There appear to be endless examples of the aggressive and illegal behavior of the United States in foreign lands, from the CIA’s involvement in General Pinochet’s military coup in Chile to Abu Ghraib prison, being run by US military personnel. The latter becoming universally known for the photos that sickened the world after their release in 2004. What has surprised me the most is the consistent misery and suffering that the US government has allowed to be inflicted on their own citizens.
A clear example of this involves the crack cocaine epidemic that has raged from the latter half of the 20th century. Crack is the street name for a free-base ‘rock’ form of cocaine, which induces an extremely intense euphoric effect that directly stimulates the pleasure centre of the brain. Crack became common in working class black communities that had few economic prospects, being abandoned by the upper classes in major cities it became the coping mechanism for entire neighbourhoods. One community that was hit hard was south-central Los Angeles.
Enormous cocaine shipments were targeted at south-central during the early 1980’s by the Contras, a collection of right wing terrorist groups (the largest of whom was the FDN) active in Nicaragua, determined to undermine and seize control from the socialist ‘Sandinista’ government that, with popular democratic support, had taken control of the country in 1979. Freedom-loving American patriots may be surprised to learn that, despite numerous condemnations of the Contras by human rights organisations, the CIA continued to support the efforts of the Contras by any and all means – even with knowledge of the 1300 terrorist attacks that have been attributed to them.
A former Contra fighter Edgar Chamorro testified to the world court that while the CIA were aware of hundreds of terrorist attacks involving harm to civilians, indiscriminate killing and human rights abuses, they “did not discourage such tactics. To the contrary, the Agency severely criticized me when I admitted to the press that the FDN had regularly kidnapped and executed agrarian reform workers and civilians. We were told that the only way to defeat the Sandinistas was to…kill, kidnap, rob and torture…”
But how does cocaine fit in to this? Two congressional efforts in 1982 and 1984, now known as the ‘Boland agreement,’ declared US financial support of the Contras illegal (citing their violence and aggression as justification). Never one to respond well to humanitarian outcry, Reagan’s administration immediately began looking into other avenues to provide funding for their anti-communist friends. This culminated in the scandal of the ‘Iran-Contra affair‘, one of the most disastrous international negotiations carried out by the US government. However, I will focus on the under-publicised allegations of the CIA’s oversight of cocaine trafficking.
In order to explore how far the CIA was intertwined with drug trafficking it is essential to document the efforts of journalist Gary Webb, whose extremely controversial ‘Dark Alliance’ series of stories created the foundations of the claim that the CIA ignored, and subsequently encouraged cocaine transportation from Nicaragua to South Central Los Angeles.
Two individuals were central to Webb’s claims; one was Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan agricultural businessman, who fled to the US in order to escape what he viewed as the establishment of communist tyranny. Son of a wealthy slumlord, Blandon was privately educated, achieving a masters in marketing, and had cooperated with the CIA in their efforts to introduce an American-style agricultural system to Nicaragua. In 1996, after being charged with intent to supply cocaine in San Diego, Blandon testified publicly in a trial, revealing explosive information regarding his activities with the CIA. It seems that as an immigrant in the late 1970’s, he was never originally set on trafficking cocaine, but was spurred on by an urge to return Nicaragua to the years before the Sandinista revolution.
When fundraising rallies and cocktail parties with wealthy Americans failed as money-making strategies, Blandon was sent to Honduras by CIA operatives to meet with Colonel Enrique Bermudez, military chief of the FDN, to establish a secure way of funding their efforts. A conclusion was reached – the transportation and sale of powder cocaine in Los Angeles. At this time cocaine was a luxurious drug reserved for celebrities, but Blandon and a group of other exiles intended to use the few kilos they began with to sell to inner-city working class neighbourhoods. Blandon and those working with him were blessed by uncanny timing, as it appeared that as their efforts began in 1981, urban drug dealers were in the early stages of turning the cocaine industry on it’s head. Drug dealers were now cooking the expensive powder cocaine into affordable nuggets of crack cocaine that could be smoked by anyone with $20 and a glass pipe.
Blandon’s man on the ground was ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross (named after the main road that runs through south-central Los Angeles), who, thanks to a network of friends-turned-clientele in south-central and Compton, began selling crack to drug dealers. He then used the hefty profits he made to buy more from Blandon’s seemingly infinite supply, straight from Central America. Within a year Ross had begun to dominate the drug trade of inner city LA, and many of the biggest dealers on the street had become his customers. On the back of a steady flow of cocaine from the Contras to Blandon, Ross became a kingpin of the LA drug trade.
The LAPD were completely unprepared for the impending explosion and when they first began reporting examples of cocaine dealing to those higher up in the force, they were laughed at – the idea of working class black drug dealers selling expensive cocaine seemed ridiculous. But by 1983 the use of crack in urban parts of Los Angeles could accurately be described as an epidemic, which was great news for Ross and his crew, who were often raking as much as 2 or 3 million dollars a day. But Blandon directed his money elsewhere. ‘I didn’t make any money, you know. It was only for the people in the mountains, you know, for the Contra revolution,’ he testified.
But just how much were the CIA involved in all this? It’s important to acknowledge that the agency weren’t controlling the drug trade. A more accurate description of their activities would be compliance. For example, in 1985, 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. The DEA did nothing, and Castillo was gradually forced out of the agency. Furthermore, when Blandon was ultimately arrested in 1986, he admitted to crimes that would condemn most dealers to a life behind bars. The Federal Justice Department ensured that he was freed after just 28 months, and employed him with a generous salary as an informant working for the DEA.
The justice department readily acted to hinder efforts by agents to investigate drug trafficking. For example, the ‘Frogman’ case in 1984 found that San Francisco’s federal attorney returned $36,800 after receiving letters from FDN operatives who insisted that the money was intended for the Contras. Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors sealed the case and the letters off from the public for ‘national security’ purposes. When the justice department was investigated by the senate for this scandal they maintained a high wall of secrecy.
If readers aren’t disturbed by the idea that the United States government have endangered their own citizens in order to fund an illegal ideological conflict hundreds of miles away from their own shores, they can at least recognise the hypocrisy of governments simultaneously promoting a ‘war on drugs’ and cooperating with international cocaine traffickers targeting their most vulnerable communities. It should be stressed that while certain men like Danilo Blandon were mostly protected from the law by the CIA, the victims of their business, crack cocaine addicts, were punished in an extremely severe fashion.
After the introduction of the Anti-Drug Abuse act in 1986, anyone found with 5 grams of crack in their possession would face a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole. But to face the same sentence, powder cocaine users would have to be found with 500 grams. That’s a 100:1 disparity, and it continued until the introduction of the Fair Sentencing act in 2010, which reduced the disparity to 18:1. Given that the main difference between powder and crack cocaine is in the demographic that uses them, it seems that the US government has intentionally created legislation that criminalises and incarcerates poor black drug users and favours middle-class, largely white, drug users. This is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, given the UK’s own struggle with middle-class cocaine use.
The conduct of the US government and the CIA surrounding the crack-cocaine epidemic is outrageous. The whole notion of a ‘War on Drugs,’ which, even if conducted fairly would be morally questionable, is demonstrably a mask for a much more deadly war, the only war that America has ever been interested in fighting: the war on the working class.