Conspiracy buffs couldn't have concocted a more compelling story. All the elements are there: big-time drug smuggling, shadowy underworld figures, inner-city gangs, Nicaraguan contras, and even the CIA; the stuff of paranoid fantasies. Problem is, all of it may be true.
This August the San Jose Mercury News published a shocking three-part investigative report that implied CIA involvement throughout the 1980s in distributing crack cocaine through inner-city gangs in Los Angeles and elsewhere to help finance the contra war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
CIA director John Deutch has denied any agency role, but by early fall the clamor for an independent investigation of the charges was growing. Calls for inquiry were issued by the LA City Council, California Sens. Boxer and Feinstein, the Congressional Black Caucus, and even the nation's "drug czar," retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. A U.S. district judge in September required prosecutors in a related case to provide proof that the CIA never "participated in or condoned" drug dealings by Nicaraguan rebels.
Some of the key facts are indisputable. It's now on public record, of course, that the CIA was indeed running the contra war, particularly after then-President Ronald Reagan's secret order on December 1, 1981, that permitted the agency to spend $19.9 million to begin covert paramilitary operations against the Sandinistas.
More recently revealed is the fact that key contra figures peddled Colombian cocaine in U.S. cities to help fund their war efforts. The only question: Did these international pushers run this billion-dollar operation without the knowledge or assistance of their U.S. overseers? The evidence revealed by the Mercury News series strongly suggests otherwise.
The newspaper used recently declassified material from the National Archives, documents from the Supreme Court of Nicaragua, court testimony in U.S. drug cases, and other records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in its yearlong investigation. The paper's editors came to the conclusion that the CIA "has done business with-and protected-criminals whose victims were...in the inner cities of the United States."
"It's impossible to believe," the Mercury News editors wrote, "that the Central Intelligence Agency didn't know about the contras' fund-raising activities in Los Angeles, considering that the agency was 'bankrolling, recruiting, and essentially running the contra operation.'" The agency later "compounded its shame," according to the paper, "by encouraging U.S. prosecutors to allow drug kingpins to get off virtually scot-free."
ACTUALLY, SOME of the "kingpins" didn't just get off: They were hired by the U.S. government. One of the key players in the scandal is a Nicaraguan named Danilo Blandon. Blandon, who has close ties to the family of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, has admitted distributing cocaine to support the contras. He was arrested on drug charges in 1991 by the LA Police Department, but charges were dropped at the federal government's request. After pleading guilty in a 1992 drug case, he was released after a short prison term and is now on the payroll of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which has paid him $166,000 in the past 18 months.
Blandon has also admitted distributing tons of crack cocaine through the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles. Blandon's seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-grade cocaine enabled street dealer "Freeway Rick" Ross to corner the coke market, first in LA and then in cities across the country, by offering the drug at half the price of his competitors. Contra-funder Blandon and other Nicaraguans even made the crack available on consignment -- sell now, pay later. Ross said he never discovered how Blandon was able to get cocaine so cheaply.
Though the specific evidence may be newly assembled, stories of this kind of conspiracy have long circulated among African Americans. "For years the black community has complained that it has been sacrificed by politicians and the police as the area where drugs were allowed to exist," a California woman wrote to the Mercury News' web site. "Mainstream society has always dismissed the protests as the ravings of extreme militants. Now on the front page of the local paper is proof that what people have been saying has actually been going on."
At the very least, the Mercury News editors are right about one thing: It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the CIA didn't know about this massive operation run by its contra partners, which contributed huge amounts of money to further its war efforts. The evidence suggests that CIA operatives at a minimum winked at the operation and let it go on, and perhaps even obstructed justice in protecting the drug smugglers.
While it will be harder to prove that CIA agents actually set up the operation, the implications of even passive agency involvement are staggering. The CIA war against the Nicaraguan people may be over, but the every-bit-as-destructive war against our own people rages on in cities and towns across the country. If evidence continues to back up these serious allegations, it's hard to imagine reparations sufficient to the grievous damage that has been inflicted.