Cartel Pilot Pleads Guilty in Noriega Case; Feds Offer Protection
MIAMI (AP) _ A pilot who flew cocaine from Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar’s ranch to Panama pleaded guilty Tuesday in the Manuel Noriega case after prosecutors promised his family federal protection.
David Rodrigo Ortiz Hermida, 35, said during a court hearing that he saw other pilots outfit Noriega’s personal Lear jet with hidden compartments for drug transport.
He also said he met Escobar and other top drug traffickers in Panama where they fled, and allegedly received Noriega’s protection, after the cartel was linked to the 1984 assassination of Colombia’s justice minister.
The Colombian pilot becomes the sixth of Noriega’s 15 co-defendants to agree to testify against the deposed Panamanian leader in his scheduled Sept. 3 trial.
Ortiz was flown secretly to the United States about a month ago from France, where he was serving a 14-year sentence for his 1987 arrest on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe with about 1,000 pounds of cocaine.
″We have taken some steps to make sure his family would be protected,″ said his attorney, James Gailey. ″After his arrest in Guadeloupe, there was an incident that caused some concern.″ Gailey, a public defender, refused to provide further details.
The plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors was reached May 13, but all sides kept it secret until Tuesday to allow time to protect Ortiz’s family, Gailey said.
There have been no threats since Escobar surrendered to Colombian authorities earlier this year, Gailey said, but added the danger was still considered real.
Noriega prosecutor Myles Malman told U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler at the hearing the government has agreed to enroll Ortiz and his family in the federal witness protection program.
Ortiz could have faced 35 years in prison for racketeering and drug trafficking under the same February 1988 indictment that charged Noriega.
But Malman said the government agreed to drop the trafficking count and recommend a maximum 10-year term on the racketeering count, which would run at the same time as the French sentence.
The indictment says Escobar ordered Ortiz to teach Panamanian pilot Floyd Carlton - now one of the government’s star witnesses - how to fly a Piper Cheyenne aircraft in November 1982.
Later that month, the two pilots flew ″an unidentified cargo contained in duffel bags″ from an airstrip in Colombia to Panama, the indictment says. On Tuesday, Malman identified the cargo as drugs.
In December 1982, Ortiz and Carlton flew nearly 900 pounds of cocaine from Escobar’s Colombian ranch, Hacienda Napoles, to the Calzada Larga airstrip in Panama, according to the charges.
The indictment said the flight was protected by a $150,000 payoff from Carlton to one of Noriega’s captains in a government office.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Malman said a Lear jet referred to in the indictment was Noriega’s ″personal plane,″ and that in 1983 Ortiz watched as Carlton and other pilots built the smuggling compartments into the aircraft.
Ortiz is now being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center outside Miami, the same jail where Noriega is housed.
If convicted, Noriega faces a maximum 145 years in prison on charges of turning Panama into a way station for U.S. bound Colombian cocaine. He surrendered to U.S. troops following the December 1989 invasion of Panama.