Cocaine Airways

A former CIA pilot says secret flights to El Toro could explain a Marine officers suicide

When we first spoke, a decade ago, the fear in his voice—the staccato pace, the tremor—was unmistakable.

"I can't talk to you," he said. "This is all classified."

He answered just one question: if he told me what he knew, he'd go straight to federal prison for violating U.S. national security laws.

Then he hung up the telephone.

Two weeks ago, I tracked the man to his home in rural Pennsylvania. This time, he didn't hang up on me. The terror in his voice was gone, replaced by the cheerful nonchalance that maybe just comes with being 69 years old and knowing that your kids have finished college, you're well into retirement, and it's too late for anyone to ruin your life for talking to a reporter about matters that powerful people would rather keep secret.

He laughed when he recalled our conversation a decade ago. He apologized for not answering my questions. He asked me what I wanted to know.

Over the course of the next several days, the man told me his life story.

*  *  *


William Robert "Tosh" Plumlee was a CIA contract pilot. He worked where the agency sent him. That meant that he ran guns to Fidel Castro in the 1950s, and then, when Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, Plumlee ran guns to Castro's opponents. In the 1980s, he flew guns again, in and out of military bases including Orange County's El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, March Air Force Base in Riverside, and Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The weapons were destined for the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras, a right-wing army aiding the agency's war on communism.

On return flights—and this is where Plumlee's story becomes really interesting—he says he flew cocaine back to the bases with Uncle Sam's approval. Plumlee figures he made at least three weapons flights to El Toro in the mid-1980s and says it's possible there were drugs in some of those crates as well. Other pilots he knew told him about off-loading tons of drugs at El Toro.

There have been rumors of such activity for two decades, and they have everything to do with one family's suspicions about a high-ranking Marine officer who commited "suicide" at El Toro in 1991.

All of Plumlee's landings were late at night, and the unmarked airplanes—massive C-130 cargo carriers—were painted dark green. And though Plumlee landed at military installations, the men who unloaded his planes were dressed just as he was—in civilian attire, sporting long hair. Plumlee says he guesses they could have easily passed for drug dealers.

He doesn't know the identities of those cargo handlers. But he's pretty sure they weren't military.

"I was CIA," Plumlee says. "So why wouldn't they be too?"

*   *   *


He was born in Panama City, Florida, in 1937, where his father worked as a pipe fitter in a paper mill. His family moved to Dallas when he was six months old. At 14 and a half, he forged a birth certificate and joined the Texas National Guard; six months later he leapt to the U.S. Army, which promptly discovered he'd lied about his age and booted him with an honorable discharge, adding that if he stayed in Dallas and came back in two years—this time with his parents' consent—he could re-enlist.

After rejoining the military, Plumlee received flying lessons and was assigned to military intelligence. "They were experimenting with a lot of young people who weren't coming out of prison, but who didn't have a lot of family ties. Basically juvenile delinquents who liked adventure," Plumlee says. "I started flying for a series of companies—Southwest Aero Charter, Intermountain Aviation, Riddle Aviation in Miami, and a few others."

Plumlee would only later discover his employers were funded, if not completely run, by the CIA. His first major assignment: running guns from the Florida Keys to Fidel Castro and a group of students at the University of Havana known as the Movement of the 26th of July, or M26-7. The group was supported by the CIA in its effort to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. "I was making hit-and-run raids in Cuba," Plumlee says. "The CIA was funding it and sending guns and hardware to them, and I was flying those guns in and out of Cuba."

On one such raid, in the mountains of northern Cuba near Santa Clara, Plumlee's DC-3 airplane lost an engine. "We couldn't get out of there," he says. "We made a weapons drop there at a site that had been secured and we landed and couldn't get enough power to get out. We abandoned the aircraft and they took us to Raul Castro's compound. Raul Castro got me off the island. I had coffee with Fidel Castro in the mountains. Fidel Castro gave me a fatigue hat. I thought he was democratic and patriotic and still to this day believe we drove him into this communist deal. All he wanted was tractors."

One of Plumlee's partners in running guns to Castro and his cohorts was a man we'll call "Carlos," an M26-7 member whose sister, along with several others, had been gunned down by Batista's agents in a raid on a Havana safe house. Convinced a Batista agent masquerading as a revolutionary had aided the attack, Carlos spent two years establishing the mole's identity and then lured him onto a gunrunning flight from Florida's Marathon Key to Cuba. Plumlee copiloted the plane. "Somewhere between Cat Cay, southeast of the Keys, and the Cuban coast, the door light went red in the cockpit, meaning the cargo door had been unlatched," Plumlee says. He went back to the cargo area to investigate. The suspected Batista agent had disappeared, and Carlos was re-latching the cargo door. "My copilot told me to get back in my seat," he says. "He told me it was a Cuban affair."

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