Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion
by Gary Webb
Seven Stories Press, 1998
Within hours of CNN's June expose of Operation Tailwind, you could hear that unmistakable sucking noise. It was the sound of air escaping as clamps around the story were secured and the lid set firmly in place. All together, it was a virtuoso execution on the part of the establishment; smooth as a RAND practice drill, no doubt. Asteroid-sized flak appeared from all angles--Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger were said to have made personal calls to the network the night of the program--and the hurling rocks were acrobatically rubberstamped in motion by the ever so agile Floyd Abrahms. Blitzed by the official meteor shower, the network caved like a frightened, witless child. Before the American people could be reminded that the U.S. kills and lies, Ted Turner had issued a gushing apology on red, white and blue stationary and the network's recantation had been distributed to every community newspaper this side of Havana. Grasping the opportunity to ease the story onto safer ground, the talking heads were soon mourning the death of the Good Honest Journalist. (Mr. Reston would never have run this story....) Forget the evidence that we killed our own in Laos--or the issue of what we were doing in Laos in the first place--the question was suddenly: "How could such nonsense be allowed on American television?"
Our boys in the Central Intelligence Agency must have been wondering where this media SWAT Team was in 1996, when Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News first published a series of articles connecting the agency to Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers. For unlike the tidy handling of Operation Tailwind, Webb's CIA/Crack connection went unchallenged for some time. The story, backed up by evidence posted on a much publicized web site, flourished for weeks without encountering any significant attempts at damage control. [It was during this window period that former State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb exploded on CNN's Reliable Sources, "Why hasn't the media rose in revolt against this story?! Why haven't they knocked it down!"] In sharp contrast to the total media blackout greeted by CNN producer April Oliver, Webb was invited onto numerous radio and television programs to publicize and defend the story. And in place of the tired, resounding, predictable denunciations of 'anti-American bias' that drowned out Oliver's own self-defense, Webb's story found itself in the middle of a relatively open debate.
This is partly because the story was a much bigger fish--harder to get in the net--and in part because the evidence was all there, incontravertable, almost unbelievable until you started to think about CIA links to the drug trade since WWII (Afghanistan, Laos, and Marseilles being the most notorious nodes of involvement) and remember the extremist puppet masters behind the policies of everybody's favorite cowboy. To the chagrin of Washington, the proof was too thick and the history too supportive to simply and efficiently kill off Webb's story. It had surfaced twice before--once in Robert Parry's AP wires of 1985 and once in the Kerry Report of 1988--and had been suppressed both times only with considerable difficulty. So when the story appeared yet again, this time weighted with even more evidence, it was a part of history whose time had come. Around the world it became known that the US government sold coke to its own people (mostly black and poor) to support an illegal, terrorist war of attrition against a popular revolutionary government.
When the establishment rebuttals finally began surfacing in The Washington Post et. al., they were weak and unconvincing. Despite righteous and valiant op-ed efforts by some the most talented Foundation hacks in the business, the memory hole appeared clogged beyond the reach of even governmental strength draino. Everybody from Montel Williams to Larry King was talking about the CIA selling cocaine and, more importantly, most Americans seemed ready to believe it.
Which isn't to say that Webb received a hero's welcome or single-handedly deflated the strong pressures in this country to stay within the narrow bounds of polite criticism. Indeed, the book version of Dark Alliance became necessary only when Webb's paper refused to publish his even more damning follow-ups and sent him out to pasture in Cupertino to cover PTA meetings. A la CNN, the Knight-Ridder owned San Jose Mercury News also buckled under establishment pressure and issued a retraction including the tail-between-the-legs admission that "mistakes were made." The retraction was given considerable echo, but could not douse the raging fires of public opinion originally set by the story itself, and in any case an official investigation ultimately validated the core of Webb's story. But the CIA's recent admission of guilt barely registered a blip this past spring, and soon disapeared altogether deep beneath the tide of sex scandals and State Department hand outs that constitute all that is fit to print in these great, United, Crack-ridden States of America.
Dark Alliance goes back about as far as it has too. Webb gives an adequate sketch of US Nicaraguan relations and explains the strong historical links between America and the National Guard, the national police force and backbone for decades of brutal Somoza rule. He also offers a fascinating social history of freebase cocaine, from the paste-smoking parties popular amongst wealthy Peruvians in the seventies, to the first peice of rock sold in South Central sometime early in the first Reagan Administration. These two background chapters help situate the story within the broader contexts of both North-South relations and the ever developing drug cultures of 'our little region down there.'
But mostly Webb is interested in providing hard evidence of governmental complicity in cocaine trafficking between the years 1984 and 1986. For this, after all, is the story at hand, and would only have suffered if told by a simple-minded ideologue constantly going off on tangents about uneven development theory. Webb is a tough newspaper journalist and keeps any larger social theorizing strictly within the bounds of what he found. And what he found is plenty.
Boiled down to the bone: during the first six years of the 1980s, the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces (FDN) sold enormous amounts of cocaine in the US to raise money for a guerilla war against the Sandanista regime. This multi-million dollar operation worked under the active or tacit consent of the CIA, FBI, DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), DEA, and Justice Department. This drug ring played an increasingly important part in the Contra effort when Congress cut all US funds due to the brutal, vicious nature of the illegal war being fought by the former National Guardsmen (subsequently nicknamed "freedom fighters" by Geritol Ronnie, who once likened them to the Founding Fathers.)
Drug money became central in 1984, when the second Boland Ammendment cut off all funding to the terrorist Contras. It was then that control of the war--in the hands of Oliver North of the National Security Council and the CIA--became illegal; and it was from this time that Contra funding was generated almost exclusively from the hundreds of kilos of cheap cocaine dumped into the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. South Central, what Webb calls "ground zero of the Crack explosion," was offered as sacrifice to the god of anti-communism, Reagan style.
Webb carefully documents the growth of the Meneses and Blandon organizations, Contra suppporting networks that provided local LA gangs with direct access to Columbian cartels. These enormous organizations operated out of Panama, Costa Rica and mainland US, without ever drawing the attention of federal forces, which were supposed to have been monitering these regions with very expensive equipment. Either someone forgot to turn this equipment on, or they were never intended to catch drug traffickers working to forward the 'national interest.'
Webb discusses in detail how the Ilopango air base in El Salvador was used as a resupply center in smuggling drugs, weapons and cash--all in planes payed for by US taxpayers. Often these planes were bound for the Indiana ranch of John Hull, a CIA liason who trained Contras throughought the 80s. It was at Hull's ranch that drugs were trans-shipped to other parts of the country. The immunity with which these flights traversed from Panama, Nicaragua, Indiana, Costa Rica and Florida is nothing short of amazing. As one of the pilots of these runs, Tito Carrasco, later testified, "Every week I flew...with different passports and different names and they never asked me why; [if] that is not protection, I don't know what is protection."
There were people who were suspicous of these operations, of course. Rumors abounded, and many began to poke around before being told in no uncretain terms to back off. DEA agents in Central America were told not to get involved in certain "secret operations" of their government, and narcotics agents in the States were brushed back if they got too close to the top of the pyramid, upon which sat the US government and their anti-Sandanista partners. When an elite squad of the LAPD called 'the Majors' got close to nailing Danilo Blandon and bringing down the whole game, informants foiled several key busts that were months in the planning. As detective Jerry Guzzetta explained the unnaturally long life span of the Nicaraguan rings: "Every policeman who ever got close to Blandon was either told to back off, investigated by thier department, forced to retire or indicted."
And yes, there were mysterious suicides. Darrell MacIntyre was a senior attorney on the LA staff of U.S. Attorney Robert Bonner's narcotics division. It was shortly after MacIntyre abruptly gave up an investigation of drug-running Contras with CIA ties that he was found dead in the front seat of his car, apparently the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. MacIntyre's friends and family were shocked at the reports of suicide. They smelled fish.
Then there was Steven Carr. Carr had helped train Contras on John Hull's ranches in Indiana and Costa Rica and had witnessed drugs being flown in and out of Ilopango on U.S. planes. It was shortly after telling what he had seen to John Kerry's subcommitee that he died of an apparent cocaine overdose. The autopsy turned out to be inconclusive and it was LAPD homicide detective Mel Arnold who connected his death to the fact that he "snitched" on "that stuff down in Costa Rica."
Webb also offers a fascinating picture of early street dealers, starting with the non-gang member "Freeway" Rickey Ross, a would-be tennis star turned Johnny Appleseed of rock. From Ross flowed a veritable Niagara of cheap coke into the Cripps and the Bloods who in turn exported the plague to other parts of the country. But cheap drugs was not all American gangs acquired from the CIA-FDN operatives. For together with cocaine, high-tech weaponry made its entrance into the ghetto through those funding a multi-million dollar guerilla war; Crack profits allowed gangs to become big spenders in the weapons department. Starting in the mid-1980s, 9-millimeters, M-16's, M-14's, AK's, UZI's, Tec Nine's, and assorted sophisticated telecommunications systems began turning corner street gangs into well-oiled urban armies. This new aspect of American culture was imported along with Crack on U.S. military planes.
But it isn't just North and the CIA who has dirty hands; most federal agencies helped maintain cover. Then Vice President George Bush of course had ample dealings with the Meneses organization, Noriega and even the Medellin cartel before the 'war on drugs' was announced in a turn reminiscint of the weeks during which 'Uncle Joe' became the 'Red Menace.' The war on drugs wasn't really against drugs at all, of course--but rather the poor, inner-city youth who didn't have the good fortune of being a national security asset. Poor young blacks paid the price for Crack, not the money launderers or the men responsible for shipping in the cocaine by the planeful.
Clinton, another 'get tough on crime' President, may have dirty hands as well. Despite the fantasies of many loyal Democrats, Billy's sins do not stop with getting his dick sucked. Arkansas state troopers L.D. Brown and Larry Patterson claim that Clinton was aware of drugs and weapons being flown regularly into the Mena Intermountain airport in Arkansas. They and others have testified that Clinton knew a CIA operation was being conducted by Nicarauguan drug runners and American importer Barry Seal. Seal orchstrated drop sites and distribution networks throughout the nation, and had enough evidence on him by the late eighties to be indicted on money laundering and trafficking charges. Yet despite the strong protests of State and federal law enforcement officials, all charges were dropped because the Senate subcommittee "might have revealed national security information" if it pursued that field of inquiry. And so on.
Webb's story is thoroughly documented and the result is damning. His book does not present a conspiracy "theory" because, as he says in his introduction, there is nothing theoretical about history. And if history tells us anything, it is that the U.S. is not accountable to its people, that it is corrupt, that it is, in a word, evil. Not pure evil of course, but evil enough to warrant revolutionary alterations. Only when the citizenry is prepared to act upon this truth will we be able to make this brazen, sickening crack house into something resembling a home. Only then will we have a government that has some real connection to the needs and aspirations of its people.