The Bush White House justified the invasion by claiming that overthrowing Noriega was a major victory in the war on drugs. If journalists had reported the backgrounds of the new Panamanian leaders installed by the U.S. invasion, and their connections to drug-laundering banks and drug traffickers, a primary rationale for the invasion would have been shredded.
But few journalists scrutinized Panama's "new democrats" from the country's banking and corporate elite. One who did was Jonathan Marshall, editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune. In a series of editorials, "Panama's Drug, Inc." (1/5 & 1/22/90), Marshall reported the following:
PRESIDENT GUILLERMO ENDARA is a wealthy corporate attorney for several companies run by Carlos Eleta, a Panamanian business tycoon arrested in Georgia last April for conspiring to import more than half a ton of cocaine each month into the U.S. The Brazilian daily Jornal do Brasil reported that Endara was Eleta's lawyer for 25 years and a direct stockholder in one of his companies. Endara's political mentor and idol is former President Arnulfo Arias, who reportedly amassed $2 million from smuggling contraband, including hard drugs.
VICE PRESIDENT GUILLERMO "BILLY" FORD is a co-founder and part owner of the Dadeland Bank in Miami, a repository for Medellin drug cartel money. One of Ford's co-owners, Panamanian Steven Samos, used the bank in the late 1970s to launder millions of dollars in drug money for a CIA-trained Cuban-American. Panama's new ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Rodriguez, is also a co-founder of the Dadeland Bank. (The New York Times on January 28 mustered up Roberto Eisenmann, the publisher of Panama's La Prensa, to deny allegations linking Ford to money laundering. The Times didn't mention that Eisenmann is another co-founder of the bank.)
ATTORNEY GENERAL ROGELIO CRUZ served as a director of the First Interamericas Bank. The bank, closed down for drug- related "irregular operations" in 1985, was owned by the leader of Columbia's Cali cocaine cartel, and reportedly laundered money for Jorge Ochoa of the Medellin cartel. Panama's new chief justice of the supreme court and new treasury minister were also members of the bank's board.
Marshall concluded: "President Endara's appointments read like a who's who of Panama's oligarchy. Many have personal or business associations with the drug-money laundering industry." Portraying Noriega's replacement by the Endara clique as a strike against drug dealing is a cruel joke.
The importance of Panama to the international narcotics trade has long revolved around its super-secret banks--cool places to launder "hot money." In December 1986, Noriega's legislature pushed through a rollback in the country's bank secrecy law. In May 1987, when Noriega's government froze accounts in 18 banks as part of an anti-drug operation mounted by the DEA, it sparked a massive banking crisis in Panama. The actions were vigorously opposed by Noriega's foes in the banking elite. These foes now run Panama's government, thanks to the U.S. invasion. The "war on drugs" continues.