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Former Ambassador to Tell of Noriega Drug Payoffs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A onetime Panamanian ambassador to Washington confirmed Wednesday that he is prepared to testify that Gen. Manuel A. Noriega took $10 million in payoffs from the Medellin drug cartel to protect at least 15 tons of cocaine bound for the United States.

Ricardo Bilonick, 44, appeared in U.S. District Court here to enter a guilty plea to one charge of racketeering conspiracy. Two other drug trafficking charges were dropped, and federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 10 years.

Bilonick could have faced up to 50 years. Instead, Bilonick, ambassador at large to the United States under former Panamanian president Omar Torrijos, will become what Assistant U.S. Atty. Myles Malman called “a significant witness” against Noriega.

Noriega, the former Panamanian military leader, is scheduled to stand trial Sept. 4 on several drug smuggling charges.

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The $10 million that Bilonick says Noriega received from Colombian drug bosses is more than double the amount Noriega is charged with being paid in the 1988 indictment.

Bilonick’s Miami attorney, Daniel H. Forman, said his client has “substantial incriminating evidence against Noriega. He’s absolutely key.”

Forman said Bilonick would testify to personal knowledge of several payoffs to Noriega and on at least one occasion personally carrying drug money from the Medellin cartel and handing it directly to Noriega.

“Up until now, the witnesses (against Noriega) were bit players,” said Forman. "(Bilonick) makes this case as what it was advertised. . . . He can weave it together.”

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Noriega was seized during the U.S. invasion of that country in 1989 and brought to Miami to face charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for permitting drug flights. He is being held in a federal prison here.

Bilonick, described in the indictment as having “a close personal relationship with Noriega,” owned a Panamanian airline called Inair, which prosecutors say carried tons of cargo and cocaine between Colombia and Panama from 1982 to 1984. The flights ended in June, 1984, when one of Inair’s planes was seized in Miami with a ton of cocaine on board.

Prosecutors say Bilonick’s airline also carried proceeds from U.S. drug sales back to cartel chief Pablo Escobar in Medellin.

Bilonick is the fifth of Noriega’s 15 co-defendants to enter guilty pleas and agree to testify for the prosecution. He surrendered to agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Panama Aug. 16 and spent the last week negotiating his plea-bargain deal. He did not ask for bond, his attorney said, preferring to remain in jail to gain credit for time served.

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Noriega’s defense lawyers Frank A. Rubino and Jon A. May have dismissed Bilonick’s proffered testimony as inconsequential.


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