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U.S. FINDS LITTLE TO LINK NORIEGA TO DRUG RUNNING

Despite an unceasing search to find physical evidence of drug dealing by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, disappointed U.S. officials say they have found almost no documents that conclusively prove he trafficked in drugs.

U.S. officials say they had expected to find a damning paper trail of incriminating documents among Noriega's private and official papers, most of which are thought to have been seized by U.S. troops who invaded Panama last December.The Reagan and Bush administrations long depicted Noriega, who faces two separate indictments accusing him of drug dealing and money laundering, as a drug trafficker. Noriega has pleaded not guilty and is not expected to come to trial until next year.

So far, the most damaging physical evidence against Noriega appears to be a letter discovered last month by Panamanian investigators, rather than by U.S. soldiers.

Rogelio Cruz, the attorney general of Panama, said it was found in a bank safe-deposit box belonging to Noriega's wife.

U.S. and Panamanian officials say the letter was written to Noriega by a convicted American drug dealer, Steven Kalish.

The 16-page letter is written in English and begins, "Dear Tony."

It purports to discuss how to deal with Colombian cocaine traffickers.

The letter is signed "Brown" and includes the admonition, "Please keep this letter in strictest confidence because I never want to see it in the United States."

The officials say Kalish used the code name "Brown" while he dealt drugs and laundered profits with Noriega.

They say Noriega provided Kalish with a Panamanian diplomatic passport under the name Frank Brown that he used to travel in and out of the United States while transporting millions of dollars in drug profits to launder through Panamanian banks.

Prosecutors say they expect Kalish to testify against Noriega.

The government also has apparently secured the testimony of Enrique A. (Kiki) Pretelt, a 47-year-old Panamanian jeweler who said in a plea agreement accepted Friday in Tampa, Fla., that he had helped launder drug proceeds with two convicted Tampa drug smugglers.

"A fourth silent partner in their business was General Manuel Noriega," the agreement said.

But other than the letter signed "Brown," a six-month review of tens of thousands of documents has turned up no evidence of drug dealing by Noriega, according to three U.S. officials closely informed of the painstaking review of documents by several U.S. agencies.

"We've found no smoking gun in the documents," said one senior U.S. official in Panama. "Noriega was smart enough not to put anything on paper."

With few if any incriminating documents in hand to add credence to the testimony of unsavory witnesses, Justice Department officials say they are turning their attention to a review of deposits and withdrawals for bank accounts controlled by Noriega and his associates.

The officials say they are trying to correlate dates and amounts of the movement of monies through the accounts with the testimony of witnesses who claim to have deposited drug profits in those accounts for Noriega.