Iran Contra was the biggest political scandal of the 1980’s. It was actually two interlocking scandals caused by the disclosure of two different US covert operations in two very different parts of the world. The first of these operations was the illegal sale of advanced weaponry to Iran, a country that in the official Washington discourse was considered (back then as well as today) an enemy and a terrorist nation. The second, equally illegal, operation was the use of the profits from those arms sales to Iran to fund a stateless mercenary army in Central America known as the contras, which were fighting the revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Very few news readers, even the most knowledgeable observers of the Iran Contra affair, ever learned of the unusual role of a Puerto Rican woman in the revelations about the contra supply operation, known by the alias of “Wanda Doe”. A resident of the Puerto Rican municipality of Bayamón, Wanda Palacio worked in the early 1980’s for Colombia’s Medellin Cartel, and claimed direct knowledge of the cartel’s dealings with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the contras. She says she witnessed in 1983 and in 1985 in Barranquilla, Colombia, the arrival of CIA airplanes loaded with weapons for the cartel, which would then send them to the contras. The planes would return to the US loaded with Colombian cocaine. They were clearly identified as belonging to Southern Air Transport (SAT), an airline that had been a CIA front from 1960 to 1973 (1). Wanda says that cartel kingpin Jorge Ochoa himself explained to her the guns-for-drugs deal with the CIA to supply the contras.
In 1986 Wanda broke with the cartel and seeking help and protection she brought her testimony to rookie US Senator John Kerry, who back then headed a subcommittee that had just opened an investigation into allegations of contra wrongdoing. Kerry and his staff had received information that indicated that the contras were receiving weapons from the USA, which Congress had expressly forbidden. However, Wanda’s testimony went way beyond what they ever imagined.
On September 26 Kerry delivered Wanda’s testimony, an 11-page “proffer”, to Assistant US Attorney William Weld. On October 3 Weld informed Kerry that he rejected her testimony due to some minor contradictions in it. Wanda’s tale would have ended right there had it not been for the fact that two days later the Sandinistas shot down a Fairchild C-123K Southern Air Transport plane loaded with weapons flying over Nicaraguan airspace. This was the incident that detonated the Iran Contra scandal. Wanda had been corroborated if only halfway: SAT was indeed flying arms to the contras.
A few days after the plane crash, Wanda was in Kerry’s office when the face of the plane’s dead pilot, Wallace Sawyer, appeared on a TV screen. She told the senator’s staff that he was the pilot of the SAT plane she saw in Barranquilla in 1985. Naturally, they took her words with skepticism.
At this point, journalist Robert Parry, then with Associated Press, entered the picture:
“I had flown to Managua (Nicaragua) for the AP after the crash and had gained access to Sawyer’s flight logs that had been aboard the plane. Sawyer had written down the airport codes of the cities he had visited as well as the tail numbers of the planes he had flown. When I returned to Washington, I deciphered the IDs of the sometime obscure airports where Sawyer had landed. I also cross-checked the tail numbers with federal aviation records which identify the owners of the plane.
“Sawyer had scribbled down three entries for Oct. 2, 4 and 6, 1985, listing himself flying a Southern Air transport plane into Barranquilla, just as Palacio had alleged. Yet, despite the corroboration — and a supportive polygraph exam — Weld still rejected Palacio. Her fate was similar to other witnesses who dared to link the contras, the CIA and cocaine.” (2)
Wanda Palacio, her extraordinary testimony and its corroboration were forgotten. The Puerto Rican press covered her story briefly. El Mundo did a cover story on her, and journalist Beatriz de la Torre wrote about her for The San Juan Star, but that was pretty much it. In her 1987 book on contra drug dealing Out of Control, author Leslie Cockburn makes no mention of Wanda, and in its final report on its investigation, Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, Kerry’s subcommittee barely mentions her in passing.
I interviewed Wanda in the fall of 1989 for a term paper I was writing for a class in the Humanities faculty of the University of Puerto Rico. I do not remember the course’s name but I do remember the professor was Luis Agrait. The contact with Wanda was made possible through her attorney Charles Hey-Maestre, who was representing her at the Puerto Rican Civil Rights Institute (IPDC). That paper I wrote became the basis for a longer monograph about the CIA, which the UPR Social Sciences Journal published in 1992 (3). This research led to my first journalistic articles for the local progressive weekly Claridad.
At the time of our first meeting Wanda was already yesterday’s news, living in anonymity and trying to piece her life back together. The world had lost interest in the whole contra story. The war in Nicaragua was ending, and so was the cold war. Even progressive organizations and their funders were now looking elsewhere. Wanda and I remained in touch for years to come but I have not heard from her since 2001.
Other characters in this story did very well after the Iran Contra debacle. Kerry went on to become Democrat presidential candidate in 2004 and is now secretary of state. Weld became Republican Massachusetts governor for two terms, and in 1996 he unsuccessfully tried to oust Kerry from his Senate seat. During that electoral campaign, Parry asked Weld why he had dismissed Wanda’s testimony ten years earlier. Weld told him his aides “felt her credibility was roughly that of a wagonload of diseased blankets”. But he declined to be more specific.
That same year deceased journalist Gary Webb published a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News called “Dark Alliance”, in which he documented the contra-drug connection of the 1980’s, right down to the dealings between contra fundraiser Danilo Blandón and drug lord Rick Ross, California’s “king of crack”. Webb’s articles infuriated California’s African American community, which had gotten the worst part of the crack epidemic. The public uproar motivated the CIA to undertake an internal investigation into the matter, led by the Agency’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz (4).
Hitz released his final report on the contra drug allegations in 1998. The mainstream media hailed the report, claiming it cleared the Agency of any wrongdoing. But Hitz, now a scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law, said in the report that the war against the Sandinistas had taken precedence over law enforcement, and that the CIA had evidence of contra involvement in cocaine trafficking but kept quiet about it.
In the words of Robert Parry, “CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz ultimately produced a fairly honest and comprehensive report that not only confirmed many of the longstanding allegations about Contra-cocaine trafficking but revealed that the CIA and the Reagan administration knew much more about the criminal activity than any of us outsiders did.” (5)
But the Hitz report did Webb no good. For his journalistic audacity, Webb was savaged by fellow reporters and editors, particularly from the Washington Post, the New York Times andthe Los Angeles Times. The Mercury News buckled under the pressure. The newspaper got rid of Webb and practically apologized to the CIA. Unemployed, shunned by his own colleagues and very much abandoned by progressive sectors that had lost interest in the story, Webb took his own life on December 10 2004. His journalistic saga and tragic end are the subject of the 2006 book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, by Nick Schou. The book was made into a Hollywood film released in October 2014 (6).
In the month previous to the film’s release, the CIA declassified a number of articles of its internal publication, Studies in Intelligence, including one specifically about Webb’s journalism. The article, titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story”, showed that the Agency was really distressed by Webb’s contra articles: “By anyone’s definition, the emergence of this story posed a genuine public relations crisis for the Agency.” (7)
According to the article, which was apparently written at the end of 1996, the CIA took active steps to discredit Webb and his articles, and relied on the press itself to do its dirty work. The Agency’s public affairs staff was able to count on “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists”. The article even boasts that “one major news affiliate, after speaking with a CIA media spokesman, decided not to run the story.”
As the 10th anniversary of Webb’s death approaches, looking back on almost 30 years since Iran Contra and the first journalistic investigations into contra drug trafficking, it is worth noting that these revelations owe much to the courageous testimony of one Puerto Rican woman who is now living a regular ordinary life somewhere in this Caribbean island.
* Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. His bilingual blog (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/) is a collection of news items of progressive interest. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz.
1) Maurice Wickstead. “Southern Air Transport: An Uncommon Carrier”. Airways News, August 21 2014. http://airwaysnews.com/blog/2014/08/21/southern-air-transport-an-uncommon-carrier-part-one/; Robert Block. “Airline swaps gun-running for good works” The Independent, December 24 1992. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/airline-swaps-gunrunning-for-good-works-southern-air-transport-was-run-by-the-cia-and-started-the-irancontra-scandal-but-now-its-staff-assure-robert-block-its-main-job-is-saving-somalis-1565324.html
2. Robert Parry. “Contra-Crack Story Assailed” Consortium News, 1996. http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/crack2.html
3. Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero. “El rol de la CIA en el mundo contemporáneo” Revista de Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. http://rcsdigital.homestead.com/files/Vol_XXIX_no1-2/Ruiz.pdf
5. Robert Parry. “The CIA/MSM Contra-Cocaine Cover-up” Consortium News, September 26 2014. http://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/26/the-ciamsm-contra-cocaine-cover-up/