Pubdate: 24 January 1999
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Fax: 213-237-4712
Copyright: 1999 Los Angeles Times.

DARK ALLIANCE: The Cia, The Contras, And The Crack Cocaine Explosion 
By Gary Webb; (Seven Stories Press: 548 pp., $24.95)

Gary Webb is a man on a mission. The series he wrote for the San Jose
Mercury News two years ago alleging that the CIA-backed Nicaraguan 
Contras helped ignite the nation's crack explosion set off its own 
outburst of indignation and dismay. Radio talk shows burned up long 
hours discussing the story, and the Mercury News' Web site received 
more than 1 million hits a day. Both California senators wrote CIA 
Director John Deutch demanding an inquiry, and Deutch eventually 
agreed to conduct one. Webb seemed well on his way to winning a  Pulitzer.

Then came the counterattack. The Los Angeles Times, New York
Times and Washington Post ran long articles questioning Webb's  findings.
Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos, conducting his  own
investigation, decided to run a front-page column backing off  the series.
Webb was exiled to a distant suburban bureau and then  left the paper.
Seething at the treatment he'd received, he  determinedly set out to
vindicate himself. The result is "Dark  Alliance," a densely researched,
passionately argued, acronym-laden  548-page volume. Its combative,
unyielding tone is apparent from the  first page. " 'Dark Alliance,' " Webb
writes, "does not propound a  conspiracy theory; there is nothing
theoretical about history. In  this case, it is undeniable that a wildly
successful conspiracy to  import cocaine existed for many years, and that
innumerable American  citizens--most of them poor and black--paid an
enormous price as  well."       

Is "Dark Alliance" more history or conspiracy theory? To answer  this, it's
necessary to assess the book's three main claims: that  the Nicaraguan
Contras were involved in drug
trafficking; that the  CIA knew about, condoned and even encouraged this
trafficking; and  finally that this trafficking helped set off the crack
epidemic in  South-Central Los Angeles and, by extension, the rest of the
country. Webb focuses on the activities of two Nicaraguan  traffickers
operating in the United States: Norwin Meneses, an  alleged importer of
cocaine from the Cali cartel; and Danilo  Blandon, Meneses' main distributor
in Los Angeles. Relying on court  documents, interviews with undercover
agents and a meeting with  Meneses himself in a Nicaraguan prison, Webb
contends that both men  supported the Contras and gave them part of their
trafficking  revenues at a time when that group was strapped for cash.
Though the  sums involved are in question--Webb puts the figure in the
millions  of dollars, his critics in the tens of thousands--he seems on
solid  ground in arguing that money from Nicaraguan traffickers ended up in
Contra coffers. This also happens to be Webb's least original point;  in the
late 1980s, congressional hearings led by Sen. John Kerry  (D-Mass.) firmly

established connections between the Contras and  drug traffickers.

As to how much the CIA knew about or approved of these activities,
Webb notes that Blandon and Meneses met with prominent  Contra leaders
like Enrique Bermudez and Adolfo Calero, both of whom  were on the CIA
payroll. He also describes the activities of a  number of shadowy
figures who, while supplying arms and other  assistance to the
Contras, seemed to have been smuggling drugs as  well. In no case,
however, does Webb demonstrate that the CIA was  involved in or
sanctioned these activities. What does seem clear,  from Webb's
account and the CIA's own investigation, is that many  agency
officials heard allegations of Contra-linked drug activity  but did
little to intervene. As CIA Inspector Gen. Fred Hitz told Congress in
1998 (as quoted by Webb), "There are instances where CIA  did not, in
an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off  relationships with
individuals supporting the Contra program who  were alleged to have
engaged in drug trafficking activity."       

This, to Webb, is shocking. Of one Contra faction involved in  drug
smuggling, for
instance, he writes, "why the CIA was so eager  to promote such a
drug-tainted organization as UDN-FARN is one of  the enduring
mysteries of the Contra War." This seems naive. In  Central America in
the 1980s, the CIA had one overriding goal--defeating communism--and
everything else was secondary. In the  drive to overthrow the
Sandinistas, the CIA overlooked political  assassinations,
disappearances, massacres, torture and rape. Is it  really so
surprising, then, that it would overlook drug trafficking  as well?   
Of course, if that trafficking could be shown to have caused a 
drug epidemic, that would be news indeed, and it is here, in  charging
that the CIA and the Contras helped set off the nation's  crack
explosion, that Webb's analysis is most controversial--and  most
shaky. In Webb's telling, Blandon in the early 1980s began  selling
large quantities of cocaine to Ricky Ross, an enterprising  young Los
Angeles dealer. Nicknamed "Freeway Rick" (after the Freeway Motor Inn,
a hotel he bought with his drug profits), Ross  quickly gained control
of South-Central's burgeoning crack trade. 

He  became so big that he began supplying other dealers, including  members
of L.A. street gangs, who in turn started distributing the  drug. "As the
South-Central crack market became saturated," Webb  writes, "Ross'
gang customers started traveling to other cities in  California to
make their fortunes, setting up new crack markets and  using their
connections with Ross to supply them. It was the start  of an
unprecedented cross-country migration by the Crips, and later  the
Bloods, which would spread crack from South-Central to other black
neighborhoods across the United States."       

All this, Webb insists, is traceable to Ross and his  Contra-linked
supplier, Blandon.
Regarding one of the most vexing  aspects of the whole crack
phenomenon--why the drug took root mainly  in the black ghetto--Webb
asserts that the explanation "seems obvious" once the Blandon-Ross
partnership is taken into account.

"There was no market until we created it," Webb quotes Ross as 
saying. "We started in our neighborhood and we stayed in our 
neighborhood. We almost never went outside it. If people wanted  dope,
they came to us." In other words, the crack epidemic--a calamitous
event that in  a few short years engulfed the nation's inner cities
and decimated a  generation of African Americans--can, in Webb's view,
be pinned on a  lone Nicaraguan supplying a single Los Angeles dealer
over a one-or  two-year period. Such a simplistic analysis is belied
by Webb's own  reporting. At one point, for instance, he notes that
one of crack's  big advantages over powder cocaine was that it
democratized cocaine  not only for users but for dealers as well. It
didn't take a large  investment anymore to call yourself a player.
With sellers popping  up on every street corner, Ross faced vigorous

competition. It is  thus misleading to maintain, as Webb does, that
Ross headed a crack  "cartel" in Los Angeles; the market was far too

Moreover, it's clear that Blandon was but one of many distributors
supplying that market. Webb quotes a police detective  who, citing
information from two informants, says that "the blacks  were getting
their cocaine from three Colombians and 'a fourth  peripheral source.'
Two of the Colombians they knew only by  nickname; the 'peripheral
source' they knew quite well: Danilo  Blandon." Rather than draw the
obvious conclusion--that Blandon was  a minor player in a market
controlled by Colombians--Webb insists on  focusing narrowly on
Blandon, the Nicaraguan connection.

The farther one gets from South-Central, the less important the
Ross-Blandon connection seems. Crack initially appeared in four 
cities: New York, Miami, Detroit and Los Angeles. In none of these 
three other cities did Ross or the Bloods or the L.A. street gangs 
play a part. Beginning in 1986, crack began seeping out from these 
enclaves into neighboring towns and cities and, while L.A. gang 
members helped spread the drug, so did Dominicans, Jamaicans, 
Haitians, Guyanese, Mexicans, Cubans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans and 
many non-gang-affiliated black Americans. What's more, all of these 
carriers were simply middlemen; in the end, it was the Colombians, 
operating out of the great trafficking centers of Medellin and Cali, 
who controlled the flow of cocaine into the United States. To maintain
against this backdrop that the Contras and the CIA played a  key part
in spreading crack seems a grab for headlines.

Sensational claims abound in "Dark Alliance." At one point, for
instance, Webb cites a Colombian trafficker who "claimed to have a 
picture of [George] Bush posing with Medellin cartel leader Jorge 
Ochoa, in front of suitcases full of money." According to the 
trafficker, Pablo Escobar, another Medellin leader, said he would 
make the photo public at the "appropriate time." "By 1993," Webb 
writes, "Escobar was dead, killed in a shootout with Colombian 
police, and Jorge Ochoa was in jail. The photos, if they ever 
existed, were never heard of again." That Webb would even entertain 
such an outlandish claim raises questions about his judgment.

Webb's overall thesis--that the CIA helped set off America's crack
explosion--seems fantastic. Like most drug epidemics, crack  arose
from a tragic confluence of circumstances: the growing  appetite of
Americans for cocaine in the late 1970s; the ability of  Colombian
traffickers to smuggle tons of the drug into the United  States,
causing a sharp decline in its price; the change in cocaine  usage
patterns away from sniffing toward smoking; the discovery of a  quick
and easy means of producing smokable cocaine; and, finally,  the
existence of a large market in the inner city for a cheap,  instant
and powerful high. In the end, it was this last factor--the  growing
desperation of black Americans in the mid-1980s--that made  the crack
epidemic possible.

Some of these points were made in the newspaper critiques of Webb's
series in the Mercury News. In reading "Dark Alliance," I was curious
to see whether Webb would make any concession to his critics--whether
he would perhaps humbly acknowledge that some of  their concerns were
justified. The closest he comes is near the  book's end, where he
observes that "I never believed, and never  wrote, that there was a
grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack  plague. Indeed, the more I
learned about the agency, the more  certain of that I become. The CIA
couldn't even mine a harbor  without getting its trench coat stuck in
its fly." This seems disingenuous, for Webb's entire book, beginning
with its subtitle  ("The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine
Explosion"), seems  pitched toward implicating the CIA in the crack

The CIA's complicity with the drug trade is a central theme of "White

Out" by Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for the Nation, and  Jeffrey
St. Clair, an investigative journalist. Heavily dependent on 
secondary sources, "Whiteout" rehearses the long history of the  CIA's
alleged ties to international drug traffickers, from Corsican 
mobsters in Marseilles in the late 1940s to moujahedeen-linked 
smugglers in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s and 
drug-running Contra supporters in Central America. That such  episodes
are not better known, Cockburn and St. Clair maintain, is the result
of the liberal media's instinctive willingness to cover  up for the
CIA. And Webb's case is Exhibit A. "The attack on Gary  Webb and his
series in the San Jose Mercury News remains one of the  most venomous
and factually inane assaults on a professional  journalist's
competence in living memory," Cockburn and St. Clair  write.

Devoting two full chapters to Webb's experience, the authors
strenuously seek to defend him against his attackers. Unfortunately, 
their account seems a sanitized one, with some of Webb's more 
questionable journalistic practices cleaned up for public 
consumption. In "Dark Alliance," for instance, Webb describes 
attending a 1995 preliminary hearing in the federal government's 
prosecution of Ricky Ross. Among those scheduled to testify is 
Blandon, who--now a DEA informer--was a key witness against Ross.

For nine months, Webb had been trying to interview Blandon, without
success, and he attended the hearing in the hope of connecting with 
him. Blandon brushes him off, however. Alan Fenster, Ross' lawyer,  is
much friendlier. Inviting Webb to lunch during a break in the 
hearing, Fenster expresses his frustration at the government's 
refusal to provide him with documents about Blandon's ties to the 
Contras--documents that, he says, could help exonerate Ross.

Listening to Fenster, Webb suddenly hits on the idea of  providing him
with questions based on his own research that he could  ask Blandon;
in this way, Webb could indirectly conduct the  interview that had for
so long eluded him. To most journalists, this  would seem an
unacceptable degree of personal involvement in a story  one is
covering, but Webb proceeds to feed him questions. Back at  the
courthouse, Fenster questions Blandon about his ties to the  Contras.
Blandon's answers, as recorded in "Dark Alliance," seem  vague and
inconclusive. He has trouble recalling dates and other key details
regarding his trafficking activities, and he seems  completely in the
dark about U.S. efforts to help the Contras. But  Webb, untroubled by
this and by his own feeding of information to  Fenster, grandly
concludes that Blandon's testimony confirms his  basic findings about
the Contras.

In "Whiteout," Cockburn and St. Clair relate this episode quite
differently. After dutifully recounting Webb's lunch with Fenster, 
they write: "Webb told Fenster to look at the DEA records and the 
grand jury transcripts that had been turned over as part of the 
discovery process in the investigation into the Meneses drug ring in 
the Bay Area. Fenster immediately reviewed the documents and was  able
to lead Blandon through a series of questions about his ties to  the
Contras. . . ." In "Dark Alliance," Webb makes no mention of  asking
Fenster to look at documents; rather, Fenster gets his  information
directly from Webb.

This is the type of airbrushing of history one expects to find  in a
Soviet archive. It serves Cockburn and St. Clair's purpose,  however,
of portraying Webb as a journalistic martyr, a courageous  battler
against the CIA and its apologists in the media. "Whiteout"  is filled
with bitter attacks on reporters at such papers as the New  York
Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for helping
cover up the intelligence agency's misdeeds. Oddly, though,  the
authors, in making their case against the CIA, frequently cite 
stories appearing in those very papers. In a chapter on 
narco-trafficking and money-laundering in Mexico, for instance, the 

authors in their notes acknowledge the work of Douglas Farah of the
Washington Post, Laurie Hays of the Wall Street Journal, and Sam 
Dillon and Tim Golden of the New York Times. Such citations seem to 
contradict Cockburn and St. Clair's view of the press as CIA lap  dogs.

Had Cockburn, St. Clair and Webb limited themselves to  reporting on
the CIA's periodic alliances with forces involved in  drug
trafficking, they would have performed a useful service. By  instead
placing the CIA at the heart of the international drug trade  and
blaming it for the woes that drugs have inflicted on American 
society, they have guaranteed themselves an audience limited to true 
believers. Reading their books, I was struck by how much their 
worldview resembles that of the DEA and other prosecutors of the war 
on drugs. If only the CIA would get out of the way and let the DEA do
its job, these writers suggest, the flood of drugs into the  United
States would diminish. For them, foreign traffickers and  suppliers
are the main source of the nation's drug problem, rather  than any
internal social factors. Such an approach feeds the belief  that the
solution to that problem lies not in reducing the demand  for drugs
but in arresting more traffickers and busting more drug  rings. Books
like "Dark Alliance" and "Whiteout," while purporting  to expose the
hypocrisy of the drug war, paradoxically support it.

- ---
MAP posted-by: Rich O'Grady