Nestor D. Sanchez, 83; CIA official led Latin American division

Nestor D. Sanchez
Nestor D. Sanchez (Family Photo)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:27 PM

Nestor D. Sanchez, 83, a retired CIA officer and Defense Department official whose early intelligence career involved clandestine operations in Latin America, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 18 at his home in Buckeystown, Md.

Mr. Sanchez retired from the CIA in 1981 after three decades of service. Most of his time at the agency involved top-secret covert actions, including bloody 1954 coups in Guatemala and a 1960s plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Mr. Sanchez was also closely connected to former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, a onetime CIA paid informant.

In his later career, Mr. Sanchez was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Latin American affairs during the Reagan administration. He specialized in providing Central American countries with U.S. military aid and funding.

At the time of his retirement, Mr. Sanchez was said by federal investigators to have been linked to illegal U.S. arms deals to the so-called "contras," anti-Sandinista rebels who were fighting the left-wing government in Nicaragua.

In the ensuing scandal, which came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair, Mr. Sanchez said that he was aware of the arms shipments but that he didn't know their origin. He was never accused of wrongdoing.

Mr. Sanchez joined the CIA in 1952. His first assignment for the agency was as a field intelligence officer during the Korean War, where he recruited defectors to infiltrate North Korea.

A New Mexico native and fluent Spanish speaker, Mr. Sanchez was sent to Central America to help engineer the 1954 coup against the left-leaning Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Mr. Sanchez sharpened his focus on CIA operations in Cuba.

"It is obvious that the Soviets and Cubans are attempting to spread the malaise of Marxism to other countries, especially in Latin America," Mr. Sanchez once said, defending U.S. actions against the small tropical country. "They would impose dictatorships, economic decline and human suffering on the people."

Mr. Sanchez worked as the case officer in charge of Rolando Cubela, a Cuban CIA asset. Cubela was an officer in the Cuban army who had become disenchanted with Castro's leadership. At one point, Cubela asked Mr. Sanchez to provide him with a high-powered rifle equipped with a silencer and zooming scope.

Instead, on Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Sanchez gave Cubela a hypodermic syringe filled with poison and camouflaged as a writing pen. But the assassination attempt never took place, and CIA officials later suspected that Cubela was a double agent.

Mr. Sanchez later worked in Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia and Spain before retiring from the CIA as chief of the Latin American division.

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