Traffickers used Costa Rica as drug haven


LATE ONE AFTERNOON in July 1987, the front door to our house in San Jose, Costa Rica, suddenly burst open. A half-dozen local narcotics agents, wearing blue jeans and gold chains, charged in, dragging in tow our hysterical secretary, Carmen Araya.

The agents ransacked file drawers in our ground-floor office and then tore through the rest of the house, looking for drugs. They found none. No matter, they said, they already had the "smoking gun." They produced a brown paper package addressed to us, with a return address from the Interior Ministry in Nicaragua. The package contained a letter signed "Tomas" and a book whose center had been hollowed out. A small plastic packet filled with white powder was inserted in the space. High-quality cocaine, the agents informed us.

Through tears, Carmen explained that after collecting our mail at the post office, she was seized by narcotics agents waiting outside, thrown into a car, and taken to a judge's chambers. There the package was ceremoniously opened, and the cocaine "discovered."

The letter, supposedly from the Sandinistas' interior minister. Tomas Borge, described a cocaine trafficking network involving my husband, Tony Avirgan, and me, several top Nicaraguan government officials, the Soviet Ambassador to Costa Rica, and Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. The next day, right-wing newspapers throughout Central America ran identical articles, headlined: "Two journalists arrested as drug traffickers."

The charges were embarrassing and absurd, but it took us a year and a half and a good Costa Rican lawyer to get them dismissed.

Eventually we unraveled the truth. Postal workers said that the package had been inserted into the system in San Jose and that narcotics agents had cooled their heels for days waiting for one of us to collect it. The scheme had been cooked up over lunch by two Cuban Americans. A house servant for one of the men overheard the pair hatching the plot with the aim of forcing us to stop investigating the connection between the CIA, the contras, and Colombian cocaine traffickers.

We already knew a lot about this - the CIA-contra-cocaine triangle as well as about this Cuban-American duo. One of the men, a Bay of Pigs veteran, was listed as a "narcotrafficker" in Interpol's drug registry. The other, a convicted drug trafficker, had come to Costa Rica posing as a contra military trainer. Contra commanders said this man worked for the CIA. Both men claimed to be well connected in Washington, and later, both of their names showed up in Oliver North's diaries as players in Washington's covert war against the leftist Sandinistas.

The Cuban Americans had included John Kerry's name in the "Tomas" letter because he was spearheading a Senate investigation into contra- and CIA-linked drug trafficking. Over the course of the three-year probe, Kerry's staff ran into numerous other obstacles, as Kerry's chief investigator, Washington lawyer Jack Blum, testified during a recent Senate hearing. "We were subject to a systematic campaign to discredit everything we did," he said.

The 1989 Senate report, "Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy," concluded that "senior U.S. officials were not immune to the idea that drug money was the perfect solution to the contras' funding problems." The Kerry Report, as it was known, painted a devastatingly detailed picture of a complex web linking U.S. officials, contra leaders, Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega, a string of aviation companies in Miami and Central America, pilots, banks, drug traffickers, top Colombian drug lords and the contras' U.S., Cuban American and Latin American supporters.

It was this same web that my husband and I also, inadvertently, stumbled upon. We had been investigating the CIA's covert war against Nicaragua and the May 1984 bombing of a contra press conference which injured my husband and killed three journalists. Terrorism and covert operations were risky enough. We kept pushing away evidence of drug trafficking by the CIA's army. But it kept coming back.

During the 1980s, Costa Rica, like other Central American countries, became a bridge for moving cocaine from the coca fields and processing factories in South America to markets in North America. This coincided with the start of Washington's covert war against the Sandinistas. They formed, as Miami-based attorney John Mattes put it to me, "a marriage of convenience between the contras and coke smugglers. The smugglers had access to intelligence, airstrips, and most importantly, unimpeded access into the U.S. And that to a drug smuggler is worth all the tea in China," said Mattes.

The contras were, from inception, a covert CIA army: They were financed, trained and equipped with weapons, uniforms, food and planes from the agency. Their supply drops and military attacks were coordinated by the CIA station chief in the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. Contra leaders, as well as a score of Costa Rican officials, businessmen, colonels, and journalists, received monthly stipends from the CIA. When, in late 1984, Congress officially cut off U.S. funding for the contras, National Security Council official Oliver North stepped in to keep the war going.

Up and down the contra chain of command were CIA agents, contract employees, and operatives who worked as military trainers, pilots, transporters, suppliers and logistical experts. A number of those on the CIA payroll had a history of drug trafficking. It was impossible, I became convinced, that the CIA was unaware that its contra military operation was deeply entwined with the cocaine traffickers. In the mid-1980s, several U.S.-based aviation companies, all under investigation for drug trafficking, received lucrative U.S. government contracts to move supplies for the contras.

From interviews in Costa Rica, Miami, and elsewhere, I eventually identified four different drug networks linked to the contra operations. One was the Norwin Meneses-Oscar Blandon network detailed in the San Jose Mercury News series. This network was aligned in Costa Rica with the smallest contra armies, headed by Fernando "El Negro" Chamorro.

The second network was the so-called International Brigade, a dozen or so Cuban Americans who claimed that they came to Costa Rica to help the contras.

The third contra-drug network involved a CIA operative who was an elderly farmer whose vast ranches along the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border were the main staging area for the contra army.

In visits to the contra camps, it became apparent that most of the drug millions never reached the foot soldiers, who were badly clothed, fed and armed throughout the war. As one young contra defector put it in describing his disgust with the contra leadership and their CIA handlers, "These people are involved in drug and arms trafficking and they are making money off the blood of my brothers."

The fourth network involved General Noriega, who, by the early 1980s, was the CIA's most important asset in Central America. The agency know of, but tolerated, Noriega's ties to the drug cartels. Noriega's stable of pilots flew drug dollars, packed in cardbord boxes from Miami to Panama, where Panama Defense Forces armored cars met the planes and transported the money to BCCI and other banks protected by Panama's strict secrecy laws.

Noriega's pilots also flew arms and drugs for the Costa Rican-based contras, using rebel airstrips, fuel depots, and front dollars in Panama, and Noriega received millions of dollars in commissions.

In the late 1980s, Costa Rican legislative and judicial investigations into drug trafficking concluded that Noriega and his pilots were principally responsible for using the contras' clandestine military infrastructure to open up Costa Rica to drug traffickers.

In 1989, in a highly unusual move, the Costa Rican legislature concluded its probe into drug trafficking by declaring persona non grata several U.S. officials involved with Noriega and the contras. These included Oliver North, the CIA station chief in Costa Rica, U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs, and Adm. John Poindexter, Reagan's National Security Council Adviser.

Like the Kerry Report, this courageous move caused nary a ripple in official Washington or the major media.

Martha Honey is the author of "Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s" (University Press of Florida) and director of the Peace and Security Program for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Much of the documentation for this article comes from her book.

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