Defense Makes First Dent in Noriega Case
MIAMI (AP) _ Manuel Noriega helped arrest the Medellin cartel’s top money launderer at a time prosecutors claim the former Panamanian dictator was taking bribes to protect the cocaine bosses, a U.S. drug agent testified.
Wednesday’s testimony from James Bramble, who headed the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Panama from 1982 to 1984, was Noriega’s first major victory in his drug trial.
Bramble, who now heads the DEA’s professional conduct board, returned to the stand today and told of the February 1984 detention in Panama of Marta Saldarriaga Ochoa, a cousin of the Medellin cartel’s founding Ochoa brothers.
Panamanian customs officers told the DEA she was traveling with two cashier’s checks totaling $360,000 and a false passport.
The government has claimed Ms. Saldarriaga was a chief contact for the cartel in Miami to meet regular cocaine flights that Noriega was paid to protect and distribute the drugs.
On Wednesday, Bramble said Noriega’s Panamanian Defense Forces tipped U.S. agents to six money laundering flights into the United States by Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a cartel operative who laundered at least $200 million.
When arrested in Florida in 1983, Milian Rodriguez had $5.5 million in cash and 61 pounds of cocaine. He is now serving a 43-year prison sentence.
The arrest came at a time prosecutors said was the height of Noriega’s relationship with the Medellin cartel, which was allegedly bribing him to protect its money laundering.
Noriega could get up to 140 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Bramble’s testimony appeared to contradict his own former agency chiefs. They said earlier this week that they worked with Noriega but never trusted him.
But Bramble said he had no qualms about sending an undercover agent for a drug buy after informing the PDF of the operation.
A memo Bramble wrote to then-U.S. Ambassador Everett Briggs in Panama also seemed to aid the defense contention that while some PDF officials may have been involved in drug trafficking, Noriega was not.
The memo complains that drug fugitive Romulo Betancourt was freed by Panamanians at the airport as he was about to be put on a plane to the United States.
In the memo, Bramble wrote that Noriega had ordered Betancourt’s expulsion but that Col. Roberto Diaz-Herrera ordered him released.
Diaz-Herrera was Noriega’s political rival, and he later accused Noriega of drug involvement after the Panamanian leader forced him out of the government.