Jesse Helms' Contra-Cocaine Connection

[Ed. note: The documents referred to in this story can be found on the Web at, a site created by the reporter]Though U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms is a famed isolationist in foreign-policy debates, during the Cold War he often led the drive to commit U.S. support to anti-communist crusades abroad. In the process, he buddied up with some of most notorious right-wing leaders in the hemisphere. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Helms praised the dictatorial rule of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, even as Pinochet's military government crushed its civilian opposition. In the early 1980s, Helms played top Washington apologist for Roberto D'Aubuisson, the arch-conservative former military officer who ran several Salvadoran death squads. Helms' ties to such infamous characters have been widely known for years. But few people are aware of the senator's vigorous support, during the mid-1980s, of a Nicaraguan rebel group closely linked to narcotrafficking--support Helms continued long after the drug link was reported by U.S. intelligence and the media. Why did Helms back a guerilla faction undergirded by drug money? The senator and his aides declined to comment for this story. But news reports, congressional testimony and declassified federal documents have made it possible to piece together a complicated tale--one that stretches from the Nicaraguan border to the White House, from Miami to Sen. Helms' office in Washington. Along the way, this tale raises serious questions about the lengths Helms would go to eradicate the threat of communism--and, more specifically, questions about the senator's activities on behalf of a group that was heavily involved in smuggling cocaine into the United States. These questions arise in the aftermath of a hotly debated investigative series published last August in the San Jose Mercury News. In the series--titled "Dark Alliance"--reporter Gary Webb made the case that members of the Contras, CIA-backed guerrilla fighters who attacked Nicaragua's Sandinista government during the 1980s, raised gun money by shipping cocaine to California. Webb alleged that these drugs helped fuel the rise of the crack trade. The Contra war was one of the major covert operations of the Reagan administration. Though the rebels earned a reputation for brutality and corruption, President Reagan--like Sen. Helms--called the Contras "freedom fighters." This characterization was called into question, even then, for a number of reasons--not the least of which were reports that some Contra groups had turned to the lucrative drug trade to finance their operations. More than a decade later, when the Mercury News printed its story of Contra drug-running, the series was instantly popular with anti-CIA activists. But it especially hit home in the African-American community, where the issues raised in Webb's series roused long-held suspicions about government complicity in the crack epidemic. "We've always speculated about this, but now we've got proof," said Joe Madison, the black host of a popular Washington, D.C., radio talk show. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also called attention to the series, commented on the legacy of mistrust it spoke to: "There is the weight of a lot of experiences with our government operating in adverse or conspiratorial ways against black people," he said. "The context is what's driving the story." In the weeks that followed the publication of the Mercury News series, the outcry over the Contras and cocaine struck Washington hard. On behalf of her South-Central L.A. constituents, Rep. Maxine Waters spearheaded a highly publicized effort to get at the facts. Currently the Justice Department, the CIA's Inspector General, and the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives are probing the issues raised by the series.Whether or not these investigations turn up new evidence, reports from years back on drug-running by the CIA's rebels already tell much of the story. Congressional reports and declassified federal documents show that as Reagan-administration officials waged covert war on Nicaragua, they rarely paused to scold contra leaders for improprieties like drug-smuggling. So it was for Sen. Helms, who devoted more attention to the Cold War than the drug war--and wound up supporting the contra faction most heavily tainted by cocaine. Helms' contra-cocaine connection has received little attention, existing as it does in the shady realm of Reagan-era covert operations. But thanks to cracks in the shield of official secrecy that kept these issues under wraps as they occurred, much of the story can now be told.The details began to emerge more than a decade ago. In response to mounting reports that some of the CIA-backed Nicaraguan rebels had participated in drug smuggling, Sen. John Kerry launched a special subcommittee investigation in the summer of 1986. The "Kerry Committee," as it came to be called, collected documents and depositions that chronicled widespread Contra involvement with narcotrafficking. As the inquiry began, Kerry briefed other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Helms, on the allegations under investigation. At a June 25 briefing, held in closed session, Sen. Joseph Biden posed a question to Helms: "What do you think about this? I know you are a Contra supporter, but you have also been willing to sort of move wherever the truth takes you on this kind of thing." Helms responded: "I will tell you what I do not support, and John Kerry and I have talked about this: anybody sending drugs into this country. I do not care whose side they are on."The Kerry Committee would soon establish that the rebels on the U.S. side had participated in the Colombia-U.S. drug pipeline. The committee's report, issued in December 1988, concluded that:[I]t is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network for the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.The report pointed a finger at a Contra group favored by Helms, concluding that it was deeply involved in a drug ring that smuggled copious quantities of cocaine into the United States. The committee's investigators had obtained hundreds of pages of official records and testimony regarding the drug activities of the orted by the senator from North Carolina and led by one Eden Pastora.A giant figure in modern Nicaraguan history, Eden Pastora--known to his fans throughout Central America as "Commandante Zero"--was a left-leaning, outspoken commander with a flair for the dramatic. Using his nom de guerre, Pastora had staged some of the most daring and successful operations of the uprising against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. A hero of the Sandinista forces, he served on the revolutionary junta after the July 1979 overthrow of Somoza. But in 1981 Pastora denounced the Sandinistas for their close relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, and in short order began organizing hit-and-run attacks from bases on the "Southern Front"--Nicaragua's border with Costa Rica.The CIA funded Pastora's group, ARDE, for two years beginning in the summer of 1982. Pastora quickly developed a reputation with U.S. officials as a charismatic, erratic and ultimately unmanageable guerrilla leader. A CIA report on problems with Pastora later stated that "from the time of his incorporation into the Nicaragua project [the contra war] in 1982, Eden Pastora proved to be a destabilizing element within the Nicaraguan opposition movement." In May 1984, when Pastora refused to get on board with a CIA-directed contra coalition, the agency severed its official support of ARDE. Suddenly strapped for funds, Pastora dispatched his assistants to drum up donations.Sometime shortly thereafter, Pastora's top aides journeyed to Miami, the Mecca of paramilitary plotting for exiles. There, at the home of Marta Healy, ex-wife of ARDE official Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro, the rebel fundraisers forged an alliance with a swashbuckling speed-boat champion named George Morales. Though his chief interest was in racing, the Colombian-born Morales had another successful career underway: He ran one of the most effective smuggling operations that ever shuttled drugs from the storehouses of the Medellin cocaine cartel to U.S. distributors. When he met with ARDE, Morales had already been indicted on U.S. drug charges. He had just begun a two-year effort to scheme his way out of a prison sentence. Morales would later give the Kerry Committee a detailed account of his involvement with ARDE. He told the committee that he crafted a quid pro quo agreement with Pastora's men: Morales would bail out ARDE with drug profits, while ARDE officials used their contacts in the CIA to help alleviate Morales' legal troubles. In addition to sending money to the Contra group, Morales said he agreed to donate planes, train ARDE pilots, and procure weapons for Pastora's forces. Eventually, he said, he gave ARDE at least three planes and one helicopter, in addition to "about $4 or $5 million in cash."Some U.S. officials received immediate reports on the arrangement. In fact, ARDE's Chamorro said recently that he ran the deal by his CIA case officer to see if ARDE could afford to work with Morales. As Chamorro told the Washington Post, "I called our contact at the CIA, of course I did. The truth is, we were still getting some CIA money under the table. They said [Morales] was fine." The ARDE-cocaine connection went deeper than Morales' money. Alan Fiers, chief of the CIA's Central America Task Force, later testified to Iran-Contra investigators that the agency had early knowledge of extensive drug ties: "We knew that everybody around Pastora was involved in cocaine. We knew it from November of 1984 forward. We reported it...and we made a decision--one I defended ardently--that you just can't deal with the man." (ARDE officials, however, told the Washington Post that some CIA support continued after the May 1984 cut-off. In addition to giving money "under the table," they said the agency still provided landing strips for Pastora's supply planes, several of which were gifts from Morales.)As Morales' relationship with ARDE progressed, the smuggler believed his assistance to the Contra group was getting him of the hook with U.S. authorities. But Morales' scheme failed to do the trick. Early in 1986, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration caught up with Morales, and that June he began a 16-year sentence in federal prison for cocaine trafficking.A year after ARDE began collaborating with Morales' drug-smuggling network, Jesse Helms went to bat for Eden Pastora. Along with four other members of Congress, the senator signed onto a letter to President Reagan, arguing that U.S. support of ARDE "should be immediately resumed and increased." Helms and his compatriots told Reagan that "just like our own Revolutionary War Minutemen Citizen-soldiers, [Pastora's] volunteer troops need all kinds of supplies urgently." And they detailed ARDE's wish list: "100,000 rounds of 7.62 mm. (B-39) ball ammunition, 100,000 rounds of 7.62 mm. (BN-49) ball ammunition, 100,000 rounds of 50 caliber ammunition, 1,000 M-79 grenades, and 100,000 rounds of 5.56 mm. M-16 ammunition." "No matter what difficulties may have occurred in the past," the letter said, "we believe that in this critical period, U.S. policy toward Eden Pastora should at least be guided by the time-tested maxim: 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.' " Later that year, on Dec. 20, 1985, Associated Press reporters Brian Barger and Robert Parry revealed to the public what was already widely known in Washington: that "Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine trafficking." Their story singled out ARDE, reporting that "a new National Intelligence Estimate, a secret CIA-prepared analysis on narcotics trafficking, alleges that one of ARDE's top commanders loyal to ARDE leader Eden Pastora used cocaine profits this year to buy a $250,000 arms shipment and a helicopter." If Helms previously had no knowledge of the ARDE-cocaine connection, it would have been difficult to miss this information after it surfaced in the national press. But months after the Associated Press had reported the allegations, Helms and his staff were still lobbying for renewed U.S. support for Pastora and ARDE.Two months later, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Feb. 26, 1986, Helms asked Secretary of State George Shultz to meet with Pastora and try to make arrangements for U.S. assistance to ARDE. Just two weeks afterward, Pastora got his audience with Shultz. During this meeting, Pastora "categorically denied any involvement by himself or by his organization in drug trafficking," according to a State Department report delivered to Congress the following July 26. Still, despite Helms' prodding, Shultz's department refused to back Pastora, probably because of ARDE's ties to George Morales. In its report, the State Department noted that, according to intelligence reports, ARDE representatives had "agreed in late 1984 with a Colombian narcotics trafficker" to "aid in transporting narcotics in exchange for financial assistance."Helms was undeterred. After Shultz's meeting with Pastora bore no fruit, the senator turned to a key White House aide to buoy ARDE's bid for U.S. support. Oliver North, the National Security Council official who served as point man for much of the U.S. involvement with the Contras, recalls in his memoir, Under Fire, that Helms prodded him to obtain funding for ARDE. "By 1986 a number of individuals, both in and out of government, were actively seeking me out to provide help, offer advice, ask questions, or request that I provide specific assistance to one or more of the resistance factions," North writes. "Senator Jesse Helms urged me to do more for Eden Pastora and his group."In March and April of 1986, months after ARDE's drug problem had been revealed to the public, at least two Helms representatives met with Pastora. One of them was retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, another Iran-Contra player. At the time Singlaub was serving as chairman of the World Anti-Communist League, an international network of ultra-rightwing activists. He was also, with the help of North and other Reagan officials, coordinating semi-official aid to the Contras.Singlaub's autobiography, Hazardous Duty, recounts Helms' request for help: "Through one of his staff aides, [Helms] asked us to make one last effort at bringing Pastora's group into the new United Nicaraguan Opposition," the U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista coalition.Meeting in Costa Rica, Singlaub and Pastora signed an agreement that would have gained ARDE's cooperation in the new coalition; in exchange, military aid would be shipped down from Contra sympathizers in the United States. But the initiative fell apart under pressure from U.S. officials who had decided to Just Say No to Pastora. When U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Lewis Tambs reported Singlaub's agreement with Pastora in a cable to the CIA, State Department and the White House, he identified Singlaub as the "envoy of Senator Helms."The next Helms envoy to meet with Pastora was David Sullivan, a former CIA officer who was one of the senator's chief foreign-policy aides. There is evidence to suggest that Sullivan and Pastora discussed the thorny matter of George Morales. In an April 10, 1986, letter to Sullivan, Pastora reviewed some of the issues the two had discussed the previous day. He also wrote that when he had heard of Morales' drug-smuggling, ARDE had "distanced ourselves from this man." Interviewed by the Kerry Committee, ARDE officials gave a different version of events. They said their group continued to accept assistance from Morales, though they were aware of his status as a professional coke smuggler. For his part, Morales said he regularly discussed his drug activities with his ARDE contacts. An April 1986 CIA report uncovered by the Kerry Committee--on "Drug Trafficking Activities by Member's of Pastora's Organization"--stated that "there is compelling information that members of Pastora's entourage...were so involved. Reportedly, Pastora was aware of the drug trafficking of his subordinates."In his letter, Pastora informed Sullivan that a C-47 airplane donated by Morales had "saved our movement," and "was the same one you flew when you visited me at La Penca [an ARDE base] in 1985." If this account is true, it raises a troubling scenario: The plane that shuttled Sullivan to a Contra camp on behalf of Jesse Helms had previously carried shipments of Colombian cocaine to the United States. The Helms connection is but one aspect of the larger Contra-cocaine scandal. But it involves one of the clearest cases of Contra participation in smuggling drugs to the United States. In a recent Washington Post report, Douglas Farah and Walter Pincus note that the Morales/ARDE alliance "seems to remain the best-documented example of a contra group cooperating with a drug trafficker and receiving substantial aid in return."Still, even though the case is detailed in an extensive official paper trail that makes frequent mention of Helms and his aides, the senator has until now eluded detailed media reports on his role. And he has not been forthcoming about his involvement with Pastora and ARDE. Helms' office did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Nor was there any response to a list of questions about Helms' support of ARDE, faxed to Helms' foreign-policy spokesman, Marc Thiessen. One thing seems clear: If Helms and his staff were unaware of ARDE's ties to cocaine traffickers, they had to avert their eyes from extensive evidence. As a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms likely had access to intelligence reports implicating ARDE in the drug trade. And he certainly had access, as did all Americans, to the Associated Press report in December 1985. Yet Helms continued his overtures to Pastora for months afterward.Robert Parry, one of the AP reporters who broke the Contra-cocaine story, told The Independent that by late 1985, "we found that all the significant contra groups had involvement" with drug-trafficking at some level. Parry, who still investigates the case for "The Consortium," his online news service, said his sources in several law-enforcement agencies and even the White House told him of ARDE's ties to cocaine smugglers. Does Parry think Helms was privy to this information? "Oh, sure," says Parry. "Anyone who was following this closely knew about it." In a deposition for the Kerry Committee, Eden Pastora's air-force director, Marcos Aguado, remarked that the Columbian drug lords "took advantage of the anti-communist sentiment which existed in Central America...and they undoubtedly used it for drug trafficking." During the Contra war, it appears, the anti-communist sentiment that existed in Washington led North Carolina's senior senator to similarly ignore the Contras' involvement in shipping cocaine to the United States.


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