MIAMI — Carlos Lehder, the only leader of Colombia's Medellin drug cartel in U.S. custody, was put on the witness stand Tuesday to add to the mass of government evidence against deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega.
Lehder, 42, who was extradited to the United States in 1987 and convicted of conspiracy after a seven-month trial, said that Noriega--being tried on drug-smuggling and racketeering charges--was known as "just a corrupt police official" as early as 1981.
The muscular, long-haired Lehder said that he was testifying under an agreement that he signed with the government last Aug. 28--a week before Noriega's trial began--to give testimony in return for a recommendation from prosecutors that his sentence be reduced.
He is serving a term of 135 years plus life imprisonment, without possibility of parole, in a maximum security federal prison.
During his own trial four years ago, Lehder was considered such a dangerous narco-terrorist that he sat shackled in the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla. But proving that yesterday's villain can become today's hero in the criminal justice system, he wore no shackles Tuesday and was dressed smartly in a gray suit and red figured necktie.
At recess in the heavily guarded courtroom, an associate prosecutor who was not involved in questioning Lehder came over to introduce himself and shake hands with the smiling witness.
Lehder's testimony helped the prosecution underline some major points that it wants the jury to keep in mind: That Pablo Escobar, Colombia's chief narcotics trafficker of the 1980s, arranged an agreement with Noriega; that the Medellin cartel needed "security and protection" for its U.S.-bound shipments through Panama and that Noriega received a cash commission for every kilo of cocaine shipped through his country and every drug dollar laundered in Panama's banks.
Lehder strongly supported testimony by the witness he followed, former Panamanian diplomat Ricardo Bilonick, who said that Noriega received nearly $10 million from the cartel over a two-year period for protecting its cocaine flights.
Lehder, the cartel's transportation chief, said that he had dealt with Cesar Rodriguez and Floyd Carlton-Caceres, two former associates of Noriega whose names have figured prominently in earlier testimony.
Noriega became useful to the cartel in the early 1980s--a few years before he became his country's unchallenged leader--because he headed the G-2 military intelligence unit that controlled all customs and immigration functions at airports, Lehder said.
The cartel had been using the Bahamas, where Lehder bought an island known as Norman's Cay, as its transshipment point, he said. But Bahamian authorities began to close in, he said, and "we needed to find another cocaine pipeline" to the United States.
Federal prosecutors are working to wind up their case within the next two weeks or so; Noriega's lawyers will then start presenting their own evidence. The former dictator is charged with 10 offenses for which he could receive a maximum punishment, on conviction, of 140 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.