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Government Fights to Keep Pro-Noriega Reports From Jury

February 6, 1992

MIAMI (AP) _ Federal prosecutors Thursday fought to keep jurors from hearing about confidential government reports favorable to Manuel Noriega during the testimony of a top U.S. drug agent.

James Bramble, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Panama, testified for the defense that the onetime Panamanian leader’s police arrested the cousin of the Medellin drug cartel’s founding Ochoa brothers.

Prosecutors had said Marta Saldarriaga Ochoa was the Miami coordinator of a drug trafficking and money laundering operation run by the cartel through Panama under Noriega’s protection.

Bramble said Panamanian police arrested her on Feb. 2, 1984, for carrying a false passport and a weapon, and immediately informed the DEA, even giving account numbers on $360,000 in cashier’s checks she carried.

″I remember it well. It was the only time someone was arrested at the airport with money,″ Bramble testified. Mere possession of large sums of money was not illegal in Panama at the time.

The testimony by Bramble, now head of the DEA’s professional standards board, was punctuated by objections from prosecutors, who sought to keep him from relating his investigators’ probe into the Ochoa case and shipments of cocaine-processing chemicals.

Prosecutors say Noriega took bribes to protect those shipments through Panama to Colombian drug labs.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis argued the DEA investigation and reports showing Panama helped seize the chemicals were hearsay and inadmissible, but U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler allowed some in.

Bramble also testified about the seizure of a drug lab in Darien province near Panama’s border with Colombia. Prosecutors have argued Noriega’s troops raided the lab in error and later had to pay back a bribe to the Medellin cartel.

But the agent said he was called by Noriega’s top anti-drug aide and invited to go along on the raid. The DEA also was allowed to interrogate the 23 Colombians arrested at the lab, but prosecutors fought successfully to keep Bramble from relating the results of that investigation.

At the end of his testimony Thursday, Bramble was describing his creation of Operation Negocios, a money-laundering probe in which Panamanian officials helped identify people arriving with large sums of drug cash.

With the trial in recess Friday, Bramble’s testimony ended the first week of Noriega’s defense.

″I’m very pleased so far,″ defense attorney Frank Rubino said. ″I think we’ve been able to get out through the DEA agents that General Noriega cooperated with their drug operations.″

Noriega faces up to 140 years in prison if convicted on all 10 drug and racketeering counts. He has been held in Miami since surrendering to U.S. troops following the December 1989 invasion of Panama.