My Dinner with Ollie (North's airplane)

By Maggie Koerth-Baker

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High on a cliff overlooking the ocean near Quepos, El Avion was a lot like other restaurants we'd been to in Costa Rica, in that it consisted of tables spread out under a roof with nary an exterior wall to be found. Unlike those other restaurants, the center of El Avion's floor plan was taken up by the hulking carcass of an aging cargo plane.

There was a bar inside the plane. And normally, this gimmick alone would have been enough to make me happy. Then we found out what used to be carried in there.

I tell you what. I would not have thought that "Iran-Contra Affair" would make a great idea for a restaurant theme. But then, this is apparently why I'm a writer and not a successful restaurateur.

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You're looking at the interior of a 1954 Fairchild C-123, specifically one of two such planes bought with the help of the CIA to run weapons (also purchased with the help of the CIA) to guerrillas in Nicaragua in the early 1980s.

The whole scheme worked something like this: First, America sells weapons to Iran (a country under an arms embargo) as a means of softening them up and getting them to release American hostages. Second, the money from those sales is then funneled to Central America, where the people of Nicaragua had, in 1984, elected a socialist government that we didn't like. Third, opponents of that government use the money to buy planes and more weapons, which they then use to commit widely documented human-rights atrocities. Mumble mumble mumble. Profit.

Wait, profit? Oh, yeah. See, everybody was adding markups along the way. Of the $16 million raised from selling arms to Iran, only $3.8 million made it to the Contras. Time magazine later reported that retired Major General Richard Secord and his Iranian- born partner, Albert Hakim—the men who actually sold the Contras the weapons—profited the most off the deals.

When Contra Leader Adolfo Calero discovered he could buy weapons far more cheaply through a European arms dealer, North made sure that none of the Iran arms proceeds went directly to Calero. Instead they went to Secord, who continued to sell to Calero at inflated prices.

Similarly, the report relates how the private fund raisers Carl Channell and Richard Miller collected some $10 million for contra support but spent only $4.5 million on the rebel forces. The rest of the money went into lavish offices, fancy limousines and high salaries. The two have pleaded guilty to tax fraud for claiming that their operations were entitled to an IRS exemption.

The whole thing came to light only when the other C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua and cargo handler Eugene H. Hasenfus parachuted to safety—in direct violation of CIA orders that he not carry a parachute—and was immediately arrested by the Nicaraguan government. I do not know what happened to that plane, but I doubt there is currently a bar in its belly.

The airstrip used as an arms-dealing launchpad was in northern Costa Rica, and the owners of El Avion were able to buy their piece of history in 2001 for a mere $3000—not including the cost of taking it apart piece by piece, towing it to the Pacific, shipping it by boat to the port in Quepos, hauling it halfway up a mountain and resembling it on the site of the current restaurant.

By now, you're probably wondering, "But Maggie, how was the food?" I'm happy to report that El Avion serves pretty tasty cuisine. I ordered the grilled tilapia, crusted with black pepper, the heat of which was cooled with a nice passion-fruit sauce. My husband had a seafood casserole—really a spicy coconut-milk broth studded with oysters and tiny purple octopuses, and served over rice. Educational and delicious!

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Published 10:06 am Wed, Jan 6, 2010

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

28 Responses to “My Dinner with Ollie (North's airplane)”

  1. Bevatron Repairman says:

    I hope there’s some sort of combo plate in honor of Richard “Can’t a Person Have Two Purposes?” Secord.

  2. Chas44 says:

    Wow, good food served on an airplane! Who’d ‘a thunk?

  3. dadekian says:

    In August of 2001 I flew from Atlanta to San Jose sitting near a Southern gentleman named James who proceeded to drink quite a bit on the plane and tell me how he came to own a lot of land and a couple of homes in Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica. James said he first discovered Costa Rica in the mid 80’s after he got out of the Army. He moved to Costa Rica when he joined a “semi-military” shipping company run by a U.S. Colonel North. James used to help ship unspecified U.S. goods into neighboring Nicaragua. In telling this story James mentioned (in passing) helping some people in Quepos get a large airplane from his former employer into Costa Rica for their restaurant. Needless to say, when we went to Manual Antonio we ate at the restaurant. I always wondered exactly who James was.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You forgot the fact that after delivering the weapons to the Contras the planes were loaded up with cocaine for U.S. domestic sales. Planes could not be inspected upon landing in the U.S. as they were “officially non-existent and on CIA business. The congressional record backs this up, as Sen. Kerry shortly thereafter headed the congressional investigation of these flights.

    • Anonymous says:

      Senator Kerry? Now, that’s a reliable source.

    • Anonymous says:

      Wow,I thought I was the only person who knew Ollie’s boys were bringing coke in for the crack labs. Always seems weird to me when I hear the ultra-right lauding ol’ Ollie.

      Friend of mine’s dad was a pilot. Wonder if he flew this plane!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been there. The waiter spilled a beer on my girlfriend! Ollie North may have been indicted, but we got free dessert.

  6. Anonymous says:

    nb. ISTR that C-123 Providers were featured prominently in the movie “Air America,” about an earlier CIA smuggling operation.

    • Pikadon says:

      The actual Air America wasn’t a smuggling operation (or a leftist radio network), but an airline that was employed for supplying covert operations and pro-U.S. guerrillas in Southeast Asia. Its history is quite interesting, as you can probably imagine.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Maggie, You can take me to dinner anytime!

  8. VagabondAstronomer says:

    You see? Something good did come from all of that.

  9. Nadreck says:

    Sigh, I guess this means that we’ll have to be extra careful in scanning people flying here from the US since the US is a known State Sponsor of Terrorism!

    P.S. No parachutes, Golden or otherwise, at the CIA?! At least they have better ethics than bankers.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Whatever happened to Eugene Hasenfus? He was pretty much the inspiration (or outrage?) for my going to Nicaragua in Feb. ’87.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I ate at the restaurant across the street from the plane one. It looked so damn gimmicky, but if I was a sleuth like you I’da known it was the place to be.

    We ate at the black cat instead…I guess you stayed in the cabanas by Manuel Antonio?

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      We stayed closer to Quepos, in a B&B along the road between that town and Manuel Antonio.

      the saddest gay bar in all the world

      I’m imagining about 5 balding men in tropical shirts, refusing to make eye-contact with one another as they sip Bud Light in the dark. Something entirely too upbeat is on the jukebox. The beers are $8 a piece. The bartender wears a tight tank top and long hair, but shouldn’t.

  12. vonpokemon says:

    I have totally eaten in that restaurant! I found it by way of a small town called Manuel Antonio – one of the presumably few places my guidebook said was gay friendly. We found a bar across the street from El Avion that was the saddest gay bar in all the world. But that’s the fun of travel, I guess.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dude, I went there for La Playita too…the little gay beach that was supposed to be clothing optional.

      Mostly, it was kids building sand castles and their mamas. There was a group of about five manly studs in banana hammocks staking their towels from the marauding five-year-olds though. My gf and I practically squealed when we saw them.

      Can’t a guy wear a banana-hammock anymore without a kid pooping on his gay beach?

  13. Anonymous says:

    My rental car was broken into while having a beer here, resulting in an extended and expensive journey to replace my friends Australian passport. Enjoy, but watch your car!

  14. Cefeida says:

    I’ve been there!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cefeida/3048571918/in/set-72157609641353128/

    The view from the top terrace is amazing. Thanks for this write-up, I don’t know whether it was the heat or what but when I read the story of El Avion off the menu, I couldn’t make any sense of it.

  15. Bill Albertson says:

    I guess something officially becomes history when it becomes kitsch. I wonder how Nicaraguans feel about it?

  16. Anonymous says:

    I think Maggie’s description of Iran-Contra gets it backward…

    My understanding is, it worked like this:
    Drugs for Money
    Money for Arms
    Arms for Hostages & More Drugs

    • Maggie Koerth-Baker says:

      Anon,

      I might be off, but from what I’ve read the “arms for hostages” part came first. The bit about the Contras was tacked on later as a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone/hey-i-know-what-we-can-do-with-this-money idea.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Both Ollie North and Ronald Reagan were law breaking SOB’s.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Part of the situation with the Iran-Contra operations was that the perpetrators needed to fund the arms deliveries to the Contras without Congress finding out – it was against US law to supply arms to the Contras so the perps were looking for a source of off-the-budget money.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Just to think that plane created the crack epidemic and helped in one of America’s worst acts of genocide…

  20. Puggy says:

    I wonder if Barry Seal ever flew that plane:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Seal

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