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Judge recalls Noriega’s ouster

By JACKIE STARKEY From Carolina Coast Online

ATLANTIC BEACH — Despite his role in the 1989 military ouster of former Panamanian dictator Manuel A. Noriega, local resident Judge Doug McCullough says he hadn’t thought of the former leader recently. That was until news broke of the 83-year-old’s death Monday in Panama City.
A month retired from the N.C. Court of Appeals, Judge McCullough was an assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of the state in 1982 when a U.S. Coast Guard drug seizure in Beaufort Inlet tipped off a series of events ultimately leading to the unraveling of the Cayman Island drug cartel, exposure of Gen. Noriega’s ties to the traffickers and the December 20, 1989, U.S. invasion of Panama.
Gen. Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces the following January, ending his six-year regime of the Central American country.
In 2008, Judge McCullough released a book on his multi-year investigation into the Cayman Island cartel and its ties to the dictator, titled Sea of Greed.
“The story is still an untold story,” said the judge, reached by phone Tuesday at his Atlantic Beach home. “… Maybe there’ll be more interest in (the story) with the man’s death.”
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela confirmed Gen. Noriega’s death via Twitter late Monday, saying it “closes a chapter” in the nation’s history.
Gen. Noriega’s reign, from 1983 to 1989, was marked with a manipulated presidential election, the harassment of adversaries and his ordering the deaths of political opponents.
After being removed from power by U.S. forces, he served a federal sentence for drug trafficking before being extradited to France on other charges.
According to reports, his final years were marked with health struggles, including high blood pressure and the growth of a benign brain tumor.
Gen. Noriega is survived by his wife Felicidad and daughters Lorena, Thays and Sandra.
Prior to his downfall, however, the strongman was a U.S. ally, providing information to the federal government even as he trafficked cocaine and other illicit substances up the U.S. coast and participated in racketeering and money laundering schemes.
The criminal activity was brought to light by an investigation of Judge McCullough’s and others, sparked by the seizure of 29,000 pounds of marijuana from a shrimp boat in Beaufort Inlet on July 7, 1982.
“(Gen.) Noriega, at that time, was a source for the CIA and the (Drug Enforcement Administration), he was on the payroll,” the judge told the News-Times this week.
His book, he said, walks readers through the complicated back story of the Cayman Island cartel, tracing the organization to its roots and uncovering its ties to Gen. Noriega.
The investigation was unpopular in U.S. political circles, Judge McCullough notes, but ultimately led to the 1988 indictment of the dictator, following key testimony gathered by the judge and other prosecutors from smuggler and cartel frontman Stephen Kalish.
“I kept pushing to get Kalish’s story on the table … that’s what broke the storm in Washington,” Judge McCullough said.
Mr. Kalish would go on to testify before a Senate subcommittee claiming Gen. Noriega received millions in cash and kickbacks from the smuggling operation leading to his federal indictment in a Miami court.
The U.S. would invade Panama a year later, citing among other things, the shooting death of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Paz.
Gen. Noriega had a different take on his ouster, however, accusing the U.S. of a conspiracy to keep him behind bars and tied his legal troubles to his refusal to cooperate with a U.S. plan aimed at toppling Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.
This week, Judge McCullough said he hadn’t been closely following the former dictator’s path in recent years.
“I’ve known for a while he was very sick, so I’m not surprised,” the former acting U.S. attorney said. “I had more or less forgotten about him.”
Perhaps his death will interest a new generation in the U.S. involvement in Panama, the judge noted, and the tale of how Gen. Noriega’s downfall came about – including the prosecution’s humble beginnings right off the Crystal Coast.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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