Palacio was in Baranquilla that day to arrange a cocaine deal with her host, Jorge Luis Ochoa, at the time Colombia's most ambitious druglord. As she watched two men in green uniforms remove two green military trunks out of the plane and onto a truck, her host explained his operation: "Ochoa told me that the plane was a CIA plane and that he was exchanging guns for drugs." The crew, he said, were CIA agents, and "these shipments came each Thursday from the CIA, landing at dusk. Sometimes they brought guns, sometimes they took U.S. products such as washing machines, gourmet food, fancy furniture or other items for the traffickers which they could not get in Colombia. Each time, Ochoa said, they took back drugs."
In her 1986 sworn testimony before Senator John Kerry's Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics and International Terrorism, Palacio acknowledged she could not confirm the operation was being conducted by the CIA. But, she added, "Obviously, what I saw raised many questions about the source of the U.S. weapons which I know Ochoa has obtained."
That was not the only time such an exchange was witnessed by the Puerto Rican-born Palacio, a former airline employee whose two-year cocaine trafficking spanned career spanned her relationship with an upper-class Colombian whose social circle included "people deeply involved in the drug trade." Concerned for the safety of her daughter, she eventually volunteered to work with the FBI because, she said, "I was angry about what drugs were doing to the people I knew and to the United States government itself."
As an FBI operative, Palacio would later realize the extent of the damage done to the United States government by the guns-for- drugs exchanges that permeated the hemisphere during the early- to mid-1980s. "To my great regret," she testified, "the Bureau has told me that some of the people I identified as being involved in drug smuggling are present or past agents of the Central Intelligence Agency."
And according to Palacio's deposition, it was not only the CIA that was involved with drug smugglers. Palacio stated to Sen. Kerry that she spoke to the FBI about many individuals within the U.S. government that were involved in illegal drug operations. "We have extensively discussed drug-related corruption in the United States including a regional director of U.S. customs, a federal judge, air traffic controllers in the FAA, a regional director of immigration, and other government officials."
Wanda Palacio is only one of scores of people to come forward with first-hand evidence of officially sanctioned transfers of drugs for covert policy objectives, and Baranquilla is but one of many transshipment points in the hemisphere whose operations would be mirrored by the unloading of drugs from secret flights into private and military airfields for delivery into the streets and suburbs of America.
DEA agent blows the whistle on scontra-drug operation in El Salvador
Celerino Castillo III is a 15-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency who observed first-hand such an operation at Ilopango airport where drugs were smuggled in a military facility under the direct control of the CIA and Lt. Col. Oliver North during his heady days at the National Security Council.
Castillo saw the light ten years ago, on January 14, 1986, the day he met then-Vice President George Bush at a Guatemalan embassy reception. The lead DEA agent in Central America tried to tell Bush that "something funny" was going on at Ilopango. "But he just shook my hand, smiled and walked away from me," Castillo recently recalled. Later that same day, he says, Bush met with Oliver North and contra leader Adolfo Calero.
Castillo went on to gather evidence that was documented in a Feb. 14, 1989 memo to his Guatemala-based DEA supervisor. He detailed how known traffickers with multiple DEA files used Hangars Four and Five for drug smuggling and obtained U.S. visas, despite their background. According to Castillo, "the CIA owned one hangar, and the National Security Council ran the other."
"There is no doubt that they were running large quantities of cocaine into the U.S. to support the contras," Castillo said in a 1994 interview with the authors. "We saw the cocaine and we saw boxes full of money. We're talking about very large quantities of cocaine and millions of dollars." According to Castillo, "my reports contain not only the names of traffickers, but their destinations, flight paths, tail numbers, and the date and time of each flight."
Further evidence of the contra-cocaine connection supporting Castillo's accounts was obtained by the authors nearly ten years ago, in the form of an internal document of the since-disbanded Select House Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. In a syndicated Newsday article on March 31, 1987, we revealed the contents of the eight-page June 25, 1986 memorandum which stated clearly that "a number of individuals who supported the contras and who participated in contra activity in Texas, Louisiana, California and Florida, as well as in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, have suggested that cocaine is being smuggled in the U.S. through the same infrastructure which is procuring, storing and transporting weapons, explosives, ammunition and military equipment for the contras from the United States."
Send Money, Guns and Cocaine
Drugs, weapons and money-laundering have always been tools of the trade for U.S. clandestine operations abroad. But never in United States history has the importation of cocaine risen so dramatically as it did during the Reagan administration's clandestine war against the government of Nicaragua, spearheaded by the "contras," a group of right-wing expatriate rebels pieced together by the CIA.
The window of opportunity for the CIA-brokered contra-drug alliance came in 1984, when Congress passed the Boland Amendment to the War Powers Act. This watershed legislation cut off direct intelligence and financial aid to the contras. But the Reagan administration continued the clandestine war (which began with a 1981 Executive Order) through the auspices of the National Security Council which, by a legal technicality, was not considered an "intelligence" agency. Enter the Colonel, Oliver North, who directed NSC operations from the basement of the Executive Office Building.
Under North's stewardship, the $30 million in aid cut off by legal means was made up through covert means, namely, the sale of weapons to Iran and the exchange of CIA allies' drug profits for clandestine sanctions which allowed cocaine to be imported and sold up north, often in the very same planes which flew weapons south to the contras.
The combination of contras and drug dealers was a marriage made in heaven, former Narcotics Committee counsel Jack Blum recalled last week during Congressional hearings. "There were facilities that were needed for running the war, clandestine air strips, cowboy pilots who would fly junker airplanes, people who would make arrangements for the clandestine movement of money.
"Every one of those facilities was a perfect facility for someone in the drug business. So there were people who were connected very directly to the CIA who had those facilities, and allowed them to be used, and indeed, personally profited from their use."
Blum's dramatic charges are supported by a former high-level supervisory CIA officer. Alan Fiers, the former chief of the CIA Central American Task Force, stated in a sworn deposition to the Congressional Iran-Contra committees that "we knew everybody around [Southern Front contra leader Eden] Pastora was involved in cocaine... His staff and friends ... were drug smugglers or involved in drug smuggling."
According to Miami-based John Mattes, a former federal public defender and Iran-Contra investigator for John Kerry, "what we investigated, which is on the record as part of the Kerry Committee Report, is evidence that narcotics traffickers associated with the contra leaders were allowed to smuggle over a ton of cocaine into the United States. Those same contra leaders admitted under oath their association and affiliation with the CIA.
The North Connection
During his recent testimony, Blum also raised the issue of Oliver North's notebooks kept contemporaneously with his contra resupply effort. Even after North's lawyers were allowed to expurgate the notebooks, many of the pages made available to investigators still contain numerous references to contra drug trafficking. For instance, on July 9, 1984, North wrote that he "went and talked to [contra leader Frederico] Vaughn, [who] wanted to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, wanted aircraft to pick up 1500 kilos." In another notebook entry on July 12, 1985, North writes, "$14 million to finance [arms] came from drugs."
In a December 1986 interview with the authors, Jesus Garcia, a Miami-based North network operative said, "it is common knowledge here in Miami that this whole contra operation was paid for with cocaine... I actually saw the cocaine and the weapons together under one roof, weapons that I [later] helped ship to Costa Rica. "
A Sept. 26, 1984 Miami police intelligence report stated that money supporting the illegal contra training effort in Florida "comes from narcotics transactions." This memorandum, written at a time when Attorney General Janet Reno was the chief state prosecutor in Florida, has every page stamped "record furnished to George Kosinsky, FBI."
On March 16, 1987, U.S. Customs seized a plane from a narcotics trafficker who was involved with the contras. On that plane they discovered the address book of Robert Owen, Oliver North's eyes and ears in Central America. Owen, a former aide to Dan Quayle, met with Costa Rican-based CIA asset John Hull and Oliver North on many occasions.
In March of 1989, Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias barred Oliver North, John Poindexter, Major Gen. Richard Secord, former U.S. Ambassador Louis Tambs, and former CIA Costa Rican Station Chief Jose Hernandez from entry into Costa Rica.
Arias was acting on recommendations by a Costa Rican congressional commission investigating drug trafficking. The Costa Rican investigation was triggered by "the quantity and frequency of the shipment of drugs that passed through" land and secret airstrips controlled by "southern front" CIA point man John Hull. Hull worked extensively with North in setting up the "Contra 7" front in Costa Rica.
In his notebooks, North talked about "the necessity of giving Mr. Hull protection." According to the Costa Rican investigation, and bolstered by other North entries and Blum's testimony, more than a half dozen drug pilots were provided by General Manuel Noriega based on requests from North. According to the Costa Rican congressional commission, "these requests for contra help were initiated by Col. North to Gen. Noriega. They opened a gate so their henchmen could utilize Costa Rica for trafficking in arms and drugs." Hull would be later indicted by the Costa Rican Attorney General on drug trafficking charges and ultimately smuggled out to the country by a U.S. DEA agent.
Echoes of an Error
Testifying in the same room where the Kerry Hearings were held nearly a decade ago, Blum echoed Wanda Palacio's observation about the way law enforcement and other officials looked the other way when the CIA-backed contras were involved in drug operations.
"What is true is the policymakers absolutely closed their eyes to the criminal behavior of our allies and supporters in that war. The policymakers ignored their drug dealing, their stealing, and their human rights violations," said Blum. "The policymakers, and I stress policymakers, allowed them to compensate themselves for helping us in that war, by remaining silent in the face of their impropriety, and by quietly undercutting law enforcement and human rights agencies that might have caused them difficulty."
During the heyday of the CIA-contra-cocaine connection, between the passage and repeal of the Boland Amendment, in 1986, every market indicator of the cocaine glut in America went off-scale. As Wanda Palacio astutely observed in 1987, "Three years ago [before Boland], the price of cocaine was $50,000 per kilo. Today it is $20,000 and sometimes you can get it for $15,000 to $18,000. The market for the cocaine isn't smaller -- so the lower price is a result of having supply increase even more than demand has."
Something happened during the contra period in the Americas, and the evidence of a clandestine program which countenanced the import of drugs to further political agendas is overwhelming, officially, anecdotally and statistically. Today the CIA is rightfully being called on to answer the excellent questions raised by the recent "Dark Alliance" investigative series in the San Jose Mercury News.
But we would be foolish to believe the agency was alone in its operations, or that the consequences of a decade of covert drug-enabling policy began or ends in the crack-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles. An entire generation of Americans has been destabilized, major elements of our government have been diverted from ethical and legal behavior, and it will likely take the United States longer to recover from the crack connection than for Nicaragua to recover from the contra war. We have, in effect, overthrown our own highest ideals.
Robert Knight was a founding producer, along with Dennis Bernstein, of the Contragate/Undercurrents investigative news program. Knight's awards include The George R. Polk Award for Radio Reporting for his investigative work on Undercurrents. Dennis Bernstein is the host-producer of a daily public radio news magazine in the San Francisco area. Knight and Bernstein won The Jesse Meriton White Award for International Reporting and the National Federation of Community Broadcasting award for the reporting on the Iran-Contra affair. Articles by the authors have appeared in Newsday, The San Francisco Examiner, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Village Voice, Utne Reader, Essence, Spin Magazine, and many other publications.