Cocaine Airways

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

Nothing about the deal was conventional. Even the source of weapons was masked: in the early 1980s, the U.S. Army's 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions staged maneuvers in Honduras to prepare for an unlikely invasion by neighboring Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government. "The [Army] took military equipment and certified it was destroyed in airdrops," Plumlee says. Although the military told the Government Accounting Office (GAO) that the weapons were a total loss, the equipment was in fact transported back to the U.S and retrofitted before being flown back to Central America and into the hands of the CIA's Contra army.

The weapons "were taken back to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the U.S. Army Proving Grounds near Yuma, Arizona, because they needed to be repaired," Plumlee says. "There were weapons, helicopter parts, stinger missiles. I remember three specific trips to El Toro and one, possibly—I'm not really sure—of drugs going in there." He's sure of a few things: "These flights were all between 1 and 4 a.m.; that's when the [control] tower was thinly staffed. The planes were dark olive drab with camouflaging. We didn't fly marked aircraft. If we got hit with customs interdiction aircraft, we didn't want any photographs of tail numbers."

Plumlee says the pilots officially worked for civilian air charters under contract to the CIA, including the infamous Southern Air Transport and Evergreen International Airlines. He was always paid in cash, usually about $5,000 per flight. Once he landed at El Toro, Plumlee says, he'd taxi the C-130 to the southwest side of the field, close to Interstate 5.

Tosh in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, mid-1980s
Tosh in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, mid-1980s
Tosh near Lake Havasu, Arizona, 1979
Tosh near Lake Havasu, Arizona, 1979

"I had long hair in those days—bushy hair," he says. "I looked like a drug runner. There was nobody in uniform offloading our aircraft. I figured they were CIA spooks. When you see people like that on a military base in the early morning, unloading, I say that's CIA. It's an assumption on my part, but it is based on a preponderance of evidence."

*   *   *

At some point in all the excitement, however, it became apparent to Plumlee that the drugs he and other pilots were transporting into the U.S. weren't actually being seized by the DEA. Nor was anyone in a hurry to close down the Mexican airstrips used for running drugs and guns. And no one seemed eager to use Plumlee's intelligence to throw a net over the cartels. Plumlee's suspicions—and those of other pilots involved in the Reagan administration's war in Central America—helped to spark one of the darkest and least-known chapters of the Iran-Contra scandal. Dozens of pilots, including Plumlee, would eventually testify in top-secret hearings on Capitol Hill that they flew massive amounts of cocaine into the U.S., and that those flights often arrived at U.S. military bases.

"At the time, there was open war between the CIA and the DEA," he says. "They weren't sharing any information." Pilots who broke the code of silence were set up as drug smugglers whose claims that they worked for the CIA would be treated as lies—stupid lies. "A lot of guys were picking up documents to protect their asses," Plumlee says. "People were being indicted."

In 1983, Plumlee contacted staffers for U.S. Senator Gary Hart (D-Colorado) and told them everything he knew about the phony drug-interdiction program and how it had been used by the CIA as cover for the agency's secret—and illegal—shipment of arms for the Nicaraguan Contras. "I didn't do that for publicity, but to protect myself," he says. "This was before the fact—before the Iran-Contra hearings."

Once the scandal broke, Hart passed Plumlee to John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator investigating accusations that the CIA was involved in drug smuggling. Kerry took Plumlee's testimony under oath—and then sealed it. Plumlee's testimony will remain classified until 2020, although his name is still listed on the Kerry commission's official list of witnesses, available on microfiche at public libraries.

A copy of a Feb. 14, 1991, letter from Hart to Kerry confirms Plumlee's story. "In March of 1983, Plumlee contacted my Denver Senate Office and met with . . . my Senate staff," Hart wrote. "During the initial meeting, Plumlee raised certain allegations concerning U.S. foreign and military policy toward Nicaragua and the use of covert activities by U.S. intelligence agencies. . . . He stated that he had grave concerns that certain intelligence information about illegal arms and narcotic shipments were not being appropriately acted upon by U.S intelligence and law enforcement agencies."

That meeting was three years before the U.S. public knew anything about Iran-Contra.

"Mr. Plumlee stated that he had personally flown U.S.-sponsored covert missions into Nicaragua," Hart told Kerry. "In [later] meetings, Mr. Plumlee raised several issues, including that covert U.S. intelligence agencies were directly involved in the smuggling and distribution of drugs to raise funds for covert military operations against the government of Nicaragua. He provided my staff with detailed maps and names of alleged covert landing strips in Mexico, Costa Rica, Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, and California where he alleged aircraft cargoes of drugs were off-loaded and replaced with Contra military supplies."

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