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CIA `was embroiled' in Contra drug fund

The CIA actively encouraged drug-trafficking in order to fund right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and a CIA agent in Nicaragua was employed to ensure the money went to the Contras and not into the pockets of drug barons, according to an investi-gation for ITV's The Big Story to be screened tonight.

It has previously been alleged that the US Central Intelligence Agency turned a blind eye to the drug traffic, and that this fuelled the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, but the television investigation claims that its role was more active. The aircraft which brought weapons to the Contras took cocaine back to the US, while the CIA ensured that the profits went to the Contras, whom they were supporting against the Marxist Sandinista government.

The source of the allegations is a former pilot in the pre-Sandinista Nicaraguan Air Force, Carlos Cabezas. He was a strong supporter of the US-backed dictator, Anastasio Somosa, overthrown by the Sandi- nistas in 1979. Mr Cabezas was arrested in the US in 1983 after frogmen were captured smuggling drugs in San Francisco bay, and spent six years in a US prison before returning to Nicaragua. He told the programme he had smuggled cocaine from Central America to San Francisco and taken the drug profits to the Miami headquarters of Contra leader, Adolfo Calero, and to Contra troops in Costa Rica.

He also said he had met a CIA agent, Ivan Gomez, in Costa Rica who, he said, was there to make sure that all the profits went to the Contras and not into the back pockets of the drug dealers and smugglers. "They told me who he was and the reason he was there," Mr Cabezas says in the programme. "It was to make sure the money was given to the right people and nobody was taking ... profit they weren't supposed to".

Mr Cabezas's role was to carry drugs from Costa Rica to the US, and money from the US back again. The programme's producer, Mark Rubens, said Mr Cabezas had spent a long time justifying his actions as essential to the Contra cause.

The programme approached Duane Claridge, a senior CIA officer in Washington, who planned and commanded the Contra war. He denied the CIA had ever dealt with drug- runners and said the operation was entirely funded by the US government. But in 1991 he was indicted for perjury, accused of lying to a Congressional investigation into the war. Mr Claridge denied he had ever heard of Mr Cabezas or Mr Gomez.

The link between drugs and funding for the Contras was first raised in August. As part of the Contra supply operation in the early to mid- 1980s, San Salvador air force planes would fly to Colombia, load up with cocaine and land at a US Airforce base in Texas. Dealers would fly the money out of the US on commercial flights to Costa Rica and Honduras. In the late 1980s, Colombian cocaine was flown on board private planes into small airfields in Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua.

The programme also interviewed Celerino Castillo, a US Drug Enforcement Administration officer working in El Salvador. He was asked to investigate suspicious activiities at the Ilopango air base in El Salvador. Two hangars were operated by the CIA, he said, and the programme obtained copies of flight plans and names of individuals flying money and drugs in and out of the US.