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DEA Kept Close Ties to Noriega Before Indictment, Report Says

January 15, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ While federal prosecutors were moving to indict Panama’s Manuel Antonio Noriega on narcotics charges, the Drug Enforcement Administration was maintaining close ties with him and offering praise for his cooperation in the war against drugs, a congressional report shows.

″The DEA has long welcomed our close association and we stand ready to proceed jointly against international drug traffickers whenever the opportunity arises,″ drug enforcement administrator Jack Lawn wrote to Noriega less than a year before the indictment was entered in federal court in Miami in February 1988.

Lawn had special praise for the work of Luis Quiel, Noriega’s liaison to the DEA, as ″integral to the success of fighting international drug trafficking.″

But according to the final report of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on narcotics, issued in December 1988, Quiel was also Noriega’s liaison to the Medellin drug cartel and ″thus in a position to alert the drug traffickers to whatever information the DEA had provided him.″

Quiel also acted ″as Noriega’s enforcer to eliminate competitors of the Medellin cartel by turning them over to the United States,″ the panel said.

Lawn’s predecessor as DEA administrator, Francis M. Mullen, told The Day newspaper of New London, Conn., last week that he had been surprised by Noriega’s indictment because ″he was our fair-haired boy down there.″

″Whenever we’d ask him for help, he’d always give it to us,″ said Mullen, who left DEA in 1985.

The report, issued in December 1988 after a three-year investigation, paints a vivid portrait of Noriega and his involvement with drugs, money laundering, gun running and other illegal activities over his 20-year rise to power as Panama’s military strongman.

The first links between Panamanian officials and narcotics traffickers were forged while Gen. Omar Torrijos ruled Panama, the report said.

But after Torrijos died in an airplane crash in 1981, Noriega took charge of the country’s most important institutions, using them to generate revenue for officers of the new Panamanian Defense Force and to exercise control over the drug traffic.

Before he was ousted last month by the U.S. invasion of his country, Noriega controlled the customs, immigration and passport services, civil aeronautics, the National Bank of Panama and the attorney general’s office. He pushed legislation through the national assembly consolidating the National Guard, navy, police and customs into a unified Panamanian Defense Force under his command.

″As head of the PDF, Noriega now controlled all elements of the Panamanian government essential to the protection of drug trafficking and money laundering, increasing his control over Panama and enriching himself,″ the panel said.

One witness, Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a Miami-based, Cuban-born accountant, testified he negotiated an agreement with Noriega in 1979 on behalf of the Medellin cartel which gave Noriega a commission to provide security and handling for drug money arriving in Panama to be laundered through its banking system.

PDF soldiers met planes ferrying billions of dollars in cash from Miami, guarded the money as it was loaded into armored cars and delivered it to the Banco Nacionale de Panama, according to the subcommittee.

Milian Rodriguez said Noriega eliminated him as a middleman in 1983 by arranging to have information about his money laundering operation passed on to the DEA. The tip resulted in his arrest and eventual prison sentence.

The panel said it had evidence to corroborate Milian Rodriguez’ story that Noriega’s cronies then took control of the money laundering business.

Soon Noriega’s associates began to smuggle narcotics themselves using light planes, the panel said. But in 1984, Noriega’s interests clashed with those of the Medellin cartel.

Noriega, the panel said, had permitted the cartel to establish cocaine processing plants in Panama, including one at La Palma in Darien Province near the Colombian border.

It alleged that Noriega accepted $5 million from the drug cartel to protect the facility.

But in mid-May 1984, concerned about pressure from the DEA, Noriega ordered his soldiers to raid the plant and arrest its employees.

Feeling betrayed, the cartel’s leaders ordered Noriega’s assassination, the panel said, quoting a Noriega associate, former Panamanian intelligence official Jose Blandon.

Blandon testified that Noriega turned to Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, and accepted Castro’s recommendation that he return the $5 million and the plant machinery and release the 23 persons who had been arrested.

U.S. law enforcement agencies continued to view Noriega as a friend of the United States, the subcommittee said.

Lawn, the DEA administrator, wrote Noriega on May 8, 1986, stating the DEA’s ″appreciation for the vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy that you have adopted which is reflected in the numerous expulsions from Panama of accused traffickers...″

The subcommittee noted Lawn’s testimony that Noriega was actively cooperating in such areas as crop eradication, narcotics investigations, money laundering and drug interdiction.

Because the DEA shared information with the Panamanian government, drug dealers linked to Noriega were advised whether or not their planes were on a DEA watch list, the report said, quoting witnesses.

Francis McNeil, former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, told the panel that while law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked closely with Noriega, the State Department did not trust him.

In June 1986, he said, a State Department investigation concluded that Noriega was corrupt but there was no clear evidence that he was involved with narcotics.

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