From Noriega to Maduro: Drugs, Money, and Power
Nicolás Maduro's current situation is very similar to what Manuel Noriega's path was two decades ago.
Spanish – He was a National Guard officer and head of intelligence, the master of terror. He studied at the School of the Americas, eventually going on the CIA’s payroll during the Canal negotiations. He had information about the Cuban government and, later, about the Sandinista government, providing logistical support to the Contras.
But he was also a double agent, passing information to Cuba and weapons to the Sandinista and the Salvadoran FMLN. He did this on his own, according to some, behind President Torrijos’ back. The death of Torrijos in a suspicious plane crash in 1981 allowed Manuel Noriega to reach the top. Already a general at the time, and a dictator from 1984 onwards, but never a president, he concentrated political power, repression, and money in his hands.
He pioneered a type of regime that would become better known in this century: a dictatorship associated with transnational crime. A political order sustained and financed by illicit businesses, in the end, a criminal conglomerate in control of the state apparatus. The fact is that he was a “triple” agent, in reality, a man of the Medellin Cartel and a partner in its businesses of drug trafficking and money laundering. This also included the FARC.
In November 1987, a resolution of the United States Senate suspended economic and military aid to Panama, precipitating the default of the foreign debt and producing a 20 percent contraction of the product. In February 1988, the Justice Department charged him on 12 counts. “General Noriega utilized his position to sell the country of Panama to traffickers,″ U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner in Miami accused at the time.
In the May 1989 elections, the opposition forces won by a margin of three to one. The winner was Guillermo Endara, but Noriega declared the elections invalid and remained in power by force. This accelerated the political crisis, and in December of that year, the U.S. invasion deposed Noriega, arrested him, and brought him to Miami to face a tribunal.
The rest is familiar history. In April 1992, Noriega was found guilty of eight counts, including drug trafficking and money laundering. It was the first time in American history that a jury convicted a foreign head of state. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison the following July. He returned to Panama in 2011 to serve an additional 20-year sentence for the disappearance of opponents. He died in 2017 from a hemorrhage after surgery.
On the day of Noriega’s conviction, then-Attorney General said, “This is an important message for the drug lords: there is no safe haven for them. Their wealth and firepower cannot protect them forever.” His words are relevant today.
On March 26, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against high-ranking Chavista officials and offered rewards for information leading to their arrest. Nicolás Maduro himself, Diosdado Cabello, and several others from the regime’s frontline are accused there, 14 in all. The case file details the Venezuelan dictatorship’s association with the Suns Cartel and the FARC dissident in what is characterized as “narco-terrorism.”
The parallels with Noriega are uncanny. The charges are similar, and several of them originate in the same judicial district. The prosecutor in the Miami case, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, was more than eloquent, speaking in the first person during the presentation. She referred to the mansions, yachts, private planes, and the Prada and Ferragamo shoes. “The party is coming to an end,” she concluded.
The floodgates have opened, so the consequences of the case are unpredictable. It is necessary to understand how the American system works. Once a case is prosecuted, it is no longer political; politics follow justice. There is such a thing as judicial independence, which is difficult for those in illiberal societies to understand. This accusation has ten years of work behind it. It would not have been made without evidence.
That is why several want to take advantage of the reward. There will be negotiations with them, but there will be no going back with the process. Think of Odebrecht, which entered into an agreement with judicial authorities in the United States and Switzerland for 3.5 billion dollars in fines. This is for having bribed officials from a dozen governments in Africa and Latin America for almost 800 million USD.
Based in New York’s Southern District, 77 Odebrecht executives took refuge in cooperating with justice under the guise of repentance. These agreements specify that the repentants must collaborate with the court and the prosecutor’s office in everything they are told to do, including disclosing the identity of the bribed officials. Odebrecht is an example, and these are mere pennies compared to the amount of looting by Chavistas and the volume of drug trafficking, as well as their crimes against humanity.
Now, the incentives for whistleblowing are exponentially greater. Therefore, the Justice Department’s “indictment” is of great concern to the government of Pedro Sánchez. It is because of the case of Hugo Carvajal, head of Venezuelan intelligence between 2004 and 2014, and among the 14 accused. Several people do not want him to speak out.
Carvajal controlled a drug trafficking route that reached Galicia. He is no stranger to Spain. He had been in the custody of the National Intelligence Center in Madrid since last April. But he escaped, oddly enough, when an extradition request arrived from the United States in November. The DEA knows where he is, and the Spanish government knows that the U.S. government knows. The escape in question is not credible.
It so happens that Carvajal was also instrumental in Podemos’s relationship with Chávez and in the financing that came from Caracas. Hence, the interest of Vice President Pablo Iglesias in preserving and increasing his influence in the CNI, which does not quite conform to the constitutional letter. Madrid also clear that the floodgates have opened, and whatever comes out can reach the other side of the Atlantic.
Another relevant fact, another similarity. The Attorney General cited above, when Noriega was convicted in 1992, was William P. Barr. The same man is Attorney General today.