A former leader of the Nicaraguan rebel movement in the 1980s told senators Tuesday that he received a small amount of money from a major Nicaraguan cocaine dealer in Southern California, as well as larger sums from other drug traffickers in Miami.
But the former Contra leader, Eden Pastora, insisted in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he did not know at the time that his donors were involved in illegal activities.
Pastora and another leader of the rebel forces, Adolfo Calero, also strongly denied published reports that the CIA had supported or condoned drug dealing by the Contras as a way to fund their war against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Pastora's testimony was the first confirmation by a Contra leader that the convicted Southern California cocaine dealer, Oscar Danilo Blandon, contributed money to the rebels. But Pastora said Blandon's financial help was modest: $6,000 and two pickup trucks.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also disclosed that in a closed-door session this week Blandon testified that he entered the drug trade in California in late 1981 "out of a desire to earn money for the Contras."
But Specter added: "Mr. Blandon stated that he had never had any contact with the CIA and that the CIA was not involved in his drug-trafficking business in any way." Blandon said Contra leaders had no knowledge of his criminal activities and he never had discussed selling cocaine with them, Specter said.
The committee is probing allegations published last August in the San Jose Mercury News that the Contras, with the apparent knowledge of the CIA, introduced crack cocaine into inner-city neighborhoods of Los Angeles to finance their civil war, which was backed by the Reagan administration.
The newspaper charged that Blandon sent "millions" of dollars to the Contras, but provided no evidence to support that figure.
Referring to allegations of a CIA connection to the drug trade, Pastora said: "I have no knowledge of anything of the sort and if I had, I can assure you I would have informed a senator or an official of the U.S. government."
Calero, who led the largest CIA-backed Contra group, said he never had heard discussions of such a role for the CIA. He said condoning such activity would have been "absolutely foreign to my way of life."
Midway through the session, hecklers interrupted with shouts of "Cover-up!" and "We want answers!" as applause rippled through the cavernous hearing room.
Specter gaveled for order, saying, "If anyone has information we will be glad to receive it," but turmoil continued for several more minutes.
"We understand the high level of emotional involvement in this issue, and I'm not going to ask the Capitol Police to eject anyone," Specter said above the din.
Order was restored when he invited Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who was seated in the audience, to join him on the panel. Waters, who represents South-Central Los Angeles, immediately started directing more questions at Calero.
Asked if he had ever worked for the CIA, Calero, a Nicaraguan who graduated from Notre Dame University in 1953, replied, "I have never worked for any government." He added, however, that he was "consulted a number of times" by U.S. diplomats.
He said he had met twice with Juan Norwin Meneses, a notorious Nicaraguan drug dealer who helped establish Blandon in California, but "I had no idea he was involved in any kind of illegal activity."
Responding to another question from Waters, Calero said Meneses "never offered a penny" to the Contra movement in the 1980s. Associates of Meneses have said he contributed about $50,000 to the Contras and paid for at least two fund-raising events in San Francisco. Meneses now is imprisoned in Nicaragua.
Pastora, a former rival to Calero for leadership in the Contra movement, said Blandon appeared to be "a patriotic man" who ran a car dealership in Los Angeles.
Speaking through a State Department interpreter, Pastora said he sought to obtain contributions "from almost any source" after the CIA stopped financing the rebel forces in 1984. Congress voted that year to cut off any U.S. government funding, forcing the Contras and the Reagan White House to look for private contributions and gifts from U.S. allies to support the Nicaraguan "freedom fighters."
Acknowledging other contributions, Pastora said George Morales, a millionaire Miami socialite, insisted on meeting him in 1984 and contributed about $70,000 in three installments. Pastora said he thought Morales was a wealthy businessman with an air transport company but learned later he was a drug trafficker.