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Rivalry, Snitches, Murder Helped Shape Noriega Case

February 25, 1990|Douglas Frantz and Ronald J. Ostrow and Robert L. Jackson | This story was reported and written by Times staff writers Douglas Frantz, Ronald J. Ostrow and Robert L. Jackson

Bacon, who had by this time signed on full time at DEA, said he boxed up the files and turned them over to DEA lawyers. The files never reached the Senate, and Bacon said they disappeared.

Federal prosecutors in Miami also found themselves blocked when they tried to charge Noriega with buying and transporting weapons illegally in 1980.

R. Jerome Sanford, an assistant U.S. attorney at the time, said in an interview that the Customs Service had developed evidence that Noriega was involved in smuggling guns out of Miami to the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua, who were fighting to overthrow Gen. Anastasio Somoza.

Sanford said he was told later that Noriega was providing security for the Shah of Iran, who had been given haven in Panama at the request of the United States, and that his indictment would embarrass the Administration. The charges were never filed.

Along with his ties to intelligence agencies, Noriega also developed a close relationship with the DEA during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the years, he was showered with letters of praise from DEA directors for his cooperation in cracking down on drug dealers.

But Noriega was cautioned by U.S. officials on various occasions as allegations about his corruption continued to filter back to Washington.

On Nov. 1, 1985, he was summoned to Washington for a meeting with CIA Director William J. Casey. U.S. officials were deeply concerned about reports that Noriega had engineered the brutal torture and murder two months earlier of Hugo Spadafora, a former Panamanian official who had publicly denounced Noriega's drug dealings.

"Noriega was brought up here to be read the riot act, and Casey failed," said Elliott Abrams, then an assistant secretary of state. "The fact that Casey did not read him the riot act meant that Noriega would certainly interpret it as a real honor."

A month later, John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, went to Panama for another session.

Noriega arrived for the meeting with Poindexter at Howard Air Base in Panama in a new Lincoln Continental and listened morosely as the U.S. official warned him about corruption, drug dealing and the expanding power of the military in Panama.

Abrams, who accompanied Poindexter, recalled that Noriega said he was innocent and that the Americans were listening to the wrong people in Panama.

Pilot Turns Informant

Richard D. Gregorie had not been chief of narcotics prosecutions for long in the Miami office of the U.S. attorney before he began to hear Noriega's name.

In 1983, DEA agents in Miami nabbed Adler Barrimore (Barry) Seal, a former Special Forces pilot in the Vietnam War who had amassed a fortune flying drug shipments for the Colombians. To avoid a long jail term, Seal became the nation's top drug informant.

In 1984, the DEA sent Seal to Panama for a meeting with Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, two leaders of the Medellin drug cartel who were hiding there after ordering the assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.

When Seal returned, he reported that Ochoa and Escobar were living in a Panama City hotel under Noriega's protection, according to government sources. Seal reported that Noriega had also allowed the cartel to set up a cocaine lab in Panama.

In 1986, Seal was killed by Colombian gunmen on a street in Baton Rouge, La., after his information had led to the indictment of Ochoa, Escobar and others. By then, the Miami investigators were pursuing other leads toward Noriega.

A year earlier, DEA agent Danny Moritz had gone undercover as a money launderer and grown friendly with a Panamanian pilot, Floyd Carlton Caceres. An informant had told Moritz that Carlton was linked to Noriega.

In September, 1985, acting on a tip, DEA agents intercepted a load of Colombian cocaine. The plane made a crash landing on Interstate 75 north of Miami, and the pilot escaped. The DEA found 400 kilograms of cocaine on board. The seizure formed the basis for indicting the plane's pilot, Antonio Aizprua, and the man behind the shipment, Floyd Carlton.

Moritz came to Gregorie, who was then chief assistant U.S. attorney, and told him: "I think I can make a case on Noriega."

There were two problems, however. The first was nabbing Carlton, who had fled the United States after the seizure.

At the time Moritz was looking for him, Carlton was talking with DEA agents in Panama City. He was frightened because Colombian drug dealers thought he had stolen a cocaine shipment, and they had beaten one of his relatives while searching for him.

In Senate testimony in 1988, Carlton said he contacted two DEA agents in Panama City in January, 1986, to seek protection for himself and his family in exchange for information about Noriega. He described being driven around in a car by the agents and telling them about money laundering and drug dealing in Panama.

"When I mentioned the name of Gen. Noriega, they immediately became upset," Carlton said, adding that the agents never contacted him again.

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