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.
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!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.