In the early summer of 1984, a wealthy Nicaraguan exile invited two representatives of the Contras fighting Managua’s leftist government to her Miami home. Her aim was to broker a deal with a Colombian businessman that would help fill the rebels’ empty coffers.
The hostess was Marta Healy, and the businessman was George Morales--a champion powerboat racer, socialite and big-league drug trafficker under indictment in the United States.
The Contra representatives were Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo “Popo” Chamorro, Healy’s ex-husband. Both were working with Eden Pastora, a maverick revolutionary trying to open a southern front in the Contras’ guerrilla war from a base in Costa Rica, in addition to the Contras based in Honduras on Nicaragua’s northern border. The CIA had run out of money to support either group of Contras, and Congress refused to provide any more until the following year.
Despite their rift with the spy agency, Chamorro and Cesar said, they asked a CIA official if they could accept the offer of airplanes and cash from the drug dealer, Morales. “I called our contact at the CIA, of course, I did,” Chamorro said recently. “The truth is, we were still getting some CIA money under the table. They said he [Morales] was fine.”
U.S. officials, including the man who oversaw the Contra operation at the CIA, dispute the rebel leaders’ account that they notified the agency about Morales’ offer. Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, who at the time was head of the CIA’s Latin America division and is now retired, said he “certainly never dealt with Popo Chamorro,” although he may have met him, and never knew Morales. The CIA told Congress in 1987 that it concluded in November 1984--or just a few months after the Miami meeting--that it could not resume aid to the Costa Rican-based Contras or have other dealings with them because “everybody around Pastora was involved in cocaine.”
The Morales case, as retold with new details in recent interviews with participants, seems to remain the best-documented example of a Contra group cooperating with a drug trafficker and receiving substantial aid in return. According to Pastora and Chamorro, Morales--who was convicted in 1986 of drug trafficking and died in prison in 1991--contributed at least two airplanes and $90,000 to the Pastora group, known by its Spanish initials ARDE.
In sworn testimony to a congressional inquiry headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the late 1980s, and in a separate court case before he died, Morales said he gave the airplanes and cash to the Contras because he was promised by Chamorro that the Contras would use their influence with the U.S. government to help with his legal problems. Although imprisoned, he told the Kerry committee that he had in fact received some legal help, but he did not specify what that was.
Morales offered Pastora’s fighters, who were stuck in remote jungle areas in Costa Rica south of Nicaragua that could only be resupplied by air, a deal that seemed too good to be true: a DC-3 airplane he had stashed in Haiti, to carry weapons and other materiel, along with cash for guns, boots and uniforms.
The money was vital because Pastora’s troops, unwilling to join a CIA-engineered Contra umbrella organization in Honduras north of Nicaragua, were about to disband. Pastora said the CIA had cut off his funding in May 1984.
In desperation, Pastora turned to his second-in-command, Chamorro, and Cesar, who spoke flawless English, to scour for funds.
So the meeting set up by Healy with a wealthy, potential patron seemed heaven-sent, Chamorro and Cesar said. In return for his gifts, Chamorro and Cesar said, Morales asked for a face-to-face meeting with Pastora. They denied that drug trafficking was discussed.
But a July 26, 1986, State Department report to Congress said intelligence reports offered a different account. The report said an unidentified senior member of Pastora’s organization had agreed to allow Morales to use Contra facilities “in Costa Rica and Nicaragua to facilitate the transportation of narcotics.”
While it is unclear how much of that deal was implemented, there are signs that it went forward. In court testimony in 1990, Fabio Ernesto Carrasco, a Colombian drug trafficker turned government witness with immunity from prosecution, testified he had paid “millions” of dollars to Cesar and Chamorro from 1984 to 1986. Orders to make the payments, he said, came from his boss, Morales. Morales also told the Kerry committee that he sent $4 million to $5 million in drug profits to Contra groups.
Independent evidence is not available to substantiate that Morales sent such large amounts of money or that the funds were used for the Contra cause.