Chapter Ten: The Panama Canal

In Washington the White House strategists made it manifestly clear to John Ingersoll that the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was expected to arrest and bring to trial at least one major international trafficker, to give the entire foreign crusade credibility. Up to this point, Ingersoll's agents had not netted any such international trafficker because, as Ingersoll explained to Attorney General Mitchell, "Major traffickers do not usually violate the laws of the country that they reside in, and even if they do, they are usually protected there by local officials whom they pay off." According to the bureau's deputy director, John Finlator, the attempt of two American narcotics agents to "snatch" a major heroin supplier in Mexico had resulted in the agents' fatally shooting five Mexican traffickers with M-1 carbines; but since the agents had no authority to be in Mexico, the shoot-out had to be hushed up (and Mexican police were given credit for killing the bandits). To achieve the visible success that the White House strategists desired, Ingersoll realized that a foreign trafficker would have to be legally lured to American soil.

The opportunity presented itself in December, 1970, when two United States narcotics agents, posing as members of the Mafia, made a "connection" in Panama with Joaquim Him Gonzales, who was then chief of air traffic control and deputy inspector general of civil aviation in Panama. The forty-two-year-old Panamanian had also been identified by the BNDD as "the man everybody had to know in Panama" to transship narcotics through Panama's Tecumen International Airport. The undercover agents thus arranged to have Gonzales witness an arrangement they made with a Texas pilot to obtain one hundred kilos of cocaine for them. Although they never received their cocaine, they flew back to Dallas, Texas, where they presented their evidence of a "conspiracy" to a federal grand jury, which promptly indicted Him Gonzales as a member of the conspiracy. Although Ingersoll initially hoped that the indictment of a major trafficker would suffice, the White House made it clear that they still wanted the traffickers arrested and tried in the United States, with all the attendant publicity that it would create. Panama, however, did not have a conspiracy law, and was unwilling to extradite the chief of air traffic control to the United States for trial. A few enterprising officials of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs thus carefully arranged a trap for the Panamanian official. Since Him Gonzales frequently played in a softball game between Panamanian aviation employees and American officials stationed in the Canal Zone, a narrow strip of land along the Panama Canal which is administered by the United States government and policed by a United States Army military garrison, the agents arranged to arrest him during one of the softball games. Thus, when Him Gonzales arrived at the softball field on February 6, 1971, a narcotics agent pointed a gun at him and announced, "You are on United States territory and we are putting you under arrest on a charge of conspiring to smuggle narcotics."

The American ambassador to Panama, Robert Savre, was not told of the plan to arrest a high Panamanian official in the Canal Zone. At the time, he was in the midst of delicate negotiations for renewing the United States lease on the Panama Canal, and one of the main issues to be resolved was the question of sovereignty over the Canal Zone. When the Panamanians read in their newspapers that their air traffic controller had been arrested by American narcotics agents in the Canal Zone, they exploded, Ambassador Sayre later recalled. The Panamanian negotiators demanded that Him Gonzales be released and that American police control in the Canal Zone be limited and put under the supervision of Panamanians. Suddenly the whole Panama Canal treaty was beclouded by the act of narcotics agents trying to deliver to the White House an international trafficker. The State Department advised the White House of the new crisis in Panama, but the BNDD refused to release the alleged conspirator. Meanwhile, the narcotics agents placed Him Gonzales on a Super Starjet Air Force plane and delivered the bewildered Panamanian to U.S. marshals in Dallas. Newspapers in Panama reacted by charging that the United States had kidnapped an official of their government. Panama's foreign minister protested to Ambassador Sayre not only that the arrest was illegal but that United States undercover agents had come to Panama with false identification papers in order to entrap a Panamanian official. Letters from Attorney General Mitchell and an "embassy" from the director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs failed to mitigate the anti-American campaign generated by this incident. Ambassador Sayre said he found that it became difficult "to renegotiate ... the Panama Canal in this atmosphere." With the government-controlled press of Panama featuring stories about how Joaquim Him Gonzales's ten-year-old daughter was waiting for America to return her kidnapped father, it became difficult for Panamanian politicians to agree to a new treaty which granted the United States de facto sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Unable to complete the renegotiations of the treaty, the dispute dragging on, Ambassador Sayre returned to Washington in 1973 to become inspector general of the State Department. (Gonzales was sentenced in Texas to five years in prison.) 

In less than two years the Nixon crusades managed to interfere seriously with the objectives of American foreign policy. In Mexico the Good Neighbor Policy was confused by Operation Intercept. In Turkey the NATO arrangements to defend the eastern Mediterranean area were undercut by our demands that the Turks suppress poppy flower cultivation. In France the American embassy was embarrassed by the attempts to find local heroin laboratories. And in Panama the vital Panama Canal was nearly lost by the pirating away of one alleged international trafficker.