First in an exclusive Tico Times series in two parts
Two former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contract pilot are claiming that the Reagan Administration was complicit in the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena at the hands of Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero.
The administration’s alleged effort to cover up a U.S. government relationship with the Mexican drug lord to provide for the arming and the training of Nicaraguan Contra rebels, at a time when official assistance to the Contras was banned by the congressional Boland Amendment, led to Camarena’s kidnap, torture and murder, according to Phil Jordon, former head of the DEA’s El Paso office, Hector Berrellez, the DEA’s lead investigator into Camarena’s kidnapping, torture and murder, and CIA contract pilot Robert “Tosh” Plumlee.
“We’re not saying the CIA murdered Kiki Camarena,” Jordan said. But the “consensual relationship between the Godfathers of Mexico and the CIA that included drug trafficking” contributed to Camarena’s death, he added.
“I don’t have a problem with the CIA conducting covert operations to protect the national security of our country or our allies, but not to engage in criminal activity that leads to the murder of one our agents,” Jordan said.
Camarena had discovered the arms-for-drugs operation run on behalf of the Contras, aided by U.S. officials in the National Security Council and the CIA, and threatened to blow the whistle on the covert operation, Jordan alleged.
Berrellez said two witnesses identified, from a photo lineup, two or three Cuban CIA operatives who participated in Camarena’s interrogation.
Plumlee said he and three other pilots ran tons of cocaine into U.S. military bases on return trips from delivering weapons to Contra rebels in Central America, and was warned by Camarena that he would be busted. Plumlee has a long and colorful history of working for the CIA, beginning with flying arms to Cuba before Fidel Castro’s takeover in the 1950s.
Jordan said the cover story Plumlee had been told by his CIA “handler” William Bennetee – that his cocaine flights into U.S. military bases were part of a drug interdiction program to penetrate and dismantle the cocaine routes of Colombian drug lords Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa – was unimaginable, since the DEA, which would have had to approve the program, had no knowledge of it.
“I don’t know of any DEA administrator that I worked for who would have sanctioned cocaine smuggling into the United States in the name of national security, when we are out there risking our lives,” Jordan told The Tico Times.
The CIA reacted indignantly to the allegation of complicity in Camarena’s murder. “It’s ridiculous to suggest that the CIA had anything to do with the murder of a U.S. federal agent or the escape of his killer,” an agency spokesman told Fox News.
The DEA said only that U.S. justice has gotten to the bottom of the Camarena case.
“DEA believes that the individuals responsible for the torture and murder of Special Agent Kiki Camarena have been identified and indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. They include Rafael Caro-Quintero and 15 others,” said the agency in a statement.
An agency spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
Plumlee said he worked undercover as a CIA contractor for the civilian aviation company SETCO, flying between points in Mexico, South and Central America and the United States, delivering arms for the Contras.
Various investigations, including one by the CIA’s Inspector General, established that SETCO was an airline controlled by Honduran drug trafficker Juan Matta Ballesteros, and also was the principal company used to traffic arms to the Contra rebels.
Matta Ballesteros is currently serving time in a U.S. federal prison.
Plumlee said he flew a C-130 transport plane in and out of Caro Quintero’s ranch in Veracruz, Mexico, to Bogotá and Medellín, Colombia, to Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador, and to a secret airstrip on the Santa Elena Peninsula in Costa Rica, among other locations, carrying arms south from the U.S. to the Contras and cocaine north to U.S. military installations, including El Toro Marine Air Base in southern California and Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.
Plumlee estimated that among them, the four pilots smuggled about 40 tons of cocaine in the operation.
The pilot said he had no worry about being caught by civilian aviation or military authorities because he carried “coded transponders” that identified his plane as a “spooky” flight warning off any official scrutiny. The transponders permitting such flights could only have come from the White House, Plumlee said.
The programs were code-named “Grasshopper,” for the El Toro route and “Roosterhop,” for the Homestead route, Plumlee added.
Berrellez said he’s convinced the drugs were taken from the airbases by traffickers with connections to the Contras and sold on the streets.
In fall 1984, Plumlee met at the Oaxaca Café in Phoenix, Arizona, with agents from the Phoenix Organized Crime Detail and the Arizona Tri-State Task Force, including Camarena, to discuss his SETCO flights.
When Plumlee told the agents the flights were sanctioned by the U.S. government, “Kiki said, ‘That’s horseshit. You’re lining your pockets,’” Jordan recalled. “He could not believe that the U.S. government could be running drugs into the United States.”
Alarmed by Camarena’s threats to bust the operation, Plumlee went to Bennettee and told him about Camarena’s warning, saying that he had no intention of going to jail and would blow the whistle if indicted.
Bennettee told Plumlee not to worry. “Camarena isn’t going to do anything,” he reassured the pilot.
About five months later, on Feb. 7, 1985, Camarena was kidnapped in Mexico by agents of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS by its Spanish acronym), which the former DEA agents say were both the eyes and ears of the CIA in Mexico and at the same time at the beck and call of Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
According to Plumlee, the DEA agent had written a series of memos complaining about official lethargy in bringing the gunrunning operation under control.
“Kiki said, ‘What do we have to do, does someone have to get killed to do something about this?’” Plumlee said.
Jordan added that the use of a drug dealer’s property by the CIA for the purpose of helping the Contras didn’t sit well with the DEA agents.
“That’s the way we’re brought up, so to speak,” he said. “When we see someone running drugs, we want to bust them, not work with them.”
Three weeks after he disappeared, Camarena’s decomposing body was found on a ranch. He had been tortured, it was later learned, in a brutal three-day ordeal that ended in his death. Officials blamed Caro Quintero, who, they said, had exacted revenge on Camarena for busting Caro Quintero’s multimillion-dollar marijuana plantation in Chihuahua, Mexico.
But Berrellez charges the CIA with complicity in the murder, based on the cozy relationship between the CIA and DFS, and between the DFS and the Guadalajara drug cartel, the timing of Camarena’s threat to Plumlee, and the fact that the CIA was able to produce two or three of the tapes of Camarena’s interrogation, but failed to provide three or four other similar tapes.
“Kiki was sacrificed because it was thought that he was on to them,” Berrellez said.
Plumlee said the White House was concerned about a leak that might have incriminated officials in the illegal arming of the Contras. He said he knows this because he was given access to intelligence reports and briefing materials during his testimony in 1990 to the Senate committee chaired by then-Senator and now-Secretary of State John Kerry. Much of Plumlee’s testimony was given in closed session and remains sealed as a national security secret, the pilot said.
“They wanted to talk to Kiki about the arms, not drugs,” Plumlee said.
The alleged support for the Contras by Mexican drug kingpins, including Caro Quintero and Miguel Félix Gallardo, is not new. The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post reported on the relationship between the Reagan government and the drug lords in 1990, according to the book “Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America,” by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall.
But the alleged connection between the Reagan Administration’s Contra policies and Camarena’s murder has only surfaced after the release in July of Caro Quintero from prison – where he served 28 years of a 40-year jail term – and has been widely reported in the Mexican and Central American press.
Some in the Mexican press went so far as to say that the CIA, not Caro Quintero, killed Camarena.
The fact that witnesses have placed CIA operatives at the scene of Camarena’s kidnapping and interrogation tells Jordan that the CIA operatives should have told their handlers ahead of time and stopped it.
“If it were the other way around and it were DEA operatives with knowledge of a possible kidnapping of a CIA agent, the DEA would never allow it to happen,” Jordan said.
Plumlee said he is talking now because he wants to cover himself now that the issue has come into public view, and also to set the record straight, as some news sources, especially in Mexico, have blamed the CIA directly for murdering Camarena.
Plumlee produced a letter dated Feb. 11, 1991, written by former Sen. Gary Hart to then-Sen. Kerry saying that Plumlee had been in contact with his office about the arms and drug trafficking between 1983 and 1985, and that Hart’s staff had informed the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees but “no action was initiated by either committee.”
Bill Holden, Hart’s national security adviser and now a county commissioner in Arapaho County, Colorado, said he met with Plumlee several times.
“I have no reason not to believe Plumlee,” Holden said. National Security Council adviser Lt. Col. Oliver North “was involved in a lot of nefarious activities that led the Reagan Administration into Iran-Contra.”
Iran-Contra was the scandal that rocked the Reagan Administration when it was revealed that the government had sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to finance the Contras.
Berrellez said the 76-year-old pilot is risking a lot to speak out, as he could still be prosecuted for the drug trafficking and even as an accessory to murder for flying Caro Quintero from Veracruz across the border to Guatemala when the drug lord made his escape from Mexico en route to a short-lived stay in Costa Rica in March 1985.
Even before the Iran-Contra scandal broke, two reporters from the Associated Press, Brian Barger and Robert Parry, had published a series of articles reporting on alleged drug trafficking by Contra rebels.
The articles focused on companies that served as fronts for both aiding the Contras and running drugs, but did not hint at drug running on the scale alleged by Plumlee.
In 1996, Gary Webb, reporting for the San Jose, California-based Mercury News, broke a story linking Contra drug running to the proliferation of crack cocaine in Los Angeles that had bred addiction and gang-related violence.
Though the “Dark Alliance” series was based on a case that had already been aired, the series hit a nerve by implying that the a U.S. government-backed rebel group (the “CIA’s army” as the series repeatedly stated) was responsible for a crack epidemic that began in L.A. and spread to other communities, especially black communities, across the country.
Soon thereafter, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all published articles shooting down Webb’s reporting, saying that the amount of drugs run by the ring in Webb’s article could not by itself have sparked an epidemic on a scale experienced by U.S. cities.
The particular ring written about by Webb, headed by Nicaraguan drug traffickers Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon, was not big enough to have fueled the crack epidemic and provided relatively little money to the Contra cause, the news reports said.
Berrellez admitted that he can’t make a firm connection between the Contra drug flights into southern California, but said he is convinced the Meneses-Blandon drug ring had access to cocaine flown into El Toro Marine Air Base, adding that the ultimate buyer of the drug for street sales in Los Angeles, “Freeway” Ricky Ross, dealt in tons of cocaine and had Meneses and Blandon as his suppliers.
“I was working in Los Angeles at the time, and I can tell you we knew of no interdiction program at El Toro,” Berrellez said. “The Contras were running drugs from Central America and the Contras were providing drugs to street gangs in Los Angeles. That’s your connection.”
Initially supportive, Webb’s editors, in the face of the criticism, backed off the story, saying the articles had overreached. Webb was demoted to a backwater suburban beat and eventually quit the newspaper. Unable to find work at another major daily, he committed suicide in December 2004.
But outrage over Webb’s allegations prompted the CIA to assign the agency’s inspector general, Fredrick Hitz, to investigate the extent of the CIA’s knowledge of cocaine trafficking by the Contras.
The Hitz report found no evidence the CIA was involved in the trafficking, but did ascertain that individuals and companies related to Contra operations were involved in the trafficking, and that the CIA did not act in an expeditious manner to stop it.
As for Caro Quintero, since his release, the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and prosecution in the United States.
Said Jordan: “From my own opinion, he has to worry more about CIA operatives than he does the Mexican government or the CIA.”
Coming up in part 2 of the series, the role of Costa Rica’s secret northwestern airstrip.