On July 17, 1984, the Washington Times broke a story alleging that leading Sandinista officials were involved in cocaine smuggling. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the major wire services and TV networks immediately gave the charges prominent coverage, invariably citing anonymous “senior administration officials.” These officials, according to Newsweek (10/12/87), were Office of Public Diplomacy propagandists.
Over the years, the media have frequently repeated the same charges, sometimes with a new twist: A Nicaraguan defector told Ike Pappas on CBS Morning News (3/12/86) that Interior Minister Tomás Borge used narcotics profits to buy cars and women, while a fanciful US News & World Report cover story (5/4/87) portrayed the Sandinistas as “narcoterrorists.”
The first person to link the Sandinistas to cocaine trafficking was a convicted US dope dealer named Barry Seal. Facing the prospect of a lengthy jail term, Seal cut a deal with Vice President Bush’s antidrug task force and began working as a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operative in April 1984. Seal told a Miami grand jury that the Nicaraguan comandantes allowed Colombian drug bosses to refuel their planes at a military airfield near Managua and to refine cocaine there for delivery to the US.
Seal produced a blurry black-and-white photo, which he said showed a group of Nicaraguans and Colombians loading duffel bags of cocaine onto a C-123 cargo plane that Seal piloted to Florida. This photo was displayed by President Reagan during a nationally televised speech on March 16, 1986: “I know every American parent concerned about the drug problem will be outraged to learn that top Nicaraguan government officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking.”
The story began to unravel shortly after Reagan’s speech when Joanne Omang (Washington Post, 3/18/86) and Joel Brinkley (New York Times, 3/19/86) quoted DEA officials saying that they had no information implicating the Nicaraguan government in the drug trade. Jonathan Kwitny (Wall Street Journal, 4/22/87) later revealed that Los Brasiles, the Nicaraguan airfield which allegedly served as Seal’s refueling station, was not a military airfield as claimed by Reagan and reported in much of the US media.
Curiously, the same C-123 cargo plane which Seal had flown during his DEA exploits later crashed in Nicaragua while on a Contra supply mission in October 1986, leading to the capture of Eugene Hasenfus (New York Times, 10/10/86). Moreover, Kwitny found evidence that Seal—before he was murdered gangland-style in Baton Rouge—had links to North’s secret arms network and contra drug-running operations.
Joel Millman (Columbia Journalism Review, 9-10/86) compared how the allegations of a Sandinista coke connection——which have never been corroborated by any federal law enforcement agency—were given front-page treatment, while the Contra drug smuggling story developed by Robert Parry and Brian Barger was suppressed by AP higher-ups until its inadvertent release by AP’s Spanish language bureau. At the same time Parry and Barger were running into roadblocks at AP, their superiors were receiving frequent phone calls from Oliver North (Rolling Stone, 9/10/87).
Media Blindspot: Contras & Drugs
The headline of the Washington Post article (7/22/87) by intern David Hilzenrath was unequivocal: “Hill Panel Finds No Evidence Linking Contras to Drug Smuggling.” It was also false, according to Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.
In a letter to the editor which the Post refused to publish, Rangel wrote: “Your headline says we drew one conclusion, while in fact we reached quite a different one…. We did not conclude that there was no evidence of Contra involvement in drug smuggling.” Based on the information presented, Rangel added, Committee members determined there was “a strong need for further congressional investigation” into Contra drug allegations.
Rangel’s letter was subsequently added to the Congressional Record (8/6/87). When asked why Rangel’s correction was not published, a spokesperson for the Post told Extra!: “I don’t feel any obligation to explain why we didn’t run the letter.”
CBS Evening News (8/25/87) added a new wrinkle to Contra drug allegations when Dan Rather reported the CIA had “considerable evidence” that Eden Pastora’s now-defunct ARDE Contra group was “involved in drug trafficking.” In closed testimony, CIA officials told Congressional investigators probing the Iran/Contra affair that they cut off aid to ARDE upon learning of the drug connection.
The CBS report smacks of “damage control,” for there is plenty of evidence that top officials of the main Contra group, the Honduran-based FDN, also work closely with cocaine traffickers (Seth Rosenfeld, San Francisco Examiner, 3/16/86; Jonathan Kwitny, The Nation, 8/29/87).
The Iran/Contra committee assiduously avoided the issue during public hearings last summer, even though it had access to Oliver North’s handwritten notes (8/9/85) stating: “DC-6 which is being used for runs [to supply the Contras] out of New Orleans is probably used for drug runs into the US.”
Also this memo (4/1/85) from Robert Owen to North:
Sparkplug [FDN chief Adolfo Calero] has decided to go with [Fernando] El Negro Chamorro as the military commander of the South…. The concern about Chamorro is that [he] may surround himself with people who are in the war not only to fight but to make money. People who are questionable [include] Sebastian Gonzales (Wachan): now involved in drug running out of Panama.
Although these documents were released during the hearings, most media continue to “just say no” to investigating Contra drug dealers.