December 20, 1985

Associated Press


Nicaraguan rebels operating in northern Costa Rica have engaged in cocaine smuggling, using some of the profits to finance their war against Nicaragua's leftist government, according to U.S. investigators and American volunteers who work with the rebels.

The smuggling has involved refueling planes at clandestine airstrips and transporting cocaine to Costa Rican destinations for shipment to the United States, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

The officials, who refused to be identified by name, said the smuggling involves the largest of the U.S.-backed Contra groups -- the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) and the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ARDE) -- as well as a splinter group known as M-3.

M-3 leader Sebastian Gonzalez Mendiola was indicted in Costa Rica for cocaine trafficking a year ago. No other Contra leaders have been charged.

FDN spokesman Bosco Matamoros denied any drug involvement by his group. The force provides support for Contra troops in Costa Rica, he said, but never conducts operations in that country.

Levy Sanchez, a Miami-based spokesman for ARDE leader Eden Pastora, said the group has "never been involved in any drug trafficking."

A new National Intelligence Estimate, a secret CIA-prepared analysis on narcotics trafficking, alleges that one of ARDE's top commanders used cocaine profits this year to buy a $250,000 arms shipment and a helicopter, according to a U.S. government official in Washington.

President Reagan this year accused the leftist government of Nicaragua of "exporting drugs to poison our youth" after a Nicaraguan government employee, Federico Vaughan, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami.

A spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration said agency investigators are still not sure if Sandinista leaders were involved.

Costa Rica, south of Nicaragua, is a short flight from the drug-producing areas of Colombia.

Contra leaders claim a combined force of about 20,000 men, most based in Honduras, north of Nicaragua. The Costa Rican- based rebels -- several thousand at most -- are less organized than those in Honduras and poorly financed.

Associated Press reporters interviewed officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs Service, FBI and Costa Rica's Public Security Ministry, as well as rebels and Americans who work with them. The sources, inside government and out, spoke only on condition that they not be identified by name.

Five American rebel supporters said they were willing to talk about the drug smuggling because they feared illegal activities would discredit the war effort. Several of the volunteers said they had supplied information about the smuggling to U.S. investigators.

Three U.S. officials who monitor drug traffic from Colombia through Central America to the United States said they began receiving reports about Contra involvement in cocaine shipments in 1984, about the time Congress cut off CIA funding to the Contra rebels. Each official said he considered the reports "reliable."

One official said a rebel leader in Costa Rica reported that his group planned to use $50,000 from Colombian traffickers "for the cause" -- to support the fight against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.

DEA spokesman Cornelius J. Dougherty said in an interview that Colombian smugglers have increasingly used remote airfields in northern Costa Rica for carrying cocaine into the United States, but that DEA headquarters in Washington did not know the political affiliations of those involved.

Costa Rican Public Security Minister Benjamin Piza said he had no knowledge of Contras even being in his country, but added, "Every farm has an airstrip and we don't have the resources to control every flight."

Four Americans who trained rebels in Costa Rican base camps said they discovered the Contra smuggling involvement early this year.

These Americans said two Cuban-Americans, while helping the Honduran-based FDN open a Costa Rican front, used armed rebel troops to guard cocaine flown from Colombia to clandestine airfields in northern Costa Rica.

The American rebel backers said the Cuban-American drug traffickers were members of the 2506 Brigade, an anti-Castro group that participated in the 1961 Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba.

One American rebel backer with close ties to the Cuban- American smugglers described the operation: The cocaine is unloaded from planes at rebel airstrips and is taken to an Atlantic coast port, where it is concealed on shrimp boats to be unloaded in Miami.

Last summer, a Nicaraguan rebel leader in Costa Rica informed U.S. authorities that his group was being paid $50,000 by Colombian traffickers for help with a 100-kilo cocaine shipment, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

The plan called for the rebels to guard a clandestine airstrip where a cocaine-laden plane from Colombia would land. The rebels would then take the drug shipment to "a stash house" in the capital city of San Jose and guard it for three days until it was picked up, one investigator said.

The rebel leader asked for $50,000 from the U.S. Embassy in exchange for turning in the Colombian smugglers. The deal was rejected, said the investigator, who added that the arrangement was completed without any arrests. M-3's Gonzales, known as Guachan, was charged with cocaine trafficking Nov. 26, 1984, by Costa Rican authorities in the northern town of Liberia.

The indictment describes him as "el maximo dirigente del Grupo M-3 . . . de la Agrupacion Politica de ARDE" -- the top leader of M-3 group of the political coalition of ARDE. Instead of facing the charge, Gonzalez fled to Panama.

The federal indictment against Vaughan, former Ministry of the Interior secretary in Nicaragua, said he helped set up bases in Nicaragua where drug-laden planes from Colombia could refuel on their way to Florida.

Nicaragua denied the accusation and said Vaughan had not been connected with the government for several years.