PANAMA CITY, JAN. 22 -- The U.S. military today retracted its account of troops having found 50 kilograms of cocaine last month in a house used for voodoo-like rituals by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
U.S. military and civilian officials said that although 450 kilos of cocaine and assorted other drugs have been recovered in Panama since American troops invaded Dec. 20, none could be linked directly to the former strongman or used in a drug-trafficking trial against him.
"It was just a mistake in the confusion of the moment," a U.S. officer said of the erroneous report that cocaine apparently belonging to Noriega had been found.
Noriega, who was deposed last month and surrendered to U.S. forces Jan. 3, is jailed in Miami awaiting trial on federal drug-trafficking and racketeering charges. The charges largely cover alleged actions by Noriega and other defendants in 1983 and 1984.
On Dec. 22, Col. Mike Snell, the commander of a U.S. infantry task force, told reporters that his troops had found 50 pounds of cocaine in a house frequented by Noriega at Fort Amador, a military base used jointly by U.S. and Panamanian forces. The two-story building, which also contained a variety of materials used in black-magic rituals, was inhabited by Noriega's Brazilian sorceress and became known as the "witch house."
Snell said some of the cocaine was found wrapped in banana leaves inside a freezer. "We're sure its cocaine," he was quoted as saying.
Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the commander of the U.S. military's Panama-based Southern Command, later repeated the allegation, saying that 50 kilos -- not pounds -- of cocaine belonging to Noriega had been found. A kilo equals 2.2 pounds. The alleged discovery was trumpeted as proof that Noriega was heavily involved in illegal drugs.
However, according to officials in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, the contents of the banana leaves were actually tamales used in Noriega's magic "binding rituals" against opponents or persons he wanted to control.
According to a list of sites were drugs were found, the largest single seizure came from an evidence room at the headquarters of the National Department of Investigations.