on Reverend Hector Gallegos, Cardinal Marcos McGrath, & Pope John Paul II
Peter Eisner reports:
On the controversial June 9, 1971, death of the Reverend Hector Gallegos, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. intelligence concluded that Noriega was personally responsible for the rural priest’s death.
Noriega is familiar with the reports, adamantly denying them and calling for any evidence to be made public.
Before contacting Hersh, I made a round of calls to other sources familiar with the Spadafora case. They included then-U.S. ambassador to Panama Everett Briggs; Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Panama at the time; and Col. Al Cornell, the now-retired U.S. military attache stationed in Panama during the Noriega years.
Each said he’d read Sanchez Borbon’s columns only as politically driven gossip. Each said he’d seen no evidence that Noriega ordered or was responsible for Spadafora’s murder. (Cornell, in fact, said he’d conducted his own investigation of the killing. While he told me he thought Noriega’s military had its corrupt elements, he added that the country was actually one of the most progressive in terms of social programs, and a model for Latin America.) Nor had any of them reported suspicions to Washington. None of them had heard or seen a tape intercept of Noriega’s alleged phone conversation. I asked each if he would have been in the loop had there been such a tape. “Of course,” was the reply.
So I contacted Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigative journalist who first reported on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for the New York Times. “I never heard of Sanchez Borbón, and who the fuck are you?” Hersh said when I called him. (I’d been apprised of Hersh’s engaging telephone manner.) He was more friendly in a subsequent call and said he’d never reported on the intercept in question.
The story ran June 12, 1986, on the front page of the Times.
I spoke with Hersh almost ten years later. He stands by his story, saying that confidential documents backed Armando’s information. Journalist John Dinges, in his book Our Man in Panama, tried unsuccessfully under the Freedom of Information Act to locate the Defense Intelligence Agency and Central Intelligence Agency reports cited by Hersh in his story. “The DIA responded that no such document, as described in the Hersh article, could be found,”
General Noriega tells Peter Eisner:
Who was Marcos McGrath and why was he not to be trusted? He was a constant, pernicious accomplice of both the Americans and the opposition, whose influence cannot be underestimated.
The leader of Panama’s Catholic Church had a long-standing hatred for the Panamanian military, the Torrijos revolution and everything they stood for. He and his minions lent support to the opposition parties, railed against the government from the pulpit and attended planning sessions with the United States against the military.
McGrath presided over a divided Church in Panama — not everyone of the cloth shared his collaborationist, pro-American attitude. But his role ended up being decisive and pivotal in the fall of Panama and, ultimately, in delivering me into the hands of the Americans. The pulpit under McGrath became an open tribunal for preaching against the constituted government, violating the religious dictum “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”
He despised the liberation theology movement and dismissed or transferred priests who supported such liberation theology ideas as a church of the poor.
Thus it had been in the case of Padre Hector Gallegos, a rebel priest who ran afoul of landowners and disappeared in the province of Veraguas in 1971. Gallegos, a follower of the Colombian guerrilla priest, Camilo Torres, was inspired by the teachings of liberation theology and issued harsh criticism from the pulpit against the oligarchy and landowners of Veraguas, citing them by name as he spoke, charging them with usury and making unfair profits.
The landowners lashed out at him in return. The attacks became personal. Someone destroyed an electric generator at his house.
Suddenly, Gallegos disappeared.
Everyone was certain that he had been killed. Torrijos appointed a prosecutor, Olmedo David Miranda, to investigate the disappearance. He gathered evidence, questioned people, and even detained Alvaro Vernaza, a relative of Torrijos. The Church also conducted its own investigation, bringing in foreign investigators.
No trace of Gallegos, no evidence, was ever found. There were attempts to name me as being involved, but it didn’t work. It was convenient for McGrath to blame the military because they couldn’t come up with any relationship, reason, or motive to name anyone else.
They started the rumor that Torrijos had ordered the murder of Gallegos and that I supposedly pushed him from a helicopter. No evidence, no reason to charge Torrijos, no motive. It was the landowners who hated the priest, not the military. It was nothing more than the drum-beat of the Church against the National Guard, and against Torrijos.
This was one of many great disputes between McGrath and Torrijos. There was a palpable hatred between them. Torrijos despised the man and I know the feeling was mutual.
On the other hand, we protected McGrath and accepted his version of events when a car he was driving in the hours before dawn ran over and killed a person on the street.
McGrath was more an American than a Panamanian, and he never renounced his U.S. citizenship. He was born in the Canal Zone and
spoke Spanish with an odd gringo accent. He ordered parish priests to denounce the military from the pulpit.
I was invited one day for lunch at the apartment of McGrath’s brother, Eugene, a decorated American hero in World War II who had fought at Iwo Jima. Eugenio had been married for a time to the Hollywood actress Terry Moore, a former wife of Howard Hughes.
At lunch, the archbishop pulled me off to chat. I remember that the apartment was on the eleventh floor of the Roca building overlooking Panama Bay.
As we spoke, the archbishop stood at an angle, half looking at me, half at the ocean. “Isn’t it true. Colonel, that Torrijos is the one responsible for this Gallegos business?”
I looked firmly at McGrath and reminded him that his own assistant, Monsignor Legarra, was in charge of the church’s investigation. “He works for you; you should trust and respect his word,” I said.
McGrath just looked away. “What a lovely view this apartment has,”he said.
I promptly told Torrijos about this conversation. He reacted confidently. “Well, now,” he said. “I know just what I’m going to do.” Torrijos took McGrath’s interference in the political process seriously and passed along a complaint via diplomatic means to the Vatican investigative office, headed by Monsignor Pinci.
When Torrijos died, the archbishop thought he would deliver the coup de grace. Torrijos’s body was borne in procession to the portals of the National Cathedral.
Those accompanying were shocked to hear McGrath speak as he met the procession at the steps: “You never wanted to give me an appointment to meet with you,” he said, speaking to Torrijos one last time. “And now you come here without having asked me for one.” It was an enmity that lasted unto death.
At the religious ceremony, McGrath even went to the extent of mispronouncing Torrijos’s name, calling him “Omar Efrain Torres.”
To my lasting satisfaction, I can say that it was Torrijos who had the last word, even after his own death.
I was not yet commander of the armed forces when Pope John Paul II came to visit Panama in 1983. Ricardo de la Espriella was president, and we had scheduled a small audience with the pope at the presidential palace. Those attending were the president; Monsignor Laboa, who was the Vatican ambassador to Panama; my wife and I; and my predecessor as commander, General Ruben Dario Paredes, along with his wife.
The audience consisted mostly of speeches by the Panamanians present. The pope sat quietly, mostly just staring at us deeply and sternly.
When the allotted time was up, all the others began filing out and the Holy Father touched me lightly to stop me for a moment as I passed by.
He placed his right hand over his heart. “I am grateful for your cooperation,” he said quietly, looking at me. That was all he said.
Thinking about this, I suddenly realized that Marcos McGrath had been investigated and would never, ever be named a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.