The Drug Enforcement Administration says 52 pounds of cocaine taken by police working for Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega was destroyed, using proper police procedures.
David Westrate, assistant administrator for operations at the DEA, defended the arrangement under which the special Panamanian police narcotics force took part of 752 pounds of cocaine flown from Bolivia to the United States by way of Panama as part of an undercover investigation.
The relationship of DEA agents and Panamanian authorities is being criticized in Congress after Noriega's indictment by grand juries in Florida on charges of drug trafficking and racketeering.
"It's our understanding and belief that the cocaine left with the Panamanians was appropriately disposed of," Westrate said Wednesday in an interview. "My understanding is that it subsequently was destroyed in a regular destruction exercise they had there."
After the Panamanians received the 52 pounds in April 1986, the remainder was reloaded onto a DEA plane and flown to the United States. It was used as evidence in a federal trial that year in Roanoke, where 10 persons, including reputed Bolivian cocaine dealer Gerardo Caballero, were convicted.
Caballero has since said Noriega set him up as a favor to Colombian cocaine lords who wanted him out of their way.
The cocaine left in Panama was to have been used in a potential prosecution in that country that did not materialize, Westrate said.
"We do utilize a reverse undercover technique where agents are sellers rather than purchasers," he said. The 52 pounds of cocaine "was retained in Panama for that purpose."
Under such operations, drug enforcement agents offer drugs to suspected dealers, then confiscate the dealers' cash after making arrests.
Westrate said "it's not unusual" for countries involved as transit points in the "controlled movement" of narcotics to retain portions of the narcotics for use in investigations.
During the trial in Roanoke, DEA agent Thomas Telles testified under defense questioning that the agency arranged for the cocaine to be flown from Bolivia to Panama.
Telles disputed the notion that the cocaine was a payment for Panamanian assistance in rounding up Caballero and Luis Tang-Fortaleche, another man convicted in the Roanoke case.