A photographer has told the extraordinary story of how a single photograph he took exposed a CIA coverup in Nicaragua — proving the Reagan administration was illegally supplying rebels.
Lou Dematteis sat down with Vice to recall how his photo of Eugene Hasenfus, a United States Marine, led to a huge controversy for President Reagan known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Hasenfus was onboard a cargo plane flying into Nicaragua with supplies for the Contra rebels — an illegal act under U.S. law and international law.
However, the supply plane was shot down by the revolutionary government in charge of Nicaragua known as the Sandinistas. The U.S. Marine jumped from the aircraft with a parachute.
“He wasn’t supposed to have a parachute because this was a covert operation run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). If there was a mess-up they didn’t want anybody alive to talk about it,” Dematteis tells Vice.
The photographer, who had been covering the Nicaraguan revolution since 1985, received a phone call to say there was an American in the jungle so he jumped on a helicopter and arrived at the scene.
Dematteis saw Hasenfus being led away by the Sandanista who had shot the plane down with a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile and got a photo of him that would be published across the world.
“He looked really worried. He was worried they were just going to kill him,” he says.
“That photo ran all around the world, it ran everywhere. In fact, the head of Reuters Photos in Washington asked me ‘Why I was the only one who had that photograph.’ And I said: ‘I don’t know why, but I know that I got it and if other photographers didn’t get it that’s unbeknownst to me’.”
The Reagan administration denied any knowledge of Hasenfus, despite overwhelming evidence found on the plane. The Miami Herald would win a Pulitzer prize for linking Hasenfus to the Iran-Contra scandal.
“We were able to show that, contrary to what the Regan administration had been saying, the United States was involved illegally in supplying and supporting the Contra rebels,” Dematteis tells Vice.
“I think it’s an example of what photography and what reporting can do and I think that is one of the jobs that journalists have and I’m very proud that I played a part in that.”