When Lewis Tambs traded in his history professorship to become US ambassador to Colombia in 1982, he didn’t reckon that Colombia’s cocaine cartel would soon put a price on his head. He didn’t anticipate – when he was reassigned to Costa Rica for his own safety in May 1985 – that leaders of the US-backed Nicaraguan contras would conspire with the same drug traffickers to bomb his new embassy. And he didn’t expect to be exposed, as he has been following his resignation last month, as having served as a point man in Lt. Col. Oliver North’s schemes to contravene Congress’ two-year ban on aid to the very same contras.
Tambs discovered a vicious real world, profoundly in the grip of drug money, where murder is mundane and ideology irrelevant, where the temptation to traffic narcotics afflicts desperate men whether they be terrorists or freedom fighters.
Tambs’ road to becoming a target, first of the cocaine billionaires, and later of the drug kingpins’ partners in the contra network, began in 1980. That year he won the favor of the New Right, especially its leader in Congress, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), by editing a report that lambasted the Panama Canal treaty and characterized the Panamanian government as a gang of left-wingers.
When Ronald Reagan entered the White House one year later, Helms pushed unsuccessfully for Tambs to be named assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and later ambassador to Panama – where Tambs’ chances for popularity were not very great. Finally, in December 1982, Helms secured Tambs the ambassadorship in Colombia.
Pressuring the kingpins
Then, as now, Colombia was besieged by narcotics traffickers who control an estimated 80 percent of the world’s cocaine supply, most of it consumed in the United States. Ambassador Tambs put pressure on the Colombian government to arrest the kingpins, and by June 1984, fifty were scheduled for extradition to the United States.
For his efforts, a $1 million reward was offered for Tambs’ murder by the drug cartel – which later offered to pay off Colombia’s multibillion-dollar national debt in exchange for revocation of the extradition treaty with the United States. Since the traffickers had already murdered Colombia’s justice minister, plus a score of judges and enforcement officers, the threat on the ambassador’s life was taken seriously.
In May 1985, Tambs left Colombia to become US ambassador to Costa Rica. Like Honduras to the north, Costa Rica was a staging ground for the contras’ attacks on Nicaragua. The CIA had constructed a series of airstrips for secret supply missions. As revealed in the wake of the Iran-contra arms scandal, Lt. Col. Oliver North’s network of former intelligence officers used the airstrips to continue supplying the contras even after Congress had made it illegal in 1984.
And, as confirmed by reports in the last 10 days:
· Ambassador Tambs had persuaded the Costa Rican government to tolerate such operations.
· The supply lines carried cocaine on their return trips from Costa Rica to Miami.
Newsman uncovers cocaine traffic
The cocaine traffic had been uncovered some 18 months earlier by Tony Avirgan, a Costa Rica-based US radio and television newsman. Avirgan made his discovery in the course of searching for the culprits in the May 1984 bombing of a press conference in La Penca, Nicaragua. The press conference was called by contra leader Eden Pastora to denounce the more right-wing contra elements with which the CIA had been working closely. The ensuing investigation by Avirgan was well motivated, for he himself had been injured in the bombing, which claimed eight lives.
As Avirgan explained during an interview last month, he discovered that the bombing had been planned by operatives of the CIA, Lt. Col. North’s private network and contra leader Adolfo Calero – who had sought to pin the bombing on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in order to arouse US support for their cause.
Avirgan also discovered that the same network had entered into a partnership with the powerful Colombian drug traffickers Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar to use the supply missions to ferry cocaine back to the United States. But there was more.
Ambassador Tambs might have been helping the contra cause by maintaining relations with their Costa Rican hosts. Indeed, there is no evidence that he knew the planes were carrying drugs on their return trips to Miami. However, as far as the Colombians were concerned, they still wanted Tambs dead.
Thus, when another bombing was plotted in the spring of 1985 by the same conspirators – this time at the US embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica, where Tambs was about to assume the ambassadorship – the Colombians, according to Avirgan, persuaded the contra network to delay its attempt until Tambs’ arrival. That way, the network could earn an extra million dollars – the price on Tambs’ head.
When Avirgan revealed the plot, the plans apparently fizzled. Though his own life has since been threatened, Avirgan remains in Costa Rica. In an interview Tambs, who recently resigned and returned to teaching history at Arizona State University, dismissed Avirgan’s belief that the plans to bomb the Costa Rican embassy were delayed until Tambs’ arrival. But he would not deny there was a plan – and he was telephoning from an ivory tower in peaceful Arizona.