San Salvador — El Salvador's position as a transfer point for supplies to United States-backed contras has long been an open secret, say Western diplomats and other informed sources. President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, however, adamantly denies that a C-123 cargo plane shot down over Nicaragua on Oct. 5 had taken off from El Salvador. ``We have no information on that. I have asked the [Armed Forces] High Command and they say no,'' President Duarte says.
Still, two of the Americans killed in the crash were allegedly carrying Salvadorean identification cards giving them access to a restricted part of Ilopango airport. The airport, about 8 miles from the capital, is used by both the Salvadorean Air Force and civilian aircraft.
Airport personnel at the Ilopango airport say that three to five flights take off every week from a restricted part of the Ilopango air field used by Americans. These flights are commonly assumed to be used to supply the Nicaraguan contras.
US government officials deny that the plane downed Sunday was theirs. They say that the plane belonged to the private contra aid group headed by retired US Gen. John K. Singlaub. But a statement issued Tuesday by his office said that he was in no way associated with the plane, its cargo, or its crew. One of the two Americans who died, however, also allegedly carried a business card from the State Department's Humanitarian Aid Office in Washington -- a channel for US funds appropriated for the contras.
Informed sources assert that the Salvadorean Air Force has given the contras the use of several warehouses to store arms shipments and other supplies before they are reloaded onto smaller planes bound for the contras. The majority of the flights are commonly believed to resupply contras in northern Costa Rica. It is unclear at this point if the flights are used to supply Honduran-based contras.
These sources claim that permission to use the warehouses was given by the head of the Salvadorean Air Force, Gen. Rafael Bustillo -- one of the most powerful, and conservative, officers in the Salvadorean Armed Forces. General Bustillo has been a major contact person for aiding the contra shipments, according to diplomats and other informed sources.
Sources say that the contras have used Ilopango at least since 1984, and probably earlier, to ship supplies to the former contra leader Ed'en Pastora G'omez, who was based in Costa Rica. Contra bombing raids in 1984 against Nicaragua were also believed to have originated at Ilopango, although this has not been confirmed.