Bad Company

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

Abbott, for instance, says that he had frequent contact in Bolivia with two particular drug kingpins--Roberto Suarez and Sonia Atala. Neither has been as widely publicized in the United States as, say, Colombia's Pablo Escobar. Atala, in fact, has scarcely ever been mentioned in the U.S. press.

But Michael Levine, the former DEA bureau chief in Buenos Aires, identifies both Suarez and Atala as pivotal Bolivian drug merchants in his 1993 book The Big White Lie.

Abbott says Atala had a warehouse in the free-trade zone on Colon, Panama, and that he witnessed drug flights in and out of that facility. Even now, reports still surface that the Colon free trade zone is a major hub in the hemisphere's drug and money trade.

What he began to learn, Abbott claims, is that the U.S. government did not really want to catch the major drug kingpins. Instead, the goal was to control the traffic and protect certain dealers. He claims it was the CIA's way of maintaining political control over Central and South American countries.

Controlling Manuel Noriega by letting him make millions off the drug trade, for instance, helped secure U.S. control over the Panama Canal, Abbott says.

Some countries, like Bolivia, were constant battlegrounds with the Soviets, and the CIA had to step in to ensure that pro-Moscow governments would not take power. "The Russians had Peru, and we had Bolivia," Abbott says.

In 1980, the Bolivian government was overthrown by the military, and for the next several years was notoriously corrupt. Bolivian newspapers reported that in 1985 and 1986, the government was unable to account for more than $20 million worth of cocaine it had seized in its own war on drugs.

Abbott claims that is because the CIA installed the military government to ward off a Communist regime, and then allowed the friendly government to enrich itself with drug profits.

The scenario, farfetched as it may seem, is also what former DEA agent Levine argues in his book The Big White Lie, a book which Abbott says mirrors many of his own experiences.

During his stint as head of the agency's Argentina office, Levine writes, he was frequently frustrated in his efforts to make major drug cases--often by his own agency. He was blocked, in particular, while trying to arrest Suarez and Atala in Bolivia.

Levine says he eventually came to believe--and at one point was told by a high-level DEA official--that the CIA wanted certain drug dealers protected so it could continue to exert influence on South American governments.

The United States, Levine writes, at least knew of the impending Bolivian coup in 1980 because Levine warned them about it.

Abbott says that unknown to Levine, he was the one sent by Coller and other agents to warn drug dealers like Suarez and Atala when their labs or warehouses were going to be raided. Abbott says he also relayed messages to Luis Arce Gomez, one of the coup leaders.

(Arce Gomez, dubbed the Bolivian government's "minister of cocaine" for his corruption was ultimately convicted in Miami in 1991 for smuggling cocaine into the United States. He was also charged with human rights violations in Bolivia for allegedly using Nazi-style death squads during the coup.)

"I would go to selected people and sell them the information," Abbott claims. "The CIA didn't want these people to get busted. They controlled Bolivia, the CIA. Levine is going nuts. He's trying to catch these Bolivians, but everything he's doing, I'm getting undone."

Abbott's detailed knowledge of the Central and South American drug trade, bolstered by court documents in later cases against him, leave little doubt that he was moving in the worlds that he describes during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Substantially harder to verify are Abbott's intimations about what the CIA and other government agencies were doing at the time.

Abbott, for instance, claims to have flown five planeloads of arms into Nicaragua, mainly semi-automatic rifles, some shotguns, and hand grenades. It is now known that the United States did, indeed, arrange secret arms shipments for the Contras.

Abbott claims to have met with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and dealt with his subordinates while flying money into that country to be laundered.

Noriega, of course, was arrested after the United States invaded Panama in 1989. Noriega's lawyers were blocked in their efforts to present, as a defense, proof that Noriega's involvement with drugs and money laundering was blessed and encouraged by the U.S. government, including former CIA Director George Bush. Noriega was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison.

Whether Abbott actually had direct knowledge of any nefarious political dealings or has skillfully woven them into his narrative after the fact is not clear.

One thing is, however: that by the time he was arrested in 1983, Abbott was up to his gracious hazel eyes in serious trouble.

Disturbing reports began reaching federal drug officials sometime in 1981--field agents and informers were reporting that an unknown DEA agent in the Southwest had gone bad and was involved in bringing large drug shipments into the United States.

John Murphy, an assistant U.S. Attorney in San Antonio, was apprised of the matter and kept tabs on the ongoing investigation.

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