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Prosecutors fight agent's evidence favoring Noriega


MIAMI -- Federal prosecutors fought yesterday to keep jurors from hearing about confidential government reports favorable to Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega during the testimony of a top U.S. drug agent.

James Bramble, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Panama, testified for the defense that the former Panamanian leader's police arrested the cousin of the Ochoa brothers who founded the Medellin drug cartel.

Prosecutors had said Marta Saldarriaga Ochoa was the Miami coordinator of a drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation run by the cartel through Panama under General Noriega's protection.

Mr. Bramble said Panamanian police arrested her on Feb. 2, 1984, for carrying a false passport and a weapon and immediately informed the DEA, even giving account numbers on $360,000 in cashier's checks she carried.

"I remember it well. It was the only time someone was arrested at the airport with money," Mr. Bramble testified. Mere possession of large sums of money was not illegal in Panama at the time.

The testimony by Mr. Bramble, now head of the DEA's professional standards board, was punctuated by objections from prosecutors, who sought to keep him from testifying about the Ochoa case and shipments of cocaine-processing chemicals.

Prosecutors say General Noriega took bribes to protect those shipments through Panama to Colombian drug labs.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis argued that the DEA investigation and reports showing Panama helped seize the chemicals were hearsay and inadmissible, but U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler allowed some of the testimony.

Mr. Bramble also testified about the seizure of a drug lab in Darien province near Panama's border with Colombia. Prosecutors have argued that General Noriega's troops raided the lab in error and later had to pay back a bribe to the Medellin cartel.

But Mr. Bramble said he was called by General Noriega's top anti-drug aide and invited to go along on the raid. The DEA was also allowed to interrogate the 23 Colombians arrested at the lab, but prosecutors fought successfully to keep Mr. Bramble from relating the results.

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