In 1987, President Oscar Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to Central America’s brutal wars. Oliver North and his shadowy friends wanted a very different outcome. Here’s how a secret airstrip in Guanacaste blew their cover.
In September 1986, five journalists from the Tico Times and NBC chartered a small plane at the Liberia airport and embarked on a bizarre mission — to find a secret airstrip in the Costa Rican jungle that was supposedly being used by U.S. intelligence operatives to arm the Nicaraguan Contras.
The journalists were nervous about this undertaking, suspecting that the government was covering up secret operations, and they told their pilot that they were interested in photographing turtle-nesting beaches.
It was a short flight from Liberia to Potrero Grande (“Big Pasture”), a valley in what is today Santa Rosa National Park, on the northwestern Santa Elena Peninsula. Most of the land below had few signs of human impact, as almost all of it had been expropriated years earlier under the Daniel Oduber administration to create the large national park. There was one landowner, however, who had long refused to sell.
Near the surf spot known today as Ollie’s Point (after Lt. Col. Oliver North, the mastermind of this operation), they spotted their quarry: a mile-long landing strip in the jungle that had no good reason to be there.
“We went down the coast pretending we were filming the beaches,” said John McPhaul, a stringer for the Miami Herald who was also working with the Tico Times. “And when we got to Potrero Grande we had the pilot circle around it. It was obvious, it had huge tire tracks. It was in a valley, surrounded by mountains, and it opened on the beach.”