CIA’s Cocaine Airlines

The crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s was fueled by the shipment of tons of white powder into US military bases to avoid detection, confiscation and arrest by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Much of the cocaine was sold on the streets as crack cocaine, a form of rock crystal (also called “freebase cocaine”) that can be smoked. The crystal is heated to produce vapors that are absorbed into the blood-stream through the lungs. (The term “crack” refers to the crackling sound produced by the rock as it is heated.) Cocaine wasn’t sold with a manufacture’s product instructions on how to make crack cocaine. The instructions were passed from dealer to dealer. Crack cocaine is made into small “rocks” by cooking cocaine with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and water.

Crack sold for $10 to $20 a ‘rock’ and led to the addictions, crime, imprisonment, and the destruction of thousands of lives.

Crack cocaine was the perfect narcotic to sell to those without money to buy the expensive white powder in need of a ‘high,’ a spike of dopamine and euphoria for 15 or 20 minutes. The only problem was that crack required more and more hits for the narcotic to ‘take them to a better place.’ The downside of cocaine usage includes heart attacks, strokes, and sudden death.

In April 1984, the CIA mined Nicaraguan harbors, killing the Reagan Administration’s chances to obtain more funding for the Contras. The Boland Amendment cut off appropriated funds to support the Contras for fiscal year 1985. To make-up for the shortfall, the administration obtained funds from private individuals, other countries like Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, the Sultan of Brunei; the sales of weapons at a mark-up over costs to the Iranians, and the illegal sales of cocaine.

Senator John Kerry’s the Sub-Committee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations reported in 1989 “that it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.”

Massive quantities of cocaine were transported into the US, sold to drug dealers who cooked the cocaine into crack and sold it on the streets of America. ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross in South Central LA became a heroic multi-millionaire in the ghetto, selling crack nationwide before he was arrested in a sting operation in 1996. His supplier was Oscar Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan with CIA connection. Blandon had no control over CIA proprietary aircraft but others in the government did and they needed the money to fund the war in Nicaragua, and pay for off-the-shelf covert operations. This was not loose change but potentially billions of dollars; more than enough money to support the Contras with weapons and supplies, keep CIA proprietary aircraft operational, pay for aircrews and fuel, and when necessary, murder those who were a threat to blow-the-whistle.


At Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Southern California, the C-130s offloaded their deadly cargo in the early morning hours in the southwest quadrant of the base, the most industrial and isolated part of the airfield. The sound from the C-130’s four Allison T56 turboshaft engines had to wake up the duty watches in Hangar 296 and 297 as they taxied off the runway between the hangars. Marines who refueled the aircraft knew better than to ask, “What’s the deal with the civilian C-130s?” Marines knew the drill. They refueled the aircraft and kept their mouths shut.

The government found the perfect aircraft for gun running and cocaine trafficking in the Lockheed Hercules C-130E, a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft with a payload of thousands of pounds and the capability to land and deliver cargo on rough, dirt strips. The Lockheed C-130E had a maximum payload of 42,000 pounds, and range 1,438 miles (1,250 nautical miles). Fuel capacity added to the C-130E models in the form of external pylon-mounted tanks at the end of the wings extended the range. The Air America fleet included C-130A/E aircraft. Air America, owned and controlled by the federal government and operated by the CIA, went out of business in 1976 with much of their air fleet acquired by Evergreen International Airlines. Other aircraft were obtained from the Air Force boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ, by over thirty individuals and companies. The use of former military aircraft for gun running and cocaine trafficking was kept from the public. Narcotrafficking is a felony. Those involved would have gone to prison. Using cocaine sales to fund covert operations is not an acceptable defense.

Staff Sergeant Randy Robinson, a Marine MP at El Toro, witnessed the flights, mentioned them to Colonel Joseph Underwood, El Toro’s Chief of Staff, who told him to keep his ass off the runway.

Robinson told Department of Defense Inspector General investigators in 1996 that because of his often-late-night schedule, he witnessed C-130s flying into El Toro in the early morning hours:

…sometimes he would see an aircraft taking off at 4 a.m. He told us the aircraft were C-130s that were painted black with no markings on the tail, wings, fuselage, or anywhere else. He stated that, through binoculars, the crew appeared to have shoulder-length hair and that he assumed they were civilians. The flights began about four to six months prior to Colonel Sabow’s death. Mr. Robinson stated that prior to that, he had worked regular daytime hours and may not have noticed the aircraft since they operated only at night. He told us that junior troops had told him they saw aircraft landing at night, parking at the end of the runway and taking off shortly after they arrived.

There’s no way that civilian aircraft would have access to El Toro without the knowledge and consent of Marine Corps leadership. The unmarked C-130s unloaded the cocaine in the early morning hours when everyone except the duty watches was asleep. You couldn’t just drive onto the base. El Toro’s Marine sentries would challenge any vehicle without a decal or pass. Occupants were subject to identity checks. Marines with short hair might get by without showing their military IDs, if their vehicle had a military decal, but long hair civilians in a vehicle without a decal or approved pass would be challenged.

The aircraft loaded with weapons and illegal drugs couldn’t enter and leave the US without clearance from US Customs.

Robert Tosh Plumlee, a CIA contract pilot, flying for SETCO airlines estimated that he and three other pilots flew 40 tons of cocaine into El Toro and Homestead AFB. The aircraft were equipped with transponder codes, which identified them as ‘spooky’ so there was no risk of arrest by civilian or military authorities, according to an article published in the Tico Times, “Reagan administration, CIA complicit in DEA agent’s murder, say former insiders,” by John McPhaul, dated December 5, 2013.

Plumlee’s estimate of 40 tons or 40,000 kilograms of cocaine flown into El Toro and Homestead by just three pilots in today’s dollars equals a street value of $960 million to $1,080 million. That’s over a billion dollars in cocaine from just three pilots and two military bases! Plumlee told a San Diego journalist that 50 pilots were involved in gun running and cocaine trafficking in the 1980s. These pilots had use of 40+ C-130s and several Navy P-3 Orion aircraft transferred from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base’s boneyard. El Toro and March Air Force Base are only a short distance from LA. Homestead AFB is within driving distance of Miami. In using US military bases, the government and their Contra allies found the perfect pipeline to smuggle cocaine into the country without fear of arrests. It’s not an overstatement that cocaine trafficking generated billions of dollars to the government in the 1980s and 1990s.

Robert Tosh Plumlee was a long-time CIA contract pilot. He put his life on the line to tell government officials about illegal narcotrafficking of flights into El Toro and other military bases. Some listened; others didn’t. Plumlee’s Colorado home was burned to the ground, he was shot at while driving his pick-up truck and beaten-up and warned to shut-up or else. Plumlee wasn’t deterred.

Plumlee told the story of US covert gun and drug running to former Senator Gary Hart who had his staff fact checked it before forwarding the information to Senator John Kerry, his longtime colleague and friend. Plumlee emailed me a copy of his February 1991 letter from Senator Gary Hart to Senator John Kerry, Chairman of Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications, and a redacted summary transcript of his testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from August 1991. The Senate report shows that Plumlee was “former deep-cover military and CIA.

Plumlee provided Hart’s staff with maps and names of covert landing strips in Mexico, Costa Rica, Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, and California. He was involved in covert military activities in Central and South American starting in February 1978 and “had personally flown US sponsored covert missions into Nicaragua… that Nicaragua was receiving assistance from Cuba with nearly 6,000 Cuban military advisors and large quantities of military supplies were being stockpiled at various staging areas inside Nicaragua and the Costa Rica border.”

In contacting Senator Hart in 1983, Plumlee’s purpose was to initiate a congressional investigation on illegal arms and narcotic shipments “which were not being acted upon by US intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

Plumlee was also motivated by what happened to his buddies who flew the same planes for the CIA. Plumlee told San Diego journalist Neal Matthews that, “These same agencies that asked us for intelligence on drugs started sacrificing our men, busting us, calling us a bunch of mercenaries, rogue elephants. I figured, if they’d hung out certain guys to dry like John Hull, Eugene Hasenfus or Barry Seal, what would they do to me?”

Plumlee said these operations were not under the control of the CIA but were directed by the White House, Pentagon, and NSC.

Plumlee was interviewed by Matthews for his story of one hair-raising flight, “I Ran Drugs for Uncle Sam.” The story was published in The San Diego Reader on April 5, 1990 and reprinted in the Phoenix Journal Express in May 1991.

Fig. 4-1. Plumlee in the cockpit of a C-130, 1980s

Matthews’ story includes a map with notations by Plumlee of landing fields at the Delgado Ranch, a few miles south of San Felipe, Mexico; an airstrip on the Pacific coast, just outside of Cabe San Lucas; and drop points in the Anza-Borrego, Twentynine Palms, and the old Patton bombing range east of the Salton Sea. It would be hard to make this stuff up.

Figure 4-2: Senator Gary Hart’s letter to Senator Kerry, Feb 14, 1991


Plumlee’s the proverbial cat with nine lives. An excerpt of Matthews’ riveting news story is shown below:

The DC-3 airplane, heavily guarded by uniformed Panamanian soldiers, sat on the far side of the jungle clearing at Penonome, 60 miles southwest of Panama City. Its cargo doors were wide open and chocked tight against the fuselage. The right engine idled slowly and rough; the left engine was shut down for the loading operation. Soldiers in two Jeeps outfitted with .50-caliber machine guns guarded the pane fore and aft. One gunner trained his weapon on the loading crew; the other .50-cal was pointed at the cockpit and the unarmed American flight crew.

The pilot, Wayne Howard, stuck his head and left arm out of the cockpit window and waved a small white flag. The soldier in the Jeep waved back and gave a thumbs-up. A line of cargo handlers hurriedly stacked white plastic sacks on pallets; others inside the plane slid the heavy pallets forward and secured them for the 680-mile flight to Costa Rica.

It was early March 1983, about 30 minutes to sunrise. Tosh Plumlee, the co-pilot, was about to begin his third cocaine flight in 12 days from Panama to the secret American airfield at Santa Elena, on the west coast of Costa Rica, just south of the Nicaraguan border. Tosh, a member of an all-civilian Black Crew (black meaning top secret) of American military-intelligence operatives, had made several trips into Santa Elena in the past four years. The base was a major transshipment point for weapons being funneled by the U.S. to El Salvador and later to the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan contra rebels. Tosh Plumlee (his real name) and Wayne Howard (a CIA-supplied identity) had worked together on these weapons runs, which originated in many parts of the U.S. including the Marine base at Twentynine Palms in the Southern California desert. They had even made secret flights into Nicaragua itself to drop weapons to contra guerilla units. But their last three hops between Panama and Santa Elena were drug runs, and Tosh was beginning to wonder why the Black Crew was suddenly in the dope business. After all, he reminded himself, he was flying under authority of U.S. military intelligence, which answered to the National Security Agency, which by extension, answered to the White House.

The flight this morning had been set in motion a few months earlier by the CIA station chief in Costa Rica and bore the Pentagon code name Royal Tiger. (“Royal” was the CIA designation for extremely sensitive espionage techniques or missions; fewer than 100 top-level military and intelligence chiefs had knowledge of these operations). Royal Tiger was an airlift delivering military hardware to various Central American jungle airstrips, but this flight was different from the others.

Tosh and Wayne were in the process of stealing 1200 kilos of high-grade Colombian cocaine from the Ochoa branch of the Medellin cartel, which was operating though Panama with the aid of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. The American plane had landed 30 minutes before the cartel’s drug-running plane was due; ties between the cartel and the CIA’s local operatives were so close that this kind of precise information was commonly available to the Black Crews. This same intelligence indicated that the Panamanian soldiers would expect the plane’s pilot to signal his identity by waving a white flag in his left hand. And although everything looked fine to the soldiers now, Tosh and the other crewmen were trying to trick one faction of the drug cartel into assuming another faction had ripped it off and perhaps cause internal dissension and feuding among the cocaine barons.

Rather, it was the sickening knowledge that it something went wrong, the operation would be revealed as a drug run gone sour, flown by an American crew and sanctioned by the U.S. government, which had played both ends against the middle and lost.

From the right-hand co-pilots seat, Tosh watched the edge of the jungle clearing for any sign of a surprise attack from one of the rival drug cartels that operated from this remote strip. Suddenly, a flock of birds sprang up from the trees and winged quickly away from the dirt road that cut through the thick jungle undergrowth. A car, a black sedan, sped down the rough road, churning a rooster tail or orange dust. The birds circled and returned to their perches as the car raced up the clearing toward the runway and the parked DC-3. One of the Panamanian soldiers stood up to watch the oncoming car. Wayne too had noticed it. He dropped the white flag and shouted back to the American crewmen in the cargo hold, “Button this bird up, and let’s get the hell out of here. Fast!”

Tosh reached up and hit the start button and cranked the left engine. It belched twice, blowing thick blue smoke over the confused soldiers and their Jeeps. The cargo kickers, Dan and Perry, shoved the last pallet and two Colombian loaders out of the hold. A few bags of cocaine broke and spread their contents on the ground, the powder disappearing in the prop wash. The kickers secured the double-wide cargo doors, and the plane was rolling by the time the black sedan came to a sliding, broadside stop. Three men in civilian clothes jumped from the car and began firing bursts from their AK-47s. The rounds went wide and far left of the lumbering bird.

The plane was turning into the wind when the first of the tracer bullets from the .50-cals buzzed past the cockpit window. Wayne glanced at Tosh and grinned. He lined up the plane’s wheels in the ruts of the dirt strip, and Tosh flipped the tail-wheel lock into position. Together, they pushed forward on the throttles, and the engines began to scream. This is going to be close, Tosh thought.

“Go! Go!” yelled Perry, as he strapped himself into the radio operator’s seat. He slipped on the earphones and fine-tuned the radio to their assigned low-frequency band. Their radio signal would notify ground stations that the plane was on its way out and there was trouble.

Wayne peered at the far end of the runway. Tosh was hypnotized by the sight of the wall of trees rushing toward them. The controls were still mush. Tosh guarded the throttles with his left hand and called out the air speed as the bird slowly crept past 60. Wayne eased back on the yoke. “It’s going to be tight,” he said calmly.

The nose was lifting when Tosh noticed one of the Jeeps pulling along his side of the plane. He saw the gunner yank the .50-cal and watched, in slow motion, the hot tracers inch their way towards the nose of the bird. He glanced toward the trees and was certain they weren’t going to make it.

The slugs sliced deep into the side of the airplane, and everything went crazy. Bullets, ripping metal, and electrical sparks popped and arced around the cabin. The radio rack exploded, and fire engulfed the panel. Perry grabbed a fire extinguisher and emptied it on the burning wires. Three large holes were torn in the fuselage behind Tosh, and a bullet was embedded in the aluminum frame of Eddie’s seat. Tosh was amazed to look out and see the plane clear the trees by ten feet. He tapped on the fuel gauges, but the needles didn’t move, a good sign that the bullets hadn’t pierced the fuel tanks. They flew in silence for a while, then trimmed up, set power and headed for Costa Rica.

Three hours later, the Americans landed at Santa Elena, and were met by two DEA agents. Wayne and Tosh were debriefed while another crew unloaded the cocaine. Nearby, as U.S. Air Force cargo plane was emptied of its shipment of weapons, and the drug cache was put aboard that aircraft. The Air Force plane then took off for Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. Later, a ground crew would strip and cannibalize the shot-to-hell DC-3, a venerable bird that Black Crews had flown on hundreds of secret missions since the 1950s. Its remains would be carried out to sea on a barge late at night and ditched. This operation was officially closed, and the four crewmen went their separate ways back home to the States.

Fifty-two-year old Robert “Tosh” Plumlee, who has lived in the San Diego area off and on since 1976, has decided to come forward with the details of his work as a pilot in Central America during the time the U.S. government was secretly arming the Nicaraguan contras. From 1979 to 1986, between his assignments – ferrying cargo and people into the jungles of Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, sometimes returning to the U.S. with shipments of cocaine and marijuana – Plumlee has a blue-collar job in San Diego. He worked as a plumber for the Erling Rohde Plumbing Company in La Jolla. Owner Mike Clancy made a deal with Plumlee when he hired him in 1985: “As long as you finish the job you’re on, you can come and go. He’d be gone for two weeks, a month at a time, then be back here for two, three months before he was gone again. Sometimes, suddenly, he wouldn’t show up, and the next day I’d get a call from Costa Rica. It’s Bob, saying, ‘Hey Mike, I gotta be down here for a few days…”

Plumlee sometimes talked about his other life with a couple of the guys around the plumbing office, “And at first I thought he was a bullshitter, until stuff came out in the papers just like he said,” remarks coworker Norm Isbell.

When the existence of Santa Elena broke publicly in 1987, it was big news, since military aid to the contras had been illegal at the time the airfield was most heavily used. “Tosh had been talking about Santa Elena for years before that,” Isbell reports. But as the gun running mutated into drug running, ostensibly for collecting “intelligence” on the drug cartels, Plumlee became increasingly disenchanted. “It really bothered his conscience,” Isbell recalls. “When he found out what was really going on, it started to get to him. That’s why he stopped.”

Today Plumlee is living in Cardiff, CA, and trying to put his past behind him; he’s starting a business that prepares pilots for FAA licensing examinations. But the official subterfuge he saw in Central America and the way it changed his perception of the U.S. government continues to dog his conscience. “I believed in the Contra war at first,” he explains. “And before that, I believed what we were doing in El Salvador. We wanted to get that fucker Castro out of Central America, and we had to do it covertly, and we didn’t need some congressman’s nose up our ass while we did it. But along about 1982, the gun running and the drug running blurred together, and the contra war eventually became a business. I ended up running drugs on behalf of the U.S. federal government. Period.”

Plumlee said he made drug deliveries all over the American Southwest. And like that Air Force cargo plane he saw leaving Santa Elena, he said he delivered cocaine on four different occasions to Homestead Air Force Base. (At least one other pilot, Michael Toliver, testified in federal court that he flew drugs into Homestead as part of the Contra resupply network. Toliver is now in prison in North Carolina on an unrelated marijuana-smuggling conviction.)

Flying CIA-supplied airplanes, Plumlee would cross the Mexican border into the States unimpeded by U.S. Customs, which lifted inspection requirements for such government-sanctioned aircraft. He and his colleagues, many of whom had flown for CIA-backed airlift operations in Southeast Asia (and some of whom, including Plumlee, had even worked together 30 years ago, running guns to Cuba), believed that they were working on sting operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency:

We’d deliver the drugs, and then we’d wait for the bust, and we waited and waited, but the busts never came,” Plumlee says. “Come to find out, the drugs were being sold to support the Contras, and our government knew it. Our government is crooker than shit. Every facet, we’re a network of greed… Our job was to gather facts related to military affairs, at first. Then we were asked to start gathering information on drugs. Then these same agencies that asked us for intelligence on drugs started sacrificing our men, busting us, calling us a bunch of mercenaries, rogue elephants. I figured, if they’d hang out certain guys to dry like John Hull, Eugene Hasenfus, or Barry Seal, what would they do to me?

In 1985 and 1986, Plumlee said that about 60 to 80 percent of his return flights from Central America were drug runs. Plumlee figures that he alone delivered some four tons of drugs to this country, flying CIA-funded aircraft on protected flights.

Plumlee testified about the gun/drug running to the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy in 1990. He told the Committee that he flew unmarked C-130s into El Toro, which contained loads of cocaine as much as 2,000 kilos. His testimony was classified Top Secret, Committee Sensitive, but released to the media by others. It didn’t deter Plumlee; he retold this story to Connie Chung and a national television audience in a 1993 segment of her news program “Eye to Eye.”

Plumlee kept a map with names, including the names of Iran-Contra players like Robert Owens, Felix Rodriguez, and Richard Secord with drop-off points in Mexico, Central America and the U.S. “as a form of security”. Since a copy of the map was in Hart’s hands, the map would protect him if he was shot down in Central America and the government tried to discredit him and deny his activities. Plumlee was not a college graduate but he had an ‘advanced degree’ in street smarts.

Plumlee said these trips were approved by military intelligence personnel attached to the Pentagon with CIA logistical support. They were made in total secrecy to the extent that other government agencies were not aware of the existence of these flights, or of the operation. The pilots were given a specific coded transponder number to squawk so their aircraft would not be challenged by US Customs aircraft when crossing the US border.

He says it began in the 1980s, when the US Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were sent to Costa Rica for maneuvers. Many weapons were sent with them. However, some of the weapons did not return to the United States and were taken off the books by the military, marked as either lost or destroyed and reported to the Government Accounting Office as such.

Plumlee and other pilots testified to Congress that they were working for a secret US military intelligence operation that clandestinely sent them from the United States to bring back the so-called damaged and disappeared weapons for retrofitting and repair.

When the weapons were repaired and tested at China Lake and Twentynine Palms [Marine Air Ground Combat Center], in California, they were staged and once again flown back from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro to Latin America, via Mexico, to be supplied to the Contras.

The aircraft used by this group were designated as “cutouts” and certified as belonging to the US Forest Service’s aircraft fleet. They were, however, controlled by US military intelligence, and contracted by civilian operators for whom Plumlee and other pilots worked.

Secret air bases in Costa Rica, including the John Hall Ranch, were used for unloading and staging areas for the illegal weapons. They also used hidden runways in Costa Rica and El Salvador, controlled by the drug cartels, which then allowed them to bring drugs into the United States on the return trips. Plumlee said, “These flyways and airstrips were secretly recorded by undercover flight crews and reported to various government interdiction agencies in the United States. In 1986, Plumlee said that an early operation known by the code name, ‘Penetrate,’ was shut down because of the politically explosive Iran-Contra matter.”

Plumlee goes on to say that in 1990, there was still a covert weapons operation continuing to fly weapons to Latin America, mostly to Bogota, Columbia, which allowed the group to bring back drugs into the United States via Mexico, “These flyways and staging areas in Mexico were noted by undercover pilots and passed on to CIA and DEA personnel.”

The convert flights were only known to a select few individuals. Pilots had the capability to automatically turn on runway lights from an airborne aircraft, if the airfield was closed for flight operations. Plumlee said that this capability existed for years:

I can’t remember what that automatic system of lighting the runways is called but you can ask the FAA or a flight instructor for the name and procedures to activate. It’s still in use at small airports around the country and activated by assigned radio frequencies. That system of activation for field runway lights has been around for many years now and is used throughout the FAA system for airports that are closed after midnight or after night operations have been suspended.

Plumlee said, “[he] talked with two investigators that Gene Wheaton sent to interview him in Grant, Colorado as well as two others from the IG’s office in Washington. I never heard back from any of them after I told them about the night flights into El Toro. Later I was told that my information was not considered as creditable.”

I asked Plumlee to describe the procedures he used to land at El Toro in the early morning hours. Here’s Plumlee’s memory of a covert approach into El Toro in the early hours of the morning when the runway lights were off and the field was closed to traffic:

When we approached El Toro we were called, “Phantom” or “Dark One” and squawked a special coded transponder number for Air Traffic Control LA regional TACAN. The approach into control airspace of El Toro was radar VFR in place of IFR FAA filed flight plan… most of the time at 0300 the El Toro tower was shut down and the approach lights were turned on by approach aircraft, transmitting an assigned, ‘after tower operational hours’ VHF frequency… a click of the radio mic would automatically turn on the runway lights. All Phantom aircraft approaches to El Toro were covert and secret. Only a select few military were authorized to work as ground crews for loading and off-loading of these covert flights from Central America and Mexico.

There were no criminal charges filed for cocaine trafficking, a highly profitable activity, or any mentioning of cocaine trafficking during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings. Lawrence Walsh confirmed that the Contras were funded by: (1) donations from foreign countries; (2) contributions from wealthy Americans; and (3) the diversion of proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran. In comparison, huge profit margins and the demand for illegal drugs made drug trafficking a lucrative enterprise. In the 1980s, a kilo of cocaine might cost $1,000 to refine in Columbia, but the same kilo could sell from $10,000 to nearly $70,000 in the US. The LA Times in October 1989 reported that “an informal survey by the Associated Press of narcotics officers nationwide found that a kilo of cocaine ranges from $10,000 in Los Angeles to $35,000 in Iowa City, Iowa, to almost $70,000 in Shreveport LA. With these street values, a Lockheed C-130E transporting 1,000 pounds of cocaine (454 kg) into El Toro have a street value from $4.5 million to as much as $32 million dollars. Celerino Castillo, a DEA agent in El Salvador, filed many reports of aircraft flying out of Ilopango air base filled with cocaine. The aircraft were headed for the US. Castillo’s reports were ignored.


The evidence of US government involvement in cocaine trafficking includes the sworn testimony from DEA agents, including one agent who recorded the tail numbers of civilian aircraft ferrying cocaine from El Salvador into the US; the personal account of a CIA contract pilot who risked his life to tell about the cocaine smuggling into US military bases; a newspaper reporter and a retired military investigator who read a top secret Defense Department (DOD) document, ordering two military bases not to record the landings and take-offs of civilian aircraft; a Marine MP who witnessed landings and the offloading of civilian C-130s at MCAS El Toro by long haired civilians in the early morning hours and was told to keep his ass off the runway by the base’s Chief of Staff; the diary entries of Lt. Colonel Oliver North referencing narcotic shipments; the kidnapping and murder in Mexico of a DEA agent who got too close to the source of government cocaine trafficking; the violent deaths of Marine officers and enlisted men who were a threat to blow-the-whistle on cocaine trafficking; the testimony of Michael Ruppert, former LA narcotics detective, on a C-Span video supporting the narcotrafficking by the CIA in Los Angeles.

While CIA proprietary aircraft flew into bases like El Toro, March AFB and Homestead AFB, the Reagan administration promoted an anti-drug campaign, “Just Say No.’ Public disclosure of the illegal cocaine flights would have been a political disaster, resulting in indictments, and convictions of very powerful people.


The breaking news on October 5, 1986, involved a CIA proprietary Fairchild C-123K cargo plane shot down in daylight in Nicaragua. The plane took off from Ilopango air base in El Salvador carrying AK-47 rifles and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, rocket grenades and other supplies. Eugene Hasenfus, the ‘box kicker’ and the sole survivor, age 45 from Marinette, Wisconsin, was the only member of the crew with a parachute. William J. Cooper, Wallace “Buzz” Sawyer, and radio operator Freddy Vilches were killed in the crash. The former Marine ignored the standing orders not to wear a chute; he borrowed a parachute from his brother. It saved his life. Hasenfus carried his wallet and identity card linking him to Southern Air Transport, a known CIA proprietary company, and a business card from Robert W. Owen who had ties to Lt. Colonel North and the National Security Council. The plane’s logbooks were on board, linking the operation back to the CIA.

The proverbial cat was out of the bag. Hasenfus was quickly picked-up, searched and grilled for information by the Sandinistas. He publicly stated that he flew out of Ilopango, working for two CIA agents, “Max Gomez” (Felix Rodriquez) and “Ramon Medina” (Rafael Quintero). Rodriquez was the liaison between the Contras and Lt. Colonel Oliver North and the National Security Council. The Reagan Administration was supporting the Contras with weapons in violation of the Boland Amendment. Even worst for the government was the inherent risk of media focus on CIA proprietary aircraft flying weapons south and cocaine north. A fall guy and a cover story was needed to focus the media away from cocaine trafficking.

The Reagan administration manufactured the story that Marine Lt. Colonel Ollie North was responsible for the markup of weapon sales to the Iranians and the diversion of funds to support the Contras. North may have been an egomaniac but he didn’t do this on this own initiative. North didn’t have the authority to run a guns-for-hostages program and a guns-for-drugs covert operation on his own initiative. The main stream media focused on North and the diversion of funds from weapon sales to the Iranians, missing the much bigger story of the trafficking of cocaine into the US under the cover of a top secret covert operation.

In November 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese informed the American public that they had discovered a “diversion” of funds from the sale of arms to Iran to fund the Contra war. The attention of the media shifted from the Contras to sales of arms to the Iranians. Millions were made from the mark-up of illegal arms sales. In contrast, US cocaine sales generated hundreds of millions. Not many Americans would object to the mark-up of weapon sales to the Iranians, but cocaine trafficking was totally different story.

Robert Parry and Brian Barger broke the story of the Contras smuggling cocaine into the US in December 1985 while working for the Associated Press. Robert Parry, an excellent investigative journalist, connected the link of Southern Air Transport to cocaine shipments from Central America to US military bases when he obtained the tail numbers from Wallace “Buzz” Sawyer flight logs. Parry, traced the tail numbers to the registered owners and the testimony of an FBI informant:

…the [flight] logs listed hundreds of flights with the airports identified only by their four-letter international codes and the planes designated by tail numbers. Upon returning to Washington, I began deciphering Wallace’s travels and matching the tail numbers with their registered owners. Though Wallace’s flights included trips to Africa and landings at US military bases in the West, most of his entries were for flights in Central and South America. Meanwhile, in Kerry’s Senate office, witness Wanda Palacio was waiting for a meeting when she noticed Sawyer’s photo flashing on a TV screen. Palacio began insisting that Sawyer was one of the pilots whom she had witnessed loading cocaine onto a Southern Air Transport plane in Barranquilla, Colombia, in early October 1985.

President Reagan fired Lt. Colonel Oliver North in November 1986. The illegal cocaine flights continued. Not even the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 and the end of the Contra War in 1990 could stop the cocaine flights. It was too lucrative and easy to fly the huge cargo aircraft across the border and the demand for the white powder was high.


In LA, Freeway Ricky Ross, an illiterate black man in his 20s, became a multi-millionaire drug dealer as a major distributor of crack cocaine using the Crips and Bloods— gangs with thousands of members in the inner cities—until he was arrested in a DEA sting operation in 1996. Ross had no idea that Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, Nicaraguans and his source of powder cocaine, were CIA informants who funneled millions in profits to the Contras in support of the undeclared war in Nicaragua.

Ricky Ross was a natural at marketing; he had a Ph.D. in street smarts and used it to make millions. In the 1980s, he controlled a nation-wide drug empire, earning more than $600 million before his conviction for selling cocaine in 1996. Ross wasn’t the first one to make crack. Some of his customers in the early 1980s were cooking the powder and turning it into crystal rocks to smoke. Ever the entrepreneur, Ross hired someone to cook the cocaine and then seeing how easy it was, he did it himself. Ghetto drug dealers are not chemists. You don’t need a laboratory to manufacture crack cocaine. Ross ran several ‘cook houses’ in LA to make crack. All he needed was a large pot, cooking stove, water and baking soda. Dissolving powder cocaine in water, adding baking soda, and heating results in crystal hardened rocks—crack cocaine.

A Justice Department investigation supports that Freeway Ricky Ross learned how to make crack cocaine from other drug dealers, and indicates that the price of the drug dropped in the 1980s as the supply of cocaine increased. Ross told the OIG that he first learned to “rock up” cocaine powder so that it was suitable for smoking from Stefan Moore, while he told Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) investigators that he learned from “watching different people in the neighborhood,” including Michael McLaurin and a “pimp named Martin.” Ross said that other drug dealers didn’t want to show him how to cook crack because they usually got paid to make it. Ross never claimed that Blandon, or any other Nicaraguan, taught him how to make crack cocaine. Ross specifically denied in both his interview with the OIG and in trial testimony that Blandon taught him how to cook crack.

In the inner cities, thousands of Black men and women paid $10 to $20 a ‘rock,’ which led to addictions, crime, imprisonment and the destruction of their lives. The Iran-Contra Congressional hearings never considered the connections between gun running and cocaine trafficking, and the billions of dollars made to fund convert operations not approved by Congress.

Robinson told Department of Defense Inspector General investigators in 1996 the story of C-130 aircraft flying late at night into El Toro. His duties as a Marine MP on the late-night shift allowed him to observe the landings of CIA proprietary aircraft. Copy of DOD report provided by Dr. Sabow.

Plumlee put his life on the line to tell government officials about illegal narcotrafficking supported by flights. As one of the civilian pilots who ran weapons for the US government in the 1980s, Tosh Plumlee said that he made numerous operationally approved trips to Latin America; trips that he described as “sanctioned drug interdiction operations.” See Neal Matthews, “I Flew Drugs for Uncle Sam,” San Diego’s Weekly Reader, April 5, 1990.

The CIA’s Cocaine Blues

Military supplies were being stockpiled at various staging areas inside Nicaragua and the Costa Rica border: Letter from Gary Hart to Senator John Kerry, dated February 14, 1991 (See: Appendix).
Neal Matthews, “I Ran Guns for Uncle Sam,” San Diego Reader, April 5, 1990,
Interview with Robert Tosh Plumlee.
Robert Parry, “How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal,” SALON, Oct 25, 2004:

“CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy,”The DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG),

Cocaine is dissolved in a solution of sodium bicarbonate and water, and boiled. Crack, a solid substance, separates from the boiling mixture and allowed to dry. The crack cocaine is then broken or cut into “rocks,” each typically weighing from one-tenth to one-half of a gram. (Crack Cocaine Addiction 2012),

Author’s Profile
Robert O’Dowd is a Marine veteran who served 52 months on active duty with the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in the 1960s. At Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, CA, Robert was assigned to Marine Wing Services Group 37 (MWSG-37), the most environmentally contaminated air group on the base with 11 contaminated sites in 200 acres, and the area where CIA proprietary C-130s offloaded their deadly cargo of cocaine. At El Toro, he worked and slept on duty watch in a Radium 226 space in Hangar 296. The CIA proprietary C-130s offloaded the ‘white powder’ on the tarmac between Hangers 296 and 297 in the 1980s and 1990s. El Toro was closed in July 1999 and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing moved to Miramar. After honorable discharge from the Marine Corps and graduation from Temple University, Robert worked in a series of accounting and financial management positions with the federal government, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency. This article will appear in a revised edition of TREACHERY: Murder, Cocaine, and the Lucifer Directive published on Amazon in several weeks.


Eric Clapton – Cocaine

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  • This song is dedicated to Denise and thanks for all the hard the work, and from which all of us on the planet benefit. Making a better and safer world.