WASHINGTON — When a former assistant to Panama's Gen. Manuel A. Noriega told Congress last week that the military strongman was involved in massive drug trafficking and international double-dealing, he did so for personal as well as political reasons.
The exiled Noriega aide, Jose I. Blandon, was trying to win back the love of his 20-year-old son.
Jose Jr., a law student, joined the movement against Noriega last June and, in an emotional confrontation, told his father that he would have nothing to do with him as long as he worked for the military regime.
"He told me I was working for a dictatorship, a government of killers," Blandon said in an interview. "He told me it was my duty to destroy Noriega. I told him: 'How can I do that? It isn't as simple as it looks.' "
"In a way," said a U.S. official who has worked on the case, "everything he's done since then has been an attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of his son."
But the tale of the two Blandons is more than just the story of a prodigal father and an earnest son. It also helps explain the elder Blandon's sudden defection from his privileged position as Gen. Noriega's top political aide and may make his testimony against Noriega more credible--or at least more understandable.
Blandon told a Senate subcommittee last week that Noriega oversaw a flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in drug trafficking money, raked off secret profits from banks, airlines and other industries, systematically deceived the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and dealt simultaneously with the late CIA Director William J. Casey and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Noriega has dismissed Blandon as a disgruntled rival, and the CIA and DEA have denied his charges of their complicity, witting or unwitting, in the general's criminal enterprises.
Blandon acknowledges that he does not know the details of the CIA's relationship with Noriega and notes that much of his information came from the general himself.
He candidly admits that he hopes to have a political future in a post-Noriega Panama and that part of his frustration with Noriega stemmed from the general's refusal to allow him and other pro-military politicians to exercise any real power. "We were the first to get our heads chopped off, not the opposition," he said.
Pushed Toward Break
But it was at least partly the pressure from his 20-year-old son that pushed Blandon to break with Noriega, provide key evidence to U.S. investigators and campaign publicly for the general's ouster.
"Jose joined the protests last June, just as they began," Blandon said in a long conversation in a safehouse where he is under the protection of U.S. marshals as a witness in federal racketeering cases against Noriega. "He is a smart boy. He was first in his class. He was very serious about his politics and very sincere. . . .
"He came with his friends from the university to talk with me. They said there had to be a change, and that Noriega had to go. I told them that I agreed that we needed to work for reforms, but they weren't satisfied."
In one demonstration against Noriega, police fired birdshot into the crowd, and Jose was hit in the hand, arm and back. "I telephoned my father and told him that it was his government that was doing that," said Jose, a soft-voiced young man with a mop of black hair and the boyish start of a mustache on his lip. "I told him I couldn't understand how an intelligent person like him could support the regime."
So father and son stopped speaking. Even when young Blandon was jailed by Noriega's troops in October and his father pulled strings to arrange his release, the son remained adamant. And Blandon's difficulty in winning Jose's release--only hours before authorities intended to ship the boy to the dreaded prison island of Coiba on Panama's Pacific Coast--intensified the father's growing resolve to bring about a change in the regime.
Amnesty Plan Rejected
Last November, when Noriega asked him for a plan to solve Panama's political crisis, Blandon produced a scheme under which the military chief would step down in exchange for an amnesty. Noriega rejected the plan. So did Blandon's own son.
"I discussed it with him (the son)," Blandon said. "He asked me if I was crazy. He said any plan that included amnesty for Noriega was a crazy plan."
In January, after Blandon decided to break with Noriega, he arranged with friends to smuggle young Jose out of the country through the Costa Rican Embassy. While Jose was still hiding in the embassy, his father made his first speech against Noriega over a Panamanian radio station, and friends made sure the son would listen. Even then, he found his father's denunciation too mild. "I had to go into hiding for that?" he asked, a little scornfully.
Today, both Blandons are in exile--still living apart, still not close, but at least on speaking terms.