The CIA and Cocaine: Truth and Disinformation

Who has the airplanes?

November 15, 1996--John Deutch, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, went to Watts to speak to hundreds of neighborhood residents. The head of the CIA visiting the ghetto!? Now you know they must be in deep trouble! The CIA and the media tried to suppress the stories of CIA drug-dealing.

For 10 years, the mainstream media refused to report on it--even when the Senate's own Kerry Report brought out damning evidence. They tried to ignore the series by Gary Webb that appeared in the San Jose Mercury that revealed the names of Nicaraguan contra operatives who were distributing cocaine in South Central L.A. and Compton to raise money for the CIA's secret contra war.

In the last month, this country's most prominent newspapers, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times, all carried stories intended to discredit Webb's report. This campaign has not worked. On Nightline, November 15, Ted Koppel remarked how attempts to dis Webb's report had only made the masses of people more suspicious that crimes were being covered up.

The story is out! Millions know! And now, the CIA is forced to combine more coverup with an unprecedented public attempt at damage control. Deutch was in L.A. to promise that the CIA's Inspector General would "get to the bottom of things." And he had to sit there as the people spoke bitterly of how the system has ruined lives--denying people jobs, packing the youth into prisons, bringing drugs into the community, denouncing the history of CIA drug running.

The first woman at the microphone told how Black men had been allowed to die of syphilis, while government doctors in the infamous "Tuskegee experiment" withheld medicine and studied their deaths. "How is this any different?" she asked Deutch, referring to CIA involvement in bringing drugs into the Black community. One brother said it was an insult to people's intelligence to claim "The CIA doesn't sell drugs," since everyone knows about CIA heroin-running from Asia's Golden Triangle. A former LAPD narcotics cop described how documents about CIA drug operations were suppressed by authorities. Joey Johnson, revolutionary activist against police brutality, exposed how the CIA's contras had murdered thousands of people to destabilize Nicaragua, while their drug traffic destabilized the oppressed communities of L.A. "When are the prison doors going to open?" he demanded, to free those jailed by racist crack laws.

The CIA investigate itself? Nobody is having it!

This scandal cuts to the heart of this government's legitimacy: It lays bare the utter hypocrisy, the racism and the complete hard-heartedness of this system's rulers. They've been jailing thousands of youth--locking them away!--for involvement in the illegal economy. And then it turns out that the government itself, possibly at the highest levels, was deeply involved in the import and sale of that poison!

The Central Intelligence Agency, its head John Deutch, its main investigator CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz, and much of the mainstream media are already claiming that there is no evidence that the CIA itself approved or participated in cocaine trafficking.

These claims are simply not true: There is massive evidence that the CIA was a key force organizing guns-for-drugs operations that secretly financed much of the U.S.'s dirty war against Nicaragua.

In this article, we will explore evidence that came out even before Gary Webb's series: the network of airlines and airstrips used to transport cocaine into the U.S. during the '80s.

Who Has the Planes?

Thirty years ago, Malcolm X made a penetrating observation: Oppressed people don't own airplanes and boats. The media and the government try to blame oppressed people for drugs--but international drug trafficking requires fleets of cargo planes, landing strips in several countries, networks of international contacts, pools of investment money, networks for money laundering and the high-level contacts for getting past U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In 1989, pilot Mike Tolliver told CBS that, after years of smuggling drugs, he was recruited into the contra supply operation by a "Mr. Hernandez." Tolliver identified "Hernandez" as Felix Rodríguez, the CIA agent directing contra supply from El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base. Tolliver says he flew a DC-6 loaded with guns and ammunition for "Hernandez" in March 1986, from Butler Aviation at the Miami Airport down to Aguacate, the U.S.-controlled contra air base in Honduras. Tolliver says the guns were unloaded by contras and he was paid about $70,000 by "Hernandez." After a three-day layover, Tolliver said he flew the aircraft, reloaded with over 25,000 pounds of marijuana, as a "nonscheduled military flight" into Homestead Air Force Base near Miami.

"We landed about 1:30, 2 o'clock in the morning," said Tolliver, "and a little blue truck came out and met us. [It] had a little white sign on it that said `Follow Me' with flashing lights. We followed it." "I was a little taken aback," Tolliver told the CBS program West 57th. "I figured it was a DEA bust or a sting or something like that." It wasn't. Tolliver said he just left the plane and the drugs sitting there at the airport to be unloaded, and took a taxi from the base.[1]

West 57th traced this DC-6 back to a company called Vortex. Vortex is one of four airlines hired by the U.S. State Department to supply the contras--using money designated by Congress as being for "humanitarian aid" only.

In April 1987, a Customs service official told the Boston Globe, "We think he did land at Homestead," and acknowledged that there was a system under which contra supply flights were able to fly in and out of U.S. airports free of Customs inspection. But that same Customs official claimed that Tolliver was only a "free-lancer" who "bluffed his way" into Homestead. One researcher writes, "It was not explained how Tolliver bluffed his way into an Air Force base, leaving behind over 25,000 pounds of marijuana which apparently bluffed their way out."[1]

The operation Tolliver described is similar to stories told over and over again in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee headed by Sen. John Kerry. A report was issued in the spring of 1989 by this Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations. That report describes how the U.S. government recruited major drug smugglers, used their airlines to "supply the contras," and how these airplanes flew down to Central America loaded with guns and flew back loaded with drugs.

When the contra war started in 1981, a "retired" U.S. Air Force Colonel, Richard Gadd, was put in charge of creating a secret, private network of cargo airlines to supply the contras. His network worked closely with the CIA-linked Southern Air Transport.

Until 1972, the CIA directly owned Southern Air Transport, an air cargo company based in Miami. In 1972 this airline was "sold" to its president. A 1976 congressional report noted that the sales of other such "proprietary" companies were usually conditioned on "an agreement that the proprietary would continue to provide goods or services to the CIA."[2] The Washington Post reported on January 20, 1987: "According to informed sources, a witness told the Federal Bureau of Investigation last summer of having seen a cargo plane with Southern Air markings being used for a guns-for-drugs transfer at an airfield in Barranquilla, Colombia in 1983." This witness "Wanda Doe," the wife of a major drug trafficker, told the Kerry Subcommittee staff "that she saw airplanes owned by Southern Air Transport land in Barranquilla, Colombia, unload weapons and load cocaine." The flight logs of Wallace B. Sawyer, the Ilopango-based pilot who worked for Southern Air indicate two visits to Barranquilla in October 1985.[3]

After 1984, Congress made it illegal for the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA to secretly supply arms for the contras. So the operation's organizers stepped up its recruitment of major drug smugglers to do this work for them. Congress allowed the administration to provide the contra army with only "humanitarian aid." According to the Kerry Subcommittee report, the U.S. State Department transferred over $800,000 of this "humanitarian aid" money to four Miami-based firms connected with major drug-smuggling rings:

In short, after 1984, the relationship between the U.S. government and the airlines of major drug traffickers becomes part of the public record. This network carried weapons to the CIA's contra army in Central America and returned with drugs to the U.S.

How Drug Smugglers Were Recruited

In the early summer of 1984, two contra representatives met with George Morales, a big-time Colombian trafficker who was then under indictment in the U.S. They met at the Miami home of a wealthy Nicaraguan exile. The contra representatives were Octaviano César and Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro.

A San Francisco Chronicle article reports: "Chamorro and César said they asked a CIA official whether they could accept the offer of airplanes and cash from the drug dealer, Morales. `I called our contact at the CIA,' Chamorro said recently. `The truth is, we were still getting some CIA money under the table. They said he (Morales) was fine.' " Journalist Leslie Cockburn subsequently corroborated César's CIA status from no less than eight sources, including high-level administration officials in Washington.[4]

Morales went on to organize numerous guns-for-drugs flights between the United States and Central America.[5] Morales told the Christic Institute that he donated approximately $5 million in drug money to the contras in 1984 and 1985. Morales said that the payment was part of a deal with three contra leaders a few months after his indictment on drug charges: they would `take care' of his legal problem in return for financial and logistical support. Morales later testified before the Kerry Subcommittee that his pilots flew weapons to contra bases and returning to the United States with drug cargoes. At a federal trial in April 1990, Colombian drug pilot Ernesto Carrasco testified that he saw Morales pay more than $1 million in drug profits to contra leader Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro at a Florida restaurant in 1985.[6]

Morales claims that the CIA opened up an airstrip in Costa Rica, on the 1,500-acre ranch of the American John Hull, and that his pilots flew 20 shipments of weapons into Costa Rica in 1984 and 1985, and smuggled thousands of kilos of cocaine on the return flights into the United States. This was confirmed by Gary Betzner, a pilot for Morales, who testified he flew cocaine from Costa Rica to Lakeland, Florida.[7, 1] "I smuggled my share of illegal substance," said Betzner, "but I also smuggled my share of weapons in exchange, with the full knowledge and assistance of both the DEA and the CIA." (Newsweek, January 26, 1986)

The Kerry Subcommittee described John Hull as "a liaison between the contras and the United States government." And subcommittee testimony said that, on at least two occasions, Hull was present while bags of cocaine were transferred to the planes.

In May 1990, Colombian drug kingpin Carlos Lehder told ABC News that Hull was "pumping about 30 tons of cocaine into the United States every year."[6]

In his Kerry Subcommittee testimony, Morales described the protection he enjoyed as long as he worked with the contra supply: Despite a previous indictment and DEA objections, a court order permitted him to enter and leave the country on his drug business. He landed his drug planes at the government-controlled Ilopango Air Force Base in El Salvador. And for two years, arms and drugs were loaded and unloaded from his planes, in broad daylight, at Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport.

The M.O. for Recruiting Cargo Airplanes, Pilots for the Secret War

The reports of such enlistment of drug smugglers are routinely denied by the CIA. However, there is much evidence that recruiters of the contra supply network would make drug smugglers "an offer you can't refuse." Drug traffickers were offered protection from prosecution and protection for their planes flying in and out of various U.S. airports and military bases. In exchange, the U.S. government got a large "self-financing" network of cargo aircraft and pilots that could not be easily traced to the CIA or Defense Department.

During the 1991 trial of Panama's Manuel Noriega, Carlos Lehder testified that a U.S. official offered to allow him to smuggle cocaine into the United States, if he would allow the contra supply network to use a Bahamian island he owned. Lehder also testified that the Colombian cartel had donated about $10 million to the contras.[8]

According to a Senate narcotics subcommittee, the federal indictment against drug trafficker Michael B. Palmer, owner of Vortex, was dropped because the government decided the case was not "in the interest of the United States." This narcotics subcommittee also reported that in 1985 a federal attorney in Miami stopped investigating drug trafficking on John Hull's ranch because U.S. officials "were taking active measures to protect Hull." The Kerry report says it was the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica that stopped this investigation.[6]

Michael Levine, a DEA agent for 25 years reported from personal experiences in the L.A. Times that "high-level drug investigations had been destroyed" because the CIA would step in--protecting the drug traffickers and forcing DEA prosecutions to be called off in the name of "national security."[9] In 1983, as the contra supply operation was building, the DEA closed its station in Honduras, where the main contra bases and airstrips were located.

Providing Airports and Protection for the Smuggling Operations

Flights like Tolliver's into major U.S. bases were routine. In April 1987 the Boston Globe reported that between 50 and 100 flights "arranged by the CIA took off from or landed at U.S. airports during the past two years without undergoing inspection" by U.S. Customs.[6] Government-protected drug smugglers used many U.S. bases, including Homestead Air Force Base near Miami, U.S. air force bases in Texas, and a number of airstrips around Mena, Arkansas, during the time when Bill Clinton was governor.[3]

Meanwhile, in Latin America, the gun-for-drugs operation used two major U.S.-controlled air bases, in addition to John Hull's ranch, Panamanian government air bases, and the Colombian airstrips in Barranquilla. One was the Salvadoran Air Force base at Ilopango, El Salvador--a base virtually under the control of the U.S. Department of Defense. In 1985, this control was exercised by Col. James Steele, who was then chief of the U.S. Military Advisory Group in El Salvador, and who, in that capacity, oversaw the Contra supply operation at Ilopango at first hand. The other base was the contras' main air base at Aguacate in Honduras. These locations were valuable because their runways could handle large, heavily laden military cargo planes.[4]

Celerino Castillo, who was once Drug Enforcement Agent in charge of Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica, says he reported to DEA headquarters that huge drug- and gun-smuggling operations were being run from Ilopango military airport by the "North Network" and the CIA. In his 1994 book, Powder Burns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War, Castillo writes, "My reports contained not only the names of traffickers, but their destinations, flight paths, tail numbers, and the date and time of each flight. Hundreds of flights each week delivered cocaine to the buyers and returned money headed for the great isthmus laundering machine in Panama."

Castillo reported that the operations were run out of two hangars at Ilopango: "The CIA owned one hangar and the National Security Council ran the other."[4] Gary Webb documents that cocaine for California's contra ring came through Ilopango, and that its main leader Meneses had close personal ties with Salvadoran generals. "We don't know the extent of the Honduran military's involvement in drugs," said a State Department official. "But our educated guess is that all of the senior officials have knowledge, many are involved...and they are all reaping the profits."[1]


This evidence reveals that U.S. government officials were involved in creating and directing the air networks that supplied the contras with arms and smuggled drugs into the U.S. People are asked to believe that the contras carried these operations out on their own, while low-level CIA agents merely "turned their heads and did nothing."

On one level, the evidence that links these operations to the CIA is fragmentary. These were covert operations--designed by professionals for the specific purpose of giving the U.S. rulers "plausible deniability."

But clearly such operations could not have been conceived by the hired contra mercenaries. Only support within the U.S. government at the highest levels could have protected these networks and assured their safe entry into U.S. air bases. Evidence at every point--in the testimony and documents of DEA agents, in the investigations of the Costa Rican government, in statements by Customs officials and the testimony of contra agents and drug smugglers--points to CIA involvement in these operations--creating them, protecting them, and directing them.

The CIA denies this. But the facts remain: While the government preached "just say no," while it was criminalizing a whole generation of ghetto youth, that same government was deeply involved in transporting cocaine and other drugs into the United States to secretly finance their dirty counterrevolutionary war against Nicaragua.


[1] Washington's War on Nicaragua, Holly Sklar, South End Press, 1988

[2] The Iran Contra Connection--Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era, Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter; South End Press, 1987

[3] "How the U.S. Government Has Augmented America's Drug Crisis," Peter Dale Scott, Ph.D., War on Drugs: Studies in the Failure of U.S. Narcotic Policy, Alfred W. McCoy and Alan A. Block (Eds), Westview Press, Boulder, 1992

[4] "CIA and Drug Trafficking by Contra Supporters," Affidavit by Peter Dale Scott, Ph.D., September 30, 1996

[5] "Account Links Contras, Drug Trafficking," Douglas Farah and Walter Pincus, Washington Post, reprinted by San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1996

[6] "The Contra-Cocaine Connection," Amy Lang, Convergence magazine, Christic Institute, Fall 1991

[7] "State Organized Crime," American Society of Criminology Presidential Address, William J. Chamblis, 1988

[8] "A Media Snow Job," In These Times, October 28, 1996

[9] "Is the CIA's New Openness Just Another Con Job on a Naive Public?", Michael Levine, Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1993

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