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Pilot: Noriega Wanted Drug Cash - And Deniability

September 26, 1991

MIAMI (AP) _ The prosecution’s star witness against Manuel Noriega testified Thursday that the former Panamanian dictator negotiated a tough deal to protect the Medellin cocaine cartel’s first drug flights through Panama.

Drug pilot-turned-informant Floyd Carlton, a longtime Noriega associate, said that in 1982 Noriega angrily spurned the cartel’s initial offer of $30,000 to $50,000 per 400-kilogram cocaine load flown into Panama en route to the United States.

Carlton said he had passed on the offer to Noriega after meeting with cartel chieftains Pablo Escobar and Gustavo Gaviria in Medellin, Colombia.

″He asked whether they were crazy or I was crazy,″ Carlton testified, pointing to Noriega at the defense table. ″He would not allow that to happen for less than $100,000.″

When the pilot took Noriega’s demand back to the cartel leaders, they said they weren’t surprised, Carlton told the court. He said they told him they had dealt with Noriega before, paying the Panamanian leader $1 million to free a seized freighter carrying cocaine in coffee bags.

Carlton said the two men told him: ″This guy is always going very high.″

The government has previously said Noriega continued to bump his price, and that the payoffs eventually reached as high as $500,000.

Carlton said he made his first payment - $100,000 cash - to Noriega in November 1982 through military aide Luis del Cid and a month later passed $150,000 to Noriega in advance of a planned drug flight. He said his final payment was a $200,000 payoff made in December 1983 through del Cid.

Carlton said that when Escobar asked him to buy a small jet to bring drug money from the United States to Panamanian banks, Noriega said he would sell his own jet. He said he called Escobar for advice.

″He told me he thought it was a wonderful idea, but to be very careful where I stepped with this deal because these people were tigers,″ Carlton said.

Noriega later confiscated the plane after finding out it was used for a money laundering flight without notifying him, Carlton said.

The payments per flight weren’t Noriega’s only cartel income, Carlton said. In May 1984, after the assassination of Colombia’s justice minister was blamed on the cartel, the ″creme de la creme″ of that nation’s drug world hid out in Panama, Carlton said.

Escobar called him to a meeting in Panama City and said all were safe because Noriega was paid $4 million, Carlton said.

Noriega told Carlton to keep his name out of the deals, and Carlton said he did so - but that the cartel leaders knew they were negotiating with Noriega through him.

Noriega, then head of the Panamanian intelligence branch, even insisted that Carlton use no Panamanian-registered airplanes for the drug flights, Carlton said.

″He told me he did not wish to have his name involved, and if anything happened, he didn’t know nothing from nothing,″ Carlton testified.

Noriega initially balked at dealing with the cartel at all, said Carlton, who was approached by an intermediary.

When Carlton later informed Noriega of the proposal, the officer exploded, said Carlton.

″He became exceedingly upset and he told me I should be grateful that, on the grounds of our friendship, he didn’t send me to jail,″ he testified. But a few weeks later Noriega called again, and sent him to Colombia to find out more, he said.

Carlton, 42, served a four-year sentence for drug trafficking, and is now in the witness protection program in the United States. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler has asked media artists in the courtroom not to sketch his face.

Before the trial, prosecutors said Carlton, then a court official, met Noriega in Panama’s Chiriqui province in the 1960s when the then-lieutenant shot a farmer’s horse. Carlton obligingly mislaid the farmer’s complaint against Noriega.

Carlton said he and Cesar Rodriguez eventually set up a charter flight company in Panama City, and received Noriega’s protection, allowing them to move through customs and immigration with impunity.

Noriega faces 140 years in prison if convicted on all 10 drug and racketeering counts he faces. He surrendered in Panama to U.S. invasion troops in January 1990.

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