The Terrorist Who Worked for the US

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Luis Posada Carriles died on May 23, 2018, in his house in Miami. He died an old man, at 92 years of age, and, according to Florida media reports, spent the last years of his life enjoying his hobby as an amateur painter.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 1997, Salvadoran and Guatemalan mercenaries Posada had trained and financed set off several bombs in Havana, Cuba. They killed an Italian tourist and would have ended the lives of dozens of preschool children had they been in an adjacent event room in the Hotel Nacional as expected the day terrorists set off one of the bombs there.

A decade before that, in 1985, Posada oversaw logistics at the Ilopango airport. This was during the Iran-Contra affair and at the start of a cocaine trafficking boom in El Salvador, a dirty business that got protection from parts of the United States government and the Salvadoran Air Force. Earlier, in 1976, another bomb exploded, this time in a Cubana de Aviación jet. The attack took 73 lives. This is, in other words, the story of a terrorist who the United States valued and helped protect.

*This article originally appeared in Factum and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

After arriving in El Salvador in 1985, one of the first Salvadoran officials with whom Posada had contact was Colonel Juan Rafael Bustillo, then-head of the Air Force. The Air Force had a base at the Ilopango airport. Posada was there on a mission, but he also helped smooth out the rough spots between the Salvadoran military and US advisors stationed at the airfield. This mission was the second part of what was known as Operation Calypso, a plan to illegally supply weapons from San Salvador to Contras, the US-funded counter-revolutionary forces in Nicaragua that were supposed to topple the Sandinista regime.

Bustillo did not like the Ilopango airport’s guests: a US pilot had been rude to him while purchasing gasoline to refuel the planes they used to deliver weapons to the Contras.

Posada himself recounted the incident when speaking to Michael Foster and George Kiszynski, two agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who interviewed him on July 2, 1992, in room 426 at the US embassy in Tegucigalpa. The interview was part of an investigation US Congress had opened regarding arms shipments to the counter-revolutionary group in Nicaragua.

According to the text from the interview, “At first, a pilot … went with Posada to see Bustillo and pay him for fuel. The pilot took out a pile of money and started counting out $15,000 on Bustillo’s desk and he told him it was for fuel that the resupply operation would be using. This insulted Bustillo very much and he cursed the man out and told him he wasn’t someone who worked at a gas station.”

The colonel did not let his pride prevent him from accepting the money, however; he told the pilot to hand the payment over to one of his aides. Afterwards, the pilot had to leave the operation in Ilopango, and Posada became Bustillo’s main contact.

Bustillo and Posada opened an account to pay the Salvadoran military for the gasoline. Later, the colonel offered Posada a place to stay in Ilopango to avoid US journalists. Their activities had become public in 1986, after the Sandinista army shot down a plane carrying Eugene Hasenfus in Nicaragua. Hasenfus was a mercenary who also operated from Ilopango. Bustillo — who was later fingered as one of the masterminds behind the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador in November 1989 — has not spoken publicly about his relationship with Posada Carriles.

Excerpt from the interview conducted by the FBI with Luis Posada Carriles in July 1992 in Tegucigalpa.

By the end of 1985, Posada was an administrator.

“He paid the leases, he obtained and paid maids who cleaned them, he paid for all the utilities, including phone bills, he obtained appliances and all other related items for each house, including keeping it stocked with food and beer,” reads the text from the FBI interview.

Posada later handled some of the radio communication between Ilopango and the planes flying over Nicaragua.

When the operation began, Posada rented a house in San Salvador’s Miramonte neighborhood. Two other anti-Castro Cubans, Rafael “Chi Chi” Quintero and Félix Rodríguez, stayed at his house whenever they visited the city.

Quintero and Rodríguez were veterans of these covert operations. Their involvement stretched back to the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961. For the Ilopongo-Contra supply mission, Quintero and Rodríguez were the main links between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Ilopango. According to declassified CIA documents published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1988, Rodríguez was the head of the operation in Ilopango, while Quintero was, according to Posada’s FBI interview, the one who received the money from Washington to fund all the supply flights.

Quintero’s “role in the resupply project was as a manager and head contact man between Washington, D.C. and the project. Quintero was the one who traveled back and forth between Washington and San Salvador, bringing instructions and money,” said Posada.

In the same 1992 testimony, Posada mentioned Oliver North, a marine who at the time belonged to the National Security Council under the Reagan administration. He was the brains behind much of the Iran-Contra affair, as it came to be known. Some of the funding for the Nicaraguan Contras came from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran as part of a plan to free US hostages from Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Posada told the FBI that in 1985 two men named Rob Owen and Robert Dutton were Quintero’s supervisors, which meant they were his as well. At the time, Dutton was a former legislative assistant in the US Senate and a retired Air Force officer. It was Posada’s understanding that Owen was “[Oliver] North’s man.”

When Posada spoke to the FBI agents in 1992, North had already been found guilty four years earlier of some of the charges that had been brought against him in relation to the Iran-Contra affair.

North is now the head of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential organizations in Washington, DC, thanks in part to the funding it contributes to election campaigns. The NRA is a fierce opponent to regulating the sale and possession of firearms, frequently arguing that civilians need more guns, not fewer, to deal with mass shootings in schools and other places. This year, for the first time, there were more deaths in the United States from firearms than deaths of US soldiers in the wars in the Middle East.

Unlike North, Posada never faced a US judge or jury for his role in the flights to supply the Contras. And back then, he had never answered for any crime in the United States even though, in 1992, when the FBI interviewed him, he was already responsible for at least 73 deaths from the bombs he placed on the downed Cubana de Aviación flight in 1976.

Furthermore, an academic research project published by Boston’s South End Press in 1987 cites declassified US government reports detailing Posada’s arrest in Venezuela for the Cubana plane explosion. According to the reports on the arrest, the Posada was carrying documents linking him to another terrorist act: the 1976 murder of Orlando Lettelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States under the socialist government of President Salvador Allende.

The First Drug Traffickers

It was a Salvadoran Air Force captain named Roberto Leiva Jacobo who first helped Posada get into El Salvador after his escape from Venezuela, according to declassified FBI documents published over the course of the last decade by the National Security Archive in Washington.

Leiva received Posada with a package so he could set up shop, which included a Salvadoran driver’s license and “various [forms of] Salvadoran military identification.” The name on the documents was Ramón Medina Rodríguez, the first alias Posada used in the Central American country. Leiva was, according to the FBI, the highest-ranking Salvadoran military officer related to the Contra supply operation.

At the beginning of 1992, a few months before Posada sat down with the FBI agents in Tegucigalpa, Leiva sold 500-pound bombs to a group of smugglers who had a deal to sell them to the Medellín Cartel. The bombs were taken from army warehouses where they had been stored after the US donated them to help fight the war in El Salvador.

On March 5, 1992, El Salvador’s Treasury Police arrested 12 men — 10 Salvadorans and two Cubans — who the day before had loaded two of the bombs onto a plane that had taken off from a farm in Cara Sucia in the department of Ahuachapán. One of those detained was Leiva, Posada’s friend. He was identified as one of the sellers.

While Leiva served as the intermediary in Ilopango between the Salvadorans and the United States during the Contra operation, the runways and warehouses of the airfield became one of the main ports of entry for cocaine from the Colombian cartels, according to declassified US documents, as well as two official investigations by the executive and legislative branches of the US government and at least a dozen academic reports.

Some of the planes that landed at the airport in Ilopango were the property of a company called Southern Air Transport (SAT), one of the fronts created by the CIA to supply the Contras. An article published by the Washington Post in 1987 revealed that the SAT planes had been transporting drugs from Colombia to Central America since 1983. The head of these operations was Jorge Ochoa, one of Pablo Escobar’s lieutenants in the Medellín Cartel.

According to Posada’s 1992 testimony to the FBI agents, a SAT L-100 plane flew “about every week” to Ilopango for the resupply operation. The Cuban also told the agents he believed much of the money for gasoline and rent that Quintero and Richard Secord (another officer involved in the Iran-Contra affair and convicted in the 1990s in the US for lying to Congress) gave him came from the SAT business.

In 1987, a congressional report headed by US Congressman John Tower concluded that planes, including those from SAT and other airlines, which carried weapons for the Contras, were connected with “drug trafficking operations.”

These operations gave the first Salvadoran drug-trafficking organizations and individuals their start in large-scale operations. Two employees in Ilopango at the time, Miguel Ángel Pozo Aparicio and Élmer Bonifacio Escobar, would end up involved years later in drug trafficking. Pozo was tried in El Salvador for the first massacre in relation to a “tumbe,” or drug shipment robbery. Meanwhile, Escobar was one of the founding members of the Perrones gang, which in the 2000s became the first to traffic cocaine from Costa Rica to the United States without using Mexican cartels as middlemen.

SAT also used C-123-K planes, which is what Hasenfus was flying in when he was shot down by the Sandinista army in Nicaragua on October 5, 1986. When Félix Rodríguez realized the plane with Hasenfus had not returned to Ilopango, he contacted Sam Watson, an aide to then-Vice President George Bush. The plane crash would uncover the first clues that would ultimately lead to US President Ronald Reagan himself.

Photo credit: Michael Vadon, Flickr, Creative Commons license

Watson and North had traveled to El Salvador before to personally supervise the Ilopango operations. In his interview with the FBI, Posada also recalled that North arrived in Ilopango in the first half of 1986 to meet with Contra representatives at the Salvadoran airfield. There was also a meeting between North and Bustillo around the same time.

Leiva and Bustillo were some of the first friends Posada had in El Salvador. But they would become two in a long list that came to include ministers and other logistical operators in the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), the country’s right-wing political party, which was in power from 1989 to 2009.

After 1987, when the Iran-Contra scandal broke and the operation in Ilopango was completely canceled, Posada lived almost entirely in hiding. He moved between Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and El Salvador. Little by little, the terrorist and CIA operative got protection from politicians in the region.

Another declassified US document says that, when in El Salvador, Posada often took refuge at a ranch in the exclusive Xanadú beach. Until 1988, he was a government aide for President José Napoleón Duarte. During the same period, Posada also developed a friendship with Víctor Rivera, a Venezuelan with whom he had worked in Caracas. Rivera was also an aide to Duarte, and ultimately to Hugo Barrera, the businessman who took charge of the country’s security forces in 1994 during the presidency of Armando Calderón Sol. Barrera was one of the Salvadoran officials whom Cuban intelligence blamed in 2000 for protecting Posada in El Salvador. Now the leader of the ARENA party, Barrera has not denied that he knew Posada, but he has denied protecting him during that time period.

By 1989, documents declassified by Cuban intelligence say Posada had a new position as security chief at GUATEL, the Guatemalan state telephone company at the time. The Cuban barely escaped Guatemala City with his life.

Bombs in Havana

It is a hot afternoon in Havana in July 2009 on the terrace of a house in the Miramar neighborhood. After hours of chit-chat and with two empty bottles of rum in front of him, a man lets loose his confession: “I had him like that — like that — but I didn’t finish him.” The man has asked that he be called only Pericles. He is one of the agents from the Cuban government who were under cover in Guatemala in 1990, trailing Posada Carriles.

Pericles says he was in the Vistahermosa neighborhood of Guatemala City on February 26, 1990. He was part of the team of Cuban agents who, after cornering him, shot Posada several times, which they thought were enough to kill him.

“We didn’t finish him,” he reiterates.

The bullets that Pericles and the other Havana agents fired took off a good part of Posada’s nose and one of his cheeks. One also entered his chest and exited from his back. But none of the shots killed him. The Cuban CIA agent survived and recovered in a private clinic in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Once he recovered from the attack, Posada continued moving throughout Central America on a new mission: carrying out dynamite attacks in Cuba to destabilize Fidel Castro’s government. He lived intermittently in El Salvador between 1990 and 2005 under the protection of ARENA government officials. During the administration of former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores Pérez (1999–2004), and with the help of the Interior Ministry, which was led at the time by Mario Acosta Oertel, Posada secured another identity, this time under the name Franco Rodríguez Mena.

On May 25, 1997, Posada traveled with his Salvadoran passport, number 547378, under the name Rodríguez Mena, to Sierra Leon, where, according to Cuban intelligence documents, he participated in an operation to sell weapons. Posada arrived in the capital city of Freetown on May 18, two months before mercenaries he funded and trained began a series of bombings in Cuba.

Copy of the Salvadoran passport in the name of Franco Rodríguez Mena that Posada Carriles used to travel to Sierra Leone in 1997. Photo credit: courtesy of Revista Factum

Between July 12 and September 4, 1997, Salvadorans Raúl Ernesto Cruz León and Otto Rodríguez Llerena placed explosive devices in hotels, bars and nightclubs in Havana. The attacks took the life of and Italian citiezn, Fabio DiCelmo, and had a huge impact in Cuba.

The Castro regime always accused Posada of being the architect behind the attacks, and in a document it provided to a court in Texas in 2006, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acknowledged that Posada had participated in the 1997 bombings.

In 2000, in a presidential summit held in Panama, Fidel Castro again accused Posada, this time of planning an assassination attempt against him. Later investigations by the Panamanian Attorney General’s Office determined that Posada had arrived in Panama from El Salvador in the days leading up to the arrival of the presidents. Posada was convicted in Panama City but was later released after then-President Mireya Moscoso pardoned him.

Posada returned to the United States in 2005, entering illegally after passing though Honduras and Quintana Roo, in Mexico. In 2006, a court in El Paso, Texas, charged him with an immigration violation for the illegal entry. It was in the context of the trial that ICE acknowledged Posada’s participation in the 1997 attacks. But ICE went one step further: it requested that Posada Carriles’ attorneys provide the court with the names of the Central American officials who protected him in the 1980s and 1990s.

ICE did not, however, request information regarding the US officials who covered up Posada’s illegal activities during the Contra supply operation in Ilopango.

In the end, the Texas court acquitted Luis Posada of the immigration charges against him in 2011, and he regained his freedom. Like many US pensioners, he spent his retirement in Florida. Posada lived out his last days in a community for the elderly, and died having never accounted for the many deaths in his past.

*This article originally appeared in Factum and has been translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

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