He Sees Plot Aimed at Canal Control : Accusations Put Spotlight on Panama's Strongman

Times Staff Writer

Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the controversial commander who dominates this small but strategic nation, rose to power from a shadowy world of espionage, intrigue and deadly secret struggles.

Outside Noriega's office there used to be a sign with the words, "If your enemy surrenders, it is because he couldn't kill you."

As chief of Panama's intelligence service in the 1970s, Noriega had a reputation for steely calculation and cold-blooded cunning. Those characteristics are said to have helped him reach the pinnacle of power in 1983, when he became commander in chief of the Panamanian National Guard.

Critics charge that Noriega has often used his guile and his power in sinister and illicit ways. In the last few weeks, that reputation and the general's career have become matters of interest in Washington after the American press published a flurry of allegations about him.

The accounts have accused Noriega of helping to smuggle narcotics, laundering drug money, trafficking in arms, spying for Cuba, rigging an election and ordering a political opponent beheaded.

Many of the allegations, attributed to anonymous officials in Washington, have been circulating in Panama for years. Noriega, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, has denied them all. He has said repeatedly that the latest publicity is part of a plot to discredit Panama and to keep it from assuming full control over the Panama Canal in the year 2000, as it is scheduled to do under its 1977 treaties with the United States.

The political opposition in Panama has responded to the international attention by calling on Noriega to resign and demanding an investigation into the accusations. But the opposition is weak and divided and has not so far been able to turn the issue into a cause for mass protest.

The government and the armed forces have begun a vigorous countercampaign and are hammering home the nationalistic notion that the attacks on Noriega are really aimed at Panama.

The National Legislative Assembly, dominated by the military-backed Democratic Revolutionary Party, adopted a resolution in support of Noriega. Romulo Escobar Betancourt, president of the party, declared, "I know Noriega personally, and I know that he is a man of great integrity."

Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, military chief of staff, said in a television interview that the allegations against Noriega are "nothing more than a repetition of lies, a slander campaign."

'Chaos and Sedition'

Diaz Herrera added: "We know that there is a group of Panamanians that would like to gallop down the avenues of chaos and sedition, and we have plans to stop this. We are firm and sure at the side of our commander."

Army press spokesmen have given reporters copies of a May letter to Noriega from John C. Lawn, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, thanking the general "for the vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy that you have adopted, which is reflected in the numerous expulsions from Panama of accused traffickers, the large seizures of cocaine and precursor drugs that have occurred in Panama and the eradication of marijuana cultivations in Panamanian territory."

Noriega, 48, is the only general in the Panama Defense Forces, as the National Guard was officially renamed in 1983. Like most senior officers, he enjoys a standard of living that is obviously beyond the reach of his military salary, estimated at no more than $40,000 a year.

He lives in a palatial, Spanish-style house, covered with red tiles and surrounded by a white wall, in the fashionable Altos del Golf neighborhood of Panama City. He keeps a collection of tropical birds in his front yard and a collection of paintings inside.

Country, Beach Homes

He also has a country home in Chiriqui province and a beach house at Playa Blanca. He drives BMW automobiles with tinted glass and drinks Scotch. He does not smoke, but he sometimes gives away Cuban cigars with his name and rank on the label.

"He loves luxury," a former associate said, and he and others familiar with Noriega's affairs said they believe he has made money in drug smuggling. They acknowledge, though, that they know of no proof.

The former associate said that Noriega uses his power to facilitate the transshipment of drugs through Panama, which is a geographical bridge between North and South America.

"It isn't that he is directly tied to drug trafficking," he said. "He looks the other way while it passes through."

The late Cesar Rodriguez, known to have worked as Noriega's private pilot, had a reputation for gun-running and drug-smuggling. Rodriguez and the son of retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, Noriega's predecessor as military chief, were the victims of an apparently drug-related murder in Medellin, Colombia, last March. The Medellin area is a notorious base for cocaine smuggling.

A 'Circumstantial' Link

"Cesar Rodriguez is one of the strongest links, even though it is only circumstantial, between Noriega and drugs," a foreign analyst here said.

According to another allegation, Noriega provided sensitive U.S. intelligence to Cuba and has given Cuban secrets to the United States. Cuban President Fidel Castro denied those accusations of double espionage in an interview with a Panamanian journalist. He said they are part of a U.S.-sponsored campaign of leaks to the press aimed at removing Noriega and the Defense Forces from Panamanian politics.

"The campaign was prepared by a member of the Security Council," Castro said, adding that it is supported by the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department and the CIA. "It is a dirty war against Panama, against the National Guard and against Gen. Noriega."

Castro did not mention allegations that Noriega fixed the 1984 presidential election here and ordered the assassination last year of a prominent opponent, Hugo Spadafora. Spadafora's beheaded body was found in Costa Rica not far from the Panamanian border last September.

An Election Study

A U.S. Embassy study of vote-counting in 1984 showed that the count was altered to give a narrow victory to the military-backed candidate, Nicolas Ardito Barletta. The embassy did not make its study public, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz attended Ardito Barletta's inauguration.

Noriega ousted Ardito Barletta last September after the latter ordered the formation of a special commission to investigate Spadafora's death. The current president, Eric Arturo Delvalle, has ordered no such investigation.

Spadafora was last seen in the custody of Panamanian military men, not far from where his body was found. A source familiar with intelligence on the Spadafora slaying said it was clear that he was killed by members of the Defense Forces, but not necessarily on Noriega's orders.

But even though the evidence "does not go all the way to Noriega," the source said, "I would speculate that he knew about it, and I would speculate further that he masterminded it."

Noriega, who is about 5 feet 5 inches tall, often wears a high military cap that augments his stature. He calls himself Tony (his middle name is Antonio), but many Panamanians call him "Cara de Pina, " Spanish for "Pineapple Face," an unkindly reference to his complexion.

Reader of History

The general jogs and practices judo. "He is a health nut," a longtime acquaintance said. He is also a voracious reader, and his favorite subjects are said to include military and Oriental history. Some Panamanians believe he is a Buddhist, but a Defense Forces spokesman said he is only a "sympathizer."

In describing Noriega's personality, several Panamanians who know him agreed that he is reserved, suspicious and often vengeful.

"Noriega is the kind of guy that if you do something to him, you're going to pay for it, and some people have paid with their lives," a former official said. "He was head of intelligence for 10 years, so he thinks like an intelligence officer. He sees conspiracies all over the place."

Another former official said: "One time he told me, as an intelligence officer, many years ago, 'I don't even trust myself.' He is amoral. He will do anything that has to be done to achieve his objectives. And he is very cunning."

Like the others, this former official spoke on the condition that he would not be identified by name. He said that Noriega can make life unpleasant for people who speak out against him.

'You Are Followed'

"You are attacked in the newspapers," he said, "or you are sent a message and told what you had better not do, or you are followed around."

A third former official said that people who talk too much about Noriega are sometimes beaten up and robbed in simulated muggings. He said that Noriega also uses information gathered by G-2, the military intelligence service, to intimidate or blackmail potential opponents.

The Defense Forces and its predecessor National Guard have been the ruling power in Panama since a military coup d'etat in October, 1968. Gen. Omar Torrijos, a wily and popular leader, headed the military until his death in a 1981 plane crash.

Although Torrijos himself showed little interest in money, his subordinates, including Noriega, used their positions to accumulate wealth.

One lucrative source of income for the Defense Forces has been the Colon Free Zone, a duty-free warehousing area at the northern entrance to the Panama Canal where foreign goods are transshipped without payment of Panamanian duties. There is, however, a fee of $1 a box that must be paid to Transit, a private firm owned by the Defense Forces.

Distribution of Proceeds

Former government officials and other sources said that the proceeds of this fee are distributed among high officers and other Noriega associates.

One former official said that Transit's manager, Carlos Duque, charges a fee much higher than $1 per box for contraband Colombian coffee that comes through the Free Zone on its way to the world market. Contraband coffee shipments violate an international agreement on coffee export quotas.

The coffee fees, this source said, are shared by Duque and Noriega.

The military also owns Licores de Tocumen, a string of duty-free liquor shops at the country's busy Tocumen International Airport. "They run that for petty cash," one of the former officials said.

According to a foreign analyst, a recent study shows that the Defense Forces and individual officers are linked to about 60 private business enterprises.

"These guys are always looking at things with dollar signs in their eyes," the analyst said. "The ethos around here is that the reason you are in government, the reason you are in the National Guard, is to pursue your private business interests, and that is perceived as quite legitimate."

'Make a Dollar'

Noriega is widely regarded as the most active and astute of the officer-entrepreneurs.

"He's the type of boy who will pick up a nickel and make a dollar out of it," said Demetrio Lakas, who was Panama's figurehead president from 1969 to 1978.

One of Noriega's business associates is a man named Carlos Wittgreen. Through him, several sources said, Noriega owns an interest in Servinaves, a company that provides supplies for Cuban government fishing boats in the Pacific.

One source, a businessman who previously held a government position, said that Wittgreen, with Noriega's blessing, has had a series of secret business deals with the Cuban government.

One such deal, the source said, has involved placing Cuban lobster, shrimp and citrus fruit concentrates in the U.S. market by routing the products through Panama and then other Central American countries. A U.S. trade embargo prohibits the sale of Cuban goods in the United States.

Wittgreen is also said to have helped the Cubans to buy U.S. goods, including minicomputers and other electronic gear, in violation of the trade embargo. Under U.S. pressure, Noriega recently told Wittgreen to break off such commerce with Cuba, according to the source.

3 Daily Newspapers

The Defense Forces own one business that loses money but is valuable for political reasons. It is Editora Renovacion, known as ERSA, a publishing company that produces three daily newspapers. The military controls what is printed in the papers.

All television channels and most radio stations are pro-government. Only one Panamanian newspaper, La Prensa, opposes the government.

Some of Noriega's more hopeful opponents speculate that the recent accusations against him mean that the U.S. government has decided to help remove him from power. Others, more cautious, say they see only signs that the Reagan Administration is sending warnings to Noriega to watch his step.

The Panama Canal, Panama's geographic position as an international crossroads, and its proximity to the wars of Central America give the country special importance in U.S. policy.

Willy Cochez, vice president of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, said that many Panamanians blame the United States for helping to keep Noriega in power despite his misdeeds.

"The gringos have been accomplices," Cochez said. "The gringos have a debt, not with the opposition but with the country. They have a debt with Panamanian democracy."

Power Concentration

Ricardo Arias, the party's president, said it is "very unlikely" that the United States will try to destabilize Noriega.

"I think he is in the process of concentrating more power in his hands than anyone in all our history," Arias said.

A foreign political analyst agreed that Noriega's power is not directly threatened.

"What really matters in this country is whether he's got the support of the general staff of the National Guard, and I think he's got it," the analyst said. "As long as he's got that, he's in the catbird seat."

Times Caribbean Bureau Chief William R. Long was recently on assignment in Panama.

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