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Witness Details Noriega's Meeting With Drug Lords : Trial: Colombian pilot places ex-Panama dictator in room with Medellin cartel leaders. His account bolsters the government's narcotics-trafficking case.

October 04, 1991|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — A Colombian drug pilot testified Thursday that he attended a clandestine meeting between former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega and leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia in mid-1983.

The convicted pilot, Roberto Striedinger, is the first witness to place Noriega in the same room with cartel officials, and his testimony significantly strengthens the government's drug-trafficking and racketeering case against the ousted dictator.

Striedinger, 44, took the witness stand as the government concluded the third week of its case against Noriega, who is charged in 10 counts with accepting at least $4.6 million in payoffs to let Colombian traffickers use Panama as a way station for illicit cocaine shipments to the United States.

U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler recessed the trial until Monday, when Striedinger will undergo cross-examination by Frank A. Rubino, Noriega's attorney.

Striedinger said that he had been employed by the Medellin cartel for three years when Gustavo Gaviria, one of its leaders, summoned him to a meeting at the home of Jorge Ochoa, another official, in late May or early June of 1983.

Previous witnesses, including two former associates of Noriega, have testified that the military strongman entered into a conspiracy with cartel leaders in 1982 to accept bribes in return for protecting their drug shipments through Panama.

Striedinger said that he climbed a staircase to a second-floor office in Ochoa's home to find Noriega engaged in animated conversation with Gaviria, Ochoa, his brother Fabio and three other top Medellin bosses, Pablo Escobar, Pablo Correa and Gabriel Taboada.

Striedinger, testifying through an interpreter, said that Gaviria greeted him by announcing that Striedinger had been summoned because there was the possibility of a flight the following day to Panama.

Noriega, dressed in white casual clothing, was discussing "authorization" for the flight, he said.

Asked by associate prosecutor Guy Lewis to describe the mood of the meeting, Striedinger termed it "euphoric." He said that at one point Noriega cracked a joke "and moved as if to embrace Fabio (Ochoa) and there was general laughter."

Striedinger testified that the next day, at Gaviria's instructions, he flew six French women from Escobar's ranch in Colombia to a coastal airstrip outside Panama City, where the women went aboard a waiting yacht.

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