Noriega Tied To Cartel's Sandinista Cocaine Deal

MIAMI - Manuel Noriega helped Colombian cocaine barons buy off Nicaragua's Sandinista government in 1984, and among those receiving payment was Nicaragua's then-president, Daniel Ortega, a former aide testified.

The Medellin cartel paid Noriega $10 million - $500,000 per shipment - to protect drug flights from Panama to the U.S. in the early 1980s, Ricardo Bilonick, former Panamanian "ambassador at large" in Washington, testified.

Appearing as a prosecution witness yesterday and again this morning, Bilonick testified that the ousted Panamanian dictator also helped the Medellin cartel in its dealings with the Sandinistas.

"Are you saying the cartel paid Daniel Ortega?" Noriega defense attorney Frank Rubino asked Bilonick on cross-examination today.

"Yes, sir," replied Bilonick. But the witness said he did not know any details of the arrangement, which he heard about from cartel chieftain Pablo Escobar.

Bilonick said yesterday the Medellin cartel financed his purchase of INAIR cargo lines, which eventually shipped as much as 20 tons of cocaine in 19 flights to Miami. Noriega was paid to protect flights from Panama, he said.

In May 1984, Escobar asked if INAIR also could fly out of Nicaragua, Bilonick testified.

"The reason he gave me was he had made a similar agreement with the Sandinistas, with the Nicaraguan government - the introduction having been made by Mr. Noriega," Bilonick testified.

After elections in February 1990, the Sandinista government was replaced by the current government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Noriega could get 140 years in prison if convicted on all 10 drug and racketeering charges. He was ousted in the December 1989 U.S. invasion.

In exchange for his testimony against Noriega, Bilonick was not forced to forfeit any of the $47 million he said he made working for the cartel and will serve no more than 10 years in prison. The maximum sentence is 60 years.