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Witness: Drug Bosses Gave Noriega Briefcase With $500,000

October 9, 1991

MIAMI (AP) _ Cocaine bosses handed Manuel Noriega a briefcase stuffed with $500,000 in crisp, hundred-dollar bills, a drug trafficker testified at the former Panamanian dictator’s trial.

The alleged payment by leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel took place in Medellin, Colombia, in mid-1983 at what the prosecution contends was a summit meeting to assure Noriega’s protection for drug trafficking in Panama.

The testimony Tuesday came from former auto dealer and convicted drug trafficker Gabriel Taboada, described by drug agents as their ″smart bomb″ against the ousted dictator.

He was followed on the stand by retired Panamanian Col. Rogelio Alba, who recounted how, in 1984, his troops accidentally raided a cartel drug lab in Panama that Noriega allegedly was bribed to protect.

Alba testified today he initially believed the lab in a remote, mountainous area was a guerrilla camp. When he notified headquarters in Panama City of his discovery, his superiors ordered the crack Puma infantry company to the site to aid Alba’s troops.

The Puma commander later ordered the lab destroyed over the objections of Alba, who wanted to use it as a training device for his intelligence officers.

Noriega could get up to 140 years in prison if convicted on charges he took payoffs to protect the drug trade. He surrendered to invading U.S. troops in 1990.

Earlier Tuesday, Taboada said he was called to the meeting in Medellin to try to win the Panamanian leader’s support in importing a Ferrari for cartel leader Fabio Ochoa through the Panamanian Embassy in Colombia.

″Manuel, here’s the briefcase - there’s 500 in here,″ Taboada quoted cartel leader Gustavo Gaviria as saying to Noriega. ″The gentleman picked up the briefcase, opened it, and put it away.″

Taboada said that inside the briefcase he saw neat stacks of brand-new hundred-dollar bills and that he took the ″500″ to mean $500,000. As the meeting broke up, the witness said, Gaviria kidded Noriega about the money.

″Hey, Manuel, don’t forget the briefcase,″ the witness quoted Gaviria as joking.

A previous witness to the meeting, cartel chief pilot Roberto Striedinger, had discussed flying six French chorus girls to a dropoff point for a trip to Panama, and Taboada had been expected to mention the women as well. The prosecution contends they were a ″bonus″ for Noriega.

Striedinger’s testimony had prompted a defense motion for a mistrial early Tuesday on the grounds that mention of the chorus girls was prejudicial.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler did not rule on that motion, but when Taboada took the stand, prosecutors did not ask about the women.

The defense on cross-examination brought out that Taboada is trying to reduce his prison sentence of 21 years without parole.

Taboada had built up a business paying bribes to foreign diplomats to use their names to import vehicles into Colombia that were otherwise prohibited by law. He claimed he used foreign diplomats in 47 transactions.

Diplomats from the Soviet Union, Finland, Iraq, Iran, Spain, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Honduras, Panama and Haiti took part in the smuggling, he said.

The FBI and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations are interviewing Taboada about the deals, prosecutors and Senate officials said.

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