The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 2
For more information contact:
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Washington, D.C. – An August, 1996, series in the San Jose Mercury News by reporter Gary
Webb linked the origins of crack cocaine in California to the contras, a guerrilla force
backed by the Reagan administration that attacked Nicaragua's Sandinista
government during the 1980s. Webb's series, "The Dark Alliance," has been the subject of intense
media debate, and has focused attention on a foreign policy drug scandal
that leaves many questions unanswered.
This electronic briefing book is compiled from declassified documents
obtained by the National Security Archive, including the notebooks kept by
NSC aide and Iran-contra figure Oliver North, electronic mail messages written by
high-ranking Reagan administration officials, memos detailing the contra
war effort, and FBI and DEA reports. The documents demonstrate official knowledge of drug operations, and collaboration with and protection of
known drug traffickers. Court and hearing transcripts are also included.
Special thanks to the Arca Foundation, the Ruth Mott Fund, the Samuel Rubin Foundation,
and the Fund for Constitutional Government for their support.
Click on the document icon next to each description to view the document.
The National Security Archive obtained the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the
National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war and other Reagan
administration covert operations, through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in
1989. The notebooks, as well as declassified memos sent to North, record that North was
repeatedly informed of contra ties to drug trafficking.
In his entry for August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Robert Owen ("Rob"),
his liaison with the contras. They discuss a plane used by Mario Calero, brother of
Adolfo Calero, head of the FDN, to transport supplies from New Orleans to contras in
Honduras. North writes: "Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New
Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S." As Lorraine Adams reported in
the October 22, 1994 Washington Post, there are no records that corroborate North's later
assertion that he passed this intelligence on drug trafficking to the U.S. Drug
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from retired Air Force general Richard Secord
in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the contras planned
to purchase weapons. (The contras did eventually buy the arms, using money the Reagan
administration secretly raised from Saudi Arabia.) According to the notebook, Secord
told North that "14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs."
An April 1,
1985 memo from Robert Owen (code-name: "T.C." for "The Courier") to
Oliver North (code-name: "The Hammer") describes contra operations on the Southern
Front. Owen tells North that FDN leader Adolfo Calero (code-name: "Sparkplug") has
picked a new Southern Front commander, one of the former captains to Eden Pastora
who has been paid to defect to the FDN. Owen reports that the officials in the new
Southern Front FDN units include "people who are questionable because of past
indiscretions," such as José Robelo, who is believed to have "potential involvement with
drug running" and Sebastian Gonzalez, who is "now involved in drug running out of
On February 10, 1986, Owen ("TC") wrote North (this time as "BG," for "Blood and
Guts") regarding a plane being used to carry "humanitarian aid" to the contras that was
previously used to transport drugs. The plane belongs to the Miami-based company
Vortex, which is run by Michael Palmer, one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the
United States. Despite Palmer's long history of drug smuggling, which would soon lead to
a Michigan indictment on drug charges, Palmer receives over $300,000.00 from the
Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) -- an office overseen by Oliver North,
Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer
Alan Fiers -- to ferry supplies to the contras.
State Department contracts from February 1986 detail Palmer's work to transport material
to the contras on behalf of the NHAO.
In 1987, the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International
Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, launched an investigation of
allegations arising from reports, more than a decade ago, of contra-drug links. One of the
incidents examined by the "Kerry Committee" was an effort to divert
drug money from a counternarcotics operation to the contra war.
On July 28, 1988, two DEA agents testified before the House Subcommittee
on Crime regarding a sting operation conducted against the Medellin Cartel.
The two agents said that in 1985 Oliver North had wanted to take $1.5
million in Cartel bribe money that was carried by a DEA informant and
give it to the contras. DEA officials rejected the idea.
The Kerry Committee report concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers
were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the
Contras' funding problems."
In June, 1986, the New York Times published articles detailing years of Panamanian
leader Manuel Noriega's collaboration with Colombian drug traffickers.
Reporter Seymour Hersh wrote that Noriega "is extensively involved in
illicit money laundering and drug activities," and that an unnamed White
House official "said the most significant drug running in Panama was being
directed by General Noriega." In August, Noriega, a long-standing U.S.
intelligence asset, sent an emissary to Washington to seek assistance from
the Reagan administration in rehabilitating his drug-stained reputation.
Reagan administration officials interceded on behalf of José Bueso Rosa, a
Honduran general who was heavily involved with the CIA's contra
operations and faced trial for his role in a massive drug shipment to the
United States. In 1984 Bueso and co-conspirators hatched a plan to
assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Córdoba; the plot was to be
financed with a $40 million cocaine shipment to the United States, which
the FBI intercepted in Florida.
Oliver North, who met with Noriega's representative, described the meeting
in an August 23, 1986 e-mail message to Reagan national security advisor
John Poindexter. "You will recall that over the years Manuel Noriega in
Panama and I have developed a fairly good relationship," North writes
before explaining Noriega's proposal. If U.S. officials can "help clean up his
image" and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force,
Noriega will "'take care of' the Sandinista leadership for us."
North tells Poindexter that Noriega can assist with sabotage against the
Sandinistas, and suggests paying Noriega a million dollars -- from "Project
Democracy" funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran -- for the
Panamanian leader's help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.
The same day Poindexter responds with an e-mail message authorizing
North to meet secretly with Noriega. "I have nothing against him other than
his illegal activities," Poindexter writes.
On the following day, August 24, North's notebook records a meeting with
CIA official Duane "Dewey" Clarridge on Noriega's overture. They decided, according to this entry,
to "send word back to Noriega to meet in Europe or Israel."
The CIA's Alan Fiers later recalls North's involvement with the Noriega
sabotage proposal. In testimony at the 1992 trial of former CIA official
Clair George, Fiers describes North's plan as it was discussed at a meeting
of the Reagan administration's Restricted Interagency Group: "[North] made
a very strong suggestion that . . . there needed to be a resistance presence in
the western part of Nicaragua, where the resistance did not operate. And he
said, 'I can arrange to have General Noriega execute some insurgent -- some
operations there -- sabotage operations in that area. It will cost us about $1
million. Do we want to do it?' And there was significant silence at the table.
And then I recall I said, 'No. We don't want to do that.'"
Senior officials ignored Fiers' opinion. On September 20, North informed
Poindexter via e-mail that "Noriega wants to meet me in London" and that
both Elliott Abrams and Secretary of State George Shultz support the
initiative. Two days later, Poindexter authorized the North/Noriega meeting.
North's notebook lists details of his meeting with Noriega, which took place
in a London hotel on September 22. According to the notes, the two
discussed developing a commando training program in Panama, with Israeli
support, for the contras and Afghani rebels. They also spoke of sabotaging
major economic targets in the Managua area, including an airport, an oil
refinery, and electric and telephone systems. (These plans were apparently
aborted when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.)
Declassified e-mail messages indicate that Oliver North led the behind-the-scenes
effort to seek leniency for Bueso . The messages record the efforts
of U.S. officials to "cabal quietly" to get Bueso off the hook, be it by
"pardon, clemency, deportation, [or] reduced sentence." Eventually they
succeeded in getting Bueso a short sentence in "Club Fed," a white collar
prison in Florida.
The Kerry Committee report reviewed the case, and noted that the man
Reagan officials aided was involved in a conspiracy that the Justice
Department deemed the "most significant case of narco-terrorism yet
In February 1987 a contra sympathizer in California told the FBI he
believed FDN officials were involved in the drug trade. Dennis Ainsworth,
a Berkeley-based conservative activist who had supported the contra cause
for years, gave a lengthy description of his suspicions to FBI agents. The
bureau's debriefing says that Ainsworth agreed to be interviewed because
"he has certain information in which he believes the Nicaraguan 'Contra'
organization known as FDN (Frente Democrático Nacional) has become
more involved in selling arms and cocaine for personal gain than in a
military effort to overthrow the current Nicaraguan Sandinista
Government." Ainsworth informed the FBI of his extensive contacts with
various contra leaders and backers, and explained the basis for his belief
that members of the FDN were trafficking in drugs.
A DEA report of February 6, 1984 indicates that a central figure in the San
Jose Mercury News series was being tracked by U.S. law enforcement
officials as early as 1976, when a DEA agent "identified Norwin
MENESES-Canterero as a cocaine source of supply in Managua,
Nicaragua." Meneses, an associate of dictator Anastasio Somoza who
moved to California after the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, was an FDN
backer and large-scale cocaine trafficker.
On October 31, 1996, the Washington Post ran a follow up
story to the San Jose Mercury News series titled "CIA,
Contras and Drugs: Questions on Links Linger." The story
drew on court testimony in 1990 of Fabio Ernesto Carrasco, a
pilot for a major Columbian drug smuggler named George
Morales. As a witness in a drug trial, Carrasco testified
that in 1984 and 1985, he piloted planes loaded with weapons
for contras operating in Costa Rica. The weapons were
offloaded, and then drugs stored in military bags were put
on the planes which flew to the United States. "I
participated in two [flights] which involved weapons and
cocaine at the same time," he told the court.
Carrasco also testified that Morales provided "several
million dollars" to Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo "Popo"
Chamorro, two rebel leaders working with the head of the
contras' southern front, Eden Pastora. The Washington Post
reported that Chamorro said he had called his CIA control
officer to ask if the contras could accept money and arms
from Morales, who was at the time under indictment for
cocaine smuggling. "They said [Morales] was fine," Chamorro
told the Post.