clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Manuel Noriega approved a scheme to sell visas to Cuban refugees in the early 1980s, a witness testified Friday in the drug trial of the deposed Panamanian leader's co-defendants.

Noriega also issued a weapons sales permit to the witness' well-connected family, which in turn sold rifles to Colombian guerrillas, the man testified.Orlando Villarreal Jr. took the stand to testify against Brian Davidow, who is on trial with William Saldarriaga for a March 1986 guns-for-drugs shipment aboard the yacht Krill. Noriega's trial on that and other charges is scheduled for June.

Villarreal said Noriega and his father were drinking buddies and that he took advantage of that relationship when an acquaintance approached him with a scheme to sell visas to Cubans seeking to leave their country. Villarreal went to Noriega, who was then a colonel and head of Panama's intelligence department, known as G-2.

"He told me that it was a tight situation but he would try to help me," said the witness.

Villarreal began by selling visas for $800 each. But when Noriega saw how profitable the business was, the price rose sharply, he said, because he had to share the money with others in G-2. He did not say what the new price was.

Noriega also allowed Villarreal and his father to open the only significant weapons store in Panama, giving them a vital import permit. The guns stayed in G-2's warehouse until final sale.

"The guns were under his control," Villarreal said. The store sold some weapons to Colombians he assumes were M-19 guerrillas, he said.

Much of Villarreal's testimony was to trace a series of drug deals involving Davidow. He said he and Davidow discussed cocaine deals in the defendant's real estate office in a Miami suburb, and later tried to sell 10 kilograms, roughly 22 pounds, of the drug together.

That deal fell through after the yacht Krill was intercepted in Colombia with 322 kilograms, or roughly 700 pounds, of cocaine aboard.

Davidow's attorney, Richard Sharpstein, emphasized in cross-examination that Villarreal never told the grand jury about meetings he now says he had with the defendant. Villarreal told the grand jury he heard about Davidow through members of another family.

Davidow, 29, and Saldarriaga, 44, face up to 40 years each if convicted of two drug conspiracy counts in connection with the Krill seizure.