WASHINGTON — An accountant who shuffled billions of dollars of drug smuggling profits between the United States and Panama said Thursday that he made payoffs totaling more than $300 million to Panamanian Gen. Manuel A. Noriega between 1979 and 1983.
He also said he funneled "laundered" narcotics proceeds to the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua, setting up a special company to facilitate the transfer of money.
The profitable relationship between Ramon Milian Rodriguez and Noriega, who became Panama's de facto ruler in 1983 after assuming command of that nation's defense forces, ended in 1983 with Rodriguez's arrest at a North Carolina airport on a charge of the illegal transport of $5.4 million in cash after what he said was his betrayal by Noriega.
Rodriguez, 36, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen now serving a 43-year federal prison sentence, was testifying to a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee investigating Noriega's ties to the narcotics underworld.
$11 Billion Figure
He described how, behind the facade of a legitimate accounting business in Miami, he became a key figure in the "laundering" through Panamanian banks of huge sums of illicit U.S. drug profits, to be returned to the United States through investments that he said grew to $11 billion.
He said that toward the end of his career, he was laundering $200 million a month.
Rodriguez said he made the deal with Noriega--who was indicted last week on drug charges in the United States--in 1979.
"He (Noriega) was regarded even then as the person you had to deal with," he said.
Noriega was then a colonel, heading Panamanian military intelligence. He later served as chief of staff before taking command of the Panamanian Defense Forces on Aug. 12, 1983.
The reason for going to Noriega, he said, was that "I wanted complete security for the money from the point it reached Panama. I wanted army protection. If there was a problem when the money reached Panama, they made it good."
He said he also wanted an arrangement under which immediate credit could be obtained from Panamanian banks after the deposit of sums of money in the range of $10 million.
Rodriguez said he also sought what he called access to "Panamanian assets wherever they may be" such as political and diplomatic sources, use of diplomatic passports, diplomatic pouches and access to information.
He said he struck a deal with Noriega but because Noriega was "a slippery fellow," could not pin him down to a specific agreement. The accord involved a sliding scale under which sometimes he paid 1% of the money delivered, sometimes much more.
Asked for the total paid to Noriega, Rodriguez replied that a "ballpark figure" would be between $320 and $350 million.
Rodriguez said he was a supporter of the Contras. "Narcotics proceeds were used to shore up Contra efforts," he said. "I have laundered money for that network. I made it possible to transfer funds."