CIA chief says:
Dwayne Dewey Clarridge, the retired CIA chief for Latin America, shed light on several points.
He said that there was never any evidence linking Noriega to the Spadafora death. “It’s ridiculous, I would have known about it, but I didn’t because there was no evidence and no intercept.”
The entire Spadafora affair, he said, including the drug charges against Noriega, were “a travesty.”
Executive Intelligence Review reports:
First of all, Spadafora was killed in Costa Rica, not Panama. Most probably, he was killed by Nicaraguan Contras.
Spadafora, formerly involved in the Sandinista forces, had ostensibly joined the Contra. His loyalty came under suspicion, as a series of operations in which he was involved were each exposed to the Sandinistas.
Naturally, in the case of such a habitual double-crosser as Spadafora, the list of suspected authors of his demise is a long one. However, at the time of his death in Costa Rica, not Panama,- he was the Contras’ problem, and operating in their territory .
U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’s staff is fully aware of these facts.
That makes Senator Helms’s tearful embrace of Spadafora’s brother a pretty smelly business.
The brother and sister of Panamanian terrorist Hugo Spadafora handcuffed themselves to a pole in Panama City in October 1985 in a protest against the government.
Hugo Spadafora spent his life as a gun-running mercenary for any “liberation army” Qaddafi could find. Born of Italian-Panamanian family, Hugo joined the Italian Socialist Party while studying medicine at the University of Bologna in the early 1960s.
Spadafora’s connections to “brigades” to funnel arms and money from Libya to all Middle Eastern terrorism followed quickly, when he accepted a scholarship to Cairo University in 1965. Once in Cairo, “the first thing I did was to go to the Cuban Embassy and tell them I was ready to go,” Spadafora bragged to the New York Times in December 1980.
The Cubans rejected him, he claimed. So, he joined Amil Cabral’s “liberation” war in Guinea-Bissau in 1966, “guerrilla” operations in Panama to receive “a political education.”
Spadafora returned to Panama in 1967, to join “guerrilla” organizing of the Paris cafe set at the University of Panama.
Jailed in June 1969 for opposing the Torrijos government, Spadafora soon cut a deal with the government, and secured his release.
In 1978, Spadafora formed a “Bolivarian” brigade, to fight with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The 80-man brigade joined “Commander Zero,” Eden Pastora in the Southern Front, the wing of the rebels financed by gangster Robert Vesco and his Costa Rican protector, Don “Pepe” Figueres. The Bolivarian Brigade was a precedent for today’s gnostic narco-terrorist armies, exemplified by the “Americas Battalion” now fighting in Colombia.
Explained Spadafora in 1980, “The time has come for the creation of a Bolivarian force independent of superpowers and governments and capable of combatting militarily anywhere in the continent where the armed struggle is the only avenue left for peoples seeking their liberation.There are tens of thousands of Latin Americans willing to fight for the liberation of the continent, but for this wemust achieve the authentic unity of all revolutionaries, of Marxists, of Catholics, of Social Democrats, of progressive Christian Democrats.”
He traveled back and forth between Libya, Europe, Mexico, and Central America. With a reputation as a coward who never fought, Spadafora used the cover of his “brigades” to funnel arms and money from Libya to all sides of Central America’s civil wars. In 1982, Spadafora began running weapons to the Nicaraguan “counter-revolution,” which his friend Eden Pastora had now joined.
By a year later, he claimed to have split with Pastora, to begin supplying the Misurata Indian resistance.
When assassinated, rumors had it that Spadafora was setting up “guerrilla” operations in Panama.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Spadafora was found, decapitated, in a river bordering Costa Rica and Panama. The opposition immediately charged that General Noriega had ordered him killed. International media took up the charge, burying any clues which lead to another doorstep.
Not reported were the charges by Eden Pastora, broadcast on Miami radio, that Spadafora had betrayed the Contras, selling their arms shipments to the Sandinistas.
Nor was it reported that the Costa Rican Judicial Investigations Organization found, in November, that Spadafora had been killed, not in Panama, but in the Punta Burica area of Costa Rica. One newspaper, La Nacion, reported that the area where Pastora’s body was found is a center of the drug-trade, with “extensive marijuana plantations and cocaine-processing laboratories”.
The Contras in the Spadafora case
Samos testified also that the third courier of the syndicate’s dope money, along with himself and Ivan Robles, was Panamanian lawyer Alvin Weeden Gamboa. Weeden had been a political associate of Roberto Eisenmann and Winston Robles for over 10 years, going back to the mid-’70s, when the three founded a “social democratic” opposition group, the Popular Action Party (PAPO).
Most recently, PAPO made the headlines in Panama as one of three parties opposing joint U.S.-Panamanian military exercises. EIR’ s White Paper details the Weeden family’s drug-money laundering operations in Costa Rica, centered around Banco Weeden International.
Weeden, in tum, brings the story back to where we started: the tie between the Contras and the Panama campaign. Weeden was a close associate of Hugo Spadafora, the Panamanian terrorist/gun- and drug-runner turned Contra, who has become the cause celebre of the witchhunt against the Panamanian military led by La Prensa, Abrams, Helms, et al. In January, Readers Digest went so far as to call Spadafora “a fiery idealist!”
Spadafora was no one’s hero, until he was found beheaded in Costa Rica in September 1985. He spent his life as a professional guerrilla, moving into any ideological camp without discrimination. During the Sandinista insurgency, he fought with Eden Pastora in the Southern Front, funded by the Costa Rican business partner of Robert Vesco, former President “Pepe” Figueres. That over, he contacted Qaddafi, promising to supply insurgents in El Salvador and Guatemala. Then he became a Contra, offering his services as a weapons procurer, first to Eden Pastora in ARDE, then to Brooklyn Rivera’s Misurata, and was negotiating work with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN-one of the Contra groups) at the time of his death. When he died, he was also working with Colombian and Bolivian dope kings, including Alberto Audemar, an arms salesman for the Colombian guerrillas and mafia.
It was Weeden, the Fernandez syndicate’s courier, and Spadafora, a mafia weapons dealer, who charged that Panama’s General Noriega ran drugs.
General Noriega speaks in U.S. court:
Your Honor, the defense was not allowed to present among its evidence here, documents that exist in classified U.S.archives, such as:
Weapons from Costa Rica, first for the Sandinistas, then for the Contras. And with the Contras, those pilots were allowed to bring drugs from Costa Rica to the United States. In Costa Rica, their base of operation was run by John Hull, Joseph Fernandez and others.
The death of Panamanian Contra Dr. Hugo Spadafora, after visiting the CIA in Washington and meeting with John Hull in his farm in Costa Rica.
General Noriega speaks to Executive Intelligence Review :
I requested that the current Panamanian government allow me to testify in person in the Spadafora case, in a trial where I was under indictment, but I was told no.
They don’t want me there, because they are afraid of me. As a Panamanian told me the other day, “It looks like they killed the tiger but are afraid of its hide.” They are afraid of me.That is why they don’t dare seek my extradition.
It is a total contradiction: They want to carry out a high profile political trial, because they hope to win the elections with this trial. The lawyers they have real candidates, and they are afraid of the words and of the truth of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who is alive and who has a very good memory.
Among their contradictions is the fact that I am not implicated in the deed. There are about a dozen people under indictment.
They dragged me into it, because they wanted to raise the trial to a level of importance were it not for me, it would just be another trial: Someone; is dead, and someone committed the crime.
Why, then? I have nothing to do with the judicial or legal aspect, because I wasn’t there. Because I was not the chief of the unit at the time, I was not responsible for what was done or not done. I was in Europe at the time. It was not hidden, but on an official mission planned seven or nine months earlier.
Second, the specific case of Mr. Hugo Spadafora, as is well known, stems from his psychological profile.The man had belonged to mercenary guerrilla; he started in Guinea Bissau, went on against Somoza on the side of the Sandinistas. He broke with the Sandinistas after they came to power, and allied with Commander Zero Eden Pastora. Later, he breaks with Zero and ends up fighting against everybody.
So we can see how the number of international enemies he accrued was growing.
He then seeks help from countries in Africa, such as from the Palestinian liberation groups; he takes money from them, and seeks to launch a guerrilla war in Guatemala. But he doesn’t keep his promises to the Palestinians.
Thus, a whole train of people begins to trail him, seeking either their money or the fulfillment of a mission, or the weapons he sold them. Later he gets involved with the Contras and makes an alliance with the U.S. intelligence agencies and gets involved with the arms-for-drugs trade.
From such an environment of conflict, what could be expected? It could be expected that the many enemies he was creating in his wake would not allow him to die of a common cold. What I want to explain is that he had created so many and such powerful international enemies, that his only refuge was Panama; because he went to Panama and was in Panama, and nothing happened to him there. Nothing ever happened to him inside Panama.
The circumstances of the case are very problematic to explain now, because, at that time, the family, and especially his brother Winston Spadafora, didn’t want the Defense Forces to carry out the investigation which it was their duty to do. He preferred to be subordinate to U.S. dictates, and he turned the death of his brother into a personal business, where he gained economic backing, political prominence, etc., through contact with the Americans. But he never loved his brother. He didn’t love him while he was alive, and he only used him dead, as he is using him now, as a political cause.
Winston was only Hugo’s half-brother, since their father had three wives.
This is the situation. There are more details which I can’t discuss here, but I have more details which I want them to hear there, but they are afraid of my words.
The family of Winston Spadafora is the only one responsible for the truth not coming out as to how and why his brother died, and who ordered his death.
General Noriega to Peter Eisner, in memoirs:
I am convinced that history would have been altered and the December 20, 1989, invasion of Panama never would have taken place if CIA Director William Casey had lived. Casey had the power and the inclination to defend me against the conspiracy that was developing against me, spurred on by Panamanian opponents and their friends in Washington.
Casey knew what was going on in Panama. The drug trial would not have worked if he were alive, because I would have had him as a living testament and defender; he knew the truth about all the charges against me. He knew the truth about the Hugo Spadafora killing and the drug pilots flying for Bush’s contras.
The closing of the School of the Americas was the first no. I’ve already described the second no: it was my absolute refusal to help the Americans in Central America, capped off by my rejection of Oliver North’s plans for us in Nicaragua. But there was one more incident — the murder of Hugo Spadafora and a military plot against me within my inner circle, both of which led to the dismissal of Nicolas Ardito Barletta as president of Panama.
The United States agreed in 1984 to support Barletta as president. Barletta had been living for a long time outside of Panama, working for the World Bank. He was a student of Secretary of State George Shultz, one of a number of U.S.-educated Latin American technocrats, like Carlos Salinas in Mexico, somebody operating in the field of international economics, studying the foreign debt, things that mattered to the United States. For that reason, and with the patronage of Shultz, there was a campaign in favor of Barletta’s sudden candidacy. Barletta had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, and Shultz was one of his professors.
This didn’t bother me at all. In military command meetings, we had decided that it was a good idea for the civilians to take a stronger hand, especially in economic policy. We opposed Arnulfo Arias’s candidacy from the Panamenista Party and so did the Americans. The old caudillo invited me to his beach house just before the election campaign and told me outright that one of his campaign promises would be to dismantle the military — the same thing he tried to do in 1968.
With the support of the PDF and the PRD — Democratic Revolutionary Party — Barletta was elected by a narrow margin in 1984. That was what the Americans wanted. Arias complained that the election had been stolen from him, but his complaints were disregarded. TheUnited States sent an official delegation to the inauguration; among those attending was former President Jimmy Carter.
With Barletta’s presidency, I agreed that the military should take a less active role in economic and political affairs. Upon his inauguration, I told Barletta that we wanted to return to the barracks. “With your election,” I said, the country “will dine on democracy for break-fast, lunch and dinner.”
This was not to be. Barletta began to face criticism. There were general complaints that he was a terrible manager and a weak leader; he knew nothing about building consensus, neither in the legislative assembly nor among the people.
Barletta started mouthing U.S. economic analysis, which said that countries like Panama needed to impose severe cost-cutting controls to curb the government debt. The International Monetary Fund, in con-cert with Reagan administration policy, was pushing deficit-cutting measures throughout the hemisphere. The result was certain to be the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of civil service jobs. Instead of creating political alliances, negotiating and selling this to the legislature and the country, Barletta simply announced his support for the measures and remained aloof He was highly criticized; labor unions, especially those representing public employees, became restive, charging that he was surrendering Panamanian sovereignty to U.S. economic theory. His reaction was to run for cover behind the support and prestige the military could offer him.
But this was not the only problem; the political temperature was rising all around us. Barletta and I were both targets of someone who was plot-ting to undermine my leadership of the Panamanian Defense Forces.
As reported in the book Our Man in Panama, with both the president and Noriega out of the country, Diaz Herrera decided to make the move he had been secretly contemplating since Noriega took over as comandante. He took the first steps
toward overthrowing Noriega. “I saw a great crisis coming. … I thought the opposition was going to take great advantage of that death. So, with Noriega away, I tried to see if I could orchestrate something against Noriega himself, something inside the barracks and with the politicians at my side. I went out on a limb, with thePRD and the armed forces, to see if I could pull off a putsch against Noriega,” Diaz Herrera recounted.
Wn the morning of September 16, 1985, the news from home was a shock: Hugo Spadafora had been found murdered over the weekend in Chiriqui. I was out of the country in Europe for several weeks, attending a military-naval-affairs conference, and traveling between England, Paris and Switzerland.
I immediately contacted Barletta at the presidential palace. He told me a bout his working plan to investigate the crime. I also spoke with a member of the Legislative Assembly, Alfredo Orange, who was a close friend of the Spadafora family. I assured him that the investigation would be carried out and that I would give it special attention on my return.
Spadafora was a homegrown Panamanian who had studied medicine in Italy, then ran off to Africa as a militant in the Angolan war of liberation prior to Angola’s independence from Portugal, in 1975. When he came home to Panama, he joined a local leftist student movement; he took the code name Dr. Zhivago.
Spadafora became an informant for the National Guard; investigators from the National Department of Investigation were able to identify and disband the leftist organization he belonged to, based on the information he provided. It was during his informant phase that I had my first contact with Spadafora. I was serving at the time as captain in charge of an elite infantry brigade called the Pumas de Tocumen.
Over the years, I got to know him well and helped advance his career when I could. I saw him rise from youthful informant to vice minister of health to the head of a Panamanian brigade that volunteered to help the Sandinistas overthrow Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. As theSandinista march to victory gathered strength, Spadafora and the Victoriano Lorenzo brigade were there. History found Spadafora march-ing toward Managua and the eventual victory of the Sandinistas along-side Commander Zero from the south. But Daniel Ortega and TomasBorge and the main column of the Sandinistas were advancing from the other direction, and they beat Zero to Managua. That broadened the animosity between Eden Pastora and the rest of the Sandinista leadership. Spadafora was left on the short end. As the Americans began organizing the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, Spadafora was there too.
Spadafora worked with the Contras. As he also established arms-dealing contacts in Central America, inevitably he brushed shoulders with both the American establishment on one side and drug dealers on the other, both trading arms for drugs.
At this point, Spadafora’s intrigues already were a mixture of ideology and criminality, dependent only on the singular goal of making money. Having set up base in San Jose, Costa Rica, he made a slow transition from rebel fighter to businessman and wheeler-dealer.
We maintained an active intelligence-gathering operation in Costa Rica, both because it was a border country and because it had become spy central for various spy agencies. Spadafora was one of a number of Panamanians operating in Costa Rica about whom we received regular reports. He was not singled out for special observation, nor did we consider him a threat or a major player in the intrigues of Central America. The CIA also was hard at work gathering intelligence in San Jose.
Our information indicated that the CIA did not take Spadafora as an important player either, but they did know what he was up to.
Over time, Spadafora fashioned himself as my enemy and as a critic of the Panamanian Defense Forces. It was apparently because of a decision by the Panamanian controller general to cut off Spadafora’s longtime monthly cost-of-living stipend, which had begun during his days running the Panamanian brigade for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
That stipend amounted to roughly two thousand dollars a month, about what he earned in the mid-1970s after he got the job as vice minister of health. Eventually, however, the controller general’s office objected, refusing to sign vouchers to pay rent for a new apartment Spadafora had set up in Panama City.
Spadafora deeply resented this, considering it a personal affront, and started denouncing us. This was no ideological conversion or political decision: he was insulted and decided to seek revenge.
Nevertheless, Spadafora came and went from Panama City to San Jose freely and frequently, without fear of harassment. His final, fateful trip, however, came under circumstances still not understood.
The 1993 murder trial in Panama on the Spadafora case showed the extreme doubts surrounding the case. I was named originally as a co-defendant, along with nine other men; no evidence was presented against me at the trial, which took place in Chiriqui during the government of Guillermo Endara, the opposition leader made president by the Americans. The jury, despite political pressure, responded to the lack of evidence and acquitted seven officers, including Major Luis Cordoba, with whom supposedly I was in touch during the murders. Two military policemen from Chiriqui, Francisco Eliezer Gonzalez and Julio Cesar Miranda, were convicted and did confess to the crime. I was convicted in absentia, even though all of the officers who would have had to serve as my liaison if I were involved got off scot-free. Convicting me was obviously the result of political pressure, part of the syndrome of blaming me for anything that happened in Panama.
In early September 1985, according to testimony at the trial, Spadafora suddenly decided to return to Panama. For unknown reasons, he went the long way, the difficult land route, instead of doing it the easy way, via scheduled airlines that fly from the mountain-ringed Costa Rican capital to the lush banks of the canal along the Pacific coast in less than forty-five minutes.
Spadafora’s widow said her husband had received a phone call from Panama City, summoning him. “Get back here” was the message.“Very big and important things are about to happen.”
It later became clear that a coup was being planned against me, and the plotters wanted Spadafora’s help. U.S. journalist Martha Honey reported on the BBC that she had tea withSpadafora in Costa Rica two days before he was killed. She said that he was collect-ing funds and men for the Nicaraguan contras and that he was connected to suspicious people who could have been involved in an internal drug trafficking dispute among several factions. Another journalist, Leslie Cockburn, said that her sources indicated that Spadafora could have been killed because of a dispute among various drug trafficking groups.
I could not have suspected that the death of Spadafora coincided with what was later revealed to be a half-baked plan by Diaz Herrera to raise a rebellion against me.
The investigation into the death of Spadafora indicated that he traveled from the border by bus with Gonzalez. Witnesses said they saw the men travel together and share lunch in the town of Concepcion. Gonzalez, whom everyone called Bruce Lee, was an Indian, Asian in appearance, skilled in martial arts like his movie star namesake. He was one of a number of Indians from the local Guayme tribe who were on the local constabulary, an auxiliary branch of the defense forces.
Spadafora’s widow, Arihanne Bejarano Acuna, testified before a Panamanian judicial investigation on January 6, 1986, that “Hugo traveled to Panama under the name Ricardo Velazquez. My family, his friend Victoriano Morales, and a contact named Julio Valverde knew about his trip. Valverde had visited him one day earlier. Hugo decided to go on his trip to Panama on the morning of Thursday, September 12. Walter Chavez and Jorge Beade had told him to be careful with Julio Valverde, that Julio had betrayed Hugo.”
At the trial, Francisco Eliezer Gonzalez was silent while prosecutors described how the crime was committed. When it was his turn to speak during the re-construction of events, he confessed: he took Spadafora to an isolated location, tied him up and killed him. “I was there, I met him, we took the bus together …” He testified without emotion; neither did he say why he had committed the act.
Also a defendant in the case was Lieutenant Colonel Luis Cordoba, the military commander in Chiriqui. He had been a loyal officer and probably believed at the time of the killing that he was protecting the military institution by hiding what he knew. As he sat there listening to the testimony, it dawned on him how much damage he had done by covering up Gonzalez’s deed.
So when Gonzalez was through, Cordoba broke his silence. He stared directly at “Bruce Lee” as he spoke, in a loud voice so the jury would hear every word. “My sin was that I knew what you had done, but I kept quiet about it,” he said.
Diaz Herrera initially confessed “I caused … the ouster of Barletta … to justify … what I had plotted against Noriega.” He later recanted, according to government documents quoted in the book The Noriega Years by Margaret Scranton (Boulder: Lynn Rienner Publishers, 1989; p. 89).
“Up to this point I protected you and was silent. I never accused you, but it’s all over. I’m not helping you anymore. You’re the one who did it, ‘Bruce Lee.’ I never got an order to do this, and I never gave you one. You killed him. Tell them! Did I give you the order?”
“Bruce Lee” looked away and said nothing.
And that’s the way it was left. Cordoba helped cover it up, fearing that the defense forces would be blamed, but neither received orders nor ordered nor participated in the crime.
Years later, even after the 1993 trial was over and the murderer was identified, there still remained doubts.
Was it a simple case of robbery? Was it a contract killing, based on a double-cross in an arms deal? Was it retribution stemming from the Central American wars? No motive was ever revealed.
There was one more defendant at the 1993 trial, a young captain named Mario del Cid. Del Cid was found innocent of all charges. No relation to Luis del Cid, my former aide, he was caught up in the Spadafora case. According to him, Diaz Herrera had invited him to join in the rebellion against me. When Del Cid refused, he said, Diaz Herrera took revenge by implicating him in the Spadafora murder. It was pure reprisal from Herrera, del Cid said, but he remained in jail for four years before the case even went to trial.
This series of events occurring in my absence gave birth to a web of lies. Out of nowhere. Major Garcia Piyuyo, the Panamanian attache for police affairs in Costa Rica, extradited from Costa Rica a German man who claimed knowledge of the case. Speaking on national television, the German provided unusually detailed information about the Spadafora killing, and Diaz Herrera played him up as if he were the key to unraveling the entire case. But our investigators took a look at his claims and determined they were pure fabrication. The German disappeared from sight as quickly as he surfaced.
Barletta, already in trouble with the leadership of our Democratic Revolutionary Party because of his plan to embrace IMF budget-cutting recommendations, now got involved in a constitutional dispute about whether he had the authority to convene a commission of inquiry about the Spadafora incident.
I had completed my visit to Europe and flew finally to New York, where I had promised to meet with Barletta, who was preparing to attend the UN General Assembly. When I got to New York, we made several attempts to meet but were thwarted by scheduling problems. Barletta and I both had meetings; he met on economic matters with Shultz and other officials. I met with foreign leaders, including Premier Felipe Gonzalez of Spain.
While something told me to stay in New York and talk to Barletta, my concern about the situation back home won out. It was nighttime when I got back to Panama City. At the arrival area at the military section of the airport, I found a group of legislators waiting for me, demanding Barletta’s head. They were fed up and said the assembly wanted nothing more to do with him.
Barletta arrived from New York the following day. We sent a helicopter to the airport and brought him directly to command headquarters for consultation. The meetings were in my office and lasted most of the day; attending were Barletta; Jorge Abadia, the foreign minister; Colonel Marcos Justine and Romulo Escobar Bethancourt. The proceedings were an airing of the situation and the charges.
Barletta’s responses were slow and deliberate. I was there to listen, serving as moderator for the discussions, which continued through lunch, occasionally extending outside my office, up and down the corridors outside.
Barletta tried to debate the issue on a higher level, using economic and political reasoning. He mentioned neither Spadafora nor the investigations nor anything of the sort.
He spoke about his fixture and his political support, and one thing stood out. “If you people get rid of me, you’ll be replacing me with Delvalle, a member of the oligarchy; you’ll certainly have no friends in his circle. You will be sorry if you get rid of me.
“Do you really want to replace me with a rabiblanco?” Barletta asked rhetorically. Rabiblanco — “white tail” — was our slang term for the wealthy oligarchy in Panama. “Are you sure about that?” he said, arguing that he was still a viable president and the best insurance the PDF had. Time proved him right.
It was clear that the Americans knew what was up. Halfway through the meeting, I received calls from both Nestor Sanchez at the National Security Council in Washington and from U.S. Ambassador Everett Briggs.
“Listen, Tony,” Sanchez said. “I hope you’re not really going to dismiss Barletta. This is going to touch off lots of tremors back here; they’re not going to like it.” He was very conciliatory — not surprising, since we had often worked together cordially on other issues. I can’t say he was a friend, because there are no friends in such matters. But I can say we had maintained good professional contacts in the past, when he was in the CIA and later at the State Department.
“Manuel Antonio, as your friend, I must tell you it will never be forgiven at the State Department; they will view it as if you had staged a coup. You are going to have problems, many, many problems as a result.
“Think about it, think it over,” he said. He didn’t say any more, but he definitely had made his point.
Briggs was more blunt: Barletta should be left alone. The U.S. ambassador was no friend, but he had been identified to me as more than an ambassador — a CIA contact as well. He said he was passing along a little free advice from Shultz himself “Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t do it.”
I told both Sanchez and Briggs that it was impossible for me to keep Barletta as president. I tried to explain the domestic political atmosphere and the pressure for him to be ousted. Understanding none of this and disinterested in Panamanian politics, they didn’t believe me — they saw this simply as my once again saying no and turning against them.
Peter Eisner reports
The Spadafora case was another tool, manipulated into a cause celebre: because of public relations, a single, unsolved murder started to take on more importance in the United States than all the thousands upon thousands of murders taking place under U.S. auspices throughout Central America. The Spadafora card was played with the help of journalists who dealt unquestioningly with all the propaganda and listened to the rantings of Spadafora’s brother, Willy, who found a life for himself in the notoriety surrounding his brother’s death.
Colonel Al Cornell, the military attache at the U.S. embassy in Panama, rushed into the office of the charge d’affaires, William Price, with the startling news: the decapitated body of Hugo Spadafora had been found under a bridge in Chiriqui province.
“Did you hear the news?” he asked. “Somebody’s killed Hugo Spadafora. This is a big problem for this government and this military.”
“What’s the big deal, Al?” asked Price. “He’s just some left-wing Torrijista. No big deal.”
“I’m telling you. Bill, this is going to have long-term repercussions for this government. This thing is going to cause big-time heartburn.”
Cornell and other U.S. officials investigated the case.
“I find it hard to believe that Noriega was involved,” he said. “I don’t think Spadafora was a great threat in any case. Only a fool would have done something like order the killing. He’s no fool; he’s a smart guy and a very bright street fighter.”
Don Winters, the CIA station chief, agreed with Cornell that there were big problems. But he doubted Noriega’s involvement. “First, it doesn’t follow Noriega’s MO,” he told friends. “The Panamanian military doesn’t kill people. Exile is the most common method of dealing with enemies for them.”
The U.S. investigators on the scene saw proof beyond a reasonable doubt that two auxiliary policeman in Chiriqui were responsible for the killing.
They were unable to find a clear motive. Perhaps, Cornell said, the underlings thought they were doing their boss, Noriega, a favor by getting rid of Spadafora.
“Well, possibly,” said Winters, but he doubted that. Spadafora was no real threat to Noriega. Despite irritating news reports and columns written by the Panamanian exile, he really had very little impact in Panama.
All of them discounted reports that Spadafora was killed before he could deliver secret information about Noriega to the U.S. embassy in Panama City. They described Spadafora as a low-level intelligence contact for the United States. If he had special information about Noriega, which they doubted, he could have delivered it in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he lived. In any case, he certainly would have had multiple copies of the information. No such information has surfaced. Floyd Carlton, however, told DEA agents after his arrest in Costa Rica that he had provided Spadafora with information to be passed along about Noriega.
Despite reading news reports on the subject, the men never saw any credible information that Noriega was involved. “At the most,” said Colonel Matias Farias, “one could say that Noriega participated in a cover-up, or at least allowed the case to go unprosecuted. But I don’t believe he was involved.”
Any time Cornell, Farias or the CIA station chief at the time, Donald Winters, were questioned by colleagues or friends, their contention of Noriega’s lack of involvement was met with disbelief.
Hadn’t they seen the National Security Agency transcript of the conversation Noriega had with his commander on the scene, Major Luis Papo Cordoba?
“I don’t know anything about that,” Farias said. “Neither do Cornell and Winters. And if they don’t know about it, you can be pretty sure it doesn’t exist.”
An account of Carlton’s relationship with Spadafora is widely reported
Without a doubt, linkage of Noriega to ordering the Spadafora killing was the most significant item cited in rallying opposition to him both in Panama and the United States. Indeed, even when federal Judge William M. Hoeveler pondered the possibility that Noriega was innocent of drug charges against him, he told me that he was placated by the knowledge that Noriega was a bad character, in any case was involved in the Spadafora killing.”
The judge’s assumption of the resident wisdom about the Spadafora case prompted a deeper look at the background of the charge that Noriega ordered the killing of Hugo Spadafora.
Interviews with government officials and journalists who wrote stories about the Spadafora killing have failed to develop an original source for the NSA transcript.
All published reports I could find concerning the alleged National Security Agency quote were traced back to Guillermo Sanchez Borbon (aka Tristan Solarte), whose column in the anti-Noriega newspaper La Prensa first published charges of the general’s false involvement in the killing.
Guillermo Sanchez Borbón (aka Tristán Solarte) said candidly in an interview that he could not confirm the source of the quote and that his book about Noriega, “In the Time of the Tyrants”, was not entirely true. “It was not an objective book, it was a combative book. It has its inaccuracies,” he said. Stopping short of saying the National Security Agency reference was invented, he said he had never heard the tape nor seen the transcript of such a statement.
Sanchez Borbon’s American master, novelist and raconteur R. M. Koster, was deeply involved in creating the popular impression in the United States and elsewhere that Noriega had ordered the killing of Spadafora.
An expatriate writer and onetime nominee for the National Book Award, Koster has lived in Panama for forty years. His most re- cent novel is Carmichael’s Dog, in which the title character is host to an infernal demonic universe whose members sometimes leap out of the ear of the pooch into the brain of the master.
As a young man in the 1950s, Koster served in the U.S. Army 470th Intelligence Brigade, based in Panama. He is a Democratic Party activist, and attends most party conventions as an expatriate delegate. At the height of U.S. anti-Noriega policy, he was one of a select group of English-speaking informed sources, tipsters and fixers used by U.S. foreign correspondents, including those of Newsweek, Newsday and The New York Times to provide background on the Panama scene. Most recently, Koster is a source for a John le Carre novel about Panama, which portrays Panamanian military and political life.
His role as independent pundit was questionable. Koster penned the English version of the story about the National Security Agency intercept, first in a 1988 Harper’s Magazine article, later in their joint post-invasion book, “In the Time of the Tyrants”.
Three U.S. military and intelligence sources: Winters, CIA station chief in Panama, Dewey Clarridge, his superior at the CIA in Washington, and Cornell, the military attache in Panama, all on post at the time of the Spadafora killing, said they had never heard such an intercept and did not believe it existed.
In the same Panama book, Koster — who sometimes ghost-wrote the Sanchez Borbon column under the byline “El Gringo Desconocido” (the Unknown Gringo) — admits to having met in Washington in 1988 with members of the Bush administration’s National Security Council, calling for the U.S. invasion of Panama and likening Noriega to Hitler.
‘How are we going to get Noriega out of Panama?’ Senator Kennedy’s aide Gregory Craig asked R. M. Koster in January 1988. “The same way we got Hitler out of Europe,” he writes, continuing in the third person.
Six weeks later, Koster was in the old Executive Office Building in Washington, saying much the same to staffers of the National Security Council. The indictments made the breach between Noriega and the United States irreparable, no matter what his remaining Washington friends might wish. The United States could not leave Panama for twelve years, until the appointed time for handing over the Canal to the Panamanians.
Noriega would not leave unless he was forced to. The people of Panama couldn’t, so the business would end in U.S. military action. The sooner this happened, the fewer people would die.
Despite promoting this tack, Koster says that this was not “advocating a course of action,” but rather “predicting an event.”
I interviewed a number of journalists, politicians and government officials who either reported Noriega’s alleged involvement in the Spadafora case citing other sources, or as a given without documentation.
Murray Waas, a freelance journalist, wrote an article in The Village Voice, citing the Harper’s article.. “I got it from the Harper’s Magazine piece by Sanchez Borbon,” Waas told me. “I probably should have checked it better. I’m getting this sick feeling in my stomach that I didn’t check it hard enough. … I assumed it.” Koster said he had gotten the NSA intercept report from Sanchez Borbon. Borbon said he didn’t remember the source, but suggested investigative journalist Seymour Hersh; Winston Spadafora, brother of the slain Noriega opponent; or French intelligence.
Hersh said in an interview that he didn’t know who Guillermo Sanchez Borbon was and that he received first word of the NSA quote about Spadafora years later in Panama while researching a possible film script in Panama for director Oliver Stone.
The U.S. intelligence sources denied that Winston Spadafora had received any information on an intercept from the United States and doubted that there was any French report on the subject.
Carlos Rodriguez, a former Panamanian vice-presidential candidate and anti-Noriega political lobbyist in the United States, said he had heard the report from Roberto Eisenmann, Sanchez Borbon’s boss at La Prensa.
Eisenmann said he didn’t know where the report came from, but always assumed Sanchez Borbon had come up with the story.
The manager of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the Reagan administration, former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams said he did not know the source for the Spadafora report. But he said, “Official reporting as I recall it made it clear. I would say my memory of this was that the Spadafora affair was the first crack in the Panamanian Defense Forces.”
Briggs, the U.S. ambassador to Panama at the time and an avowed Noriega enemy, said he doubted the existence of such a National Security Agency intercept. “I don’t remember intelligence reports or any privileged reporting on the case. I think it’s entirely possible that Sanchez Borbon made the whole thing up.”
Dwayne “Dewey” Clarridge, the retired CIA chief for Latin America, shed light on several points. He said that there was never any evidence linking Noriega to the Spadafora death. “It’s ridiculous, I would have known about it, but I didn’t because there was no evidence and no intercept.”
The entire Spadafora affair, he said, including the drug charges against Noriega, were “a travesty.”
In the case of Oliver North’s charges that Noriega offered to attack targets and assassinate Nicaraguan Sandinista leaders, he subscribed to the theory that one of the many unofficial intermediaries used by North’s makeshift Contra operations was brokering a deal to convince North and Noriega to work together.
Noriega said the intermediary, Joaquin Quiñones, a Miami-based Cuban exile, was his constant pipeline to North. But Quiñones, who died in 1990, was never on the National Security Council staff and apparently was bartering influence between the two men.