In the 1980s during the Reagan administration, the Nicaraguan Communist regime of Daniel Ortega was a thorn in the side of Washington. Reagan had made it clear that another Communist regime wasn’t going to be tolerated in this hemisphere.
President Ronald Reagan did little to hide his disdain for the Marxist Nicaraguan leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), who had seized power after the notorious dictator Somoza was ousted. The Somoza family had ruled the country with an iron fist for 46 years.
Reagan was convinced that the Soviet Union and Cuba were helping to arm Communist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador via the Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega. And he was going to turn up the heat on them.
Reagan never shied away from calling out Ortega and the regime for being little Soviet stooges. At various times he called Ortega a “dictator in designer glasses,” after he had learned that he had gone on a shopping spree while visiting the United Nations in New York City.
“Nicaragua today is an imprisoned nation; it is a nation condemned to unrelenting cruelty by a clique of very cruel men; by a dictator in designer glasses and his comrades, drunk with power and all its brutal implications,” Reagan had said. He had also dismissed the Marxist leader Ortega as “the little dictator who went to Moscow in his green fatigues.”
So, it was no surprise that his administration prioritized the creation of an anti-Sandinista force to oust the Marxists from power. On November 23, 1981, the President signed National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), a top-secret document. Directive 17 gave the CIA the authority to identify, recruit, train, and support a 500-man Nicaraguan rebel force whose goal was to rise against and ultimately oust the leftist, Marxist Sandinista regime. That force would be the Contras.
The Contras were Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. They were organized in several groups, the largest of these was the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force). They were tough, but brutal and were accused of numerous human rights violations, many of the accusations being accurate.
Thirty-four years ago, on October 5, 1986, an event occurred that would mark the U.S.’s involvement in Nicaragua. One of the CIA’s resupply aircraft dropping arms and ammunition to the Contras in Nicaraguan territory was shot down by a surface to air missile. Three of the crew (pilot, co-pilot, and radio operator) were killed. One man, Eugene Hasenfus, who was at the rear of the aircraft by the open door, survived as he was wearing a parachute and was able to leap out and deploy his chute just prior to the crash.
But shortly afterward, Hasenfus was captured, near the crash site, by Sandinista troops as he slept in a hammock that he had fashioned out of his chute. That destroyed any deniability that the U.S. had. And despite President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz denying that Washington was involved in any way, Hasenfus’ testimony to the Nicaraguans blew it out of the water.
Eugene H. Hasenfus had been a former United States Marine. He had first begun working for a CIA front company shortly after his five-year hitch with the Marines was up in 1965. In 1966, through the Job Service Program, he had gone to work for Air America. Air America in Southeast Asia had different contracts with U.S. Aid, USOM, and the American embassy. Many contracts were with the CIA to deliver military aid, via airdrops to troops and CIA paramilitary operations, in Southeast Asia. He had done that until 1973 when he quit, returned to the U.S., and married his wife Sally.
One of his old CIA contacts had approached him in early 1986 about flying with a company called Corporate Air Services. Like Southern Air Transport, the company was an agency front company. Eugene Hasenfus was paid $3,000 a month (about $7,000 today), to fly C-123’s out of El Salvador and Honduras and into Nicaragua. Any time the crew flew into Nicaragua they were to receive an extra $750.
Hasenfus testified later that the flights also encompassed Costa Rica:
“The cargo carried was mainly food and some small arms and ammunition belonging to an armed group which fought against the Nicaraguan government and carried the name of FDN. Out of Aguacate, we would make night drops into Nicaragua. I was on four of these night drops.
The drops were made by the Rio Grande de Matagalpa between El Gallo and San Pedro del Norte in a DHC-4 Caribou. The cargo also belonged to the FDN. Out of llopango, El Salvador we would take a C-123K and go south to Costa Rica and then east into Costa Rica and then back north into Nicaragua and drop small arms and ammunition. I was on six of these flights to drop zones near Bluefields and the River Punta Gorda.
On October 5th, 1986, Captain Bill Cooper, co-pilot Buzz Sawyer and myself left our residence for llopango airbase. We arrived at llopango at about 8:30. The aircraft we were flying was a C-123K [serial] # C-825, loaded with 10,000 Ibs. [Nicaraguan reports state 20,000 Ibs.] of small arms and ammunition. We left llopango airbase at 9:30 with an extra passenger who was a Nicaraguan radio operator. The aircraft proceeded out over the ocean. We were going south about forty miles off the Nicaraguan coast. When we got to Costa Rica the aircraft [turned] east into Costa Rica. There was a checkpoint on the NicaraguaCosta Rica border river. The checkpoint was an island n the turn of the river where a boat was sunk. At this point, we would turn north into Nicaragua and were heading for our drop zone. About four minutes out from our drop zone the aircraft was hit by a ground-to-air missile. The right engine and wing blew up and the aircraft lost immediate control. At this time I bailed out [at] about 3000 feet and watched the aircraft spin into the ground.”
Retired U.S. Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was President Ronald Reagan’s administrative chief liaison to the secret Contra supply effort, in his 1991 autobiography “Hazardous Duty” was aghast at the blunders made by the aircrew:
“Only a fool would dispatch such a plane on a clandestine airdrop during daylight. To make matters worse, Hasenfus and the three dead crewmen had been carrying their wallets with identity cards linking them to Southern Air Transport, a known CIA proprietary company. The final straw in this foul-up was the fact that the plane’s logbooks were on board, which also linked the operation back to the CIA.”
This revelation infuriated Congress which, under the Boland Amendment had outlawed U.S. assistance to the Contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. This included the prohibition of all “funds available to the CIA and the DOD [Department of Defense] from being used in Nicaragua for military purposes.”
What was worse was that Hasenfus spilled the beans on the entire operation. Hasenfus was tried in Nicaragua, and on November 15, 1986, sentenced to 30 years in prison for terrorism and other charges. His wife Sally made a plea to Daniel Ortega for clemency. On December 17, 1986, Hasenfus was pardoned and released by the Nicaraguan government.
By the time the Iran Contra Affair went mainstream, Hasenfus’ story was on the backburner as they were after bigger fish to fry, particularly Ollie North and the Iran Contra Affair.
Time wasn’t kind to Hasenfus: He and his wife divorced in 1998, and he was arrested in 2000 for indecent exposure. And according to the Tico Times, there was more:
“He was accused of lascivious behavior a second time in January 2003, after exposing himself in the parking lot at Woodman’s grocery store in Howard, Wisconsin, and received probation. He was accused a third time on May 25, 2005, after exposing himself in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Marinette County, Wisconsin. This violated his probation, and he was forced to serve jail time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until December 17, 2005, the 19th anniversary of his release from a Sandinista prison.”