Contra Campaign

John Kerry once took a shot at Miami's Felix Rodriguez for his part in the Iran-contra scandal. Now the Bush family friend is shooting back.

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.

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 ledgers, 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 Drug Enforcement Administration 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 Havana 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 he watched every contra supply plane land, refuel, and take off from Ilopango and that there were never any drugs onboard. "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.

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