Manuel Noriega

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Noriega: Lived by Bribe; Burned by Bribe


UPDATED: December 11, 2011 @ 8:44 p.m.

Former Panama dictator Manuel Noriega is home tonight after nearly 22 years in U.S. and French custody. But his view hasn’t changed much. Immediately upon landing in Panama City he was whisked off to another cell — this one at El Renacer prison — to start serving a term of up to 60 years for corruption and murder conspiracy convictions. The 77-year-old Noriega had petitioned French authorities to extradite him, saying he wanted to go home “to prove my innocence.”

If Noriega is allowed to reopen his case, one prominent Panamanian defense attorney he is unlikely to hire is Tulane-trained former ambassador Ricardo Bilonick. In many ways, Bilonick might seem a perfect choice. The two men were once friends and business associates. They both profited from drug trafficking. Bilonick did his own brief stint in a U.S. federal prison during the 1990s on trafficking charges. And today, back practicing law in Panama, Bilonick has represented other accused trafficking clients.

But what no doubt has soured their relationship was Bilonick’s 1992 testimony against Noriega in a Miami federal court — testimony that may have saved the U.S. Justice Department’s faltering drug case against the dictator. As highlighted in our August 12 post, that was testimony bought and paid for by the godfathers of Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel.

Previously unpublished details of the long-secret transaction are described in the book: At the Devil’s Table — the Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.

Excerpts from August 12 post with highlights from the book:

Remember, this was a criminal case that followed the U.S. military invasion of Panama in 1989. Noriega was seized and charged with drug violations — but the prosecution was no slam-dunk. New details from a cartel insider confirm that Colombian drug lords secretly helped unwitting Justice Department officials bolster their case.

Months before the politically sensitive trial opened in Miami, cartel bosses in Cali arranged for (Bilonick) to surrender and cooperate with the Americans, a stunning break at the time for the government case. But what U.S. officials didn’t know until years later was that their star witness only came forward after the drug cartel promised him $1.25 million.

It all started as an act of brotherly concern. Jose “Chepe†Santacruz Londono, one of the four Cali cartel godfathers, was desperate to help his recently imprisoned brother Lucho Santacruz Echeverri. Lucho faced a 23-year prison term after a trafficking conviction in Florida, and brother Chepe wanted to find a way to reduce that sentence.

Bilonick’s business interests took a hit when Noriega fell. He was broke and on the run. His defunct air cargo company had moved tons of Colombian cocaine through Panama and paid millions of dollars in protection money to the dictator. It was  obvious that U.S. authorities wanted Noriega more than they wanted Bilonick. But if the Panamanian attorney/businessman was going to testify against Noriega, he could help Chepe and his brother even as Bilonick helped himself.

A Cali cartel emissary advised Bilonick to surrender through a lawyer for the Colombian. That emissary, a cartel chief of security named Jorge Salcedo, said the gentlemen of Cali would be very grateful. Bilonick asked for $2 million. They eventually settled on $1.25 million, delivered in installments.

Salcedo first delivered a black leather briefcase stuffed with U.S. currency totaling $250,000. It was the cartel’s down payment. But the key to the deal was a $1 million in certificates of deposit that would not mature for several months. In the meantime, they were placed in a safe deposit box at the Banco Vizcaya where access required two keys – one held by Bilonick’s wife, the other by the cartel’s Salcedo. The certificates would remain locked in the vault unless or until the Cali bosses were satisfied with Bilonick’s performance on the witness stand.

Months later, Noriega was convicted. Lucho’s prison sentence was trimmed by nine years. Bilonick received a reduced sentence for cooperating. And Salcedo returned to Panama with his key. The now-matured million-dollar certificates of deposit were handed over to Bilonick’s wife.

Salcedo later turned against the Cali cartel and entered the U.S. witness protection program. Disclosure of his role in the Noriega case prompted a motion to reverse Noriega’s conviction. It was rejected. At the time, Bilonick called bribe allegations “idiotic.†He declined to be interviewed about Salcedo’s account. Bilonick has resumed a legal career in Panama. According to numerous published reports, his clients include an accused drug lord from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.