As trial opens, Noriega is called 'crooked cop'

September 17, 1991|By David Lyons | David Lyons,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Federal prosecutors raised the curtain yesterday on the government's complex drug case against Manuel Antonio Noriega, telling jurors that the deposed Panamanian leader was a "crooked cop" who remained behind the scenes while underlings helped make him rich from the drug trade.

"General Noriega never touched the cocaine, never used the cocaine, probably never saw the cocaine," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Sullivan said in the government's opening statement. "He recruited others to engage in illegal conduct -- and he was paid for it."

While about 200 reporters, government agents, lawyers and spectators looked on inside an ornate federal courtroom in Miami, Mr. Sullivan quickly drew the jurors' attention to the defendant.

"He is a small man over there in his general's uniform," Mr. Sullivan said. "He looks small in this cavernous courtroom, but he was a giant in Panama."

For the next hour and five minutes, Mr. Sullivan slowly took the jury through a decade's events that led to General Noriega's indictment in 1988 and his surrender to invading U.S. troops in January 1990.

General Noriega, 53, wearing four-star epaulets on his brown uniform shirt, sat quietly, listening to a translation through headphones. His wife, Felicidad, and daughter, Thays, sat behind him.

More than 20 years ago, Mr. Sullivan said, "Noriega did enforce the law against narcotics."

But all that changed when a council of leaders from the Colombian Medellin cartel met in 1982 and decided they needed more outlets to ship cocaine to the United States.

"They sat down and decided to either eliminate him or buy him," he said. "They decided to buy him."

Mr. Sullivan confirmed that Carlos Lehder, the highest-ranking cartel operative to be convicted in a U.S. courtroom, will testify about how the cartel dispatched emissaries to Panama in March 1982 to persuade General Noriega to join them.

They returned, he said, with a deal that would make the general rich: For allowing small aircraft to carry 400-kilogram loads through Panama, General Noriega would receive up to $400,000 per load.

Mr. Sullivan conceded that Lehder, who is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Marion, Ill., never met General Noriega face-to-face.

"From Lehder's perspective, Noriega was just another crooked cop," Mr. Sullivan said, adding that the cartel had hundreds of judges, policemen and politicians on its payroll.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler warned the nine-man, three-woman jury to decide the case only on the evidence and not on opinions formed from news reports.

"Let me assure you that you are judges in every sense of the word," he told the panel, which is being allowed to take notes. The jurors were handed pencils, pens and three-ring notebooks.

Mr. Sullivan never referred to defense arguments that General Noriega's activities were tolerated or even authorized by U.S. intelligence agencies, in part to help the Nicaraguan contras in the mid-1980s.

The jury will not hear from the defense until the prosecution completes its presentation, probably two months from now.

Neither Frank Rubino, the lead defense lawyer, nor Jon May, his co-counsel, would comment on Mr. Sullivan's opening statement. Steven Kollin, a former member of the defense team, said the prosecutor's offering contained "no surprises."

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