By John Veit

(Celerino Castillo III, one of the Drug Enforcement Agency's most prolific agents, who netted record busts in New York, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and San Francisco, was ordered not to investigate US-sponsored drug trafficking operations supervised by Oliver North. After twelve years of service, Castillo has retired from the agency, "amazed that the US government could get away with drug trafficking for so long." In his book Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras, and the Drug War [Mosaic Press, 1994], Castillo details the US role in drug and weapons smuggling, money laundering, torture, and murder, and includes Oliver North's drug use and dealing, and the training of death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala by the DEA.)

Sergeant Castillo was a doper's nightmare during his days in Vietnam. Constantly testing the reflexes and surveillance skills of his platoon, Castillo had no tolerance for soldiers stoned on heroin or OJ's (marijuana soaked with opium). Compassionate with users suffering emotional problems, Castillo took a hard line with those who compromised the safety of the unit, court-martialling anyone who failed to clean themselves up after two warnings.

With addicts dying around him regularly, Castillo vowed to make fighting narcotics his life's work once back in the states. He told the SHADOW: "Every week we would send another overdose victim home in a green bag. If the soldier was well liked, someone would pump a bullet in the soldier's body. The family would be told he died a hero's death. If the consensus was that the dead soldier had been an asshole, he would be sent home with nothing more than the needle pricks in his arm." Dope and undisciplined soldiers were problems Castillo left behind when he volunteered to join a secret sniper unit in neighboring Cambodia in 1971. The Vietcong used Cambodia as a staging ground for raids on South Vietnam since the US Congress had declared it off-limits to American soldiers. Castillo's twelve-man team would pick off commanding officers at VC bases with M-14 sniper rifles. "We never missed," Castillo recalled. "According to the Pentagon, we were never there."

These were the first of many US Government cover-ups Castillo was to be involved with in his twenty-one year career as a public servant.

Things were tamer back in Edinburgh, Texas, where Castillo served as a police officer while earning a criminal justice degree from Pan American University in 1975. "I drank in every detail of the lectures, paying particular attention to any mention of drug laws. They would be my weapons in the streets." Serving first as a dispatcher at the Edinburgh Police Department, he moved to the field, using his Vietnam surveillance and combat skills well, often surprising thieves and other miscreants during the commission of crimes.

Being fluent in Spanish enabled Castillo to intimately interact with people on his beat and he became a model community police officer. His network of informants grew quickly. Unlike the felons in later assignments with the DEA, most of Castillo's informants were locals, people with families fed up with the drug trade in their neighborhood. It was when working with federal agents that Castillo saw basic classroom policing get "thrown out the window."

Two senior DEA agents, Jesse Torrez and Chema Cavazos, took Castillo on as an apprentice of sorts, taking him along when he fed them busts too big for Edinburgh's small force to handle. When Castillo got wind of any smuggling over the border, his DEA mentors summoned the federales, the Mexican national police renowned for their violence.

Mexican interrogations involved hanging the suspected trafficker by a beam and pouring seltzer up his nose. Often a cattle prod, the chicara, named after the cicada, was used to extract names of customs officials and traffickers working both sides of the border. The Americans would stand by at a distance, listening for valuable intelligence.

During other co-ventures between the Edinburgh PD and the DEA, Castillo witnessed the DEA's disregard for the safety of informants. DEA agents would often barge in minutes after a transaction was made, giving the informant's identity away instantly. Castillo had always waited long enough to create an avenue of doubt in the mind of the suspect, a necessary courtesy insuring the relationship's continuity. Like all the DEA offices Castillo later worked in, the one in McAllen, Texas was cooperatively dysfunctional, with two sets of agents pitted against each other, divided primarily along racial lines. Animosity and suspicion among agents were constants in an organization where precision and coordination is a prerequisite to mutual survival.

After six years in Edinburgh, Castillo joined the DEA. His first assignment was New York City in 1980, a far cry from Vietnam's jungles and the relatively placid living of the Rio Grande Valley. Cocaine was making a healthy return to streetcorners and the city's surviving discos. Crack pipes were making their first gasps in the city as Ronald Reagan ushered in a new era of borrowed prosperity and conspicuous decadence.

Placed in the New York office's wiliest squad, the "Raiders," Castillo watched as dealers' doors were kicked in without warrants, illegal wiretaps were performed, and Miranda rights were forgotten. During a stint at Kennedy Airport, he saw agents rip off traffickers, regularly pocketing cash, jewelry and drugs. Not being one to snitch, the young agent held his tongue. "I had always done things by the book. Here they ripped out the pages and stomped on them," Castillo told the SHADOW. "Internal Affairs was always watching, but we were protected by the cluster of New Yorkers in DEA's Washington office known as the New York Mafia." These administrative agents insured that the New York office, the country's largest, was immune from "messy internal investigations." Contacted by the SHADOW, DEA spokesman John Hughes denied that such an organization existed, stating that such a thing would, "stick out like a sore thumb."

The DEA has never been a pioneer of affirmative action. Most agents do not speak Spanish, despite the Agency's constant interaction with Hispanics. On several occasions, Castillo's safety was jeopardized when Spanish-challenged agents failed to recognize the bust's signal word among the rolling Spanish chatter, leaving him to improvise with armed dealers anxious for their drugs or cash.

Spanish-speaking agents follow cases from the mouth of the informant to the prison cell, their superiors often performing only administrative tasks. Despite the paucity of their investigative work, DEA administrators would rush in with the swarm of blue windbreakers the day of the bust, eager to take credit for everything. Castillo told the SHADOW, "Every Hispanic agent I knew fell into the same trap and was assigned wiretap monitoring, translations, and surveillance. We worked long hours building cases against Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and would have to stand back while paper pushers took the credit."

Being a workaholic brought quick results in the Big Apple for Castillo. In his four years working the city, Castillo orchestrated some of the biggest busts the nation had ever seen. On November 4th, 1982, twenty pounds of heroin worth $20 million were hauled in, one of the largest busts in New York City history.

With every day spent on the streets, Castillo's hatred for drugs grew with increasing vehemence. Castillo witnessed addicts of every ilk, sometimes as young as fourteen, constantly throwing their lives into the toilet so drug dealers could get rich. It would be a hard slap of reality to later discover that the United States government was instrumental in saturating American streets with life destroying drugs.

By 1984, the US appetite for cocaine was peaking as fields in South America were converted to accommodate the coca leaf. Castillo, the only Spanish-speaking field agent in Peru, continued his efficient work, making numerous busts in his two years there.

Working the jungles, although frustrating for Castillo, was a welcome change from Manhattan's steel maze and reminiscent of Vietnam. Stymied by the DEA's advisory status in foreign countries, however, Castillo was unable to probe too deeply into Peru's narco underworld. The Peruvian military thought their American advisor would be satisfied torching small labs and shooting down traffickers' planes. Castillo demanded to bust the big labs, the factories run by the cartels. Peru's military however, conveniently kept the larger fields and refineries off-limits to American investigation. The military claimed that the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist guerrillas whose reign of terror included cocaine smuggling and numerous murders of government officials and civilians) controlled the areas of major cocaine production.

The last thing Peru's government wanted was to have an American agent killed by Sendero, which would jeopardize future military aid. Castillo later learned their caution was merely a smokescreen used to protect Columbian cartel-controlled airstrips and refineries from American intervention. The military, like most Peruvian governmental agencies, was largely dominated by Colombia's cartels who were adept at greasing palms and instilling fear in the hearts of potential drug enforcement heroes.

The US took a more prominent role in the Peruvian military during Castillo's four years there, with programs like Operation Condor, which used the collective services of the DEA, CIA and the armies of Colombia and Peru to fight drug trafficking. With their help, Castillo was able to coordinate more and larger busts, including South America's biggest ever: four tons of raw coca paste, three airplanes, and a gargantuan cocaine refinery able to perform every phase of the leaf's metamorphosis into nose candy. As a result, US military aid to Peru was increased.

Despite his successes, Castillo remained mired in the DEA's bigoted bureaucracy. Castillo's station chief, Peter Rieff, a non-Spanish speaker, felt threatened by Castillo and transferred him to Guatemala without the promotion originally promised after one year's service. Rieff's reasoning was, "you just haven't paid your dues, Cele."

It was during Castillo's Peru junket that DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camerena was killed by CIA informants on March 6th, 1985 in Vista Hermosa, Mexico near Guadalajara. Left alone to work Mexico with some of the country's most notoriously dangerous traffickers, Camerena often complained about not receiving enough support in the field while working undercover. "Camerena warned the DEA brass things were getting dangerous in Guadalajara. The Agency ignored him," Castillo recalled to the SHADOW after listening to audio tapes of Camarena's torture and murder. "Both of the killers worked for the CIA and were double-dipping," (snitching for the CIA while using their protected status to deal dope on the side.) Only one of Camarena's killers were caught.

Castillo empathized with Camerena's plight. He could just as easily have been the one who dug too deeply for the cartel's convenience. Kidnapping and murdering family members of police and informants is common practice in the drug-dominated nations of Latin America. With his wife and two children following him on his long-term assignments, Castillo constantly worried that they would suffer a fate similar to El Salvador's President José Napoleon Duarte, who had to walk unarmed into a guerrilla compound in 1986 and beg for the release of his daughter in exchange for immunity for their imprisoned comrades.

During a later assignment, an informant provided Castillo with wiretapped conversations of a drug dealing Guatemalan colonel outlining an intricate plan to assassinate him. "Instead of talking about the bust the informant was setting up, Colonel Moran kept going on about how he was going to blame the rebels for my assassination. A hit squad was going to wait in the bushes and ambush me when I drove past on Highway 8 in El Salvador," Castillo told the SHADOW from his home state of Texas, where he is currently president of his local Parent Teachers Association.

Castillo had reported to his superiors that Moran was heavily involved in narcotics trafficking, frequently orchestrating cash drops to the Panama City branch of the scandal-ridden Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). After hearing the tapes outlining the assassination, DEA superiors ordered Castillo to drive down Highway 8 to El Salvador to investigate a mission of dubious importance. "I felt as if someone had painted a bullseye on the back of my head," Castillo recalled. "Tree branches were sniper rifles, I drove about ninety miles an hour most of the way."

DEA files outlining Colonel Moran's sporadic career as a DEA and CIA informant were provided to Castillo by agents sympathetic to his plight as an agency pariah. During later DEA attempts to silence Castillo, the Colonel was summoned to testify before the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility. Moran detailed allegations to enthralled inspectors that Castillo had shot several drug dealers in the back of the head during a bust in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala in 1986. The charges were false and Moran's plot to assassinate Castillo was never mentioned during the proceedings.

DEA informants include some of the world's most disreputable rouges who often use their informant status as carte blanche to deal dope on the side. Although DEA spokesman Hughes denied to the SHADOW that such "double dipping" is tolerated, he added: "You don't use the Pope to catch drug dealers."

Hughes also denied that the agency is reckless with their overseas agents, saying they "always have a recourse for back-up, usually with local police." Local police certainly didn't help Camerena, and Castillo laughed when the SHADOW told him Hughes' remarks.

The Guatemala City DEA office in the US Embassy compound covers four countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Be-lize, and Honduras. In 1985, Castillo's beat, El Salvador and Guatemala, was one of the most volatile on the globe, racked by years of internal warfare, death squad violence, and narcotrafficking.

Like Peru, both governments were subservient to three related entities: the US Government, the cartels, and their militaries. The militaries operated on their own, violently rooting out sus-pected communists from their borders while trafficking drugs and weapons to support themselves. Both nations' mili-taries harbored death squads who rou-tinely kidnapped and tortured suspected subversives. It was with these elements that Castillo was forced to cooperate in forming anti-narcoterrorism units.

In training his elite drug squads, Castillo utilized the services of re-nowned death squad leaders. Dr. Hec-tor Antonio Regalado was hired as a firearms trainer for Castillo's El Salva-dor unit at the recommendation of Colonel James Steele, commander of the United States Military Group which oversaw American armed forces in Cen-tral America.

Trained at the US' School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia, Regalado often bragged of his trigger-man role in the assassination of Arch-bishop Oscar Romero, a globally be-loved human rights activist, in March 1980. Regalado was also a torture ex-pert, frequently using his skills as a dentist to extract information from nota-ble "subversives." Much to Castillo's dis-gust, the death squads' most notorious human butchers and drug dealers be-came his students and colleagues. While Castillo's classes dealt primarily with surveillance, raid tactics and firearms training, others detailed explicit torture methods. Deemed "interview tech-niques," students were instructed how to use cattle prods and hoses and to sub-merge suspects' faces in buckets of water until nearly causing drowning.

Death squad drug busts made the Mexican federales seem tame by com-parison. Standard procedure involved Castillo doing the intelligence gathering for a bust, after which the military would swarm in, interrogating and tor-turing the traffickers to death before absconding with a portion of the drugs.

One such bust happened on Septem-ber 25, 1987, when Castillo's unit busted a cocaine ring run by Guatemalan Con-gressman Carlos Ramiro de Paz. 3000 kilos of cocaine, the largest bust in Central American history, were found. By the time the coke got to headquar-ters, however, six hundred kilos were missing. A soldier laughingly admitted to Castillo that the G2 (Guatemala's elite military unit) had pilfered it.

While the G2 let de Paz live, (G2 wiretappers later relished listening to him pleading with Medillin cartel leader Pablo Escobar to have mercy on him), everyone else was hacked to death with machetes. A Mexican drug courier's daughters were gang-raped before their execution.

Castillo reported these and other de-tails of Guatemalan and Salvadoran military corruption to his station chief, Bob Stia, who reluctantly signed the re-ports. All of Castillo's reports were for-warded to the US Embassy, where they went on to Washington. DEA Washing-ton refuses to open the Puerto Barrios file, in addition to most of Castillo's reports, citing privacy restrictions. Cas-tillo has, however, made his reports available to journalists and the public.

The Iran-Contra scandal blared across American television and newspapers, but drug activity was rarely mentioned. The American public accepted the Reagan Administration's version of Iran-Contra, which maintained that weapons were covertly sold to Iran in order to generate funds for Contra mercenary soldiers seeking to overthrow the Nica-raguan Sandanista government. The money used by US Marine Corps Lieu-tenant Colonel Oliver North and his entourage from weapons sales to Iran to fund the Contras was a "drop in the bucket," according to Castillo. He told the SHADOW, "To the best of my knowledge, most of the money to fund the contras came through narcotics trafficking."

During Castillo's first day briefing, DEA Station Chief Stia casually men-tioned an operation being conducted by North and the National Security Council in El Salvador's Ilopango airport. This operation was to dominate the rest of Castillo's life, ruining his career as an agent. Stia said North picked up where the CIA left off, in supplying the con-tras with the necessary trappings of in-surrection. US support of the contras was highly illegal, prohibited by the US congress' Boland Amendments.

While Castillo empathized with con-tra soldiers in the field, who were de-pendent upon the erratic stream of sup-plies by the US, he would not tolerate drug trafficking by anyone. Reports of the Contras dealing in narcotics had saturated the DEA Central American office. Stia always looked the other way, warning "don't interfere with their oper-ation," according to Castillo. Castillo told Stia that he would report any and all trafficking he witnessed. Castillo says this prompted a laugh from Stia, who assured him that excessively insightful investigations into the contra operation would prompt DEA brass to find an ex-cuse to pull him out of the country. It proved to be a prophetic statement.

Castillo had established an informant at Ilopango who was in charge of in-specting cargo and routing air traffic. Soon, Castillo had detailed information on "hundreds of flights carrying cash, drugs, and weapons through Ilopango. All of which was sanctioned by the US government." Unaware of Ilopango's protected status, Bobby Nieves, a DEA country attache from Costa Rica, wired Castillo in April of 1986, instructing him to in-vestigate hangars four and five at Ilo-pango, saying in his cable, "We believe the Contras are involved in narcotics traf-ficking."

Castillo was shocked to see that most of Ilopango's traffickers were protected by the National Security Council's secur-ity blanket. In the spring of 1986, the Central Intelligence Agency had re-quested a US visa for Carlos Alberto Amador to use on narcotics trafficking missions. Amador is documented in ele-ven DEA files for narcotics trafficking and was typical of Ilopango's pilots. Castillo asked US Embassy Consular General Robert Chavez to block the visa request. Chavez complied, but worried he would be later castigated by his superiors. "Everyone was afraid of what might happen to them if they sup-ported my allegations," Castillo told the SHADOW.

The El Salvador home of Walter Grasheim, known in Powderburns as William Brasher, was raided by Cas-tillo's anti-narco terrorism unit on September 1, 1986. Grasheim is a con-victed cocaine dealer and is documented in seven DEA files alleging drug traf-ficking. Grasheim's place was a bar-racks for Contra pilots stopping through El Salvador. Prostitute informants who frequented the disheveled ranch house told Castillo it was the site of many all-nighters where contra pilots and govern-ment officials including Oliver North, spent long hours "doing cocaine, having sex, and shooting rifles."

The Grasheim raid yielded "enough firepower to arm a platoon," according to Castillo. The arsenal included "cases of C-4 explosives, hand grenades, rifles, night vision equipment, helicopter hel-mets, US embassy license plates and files documenting payoffs to El Salva-doran military officials. An M-16 rifle belonging to US Military Group Com-mander Steele was also found."

Castillo called US Customs agent Richard Rivera, asking him to find the sources of the American weapons. Cus-toms called him off the case and the weapons disappeared into the prover-bial memory hole. US Customs did not return SHADOW phone calls seeking permission for Rivera to talk. Rivera, however, has since confirmed Castillo's account in eleven interviews with the mainstream press.

Castillo tried to get an American official to answer his inquiries as to how Grasheim, a civilian with no legitimate ties to the US government, had pro-cured brand-new American arms, US embassy radios, and license plates. Edwin Corr, then US Ambassador to El Salvador, denied any link between Gra-sheim and Iran-Contra, telling the SHADOW that such allegations were "absolutely false." Like most US officials contacted by the SHADOW, however, Corr effusively praised Castillo's dili-gence as an agent, but expressed bewil-derment as to why Castillo has under-taken his crusade.

Jack Blum, Special Prosecutor for Senator John Kerry's (D-Mass) Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations told the SHADOW: "There is no doubt in my mind that Oliver North knew about narcotics trafficking at Ilopango." The Committee interviewed dozens of pilots who openly detailed the "guns down, drugs up" operation. One such pilot, Michael Palmer, indicted for bringing 300,000 lbs. of marijuana into the US in the mid 1908's, frequently boasted to prosecutors that his activities were supported by the US government.

During Kerry's investigation, Castillo was ordered by the DEA's Freedom of Information Office to keep his reports on the Contras active, thereby rendering them inaccessible to the Committee and the press. Lacking Castillo's reports, the Committee still concluded in 1989 that: "There was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras and the Contra supporters in the region."

Tim Ross, a twenty-one year veteran broadcaster for the BBC in Colombia, connected what he called "Ollie North's mob" to drug dealing in that country as well. Ross told the SHADOW that "In late '84, early '85, North brought five Afghani military advisers to Colombia on a speaking tour, three left, two stayed. The two that stayed were chemists who introduced heroin manufacturing to Colombia. He also brought in an Israeli agronomist who helped to cultivate opium poppies."

Ross said that when he started investigating too deeply for North's comfort, however, he was summoned to the US Embassy in Bogota and told, "You're going to lay off this story or you are going to die" by an "ex-marine, the type of guy who used to cut Vietcong throats with his thumbnail." Ross ran the story anyway, detailing Colombia's growing heroin epidemic, but North told his superiors that the story was nothing more than "fabrications, including trumped-up fake Mexican file footage."

Released after Powderburns and partially reprinted in the Washington Post and the Virginia Pilot, 534 pages of North's personal diaries mention drug trafficking. The July 9, 1984 entry states, "wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, want aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos." The July 12, 1985 entry reads, "$14 million to finance Supermarket came from drugs." The "Supermarket" was an Honduran weapons depot used by private arms merchants to supply the Contras. North is currently under investigation by the DEA for arms smuggling, according to DEA file number GF GD 91/93. North has denied any involvement with narcotics trafficking, stating in his autobiography Under Fire, "Very little in my life has angered me as much as the allegations that I or anyone else involved with the resistance had a drug connection."

North claims that when he heard of narcotics trafficking in Central America, he dutifully reported it to the DEA and CIA. DEA director Jack Lawn, DEA spokesman John Hughes and agent Castillo, who would have been assigned to investigate such information, denied that North ever supplied them with narcotics tips.

Oliver North has been no stranger to mayhem. After serving as a Marine combat officer in Vietnam, North had difficulties readjusting to American society. In 1974, according to Parade magazine (Nov 13, 1994), North spent an evening running through a suburban neighborhood naked, waving his .45 automatic pistol and screaming, "I'm no good!" North mentions his subsequent three week stay at Bethesda Naval Medical Center's psychiatric ward in his autobiography, but cites marital difficulties and depression over the failing war as causes for his stay there.

North has Castillo largely to blame for his recent loss in the 1994 Virginia senate race. Embarking on a fifty day journey through Virginia prior to the election, Castillo went on several radio and television talk shows and made public appearances throughout the state. Usually addressing die-hard Ollie fans, Castillo's town meetings invariably ended the same way: angry patriots deflated by their hero's involvement in narcotics. Despite millions of dollars in support from Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Freedom Alliance, Ollie still managed to lose the election.

George Bush visited Guatemala City in January of 1986 for the inauguration of newly-elected president Cerezo. Castillo later compiled evidence that Cerezo's brother and top aides were involved in drug trafficking, but was instructed by Stia not to "embarrass the Guatemalan government" by pursuing the case. During Cerezo's inauguration party at US Ambassador Piedra's home, Castillo voiced his suspicions about Ilopango's drug activity. "There's some funny things going on at Ilopango with the Contras," he told Bush. Bush merely grinned and kept ominously silent. Later that day, Bush met with Oliver North at the Embassy to discuss the Contra operation.

Castillo constantly threatened his superiors that if they stifled his reports on "Project Democracy", as the Contra resupply operation was called, it would "come back and bite them in the butt." A Sandanista surface-to-air-missile provided the fangs they so desperately feared. On October 5, 1986, a C-123 airplane left Ilopango laden with munitions for the Contras. The plane was shot down and Eugene Hasenfus, the lone survivor, admitted to television news cameras after a few days of captivity that "the CIA did most of the coordination for flights and oversaw all of our housing, transportation, also refueling and some flight plans."

According to North's autobiography, after the Hasenfus affair, then-CIA director Bill Casey ordered North to "shut it down and clean it up," regarding the Contra resupply operation. Casey conveniently died on the second day of the Iran-Contra hearings.

Throughout his investigations, Castillo was warned to ignore Ilopango and the Contras, yet he persisted. Stia's original warning to Castillo came true when representatives from the DEA's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) flew in from Washington to investigate Castillo and Stia for violations of DEA rules.

Despite their problems, Stia had always respected Castillo, recommending him for a bonus and promotion in 1987. Castillo repeated every detail of his investigations to the OPR agents, constantly amazed at how little interest was shown in the contra-cocaine connection. OPR had no interest in stopping the sordid dealings of Ollie North's mob, but were looking for anything to nail Castillo so he could be discredited and removed from the agency.

Finding a series of minor violations, including socializing with an informant, receiving and soliciting gifts, possession of an automatic weapon, and misappropriation of government property, Castillo was suspended for thirty five days, then transferred back to the States. The charges stemmed not from Castillo's lack of bureaucratic integrity, but from some paperwork snafus "routinely committed by every agent in the field." Other violations, such as the routine aerial spraying of food crops, rivers, and bodies with the deadly chemical Roundup, were never investigated.

Regarding Castillo's claims, DEA spokesman John Hughes told the SHADOW, "Most of what you have is not confirmable. He may have written the reports you mention; we just don't have them in this office." CIA spokesman David French told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that Castillo's allegations, "are not something we can comment on." Despite the death threats, Castillo receives on his answering machine each week, Hughes assured the SHADOW that, "No one at the DEA bears any ill will against Cele." Ironically, Hughes added, "This is a good story and it deserves to be told."

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