Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was a infamous figure on the international stage during the 1980s. Before he became a caricature of the "crazy" dictator, he was on the payroll of the CIA and helped the United States gain information on Cuba.
His downfall came following the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, but the seeds of his destruction were planted on the coast of North Carolina. That's where a busted marijuana smuggling deal led U.S. Attorney Douglas McCullough on a long journey that would end with Noriega's prosecution on drug charges.
Judge Douglas McCullough is currently serving on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, but in the 1980s, he was a U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. There he came across a drug case that he would eventually tie to Noriega.
The Coast Guard encountered a ship full to the brim with marijuana. Two Guard members interviewed the captain, but during the conversation, the tell-tale sound of a shotgun cocking gave them pause. Their radios weren't encrypted, and they worried the smugglers would eavesdrop on their call for assistance, so they left the boat.
"They had to leave sight of the boat and find a pay station telephone to call for backup," McCullough said on The State of Things. "By the time they could get back to the boat, everybody was gone."
Eventually, one of the smugglers on that boat would get arrested on a separate charge in Florida. McCullough got wind and ultimately turned him against Noriega, who had been laundering money for the smuggler and his partners.
"They didn't know it was going to be quite as easy as it was," McCullough said. "All they did was put the money in duffel bags on a Lear jet. Fly it from the Florida area to Panama. Taxi over to the military side of the airport where DEA surveillance could not see them. And then they would be given a military escort to the bank."
Mcullough wrote a book about his role in bringing down Noriega called “Sea of Greed” (Fish Towne Press/2008).