The commander of Panama's army is involved in money-laundering, gun-running and the marketing of intelligence information to Cuba, according to a report in The New York Times today.
Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega runs most of the significant money laundering in Panama, White House officials said. Other U.S. officials said the general invests in certain companies that are involved in drug shipments and that in the early 1980s Noriega invested in an opium-processing plant along the Panamanian-Colombian border.
White House officials also alleged that Noriega has supplied guns to the Cuban-supported M-19 rebels in Colombia. The shipments, which slowed because of pressure from the Reagan administration, have picked up again, according to the Times report by Seymour M. Hersh.
Noriega is alleged to have garnered great wealth through gun-running. He makes $1,200 a month as army commander. He reportedly owns two homes in Panama and one in southern France.
Noriega has provided U.S. intelligence agencies with information on Cuba and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua since the 1970s. But he also has been supplying Cuba with intelligence on U.S. activities in Panama, according to intelligence officials.
Noriega is alleged to have recruited a U.S. Army sergeant during the Carter administration and to have paid him for highly sensitive technical materials, including information on National Security Agency systems, officials said.
Army Capt. Eduardo E. Lim Yueng of the Panamanian Defense Force said Noriega denies the charges. "These are political attacks," he said. "This campaign is trying to damage our institution."
Noriega has been the subject of several press reports and inquiries since 1978, when he began emerging as the strongman of Panama. In September 1985, he was linked by U.S. officials to the slaying of Hugo Spadafora, a leading critic of the Panamanian army. Spadafora was also known as a critic of the alleged drug-trafficking connections of Noriega. Spadafora was found beheaded shortly after witnesses said he was detained at a Panamanian National Guard border checkpoint.
In past years, concern about security for the Panama Canal, which reverts to Panamanian control in 14 years, and U.S. military bases there have played a role in U.S. policy debates on the region. The bases provide a home for the U.S. Southern Command, reconnaissance planes over Central America and military advisers rotating in and out of El Salvador and Honduras.
According to The Times, U.S. officials said Noriega's willingness to allow U.S. military and intelligence units freedom of operation in Panama caused them to disregard the general's suspect activities.
The current Panamanian civilian leader, Eric Arturo Delvalle, became president last year after Noriega forced the resignation of Nicolas Ardito Barletta, an economist who 11 months earlier had become Panama's first elected president in 16 years.
The Reagan administration has withheld about $40 billion in badly needed U.S. balance-of-payments aid to demonstrate displeasure with Ardito Barletta's dismissal and the military's renewed visibility in the civilian government.