IX. Carlos Cabezas

Carlos Cabezas, one of Zavala's co-defendants, was also convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in the Frogman case. In interviews with the OIG, he claimed that he and Zavala had trafficked in "Contra cocaine." Specifically, Cabezas alleged that between December 1981 and December 1982, he and Zavala smuggled cocaine from Costa Rica to the United States in baskets woven from cocaine-stuffed reeds, sold the cocaine in San Francisco, and returned the profits to the Contras. Cabezas also claimed that this "Contra Cocaine" enterprise operated under the supervision of the CIA.

We interviewed numerous people concerning Cabezas' claim, including Zavala, Cabezas' associates, and government agents and prosecutors who interviewed Cabezas during the Frogman case. We concluded that it was extremely unlikely that an arrangement such as Cabezas described existed, based on our assessment of Cabezas' credibility, his inconsistent claims about the enterprise, Zavala's and other co-conspirators' denials, and the fact that no evidence of such an arrangement emerged during the extensive wiretap investigation conducted by the federal authorities in the Frogman case. We also did not find support for Cabezas' claim of the CIA's involvement in cocaine trafficking, which he reported for the first time to the OIG, despite having spoken about the alleged Contra connection on several prior occasions. We found no evidence that the prosecution of Cabezas, or of Zavala, was anything less than aggressive, despite Cabezas' claims of ties to the CIA.

X. Celerino Castillo

The Mercury News resurrected allegations made by former DEA agent Celerino Castillo that in the 1980s Ilopango Airport in El Salvador was used by Contras to facilitate drug smuggling flights with the knowledge and complicity of the CIA. Castillo also alleged that most of the Contras' funding came from drug trafficking and that his attempts to investigate Contra drug smuggling were stymied by DEA management, the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, and the CIA. Castillo wrote in a book that when he was a DEA agent assigned to cover El Salvador from 1986 to 1990, he documented drug flights out of the Ilopango Airport in El Salvador and sent this information to DEA Headquarters, but that no action was taken.

The OIG found it difficult to evaluate Castillo's allegations because of their general nature, the passage of time, the refusal by some witnesses to be interviewed, and Castillo's refusal to be interviewed by the OIG except under unacceptable conditions. We nevertheless gathered information relevant to his claims from a number of sources, interviewed many persons connected to the allegations, and reviewed documents from DEA and CIA files related to his claims. We concluded that while some of Castillo's factual allegations had a seed of truth, the inferences he drew from these facts and his broad claims about a conspiracy by the CIA and the Contras concerning drug trafficking were not supported.

We found that, in 1986, Castillo did pass intelligence information to DEA Headquarters suggesting that some private pilots who used Ilopango Airport to supply the Contras may have been trafficking in drugs. Sensitive covert operations regarding the supply of the Contras were also being conducted at the same time from Ilopango Airport, and Castillo's investigation of drug trafficking at Ilopango was closed.

Despite the existence of these facts, we did not corroborate Castillo's broad conclusions, particularly that the CIA and the Contras were involved in a conspiracy to smuggle drugs and to obstruct his investigation. The DEA did not have hard evidence to substantiate the charges about drug trafficking at Ilopango, and Castillo's own report about the matter stated that the U.S. Ambassador in El Salvador had permitted Castillo to investigate the claims about Ilopango, but requested that the investigation be discreet. While the CIA and the Embassy were undoubtedly uneasy about a DEA investigation at the airport, we did not find proof that it was because the CIA was involved with or knew about drug trafficking at the airport, as opposed to concerns about exposing ongoing covert operations.

Our assessment of Castillo's allegations was similar to that of a number of his DEA colleagues in Central America, as well as the FBI agent who interviewed him in connection with the Iran-Contra Office of Independent Counsel investigation: Castillo was quick to make accusations based on limited knowledge and little hard evidence, and the broad assertions he made were not supported by the evidence he advanced.

XI. DEA's Response to Information about Contra Drug Trafficking and Miscellaneous Cases

We reviewed formal and informal transmission of intelligence information from the CIA to the DEA concerning allegations of drug trafficking by the Contras and DEA's response to this information. This review was designed to provide an overview of the relationship between the CIA and DEA and the type of information provided about alleged drug trafficking by Contra supporters rather than a comprehensive review of all such cases in which information was passed. We discuss information about certain cases of suspected trafficking by Contra supporters that was provided by the CIA to DEA and the response of DEA to that information. We also discuss miscellaneous cases, most notably that of John Hull, who has received significant attention over the years because of the claim that he was not prosecuted because of his alleged ties to the CIA.

XII. Conclusions

It is rare that an investigation of this magnitude is prompted by a series of newspaper articles. We spent over 15 months and significant resources investigating the allegations suggested by San Jose Mercury News articles in August 1996. We did so because the allegations resonated with a substantial number of people and fueled suspicion that our system of criminal justice was corrupted by foreign policy considerations in a manner that would be extremely shocking if true.

The allegations contained an extremely volatile mixture, linking the activities of the intelligence community, support of the Contras in Nicaragua (easily the most controversial foreign policy initiative of the 1980s), the crack cocaine explosion, and the devastation of many of our inner cities by the crack epidemic. These allegations fed an already profound suspicion of the government that exists within our inner cities and sparked widespread belief that the Contras were permitted to create massive drug enterprises in pursuit of a foreign policy initiative. More relevant to our inquiry, the allegations suggested that the pursuit of the policy of aiding the Nicaraguan Contras resulted in the manipulation of the criminal justice system, the protection of certain individuals by the CIA, and the failure of the Department of Justice to pursue investigations and prosecutions of these persons even though they were engaged in substantial drug trafficking activities.

We found that the allegations contained in the original Mercury News articles were exaggerations of the actual facts. Our investigation involved detailed reviews of the investigations and prosecutions of the various individuals who were at the center of the allegations contained in the original articles -- Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses, Ricky Ross, Ronald Lister, and others. We found that although the investigations suffered from various problems of communication and coordination, their successes and failures were determined by the normal dynamics that affect the success of scores of investigations of high-level drug traffickers: the availability of credible informants, the ability to penetrate sophisticated narcotics distribution organizations with undercover agents, the ability to make seizures of narcotics and other physical evidence, the availability of resources necessary to pursue complex cases against the key figures in narcotics distribution enterprises, and the aggressiveness and judgments of law enforcement agents. These factors, rather than anything as spectacular as a systematic effort by the CIA or any other intelligence agency to protect the drug trafficking activities of Contra supporters, determined what occurred in the cases we examined.

We also found that the claims that Blandon and Meneses were responsible for introducing crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles and spreading the crack epidemic throughout the country were unsupported. Undoubtedly, Blandon and Meneses were significant drug dealers guilty of enriching themselves at the expense of countless drug users, as well as the communities in which those drug users lived, just as is the case with all drug dealers of any magnitude. They also contributed some money to the Contra cause. But we did not find that their activities were responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in South Central Los Angeles, much less the rise of crack throughout the nation, or that they were a significant source of support for the Contras.

This is not to say that we did not find problems or ambiguities in the matters we examined. We found that Blandon received the benefit of a green card in a wholly improper manner. We found that during a period of time in the 1980s, the Justice Department was not certain whether it wanted to prosecute Meneses or use him as a cooperating witness to make cases against others. We found that part of the government was not anxious to have DEA agent Castillo openly probe the activities at Ilopango Airport because of sensitive covert operations there. We found that the CIA did in fact intervene in the Zavala case and may have played a role in having a sum of money returned to him. Although these findings are troubling, they are a far cry from the type of broad manipulation and corruption of the federal criminal justice system suggested by the original allegations.

We are well aware of the furor that these allegations created in communities throughout the country. We also recognize that it is impossible to draw conclusions about these questions with absolute certainty because of the age of the cases involved, faded memories, the dispersion of witnesses and evidence, and the special interests of many of the people we interviewed. We are also realistic enough to recognize that the suspicion of federal law enforcement will not be extinguished by our report on these allegations, especially because there remain some unanswered questions, which are multiplied when the investigation takes place so long after the events being investigated. Nevertheless, we believe that a full consideration of the results of our investigation will show that we have conducted an exhaustive review of these allegations and that our findings are supported by the evidence.


Michael R. Bromwich
Inspector General