U.S. forces in Panama have found personal records of deposed strongman Manuel A. Noriega that could help investigators find millions of dollars in illicit drug profits he has stashed around the world, including possible investments in U.S. real estate, Departmnt of Justice officials said Friday.
The Department of the Treasury has joined the effort by appealing to foreign governments under terms of U.S. treaty agreements to freeze any identifiable assets of Noriega, the officials said. Such cooperation is required, even in nations with bank secrecy laws, if there is evidence that hidden funds resulted from criminal activities.David Runkel, a special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, said that U.S. military authorities "have seized a sizable amount of records" belonging to Noriega in connection with their assault on the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces, which he commanded.
Although the headquarters building was leveled in the initial nighttime attack by U.S. forces early Wednesday, the records were seized from an office used by Noriega within the PDF compound that apparently was still intact, Runkel said.
Noriega is under indictment in the United States on charges that he accepted millions of dollars in bribes to help members of Colombia's Medellin cartel launder drug profits in his nation and ship cocaine to Florida.
Runkel said that documents obtained from Noriega's office also "might suggest that he looted from the public treasury."
The seized records, if they prove to be relevant, would be made available to federal prosecutors if Noriega is captured and brought to face drug-smuggling charges on which he and others were indicted in February 1988, authorities said.
A government attorney with experience in drug matters said that he doubted whether Noriega would prevail in a U.S. court by arguing that the evidence against him was illegally seized in a military attack on his country.
"Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure stop at the water's edge," the attorney said. "They generally do not apply outside the United States, especially when the defendant - like Noriega - is a foreign citizen."