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Retired Military Official Accuses Top General of Fraud, Murder

June 9, 1987

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ An influential colonel has accused armed forces commander Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of ordering the killing of an opposition leader, involvement in the death of former President Gen. Omar Torrijos and election fraud.

Noriega responded in a television interview Monday that the accusations by Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera were a ″conspiracy″ and ″an assassination, because it comes from the institution (armed forces) itself.″

Diaz Herrera, 49, retired last week as armed forces chief of staff, the second-highest military position after Noriega, who heads the Panama Defense Forces.

Although others have been similar allegations against Noriega, Diaz Herrera’s were the first by anyone who has been in the government.

Late Monday, Diaz Herrera gave Marcos Gregorio McGrath, archbishop of Panama, documents the colonel said proved Noriega was involved in the assassination of opposition leader Dr. Hugo Spadafora.

Diaz Herrera also gave the monsignor papers he said involved Col. Alberto Purcell, assistant chief of staff, in the death of Torrijos, the strongman who ruled the country from a 1968 coup until his death in a plane crash in 1981.

The opposition newspaper La Prensa quoted Diaz Herrera in today’s editions as saying, ″Gen. Noriega is directly involved, and there is proof of it, in the assassination of Gen. Torrijos.″

Noriega was Torrijos’ intelligence chief and Purcell the head of the air force at the time. Following Torrijos’ death, Noriega inherited command of the National Guard, now known as the Panama Defense Forces.

Torrijos’ family claims to have proof he was assassinated, but they have never presented it publicly.

Church authorities at Diaz Herrera’s home said they would keep the documents sealed for the time being.

Noriega was traveling in Europe when Spadafora’s decapitated body was found Sept. 14, 1985, in Costa Rica. An outspoken opponent of Noriega, Spadafora had charged in published reports that Noriega was a drug smuggler and was involved in other illegal activities.

Spadafora’s family filed charges against Noriega in federal courts at the time, but no one has been arrested in the case. The local opposition press accused Diaz Herrera of planning the crime.

Diaz Herrera retired last week after 26 years of service. Although military officers are supposed to retire after 25 years, most serve 27 or 28, and the colonel claimed he was forced out.

He told reporters he had participated in electoral fraud and had acquired a luxurious residence with money from visas that the military sold to Cuban immigrants.

The opposition newspaper La Prensa on Monday quoted Diaz Herrera as saying he and Noriega arranged election fraud in 1984 to deprive Arnulfo Arias of victory. ″Legally, what I am saying is that Arnulfo Arias is the president of Panama,″ Diaz Herrera said.

Arias won the presidency in 1946, 1949 and 1968, and each time was overthrown in coups after he tried to make changes in the armed forces.

Diaz Herrera said he tried to avoid using fraud and permit Arias’ victory, ″but what worried me was the fact that if Dr. Arias took power, he was going to go against the institution and that institution I will always defend.″

He said both politicans and military men were involved in the fraud, which he said was carried out in Chiriqui province, at the Costa Rican border.

Diaz Herrera also said he forced the resignation in 1985 of former President Nicolas Ardito Barletta, who was declared winner in the 1984 elections, and of President Ricardo de la Espriella in 1984.

He invited Noriega and other officials to join him in presenting themselves to authorities to be charged.

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