lunes, noviembre 10, 2014

Robert Parry on Wanda Palacio, the Puerto Rican Iran Contra witness

Typical was the case of 31-year-old Wanda Palacio, who broke with the Medellin cartel in 1986 and approached Kerry with an account of pilots for a CIA-connected airline, Southern Air Transport, flying cocaine out of Barranquilla, Colombia, as part of the contra support operation. She claimed to have witnessed two such flights, one in 1983 and the other in October 1985. She quoted drug lord Jorge Ochoa as claiming the flights were part of an arrangement to exchange "drugs for guns." 

On Sept. 26, 1986, Kerry took Palacio's 11-page "proffer" statement to William Weld, then assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. According to contemporaneous notes of the meeting, Weld chuckled that he was not surprised about the allegations of "bum agents, former and current CIA agents" involved in corrupt dealings with the cartel. But on Oct. 3, Weld's office informed Kerry that it was rejecting Palacio as a witness on the grounds that there were some minor contradictions in her testimony. 

Then, two days later, on Oct. 5, 1986, one of Oliver North's secret contra-supply planes was shot down over Nicaragua, killing three crew members. Only a cargo handler, Eugene Hasenfus, survived. That week, Palacio was in Kerry's Senate office when a photo of the dead co-pilot Wallace Sawyer flashed onto a TV screen. She excitedly exclaimed that Sawyer was one of the pilots she had seen loading cocaine onto the Southern Air plane in Barranquilla in early October 1985. Her claim was greeted with skepticism by Kerry's staff.

But I had flown to Managua for the AP after the crash and had gained access to Sawyer's flight logs that had been aboard the plane. Sawyer had written down the airport codes of the cities he had visited as well as the tail numbers of the planes he had flown. When I returned to Washington, I deciphered the IDs of the sometime obscure airports where Sawyer had landed. I also cross-checked the tail numbers with federal aviation records which identify the owners of the plane.

Sawyer had scribbled down three entries for Oct. 2, 4 and 6, 1985, listing himself flying a Southern Air transport plane into Barranquilla, just as Palacio had alleged. Yet, despite the corroboration -- and a supportive polygraph exam -- Weld still rejected Palacio. Her fate was similar to other witnesses who dared to link the contras, the CIA and cocaine. 

Weld, now governor of Massachusetts, is running for Kerry's Senate seat. When I asked him recently why he had dismissed Palacio, he responded with uncharacteristic harshness. He said his aides "felt her credibility was roughly that of a wagonload of diseased blankets." But he declined to be any more specific. [For a fuller account of the Palacio story, see The Nation magazine, Oct. 21, 1996] 

Southern Air Transport airplane

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