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Oct. 15, 1998

Contra Narco-Terrorists

By Robert Parry

The strange case of Cuban exile Frank Castro demonstrates how blowback from the CIA's violent campaigns against Fidel Castro in the 1960s flowed into South American drug trafficking in the 1970s and the Nicaraguan contra operation in the 1980s.

According to the new report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz, the CIA knew that Frank Castro, an anticommunist veteran of the CIA's Cuba operations, was implicated in terrorism and drug trafficking by the time he joined the contras in the mid-1980s.

Still, the CIA withheld information about Frank Castro from Congress in 1986, a decision that undercut Sen. John Kerry's investigation into the contra-drug secrets -- especially into links between the contras and the Medellin cartel.

Kerry's final report in 1989 mentioned Castro only in passing and left out several promising leads that suggested a cartel tie-in to the contra war.

In Cocaine Politics, published in 1991, authors Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall offered a more complete picture. They described Frank Castro as the man who "brought together the intelligence, terrorist and criminal forces in the contra movement."

Scott and Marshall wrote that "Castro's career intersects many of the historical intrigues that fostered the narco-terrorist apparatus in the contra movement. ... These strands, unexplored by Congress and largely ignored by the media, suggest that the contra-drug connection was not merely an isolated incident but rather part of an ongoing history of illegal activities that enjoyed at least some official protection from U.S. intelligence agencies."

Hitz's report confirmed that the CIA did protect the contra-cocaine connections, by withholding key information from Congress and by releasing false assurances that the contra-drug allegations were bogus. In an appendix to the report, Hitz makes clear that Frank Castro was one contra-trafficker who benefitted from the CIA's silence.

According to a government biography, cited by Hitz, Frank Castro was born in Cuba on June 4, 1942, as Eulalio Francisco Castro. After Fidel Castro's revolution won control of Cuba, Frank Castro fled to the United States and sought asylum in 1961. He received military training from the U.S. Army in 1962-63 at Forts Knox, Jackson and Carson.

In their book, Scott and Marshall reported that Castro joined a paramilitary training camp in Central America to carry on the CIA's war against Fidel Castro. That force, commanded by Bay of Pigs political leader Manuel Artime, launched attacks on Cuban economic targets.

By the early 1970s, Castro had changed his first name to Frank and had become a U.S. citizen. He also took part in more terrorist attacks -- bombings and attempted bombings -- against Cuban and Soviet facilities.

Though Hitz's report contains gaps about Frank Castro's activities, Cocaine Politics reported that Castro emerged as "one of the most militant of the exile terrorists. In 1976, he helped found a new terrorist front uniting the most extreme organizations. Known as CORU, it unleashed a wave of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations throughout the Americas in the late 1970s."

Hitz's report noted that the CIA was aware of another unsavory aspect of Frank Castro's Miami-based activities: his participation in major drug-trafficking operations. By 1979, he had developed a reputation as a south Florida drug dealer, though U.S. law enforcement never seemed to put him away.

In 1981, Frank Castro was the main subject of the so-called Tick-Tock drug case. Miami police did arrest him on four counts of narcotics trafficking, but the charges eventually were dismissed in a plea bargain in which Castro pled guilty to a weapons charge and was fined $500.

Federal records revealed that in 1983, Frank Castro was the subject of another drug conspiracy case -- the planned smuggling of 425,000 pounds of marijuana through Beaumont, Texas. But federal authorities were hesitant to move because of Castro's ties to the CIA.

On Nov. 22, 1983, the CIA's Directorate of Operations wrote a memo which stated that the CIA’s general counsel wanted a search of records on Castro because the Justice Department was prosecuting him for drug trafficking in Texas. DOJ was checking out Castro's claims of affiliation with the CIA.

According to Hitz, an unsigned, handwritten note was attached to this memo and read: "DOJ is willing to drop [the charges] if he [Frank Castro] was in fact associated [with] Agency."

At that time, Frank Castro was starting to help the contras, a top CIA project facing congressional opposition and money shortages. Castro financed a training base in the Everglades near Naples. He pulled together Cuban-Americans and Nicaraguans in an outfit called the Saturnino Beltran Commandos.

Though the armed group trained openly and announced plans to fight in Nicaragua, the U.S. government presented no apparent interference.

In June 1984, the Texas drug charges against Castro were dropped. Soon afterwards, Frank Castro's money began flowing into the coffers of contra leader Eden Pastora, who was struggling to build a Southern Front in Costa Rica.

The CIA was taking note of the developments. In a cable, dated July 12, 1984, the CIA reported its suspicions that Pastora's deputy, Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro, had picked up money from Castro in the Dominican Republic.

In another cable, dated Oct. 12, 1984, the CIA identified Castro as the man who controlled Rene Corvo, a Cuban-American who was leading an armed force of 30-40 contras in northern Costa Rica. Seven of Corvo's Cuban-Americans had been based at a Costa Rican landing zone controlled by American farmer John Hull.

Frank Castro, the alleged narco-terrorist, was recognized as the moneyman behind these contra operations. According to an Oct. 25, 1984, cable, Hull told the CIA that Castro donated large sums of money as well as two helicopters, two light aircraft and one C-47 transport plane to Pastora's army.

The C-47 was believed to be the one at Ilopango Airport in El Salvador that was used by contra pilot Marco Aguado in suspected drug flights for Colombian cartel figure, Jorge Morales, who was also contributing money to the contras.

Within a week of Hull’s report, a CIA cable stated that Castro had "connections" in Colombia.

In November 1984, Oliver North's emissary Robert Owen reported to Washington about his own suspicions. "Several sources are now saying Pastora is going to be bankrolled by former Bay of Pigs veteran Frank Castro, who is heavily into drugs," Owen wrote. "The word has it Pastora is going to be given $200,000 a month by Castro."

Later in November or possibly in early December, Castro's associate, Rene Corvo, traveled to Colombia on a suspected drug mission, according to Hitz's report. On Dec. 12, 1984, the CIA reported internally that Castro was installing a cocaine processing lab in northern Costa Rica and using the contra war as a cover.

Other witnesses, cited in internal CIA cables, reported that in early 1985, Castro had been presenting himself as a representative of Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Ochoa, a top figure in the Medellin cartel.

Castro allegedly passed on Ochoa's offer to pay $1 million for someone to assassinate U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs, who had moved from Colombia to Costa Rica.

As the first public reports about contra-drug trafficking surfaced in late 1985 and early 1986, the CIA fretted that Frank Castro could become a public-relations embarrassment.

According to a March 7, 1986, cable, the CIA identified Castro as the main liaison between Colombian drug dealers and Miami-based Cubans. A CIA cable on April 15, 1986, called Castro and his associate, Rene Corvo, "dangerous and counterproductive" for the contras.

In another report, dated Feb. 13, 1987, the FBI echoed that conclusion, reporting that "Castro has very good connections with [the] Medellin cartel" and, particularly, with the Ochoa brothers.

But in 1986-87, the Castro-contra connection was a dark secret that the Reagan administration wanted to keep. In August 1986, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee requested information about Castro, Corvo and other Cuban-Americans who were linked to drug lords and were helping the contras.

The Reagan administration stonewalled the Senate’s inquiry and sought to discredit Kerry's witnesses who were implicating the contras.

The Justice Department announced that it could provide no data because of an ongoing investigation. The Senate's "rambling through open investigations gravely risks compromising those efforts," Justice announced.

As Hitz noted, "no records have been found to indicate that CIA shared the information it collected concerning Castro with Congress." The withholding of evidence limited Kerry's ability to verify allegations tying the contra operation to major cartel shipments.

In 1988, near the end of the contra war, the federal government did indict Castro and several other Cuban-Americans and contra backers for Neutrality Act violations. But the case made no reference to drug trafficking.

In 1989, a federal judge threw out the Neutrality charges on the grounds that the United States effectively had been at war with Nicaragua.

The official story about Frank Castro, the contras and cocaine remained secret for almost another decade, well past the time that any criminal prosecution could be made -- or any cocaine shipments could be stopped.

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