The U.S. military now says 50 pounds of a substance it seized at a house used by deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega turned out to be tamales instead of cocaine, as the Army initially said, The Washington Post reported today.
In a dispatch from Panama City, the newspaper said military and civilian officials said that although 450 kilos of cocaine and assorted other drugs have been seized since U.S. troops invaded Dec. 20, none could be directly linked to Noriega or used in the drug-trafficking trial against him.
``It was just a mistake in the confusion of the moment,'' The Post quoted a U.S. officer in Panama as saying of the earlier report. The officer was not identified.
Noriega is awaiting trial in Miami on federal drug-trafficking and racketeering charges.
Federal prosecutors this week are expected to introduce for the first time information from documents and data seized during the U.S. invasion of Panama in an effort to bolster their drug-trafficking case against Noriega.
But the action also will raise a constitutional question that could help the deposed Panamanian dictator. Did U.S. forces act illegally in searching for and seizing files, computer discs, memos and other documents from Noriega's homes and offices?
Defense attorneys for Noriega and other defendants in the 12-count drug conspiracy case in Miami have said they will challenge government efforts to introduce evidence seized during the invasion. They argue that the confiscations were made in violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against illegal searches and seizures.
No search warrants were obtained from U.S. or Panamanian courts; in some cases, doors were broken down and houses and offices ransacked by U.S. military personnel who were sometimes working in concert with U.S. law-enforcement agents, defense attorneys and pro-Noriega Panamanians have charged.
A similar constitutional question involving a Mexican drug suspect is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal experts say the court's decision could have a major impact on the Noriega trial.
At issue is whether U.S. law-enforcement agents operating overseas must abide by the Constitution. The Noriega case is complicated by the involvement of the military.
``The fact that this was done in the course of an overall military action and the fact that it was done outside the country makes the defense's job more difficult,'' said Bernard Oxman, associate dean of the University of Miami Law School.
Fletcher Baldwin, a professor at the University of Florida Law School, took a more critical view, saying the U.S. invasion violated both international law and an 85-year-old U.S.-Panama treaty.
``We have completely ignored the treaty; therefore, everything as far as constitutional law is concerned collapses,'' he said. ``I think we have made a quantum leap (beyond constitutional protections). In effect, we sent federal bounty hunters down to Panama to bring back a fugitive from U.S. justice.''
In a related case in Tampa, Fla., a co-defendant with Noriega in a marijuana-smuggling case was ordered held without bail yesterday. Enrique Pretelt, 47, was returned to the United States last week after surrendering in Panama.
Pretelt pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday to charges carrying a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and fines totaling $265,000.
He voluntarily surrendered last Wednesday in Panama to face allegations in a three-count indictment returned Feb. 4, 1988.
FBI Agent Stan Jacobsen told the court Pretelt was a fugitive for nearly two years, helped launder drug money through Panamanian banks, helped disguise a 400,000-pound load of Colombian marijuana that was to be shipped through Panama and pocketed several thousand dollars in drug profits.
Pretelt is accused of taking bribes from Tampa-based smugglers to help ferry millions of dollars worth of the illicit drugs safely through Panama.
Meanwhile, in another federal courtroom in Tampa, jury selection continued in a $32 million money-laundering case with links to Noriega.
Five former officials with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International are on trial, including Amjad Awan, who once claimed to be Noriega's personal banker.