What would you do if your friendly drug dealer had links to the CIA?
And how would you react if “Mr. Pusher” wasn’t friendly after all, and he was using his drug profits to fund a right-wing war in Nicaragua?
Well, in 1996, then San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that touched on this subject. The fallout led Webb, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, to quit the Mercury News.
But first the background. In 1979, the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. The fall of this Central American military regime led to an exodus of Somoza supporters from Nicaragua. Two of those exiled were Oscar Danilo Blandon and Juan Norwin Meneses -- but more on them later.
When Ronald Reagan came to power in the 1980 U.S. presidential election he decided to fight the Sandinistas. Nicaragua, Reagan vowed, would not become another Cuba.
So the CIA was given the task of engaging in a covert war against the new Nicaraguan government. In the process, men like Enrique Bermudez, a military official under Somoza, were put on the CIA payroll.
Bermudez was chosen by Washington to lead the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest of several anti-communist groups commonly called the contras.
It wasn’t long before Blandon and Meneses, who was already known as a notorious drug dealer in Nicaragua during the Somoza regime, met Bermudez in Honduras.
“There is a saying that the ends justify the means,” Blandon testified during a cocaine-trafficking trial in San Diego in the mid-1990s. “And that's what Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money for the contra revolution.”
The way they raised money was by selling cocaine.
Enter Ricky Ross, a black drug dealer which the Los Angeles Times described as the man responsible for flooding LA with coke.
Sometime in 1982, Blandon started selling cocaine to Ross, who in turn sold the drug to gangs known as the Bloods and Crips, wrote Webb.
Ross, Webb has said, had no idea of the political leanings of his suppliers. All he knew was that he was getting tonnes of cocaine at cheap prices.
Now, while Ross was hooking up with Blandon people on the street started talking about a new thing called “rock.” Up to now, cocaine’s high price limited its use to rich folk. The genius of “rock”, however, was that it could be sold in small quantities at affordable prices. So Ross started to sell rock.
The result: instead of spending a hundred dollars for a gram of coke, you could now buy as little as a dollar hit of crack. The consequences were devastating: the Crips and Bloods made a fortune selling the new drug; this fortune allowed them to buy a huge arsenal of weapons; California neighbourhoods were flooded with crack and violence; the crack trade begins to expand across the United States; the destructive impact of crack wrecks havoc on an entire generation; jail terms puts countless street dealers in jail.
As Webb said in a speech in 1999: “This CIA-connected drug ring played a very critical role in the early 1980s in opening up South Central (Los Angeles) to a crack epidemic that was unmatched in its severity and influence anywhere in the U.S.”
I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a news story to me. Ditto for Webb, who published his series in 1996.
Then something strange happened. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times attacked his work. Others dismissed him as a nut. CBC television even had a short item for the National that contained a dismissive tone.
But guess what? Webb was no loon. Following the publication of the Mercury News series, the CIA, Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Justice Department did internal reviews of the damning allegations. It turns out that government officials were aware that drugs were being sold to fund the Contras.
Unfortunately for Webb, the mainstream press attacked him so much that his editors at the Mercury News got nervous. He ended up leaving the paper and now works as a consultant for the California government.
The moral of this story?
“You can’t believe the government on anything,” Webb said in his 1999 speech. “The other thing is that the media will believe the government before they believe anything.”