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Witnesses Against Noriega May Face Credibility Problems

January 9, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A convicted drug smuggler who says he was Manuel Antonio Noriega’s go- between with the Medellin cartel is a key witness in the cocaine trafficking case against the deposed Panamanian dictator.

Floyd Carlton Caceres, who is serving a nine-year prison term for drug smuggling, has testified he arranged for the cartel to pay Noriega $200,000 for each planeload of cocaine protected during flights through Panama.

Carlton is one of several convicted drug traffickers likely to testify against Noriega, who is accused of taking $4.6 million bribes and other payoffs to give Colombian drug lords a ″safe haven″ in Panama for cocaine shipments to the United States.

Like most convicted criminals who become prosecution witnesses, Carlton’s credibility will be sharply tested if he testifies at a trial of Noriega in Miami.

But legal experts note testimony from such disreputable witnesses is commonplace in drug trials and prosecutors have been able to persuade jurors to accept it, particularly if supported by other evidence.

The credibility of unsavory witnesses is ″not an unsurmountable problem″ especially ″if you have more than one person saying the same thing or describing things that lead to the same conclusion,″ said a former federal prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Other witnesses expected to testify against Noriega are Jose Blandon, a former Panamanian diplomat and one-time confidant of the general and convicted smugglers Ramon Milian Rodriguez and Steven M. Kalish.

Blandon, who broke with Noriega in 1988, told the Senate and a federal grand jury about a dispute between Colombian drug lords and Noriega that was mediated by Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Blandon testified the 1984 meeting took place after Panamanian authorities raided a drug processing plant, arresting 23 Colombians and Lt. Col. Julian Melo, secretary general of Noriega’s staff. The raid occurred while Noriega was in Paris.

Blandon said the outraged Colombians claimed they had paid Melo $5 million to protect the processing plant.

Soon after Noriega met with Castro, the Colombians and Melo were freed and equipment and $3 million seized during the raid were returned to the Colombians, Blandon said.

Both Castro and Noriega have denounced Blandon’s story as a lie.

But his testimony would dovetail with that of Carlton to show that Noriega protected the Medellin cartel’s operations in Panama.

Blandon has not been accused by federal prosecutors of involvement in drug trafficking and his Miami attorney, Atlee Wampler, dismissed attempts by defense lawyers in public statements to question Blandon’s reliability.

Blandon attended some key meetings as Noriega’s de facto secretary of state, but ″he had absolutely no involvement in any shape with drug trafficking,″ Wampler said. ″He was never involved, that’s why defense lawyers want to discredit him.″

Support for the accounts of Carlton and Blandon could also come from further testimony by Kalish and Rodriguez.

Both have previously described the protection Noriega gave the drug traffickers, including armored-car transport of money and the use of military airfields.

Prosecutors could get even more corroboration if any of the five Noriega co-defendants in custody decides to plead guilty and become a government witness to get a reduced sentence.

An attorney for one of those co-defendants, Luis del Cid, indicated Monday his client was considering testifying against his former boss.

″There was a very preliminary exchange of amenities where the possibility of some settlement was discussed,″ defense attorney Samuel Burstyn said of discussions with federal prosecutors in Miami.

″We’re desirous of exploring all options, but no offers have been made on either side and there are no deals,″ he said.

Del Cid, 46, who surrendered Dec. 25 to U.S. forces, was one of Noriega’s liaisons with drug traffickers and also served as a courier, according to the indictment.

He is accused of arranging for the transportation of payments to Noriega from the drug cartel.

If he became a government witness, del Cid presumably could directly corroborate Carlton about one episode described in the indictment.

At Noriega’s direction, Carlton delivered $200,000 to del Cid at the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces, the indictment alleges.

The payment was to cover the price that Noriega and Carlton agreed they would charge the Colombians to protect the next shipment of cocaine through Panama, the indictment said.

Shortly after the payment was delivered to del Cid, Carlton is alleged to have flown 400 kilograms of cocaine to a Panamanian airstrip from the farm of Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

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