MIAMI -- Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was indicted today on charges of accepting millions in bribes to help Colombia's notorious Medellin cartel smuggle cocaine into the United States. Fifteen other men also were charged.
The indictments, unsealed today, charged Noriega with 'exploiting his official position as head of the intelligence section of the Panama national guard ... to receive payoffs in return for assisting and protecting international drug traffickers.'
Noriega agreed to provide the smugglers' with a base of operations and protect a cocaine-processing laboratory in his country, the Miami indictment said. A grand jury in Tampa today also indicted Noriega and three others on charges of smuggling marijuana into the U.S.
Noriega apparently becomes the most powerful foreign leader indicted by the United States, the Justice Department said. Despite taking the rare step of indicting him, there is little chance Noriega will come to trial in the United States because Panama's constitution bars extradition of its citizens.
The indictments capped a week in which Noriega was accused of everything from accepting CIA money to allowing Contras to train in his nation at Lt. Col. Oliver North's behest -- all while still dealing with Cuba and the Soviet Union. When word of the coming indictments spread Thursday, Noriega had dismised them as U.S. political meddling intended to drive him from office.
The Miami charges named Gustavo DeJesus Gaviria-Rivero and Pablo Escobar-Gaviria as leaders of the Medellin cartel, which is said to be responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Also named were two of the infamous Ochoa brothers who also rank among the top echelon of the cartel, Jorge Ochoa-Vasquez and Fabio Ochoa-Vasquez.
In return for his help to the Medellin cartel, the Miami indictment said Noriega made nearly $4.6 million in profits.
'This makes clear that no one is above our laws,' U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner said in Miami. 'Indictments such as these will ultimately result in better cooperation between law enforcement agencies of this country and others.'
Kellner said he met with Attorney General Edwin Meese this week to discuss the indictments because of their sensitive nature but he denied they were a tool to help drive Noriega from office.
Kellner said several actions could be taken to have Noreiga arrested, including working with the international police organization Interpol.
'I would assume that the only way he could be brought to this country (to stand trial) is if he's no longer the head of the Panamian Defense Forces,' Kellner said.
The indictment said Noriega protected cocaine shipments from Medellin, Colombia, through Panama into the United States and arranged for shipment and sale of ether and acetone, which are used to produce street-quality cocaine.
The indictment said Noriega sold chemicals seized by Panama's Defense Forces to the cartel, provided a base of operations and agreed to protect a cocaine laboratory constructed in a Panamanian province.
Kellner said the Medellin cartel turned to Panama after Colombia's defense minister was murdered, resulting in pressure to fight the cocaine industry in Colombia.
'Panama was extraordinarily important to the success of the Medellin cartel, because that is where they went,' he said. 'That's where they went for a safe haven.'
In Tampa, the grand jury indictment charged that Noriega and Panamanian businessman Enrique Pretelt smuggled nearly 1 million pounds of marijuana into the United States over a two-year period.
The 12-page Tampa indictment said the marijuana operation continued from Nov. 1, 1982, until to December 1984. Named as an unindicted co-conspirators were a Panamaian company known as Servicios Turisticos, S.A., Panamanian businessman Cesar Rodriguez Contreras and Steven Michael Kalish, a convicted American drug trafficker who told a congressional committee this week that he paid Noriega hundreds of thousands of dollars in protection money.
The Miami indictment said specific acts of racketeering include movement through Panama of 2,000 kilograms of cocaine destined for the United States, shipment of chemicals to a laboratory at Tranquilandia in Colombia and the June 15, 1984, flight of a Inair Airlines jet to Miami with more than 1 ton of cocaine.
'By utilizing his official positions, Manuel Antonio Noriega and trusted associates were able to assure drug traffickers that Panamanian military, customs, and law enforcement personnel would not interfere with their operations in Panama as long as substantial fees were paid to Noriega,' the indictment said.
Noreiga allegedly allowed smugglers to continue to operate and he warned them when police prepared to move against them, the indictment said.
In a television interview, Noriega called the indictment 'strictly a political act aimed at frightening me,' CBS News reported Thursday night.
Panama's Cabinet issued a statement offering 'firm, unconditional support' to Noriega and denounced 'foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Panama,' a position the government has taken to counter civil unrest that has rocked Panama since June when citizens took to the streets calling for Noriega's ouster.
Some officials told The Washington Post they fear the indictment will turn Noriega toward Cuba's Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government for support, jeopardizing American interests in Panama, site of the Panama Canal and the largest U.S. military base in Latin America.
But Noriega's opponents within Panama said it will add momentum to the drive to force him out.
'Any trial will show that Noriega is a common criminal,' Carlos E. Gonzalez de la Lastra, director of the Civil Crusade opposition group, said Thursday in Panama.
The Miami grand jury examined Noriega's role in shipping drugs through Panama to the United States and using Panamanian banks to launder millions of dollars in profits from U.S. drug sales, sources said.
The indictment was returned during a week of corruption allegations against Noriega, mostly by Jose Blandon, who was recently fired as a top Noriega aide and now is under 24-hour federal protection as a witness in the drug investigation.
Blandon told The New York Times that Noriega worked with Lt. Col. Oliver North, the White House aide fired in the Iran-Contra scandal, to arrange an arms shipment to El Salvador that was to be falsely linked to Nicaragua.
An operation making it appear Nicaragua was shipping arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas would have fulfilled the Reagan administration's goal of proving the Sandinistas were exporting their revolution. The operation collapsed in June 1986 with news reports of illegal activities by Noriega, The Times said.
Blandon told grand jurors that Noriega's top officers accepted $5 million in exchange for allowing a cocaine manufacturing plant to operate near the Colombia-Panama border, the Herald said.
The former Noreiga aide said Noriega turned Panama into 'a criminal enterprise.'
The Washington Post quoted Blandon Thursday as saying North and Noriega also had a deal in 1985 to train 200 to 250 Nicaraguan rebels in Panama in exchange for American support for international bank loans to help Panama with its debt crisis. Several U.S. officials said they were skeptical that the training took place.
Blandon named 10 high-ranking military officers as accomplices of Noriega in drug trafficking, including the armed forces chief of staff, the head of Panama's air force and the director of the National Investigative Police.
Noriega has denied Blandon's assertions and said Blandon was never a close adviser.
CBS News reported that just before the 1983 Grenada invasion, Vice President George Bush telephoned Noriega and asked him to ask Castro not to fire on American troops. Bush called the story a 'total fabrication,' CBS said.
Sources told United Press Internationale CIA paid Noriega $200,000 a year for at least 10 years in an attempt to lure him from Soviet influence. But Noriega continued to accept Soviet weapons through a Cuban front called the Hunting and Fishing Club of Panama, the sources said.
In an interview on a Panamanian radio station Thursday, Gen. Ruben Paredes, who preceded Noriega as commander of Panama's military, accused Noriega of ordering the murder of his son, Ruben Paredes Jr.
Paredes was killed in 1986 in Medellin, Colombia, in what diplomatic and intelligence officials describe as a drug-related slaying, The New York Times reported today.