Our Man in San Salvador

Notorious generals U.S. ties ran through an ex-OC cop

An ex-Laguna Beach cop who claimed that he sold cocaine for the CIA during the 1980s can now take credit for another dubious achievement from that decade: offering to protect a Salvadoran army general who was recently found liable for the torture of his fellow citizens.

Ronald J. Lister became infamous when he was named in a controversial August 1996 San Jose Mercury News story alleging CIA involvement in California's crack-cocaine trade. That story described an October 1986 narcotics raid on Lister's Mission Viejo home; Lister reportedly told police he was a security consultant whose work was "CIA-approved" and that the cops were making a "big mistake" by searching his home for drugs.

In fact, police found no drugs, but they did find sophisticated police and military gear, boxes of ammunition, military training films, and stacks of paperwork documenting Lister's international arms deals. Among these was Lister's Oct. 18, 1982, offer to provide security services for El Salvador's Defense Minister, José Guillermo García.

Twenty years after Lister made that offer, on July 23, García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, director of El Salvador's National Guard and García's sucessor as Defense Minister, were fined $54.6 million by a Florida federal jury. The verdict capped a dramatic, weeks-long civil lawsuit brought by three Salvadoran torture victims who survived their ordeals and lived long enough to testify about them.

One of the Salvadoran plaintiffs, Juan Romagoza Arce was a doctor when National Guardsmen abducted him in 1980. For 24 days, Romagoza was imprisoned inside the National Guard's headquarters, beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He was also strung from the ceiling by his fingertips. Another kidnapping victim, university professor Carlos Mauricio, testified that he was imprisoned for several days, beaten and hung from his hands for hours on end.

The third plaintiff, Neris Gonzalez, was a young church worker who was eight months' pregnant when the National Guard abducted her in 1979. Tortured for several days, raped and stomped on, Gonzales said she was forced to watch another prisoner's torture and execution. Her captors also forced her to drink the prisoner's blood. She was finally dumped in the back of a truck full of corpses and left for dead. She managed to crawl to freedom, but her son died two months after being born.

In 1982, García was El Salvador's most powerful army officer. Lister was a globetrotting arms dealer and drug smuggler whose company, Pyramid International Security Consultants Inc., had offices in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador. His October 1982 contract proposal to García, written in Spanish and running more than 30 pages, states that Pyramid was founded in 1977 by a "group of experts in the fields of military, police and industrial security." The firm's "political philosophy" and that of its "associates and consultants," it states, "is dedicated to maintaining liberty, independence and free trade, in accordance with the strongest principles and traditions of the free world. We only serve clients with the same political orientation."

The document does not establish that Lister ever did business with García, but its cover page describes García as having "solicited" the contract and refers to "months" of negotiations with the Defense Minister and other high-ranking Salvadoran military and civilian leaders. Specifically, the proposal states, Pyramid had "conversations with the government of El Salvador with the intent of assisting the new government in its goal of combating the tyrannical forces of the Left, promoted and assisted by the current governments of Nicaragua, Cuba and the Soviet Union."

Without naming names, Lister's proposal to García includes biographical notes for numerous security specialists his firm had to offer. Among them:

•A "technician with the Central Intelligence Agency with 20 years experience in physical security." That description appears to match Richard Wilker, who prepared the proposal and is identified on its cover page as Pyramid's "technical director." Wilker's current whereabouts are unknown, but corporate filings show he was an employee of another Newport Beach-based security firm, Intersect Inc., which was founded by two retired CIA agents.

In separate interviews, both of Intersect's ex-spy co-founders told the Weekly that neither Wilker nor Lister ever had any direct relationship to the agency. However, both sources acknowledged knowing Lister and stated that Wilker and Lister had traveled to Central America in the 1980s on business trips involving security work. They described Wilker as a martial-arts expert who specialized in physical security.

•An expert in "covert military penetration activities (Vietnam)." This profile matches a longtime associate of Lister, David Scott Weekly, an ex-Navy Seal and Vietnam veteran who later became a mercenary known as "Dr. Death."

•A "specialist in the design and manufacture of unique arms." This person is almost certainly Timothy LaFrance, a San Diego-based automatic weapons manufacturer whose company, LaFrance Specialties Inc., provides weapons exclusively to military and law-enforcement agencies.

In a 1997 interview with the Weekly, LaFrance recalled travelling to El Salvador with Lister, Weekly and Wilker. He stated that Pyramid was a "favored corporation," used by the CIA to secretly arm the Nicaraguan contras. LaFrance also asserted that while in El Salvador, Pyramid's employees were guests at the well-appointed barracks of the elite, U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion. Less than a year earlier, the unit had massacred several hundred unarmed villagers in El Mozote.

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