Traffickers used Costa Rica as drug haven

November 24, 1996|By MARTHA HONEY

LATE ONE AFTERNOON in July 1987, the front door to our house in San Jose, Costa Rica, suddenly burst open. A half-dozen local narcotics agents, wearing blue jeans and gold chains, charged in, dragging in tow our hysterical secretary, Carmen Araya.

The agents ransacked file drawers in our ground-floor office and then tore through the rest of the house, looking for drugs. They found none. No matter, they said, they already had the "smoking gun." They produced a brown paper package addressed to us, with a return address from the Interior Ministry in Nicaragua. The package contained a letter signed "Tomas" and a book whose center had been hollowed out. A small plastic packet filled with white powder was inserted in the space. High-quality cocaine, the agents informed us.

Through tears, Carmen explained that after collecting our mail at the post office, she was seized by narcotics agents waiting outside, thrown into a car, and taken to a judge's chambers. There the package was ceremoniously opened, and the cocaine "discovered."

The letter, supposedly from the Sandinistas' interior minister. Tomas Borge, described a cocaine trafficking network involving my husband, Tony Avirgan, and me, several top Nicaraguan government officials, the Soviet Ambassador to Costa Rica, and Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. The next day, right-wing newspapers throughout Central America ran identical articles, headlined: "Two journalists arrested as drug traffickers."

The charges were embarrassing and absurd, but it took us a year and a half and a good Costa Rican lawyer to get them dismissed.

Eventually we unraveled the truth. Postal workers said that the package had been inserted into the system in San Jose and that narcotics agents had cooled their heels for days waiting for one of us to collect it. The scheme had been cooked up over lunch by two Cuban Americans. A house servant for one of the men overheard the pair hatching the plot with the aim of forcing us to stop investigating the connection between the CIA, the contras, and Colombian cocaine traffickers.

We already knew a lot about this - the CIA-contra-cocaine triangle as well as about this Cuban-American duo. One of the men, a Bay of Pigs veteran, was listed as a "narcotrafficker" in Interpol's drug registry. The other, a convicted drug trafficker, had come to Costa Rica posing as a contra military trainer. Contra commanders said this man worked for the CIA. Both men claimed to be well connected in Washington, and later, both of their names showed up in Oliver North's diaries as players in Washington's covert war against the leftist Sandinistas.

The Cuban Americans had included John Kerry's name in the "Tomas" letter because he was spearheading a Senate investigation into contra- and CIA-linked drug trafficking. Over the course of the three-year probe, Kerry's staff ran into numerous other obstacles, as Kerry's chief investigator, Washington lawyer Jack Blum, testified during a recent Senate hearing. "We were subject to a systematic campaign to discredit everything we did," he said.

The 1989 Senate report, "Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy," concluded that "senior U.S. officials were not immune to the idea that drug money was the perfect solution to the contras' funding problems." The Kerry Report, as it was known, painted a devastatingly detailed picture of a complex web linking U.S. officials, contra leaders, Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega, a string of aviation companies in Miami and Central America, pilots, banks, drug traffickers, top Colombian drug lords and the contras' U.S., Cuban American and Latin American supporters.

It was this same web that my husband and I also, inadvertently, stumbled upon. We had been investigating the CIA's covert war against Nicaragua and the May 1984 bombing of a contra press conference which injured my husband and killed three journalists. Terrorism and covert operations were risky enough. We kept pushing away evidence of drug trafficking by the CIA's army. But it kept coming back.

During the 1980s, Costa Rica, like other Central American countries, became a bridge for moving cocaine from the coca fields and processing factories in South America to markets in North America. This coincided with the start of Washington's covert war against the Sandinistas. They formed, as Miami-based attorney John Mattes put it to me, "a marriage of convenience between the contras and coke smugglers. The smugglers had access to intelligence, airstrips, and most importantly, unimpeded access into the U.S. And that to a drug smuggler is worth all the tea in China," said Mattes.

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