The DC-3 airplane, heavily guarded by uniformed Panamanian soldiers, sat on the far side of the jungle clearing at Penonome, 60 miles southwest of Panama City. Its cargo doors were wide open and chocked tight against the fuselage. The right engine idled slow and rough; the left engine was shut down for the loading operation. Soldiers in two Jeeps outfitted with .50-caliber machine guns guarded the pane fore and aft. One gunner trained his weapon on the loading crew; the other .50-cal was pointed at the cockpit and the unarmed American flight crew.
The pilot, Wayne Howard, stuck his head and left arm out of the cockpit window and waved a small white flag. The soldier in the Jeep waved back and gave a thumbs-up. A line of cargo handlers hurriedly stacked white plastic sacks on pallets; others inside the plane slid the heavy pallets forward and secured them for the 680-mile flight to Costa Rica.
It was early March 1983, about 30 minutes to sunrise. Tosh Plumlee, the co-pilot, was about to begin his third cocaine flight in 12 days from Panama to the secret American airfield at Santa Elena, on the west coast of Costa Rica, just south of the Nicaraguan border. Tosh, a member of an all-civilian Black Crew (black meaning top secret) of American military-intelligence operatives, had made several trips into Santa Elena in the past four years. The base was a major transshipment point for weapons being funneled by the U.S. to El Salvador and later to the anti-Sandanista Nicaraguan contra rebels. Tosh Plumlee (his real name) and Wayne Howard (a CIA-supplied identity) had worked together on these weapons runs, which originated in many parts of the U.S. including the Marine base at Twentynine Palms in the Southern California desert. They had even made secret flights into Nicaragua itself to drop weapons to contra guerilla units. But their last three hops between Panama and Santa Elena were drug runs, and Tosh was beginning to wonder why the Black Crew was suddenly in the dope business. After all, he reminded himself, he was flying under authority of U.S. military intelligence, which answered to the National Security Agency, which by extension, answered to the White House.
The flight this morning had been set in motion a few months earlier by the CIA station chief in Costa Rica and bore the Pentagon code name Royal Tiger. (“Royal” was the CIA designation for extremely sensitive espionage techniques or missions; fewer than 100 top-level military and intelligence chiefs had knowledge of these operations). Royal Tiger was an airlift delivering military hardware to various Central American jungle airstrips, but this particular flight was different from the others.
Tosh and Wayne were in the process of stealing 1200 kilos of high-grade Colombian cocaine from the Ochoa branch of the Medllin cartel, which was operating though Panama with the aid of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. The American plane had landed 30 minutes before the cartel’s drug-running plane was due; ties between the cartel and the CIA’s local operatives were so close that this kind of precise information was commonly available to the Black Crews. This same intelligence indicated that the Panamanian soldiers would expect the plane’s pilot to signal his identity by waving a white flag in his left hand. And although everything looked fine to the soldier’s now, in reality Tosh and the other crewmen were trying to trick one faction of the drug cartel into assuming another faction had ripped it off and perhaps cause internal dissension and feuding among the cocaine barons.
Rather, it was the sickening knowledge that it something went wrong, the operation would be revealed as a drug run gone sour, flown by an American crew and sanctioned by the U.S. government, which had played both ends against the middle and lost.
From the right-hand co-pilots seat, Tosh watched the edge of the jungle clearing for any sign of a surprise attack from one of the rival drug cartels that operated from this remote strip. Suddenly, a flock of birds sprang up from the trees and winged quickly away from the dirt road that cut through the thick jungle undergrowth. A car, a black sedan, sped down the rough road, churning a rooster tail or orange dust. The birds circled and returned to their perches as the car raced up the clearing toward the runway and the parked DC-3. One of the Panamanian soldiers stood up to watch the oncoming car. Wayne too had noticed it. He dropped the white flag and shouted back to the American crewmen in the cargo hold, “Button this bird up, and let’s get the hell out of here. Fast!”
Tosh reached up and hit the start button and cranked the left engine. It belched twice, blowing thick blue smoke over the confused soldiers and their Jeeps. The cargo kickers, Dan and Perry, shoved the last pallet and two Colombian loaders out of the hold. A few bags of cocaine broke and spread their contents on the ground, the powder disappearing in the prop wash. The kickers secured the double-wide cargo doors, and the plane was rolling by the time the black sedan came to a sliding, broadside stop. Three men in civilian clothes jumped from the car and began firing bursts from their AK-47s. The rounds went wide and far left of the lumbering bird.
The plane was turning into the wind when the first of the tracer bullets from the .50-cals buzzed past the cockpit window. Wayne glanced at Tosh and grinned. He lined up the plane’s wheels in the ruts of the dirt strip, and Tosh flipped the tail-wheel lock into position. Together, they pushed forward on the throttles, and the engines began to scream. This is going to be close, Tosh thought.
“Go! Go!” yelled Perry, as he strapped himself into the radio operator’s seat. He slipped on the earphones and fine-tuned the radio to their assigned low-frequency band. Their radio signal would notify ground stations that the plane was on its way out and there was trouble.