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Noriega’s Fortune Put at $300 Million : Panama: A $27-million French castle is among the holdings linked to the ex-dictator. The new government plans to quickly lay legal claim to the wealth.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. investigators have uncovered evidence to suggest that the fortune amassed by Manuel A. Noriega during his eight years in power may total as much as $300 million, according to Panamanian officials and U.S. sources here.

Among hundreds of bank accounts and pieces of property worldwide now believed linked to the ousted dictator is a $27-million castle in the South of France held in the name of Vicky Amado, Noriega’s 35-year-old mistress, the sources said.

The indication of the vastness of the Noriega holdings has sent a quiet reverberation of hope through the financially strapped government of President Guillermo Endara. The regime’s grim economic outlook is compounded by new concerns that as little as half of the $400 million in government funds frozen by the United States during the Noriega years may ultimately be returned to Panama.

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Moving to seize the new opportunity, the government plans as early as today to stake a formal claim to the Noriega wealth and to announce plans to mount a legal effort to win possession of the holdings, Controller-General Ruben Carles said in a weekend interview.

Carles and other officials cautioned that the estimate of the holdings is a preliminary one and said it is by no means certain that the entire sum, made up in large part of property and accounts bearing the names of others, can conclusively be tied to Noriega.

But all of the sources, who were briefed by U.S. officials involved in the effort to track down the Noriega funds, said that investigators have found solid evidence of a Noriega connection to a vast range of holdings throughout Europe, Latin America and the United States and have indicated that the total value of the assets appears to be in the neighborhood of $300 million.

The sources also said the United States now believes that Noriega acquired a significant portion of the total in the last two years through a scheme in which Panamanian visas were sold at monumental prices to Cuban and Chinese citizens desperate to leave their countries.

As many as 18,000 immigrants, some of whom paid $10,000 or more for the necessary documents, are believed to have entered Panama under the scheme, which was coordinated by Noriega. One knowledgeable source estimated that the Panamanian leader’s personal take exceeded $100 million.

Other suspected sources for the dramatic stock of wealth included Noriega’s stewardship of the Panamanian customs and tax systems, both of which demanded exorbitant bribes as a cost of doing business, and his relationship with the Colombian drug cartels, which allegedly made direct payments to him in return for his assistance in permitting drug traffickers to use Panama as a base.

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A surprising proportion of the recently acquired Noriega holdings is said to be in the form of real property, including the castle in France, a sprawling estate in Sweden and expensive homes elsewhere in Europe. Under the laws of most countries, such property is far more difficult to confiscate than are bank accounts, even if it can be shown to have been acquired through illicit means.

Members of a Drug Enforcement Administration team who have gathered more than 20 tons of documents here as part of the Noriega investigation were not available for comment. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said officials will be prohibited from discussing any aspect of the probe. The DEA has declared that premature disclosures about Noriega’s financial assets could enable his allies to find more secure hiding places for his wealth.

The prospect of recovering even a small portion of the presumably large Noriega stockpile of wealth has given at least a temporary boost to officials of the new government, who are still seeking to come to terms with the immensity of the belt-tightening that will be required if Panama is to become fiscally sound.

Although President Endara, in his first nationally televised address last Thursday, outlined plans for a new economic reconstruction program, including new spending to combat rampant unemployment, he sought also to quell expectations that recovery would be anything but slow.

And, in a government white paper due to be published today, Controller-General Carles will warn that the government--which owes more than $5 billion to foreign creditors--must reduce its overall expenditures by about 17% to restore the confidence of lenders.

In an interview, Carles also confirmed that creditors’ claims would make it necessary for Panama to turn over a significant portion of the $400 million in government funds that have been held in U.S. banks since being frozen two years ago to keep them out of the hands of the Noriega regime.

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The $400-million balance, envisioned by most Panamanians and economists as a source of funds that might furnish a jump-start to the cash-poor economy, would be reduced by one-half if the legal claims are honored, according to banking sources. Carles said the government hopes to reduce that obligation through negotiations, but he acknowledged that “we have to show creditors that we will honor our debts. . . . We cannot get all that money back.”

The controller hinted, however, that the government might use some financial sleight of hand to avoid the political humiliation of accepting less than the full $400 million, which assumed an enormous symbolic stature during the period of economic deprivation that was intensified by the U.S. sanctions.

“How could we justify to the Panamanian people that their money was going to pay some international banker?” he said.

A reconstruction plan outlined last week by Endara and his two vice presidents, Ricardo Arias Calderon and Guillermo (Billy) Ford, would reduce military spending from $115 million to $87 million. It seeks to increase revenues largely through privatization of agencies in which a tangled bureaucracy was thought to have slowed commerce, including the nation’s ports.

And, despite plans of a $200-million, two-year public works program designed to ease unemployment, government officials and their supporters have done their best to persuade Panamanians not to expect too much from their new government.

“Don’t come to the government for jobs, because there are no jobs,” Father Javier Villanueva told the congregation Sunday at a Roman Catholic Church service attended by Endara and visiting U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.)

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“Don’t come to get a piece of the pie,” he added, “because Noriega ate the whole pie.”

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