The CIA's Ghosts of Tegucigalpa
by Jerry Meldon
Billy Joya, security adviser to Honduras's
post-coup-d'etat President Roberto Micheletti, offered the following
explanation for the armed forces' June 28 insurrection ousting
democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya:
Joya said Zelaya had been following the
same "Marxist-Leninist strategy" for tightening his
grip on power that Chilean President Salvador Allende had in 1973
when Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled Allende.
At least, Joya is right about this much:
The assault on Honduras's fragile democracy was reminiscent of
Pinochet's 1973 putsch. But Joya's justification says more about
where he and Micheletti are coming from than it does about Zelaya,
whose real offense was to run afoul of the Honduran oligarchs.
The Organization of American States and
United Nations have condemned the coup and demanded Zelaya's reinstatement.
But the Obama administration has been characteristically cautious,
expressing displeasure and suspending military ties, but stopping
short of economic sanctions that might lead to some second thoughts
among the coup leaders.
Does the White House's chariness reflect
fear that a reinstated Zelaya might take some revenge by releasing
records revealing Reagan-era CIA collaboration with brutal Honduran
generals and their drug kingpin partners?
Does Obama prefer, as he does regarding
George W. Bush's disastrous presidency, to never look backwards
even when the history involves serious crimes?
Pleasing the Putschists_ _Obama's disinterest
in history would please Micheletti and his fellow putschists,
not least Billy Joya, who in the early 1980s was a captain in
Battalion 3-16, a brutal Honduran intelligence unit that was trained
and equipped by the CIA.
A 1995 Baltimore Sun investigation of
Reagan-era crimes documented the battalion's use of shock and
suffocation devices and its murder of 184 victims. The U.S. Embassy
knew what was going on, but continued to work closely with Battalion
The CIA got into bed with homicidal uniformed
Hondurans because the Agency - Washington's primary tool for achieving
goals antithetical to American values - has always operated that
Indeed, the story of how Nazi-like tactics
spread across Latin America and other parts of the world can be
traced back to the days just after World War II. Washington -
in the name of "fighting communism" - recruited fugitive
Nazi war criminals like SS Capt. Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief
of Lyon, France, who escaped across so-called "rat lines"
to South America and helped organize right-wing intelligence services.
In those years, the newly formed CIA embraced
not only ex-Nazis but their methods. Nazi war criminals smuggled
to South America taught Nazi torture techniques to the region's
"Butcher of Lyon" Barbie did
it in Bolivia. SS Col. Walter Rauff, developer of mobile gas vans
and answerable for some 90,000 deaths during World War II, did
likewise in Chile for Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
The Carter-Reagan Divide
Breaking with this collaboration in the
late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter embargoed arms sales to South
America's more flagrant human rights violators. However, when
Carter left the Oval Office, the old ways returned with a vengeance
under Ronald Reagan.
Even before the 1980 election, members
of the ruling elite in Guatemala - where death squads had been
operating with impunity for decades - were confident that Reagan's
victory would revive Washington's holy war against communism.
They were confident because two pillars
of the American far right, Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, commander
of U.S. forces in South Korea until Carter sacked him for insubordination,
and retired Gen. Daniel Graham, a former senior official at the
CIA who advised the Reagan campaign, had assured them.
As if to underscore the message, the Republicans
invited Guatemalan Mario Sandoval Alarcon, "Godfather"
of Central American death squads, to Reagan's inaugural ball.
In the years that followed Guatemala's
bloodbath would get even bloodier where more than 100,000 would
die. Ditto for El Salvador, where some 75,000 lives would be snuffed
out as the CIA helped another right-wing military crush peasant
and labor uprisings.
In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration
would go on the offensive because leftist Sandinista guerrillas
had defeated the ruthless and corrupt Somoza dynasty in 1979,
some 43 years after Washington had installed it.
Determined not to let Nicaragua become
another Cuba, the Reagan administration went to work countering
the revolution by reorganizing the remnants of the Somoza dictatorship's
National Guard, which was blamed for slaughtering some 50,000
Nicaraguans in 1978 and 1979.
In the early 1980s, Reagan hailed this
ragtag army as "freedom fighters." To the rest of the
world, they were the "contras" and were widely regarded
as drug-tainted terrorists. (In a private conversation with senior
CIA officer Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, even Reagan accepted
some of that reality, calling the contras "vandals.")
Right-wing Argentine intelligence units
and the CIA began whipping the contras into shape in Honduras,
which had the misfortune of bordering Guatemala, El Salvador and
Nicaragua - the three hot spots for Reagan's determination to
draw a line against leftist gains in the region.
Honduras would trade in its traditional
"Banana Republic" moniker for "Pentagon Republic."
In establishing the contra operation,
the CIA collaborated with Argentine instructors whose prior work
had included organizing a "dirty war" that had tortured
and killed tens of thousands of dissidents in Argentina.
On March 17, 1981, President Reagan hosted
Gen. Roberto Viola of Argentina, who was about to be sworn in
as president. Extending the general his best wishes, Reagan promised
Viola that he would lift the embargo that Jimmy Carter had imposed
on U.S. arms sales to Buenos Aires.
Though Argentina's hand in training the
contras is well known, its broader role in the CIA's Central America
"counterinsurgency" operations is not as well appreciated,
nor is the price Hondurans paid for the fact that the Honduran
Army officers with whom the CIA worked most closely made the murderous
Argentines their role models._ _Initially, the Argentine dirty
warriors taught Honduran soldiers and the contras how repression
was handled in Buenos Aires, including, torture, high-profile
assassinations and "disappearances," the secret murder
of political targets._ _According to J. Patrice McSherry, author
of Predatory States, "Some of the Argentine officers involved
were key Condor figures Condor was extended to Central America."
What was Condor?
In Operation Condor, South American intelligence
teams joined forces to operate across borders to kidnap and assassinate
their countries' political exiles, essentially denying them safe
haven anywhere in the world.
That explained how corpses of Bolivian
refugees would turn up in Buenos Aires garbage dumps in August
1974. One month later, in that same city, a car bombing claimed
the lives of Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife. Prats had
opposed the 1973 coup d'etat led by Gen. Pinochet that overthrew
Chile's progressive president, Salvador Allende._ _Despite
release of historical documents about this right-wing international
terror campaign, the mainstream U.S. media has devoted little
attention to Operation Condor, in part it would seem because of
the background roles of respected American leaders such as former
CIA Director George H.W. Bush and ex-Secretary of State Henry
A 1978 State Department document, discovered
by Prof. McSherry in 2001, provides evidence that the U.S. government
facilitated communication among the intelligence chiefs who were
collaborating in Operation Condor.
In the document, a cable from U.S. Ambassador
to Paraguay Robert E. White to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
says Washington's link to Condor might be exposed by an ongoing
investigation into the Sept. 21, 1976, assassination of former
Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his American colleague
Ronni Moffitt in broad daylight in Washington, D.C.
Letelier, like Prats, had been an outspoken
critic of Chilean strongman Pinochet. And like Prats, Letelier
was murdered in a car bombing that Pinochet's intelligence agency,
DINA, had assigned to Michael V. Townley, an American expatriate
closely linked to CIA-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles and European
neo-fascist terrorists._ _Notably, George H.W. Bush was CIA director
at the time of the Letelier murder and Agency informants had attended
a meeting three months earlier at which the terror operations
were discussed. Bush then helped stonewall the ensuing FBI investigation.
[For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
Disrupting the Peace
Prior to the Argentines' arrival in Honduras,
the country had enjoyed relative peace, isolated from the violence
across the country's borders with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Soon, however, the Honduran police and armed forces would begin
their own murderous campaign against a tiny group of domestic
guerrillas and their suspected sympathizers._ _In 1979, Honduran
chief of police Amilcar Zelaya Rodriguez formed the secret Grupo
de los 14, a goon squad that specialized in the disappearance
and torture of state enemies. After President Reagan and Vice
President Bush took office in 1981, the violence in Honduras escalated.
Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez assumed
control of Grupo de los 14. In Inside the League: The Shocking
Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads
have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League, Scott and Jon
Lee Anderson characterized the Honduran officer as follows:
"General Alvarez did not invent Honduran
paramilitary squads, but he was the man who streamlined them,
integrated them into the armed forces, and allowed them to conduct
a dirty war."
A vitriolic anticommunist who graduated
from Argentina's Colegio Militar in 1961, Alvarez would maintain
contact with his instructors there, most notably Jorge Rafael
Videla, who would head the Argentine junta during the Argentine
dirty war's bloodiest period.
In addition, Alvarez received advanced
training at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Bragg, North Carolina;
and Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone, where he attended the
School of the Americas, known to critics as the "School of
With his ambition, ruthlessness and sleaziness,
Alvarez was just the man the CIA was looking for. Alvarez had
Grupo de los 14's members undergo counterinsurgency training by
U.S., Argentine and Chilean instructors. The group expanded over
time and was renamed Batallion 3-16.
One of the group's instructors, Ciga Correa,
had been a member of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance ("Triple-A"),
a death squad that operated on the front lines of Argentina's
dirty war. One of his Triple-A missions was the 1974 Operation
Condor assassination of Gen. Prats.
In an offshoot of Operation Condor, Correa
joined an Argentine unit in Guatemala City that targeted suspected
Argentine guerrillas who had fled to Guatemala, El Salvador and
Under the tutelage of Correa and his associates,
Alvarez's thugs kidnapped, tortured, murdered and "disappeared"
Honduran guerrillas and their supporters, whose numbers had swelled
following the Sandinista triumph next door in Nicaragua.
Flash Forward to 2001
In 2001, Society of Helpers Sister Laetitia
Bordes read that President George W. Bush planned to nominate
John D. Negroponte to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
At the time, she recalled a face-to-face meeting in 1982 with
Negroponte in his office as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras.
She had made the journey to ask a nagging
question: What had happened to 32 women who had fled to Honduras
to escape El Salvador's death squads in the months following the
March 24, 1980, assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San
Salvador?_ _Sometime after arriving in Honduras, the women had
been forcibly taken from their living quarters and shoved into
vans, never to be seen again. Negroponte, who had worked closely
with Gen. Alvarez, dissembled, disavowing knowledge of the women's
whereabouts and insisting that the U.S. Embassy kept its hands
out of Honduran government affairs.
Twelve years after that encounter, Sister
Laetitia realized that Negroponte had lied to her. She read a
Honduran Human Rights Commission report on the torture and disappearance
of political prisoners. It specifically mentioned Negroponte's
complicity in human rights violations.
In 1996, Sister Laetitia read a Baltimore
Sun interview with Jack Binns, Negroponte's predecessor in Tegucigalpa.
Binns recalled that a group of Salvadorans, including the women
about whose whereabouts Sister Laetitia had inquired, had been
captured on April 22, 1981, tortured by members of the Honduran
Secret Police, placed aboard Salvadoran military helicopters and,
after taking off, thrown out of the helicopters._ _Binns added
that U.S. authorities had been informed about the incident.
The Honduran government eventually recognized
184 disappearances in that era: 39 Nicaraguans, 28 Salvadorans,
five Costa Ricans, four Guatemalans, one American, one Ecuadoran,
one Venezuelan and 105 Hondurans. Human rights organizations believe
the numbers were considerably higher.
(Ultimately, President George W. Bush
selected Negroponte for a string of important assignments: U.S.
Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador to Iraq, the nation's
first "Intelligence Czar" and, finally, in 2007, Deputy
Secretary of State.)
In early 1982, Honduran President Roberto
Suazo Cordova promoted Negroponte's sidekick, Grupo de los 14
leader Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, to the rank of general. Before
the year was over, Alvarez had decimated Honduras's tiny guerrilla
movement and was promoted to Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
The appointment bred resentment in more
senior officers - and as Hondurans grew fed up with their country's
exploitation by Washington as a base for the Nicaraguan contras,
the resentment among Gen. Alvarez's enemies grew.
The boil burst in March 1984, when Honduran
Air Force commander Gen. Walter Lopez Reyes spearheaded an internal
military coup that drove Alvarez into exile in the United States.
The violence in Honduras soon tapered off.
CIA Tegucigalpa station chief Donald Winters,
who had asked Alvarez to be the godfather to his adopted daughter,
was reassigned elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the contras - a brutal and
ineffective fighting force - were becoming a headache for the
White House. Reports of the CIA mining of Nicaragua's harbors
and a CIA training manual that sanctioned the assassination of
civilians undermined support for Ronald Reagan's Central American
Anticipating congressional cutoff of funding
for the contras, the White House convened a National Security
Planning Group meeting on June 25, 1984. The meeting was marked
by heated debate about whether seeking third-country support for
the contras would expose President Reagan to impeachment.
Vice President Bush asserted that soliciting
the contra aid would be lawful unless the United States promised
to give the third parties something in return. Nonetheless, Reagan
personally approved, with Bush's active involvement, special aid
for Honduras as an implicit quid pro quo for helping the contras.
According to the minutes of a Feb. 7,
1985, meeting of high-level Reagan administration officials, which
were released at the later trial of Reagan's point man for the
contras, Lt. Col. Oliver North, the "principals agreed to
provide several enticements in exchange for continued support"
of the contras._ _Twelve days after the meeting, Reagan released
millions of dollars in economic aid to Honduras.
The Drug Connection
The Reagan administration also did what
it could to protect its Honduran friends who ran afoul of the
On Nov. 1, 1984, the FBI arrested eight
men in Miami and charged them with plotting to overthrow the Honduran
government and assassinate President Suazo. The alleged aim of
the scheme, which was financed by $40 million in cocaine profits,
was to reinstate Gen. Alvarez as Chairman of Honduras's Joint
Chiefs of Staff._ _The Honduran government asked Washington to
hand over Alvarez, but he remained safe within U.S. borders, even
benefiting from a $50,000 Pentagon contract for a six-month study
of "low-intensity conflict" in Central America._ _Alvarez
also reportedly spent time as the house guest in Miami of international
arms trader Gerard Latchinian, one of the richest men in Honduras,
where he was known as the "ambassador of death." Latchinian
got 30 years in prison for his role in the drug-financed coup/assassination
What made the stench even worse was Washington's
treatment of Alvarez's chum, Gen. Jose Bueso-Rosa. Bueso had served
as Army Chief of Staff and was an avid supporter of the contras
until Alvarez's March 1984 ouster - following which Bueso was
demoted to military attaché in Santiago, Chile.
For his role in the assassination plot,
Bueso turned himself in to federal authorities in Miami. In June
1986, he pleaded guilty to two federal counts of "traveling
in furtherance of a conspiracy to plan an assassination"
and was sentenced to five years at a minimum security prison.
The light sentence must have been related
to Oliver North's appeals to State and Justice Department officials
for intervention on Bueso's behalf. Two U.S. government officials,
one serving and one retired, testified as character witnesses
at Bueso's sentencing hearing, and the Reagan administration submitted
an appeal for leniency that read in part:
"General Bueso-Rosa has always been
a valuable ally to the United States. As chief of staff of Honduras's
armed forces he immeasurably furthered U.S. national interests
in Central America. He is primarily responsible for the initial
success of the American military preserve in Honduras. For this
service he was awarded the Legion of Merit by the President of
the United States, the highest award that can be presented to
a foreign military officer." [See Scott and Marshall's Cocaine
Reagan also had awarded the Legion of
Merit to Gen. Alvarez.
The presiding judge decided that the additional
information trumped the Justice Department's description of the
assassination conspiracy as "the most significant case of
narco-terrorism yet discovered." A senior Justice Department
official called the five-year sentence meted out to Bueso "lenient."
But it wasn't lenient enough for Oliver
North. As authors Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall reported,
North sent a note to his then boss, National Security Adviser
John Poindexter, saying there remained one "problem."_
_The general was the man with whom North and three other senior
U.S. officials had "worked out arrangements" for contra
support, and Bueso had entered a guilty plea on the assumption
that he would be given time at a minimum security prison "for
a short period [days or weeks] and then walk free."
"Our major concern," North wrote,
"is that when Bueso finds out what is really happening to
him, he will break his longstanding silence about the [contras}
and other sensitive operations." [Emphasis added.]
North and some of his colleagues were
therefore going to "cabal quietly to look into options:
pardon, clemency, deportation, reduced sentence. Objective is
to keep Bueso from feeling like he was lied to in legal process
and start spilling the beans."
Poindexter reassured North: "You
may advise all concerned that the President will want to be as
helpful as possible to settle this matter." In the end, the
Justice Department blocked clemency or deportation, and Bueso-Rosa
served his time and kept his mouth shut.
But the late 1984 timing of Bueso's drug-financed
assassination plot suggests that it may have been one of those
other sensitive operations that Oliver North cagily referred to
in his note to Poindexter. The Honduran general's drug/assassination
conspiracy may have been part of the Reagan administration's elaborate
plans to sustain the contras._ _A revitalized Honduran connection
would have guaranteed Tegucigalpa's crucial support. The coup's
failure led to Plan B: economic leverage with President Suazo.
And because a congressional ban on aiding the contras, known as
the Boland Amendment, made that impeachable, it became a top priority
to conceal Reagan's and Bush's roles.
The Bush family name was further protected
by President George H.W. Bush's Christmas Eve 1992 pardons to
six key Iran-Contra defendants, including former Defense Secretary
Caspar Weinberger. To save his own skin, Weinberger was expected
to incriminate Bush in the Iran-Contra cover-up.
Bill Clinton's opposition to the Iran-Contra
investigation when he assumed the presidency in 1993 also helped
spare Bush from having to answer a new round of questions from
special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh.
Walsh's truncated investigation had touched
on - but failed to pursue - the contra-cocaine aspect of the Iran-Contra
Affair, of which the Bueso-Rosa/Latchinian conspiracy was just
the tip of a narcotics-filled iceberg.
Consortiumnews.com's Robert Parry, the
late Gary Webb and others - with no help, indeed with resistance
from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times
- have painstakingly established that the contras were the beneficiaries
of and in some cases in cahoots with drug traffickers. [For details,
see Parry's Lost History.]
So let's delve a bit further into the
Honduran Connection._ _A 1983 US Customs report noted that the
Honduran cargo firm SETCO Air was headed by Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros,
a Class I DEA violator in partnership with "American businessmen
who are smuggling narcotics into the United States."
Six years later, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee
on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, headed by
John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, issued a multi-volume report, "Drugs,
Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy."
The report noted, among other sensational
findings, that SETCO Air was "the principal company used
by the Contras in Honduras to transport supplies and personnel
for the FDN [Nicaraguan Democratic Force], carrying at least a
million rounds of ammunition, food, uniforms and other military
supplies for the Contras from 1983 to 1985."
In other words, unfazed by the 1983 Customs
report that had identified Matta Ballestero as a Class I violator
- which meant drug kingpin, top of the food chain - the Reagan
administration retained his airline for another two years as the
contra's chief mover of supplies.
Yet what makes Matta's case special is
just how far Washington would go to keep him in business. In 1970,
Matta marked himself as a big-time trafficker when he was arrested
at Dulles Airport outside Washington for importing 54 pounds of
cocaine. But he was sentenced to five years at a minimum security
prison, and a year later he tiptoed out the door and didn't come
By 1973, the DEA considered Matta important
enough to entrap in a sting operation. But either the narcs blew
it or someone told them not to try.
Two years later, the DEA learned that
Matta had teamed up with Mexican drug kingpin Miguel Angel Felix
Gallardo, a tonnage supplier to El Norte with Colombian and Peruvian
connections. The partnership would make Matta a billionaire.
A 1978 DEA intelligence report cited by
James Mills in his penetrating study, The Underground Empire,
noted that Matta had financed a coup d'etat in his native Honduras
that was led by his partner, Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia.
Transfer Point_ _Even before that coup,
Honduras had been the transfer point for half a billion dollars
worth of northbound drugs. In the three years following the coup,
Matta Ballesteros and President Paz Garcia made Honduras an even
bigger cocaine trafficking center._ _As Scott and Marshall note
in Cocaine Politics, when these events unfolded, Jimmy Carter
was in the White House and it was his administration that overlooked
Matta Ballesteros's behind-the-scenes role in Honduran politics.
However, unlike the Carter administration,
the incoming Reagan team didn't simply turn a blind eye. It found
Honduras's corruption an ideal environment for nourishing the
Matta's number one Honduran government
enabler after President Paz was Col. Leonidas Torres Arias, the
head of military intelligence and a key figure in making the necessary
arrangements for opening contra training camps.
In August 1981, Col. Torres met secretly
in Guatemala City with Argentine intelligence officer Mario Davico,
the CIA's Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, Honduran Gen. Alvarez
Martinez and President Paz Garcia.
A tripartite agreement emerged for waging
the contra war on Nicaragua. Argentine intelligence would handle
organization, administration and training; the CIA would supply
the funds; and Honduras would provide the territory for operational
At the time, Davico was second in command
of Argentine Army Intelligence and a graduate of the U.S. Army's
School of the Americas. He would soon relocate to Honduras to
teach Alvarez's Batallion 3-16 the Argentine "dirty war"
techniques of arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions
and disposal of cadavers.
All three Hondurans - Torres Arias, Alvarez
Martinez and Paz Garcia - were considered to be in the pockets
of the drug lords. As Scott and Marshall put it: "The CIA
relied totally on the cocaine-trafficking military in Honduras
to back its plans to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua."
But concerns about drug trafficking did
little to dissuade the Reagan administration from teaming up with
the Honduran military. That, however, meant that the CIA and Drug
Enforcement Administration would be operating at cross purposes.
The DEA agent in charge of its recently
opened Tegucigalpa office, Thomas Zepeda, had documented the complicity
of Col. Torres Arias and other high-ranking Honduran officers
in Matta Ballesteros's drug operations.
But DEA needed the Honduran military's
assistance to arrest Torres and his cronies, and the CIA needed
them to support the contras. To avoid a showdown with the CIA,
the DEA's Zepeda proposed that a grand jury be empanelled to investigate
corruption in the Honduran armed forces.
But the CIA nixed the idea, no doubt to
protect its collaborators. As one high-level diplomat later noted:
"Without the support of the Honduran military there would
have been no such thing as the contras. It's that simple So they
got rid of the DEA station."
The DEA Tegucigalpa station was shut down
- in June 1983, just as the CIA station was doubling in size -
in a naked move to preclude a serious drug investigation. That
same month, Customs asked Zepeda to investigate Matta's airline,
SETCO, which would soon be flying supplies to the contras.
But the worst was still to come. Shortly
after noon on Feb. 7, 1985, DEA undercover agent Enrique (Kiki)
Camarena walked out of the U.S. consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico
for a lunch date with his wife.
Two Jalisco state policemen, two hired
killers and a drug lord's lieutenant drove up alongside, told
Camarena "the commandante wants to see you," and shoved
him into their car. They sped to a house that was owned by drug
kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero.
Camarena was questioned and tortured there
for the next 30 hours. His interrogator, a captured tape would
reveal, was a commander in the Federal Security Directorate (DFS),
Mexico's FBI. One month later, Camarena's mutilated body was discovered
next to that of his Mexican pilot._ _First it was assumed that
the motive for the murders had been raids Camarena had led on
vast marijuana plantations, which had cost Cara Quintero and his
partners an estimated $5 billion. But the interrogation, it turned
out, focused on what Camarena knew about corruption in Mexico's
political hierarchy._ _That would explain why the men who attended
the meeting at which Camarena's abduction reportedly included
future Mexico City police chief Javier Garcia Paniagua, and Manuel
Ibarra Herrera, the former head of Mexico's Federal Judicial Police.
That same year, Newsweek would describe
another attendee as the "boss of bosses of Mexico's cocaine
industry," a man whose organization was believed to supply
"perhaps one third of all the cocaine consumed in the United
A DEA agent described the man as "the
kind of individual who would be a decision maker of last resort.
He is at the same level as the rulers of Medellin and Cali cartels."
That man was Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, and at the planning
meeting he reportedly announced "we will soon have the identity"
of the DEA agent and he will be silenced.
Matta Ballesteros kept his promise. Camarena
was silenced. The method, a forensic specialist determined, was
the application of a Phillips-head screwdriver to the skull.
Hair sample analysis would establish Matta's
presence at the silencing. But it was only in 1990 that federal
prosecutors in Los Angeles would finally put Matta away for life
for cocaine trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy._
_Significantly, a witness in the Camarena murder case told
the DEA that the CIA had trained Nicaraguan contras on a ranch
near Veracruz that was owned by Rafael Caro Quintero, the same
drug kingpin who owned the house outside Guadalajara where Enrique
Camarena was murdered.
Matta would be arrested in 1986 in Colombia.
But he bought his way out of jail with a $2 million bribe and
made his way back home to Honduras. That same year, which was
three years after Customs had identified Matta as both a Class
I DEA violator and the owner of SETCO Air - and after Matta had
become a prime suspect in the Camarena murder - the State Department
renewed SETCO's contract to supply the contras.
For two more years Matta would live in
luxury in Hondruas, seemingly unconcerned by any prospect of arrest
since he still had many friends in high places. His generosity
would endear him with Honduras's abjectly poor masses. They called
him Honduras's "Robin Hood."
But in March 1988, after the Iran-Contra
scandal had devastated political support for the contra war in
Washington, a truce was declared in Nicaragua. That eliminated
Washington's use for Honduras, and its need for drug kingpins
like Matta and his partner, Mexican drug kingpin Felix Gallardo,
who once told a DEA informant that he was "protected"
because his drug profits were bankrolling the contras.
Only then were Felix Gallardo and Matta
Ballesteros arrested and flown to the United States.
When CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz
belatedly investigated the contra-cocaine connection in the late
1990s, he documented the depth of CIA knowledge of drug traffickers
and money-launderers connected to the contra war - and explained
the key reason for protecting these criminals.
According to Hitz's report, the CIA had
"one overriding priority: to oust the Sandinista government.
[CIA officers] were determined that the various difficulties
they encountered not be allowed to prevent effective implementation
of the contra program."
One CIA field officer explained, "The
focus was to get the job done, get the support and win the war."
The CIA's manipulation of Honduran politics
in pursuit of that goal was another part of the contra war's legacy.
Besides the drug lords, other key players
also ran afoul of the law or met their own rough justice.
The Argentine military junta self-imploded
in the wake of the disastrous 1982 war with Great Britain over
the Falklands/Malvinas islands, leading to a restoration of civilian
rule and a judgment by an Argentine court denouncing the military
government for genocide and other crimes against humanity.
Reagan's guest, Gen. Viola, was sentenced
to 17 years in prison.
Honduran Gen. Alvarez Martinez returned
to Honduras in 1987 and was silenced by an assassin on Jan. 25,
The CIA's Clarridge was indicted for perjury
and lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal but was pardoned
by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992.
But the ghosts of Tegucigalpa continue
to hover over Honduran politics. As Hondurans protest the ouster
of President Manuel Zelaya, many believe that Washington encouraged
and supported the coup. Can anyone blame them?
They haven't forgotten that during the
Reagan era, the CIA and Argentine dirty warriors ran roughshod
over their country. They also know that Roberto Micheletti's security
adviser, Billy Joya, was a member of one of those Reagan-era death
They know, too, that Zelaya had been bucking
Honduras's powerful upper class with reforms like a 60 percent
minimum wage increase and rejecting Washington's "free trade"
policies. Zelaya also challenged U.S. foreign policy by befriending
Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
However badly President Barack Obama may
want to look forward not backwards, Washington's unacknowledged
crimes of the past few decades keep intruding on the present.
Jerry Meldon is an Associate Professor
in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department at Tufts
University, Medford, Massachusetts. He can be contacted at email@example.com.