The CIA, Contras, Gangs, and Crack
by William Blum
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
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 into crack.
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:
0. CIA-supplied 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 agency.
0. When Danilo 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 the CIA.
0. Although Norwin 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.
0. Senate 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 30_year 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
The foregoing 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
The Nationalist 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
1950s to early 1970s, Indochina
During U.S. 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
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'
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
Another Costa 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
The contras 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 leaders.18
1980s to early 1990s, Afghanistan
CIA-supported 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
1 Gary Webb, "Dark Alliance"
series, San Jose Mercury News. Beginning August 18, 1996.
2 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
3 Peter Dale Scott & Jonathan Marshall,
Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) pp. x-xi.
4 Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin
in Southeast Asia (New York City, New York: Harper & Row,
1972, chapter 2).
5 Christopher Robbins, Air America (New
York City, New York: Avon Books, 1985) chapter 9. McCoy, Politics
6 McCoy, Politics of Heroin, chapter 9.
7 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.
8 Scott & 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).
9 "Kerry 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, 36, 41.
10 Martha Honey, Hostile Acts: U.S. Policy
in Costa Rica in the 1980s (Gainesville, Florida: University Press
of Florida, 1994).
11 Martha Honey and David Myers, "U.S.
Probing Drug Agent's Activities in Costa Rica," San Francisco
Chronicle, August 14, 1991.
12 Honey, Hostile Acts.
13 Frank Smyth, "In Guatemala, The
DEA Fights the CIA", New Republic, June 5, 1995; Blum, Killing
Hope, p. 239.
14 Martha Honey, "Drug Figure Says
Cartel Gave Drugs to Contras" Washington Post, June 30, 1987.
15 Kerry report, Drugs.
16 Scott & Marshall, Cocaine Politics,
17 Scott & Marshall, Cocaine Politics;
Waas, "Cocaine and the White House"; NSA, The Contras.
18 New York Times, Nov. 14, 1993; The
Nation, Oct. 3, 1994, p. 346.
19 Blum, Killing Hope, p. 351; Tim Weiner,
Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget (New York City, New York:
Warner Books, 1990) pp. 151-2.
20 Los Angeles Times, Aug. 22, 1993
William Blum page