U.S. and Nicaraguan rebel officials confirmed Saturday that Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega arranged the training of Contras in Panama at the request of Reagan Administration officials during the period when Congress prohibited U.S. military aid to the rebels.
A former aide to Gen. Noriega, Jose I. Blandon, has said the training program was set up in 1985 at the request of then-White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, who was seeking a way to build the Contra force after Congress cut off U.S. funding. Blandon said the CIA was also aware of the program, although he said he had no precise knowledge of the agency’s role.
Two U.S. officials said they believe that the training was set up in 1983 and initially funded by the CIA before Congress cut off the agency’s Contra funding in 1984. Another official said Noriega apparently continued the training program as a favor to the Administration after the CIA lost its funding.
The Panamanian training was not illegal, but it was a major reason the CIA and other U.S. agencies were hesitant to move against Noriega despite evidence that he was protecting cocaine trafficking operations, Blandon and U.S. officials said.
“That was part of the leverage Noriega had over the Administration,” Blandon said in an interview Saturday.
“The Contras were being trained at a Panamanian base, but Noriega was also arranging for a new base for them in the jungle at Bocas del Toro,” he said. Bocas del Toro is a remote island on western Panama’s Caribbean coast.
Two federal grand juries indicted Noriega on Feb. 5 on multiple charges of aiding drug traffickers who used Panama for laundering money and transshipping cocaine.
Contra chieftain Adolfo Calero denied Saturday that any of his troops trained in Panama or received funds from the Panamanian government.
“We never had anyone training in Panama,” Calero told the Associated Press. “I don’t know anything about it. We have absolutely nothing to do with Panama.”
“We have never received any money from Panamanian sources,” he added.
Blandon agreed that Calero had never had any significant direct contact with Noriega.
Times staff writer Michael Wines contributed to this story.