The crowded courtroom fell silent. * A white-haired judge, straight out of central casting, peered down thoughtfully from his lofty perch. The man before him was short and stood very erect, no expression on that famous pockmarked face. He wore a khaki uniform with four stars on each shoulder and spoke Spanish in urgent, even tones. * "When I was brought to the United States, I mistakenly believed that I would be able to receive a fair trial," Manuel Noriega began. "In order for this to come true, I also believed that I would be able to use my money to hire the lawyers of my choice. It is painfully obvious that the United States government does not wish me to be able to defend myself and (has) done everything possible to deprive me of a fair trial and due process."* Noriega paused for the interpreter to catch up. Then he started again: "They have taken my money, deprived me of my lawyers, videotaped me in my cell, wiretapped my telephone calls with my lawyers and even given them to the press." * The deposed dictator of Panama accused the U.S. government of waging a one-sided courtroom war, the equivalent of its December, 1989, invasion of his country. And he let it be known that he, too, has weapons in his arsenal. Nearing the end of his 18-minute oration, he mocked the U.S. government's claim that it could not force foreign banks to any of the $20 million frozen in Noriega's accounts to pay his defense lawyers. * He knew the power wielded by the men in Washington, he said, for he had once done their bidding. On his orders, Panamanian-flagged ships were searched in international waters, fugitives were sent to the United States for trial, Panamanian banking laws were breached--all at the behest of U.S. authorities. * "The Drug Enforcement Administration knows this, the White House knows this, and the State Department knows this," he said. "I know that when the government of the United States wishes something to be done, they obtain it."* When Noriega demanded the release of his money to pay his lawyers last November in his only courtroom statement to date, the general also delivered a threat: If the United States puts him on trial this fall, he intends to turn the tables and put the United States on trial, too.
MANUEL ANTONIO NORIEGA, NOW 57, stands accused of turning his country into a way station for the murderous Colombian drug smugglers known as the Medellin cartel. According to the government, Noriega allowed the cartel to ship American-bound cocaine through Panamanian ports and air strips, protected its drug-processing laboratories, provided safe haven for traffickers and helped launder narco dollars by the suitcase. Along the way, he supposedly collected at least $4.6 million in bribes.
The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in February, 1988, claims that Noriega was on the cocaine kings' payroll throughout the 1980s as he rose from colonel and intelligence chief in the Panamanian Defense Forces to general and de facto ruler of the nation.
In the 19 months since Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces, the prosecution has methodically strengthened its case against him. Dangling the promise of lenient sentencing and reduced charges, prosecutors have struck deals with witnesses that they believe will bind Noriega to the Medellin cartel. By one insider's count, 16 people--maybe more--will provide firsthand testimony about those links. Three years ago, the number was six.
"They have left no stone unturned," says Joel Rosenthal, the Miami attorney for Amet Paredes, a Noriega co-defendant until he pleaded guilty in a government deal. "The slimiest of eels and the most honest types, they've knocked on all their doors and given away the courthouse--within the rules, of course."
Further, the brute force of the U.S. Army and the cooperation of the Panamanian government installed after the invasion netted a mountain of documents to bolster the prosecution. The list in court records goes on page after page: reports to Noriega on drug smuggling, bank and credit-card records, telephone logs, personal papers, travel itineraries.
As the September trial date approaches, prosecutors still face a nagging dilemma: For most of the time he was allegedly rented by the drug traffickers--and for many years before--Noriega also was on the U.S. payroll.
Notable among his employers were the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. Together, over two decades, those agencies paid him at least $322,000 in secret stipends. But Noriega was promiscuous, available--for a price--to all sides, from the DEA and the Medellin cartel to the CIA and Cuban intelligence. Some of that CIA cash made its way into Noriega's bank accounts when George Bush was the agency director. How much did Bush know then?