedly arranged for the shipment of cocaine-processing chemicals, including those seized by Panamanian police agencies.
Accused of Laundering
He also allegedly helped launder $100 million of the cartel's drug proceeds through Panamanian banks, prosecutors said.
When Colombia's anti-drug minister of justice was assassinated by traffickers, Noriega allegedly allowed the cartel leaders to shift their operations to Panama to escape a crackdown in their own country.
In Tampa, grand jurors issued a three-count indictment charging Noriega and prominent Panamanian businessman and close Noriega associate Enrique Pretelt with conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and two counts of attempting to import more than 1.4 million pounds of marijuana.