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Drug Cartels’ Easy Access to Arms Told : Narcotics: Mercenary testifies before Senate panel probing terrorist training. He says weapons are ‘readily obtained’ from Eastern Europe.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mortars, submachine guns and other modern military weapons can be “readily obtained” by Colombian drug traffickers from Eastern European manufacturers, a self-styled British mercenary told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.

The mercenary, David Tomkins, said that the late Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, a notorious Colombian narcotics trafficker, once received 50 tons of military equipment shipped by a Warsaw Pact nation and routed through Panama.

Tomkins, who allegedly trained paramilitary units employed by Colombian drug cartels, refused to identify the nation of origin of the weapons. Rodriguez Gacha was killed in a shootout with Colombian authorities in December, 1989.

Tomkins said the destinations of such shipments routinely are disguised through bogus end-user certificates, which falsely state that the weapons are being sent to equip the armies of smaller countries in Africa or Latin America.

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Tomkins’ testimony highlighted the opening of hearings by the investigations subcommittee of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee into terrorist training provided by foreign mercenaries to Colombian drug traffickers.

Sen. William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware, who is directing the inquiry as the panel’s ranking Republican, said that the easy access to weapons of terror adds a new dimension to the power of Latin American drug traffickers.

Major drug organizations “would be less of a threat to Colombian citizens as well as to U.S. law enforcement if they did not have such easy access to large numbers of machine guns and other conventional weapons,” Roth said.

The hearings come as U.S. and Colombian law enforcement officials are seeking a new level of cooperation to curtail the power of drug cartels and bring traffickers to justice. The subcommittee will hear testimony today about a scheme in which Israeli-manufactured weapons were sent to Rodriguez Gacha through the small Caribbean nation of Antigua.

Tomkins, while acknowledging that he used illegally obtained assault weapons in working with Rodriguez Gacha, sought to distance himself from charges that he had helped further the aims of drug profiteers.

He said that Rodriguez Gacha had paid him in 1989 to try to attack and kill rival drug lord Pablo Escobar at his remote hideaway but that the mission was aborted when an assault helicopter crashed and Tomkins and a colleague were injured.

A year earlier, Tomkins said, he had helped train a group of Colombians in the use of weapons and explosives. But he rejected allegations that his trainees were members of a paramilitary group employed by drug traffickers. He insisted that Colombian military officers whom he refused to identify had hired him for his expertise in helping farmers and ranchers combat leftist guerrillas in the countryside.

Before Tomkins’ testimony, the subcommittee released a staff report alleging that British and Israeli mercenaries have aggravated the problem of international narco-terrorism by teaching drug dealers or their hired guns how to kidnap or kill opponents.

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The problem has been complicated by the indifference of Colombian authorities and by inadequate law enforcement on the part of Britain and Israel to curb the activities of their citizens, the report said.

The subcommittee screened a training film made by Tomkins that showed an exotic array of semiautomatic weapons and C-4 plastic explosive devices.

“Do you consider yourself an expert in explosives?” Roth asked the witness.

“I’m an enthusiastic amateur,” Tomkins replied.

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