The CIA’s Ghosts of Tegucigalpa (Consortium News 14/7/10)
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 3-16’s leaders.
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 way.
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 intelligence services.
“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 Kissinger.
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 the Assassins.”
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 Honduras.
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 proxy wars.
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 law.
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 plot.
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 Politics.]
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 back.
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.
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 contra war.
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 bases.
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 States.”
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, 1989.
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 squads.
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. Dedicated to the memory of Penny Lernoux.