Right hand, left hand

One drug agent's decade-long battle to expose the Contra-cocaine connection -- and how the government got in the way

By Dennis Bernstein - Robert Knight

Published October 8, 1996 9:50AM (EDT)

Veteran Drug Enforcement Agent Celerino Castillo III says he never figured his toughest anti-drug case would be against the federal government that employed him for 15 years.

Last week, flanked by civil rights activist Dick Gregory and the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Castillo staged a public protest at DEA headquarters in Washington. His demand: an official investigation into the Reagan-Bush governments' clandestine Iran-Contra policy, which allegedly flooded the U.S.'s predominantly black communities with crack cocaine during the 1980s.

This was not the first effort by Castillo to expose what he believes to be the true story. Along with other law enforcement officials, congressional investigators and investigative reporters -- most recently Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News -- Castillo has been battling for over a decade to expose the government's alleged use of drug profits to finance covert operations against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. CIA officials have consistently denied the charges.

His crusade began around January 14, 1986, when Castillo says he tried to alert then Vice President George Bush at a U.S.
embassy party in Guatemala. At the time Castillo was covering several Central American countries for the DEA. Convinced that "something funny" was going on at El Salvador's Ilopango military air base -- later revealed to be a prime transshipment point for Contra drugs, arms and money -- he told Bush. "But he just shook my hand, smiled and walked away from me," Castillo recalls.

In the ensuing months, Castillo gathered his own evidence. In a Feb. 14, 1989 memo to his Guatemala-based DEA supervisor, Castillo detailed how known traffickers with multiple DEA files used hangars controlled by the CIA and by Lt. Col. Oliver North-- then the point man at the National Security Council for sharing intelligence, transportation and military facilities with Contra leaders -- at Ilopango and obtained U.S. visas, despite their background.

"There is no doubt that they were running large quantities of cocaine into the U.S. to support the Contras," Castillo told reporters in a 1994 interview on the eve of North's bid for a Senate seat in Virginia. "We saw the cocaine and we saw boxes full of money. We're talking about very large quantities of cocaine and millions of dollars."

Oliver North's own notebooks are chock full of references to drug- related Contra operations that appear to support Castillo's claims. On July 9, 1984, when the Contras were desperate for money, North wrote that he "went and talked to (Contra leader Federico) Vaughn, [who] wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, wanted aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos."

There are other documents that appear to lend weight to Castillo's charges:

  • An internal document of the House Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, dated June 25, 1986, concluded that "a number of individuals who supported the contras (in both the U.S. and Central America) have suggested that cocaine is being smuggled in the U.S. through the same infrastructure which is procuring, storing and transporting weapons explosives, ammunition and military equipment for the Contras from the United States."

  • A City of Miami Police Intelligence Report dated Sept. 26, 1984, states that money to support Contras being illegally trained in Florida "comes from narcotics transactions." Every page of that document is stamped: "Record furnished to George Kosinsky, FBI." Justice Department head Janet Reno, then Florida's chief prosecutor, apparently took no action on the allegations.

  • In the spring of 1986, John Mattes, a former Miami-based Federal Public Defender, began working with the office of Sen. John Kerry to investigate the Contra-drug connection. Mattes, like Castillo, had sought without success to expose link between Florida Contra training camps and drug traffickers.

    "What we investigated and uncovered," Mattes recalls, "was the very
    infrastructure of the network that had the veil of national security
    protecting it, so that people could load cannons in broad daylight, in public airports, on flights going to Ilopango Airport, where in fact the very same people were bringing narcotics back into the U.S., unimpeded."

    When informed about the network, Mattes said federal officials
    "decided that in fact they didn't want to look at the Contras. They
    wanted to ... try to deter us from our investigation. We were
    threatened on countless occasions by FBI agents who told us that we'd gone too far in our investigation of the Contras."

In 1987 and 1988, Kerry's subcommittee on Narcotics and International Terrorism took reams of testimony on the CIA-cocaine connection from CIA agents, Contra mercenaries, drug pilots, Medellin cartel accountants, and law enforcement officials. Kerry said at the time that "our covert agencies have converted themselves to channels for drugs."

Castillo is not the first DEA agent to run afoul of other government agencies in the course of overseas drug investigations. Last month, Richard Horn, a 23-year veteran of the DEA, filed a federal class action suit against the CIA, the National Security Agency and the State Department for unlawfully spying on him and other unnamed DEA employees and their families. Horn, who currently serves as a
group supervisor in field division in New Orleans, La.,
claims in the lawsuit that illegal electronic surveillance and eavesdropping of DEA agents has been going on all over the world, undermining the ability of DEA agents to trust other U.S. government officials.

In 1994, Horn had filed a lawsuit charging the former U.S. Charge d' Affairs for Burma and Burma CIA Chief of Station with violating his civil rights by spying on him during his tour of duty in Rangoon, Burma. The defendants in that suit have successfully sought delays, claiming in part that the suit threatens national security interests.

Horn, 49, served in Burma in 1992 and 1993. To date Horn has refrained from giving interviews to the news media about his case. But one former DEA agent with 15 years of field experience in South America says he believes Horn's claim is right. "I know it right to my soul that I was bugged," the agent, who asked to remain anonymous, said in a telephone interview. "I would say things intentionally on the phone to see if I was bugged, and it would come back to me from people in Central Intelligence. They were so brazen. Central Intelligence felt they could get away with murder and I'm sure they did."

CIA Public Affairs Officer Dave Christian, asked about Horn's suit, said, "It's not a part of the CIA's mission to do anything like that [wiretap DEA agents in-country] and we don't."

In Castillo's case, both Attorney General Janet Reno and CIA director John Deutch have stated there is no evidence to support the allegations being made against the CIA. Ten years
ago, the CIA dismissed allegations about its Contra-drug connection as "fantasy, the most scurrilous kind of journalism."

Robert Knight and Dennis Bernstein were founders of the Contragate/Undercurrents investigative
news program for which Knight won the George R. Polk Award for Radio
Reporting. Knight and Bernstein won The Jesse Meriton White Award for International Reporting and the National Federation of Community
Broadcasting award for reporting on the Iran-Contra affair.

© Pacific News Service

Quote of the day

Bad odds

"Bozo's on his way out."

-- Bob Dole, campaigning Tuesday in New Jersey. (From "Dole, Campaigning in New Jersey, Says White House 'Bozo's on His Way Out,'" in Tuesday's New York Times.)

"The only way Clinton's going to lose is if Chelsea's caught smoking
crack. My father's such a Republican, he's going to kill me for saying that."

-- Tia Weber of Canton, Ohio. (From "Morning After the Debate for an Ohio Town: Coffee and No Changed Votes," in Tuesday's New York Times.)

Dennis Bernstein

Dennis Bernstein is a producer for Pacifica Radio.

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Robert Knight

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