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Noriega a ‘Crooked Cop,’ Prosecutor Says as Trial Opens : Judiciary: The government begins its case against the ex-Panamanian dictator. The jury is told of his alleged ties to Colombian drug lords.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Manuel A. Noriega was “just another crooked cop--but a big one” on the payroll of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, jurors were told Monday as the prosecution opened its case against the deposed Panamanian dictator in a crowded federal courtroom.

Addressing the nine women and three men who will determine Noriega’s fate, Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael P. Sullivan outlined the government’s evidence against the former strongman, who is charged with 10 counts of conspiracy, racketeering and drug-smuggling.

“He’s small here in this cavernous courtroom, but he was a giant in Panama,” Sullivan said, gesturing toward Noriega, who was dressed in dark trousers and a khaki shirt with the four stars of a general on his shoulder boards.

The only foreign leader ever captured abroad and returned to the United States for a criminal trial, Noriega sat upright in his chair at the defense table, listening intently through earphones to a Spanish translation of the proceedings but showing no expression.

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Although he has been kept in a federal prison south of Miami since his arrest by invading U.S. forces 20 months ago, Noriega has been moved to a basement cell in the federal courthouse for the duration of his trial, expected to last three to four months.

His wife, Felicidad, and the youngest of their three daughters, Thays, sat in the front row of the courtroom.

Using charts with names and photographs showing the organization of the Colombian drug cartel, Sullivan said the drug barons had been paying off “hundreds” of law enforcement officers in Colombia and elsewhere.

Sullivan said the government will prove that Noriega was “at the top of a criminal enterprise to manufacture and import cocaine into the United States.”

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The ex-dictator was paid millions of dollars to protect the manufacture of drugs in Panama, to permit illicit shipments into the United States and to allow the narcotics traffickers to deposit their cash in “no-questions-asked banks” in Panama City, Sullivan said.

Like any “crooked cop,” Noriega had his price, the prosecutor said--$100,000 for every shipment of 100 kilograms of cocaine. A kilogram is approximately 2.2 pounds.

The payments often were delivered to Noriega at the headquarters of the Panama Defense Forces by drug pilot Floyd Carlton-Caceres, who worked for the Medellin cartel and will be a key government witness, Sullivan said.

Carlton-Caceres, who pleaded guilty to drug charges two years ago, would remind his Colombian bosses that “my man, my person in Panama has to be taken care of,” the prosecutor told jurors.

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He said Carlton-Caceres’ testimony would be corroborated by many others, including Lt. Col. Luis A. del Cid, Noriega’s former top military aide who also entered into a plea bargain last December.

Defense attorney Frank A. Rubino did not make an opening statement, choosing to defer his remarks to the jury until the conclusion of the government’s case several weeks from now.

Aside from pretrial statements attacking potential government witnesses as liars seeking to gain leniency, Rubino has said in court filings that some U.S. officials condoned Noriega’s drug-related activities so that he could furnish them intelligence on the transactions of Colombian drug lords.

After Sullivan’s statement, the government called its first two witnesses to present mainly technical background for evidence to come later.

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Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning.


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