GEN. Manuel Noriega, the slum urchin who grew up to rule Panama, goes to trial Sept. 5 on drug-trafficking charges.While the general has waited in a federal prison in Miami for almost two years for his day in court, the prosecution has reached agreements with co-defendants to testify against him. Prosecutors have paid $1.5 million to confidential informants and will call some 70 witnesses during the trial. Seven of General Noriega's 15 co-defendants have traded testimony for reduced sentences. The trial promises to tell a tale of cocaine cartels and money-laundering schemes. It may uncover United States covert operations run through Panama and may lead to senior US government officials. The public record shows that Noriega worked for the CIA and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). And Noriega claims the Reagan administration paid him $11 million to look the other way while it traded drugs for guns to help the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Head defense attorney Frank Rubino has said he would subpoena current and former US intelligence chiefs, including President Bush, who once directed the CIA and knew Noriega. "There will be a significant amount [of information that] was classified by the United States as sensitive or secret or top secret that will come out during the course of the trial," according to defense lawyer Jon May. If convicted on all drug trafficking counts, Noriega faces 145 years in prison and $1.1 million in fines.
Possible plea bargain But legal experts say prosecutors may not want to risk implicating senior officials in Washington. "Just before the trial starts, or early in the trial, a plea agreement is certainly a possibility," says Donald Jones, a University of Miami professor of criminal law. Noriega was born in the slums of Panama. With a reputation for ambition and brutality, he rose through the ranks until he became head of Panamanian intelligence, and then in 1983, head of the armed forces. He ran the country, even though it had an elected president, and also worked for the CIA and DEA. But in 1988 two Florida grand juries indicted him on drug-trafficking charges, including a charge that he accepted $4.6 million from Colombian drug lords to allow cocaine shipments to pass through Panama to the US. Noriega thumbed his nose at the US courts and at Washington's angry efforts to support his opposition and topple him - at least until President Bush sent in the troops. In May 1989 Noriega annulled democratic elections and crushed two coup attempts before US troops stormed into Panama on Dec. 20. The forces took two weeks to catch Noriega and left 300 Panamanian soldiers, hundreds of civilians, and two dozen US servicemen dead. The general hid until he found asylum in the Vatican embassy on Christmas Eve. US forces laid siege to the embassy with loudspeakers blaring heavy metal rock music until Jan. 3, 1990, when Noriega surrendered. The next day he landed in a Miami jail.
Classified documents Noriega claims seven CIA directors, including George Bush, sanctioned his actions, and his lawyers have demanded hundreds of secret documents to prove it. The prosecution balked, saying the trial is not about Noriega's life as a spy but about drug trafficking and money laundering - including Noriega's dealings with the scandal-plagued Bank of Credit and Commerce International. The defense appears to have made headway. After the US Justice Department examined the documents to ensure that national security would not be breached, US District Judge William Hoeveler last month released some of the information to the defense. The contents of the documents have not been made public, and attorneys are forbidden from discussing details of the case. But defense lawyer May says, "We will be presenting as extensive and elaborate a case to the jury as the government will." Prosecution spokeswoman Diane Cossin says the documents have not substantively damaged an already strong case against Noriega, whom prosecutors consider just another drug trafficker. "What we have here is a narcotics-trafficking case, and that's what we are going to be prosecuting," Ms. Cossin says. "We think it's significant when we can get a number of co-defendants to admit to their guilt, and we are expecting full cooperation on their behalf." For instance, late in August a former Panamanian diplomat, Ricardo Bilonick, admitted in a plea agreement that he flew Colombian cocaine shipments through Panama with Noriega's protection. He said Colombian drug lords paid Noriega $9.5 million between 1982 and 1984. Mr. Bilonick agreed to testify against Noriega and to plead guilty to one charge of transporting cocaine. In return, prosecutors dropped two other counts and will recommend a reduced, 10-year prison sentence.
Jury selection University of Miami Law professor Bruce Winick says co-defendants' testimony could be pivotal. "That's really going to be the important question: how credible the jury is going to find their testimony," he says. Judge Hoeveler has ordered an end to pre-trial jockeying and set Sept. 5 to begin jury selection. Choosing the jury may be difficult; nearly 1,200 prospective jurors have been surveyed. "In every notorious case it is always hard to find a jury that is unaware of the issues, but I think it's possible," says Professor Winick.