Ten years ago, El Salvador’s Ilopango Air Base served as the major depot for American aid pouring south into a secret war against Nicaragua’s Marxist Sandinista regime.
A former federal agent charges that Ilopango also served as a key transit point for smugglers flying narcotics back north, some of whom flew for the U.S.-backed Contras.
Former Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Celerino Castillo III said that while the White House ran its covert war, he ran his own secret operation - and that his informants found a startling mix of arms, narcotics and money at Ilopango.
Castillo, now retired and living in McAllen, Texas, said he found that many pilots flying for the Contras were listed in DEA records as suspected smugglers.
“I found that other agencies were sleeping with my enemy,” Castillo said in a recent interview. “They knew these guys (pilots) were suspected drug traffickers, and hired them anyway.”
Former officials at the base deny permitting or condoning smuggling.
“It is absolutely false and all … (expletive),” said former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, who ran the Contra resupply effort at Ilopango for the Reagan White House’s National Security Council.
When Castillo first published his allegations, in a 1994 book titled “Powderburns,” they got little attention.
More recent allegations of possible CIA complicity in the cocaine trade, made most prominently by The San Jose Mercury News, have raised new interest in Castillo’s account. During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week, members of the audience shouted demands for an investigation of the Texan’s charges.
Some government officials say Castillo is getting more attention than he deserves. They say his evidence is thin and his credibility is questionable.
He retired on a psychiatric disability pension after a DEA therapist said he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome induced by his duties in Central America.
Information gathered by The Dallas Morning News in Washington, Texas, Panama and El Salvador indicates that during his Central American service Castillo was rated as a dedicated and capable agent and that he had grounds for thinking that the United States was knowingly working with smugglers.
Castillo’s two chief informants had intimate knowledge of Ilopango and its military overseers. They had access to its records. And they confirmed that they told Castillo that the airport was often used by drug smugglers and by drug-money couriers.
Even those informants say it was difficult to reach firm conclusions about the secrecy-shrouded Contra operation.
They knew some pilots were smuggling, but could not discover whether they were flying for the Contras. They knew some pilots were flying for the Contras, but could only assume that they were smuggling.
“We did not always have the proof,” said one of Castillo’s Ilopango sources.
Former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who managed the Contra operation for the National Security Council, said last week that if rogue operators smuggled, they did so unbeknownst to their superiors.
Former CIA Director Robert Gates, who ordered a probe of drug allegations in 1986, said smuggling was “abhorrent to the people who run the CIA.”
But, he added, the CIA could not fully control everyone involved in a major operation. “The people you deal with are often independent operators … And sometimes you have to work with people you don’t want to bring home to mother.”
Several witnesses told the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications - chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. - that some policy-makers placed a lower priority on stopping narcotics than on fighting communism.
Rank-and-file investigators sometimes found “senior officials of the U.S. government kind of looking away because essentially of the obsession with (communists in) Nicaragua,” said Francis J. McNeil, former deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.
He noted that in 1986, eight top officials, led by North, persuaded a federal judge to grant a lenient sentence to Honduran Gen. Jose Bueso-Rosa, who had confessed to importing $40 million worth of cocaine to fund the assassination of Honduras’ president.
In a later-declassified memo, North wrote that unless the general got lenient treatment, he might start “singing songs nobody wants to hear” about the Contras.
As the supply center of the covert war, Ilopango quickly drew a woolly bunch of patriots and pirates.
One pilot often accused of smuggling told The Dallas Morning News that planes from the north brought weapons and supplies to Ilopango.
But the smaller planes assigned to pick up and deliver those supplies to isolated Contra bases were sometimes used for drug smuggling as well, the pilot said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the pilot said he twice saw bags that he thought contained drugs loaded into Contra aircraft.
Once, the pilot said, a local CIA officer arrived with the bags and watched the loading through binoculars.
“But this was not the CIA, per se, running the operation,” the pilot said. “These guys (the smugglers) were in it for themselves.”
Another pilot, Gary Wayne Betzner, told the Kerry committee that he made his first flight into Ilopango in May 1983, ferrying M-79 grenade launchers and anti-ship mines from Boca-Chica Naval Air Station in Florida to San Salvador.
Then, he said, he flew to Colombia, loaded marijuana and headed north again.
Betzner testified that he worked for Colombian narco-trafficker George Morales.
By 1984, Morales was under indictment. According to his own testimony, he soon struck a deal with the Contras.
Morales told the Kerry committee that he delivered a plane to two lieutenants of Eden Pastora - commander of a Contra force operating along the Costa Rican border. The lieutenants were Octaviano Cesar and Marco Aguado.
The Contra leaders allegedly told him that they worked for the CIA.
CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz has launched a new review of agents’ handling of drug matters. But Hitz recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee that a 1988 internal investigation concluded, “Any allegations implying that the CIA condoned, abetted or participated in narcotics trafficking are completely false.”
Morales, however, said he was so convinced that the government was protecting him that he ordered pilots to land loads of cocaine at major U.S. airports in broad daylight.
Morales said he was prosecuted only in 1986, after he hired a DEA informant.
Pastora last week conceded that smugglers took advantage of the Contras’ facilities and of the anti-communist sentiment dominating U.S. policy in Central America.
“They undoubtedly used it for drug trafficking - they fooled people,” Pastora said.
Gates said allegations of drug running may have contributed to the CIA’s decision to cut off aid to Pastora in 1984. The former “Commander Zero,” however, testified that he lost CIA aid because he wouldn’t cooperate with other Contra groups.
Colombian trafficker Fabiano Carrasco testified at a 1990 trial that between 1983 and 1986 he flew in at least a ton of cocaine for Morales, thinking that the CIA protected the shipments.
Five witnesses told the Kerry committee that cocaine shipments sometimes originated at the Costa Rican ranch of a CIA operative named John Hull. Hull has denied any connection to drug smuggling.
In October 1985, Castillo, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran with almost seven years of experience at the DEA, took a new post in the agency’s Guatemala City office.
He said his new boss, Robert J. Stia, soon told him about nearby Ilopango. “Don’t interfere in their operation,” he quoted Stia as saying.
Stia could not be reached for comment.
Castillo said a DEA colleague soon cabled him to “check out hangars four and five” at the airport. The CIA and North’s operation controlled those hangars, according to Castillo.
Castillo said he soon developed a network of informants. One routinely talked to pilots and often looked inside their planes. Another knew the Salvadoran military leaders who managed the airfield. A third socialized with many of the pilots.
One informant told The Dallas Morning News that he saw drug shipments passing through Ilopango about twice a month and passed details to Castillo.
He said some of the flights involved pilots in the Contra network. Others involved pilots who apparently just used Ilopango - which had both a civilian and a military side - as a landing base.
Castillo said he checked pilot names against his agency’s database of suspected traffickers and found more than a dozen matches. He said he couldn’t understand how they continued to use Ilopango because the CIA and National Security Council had access to the same DEA files.
The CIA has said it constantly screened its Contra operatives for drug connections, “and any person or entity found to be involved in such activity must be separated from the Resistance.”