The Cocaine-Contra-CIA Complex
— Larry Gabriel
Dark Alliance. The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by Gary Webb (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), Hardback $24.95.
IT WOULD BE easy to say that Gary Webb's Dark Alliance finally lifts the lid on one of America's dirty little secrets. That it shows the U.S. government has no moral authority when it comes to the drug war. That it proves the mainstream media's complicity with the government in controlling information.
But that would be naïve. It would be ignorant of the numerous times the government has been in illegal and immoral operations in the past—Japanese concentration camps, McCarthyism, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Cuban invasions, hiring Nazis after World War II . . . . The bottom line lesson is that every time one of these truths come out the government and its accomplices circle their wagons, cover up the information and attempt to discredit the messenger.
For starters, Dark Alliance, based on Webb's 1995 series in the San Jose Mercury News, is a valuable lesson in what happens when you doggedly go after a controversial story. Webb, a veteran investigative reporter, should have known that from the start. And if he didn't, a warning he got early on from San Franciscan Dennis Ainsworth, a former Contra supporter, should have reminded him. “You're bringing up a very old nightmare. You have no idea what you're touching here, Gary. No idea at all.”
What Webb was touching was the story of his lifetime. The story that would destroy his mainstream journalism career and make him a national celebrity at the same time. A story of malfeasance so open and blatant during the Reagan years that one wonders how the actor-president could be considered a hero by anyone. A story to harm the very fabric of our nation. Yet anyone who came close to it felt the wrath of power.
Journalist Bob Parry also warned Webb about what he was getting into: “Well, when Brian and I were doing these stories we got our brains beat out,” Parry sighed. “People from the administration were calling our editors, telling them we were crazy, that our sources were no good, that we didn't know what we were writing about. The Justice Department was putting out false press releases saying there was nothing to this, that they'd investigated and could find no evidence. We were being attacked in the Washington Times . . . . It was probably the most difficult time of my career.”
But the harm was widespread, from the American public to the Nicaraguan people, to U.S. police officers and DEA agents who stumbled on damning evidence. It seems that the only people who were truly protected by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency during the 1980s were the drug importers and high-level dealers.
Webb cites time after time when drug traffickers were caught with the goods on them and some federal agency would take the case away from local law enforcement.
Eventually the accused would walk, even those with long histories of drug involvement. Officers who pursued the cases after being told to back off often found themselves transferred to menial, meaningless jobs . . . or dead. But most drug importers and traffickers, with the notable exception of the now-famous African-American “Freeway” Rick Ross, were protected and freed time after time.
But law-abiding Americans such as Celerino Castillo, a veteran, former Texas policeman and DEA agent, felt the heat. When Castillo sent in reports about drugs passing through El Salvador's Ilopango Air Force Base in 1985, he was told to back off. When he didn't he found himself under investigation by the DEA and spent five years defending himself.
Conspiracies of Silence
Dark Alliance tells the whole sordid tale in an amazingly accessible fashion. It's a page-turner with a prologue that sucks you in. Webb writes of how a note with a phone message from an arrested drug dealer's girlfriend sucked him into a vortex that still swirls about his life. The book digs even deeper than the original series, with more sources of information.
Despite a coordinated effort by the mainstream media to ignore the story (they'd already ignored it for more than a decade when Webb's story exploded on the internet) the reporter does an excellent job of tying this multifaceted story together. It's a detailed, substantiated and compellingly told tale that's epic, historic and, most importantly, true.
The most difficult thing for the reader is to keep track of who is who among the many drug dealers and various government agents but Webb provides a handy reference of who is who right at the front of the book. Don't read this part until you need to check back on a name you may have forgotten.
The veracity of Webb's charges were never challenged in the press which attacked him. In fact, usually buried so deeply that most readers never got to it, most stories made the grudging admission that most of the facts Webb reported were true.
What was really in dispute were the conclusions drawn from those facts. Webb never claimed that the CIA directly engaged in drug trafficking (though I'm ready to believe that) or that the agency conspired to create the crack explosion in Black America. It was just that the Agency turned a blind eye as Contra sympathizers were dropping tons of cocaine in the Los Angeles area, just as crack was coming into style.
In regard to crack cocaine, Dark Alliance does little more than document the immense stupidity of the U.S. government's drug policy in dealing with the rise of the substance.
Starting in the late 1970s, the scientific and medical world gave numerous warnings to public policy officials who ignored them until it was too late. By the time crack was officially recognized by law enforcement and the press in the mid-'80s, it had already made its way across the country.
But that's just a sidelight to the misguided American drug war that functions to imprison people who use the very drugs that law enforcement agencies allow into the country.
Regarding the CIA, if its officers didn't know that the people they were working with to aid the Contras were drug traffickers they were both blind and stupid. Which is what they'd like you to believe. But there is no way that could have been.
Nicaraguans such as Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes and Norwin Menenses were known entities to drug-enforcement officers. They sold drugs from Nicaragua while the Somoza regime was still in power there. Blandon was known to be a drug trafficker in Nicaragua as early as 1974, but in 1979, after the Somoza dictatorship had fallen, he was granted political refugee status.
Of course, as Webb notes, Anastasio Somoza had performed so many dirty tricks for the CIA—providing a base to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion, fighting leftists in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic—allowing them into the country was the least the United States could do for the former dictator and his friends.
It's almost comic that Blandon was at first like a lost sheep in Los Angeles with two kilos of cocaine but no one to sell it to. He started from the ground up and as he grew, the no-name penny-ante drug dealer Rick Ross grew with him. This is the story that's most compelling in Dark Alliance: a tale of two men whose relationship grew along with their stature in the LA drug market.
As Webb details the international intrigue and law enforcement malfeasance, he returns again and again to Blandon and Ross, who are the living, breathing heart of the book. This keeps you reading long after the CIA, DEA and Contras make you want to throw the book against the wall.
Much of the story was already out there before Webb began pursuing the story. There were bits of news here and there that had been reported. There were bits of testimony here and there from individuals who had been caught and brought to trial.
Webb did the patient job of gathering the pieces together and filling in the holes. It's near impossible to argue against what he claims. The documentation is meticulous. Whenever possible Webb tracked down the original source of information—from people to court documents to receipts, to police evidence.
Even after Webb's story was published in the San Jose Mercury News it would have been buried had it not been for the Internet. Webb's story was also published on the SJMN Web site along with verifying documents that couldn't fit into the newspaper version.
Although most other news outlets ignored the story, it took on a life of its own on the Internet. News passed from person to person and caused such maelstrom of indignation that the government and mainstream press was forced to acknowledge it. Most of that took the form of denial and eventually the SJMN was forced to recant and drop segments of the series that had not yet been published. But by then the genie was out of the bottle and there was no way it was going back in.
Dark Alliance is a twisted tale that Webb unravels showing American politics for what they are. Along the way the reader learns about Oliver North's and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega's jobs for the U.S. government. We already know what happened to these guys when the house of cards fell down. North became the fall guy for Reagan's plausible deniability (although he didn't fall far) and Noriega was taken from his sovereign country and tossed in an American jail.
The reason Noriega went down was because he threatened to talk about drug trafficking. And, in the end, the CIA defense of its agents' actions is about not talking. From 1982 to 1995 the CIA had an agreement with the Justice Department that CIA agents were not required to report allegations of drug trafficking with respect to non-employees of the agency.
As far as the CIA and DEA were concerned, as long as the drug dealers supported their illegal Contra army, they could look the other way. It was a convenient version of the “don't ask, don't tell” policy that was later applied to gays in the military.
That's what Gary Webb found as he pulled the cloak off the Contra operation. For a deeper look at related tales that give Dark Alliance more perspective, try Alexander Cockburn's and Jeffrey St. Clair's newly published Whiteout, The CIA, Drugs and the Press. Which points out that the involvement of the CIA with drug traffickers goes back a long, long way.
Dark Alliance has to be one of the best books of 1998. At a time when the media is obsessed with the details of when and how President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had sex, there has been hardly a murmur about Webb's book in the mainstream media. There they go again, looking the other way.
ATC 78, January-February 1999