CAQ #59: Cracking CIA-Contra Drug Link

The Anarchives (
Fri, 6 Dec 1996 17:03:03 +0000 (GMT)

/** covertaction: 61.0 **/
** Topic: #59 Cracking CIA-Contra Drug Link **
** Written 10:30 AM Dec 3, 1996 by caq in cdp:covertaction **
by Clarence Lusane


In a series of explosive stories for the San
Jose Mercury News, investigative reporter Gary
Webb asserts that US-backed Contras and
Contra-supporters imported cocaine into the
United States; that the cocaine was sold to at
least one major Los Angeles black drug dealer
with ties or membership in the Crips street
gang; and that the CIA was aware of the Contra
drug activities and chose to either ignore
them or to protect the traffickers. *1

The response to the series from the black
community has been phenomenal.Reprints sold on
the streets of Harlem, Washington, DC, and
other cities have ensured wide access, while
Internet postings have spread the story like
wildfire around the world. Forums and meetings
as well as demonstrations and other protests
have demanded action; congressmembers and
black leaders have called for investigative

The CIA-Contra-crack story is a complicated
saga with many layers and serious implications
for the black community and the nation.
Although hard documentation of CIA involvement
in drug trafficking had been on the record for
decades,Webb's articles add hard, specific
evidence of the consequences at home. It would
be a grave mistake either to blow up the issue
of the CIA's role in drug trafficking to one
of conspiratorial genocide, or to reduce it to
the excesses of a few undisciplined
operatives. Only by framing the discussion in
the context of a critique of US foreign policy
objectives that have been operating since at
least the mid-1940s, can the solid link
between international affairs, racism, and
illegal drugs be grasped.

The role of US intelligence agencies in
narcotics trafficking has been a direct
function of US foreign policy both during and
after the Cold War. Under the cover of
anticommunism, every US administration from
Truman to Bush justified global covert
operations that led directly to the opening
and expansion of trafficking routes for
illegal narcotics. Operatives associated with
US intelligence agencies then either ignored
or even supported the flow of drugs that
predictably followed. *2 And even without the
ideological justifications of anticommunism,
the pattern of running covert operations
linked to drug traffickers continues today
under Clinton. *3

These policies are not race neutral. In the
US, the consequences of drug trafficking for
the black community and subsequent growth in
substance addiction has been nothing short of
devastating. But it is also critical to note
how people of color throughout the developing
world have seen their economies skewed and
some of the most corrupt elements of their
societies strengthened by narcotrafficking.
The cultivation of coca leaves, opium, hashish
and other crops essential to illegal drug
production is propelled by global capitalist
economics that have relegated developing
nations to producing under profoundly
inequitable circumstances for the developed
world. Virtually all the media stories,
including the Mercury News series, have
ignored the economic imperative driving the
production of illegal drugs in the developing
world and their marketing in the US. In
conjunction with whatever role the CIA and
other intelligence agencies have played in
narcotrafficking, Washington's
corporate-driven international policies are
central to economic woes of millions of people
both in the developing world and in the
inner-city and rural poverty belts of the US.

What is new and particularly shocking in
Webb's series is his charge that US-backed
Contras and Contra supporters imported cocaine
into the US and sold it to black street gangs
in Los Angeles. The Contra drug dealers,
according to the Mercury News, "met with CIA
agents both before and during the time they
were selling the drugs in LA." *5 Despite
their US backing, Nicaragua's Contras were
often hard up for cash. Most of them were
supporters of the US-backed dictator Anastasio
Somoza, who had seized power in 1936 and whose
dynasty ruled Nicaragua with notable
corruption and brutality. In 1979, a group of
rebels, the Sandinistas, took power and
instituted numerous literacy, health, and land
reform programs. Washington was appalled both
by their overtly Marxist cast and by their
policies that favored the interests of
peasants and workers over those of large
landowners and international corporations. In
response, with White House approval, the CIA
created a Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) in
mid-1981. This coalition of several groups,
mostly Somoza loyalists, waged Washington's
surrogate war against the Nicaraguan people
even after internationally certified elections
were held. By the mid-1980s, the FDN had
racked up a horrifying human rights record
while the Sandinistas had garnered strong
support around the world from both governments
and solidarity groups. Under pressure,
Congress cut off funding, but some US money
authorized by President Reagan continued to
pass covertly through the CIA. Some of the
Contras looked to drug money to supplement the
clandestine flow.

Webb's revelations added to the picture by
showing that from around 1982 to 1986, two men
linked to the Contras Los Angeles cocaine
trafficker Danilo Blandon and his San
Francisco-based supplier Norwin Meneses sold
large quantities of cocaine to "Freeway" Rick
Ross. *6 Ross, a black 22-year-old street
dealer with ties to the Crips street gang in
Los Angeles, turned the cocaine he bought from
Blandon and Meneses into crack. Because the
Nicaraguans' prices were well below normal
costs, Ross quickly became a major dealer with
broad influence over the spread of crack in
Los Angeles.

Part of the profits made from the drugs that
Blandon and Meneses sold to Ross, according to
Ross' testimony cited by the San Jose Mercury
News, were "then used to buy weapons and
equipment for a guerrilla army." At first the
CIA and Contra leaders, including Adolfo
Calero, the US-based political leader of the
FDN, insisted that Meneses was not a key
player in the Contra war and that they were
surprised to find out that he was involved
with drugs. These disclaimers don't ring true.
Meneses says that, for at least five years, he
raised funds for the Contras, visited Contra
camps, and sent people to Honduras to work for
the Contras. *7 Calero concedes Meneses
visited Contra camps numerous times during the
1980s and the two men were even photographed
together at a Contra fundraiser in San
Francisco. *8 Also, Calero's professed
ignorance of Meneses' trafficking is not
credible. A detailed San Francisco Examiner
story linked Meneses' drug trafficking to his
Contra connections. *9 Not only was Meneses
well- known in the US as a large-scale dealer,
Nicaraguan newspapers dubbed him "Rey de la
Droga" (King of Drugs). *10 After being
instructed to conduct a search, the CIA
admitted that it had records going back to
1984 implicating Meneses in drug trafficking.

The major media, which had been overlooking or
debunking CIA links to drug-dealing Contras
for a decade, responded to Webb's series by
either ignoring them or running a story on the
story impugning Webb's motives, facts, and
research skills.The corporate press responded
to outrage in the black community by chalking
it up to what the Washington Post termed
"black paranoia." While noting that a long
history of government-sponsored activities
against the black community have justified
black suspicion, the majors have categorized
those suspicions as baseless conspiracies
comparable to tales of UFO abductions.

There are inaccuracies and exaggerations in
Webb's series which the major media seized on,
but instead of correcting the record on
specifics, they used the flaws to dismiss the
piece out-of-hand. They also created straw men
only to tear them down. For example, while
Webb exaggerates the case when he writes that
the cocaine sold to Ross and later turned into
crack created "the first mass market in
America" for the drug, *12 he never states, as
some of his debunkers have charged, that Ross
alone was responsible for the proliferation
or for its invention. It is generally agreed
that the stunning spread of crack in Los
Angeles did occur around the time Blandon and
Ross entered the market, but Webb explains how
they took advantage of, rather than created,
the circumstance in which "street-level drug
users were figuring out how to make cocaine
affordable ... by changing the pricey white
powder into powerful little nuggets that could
be smoked crack." *13

Nor does the series allege that the CIA as an
agency or any of its identifiable employees
directly sold drugs in the US or specifically
targeted the black community. These charges
have been made by both critics and proponents
of the series.

Even though the Washington Post and Los
Angeles Times successfully challenged some of
the Mercury's details such as the amount of
cocaine sold to Ross and the profits they made
they do not address the broad issues and
their implications. By asking the wrong
questions they have diverted attention from
critical points. For example: Even if the
US-created taxpayer- paid Contras dealt only
one rock of crack with the tacit approval of
US officials, then serious policy and ethical
problems exist (not to mention legal ones).

Despite some factual errors, the Mercury News
series has not only added evidence on how
racism intersects with US drug and foreign
policies, but also raised two key questions to
which the black community has long sought

1) Did the CIA or other US officials authorize
and participate in the marketing and
distribution of crack cocaine to the black
community as a matter of policy or strategy?

2) Have the CIA and other US intelligence
agencies, through covert operations and other
activities, facilitated a flow of drugs into
the United States that has resulted in
increased use and sales in the black

The answer to the first question, so far as
can be determined, is no. Neither the series
nor other reports and studies provide evidence
of such high-level authorization and targeting
of the black community. While there are
examples of convictions of US officials for
narcotics trafficking, no conspiratorial
network inside the CIA has ever been
identified. If the question were rephrased to
ask if the blight of drugs in the black
community has had serendipitous effects the
blunting of social protest and organizing, an
excuse to warehouse in prisons hundreds of
thousands of young black men for whom there
are no jobs the answer would be yes. But a
useful consequence that is tolerated or even
appreciated is not the same as a deliberate

The answer to the second question is an
unqualified yes and the evidence is
overwhelming. The CIA, FBI, National Security
Agency (NSA), State Department, Justice
Department, Military Intelligence, and other
agencies have repeatedly employed operatives
and agents known to be involved in
narco-trafficking. At various times the US
agencies have either turned a blind eye or
knowingly allowed their facilities to be used
for major dealing. This policy was approved at
the top of these agencies in the White House
and, many believe, by successive presidents.

Jack Blum, chief investigator for the Kerry
subcommittee, concluded after years of
investigation and access to classified

"If you ask: In the process of fighting a war
against the Sandinistas, did people connected
with the US government open channels which
allowed drug traffickers to move drugs to the
United States, did they know the drug
traffickers were doing it, and did they
protect them from law enforcement? The answer
to all those questions is yes. *14"


Official collaboration between US government
entities and known drug traffickers dates back
at least to World War II. The Office of
Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the
CIA, made deals with Corsican heroin
traffickers as well as with US gangster and
known heroin dealer Lucky Luciano to prevent
communists from gaining a political foothold
in post-war France and Italy. *15

)From 1924-44, the US heroin addict population
had dropped from 200,000 to about 20,000.16
Then Washington, "through the CIA and its
wartime predecessor, the OSS, created a
situation that made it possible for the
Sicilian-American Mafia and the Corsican
underworld to revive the international
narcotics traffic," according to the leading
academic study on the topic. *17 After Luciano
established a worldwide network of
traffickers, distributors, and retailers for
the drug, the number of US addicts grew
rapidly again. *18

Similar alliances led to similar consequences
in Southeast Asia. In Laos, beginning around
1960, the CIA created a secret army of 30,000
Hmong tribesmen to fight their communist
government. Hmong Gen. Vang Pao (who
eventually moved to Montana) was allowed to
use the CIA's Air America planes to traffic
opium, the Hmong's major cash crop. Turned
into heroin, this crop not only addicted
thousands of US soldiers fighting in Vietnam,
including a disproportionate number of African
Americans, but by the war's end in the
mid-1970s, comprised about one-third of all
heroin in the US. *19 By 1989, Southeast Asia
was producing 73 percent of the world's
heroin. *20

Beginning in the late 1970s, in Southwest
Asia's Golden Crescent where Afghanistan,
Pakistan, and Iran come together the US
supported the anticommunist mujahedin
guerrillas fighting against their
Soviet-backed government. The CIA's covert
activities in the region created new
trafficking lines and a tremendous wave of
heroin that flooded the lucrative US market.
Scholar Alfred McCoy noted one of the
consequences: "As heroin from Afghanistan and
Pakistan poured into America throughout 1979
... the number of drug-related deaths in New
York City rose by 77 percent." By the late
1980s, the surge in heroin from the Golden
Crescent "had captured 60 percent of the US
market." *21

The pattern of exploding narcotics trafficking
would be repeated when the Reagan
administration made the decision to support
anticommunist governments and rebels in
Central America. Between 1982 and 1985,
covering the first Reagan term, the number of
US cocaine users grew to 5.8 million, a 38
percent rise. *22 During that period, the CIA
and other agencies employed drug traffickers
throughout Central America to assist their
covert wars against the Sandinistas in
Nicaragua and guerrillas fighting to overthrow
military and political dictatorships in El
Salvador and Guatemala. Gen. Paul F. Gorman,
former head of the US Southern Command,
captured the rationale for these unsavory
alliances: "The fact is, if you want to go
into the subversion business, collect
intelligence, and move arms, you deal with
drug movers." *23

It is critical to note that it was not just
the CIA but the entire US foreign policy
apparatus including all branches of the
military, the NSA, and the State Department
that helped implement the covert war against
Nicaragua and was complicit in the drug
trafficking. Many of their activities were
revealed in the investigations and hearings by
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the late 1980s.
McCoy notes that the committee found, for
example, that "The US State Department paid
four contractors $806,401 to supply
humanitarian aid to the Contra forces in
Central America. All four of these companies
were owned by known drug traffickers." *24 The
report went on to say that the State
Department made "payments to drug traffickers
... for humanitarian assistance to the
Contras, in some cases after the traffickers
had been indicted ... on drug charges." *25

The committee's report was unambiguous in
assigning guilt: "On the basis of this
evidence, it is clear that ... elements of the
Contras ... knowingly received financial and
material assistance from drug traffickers. ...
In each case, one or another agency of the US
government had information about the

The Kerry report also concluded, "The logic of
having drug money pay for the pressing needs
of the Contras appealed to a number of people
who became involved in the covert war. Indeed,
senior US policy makers were not immune to the
idea that drug money was a perfect solution to
the Contras' funding problems." *26

The flood of drugs into the US, Contra-carried
and other, had a devastating impact on the
black community; the harmful effects were only
compounded by the "war on drugs" pursued in
turn by Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton
that disproportionately targeted African

That effect is consistent with a long history
of drug wars that have, without exception,
demonized communities of color as the main
traffickers and users. In the 1880s, the
growing Chinese American population was
targeted by oppressive anti-opium legislation.
While they were deported and imprisoned,
whites comprised the largest group of users.
They were mostly women who consumed great
quantities of opium-based over-the-counter
"tonics" and male Civil War veterans seeking
pain relief. After opium was declared illegal,
these white users were channeled into the
medical rather than the criminal justice

The turn of the century "war on drugs" made
cocaine the boogie monster, and the press was
full of sensationalized stories about black
men crazed by the demon drug who raped
white women and committed horrible and
depraved crimes. The "responsible" New York
Times joined the chorus, at one point running
a headline that blared "Negro Cocaine `Fiends'
Are a New Southern Menace," and reporting that
southern sheriffs were forced to switch to
higher caliber handguns to effectively stop
drug-empowered blacks. *27 There was, in fact,
no evidence of a wave of cocaine-induced

During the anti-marijuana wars of the 1930s,
Mexican Americans were targeted at a time when
they were moving in large numbers into cities
and competing for scarce jobs. Again the
papers were peppered with reports of
drug-crazed attacks on innocent whites. The
1950s heroin war, which coincided with the
rise of the civil rights movement, followed
the same pattern once again aimed against
blacks. *28

"The drug war is always the pretext for
something else," noted political analyst Noam
Chomsky. In the United States [it] is
basically a technique for controlling
dangerous populations internal to the country
and doesn't have much to do with drugs." *29
Politicians have long used it to excuse failed
social and economic policies that have
generated unrest and as an expedient campaign
issue. Richard Nixon took advantage of drug
war rhetoric in the 1960s and early 1970s and
set the stage for the ingenuous sloganeering
campaigns of the 1980s. Then, while Nancy
Reagan intoned "Just Say No [to drugs]," the
president did just that to spending for social
programs, aid to the cities, and most policies
which had the potential to ameliorate
conditions in the black community. *30
President George Bush and his drug czar
William Bennett continued the Reagan program
with greater hyperbole but with no more effect
in reducing trafficking or addiction, and Dole
in his 1996 failed bid for the presidency
unimaginatively varied the theme to "Just
Don't Do It."

Meanwhile, in the 1980s and into the 1990s,
the black community has been ravaged by a drug
crisis of historic proportions, resulting in
"crack" babies, record drug overdoses,
unprecedented numbers of black male youth
incarcerations, a rise in AIDS, and numerous
other harms. In Los Angeles County alone,
according to the Mercury News, there are more
than 70,000 children in foster care for
drug-related reasons. *31 In Washington, DC,
of the thousands of cases of neglected and
abused children removed from homes, 90 percent
involved crack mothers. *32 In fact, however,
most drug users are white, while a
disproportionate number of people incarcerated
for a disproportionately greater number of
years are black. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who
represents the Los Angeles district at the
center of Blandon's and Ross' activities,
wrote Attorney General Janet Reno:

@XASAS = In addition to the stress caused by
crack cocaine use, I am also terribly
disturbed by the heavy-handed,arbitrary, and
discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences
which politicians have attached to crack
cocaine use and possession. These sentences
have the effect of severely punishing
small-time users, and are prosecuted in a
discriminatory way which disproportionately
impacts African American males.33

It was into this context that the San Jose
Mercury News story fell. One word
characterizes the black community's response:
outrage. That reaction has sparked a mass
movement of sorts to distribute the Mercury
News series as widely as possible and to force
investigations into the allegations. Black
community leaders and activists are mobilizing
around the issues raised. From Washington, DC
to California, there have been protests,
rallies, and forums. Howard University law
students held a march and rally on the US
Capitol steps.34 More than 1,500 showed up at
a forum held by the Congressional Black Caucus
on the issue. *35 In Los Angeles, 1,000 turned
out for a forum while 1,500 waited outside.
*36 Activist Dick Gregory, radio host Joe
Madison, activist Mark Thompson, and President
of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference Rev. Joe Lowery, have all been
jailed for demonstrating at CIA headquarters
in Langley, Virginia or at the Justice
Department. Gregory and Madison also have gone
on hunger strikes.

Politicians are turning up the heat. In a
letter to Attorney General Reno, Rep. Waters

"a full and complete investigation into the
connection between law enforcement agencies,
most particularly the CIA, and the early 1980s
importation of crack cocaine. In addition, I
would like to know what actions may have
allowed these drug shipments to continue. I
would also like to know the status of any
efforts to investigate, punish, or prosecute
those involved in this matter." *37 "

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne
Feinstein,38 San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown
and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan have all
written letters calling for an investigation.
Rev. Jesse Jackson is demanding that Clinton
order his Intelligence Oversight Board to
conduct a full and independent investigation
and calling for the release of all classified
documents on the CIA's involvement in the
Contra war, all DEA records related to the
Contras, and all DEA files on Meneses and

While promising internal investigations, the
Department of Justice, CIA, and other US
agencies all issued quick denials. At an
October 23 Senate hearing, for example, CIA
Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz testified
that based on the investigation up to that
point, there is "no credible information" to
support the Mercury News' stories.40

The controversy around this issue underscores
the necessity for black community awareness
and involvement in US foreign policy issues.
The creation of the Contras was a policy
initiative that emanated from the White House
and was supported by policy makers. The fact
that the policy was consistent, sustained, and
sanctioned by the highest US officials is far
more disturbing than any conspiracy theories
about secret teams or rogue operations.

Black leaders must move beyond criticism of
the Contra involvement in drug trafficking to
questioning a foreign policy that shows little
regard for democratic processes or the
interests of the poor and working people in
the developing world. It is not enough that
those involved in drug dealing be brought to
justice an unlikely prospect at this point.
What is essential is an overhaul of the
mission and practices of US intelligence

It is also time to renew the call for major
reform of the nation's drug laws. The current
laws and policing practices are racially
discriminatory in regard to arrest patterns,
sentencing, imposition of mandatory minimums,
crack-powder sentencing discrepancy, and
punitive character of laws such as the "three
strikes and you're out" provisions in a number
of state and federal statutes.

It is also important to reiterate the demand
that education and treatment access be given a
higher priority in the federal drug budget.
Under Reagan and Bush, 70 percent was aimed at
law enforcement while only 30 percent was
focused on education, prevention, and
treatment.Under Clinton, two-thirds of the
budget is still focused on law enforcement.41

In this presidential election year, both
parties played the game of who was toughest on
crime, and neither raised concerns about
increasing treatment monies or the racialized
nature of the nation's drug crisis and drug
war. If the concerns raised by the Mercury
News series are to be answered, then these
reforms are only just the beginning. n

CAQ (CovertAction Quarterly) has won numerous
awards for investigative journalism. In 1996, it won 4
of "Project Censored" top 25 awards for investigative
reporting. CAQ is read around the world by
investigative reporters, activists, scholars,
intelligence buffs, news junkies,
and anyone who wants to know the news and
analysis behind the soundbites and headlines.
Recommended by Noam Chomsky;
targeted by the CIA.

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