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The CIA has always denied it used drug traffickers to raise cash for Ronald Reagan's 1980s war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. But FBI documents recently released to the OC Weekly show that a former top agency official met throughout that period with Ronald J. Lister, an ex-Laguna Beach cop who claimed to be the CIA's link between the South American cocaine trade, the Nicaraguan contras and LA's most notorious drug trafficker.
The FBI documents, five heavily censored pages released in response to the Weekly's 1997 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the CIA, concern Lister and William Earl Nelson, a vice president for security with the Irvine-based construction giant Fluor Corp. Nelson's previous job: deputy director of operations for the CIA. Nelson retired from the CIA in 1976 amid heated controversy over its ill-fated forays into Chile and Angola—clandestine operations that Nelson supervised from his office at the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters.
Lister's relationship with the Fluor executive began in 1978. How they met isn't clear, thanks to government censors. But the documents do show that Nelson told FBI agents he met with Lister three to four times per year until 1985 and discussed various business ventures, including one in Central America.
It's unclear from the documents what became of that project—FBI censors blocked out the details, arguing that revealing them might compromise U.S. national security. But independent sources suggest the deal probably involved Lister's mysteriously well-connected security company, Newport Beach-based Pyramid International Security Consultants Inc.
'A BIG CIA CONTACT'
Lister's jump from police work in Laguna Beach—the Mayberry of Orange County—to life as a security advisor in war-torn Central America is just as strange as it sounds. In 1969, he served as a military policeman, interrogating captured North Vietnamese soldiers. Then, after a few years with the Maywood Police Department, Lister joined the Laguna Beach PD, where he worked as a burglary detective.
In 1979, a year before Lister quit the Laguna Beach force and just months after he first met Nelson, he launched Pyramid to carry out private security work.
There's no question that Pyramid was involved in some highly unusual business in Central America. According to a 1998 U.S. Justice Department Inspector General report, the company was investigated by the FBI at least five times between 1983 and 1986. "In September 1983, Lister's company, Pyramid International Security Consultants, was listed as the subject of a neutrality violation investigation involving the sale of weapons to El Salvador and the loan of money from Saudi Arabia to the Salvadoran government," the report states. "Lister was also alleged to be attempting to sell arms to several other countries."
El Salvador circa the early 1980s was not open for business to just anybody. The entire region was wracked by civil wars and coups d'etat; El Salvador's military-led government was engaged in a systematic campaign of torture and murder against anyone branded a communist or subversive. But in a 1996 interview with San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, former Pyramid employee Christopher Moore (another ex-Laguna Beach cop) claimed Lister shrugged off the dangers of doing business there. Lister reportedly told Moore he had "a big CIA contact" at an Orange County company and both Pyramid and its employees would be protected while in El Salvador.
"I can't remember his name, but Ron was always running off to meetings with him, supposedly," Moore told Webb. "Ron said the guy was the former deputy director of operations or something, real high up there. All I know is that this supposed contact of his was working at the Fluor Corp. because I had to call Ron out there a couple of times."
Moore said he traveled to El Salvador on Lister's behalf, accompanied by a Spanish-speaking man who said he worked at the Salvadoran consulate in Los Angeles. Once in the capital city of San Salvador, Moore says, he met face to face with Roberto D'Aubuisson, a former Salvadoran army intelligence officer, drug and weapons dealer, and leader of the right-wing ARENA party. But D'Aubuisson's legacy is darker still: he was the architect of El Salvador's paramilitary death squads, a Hitler admirer, and a sociopath reputed to have personally authorized the 1980 murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.
"That was probably the highlight of my life at that point," Moore told Webb. "There I was, a reserve police officer who'd only been in the country for a couple of days, and I was sitting in this office in downtown San Salvador across the desk from the man who ran the death squads. He had a gun lying on top of his desk and had these filing cabinets pushed up against the windows of the office so nobody could shoot through them."
The timing of Moore's trip to El Salvador coincides with a 1982 Pyramid contract proposal to provide security to the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense; narcotics detectives found the paperwork in a 1986 raid on Lister's home. The contract, written in Spanish and running more than 30 pages, shows Pyramid boasted the services of numerous (but unnamed) former CIA physical security officers and surveillance experts.
Intriguingly, the document suggests that Lister was negotiating directly with Defense Minister General José Guillermo García, linked by El Salvador's Truth Commission to the 1981 massacre of more than 800 villagers in El Mozote. A close ally of D'Aubuisson, García was one of the most powerful members of the right-wing military junta that took control of El Salvador in 1979.