And It's All True PANAMA STORY

April 03, 1994|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

Director Oliver Stone, the man who brought Vietnam to the silver screen, is making a film about the 1989 invasion of Panama. Al Pacino reportedly will play Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the crater-faced military dictator who defied George Bush.

The subject matter has all the elements of a Hollywood epic, except this time it isn't fiction. This is all true, folks.

For sex, the director can choose from among several of the general's call girls. (Women will find the heroic GIs and handsome newsmen appealing.) For an ostentatious display of wealth, one shouldn't forget the marriage feast of Noriega's daughter, which puts the sumptuous wedding scene in the "The Godfather" to shame. For gratuitous violence, how about the general raping a beauty queen, or the U.S. "surgical strike" on his headquarters, which wiped out an entire neighborhood?

Now, an upper-crust Panamanian will insist that the film show Noriega grinning malevolently from the center of his web in a Miami jail. There is a flashback of the dark-skinned general ordering the beheading of a rich white boy. Another flashback shows a Noriega enemy being suspended from a basketball hoop and beaten within an inch of his life.

All of that happened, too. But then the scene becomes more upbeat as U.S. troops begin to land. The noble invasion becomes a frat house affair, with a panty raid on Noriega's bedroom bureau (red bikini underwear was found) and loud rock music (played during his stay at the Vatican Embassy).

Fortunately, the general found Jesus just before his surrender.

And that's a good thing because only God could explain what happened next. Enter Rene de la Cova, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's office before and after the invasion. It was de la Cova who arrested Noriega in the name of the American people and President Bush. It was de la Cova who documented Noriega's fall from paid DEA-CIA-Pentagon stooge to a protector of the cocaine cartels.

And it was de la Cova who pleaded guilty in January to stealing $700,000 from a DEA sting in Florida.

This would be the perfect ending for a Panamanian film about the invasion -- de la Cova, the arresting agent, joins Noriega at the Big House. The camera fades to the sad face of a DEA spokesman who exclaims: "It always hurts when someone goes over to the dark side."

The dark side is what Panama is all about. It is film noir raised to its highest form. In fact, the form is so high it can be reached only through satire or comic opera. How else to explain a nation willing to hustle anything, from cocaine to alligator skins?

Naturally, the upper-crust Panamanian is angered by this view. He argues that the invasion got the government out of drug dealing. He envisions a "Platoon"-like film in the war against cocaine, not Cheech and Chong getting busted at the mall.

Of course there is a lot of truth in what he says. The government is cleaner than the one it replaced. But if the film is a celebration of clean government coming to Panama, then cameo roles will have to be found for:

* Attorney General Rogelio Cruz Rios, who received a suspended sentence last year amid charges that he exceeded his authority when he released $25 million in alleged Colombian cocaine profits that had been frozen in local banks since the invasion.

* Rodrigo Arosemena who, as customs chief, allegedly took $1.8 million in cash from cardboard boxes containing $7.2 million in seized cocaine profits. Mr. Arosemena isn't worried. He quit his job to run for public office.

* President Guillermo Endara, who last month opened the legislature with a plea for new laws to fight drug smuggling and money laundering. The president previously said the laws were strict enough and saw no need to stiffen them.

But then the affable, 300-pound president says he has never spent much time dwelling in the dark side of Panama. As Mr. Endara was being sworn as president in 1989, the DEA was compiling evidence that $12.5 million in cartel money was being laundered in a bank where he was an officer.

After the affair was exposed by The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Endara resigned as the bank's secretary-general, saying he knew nothing about the money. The bank was placed in receivership, but all but $1 million of the frozen funds has since disappeared.

With these characters, Mr. Stone might have difficulty convincing a U.S. audience that his film is credible, even as a comedy.

No, perhaps the director would be better off doing a conspiracy film about Panama, along the lines of his "JFK." Noriega himself could fill in the cast of characters (he's under contract with Random House to do a memoir). But the director is liable to be disappointed, judging from his interview with the general in November.

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