Foreign Policy News Stories
The United States and its Contra-Drug Connection
SYNOPSIS: Though mounting evidence, with substantive and alarming
implications in terms of U.S. foreign policy and the Reagan Administration's
propriety, pointed to a large-scale contra/CIA drug smuggling
network, most of the major U.S. media under-reported it in 1987.
Testimony by convicted drug smugglers as well as private citizens
for CBS's West 58th Street program, along with the Christic Institute's
federal lawsuit under the RICO statute and before congressional
committees, provided a startling picture of large-scale drug trafficking
under the auspices of the U.S. government/contra supply network.
According to the Christic Institute (a Washington, D.C., based
interfaith legal foundation), "Contra narcotics smuggling
stretches from cocaine plantations in Colombia, to dirt airstrips
in Costa Rica, to pseudo-seafood companies in Miami, and finally,
to the drug-ridden streets of our society." The Christic
Institute's investigation, sanctioned by the U.S. Attorney's Office
in Miami, provided evidence supporting allegations that
1) a major "guns-for-drugs" operation existed between
North, Central, and South America that helped finance the contra
2) the contra leadership received direct funding and other
support from major narcotics traffickers;
3) some contra leaders were directly involved in drug trafficking;
4) U.S. government funds for the contras went to known narcotics
5) the CIA helped Miami-based drug traffickers smuggle their
illicit cargo into the U.S. in exchange for their help in arming
UPDATE: Despite nearly a decade of charges about the CIA and
its contra drug smuggling connection, mainstream media failed
to put the issue on the national agenda. Finally, starting on
August 18, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published an extraordinary
three-part series that confirmed the story.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, newly declassified federal
reports, court testimony, and interviews, investigative journalist
Gary Webb of the Mercury News, revealed the contra drug smuggling
network, exposed the CIA's role, and made an important connection
between the flawed foreign policy of Reagan and Bush in the 1980s
and America's drug-devastated streets of today.
Anyone who wants to understand how crack cocaine became the
scourge of America's urban centers during the greatest crackdown
on drugs in history, is urged to read the Mercury News series,
available in libraries and on the Internet at www.sjmercury.com/drugs/.
The Mercury News series prompted long overdue investigations by
the CIA, Justice Department, Congress and the mass media. Not
surprisingly, three of the nation's largest newspapers-The New
York Times (10/21/96), the Washington Post (10/4/96), and the
Los Angeles Times (10/20/96)-which hadn't investigated and reported
the original charges by the Christic Institute, were quick to
investigate and report the Mercury News charges in a transparent
effort to discredit them. The old "not exposed here"
process is embarrassingly evident in these belated efforts.
Ironically, on May 11, 1997, Jerry Ceppos, executive editor
of the Mercury News, published a column saying the paper made
mistakes in its "Dark Alliance" series and that he did
"not believe that top CIA officials knew of the relationship."
Series author Webb disagreed and said he stood by his stories
(San Francisco Examiner, 5/12/97). The Internet series is now
prefaced by a statement directing readers to the May 11 column
for "an understanding of this document or story." In
July 1997, Webb told Project Censored he was taken off investigative
reporting and exiled to Cupertino, a small community west of San
Biased Coverage of the Arias Peace Plan by America's Press
SYNOPSIS: On August 7, 1987, five Central American nations-Costa
Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua-made international
history when they signed a regional peace proposal that was authored
by Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias.
The proposal, known as the Arias Peace Plan, set specific
guidelines and target dates for each nation to comply with in
order to stabilize Central America and bring peace to the region.
Two separate studies monitoring U.S. press coverage of the
Arias plan revealed a startling bias in how America's leading
newspapers covered the region following the historic August 7
The Media Alliance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization
of media professionals, monitored stories about the peace plan
that appeared in seven major dailies-The New York Times, Los Angeles
Times, Christian Science Monitor, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco
Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and the Oakland Tribune. More
than 80 percent of the articles published during the first six
months after the pact focused almost entirely on Nicaragua-the
Reagan Administration's demands on Nicaragua's Sandinista government,
the prospects for renewed contra aid, or the extent to which Nicaragua
was abiding by the Arias plan. Mean while serious human rights
problems and violations of the plan by the governments of El Salvador,
Honduras, and Guatemala went largely unreported.
The other study by the New York-based Fairness and Accuracy
In Reporting (FAIR), a national media watchdog group, concluded
the peace accord set off a U.S. media reaction that "showed
once again the extent to which White House assumptions are shared
by the national press corps" and how "Reagan's obsession
with Nicaragua has turned into a media obsession." FAIR's
90-day analysis of The New York Times found that The Times devoted
three times as many column inches of news space to events in Nicaragua
than it did to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador combined.
UPDATE: The mainstream American news media did not provide
adequate coverage of Oscar Arias and his peace plan for Central
America. Nevertheless, Arias, who served as president of Costa
Rica from 1986 until 1990, gained international prominence for
his efforts at conflict resolution in Central America. The Arias
Peace Plan set in motion the process by which cease-fire talks
were started and rebels laid down their arms in exchange for amnesty
in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The Arias plan was criticized by the Reagan Administration,
which called it "fatally flawed." The Nobel prize committee
didn't think so and awarded Arias the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987
(The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 4/19/94). Since leaving office, Arias
has worked as president of the Fundacion Arias which is dedicated
to promoting world peace.
Dumping Our Toxic Wastes on the Third World
SYNOPSIS: Exporting our hazardous and toxic wastes to Third
World countries is a growth industry. The exported material includes
heavy metal residues and chemical-contaminated wastes, pharmaceutical
refuse, and municipal sewage sludge and incinerator ash. The risks
involved for countries that accept our wastes range from contamination
of groundwater and crops to birth defects and cancer.
Traditionally, the majority of U.S. toxic waste exports have
gone to Canada, where regulations are less stringent than in the
U.S. But now the most abrupt increase is in shipments to the Third
World where the regulations are either nonexistent or loosely
Creating the search for new overseas markets is an explosion
in the volume of recorded hazardous wastes being produced in the
U.S. According to the General Accounting Office, the amount rose
from about nine million metric tons in 1970 to at least 247 million
in 1984; other experts place the current figure closer to 400
million metric tons.
U.S. officials, aware of the sensitive legal and foreign policy
questions involved, are reluctant to crack down on illegal dumpers
and, in fact, the government itself is responsible for generating
a significant portion of the hazardous waste exports. One large
illegal operation broken up last year received more than half
its toxic wastes from various branches of the federal government,
mainly the military.
The key U.S. government officials responsible for monitoring
waste traffic claim they are powerless, saying that once the waste
leaves the country they can't do anything about it.
UPDATE: When the United States stopped shipping toxic wastes
to Canada, it looked to Africa and Central America as new dump
sites for its waste. However, as the Singapore Straits Times reported
(6/21/95), these Third World countries became aware of the potential
hazards of importing toxic wastes and started fighting back. In
1986, only three countries had banned waste imports; by 1989,
the number had risen to 103. As a result, Asia became the final
frontier for the West to dispose of its waste. Between 1990 and
1993, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, and Britain shipped
more than 5.4 million tons of toxic wastes to countries in Asia.
On May 31, 1996, the Xinhzla News Agency reported that China
accused the United States of illegally dumping trash near Beijing
and filed a protest to the secretariat of the Basel Convention,
the body that monitors the international agreement on the transfer
of hazardous wastes. Xing Demao, director of the Bureau for Inspection
for Shandong province, asked, "Why do some countries strictly
control export of their advanced technology and equipment but
openly permit the export of harmful waste they produced?"
(San Francisco Chronicle, 6/1/96)
In 1995, the United Nations approved amendments to the 1989
Basel Convention that will bar export of hazardous waste from
industrial to developing countries by the end of 1997. The ban
was enacted despite protests from the U.S. and some other industrialized
countries (Journal of Commerce, 9/25/95).
Torture in El Salvador: A Censored Report from Mariona Prison
SYNOPSIS: In late 1986, a 165-page report was smuggled out
of the Mariona men's prison in El Salvador. The report was compiled
by five imprisoned members of the Human Rights Commission of El
Salvador (CDHES). The report documented the "routine"
and "systematic" use of at least 40 kinds of torture
on political prisoners in El Salvador.
The report made three main points: first, torture is systematic,
not random; second, the methods of torture are becoming more clever;
and finally, it is part of the U.S. counterinsurgency program
there-with U.S. servicemen often acting as supervisors.
The Marin Interfaith Task Force of Mill Valley, California,
assembled the smuggled report from Mariona prison into a document
titled "Torture in El Salvador" and distributed it to
major newspapers and other mainstream media nationally.
Only one newspaper gave the actual report substantial coverage.
The San Francisco Examiner ran two articles by freelance journalist
Ron Ridenhour, who quoted State Department spokesman James Callahan
as saying the CDHES, the only Salvadoran human rights group recognized
by the United Nations, is a communist "front organization.
UPDATE: Herbert Anaya, the head of El Salvador's nongovernmental
Human Rights Commission (HRC) and one of the five prisoners who
compiled the Mariona Prison report, was assassinated on October
26, 1987. He was the fourth member of the HRC to be killed since
it was founded in 1978; at least three others have disappeared
and are presumed dead (Washington Post, 10/28/87). During the
civil war there were a number of efforts by the guerrillas to
storm Mariona Prison in an effort to release political prisoners.
One of the most successful occurred June 17, 1991, when rebels
blasted a huge hole in the side of the prison allowing 132 prisoners
to escape (Chicago Tribune, 6/19/91). Unfortunately, the end of
El Salvador's civil war on January 16, 1992, did not end the horrors
of Mariona Prison. A recent report by Human Rights Watch cites
"horrendous overcrowding, rampant violence, insufficient
food, and primitive sanitary conditions." Mariona Prison,
built to house 800 prisoners, now holds 2,381 and has taken on
the look of a crowded slum (The Washington Post, 6/25/96).