Reagan-Bush Drug Legacy in CentAm
Two grisly mass executions in Guatemala – one involving three Salvadoran legislators and the second the four policemen who confessed to killing them – suggest that the Reagan era’s ideological tolerance of right-wing drug traffickers remains a corrupting legacy in the region.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush saw Central America as a Cold War battleground and thus downplayed evidence that right-wing paramilitary operatives in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and the Nicaraguan contra movement were deeply implicated in cocaine trafficking.
That political protection enabled cash-rich South American cocaine cartels to penetrate Central American security forces and turn the region into a way station for smuggling cocaine north to the United States. Over the past two decades, that criminality has hardened into business as usual for many police officials and military officers.
That ugly reality broke into the headlines on Feb. 19 when three Salvadoran congressmen were waylaid while driving along a road in Guatemala. The politicians included Eduardo Jose D’Aubuisson, the son of the late Roberto D’Aubuisson, who led El Salvador’s feared “death squads” in the 1980s and established the powerful right-wing Arena Party.
Guatemalan prosecutors said one of the abductors was Luis Arturo Herrera, who was head of the Guatemalan National Police’s organized crime unit. Herrera and three other policemen took the captives to a remote area, searched their vehicle, beat the victims and later executed them, the prosecutors said.
The four policemen were quickly identified because their unmarked police car had a tracking beacon that placed them at the scene. The officers confessed, claiming they believed that the three Salvadorans were drug dealers, a suspicion shared by many Central American journalists and other experts.
The policemen were confined at a Guatemalan maximum security prison, but on Feb. 25, a group of masked gunmen in military clothing entered the prison, passed through seven locked doors and executed the four policemen, according to inmates and prison visitors.
The slayings had the look of one drug-connected group eliminating another and then a third band of killers silencing the detained policemen for fear they might finger higher-ups in a cocaine-and-corruption scandal. For their part, Guatemalan authorities claimed the four policemen died in a prison riot.
Without doubt, however, drug corruption is deeply rooted in Central America. At least two-thirds of the cocaine reaching U.S. cities now passes through Guatemala en route from Colombia and Bolivia, according to American officials, and several former Guatemalan military officers have been accused of trafficking. [NYT, March 5, 2007]
El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica also have been favorite transshipment points for smuggling cocaine, often hidden among legitimate cargo, for delivery to drug-distribution points in Florida, California and Texas.
Last month’s killings in Guatemala also recalled the dark days of the 1980s when “death squads” were widely tolerated, excused and sometimes aided by the Reagan-Bush administration as part of bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist rebels.
At the start of that decade, Roberto D’Aubuisson, a cashiered major in the Salvadoran military, organized right-wing “death squad” operations, first from a safe haven in Guatemala and then more openly inside El Salvador. In both countries, the “death squads” became laws onto themselves, murdering thousands of political opponents.
The Reagan-Bush administration’s relationship with D’Aubuisson was complicated. Initially, the administration downplayed his role in the “death squad” slaughters. In 1982, when I attended a party at the home of the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, D’Aubuisson arrived with great fanfare and was treated as a guest of honor.
Later, however, as evidence of D’Aubuisson’s brutality and criminality grew undeniable, the Reagan-Bush administration distanced itself from the right-wing firebrand. (D’Aubuisson died of throat cancer in 1992.)
During the 1980s, many of the region’s security forces also became notorious for assisting shipments of cocaine to the United States.
Yet, whenever press or government investigations began digging into these corrupt relationships, the Reagan-Bush administration and right-wing media outlets, such as Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, played aggressive defense to keep the American public from learning too much.
But the evidence is now clear – in part because of CIA and Justice Department investigations in the late 1990s – that drug profits helped augment the region’s right-wing paramilitary operations, most notably the Nicaraguan contras who were organized by the CIA to battle Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica. The contras got cooperation from the region’s right-wing military and intelligence services, which controlled airports and port facilities.
Some contras, including key leaders, exploited that situation to facilitate drug shipments to the United States, while benefiting from political protection since President Ronald Reagan had hailed the contras as the “moral equals of the Founding Fathers.”
Given their place in Reagan’s pantheon, the contras could count on powerful U.S. politicians and national security officials looking the other way.
In a 1998 report, CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz found that a chief reason for the CIA’s protective handling of contra-drug evidence was Langley's "one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government ... [CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation of the contra program."
According to Hitz's report, one CIA field officer explained, "The focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war" in Nicaragua.
Hitz’s report concluded that scores of contras and contra units were implicated in the cocaine trade and that the CIA, on occasion, intervened to block criminal and congressional investigations. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
Blocking the DEA
A separate report by Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich discovered other examples of how the Reagan-Bush administration shut down or discouraged contra-drug investigations that threatened to implicate U.S. allies in Central America.
For instance, on March 20, 1986, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Costa Rica office was told by a source that contra pilot Carlos Amador was planning a cocaine flight from Costa Rica through El Salvador to Miami. The source said Amador possibly was picking up the cocaine in Hangar No. 4 at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador.
The DEA cable requested that the DEA's Guatemala office, which covered El Salvador, should "ask Salvadoran police to investigate Amador, and any person(s) and/or companies associated with Hangar No. 4."
The problem for the CIA, however, was that it controlled Hangar No. 4 – and had allocated space there to White House aide Oliver North's contra resupply operation, which then was circumventing a congressional ban on military aid to the contras.
Reacting to the DEA cable, the CIA station in Costa Rica sent another cable to the CIA station in El Salvador on April 23, 1986, asking about Amador and the drug-trafficking allegations. Two days later, the CIA's station in El Salvador urged that the DEA halt any inquiries about Hangar No. 4.
The CIA cable stated that Amador had stopped flying for the contras in early 1985, though he continued working for the FDN, the chief contra army, in Honduras. According to the cable, the CIA shared the suspicions about Amador's drug trafficking, but asserted that Amador only transported military supplies to Hangar No. 4.
"Based on that information, [El Salvador] Station would appreciate [Costa Rica] Station advising [DEA] not to make any inquiries to anyone re: hangar no. 4 at Ilopango since only legitimate [CIA] supported operations were conducted from this facility. FYI," the cable continued. "Station air operations moved from hangar no. 4 into hangar no. 5 which Station still occupies."
The CIA's request apparently did disrupt the DEA investigation for several months. But on June 10, 1986, the CIA's El Salvador station cabled the CIA’s Costa Rica station with news that a U.S. embassy officer in San Salvador had requested more information about Amador.
"The embassy officer said that if Amador is connected to [the CIA], [the DEA] will leave him alone, but if not they [the DEA] intend to go after him," the cable read. A week later, CIA headquarters denied any "association" with Amador. But the DEA's pursuit of drug-trafficking in El Salvador would not prove easy.
Celerino Castillo was the DEA officer responsible for El Salvador. On June 23, 1986, Castillo reported debriefing an informant known as "STG6," who knew Amador and other alleged traffickers.
STG6 said Amador used Salvadoran military credentials to land at Ilopango without the normal Customs search. STG6 added that Amador smuggled arms to the contras and cocaine from El Salvador to Miami. By fall 1986, Castillo also learned that the CIA had "obtained a U.S. visa" for Amador -- despite the earlier claim that the CIA had no "association" with him.
Keeping the Lid On
While the DEA slowly pieced together the contra-drug puzzle, the Reagan-Bush administration kept the lid on the new evidence in Washington.
In December 1985, my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger and I had written the first news story describing the contra-cocaine connection. But the article was greeted in Official Washington mostly with silence or disdain.
The Reagan-Bush administration wanted to focus most of the "war on drugs" attention on ideological enemies, such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas even though there was scant evidence that Sandinistas played any significant role in cocaine shipments to the United States.
Only one U.S. senator, John Kerry, was willing to put his political career on the line to follow up on the AP report regarding drug trafficking by Reagan’s beloved contras.
But Kerry soon found his investigation under criticism not only from Moon’s Washington Times but from mainstream news outlets, such as the New York Times which treated the contra-drug allegations as a bogus tale.
Meanwhile, back in Central America, DEA agent Castillo began looking into the mysterious activities of a former U.S. military official, named Walter Grasheim, who operated out of San Salvador. Informant STG6 had identified Grasheim as "head of smuggling operations" at Ilopango.
"Grasheim owns and operates Hangar #4," alleged the informant who worked at the airport. "Said hangar is utilized by international cocaine and arms traffickers. Hangar #4 is also utilized by the Contra Movement in El Salvador."
On Oct. 27, 1986, Castillo opened a file on Grasheim, as part of a larger drug-trafficking investigation at hangars four and five. Castillo's investigative report identified 13 other "documented narcotics traffickers" who used the hangars.
On Oct. 30, Castillo briefed U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Edwin Corr, who knew Grasheim when he worked with the embassy's Military Group. Officially, Corr "welcomed any investigation on Grasheim but ... asked ... that the investigation be conducted in a very discreet manner," Castillo reported.
Unknown to Castillo, however, Corr went behind the agent's back. The ambassador sent a "back-channel" cable to the State Department asking DEA headquarters to review Castillo's investigation. DEA headquarters responded by judging the evidence inadequate and closing down the Grasheim file only days after the inquiry had started.
Suddenly, Castillo was under the embassy's watchful eye. In an interview with Bromwich's investigators, Corr said Castillo resisted the orders to drop the case and continued "to snoop around the airport and make allegations." Corr warned Castillo that unless he had more evidence, he should stop this "witch hunt."
The fall of 1986 brought more bad news for the contra operations. The Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open, after one of North's supply planes was shot down inside Nicaragua and a Beirut magazine disclosed secret U.S. arms sales to Iran, a project which generated profits that North diverted into contra accounts.
However, the major Iran-Contra investigations still steered clear of any comprehensive examination of contra-drug trafficking.
According to an internal CIA memo, the agency's Central American Task Force chief Alan Fiers told congressional intelligence committees that the CIA would brief the DEA on what the CIA knew about contra-drug trafficking. But that meeting apparently never happened.
Bromwich's report in 1998 stated that "neither the DEA nor the CIA [Office of the Inspector General] could locate any record of any such discussions.” Sen. Kerry's investigation confronted similar stonewalls.
In 1989, the DEA got wind of more alleged contra-cocaine shipments. In an interview with Bromwich's investigators, DEA supervisor Thomas deTriquet recalled that a reliable informant had passed on information about drug dealers using contra pilots to transport cocaine through Hangar No. 5, the one controlled by the CIA.
When Castillo and deTriquet went to Ilopango to investigate, a CIA officer turned them away, the report said. The DEA agents then went to the U.S. embassy where the CIA chief of station assured them that there was no drug activity at Hangar No. 5.
Robert Stia, DEA country attache in Guatemala, complained to headquarters that "DEA cannot develop the most important information, that relating to those allegations and intelligence in regards to Ilopango Air Force Base."
Stia also reported that in March 1989 a confidential source relayed information from a Salvadoran Air Force officer that the Salvadoran government and the CIA were running large shipments of cocaine through air bases at La Union and San Miguel in El Salvador. The goal again was to raise money for the contras, the source claimed.
Stia noted, too, that the U.S. Embassy objected to Castillo's involvement because of his reputation for always "digging up things." Stia said the deputy ambassador had put "stringent controls" on handling Castillo's "country clearance" for entering El Salvador. Castillo was soon pushed out of the DEA.
Summing up this recurring contra-drug defensiveness, Bromwich grasped the obvious: "We have no doubt that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy were not anxious for the DEA to pursue its investigation at the airport. The DEA's [first] investigation of drug trafficking activities at Ilopango was closed in 1986, perhaps with the intervention of the U.S. Embassy.
"Moreover, as reflected in the CIA's cables in the Amador case, the CIA requested that the DEA not investigate its operations at Ilopango, and the CIA vouched that they were legitimate CIA-supported operations. It is also clear that there was intelligence, although not hard evidence, that some contra resupply pilots were trafficking in drugs."
Though Kerry’s investigation in the late 1980s was hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Reagan-Bush administration and by hostility from most of the U.S. news media, he still managed to expose the broad outlines of the contra-cocaine network.
On April 13, 1989, Kerry’s report concluded: "On the basis of the evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."
The report added that drug traffickers gave the contras "cash, weapons, planes, pilots, air supply services and other materials." Moreover, the U.S. State Department paid some drug traffickers as part of a program to fly non-lethal assistance to the contras. Some payments occurred "after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies on drug charges, in others while traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies."
Although Kerry's findings represented the first time a congressional report explicitly accused federal agencies of willful collaboration with drug traffickers, the major news organizations chose to bury the startling findings.
Instead of front-page treatment, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts and stuck them deep inside their papers. The New York Times article, only 850 words long, landed on Page 8. The Post placed its story on A20. The Los Angeles Times found space on Page 11.
For his hard work, Kerry was ridiculed as a “randy conspiracy buff” by Newsweek. One of the best-read political reference books, the Almanac of American Politics, gave this account of Kerry's investigation in its 1992 edition: "In search of right-wing villains and complicit Americans, [Kerry] tried to link Nicaraguan contras to the drug trade, without turning up much credible evidence."
Given the hostility to the contra-cocaine investigation in Washington, there was little follow-up on Kerry’s 1989 findings. Amid the neglect, officially sanctioned drug trafficking in Central America grew into a regional cancer.
When the contra-cocaine issue resurfaced in 1996 with a three-part series by reporter Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury-News, Reagan-Bush defenders joined with the major U.S. newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times – to destroy Webb.
Though Webb’s series sparked the official investigations at the CIA and the Justice Department, Webb was hounded out of his job at the Mercury-News – and received no vindication when the inspectors general’s reports corroborated many of his allegations and went even further.
Indeed, in 1998, when those critical findings were released, the major U.S. news media focused on elements of the government press releases that disparaged Webb rather than on the stunning admissions in the reports.
Shunned by the journalism profession and unable to find a decent-paying job, Webb committed suicide on Dec. 9, 2004. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Gary Webb’s Death: American Tragedy.”]
Meanwhile, Central American cocaine-trafficking, which took root in the region’s security services in the 1980s, has continued to spread, compounded by economic stagnation and widespread government corruption.
The strange case of the two February massacres in Guatemala offers another chance to finally force the dark history of the Reagan-Bush cocaine complicity into the open. But prospects for such a correction of the record are not great.
[For more on Sen. Kerry’s work on this issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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