August 18, 2012 in News
Traces of Reality
August 17, 2012
Last week’s article, the second half of “Lies, Damned Lies and Politics,” briefly mentioned a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent whose unsung but extraordinary career underscores so much of the issues that Traces of Reality has examined in the past few weeks. His name is Celerino “Cele” Castillo, III. Castillo is author of a fascinating and engrossing 1994 book titled Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras & The Drug War, which documents his eye-opening experiences in and out of uniform.
Cele Castillo’s biographical writing follows him throughout his roles as a soldier in Vietnam, onwards to a stint with the police department of Edinburg, Texas, and culminating with his 12-year vocation within the DEA. Powderburns paints a self-portrait of a patriot, and the book’s title adequately encapsulates the blowback that is produced from each bullet fired in the War On Drugs (especially surrounding the cocaine trade). His life, his work, and his acumen need to be heard and understood by as many people as possible if America is ever to reassess its priorities with respect to the battle between liberty and tyranny. As a born-and-raised resident of the South Texas area, Castillo’s story is of particular importance to TOR’s immediate audience.
Born in Pharr, Texas, Celerino “Cele” Castillo, III was raised in an environment familiar to many of those in the bordertowns along the Rio Grande. The small town lifestyle, cultural roots, and close-knit family ties reflected upon in the beginning of Powderburns will remind any Laredoan of growing up in bilingual surroundings, proudly overcoming hardships that lower-middle income Texans face, and witnessing the drug trade’s influence in the region. Cele Castillo is a third-generation Latino from a patriotic family whose men took up arms to serve when they were called. Cele’s own father, Celerino Castillo, Jr. was a decorated veteran from World War II, and “Cele 3″ also answered the call when his draft notice arrived in the mail in 1970.
Cele persevered through Infantry Training and touched ground in Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam in August of the following year. Trekking through the jungles of Vietnam in the early ’70s was a rough way to transition into manhood, compounded by the horror of war that so many veterans from that theater endured. As an Army Sergeant, Cele distinguished himself but found that he was fighting two distinct enemies on the battlefield: Viet Cong and drugs. The first death he saw in Vietnam wasn’t from an enemy attack, but rather from a heroin overdose.
Watching so many of his fellow troops sink into drug-induced stupors was discouraging and infuriating, and Cele found it difficult to “understand why these men preferred numbness to reality.” Certainly, however, making sense of the reality strewn about, carnage and all, was something that these young men struggled with day and night. In a few months, Cele’s sniper skills were redirected to special operations in Cambodia. By April of 1972, then-President Richard Nixon had begun drawing down troops in southeast Asia, and Cele was on his way back home, four months prior to his tour’s completion.
Back in Texas, Castillo enrolled into Pan American University, part of the University of Texas system, in Edinburg. There, Cele attended criminology courses with the intent to pursue a career in law enforcement. However, settling back into normal life at home proved challenging to a soldier worn and weary from the blood, bullets and bombs of Vietnam. Shortly after diving into academics, Cele began working with the Edinburg Police Department as a dispatcher, soon obtaining a position on the Force a mere six months later. By 1975, Cele was promoted to the Criminal Investigations Division as a detective sergeant, focusing mostly on crimes typical in a small city: burglary, traffic violations, and illicit drug activity. Then, Cele had met the woman who would later become his wife, Noelia Rodriguez. Things seemed to be falling into place wonderfully.
By New Year’s Eve on 1979, Castillo had been accepted for a position with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now, Cele could utilize his skills to combat the other enemy he became acquainted with in Vietnam. Cele uprooted himself from McAllen and made a cross-counry move to the DEA’s New York City Division Office. With his background, personal and professional, Cele was enlisted as a member of the DEA’s “Group 6,” a drug interdiction squad that prided itself with being able to justify their budgets by arresting drug users and drug pushers in large volumes.
Then-President Ronald Reagan’s “War On Drugs” was in full-force, and drug busts multiplied year over year. This reminded Cele of America’s earlier Prohibition against alcohol, but “wreaking havoc in the narcotics world” provided him with the opportunity to fulfill his goal of cleaning up the streets. After several high-profile drug busts, Cele was well on his way to making a name for himself and ascending the ranks of the DEA.
Castillo’s work soon took him to yet another corner of the globe: South America. This time, his wife and his newborn daughter joined him in Lima, Peru, where Cele could “attack the source.” His operations as a part of the DEA’s Peru office would have him going deep undercover to eliminate the kingpins of South America’s “cocaine crescent.” With limited backup, Cele was able to acquire a small handful of trustworthy informants and execute some of the largest drug raids in his career. A joint raid conducted by the DEA, CIA, and Guardia Civil, Peru’s national guard, codenamed “Operation Condor,” was so immense that the publicity surrounding the bust surely blew his cover.
Taking no chances, Castillo was transferred from South America to Central America. Cele’s new theater of operations was Guatemala, where suspected corruption among the DEA and other federal agencies was eventually confirmed. Working covertly among some of the most depraved elements of the drug cartel networks yields its share of corruption and skulduggery, to be sure. In Guatemala, however, Cele began to witness first-hand the criminality that had possessed the upper echelons of the bureaucracy within each of the federal alphabet-soup agencies. Castillo’s diplomatic attache to Guatemala was the first individual to candidly admit the truth about the Contra resupply operation being run by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council (NSC).
From there, the rabbit hole Cele stumbled into was an abyss. Events which had been inklings were now taking shape into illustrations. Informants continued to pass along intelligence, documentation was collected and corroborated, and dots were connected which implicated the highest levels of government within the United States and Guatemala. As Cele’s investigation proceeded, he assembled a list that “read like a flowchart of the Guatemalan power structure.” Add to this the paperwork he was provided detailing specific hangars at Ilopango island operated by the NSC and CIA from where planes loaded with cocaine or cash were departing. It also revealed the dates, times, flight numbers, tail numbers, destinations, and names and passport numbers for all pilots and copilots. This became the evidence Cele sought to extinguish this cocaine conspiracy.
In what soon erupted into the Iran-Contra scandal, allegations were made implicating top brass within the U.S. Air Force, NSC, CIA, FBI, DEA, White House Executive Office staff, and a slew of “advisors” and “consultants” in flagrantly violating their oaths of office, the Constitution, Boland Amendment, Arms Export Control Act, and common decency. The United States had pressured Iran into purchasing arms at double the cost, and the CIA had been using the cash to support the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency. In exchange, this rogue network under North’s direction received tons upon tons of cocaine, which was channeled back into the United States. Cash was skimmed from the top (and bottom) at each juncture in this web.
Of course, Reagan denied any knowledge, shielding himself with “plausible deniability.” Despite the mounting evidence confirming Cele’s findings, cables sent and reports filed with DEA superiors (and on up) were ignored entirely. The only replies provided ordered Castillo to cease his investigation and drop the subject. “It’s a White House operation,” he was told. When George H. W. Bush assumed the presidency following Reagan, all co-conspirators who hadn’t appealed were promptly pardoned. The fix was in, no doubt.
Essentially, Oliver North and the power-elite network operating at each level of this reprehensible ordeal became just another gang of drug kingpins that Cele had fought against during much of his adult life. This time, however, the government counterattacked; Castillo was reprimanded, demoted, disgraced, and finally diagnosed (with PTSD). His compiled evidence and his well-decorated service were rejected. Instead, Cele was put through the ringer by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and the DEA’s Board of Professional Conduct. OPR pursued Castillo several times, with trumped up charges at every turn. Cele Castillo was one of too few officers inside the whole mess that sought to blow the whistle on the rogue elements within his own government, and he was punished as a result. Meanwhile, Oliver North and Co. not only escaped making the perp walk, but in numerous instances received promotions or heroic recognition.
Castillo’s perilous career has offered him the knowledge and understanding necessary to remain within the purview of nearly every powderkeg political issue affecting the borderland along the Rio Grande and thensome. His story, as elucidated in Powderburns, presents an extremely persuasive argument for proceedings against the (alleged, ahem) criminal enterprise involved in the Iran-Contra affair, too numerous to name here. In addition, Castillo’s experience within the DEA sheds light on the series of failures of the War on Drugs as told by a committed drug-warrior operating from the inside.
Every single lesson that America (read: the American government) should have learned from the Iran-Contra episode has been disturbingly repeated and amplified during the Obama adminsitration’s “Operation Fast and Furious” scandal. The Department of Justice (DOJ), headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, has been green-lighting so-called “gun-walking” operations conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Ostensibly to track these illegal weapons to the drug cartel sources, the Operation has instead just been stimulating the explosion of violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. History repeats as key officials within the federal government have exceeded their authority, and some familiar faces from Reagan’s days have returned.
Once again, the President waves a magic wand to exonerate the guilty liars posturing in expensive, empty suits which surround him. Seek and absorb the information that reality makes available in order to innoculate oneself from the onslaught of Official nonsense, now expected and commonplace among the political elite.