Feb 21, 1988

Drug war losing out to national security | By Jerry Meldon | published in the Boston Globe Feb 21 1988


Noriega case shows US obsession with Nicaragua

 A forgotten invasion, a forgotten dictator | Opinions News | Al Jazeera

Antonio Noriega: illegal activities long tolerated

President Reagan's "war" on drugs - spearheaded by George Bush - is a failure, like those of his three predecessors. A major cause, in this administration more than any other in memory, is that fighting international narcotics trafficking has taken a back seat to "national security" interests.

The Reagan administration has consistently assigned top priority to its vendetta with Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. Because of this, Washington has squandered substantial leverage in drug traffic control. This is particularly true of our relations with Panama and Colombia, as recent events have made clear. On Feb. 4, federal grand juries in Tampa and Miami indicted Panama's ruling strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, on charges of narcotics and racketeering in collusion with Colombia's cocaine cartel. However, as long ago as 1972, the US Bureau of Narcotics contemplated assassinating Noriega, then in charge of intelligence. Noriega survived because he was a CIA and Pentagon asset.

In the week before Washington moved on Noriega, unidentified gunmen kidnapped the Colombian attorney general, Carlos Mauro Hoyos. near Colombia's cocaine stronghold of Medellin. Hoyos is now believed dead.

In October, gunmen assassinated the 1986 presidential nominee of Colombia's Patriotic Union party, Jaime Pardo Leal. Both assaults are believed to have been ordered by the world's most powerful drug traffickers, the Medellin cocaine cartel.

In November, Medellin drug godfather Jorge Luis Ochoa Vasquez was collared by Colombian authorities. One month later, a Judge ordered Ochoa released - despite a request from Washington that he be extradited here to face narcotics charges.

Alleged link to Sandinistas

Preoccupied for seven years with battling the Sandinistas, the Reagan administration has repeatedly blown opportunities to nail the likes of Jorge Ochoa. Instead, the White House has tried to reap political gain by linking the Sandinistas to the Colombian cocaine pushers.

National security priorities have also dictated tolerance for Noriega. As described in the final report of Congress' Iran-contra committee, Noriega offered Lt. Col. Oliver North - a strong supporter of the general - assassination teams and other services In the anti-Sandinista cause.

However, Noriega also had the audacity to block at least one shipment of sup-piles to the Nicaraguan contras, and he , promoted the Contadora peace plan vehemently opposed by the White House. And so Noriega began to outlive his usefulness.

The first sign of White House disenchantment came in December 1985, when Adm. John Poindexter, then national security adviser, flew to Panama City. The admiral was reportedly upset with Noriega's promotion of the Contadora peace plan, as well as his drug profiteering, money laundering and chumminess with Fidel Castro.

Ever since Pondwater returned from Panama, Washington has pressured Noriega to step down. Stories have been leaked of Noriega's corruption, as well as his complicity in the deaths of Panamanian ruler Gen. Omar Torrijos, who died in a 1981 plane crash, and opposition leader Hugo Spadafora. whose beheaded corpse was found In a US mailbag in Costa Rica in 1985.

Many of the same accusations were repeated last June by Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera of the Panamanian Defense Forces just after Noriega dismissed him. Diaz Herrera's charges triggered anti-Noriega demonstrations In Panama that continue sporadically to this day.

Although Noriega's accusers may not be totally reliable - some are convicted traffickers - Noriega, would be hard-pressed to explain the fortune he has accumulated on an officer's modest salary.

Colombian judges fearful

But the US charges against Noriega may come to naught. Even If there were an extradition treaty with the U.S., Noriega would be the one to decide whether to enforce it.

A coup d’état is also unlikely, since the entire PDF barely escaped the same indictments. (It was reported on Friday that the U.S. had offered to drop its charges if Noriega would step down. At this stage it is improbable that he would oblige Washington.) Nor is it likely that a Colombian judge will extradite Gustavo DeJesus Gaviria-Rivero and Pablo Escobar-Gaviria, two kingpins of the Medellin cartel, who also were named In the Florida Indictments.

Colombian judges have been living in fear at least since November 1985, when members of the leftist M-19 guerrilla movement attacked the Palace of Justice in Bogota. After the armed forces stormed the palace, 11 supreme court Justices were found dead.

Although the guerrillas and drug traffickers have cooperated with one another at times, their relations have more frequently been adversarial. The Palace of Justice massacre is not generally believed to have been ordered by the traffickers. However, most other assassinations of enforcement officials - including another attorney general and dozens of lower-level judges - have been blamed on the cocaine cartel.

Fearing for their lives, supreme court justices last summer revoked Colombia's extradition treaty with the United States.

DEA investigation thwarted

Rather than provide the Colombians with whatever is necessary to combat the drug traffickers, the Reagan administration has been stingy with aid and put the Colombian caldron to its own political use. In one sorry incident in 1984, the Medellin drug kingpins were indirectly tipped off by the White House about an active Drug Enforcement Administration investigation.

In June 1984, DEA informant Barry Seal is reported to have met in Colombia with Jorge Ochoa, who five weeks ago walked away from a Bogota prison. Seal later told the DEA that he and Ochoa had made plans to ship cocaine to the United States via Nicaragua. To prove it, Seal produced a blurry black and white photo. He claimed it showed cartel boss Pablo Escobar (Noriega's co-indictee) loading cocaine onto a plane, together with an aide to the Sandinista minister of the interior.

President Reagan, in a nationally televised speech In March 1986, pointed to the same photo and said: "I know that every American parent concerned about the drug problem will be outraged to learn that top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking." (In fact, the DEA has consistently maintained it has no proof that Nicaraguan officials have engaged in drug trafficking.) In July 1984, however, the White House leaked its Information on the Sandinista drug connection to the Washington Times. The leak blew the DEA investigation.

Seal was murdered by the cartel In February 1986. And a DEA agent, cited In the Nation magazine last September, said: ". . .whoever ended up with the photo felt that what they were doing with the contras was more Important than our work."

As Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has said:

"If we had a real 'war on drugs,' [the Colombians] would by now - after all these years of talk - have more of an infrastructure, more of a police force, more military cooperative programs ... so that the government would not be as paralyzed by fear as it is."

Indeed, the murder of dozens of Colombian Judges makes it easy to understand why other judges drag their feet on ordering extraditions. It is easy to understand those who say that the only solution is to decriminalize the sale of cocaine - and that Washington's litmus test for generalissimos should weed out those who profit from the white powder.

Jerry Meldon Is a frequent contributor to Focus.

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