MIAMI -- A former Panamanian ambassador passed $10 million in bribes to Manuel Antonio Noriega in return for permission to fly nearly 20 tons of cocaine into the United States, a federal prosecutor said yesterday.
The disclosure came in U.S. District Court as Ricardo Bilonick, 44, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with the deposed Panamanian leader to smuggle cocaine through their country in the mid-1980s.
Bilonick, a former diplomat and businessman who holds a law degree from Tulane University, is said to be one of the prosecution's most important witnesses against General Noriega. Bilonick was Panama's ambassador-at-large under former Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos, General Noriega's predecessor. His intention to plead guilty was announced last week after he surrendered to U.S. drug agents in Panama.
"This is a substantial witness in this case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Myles Malman told the court. He said Bilonick maintained a close relationship with Medellin cartel leaders and used his position as owner of several airlines to help funnel Colombian cocaine to the United States.
Bilonick is the fifth Noriega co-defendant to plead guilty and is widely regarded by defense lawyers and law enforcement figures to be one of the most knowledgeable witnesses about General Noriega's alleged cartel ties. Under his plea agreement, the government is dismissing two other counts in the indictment against him and will recommend that he be sentenced to no more than 10 years inprison if he tells the truth.
Mr. Malman said the bribes were paid in stages from 1982 to 1984. The payments were made to protect 19 drug flights that carried between 15 and 20 tons of cocaine to south Florida and elsewhere around the nation. General Noriega collected $500,000 for each flight that he allegedly allowed to pass through Panama unmolested.
In 1984, the last shipment was seized by U.S. agents at Miami International Airport.