Bad Company

Drugs from Bolivia. Cash to Panama. Arms to Nicaragua. Bo Abbott says the CIA called - and he delivered.

In 1975, Abbott was arrested for selling marijuana in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he had moved after his marriage broke up. He claims the DEA stepped in and protected him from prosecution. There are no records available to reflect exactly what happened, but the charges were indeed dropped.

In Colorado, Abbott says, he began taking flying lessons to further his utility as both an informant and businessman. Between snitching and dealing, he says, he was clearing over $75,000 a year and the prospects seemed only brighter.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, Abbott met a DEA agent and pilot in Colorado named Bill Coller. During the next few years, Coller would introduce Abbott to realms of drug dealing beyond his imagination. But ultimately Coller and Abbott would go down in flames together.

With maps of Central and South America spread before him, Bo Abbott can discuss terrain, landing fields, and flight paths in disturbing detail.

He points to northwest Belize, inland from a major swamp. That is a tract of land owned by a U.S. citrus company, he says, containing a dirt landing strip. A pilot who leaves the area around Forrest City, Arkansas, in a small plane with extra fuel tanks can make it to this strip, refuel, and continue on to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama.

In Nicaragua, he points to two places--the southern coastal town of Bluefields and the northern town of Bonanza. He has landed outside of both, he claims, carrying loads of weapons for the Contras.

In Costa Rica, there is the ranch near the San Carlos River owned by an American. In Panama, there are multiple strips, including one each on Punta Naranjas and Punta Mala. Mostly, he flew money into those strips, hard currency to be fed into Panama's notoriously lax banking system and laundered.

In Bolivia, where coca plants are grown, harvested, and made into paste, Abbott points to Cochabamba, in the central mountains, and Santa Cruz to the east. That is where he used to land, he says, to make contact with some of Bolivia's biggest drug dealers.

"They keep their planes in Asuncion [Paraguay] until they need to fly a load," Abbott says.

Abbott is describing the web of dirt strips and supply centers that comprise the Central and South American drug trade, things he says he learned from DEA agent Bill Coller, and others to whom Coller introduced Abbott.

Building on Abbott's success in the United States and Mexico, Abbott claims, Coller recruited him to begin working farther south. For several years, Abbott says he bounced around these clandestine strips, hauling drugs, money, and weapons at the DEA's behest.

As Abbott tells it, the CIA, using cooperative DEA agents and informants, tried to keep a stranglehold on as much of the drug and arms trafficking as it could.

The purpose was twofold. The CIA was able to tap into the streams of cash that naturally course through the smuggling world, using the money to finance covert operations--like supplying arms to the Contras--for which the agency was unable to obtain legitimate government funding.

Secondly, he says, by nurturing certain drug organizations, the CIA was able to gain political influence in countries where drug profits constitute a significant part of the national economy.

"They told me dope is money, and money is power," Abbott says. "They didn't care who used the drugs. They just didn't want the wrong people making money off it."

To those ends, Abbott says, the U.S. government was constantly involved in illicit commerce and needed pilots like him to shuttle around drugs, money, and guns. Small planes would be stolen--usually in the United States--and then fitted with extra fuel tanks and fake ID numbers.

Exactly what trips Abbott made during that time cannot be proven. Coller, now in prison for dealing drugs himself, did not respond to a letter requesting an interview. The DEA declined to discuss Abbott's recollections.

But at a later court hearing, Abbott's lawyer was able to present to the judge a log book containing entries that showed Abbott was trained in special flying techniques by the DEA, including short field landings and takeoffs.

Abbott says he also frequently hauled loads into the United States, landing at strips in West Texas near Big Bend, at the Addison airport, and in fields in eastern Arkansas near Forrest City and Marianna.

Coller, he says, showed him a spot six miles east of the McAllen tower where a plane could slip through a radar seam undetected from Mexico, and then begin zig-zagging to confuse the radar operators and lessen the risk of being caught.

During this time, Abbott says, he was a "deep undercover" informant, helping the DEA track major drug merchants. "I started playing with the big boys," he says. "They [the DEA] gave me all kinds of fake IDs and credit cards. I used the name Bob Anderson a lot."

He was also bringing in his own shipments of marijuana on the side, he says, with the government's tacit approval.

It might be easy to dismiss Abbott's claims of intrigue as grand self-delusion, but they dovetail eerily well with other more accepted tales from the southern drug battlefields--including some material written after Abbott had already been imprisoned.

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