Case You Missed It
Contras, Gangs, and Crack
William Blum, a Washington, DC based writer on foreign
policy and intelligence matters. Author of Killing Hope:
U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.
Editors: Tom Barry
(IRC) and Martha Honey
1996 -- - "FPIF"
-- - In August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News
initiated an extended series of articles linking the CIA's
"contra" army to the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles.1
Based on a year-long investigation, reporter Gary Webb wrote
that during the 1980s the CIA helped finance its covert war
against Nicaragua's leftist government through sales of
cut-rate cocaine to South Central L.A. drug dealer, Ricky
Ross. The series unleashed a storm of protest, spearheaded
by black radio stations and the congressional Black Caucus,
with demands for official inquiries. The Mercury News'
Web page, with supporting documents and updates, received
hundreds of thousands of "hits" a day.
While much of the
CIA-contra-drug story had been revealed years ago in the press
and in congressional hearings, the Mercury News series
added a crucial missing link: It followed the cocaine trail to
Ross and black L.A. gangs who became street-level distributors
of crack, a cheap and powerful form of cocaine. The CIA's drug
network, wrote Webb, "opened the first pipeline between
Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los
Angeles, a city now known as the 'crack' capital of the world."
Black gangs used their profits to buy automatic weapons,
sometimes from one of the CIA-linked drug dealers.
CIA Director John
Deutch declared that he found "no connection whatsoever" between
the CIA and cocaine traffickers. And major media--the New
York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post--have
run long pieces refuting the Mercury News series. They
deny that Bay Area-based Nicaraguan drug dealers, Juan Norwin
Meneses and Oscar Danilo Blandon, worked for the CIA or
contributed "millions in drug profits" to the contras, as Webb
contended. They also note that neither Ross nor the gangs were
the first or sole distributors of crack in L.A. Webb, however,
did not claim this. He wrote that the huge influx of cocaine
happened to come at just the time that street-level drug dealers
were figuring out how to make cocaine affordable by changing it
Many in the media
have also postulated that any drug-trafficking contras involved
were "rogue" elements, not supported by the CIA. But these
denials overlook much of the Mercury News' evidence of
CIA complicity. For example:
contra planes and pilots carried cocaine from Central
America to U.S. airports and military bases. In 1985, Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Celerino Castillo
reported to his superiors that cocaine was being stored at
the CIA's contra-supply warehouse at Ilopango Air Force Base
in El Salvador for shipment to the U.S.2 The DEA
did nothing, and Castillo was gradually forced out of the
Blandón was finally arrested in 1986, he admitted to drug
crimes that would have sent others away for life. The
Justice Department, however, freed Blandón after only 28
months behind bars and then hired him as a full-time DEA
informant, paying him more than $166,000. When Blandón
testified in a 1996 trial against Ricky Ross, the Justice
Department blocked any inquiry about Blandón's connection to
Meneses is listed in DEA computers as a major international
drug smuggler implicated in 45 separate federal
investigations since 1974, he lived conspicuously in
California until 1989 and was never arrested in the U.S.
investigators and agents from four organizations all
complained that their contra-drug investigations "were
hampered," Webb wrote, "by the CIA or unnamed 'national
security' interests." In the 1984 "Frogman Case," for
instance, the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco returned
$36,800 seized from a Nicaraguan drug dealer after two
contra leaders sent letters to the court arguing that the
cash was intended for the contras. Federal prosecutors
ordered the letter and other case evidence sealed for
"national security" reasons. When Senate investigators later
asked the Justice Department to explain this unusual turn of
events, they ran into a wall of secrecy.
History of CIA
Involvement in Drug Trafficking
"In my 30year
history in the Drug Enforcement Administration and related
agencies, the major targets of my investigations almost
invariably turned out to be working for the CIA." -- Dennis
Dayle, former chief of an elite DEA enforcement unit.3
discussion should not be regarded as any kind of historical
aberration inasmuch as the CIA has had a long and virtually
continuous involvement with drug trafficking since the end of
World War II.
1947 to 1951, France
CIA arms, money,
and disinformation enabled Corsican criminal syndicates in
Marseille to wrest control of labor unions from the Communist
Party. The Corsicans gained political influence and control over
the docks--ideal conditions for cementing a long-term
partnership with mafia drug distributors, which turned Marseille
into the postwar heroin capital of the Western world.
Marseille's first heroin laboratories were opened in 1951, only
months after the Corsicans took over the waterfront.4
Early 1950s, Southeast Asia
Chinese army, organized by the CIA to wage war against Communist
China, became the opium baron of The Golden Triangle (parts of
Burma, Thailand, and Laos), the world's largest source of opium
and heroin. Air America, the CIA's principal proprietary
airline, flew the drugs all over Southeast Asia.5
1950s to early 1970s, Indochina
military involvement in Laos and other parts of Indochina, Air
America flew opium and heroin throughout the area. Many GI's in
Vietnam became addicts. A laboratory built at CIA headquarters
in northern Laos was used to refine heroin. After a decade of
American military intervention, Southeast Asia had become the
source of 70 percent of the world's illicit opium and the major
supplier of raw materials for America's booming heroin market.6
1973 to 1980, Australia
The Nugan Hand Bank
of Sydney was a CIA bank in all but name. Among its officers
were a network of U.S. generals, admirals, and CIA
men--including former CIA Director William Colby, who was also
one of its lawyers. With branches in Saudi Arabia, Europe,
Southeast Asia, South America, and the U.S., Nugan Hand Bank
financed drug trafficking, money laundering, and international
arms dealing. In 1980, amidst several mysterious deaths, the
bank collapsed, $50 million in debt.7
1970s and 1980s, Panama
For more than a
decade, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was a highly paid
CIA asset and collaborator, despite knowledge by U.S. drug
authorities as early as 1971 that the general was heavily
involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Noriega
facilitated "guns-for-drugs" flights for the contras, providing
protection and pilots, safe havens for drug cartel officials,
and discreet banking facilities. U.S. officials, including
then-CIA Director William Webster and several DEA officers, sent
Noriega letters of praise for efforts to thwart drug trafficking
(albeit only against competitors of his Medellín cartel
patrons). The U.S. government only turned against Noriega,
invading Panama in December 1989 and kidnapping the general,
once they discovered he was providing intelligence and services
to the Cubans and Sandinistas. Ironically, drug trafficking
through Panama increased after the U.S. invasion.8
1980s, Central America
The San Jose
Mercury News series documents just one thread of the
interwoven operations linking the CIA, the contras, and the
cocaine cartels. Obsessed with overthrowing the leftist
Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Reagan administration
officials tolerated drug trafficking as long as the traffickers
gave support to the contras. In 1989, the Senate Subcommittee on
Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations (the Kerry
committee) concluded a three-year investigation by stating:
"There was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the
war zones on the part of individual contras, contra suppliers,
contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the contras, and
contra supporters throughout the region. . . . U.S. officials
involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for
fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua. . . . In
each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had
information regarding the involvement either while it was
occurring, or immediately thereafter. . . . Senior U.S. policy
makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect
solution to the contras' funding problems."9
In Costa Rica,
which served as the "Southern Front" for the contras (Honduras
being the Northern Front), there were several CIA-contra
networks involved in drug trafficking. In addition to those
servicing the Meneses-Blandon operation (detailed by the
Mercury News) and Noriega's operation, there was CIA
operative John Hull, whose farms along Costa Rica's border with
Nicaragua were the main staging area for the contras. Hull and
other CIA-connected contra supporters and pilots teamed up with
George Morales, a major Miami-based Colombian drug trafficker
who later admitted to giving $3 million in cash and several
planes to contra leaders.10 In 1989, after the Costa
Rica government indicted Hull for drug trafficking, a DEA-hired
plane clandestinely and illegally flew the CIA operative to
Miami, via Haiti. The U.S. repeatedly thwarted Costa Rican
efforts to extradite Hull to Costa Rica to stand trial.11
Rican-based drug ring involved a group of Cuban Americans whom
the CIA had hired as military trainers for the contras. Many had
long been involved with the CIA and drug trafficking. They used
contra planes and a Costa Rican-based shrimp company, which
laundered money for the CIA, to channel cocaine to the U.S.12
Costa Rica was not
the only route. Guatemala, whose military intelligence
service--closely associated with the CIA--harbored many drug
traffickers, according to the DEA, was another way station along
the cocaine highway.13 Additionally, the Medellín
cartel's Miami accountant, Ramon Milian Rodriguez, testified
that he funneled nearly $10 million to Nicaraguan contras
through long-time CIA operative Felix Rodriguez, who was based
at Ilopango Air Force Base in El Salvador.14
provided both protection and infrastructure (planes, pilots,
airstrips, warehouses, front companies, and banks) to these
CIA-linked drug networks. At least four transport companies
under investigation for drug trafficking received U.S.
government contracts to carry nonlethal supplies to the contras.15
Southern Air Transport, "formerly" CIA-owned and later under
Pentagon contract, was involved in the drug running as well.16
Cocaine-laden planes flew to Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and
other locations, including several military bases. Designated as
"Contra Craft," these shipments were not to be inspected. When
some authority wasn't apprised and made an arrest, powerful
strings were pulled to result in dropping the case, acquittal,
reduced sentence, or deportation.17
Mid-1980s to early 1990s, Haiti
While working to
keep key Haitian military and political leaders in power, the
CIA turned a blind eye to their clients' drug trafficking. In
1986, the Agency added some more names to its payroll by
creating a new Haitian organization, the National Intelligence
Service (SIN). SIN's mandate included countering the cocaine
trade, though SIN officers themselves engaged in trafficking, a
trade aided and abetted by some Haitian military and political
1980s to early 1990s, Afghanistan
Moujahedeen rebels engaged heavily in drug trafficking while
fighting the Soviet-supported government, which had plans to
reform Afghan society. The Agency's principal client was
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the leading drug lords and the
biggest heroin refiner, who was also the largest recipient of
CIA military support. CIA-supplied trucks and mules that had
carried arms into Afghanistan were used to transport opium to
laboratories along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The output
provided up to one-half of the heroin used annually in the
United States and three-quarters of that used in Western Europe.
U.S. officials admitted in 1990 that they had failed to
investigate or take action against the drug operation because of
a desire not to offend their Pakistani and Afghan allies.19
In 1993, an official of the DEA dubbed Afghanistan the new
Colombia of the drug world.20
Webb, "Dark Alliance" series, San Jose Mercury News.
Beginning August 18, 1996.
Celerino Castillo, Powder Burns: Cocaine, Contras and the
Drug War (Mosaic Press, 1994). Los Angeles Times
lengthy series of articles, October 20, 21, 22, 1996. Roberto
Suro and Walter Pincus, "The CIA and Crack: Evidence is Lacking
of Alleged Plot" (Washington Post, October 4, 1996).
Howard Kurtz, "Running with the CIA Story" (Washington Post,
October 2, 1996). Douglas Farah and Walter Pincus "CIA, Contras
and Drugs: Questions on Links Linger" (Washington Post,
October 31, 1996). Tim Golden,"Though Evidence is Thin, Tale of
CIA and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own" (New York Times,
October 21, 1996).
Dale Scott & Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs,
Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1991) pp. x-xi.
W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New
York City, New York: Harper & Row, 1972, chapter 2).
Christopher Robbins, Air America (New York City, New
York: Avon Books, 1985) chapter 9. McCoy, Politics of Heroin.
Politics of Heroin, chapter 9.
Robbins, Air America, p. 128 and chapter 9. Jonathan
Kwitny, The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty
Money and the CIA (New York City, New York: W.W. Norton &
Co., 1987). William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA
Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1995) p. 420, note 33.
& Marshall, Cocaine Politics; John Dinges, Our Man in Panama
(NY, New York: Random House, 1991); Murray Waas, "Cocaine and
the White House Connection", Los Angeles Weekly, Sept.
30-Oct. 6 and Oct. 7-13, 1988; National Security Archive
Documentation Packet: The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert
Operations (Washington, DC).
Report": Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, a Report of
the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on
Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, 1989, pp. 2,
Martha Honey, Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the
1980s (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida,
Martha Honey and David Myers, "U.S. Probing Drug Agent's
Activities in Costa Rica," San Francisco Chronicle,
August 14, 1991.
Honey, Hostile Acts.
Smyth, "In Guatemala, The DEA Fights the CIA", New Republic,
June 5, 1995; Blum, Killing Hope, p. 239.
Martha Honey, "Drug Figure Says Cartel Gave Drugs to Contras"
Washington Post, June 30, 1987.
& Marshall, Cocaine Politics, pp. 17-18.
& Marshall, Cocaine Politics; Waas, "Cocaine and the
White House"; NSA, The Contras.
New York Times, Nov. 14, 1993; The Nation, Oct. 3,
1994, p. 346.
Killing Hope, p. 351; Tim Weiner, Blank Check: The
Pentagon's Black Budget (New York City, New York: Warner
Books, 1990) pp. 151-2.
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 1993
Sources for more
World Wide Web
Gelman Library, Ste. 7012130 H Street NW
Washington, DC 20037
Voice: (202) 994-7000
Contact: Peter Kornbluh
330 Cannon House Building
Washington, DC 20515
Voice: (202) 225-2201
Contact: Joseph Lee
1500 Mass Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20005
Voice: (202) 331-9763
Fax: (202) 331-9751
Contact: Terry Allen
110 Maryland Ave. NE Box 15
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 546-7010
Fax: (202) 543-7647
Contact: Lisa Hargaard
"North Didn't Relay Drug Tips", The Washington Post, Oct.
22, 1994, p. 1.
Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World
War II (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995).
with David Harmon, Powder Burns: Cocaine, Contras and the
Drug War (Mosaic Press, 1994).
John Dinges, Our
Man in Panama (New York City, NY: Random House, 1991).
Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy in Costa Rica in the 1980s
(Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1994).
Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign
Policy, December 1988.
The Crimes of Patriots: A True Tale of Dope, Dirty Money and the
CIA (New York City, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987).
Alfred W. McCoy,
The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York, NY:
Harper & Row, 1972).
Pipe Dream Blues: Racism and the War on Drugs (Boston: South End
Archive, Documentation Packet: The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert
Operations (Washington, D.C. October 1996).
Robbins, Air America (New York City, New York: Avon
Peter Dale Scott &
Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the
CIA in Central America (Berkeley, California: University of
CA Press, 1991).
"Cocaine and the White House Connection", Los Angeles Weekly,
Sept. 30-Oct. 6 and Oct. 7-13, 1988.
Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget (New York City, New
York: Warner Books, 1990).
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