Jul 29, 1990

Did the CIA coddle Camarena’s killers? Revelations at trial cast doubts on Reagan-Bush actions | by Jerry Meldon | The Boston Sunday Globe, July 29, 1990


Although Honduran drug lord Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros was convicted last week in connection with the 1985 murder of federal drug agent Enrique Camarena Salazar, much more has been on trial than the conduct of Matta and the three Mexicans who were his alleged accomplices.

            During the two-month-long trial in Los Angeles federal court, a parade of witnesses, many with checkered pasts, portrayed high-standing Mexican enforcement personnel and politicians as the drug lord’s partners in crime. One defendant, brother-in-law of a former Mexican President, was purportedly the drug cartel’s link to the powers that be.

            But while the corrupting power of America’s billion-dollar drug habit was once again made clear, there were also revelations and allegations far more unpleasant to gringo ears – casting doubt on the Reagan/Bush administration’s sincerity about waging war on drugs.

            According to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s report of its interrogation of one informant, the CIA, in the early Reagan years, trained guerrillas on a ranch owned by Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug kingpin serving time in Mexico for ordering DEA agent Camarena’s murder. (Quintero was the archvillain in NBC-TV’s six-hour dramatization of the case.) Yet as disturbing as that sounds, CIA collaboration with drug lords was hardly anything new.

            Similarly, the murder of a lone narcotics agent was nothing unique in itself. It was the degree of brutality, and the Reagan administration’s sluggish response, that made DEA pursue the case with a vengeance.

            Shortly after noon on Feb. 7, 1985, DEA undercover agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena walked out of the US consulate in Guadalajara, heading to a lunch date with his wife. Two Jalisco state policemen, two hired killers and a drug lord’s lieutenant told him that “the comandante wants to see you” and shoved him into the car.

            They sped him to a house owned by Caro Quintero, where he was tortured and questioned for 30 hours. The interrogator, a captured tape reveals, was a commander in the Federal Security Directorate, Mexico’s FBI/CIA. One month later, Camarena’s mutilated body was discovered beside that of his Mexican pilot.

            Although the apparent motive for the murders was revenge for Camarena-led raids on vast marijuana plantations – which cost the traffickers as estimated $5 billion – the interrogation focused on what he knew about corruption in Mexico’s political hierarchy.

            At meetings leading up to Camarena’s abduction, the defendants were allegedly joined by such prominent figures as Javier Garcia Paniagua, now police chief of Mexico City, and Manuel Ibarra Herrera, former head of Mexico’s Federal Judicial Police.

            But the key participant, for those curious about connections between intelligence operations and drug trafficking, was defendant Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, who reportedly told the plotters that “we will soon have the identity” of the DEA agent and he will be silenced. Camarena was silenced, according to a forensic specialist, by the application of a Phillips-head screwdriver to his skull.

            Matta, whose presence at the house where Camarena was tortured was supported by hair sample analysis, is already serving one life term for drug trafficking and now faces sentencing for Thursday’s racketeering, kidnapping and conspiracy convictions. Yet he harbors hope for an eventual reduction in time behind bars because of his once-secret relationship with Washington – a relationship largely overlooked in media coverage of the sensational trial.

            An April 1989 report of the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), exposed Matta’s clandestine partnership with the Reagan administration. According to the Kerry report, Servicios Ejecutivos Turistas Commander, or SETCO, an airline Matta controlled, “was the principal company used by the contras in Honduras to transport supplies and personnel … from 1983 to 1985.”

            Even before SETCO was hired, a 1983 US Customs report had linked it to Matta, referring to him as “a class I DEA violator,” and citing DEA’s finding that SETCO was formed by “American businessmen dealing with Matta [and] smuggling narcotics into the United States.”

            Despite knowledge of this, and the fact that Matta had become a prime suspect in Enrique Camarena’s murder, the State Department three years later renewed SETCO’s contract to supply the contras.

            For unknown reasons, Washington had long treated Matta with kid gloves. After he was arrested in Dulles airport in 1970 following a major cocaine seizure, he was sentenced to five years at a minimum security prison. One year later, he took a walk and never came back.  

            By 1975, according to Jonathan Marshall and Peter Dale Scott’s forthcoming “The Politics of Cocaine in Central America,” narcotics agents had become aware of Matta’s partnership with Mexico’s leading drug baron, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (currently wanted for Camarena’s murder and under arrest in Mexico on unrelated drug charges.) But Matta’s charmed life would continue another 13 years.

            According to  DEA intelligence report cited in James Mills’ penetrating 1986 book, “The Underground Empire,” Matta in 1978 financed a coup d’etat in his native Honduras led by his partner, Gen. Policarpo Paz Garcia. Honduras would become both a key transit point for US-bound cocaine and the hub of CIA contra support.

            As the Kerry report examines in detail, the two developments were not unrelated. When Customs asked the DEA to investigate Matta’s airline SETCO, as it was about to begin supplying the contras in 1983 – which might have nipped the contra drug connection in the bud – the Reagan administration shut down DEA operation in Honduras. And Vice President George Bush became head of a White House task force on narcotics.

            Two years later, in the wake of the Camarena murder, things got hot for Matta – if only temporarily. He was jailed in Colombia in 1986, but, with $2 million, he bribed his way out. Then he made his way back to Honduras, where he lived in luxury until April 1988. That was when Washington finally pressured the Honduran military to arrest him – just as the former DEA agent in Honduras, whose office Washington had closed in 1983, was about to tell all to Sen. Kerry.

            If that’s not hard to swallow, consider the recently released DEA report of its interrogation of Camarena case witness, Laurence Victor Harrison. A self-described lawyer who became a communications expert for Guadalajara’s drug lords, Harrison told the DEA in February that in the early ‘80s, the CIA, using the Mexican Federal Security Directorate as a cover, trained Guatemalan guerrillas on a ranch near Veracruz owned by drug lord Caro Quintero.

            When the Federal Judicial Police raided the ranch, 19 of its officers were allegedly slaughtered by the CIA-trained guerrillas. Now Harrison says the DEA misquoted him, and what he really said was that the CIA trained contras on Caro Quintero’s ranch.

            CIA coziness with Mexican drug kingpins – a story that apparently originated with journalist Manuel Buendia (assassinated in 1984 while investigating links between Mexican narcotics traffickers, politicians, and the CIA) – unfortunately rings all too true.

            When this writer mentioned it to retired DEA undercover agent Michael Levine, the author of “Deep Cover,” he called it “not only logical but probable.” To appreciate his viewpoint, consider the case of Alberto Sicilia-Falcon, predecessor of Felix Gallardo and Matta Ballesteros as godfather of Mexico’s far-reaching drug empire.

            When arrested in 1976, Sicilia spoke nearly the exact same words as Harrison. According to a 1977 investigation by the German weekly Der Spiegel, Sicilia, commonly portrayed as a Mexican but actually a CIA-trained Cuban exile, claimed that the CIA had facilitated his drug operations to use the profits to arm Central American guerrillas.

            Why would the agency fund guerrillas? According to Sicilia, the aim was to destabilize Central American governments and turn them into dependent allies.

            And why did it take until 1988 – three years after Camarena’s murder – when the CIA/contra drug connection was public knowledge – for Felix Gallardo and Matta Ballasteros to be arrested?

            The real answers may never be known. Felix Gallardo reportedly told DEA informant Harrison that he was protected because his drug profits were financing the contras. But the presiding judges, in both the current Camarena trial and one held last year in Los Angeles, refused defense attorney requests to raise CIA-drug lord connections before a jury.

            But until these issues receive long-overdue attention, we cannot hope to comprehend the full meaning of a heroic narcotics agent’s death. And increased CIA involvement in the “drug war,” which former agency director George Bush has been prompting, had, at the very least, better be put on hold.