Contra Campaign

An Iran-Contra conspirator joins the Swift Boat crowd. It was bound to happen.

The life of Felix I. Rodriguez provides a tour through the dark heart of America. From the Bay of Pigs fiasco to Vietnam to the El Salvador death squads to the Iran-Contra scandal, the Cuban exile and self-described "CIA hero" was there. His most famous assassination mission came in 1967, when he led the Bolivian army group that captured and summarily executed leftist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. He's worked closely with right-wing terrorists, and some of his associates were involved in the Watergate break-in. Given his background, it's not surprising his name has surfaced in numerous JFK conspiracy theories as well.

Now retired in Miami, Rodriguez, who says his CIA career was always fueled by a hope to unseat Fidel Castro, also has special relationships with both of this year's presidential candidates. George W. Bush sends him a White House Christmas card each year. The president's father counts Rodriguez as an old friend; Bush Sr. worked with him during the mid-1980s, when Rodriguez ran the operation to arm the Contras for the Reagan administration.

Democratic nominee John Kerry, though, isn't so cozy with Rodriguez. In 1986, the then-rookie senator formed a committee to investigate Iran-Contra. In 1987, the so-called Kerry Committee alleged that Rodriguez had helped steer $10 million from the notorious Medellín cocaine cartel to the Contras. The committee concluded that trafficking was rampant in the rebels' effort.

The Miami man squared off with Kerry during a closed congressional hearing. He told the Massachusetts senator point-blank that the allegation was a damned lie and, for good measure, added that he had no respect for him.

That was some 17 years ago, but Rodriguez's hatred for Kerry -- and his closeness to the Bush family -- has driven Rodriguez from the CIA shadows onto the open political stage. He's railed against Kerry on Cuban radio in South Florida and in the October edition of Soldier of Fortunemagazine. He also jumped at the chance to join the Vietnam Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group that invited Rodriguez to speak at a nationally televised September 12 rally at the Capitol.

At the sparsely attended event, the storied spook began with some words on Vietnam, where he flew assassination and assault missions (and flights with CIA-backed Air America, which has been tied to the heroin trade). He portrayed his time there as if he were dropping food and medicine from his combat helicopter. "I never saw any atrocities that Senator Kerry claims we did in Vietnam," Rodriguez told the crowd in his thick Cuban accent. "We helped the Vietnamese people."

Then he turned his attention to Central America, referring to Kerry's accusation and noting that his nemesis ultimately backed off the allegation against him. "That was one more lie from Senator Kerry," he triumphantly told the gathering.

But who, really, is lying? Rodriguez maintains that he saw no hint of drug trafficking while he was running the Contra operation in El Salvador and Honduras. "I never saw any indication of that at all -- it was all a great fabrication," he said during a telephone interview last week. "That all came from Senator Kerry's committee. It came from those people that didn't want to help the Nicaraguan resistance, people like Kerry, who wanted to hurt Vice President Bush, who was going to win the presidency."

It's a familiar -- and absolutely untenable -- refrain from the Reagan and Bush administrations that continues to this day: The narcotics ties to the Contra operation were a politically motivated myth. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was then a congressman, played a key role in the disinformation campaign. He led the effort to squelch various Iran-Contra investigations, especially when it came to drug allegations. And George W. Bush? Well, he seems to have no qualms about Iran-Contra, since he has hired several of the scandal's central figures -- including Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, and John Negroponte -- to serve under him.

Though it has been largely ignored, this historic battle between Kerry and the Bush family not only provides a revelatory subtext to this election but also indicates how much the two men running for president dislike each other. (I can hear Dubya now: "That man tried to put my daddy in jail!").

History clearly favors Kerry's side -- and he may even have been right about that $10 million in cartel money. Rodriguez, at the time, was the government's key man in El Salvador, where he was conducting counterinsurgency missions against leftist rebels. But his main job was the Contra operation. He claims to this day that he wasn't paid for his efforts, a contention about as shaky as H.W.'s famous excuse that he was "out of the loop" on the Contra affair. Rodriguez also worked in Honduras, where the Contras trained in the mountains, and at another shipping point in Costa Rica (which has been repeatedly tied to the drug trade).

The allegation against Rodriguez came from Medellín cartel accountant and convicted money launderer Ramon Milian-Rodriguez, who met with Felix Rodriguez in 1985 while he was out on bail on federal drug charges in Miami. Milian told the Kerry Committee that Rodriguez solicited the cash from the cartel and that it was later channeled to the Contras. The cartel, he said, hoped the contribution would bring it "good will" from U.S. authorities. At the same time, he was implicating the CIA operative, Milian was adamant that Felix Rodriguez had the American government's interest at heart and never took a dime of the proceeds.

Rodriguez admits the meeting took place but insists it concerned only an offer from the money launderer to help set up the Nicaraguan government in a cocaine sting. In 1988, Milian failed a lie detector test on the subject, and Kerry retracted the allegation (yes, he flip-flopped).

Rodriguez then had every right to gloat, but in 1991, the accusation resurfaced. Medellín cartel cofounder Carlos Lehder, while testifying for the U.S. government against deposed Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, admitted that his organization had indeed given $10 million to the Contras. Lehder, then a federal witness working with U.S. prosecutors, had no known motive to lie.

In light of that information, I asked Rodriguez if he was absolutely sure the Contra operation didn't receive the drug money. "I don't think it did," he said, losing his resolute tone. "They always say the same shit. Where did the money go to if they did? Every single penny that went into the Contras was accounted for."

While it's open to debate just how meticulously the Contras kept their checkbooks, there have been other indications that Rodriguez's operation may have been involved in drug smuggling. In 1984, Rodriguez's business partner, international arms dealer Gerald Latchinian, was arrested in a conspiracy to smuggle $10 million in cocaine to finance a plot to assassinate Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova. (He was later convicted.) While Rodriguez was never tied to the crime, Latchinian argued that it was connected to the CIA.

Rodriguez's agency-trained compatriot, fellow Cuban exile Frank Castro, was deeply involved in both drug smuggling and the Contra effort, according to the CIA. And in 1989, a drug pilot named Mike Tolliver alleged on a CBS news show that he ran guns to Honduras for the Contras and that, while there, his plane was loaded with marijuana for a return flight to Homestead Air Force Base. He identified Rodriguez as his boss.

Perhaps the most damning allegation against Rodriguez comes from former DEA agent Celerino Castillo, a decorated Vietnam vet who was stationed in Central America during Iran-Contra. While working for the DEA, Castillo says he became aware of drug trafficking at San Salvador's Ilopango Air Base, where Rodriguez was organizing the Contra supply effort. The DEA agent has testified in Congress and recounted in his well-documented book, Powderburns, how the airport hangars controlled by Rodriguez and other government operatives were used by drug traffickers. "The only reason Felix wasn't arrested is because he knew where all the bodies were buried in the Iran-Contra operation," says Castillo, who is now a substitute high school teacher living in Texas.

Castillo recounts that in 1986, he met then-Vice President Bush at an ambassador's party in Guatemala. "I told him there was something funny going on at Ilopango," he says. "And he just smiled and walked away."

While Bush Sr. avoided the truth about Iran-Contra, Castillo has worked for years to expose it and, in so doing, has researched Rodriguez's life -- from Cuba to Vietnam to El Salvador. He's come to the conclusion that the Cuban exile is no hero. "He's always been a terrorist, just like Osama bin Laden and all the terrorists we've made in the past," he says.

Unflinching words, but Rodriguez has indeed been tied to known terrorists, most notably Luis Posada Carriles, a CIA-trained operative who worked closely with Rodriguez after his 1985 escape from a Venezuelan jail, where he served nine years for his role in the downing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 civilians. Rodriguez admits he worked with Carriles on the Contra effort but says his friend wasn't convicted of anything. He proffers that Fidel Castro may have blown up the jetliner to "get rid of" Cuban military officials on board who were plotting against the dictator.

But that far-fetched theory doesn't explain the numerous hotel bombings that Carriles has acknowledged committing or his recent incarceration in Panama for planning to blow up Castro at a political conference (his recent pardon made international news).

"I don't endorse or support bombings," Rodriguez says. "I believe it kills innocent people, and that is not the way to do it. That will backfire."

Rodriguez says he doesn't know why Castillo has made the allegations against him. He insists that he watched every Contra supply plane land, refuel, and take off from Ilopango and that there were never any drugs on board. "What I understand from the guys I asked at DEA was that they fired [Castillo] for making all kinds of allegations about Ilopango," he says. "He was fired for incompetence. If any of his allegations had a grain of truth, the Iran-Contra committee would have brought it up. They looked at everything with a toothbrush."

(Castillo actually retired from the DEA -- under pressure from higher-ups regarding his whistleblowing -- in 1992. He collects a pension from the agency.)

The Iran-Contra Committee, which carried more weight than Kerry's subcommittee, was, in reality, famously unconcerned with the narcotics allegations. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who conducted the criminal investigation, never even interviewed Castillo. Later, after reporter Gary Webb's well-researched 1996 "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News showed clear ties between the Contras and the Los Angeles crack trade, a Justice Department investigation indeed found the "seed of truth" in Castillo's allegations but didn't bother to make a real case.

As for the media, they can only look back at the time with shame. The press -- led by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times-- tried to discredit Webb. Though the papers dutifully reported many of the salient facts, they never conveyed the big picture (remind anyone of a certain current war?) and, in the end, let the perpetrators of one of the greatest scandals in American history go largely unpunished.

Other than Soldier of Fortune, only the conservative website NewsMax.comhas brought up Iran-Contra in the context of the presidential election. In a July article, the website portrayed Rodriguez as a "wholly innocent... freedom loving patriot" who was blindsided by the unscrupulous, CIA-hating senator.

It may be just the beginning. Rodriguez says he'll vigorously oppose Kerry until Election Day, continuing his work with the anti-Kerry veterans' group, which is ideologically aligned with the similarly named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and exposing the terrible injustice done to him by the Democratic nominee. "He will tell you one thing, then he will tell you another thing," Rodriguez says of Kerry. "He is a complete liar."

We all know that Rodriguez can fight with the best of them, but what about Kerry? His Florida campaign communications director, Matt Miller, didn't respond to the question. Former DEA man Castillo, who counts his vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 as one of the worst mistakes of his life, isn't sure. And he believes Bush II -- who has already led the country into a nightmarish war using false pretenses -- will cook scandals to make Iran-Contra pale in comparison if elected to a second term.

"They say Kerry is a liar, that he lied about Felix Rodriguez, who is a hero and patriot," Castillo says. "Bush and Cheney know how to fight. Cheney says, 'Go fuck yourself.' I am so upset because Kerry won't take the gloves off. It's like he's idling. If he doesn't fight now, will he ever fight for us?"

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