In the 1980s the Reagan administration fought two very important battles that went to the heart of Reagan's conservative ideology. One was the battle in Nicaragua, where the CIA supported the Contras fighting the communist government of Nicaragua. The other was the drug war, in which the Reagan administration campaigned to pass much tougher laws against possession and distribution of street drugs resulting in a huge increase in our population ending up in prison. How are these two battles related? Investigative journalist Gary Webb years later showed that the CIA indeed used profits from drug trafficking to help finance the Contras in Nicaragua. This is the story about how Webb uncovered this dark alliance and how somehow with our news media the story became about Gary Webb instead of the real story.
Throughout the 1980s Congress and President Reagan battled over funding for the Nicaraguan Contras, a group fighting the Soviet allied government in Nicaragua. After Congress cut off funding in 1984 there was a whole operation led by Oliver North to find funding for the Contra war wherever it could be found. The most overt blunder came when it was exposed that millions of dollars gained from selling arms to arch-enemy Iran was diverted to the Contras. Simultaneously, the Reagan administration led by first lady Nancy Reagan waged an anti-drug campaign with the slogan "Just Say No". The policy to carry out this "Just Say No" campaign you'd think was to stop drug trafficking wherever it could be found.
It turns out there were other shadowy sources of funding for the Contras. Reports in 1986 surfaced that some of the middle men involved in obtaining funds for the Contras actually were involved in the cocaine trade. The FBI and a Senate committee chaired by John Kerry investigated these cocaine connections and found that there had been some involvement between the cocaine trade and the Contra funding, but the story was largely buried in closed door classified sessions. The news media and the public had almost no knowledge of these shadowy connections (and the total hypocrisy of the Reagan administration if they knew about it!).
Enter Gary Webb, an investigative journalist for the San Jose Mercury News. In 1996 he followed a number of leads that led him to connect the dots between 3 men - Norwin Meneses, Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes and "Freeway Rick" Ross. In a series of articles in 1996 Webb put together evidence that these three men had teamed up to bring massive amounts of cocaine into the US, with proceeds from the drug money funnelled through the CIA to the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb cited evidence that Blandon was working for the CIA. Further, the 80s were a time of the crack cocaine epidemic in the inner cities, and the connection through Freeway Rick Ross brought tons of cheap crack cocaine into Los Angeles and other major cities, addicting thousands of poor young people of color.
Webb published a series of articles detailing how this drug smuggling operation had come to pass, and it became a national news story. The San Jose Mercury News did not have a national reach at the time, but in 1996 the internet was just starting to take hold, and the story got millions of additional readers because of the internet. Many news outlets across the country picked up the story, and in the process characterized Webb's assertion as "the CIA knowingly pushed drugs into the inner city." Within days of these stories being published, a series of federal investigations were launched to probe the CIA involvement with drug dealers. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represented the district of South Central Los Angeles, became a very vocal supporter of Webb's work.
At the same time, the more nationally known newspapers the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times followed up on the story. With larger staffs of reporters, these two papers published a number of articles that questioned the evidence that Webb had presented. Naturally, the CIA denied everything. Soon there was far more scrutiny on Gary Webb than on the story itself. Were all of his timelines consistent? How reliable were Webb's sources, given they were all connected with drug dealers. Wasn't Webb a bit of a loose cannon?
The effect of these national newspapers attacking Webb's work made the story less credible for the public. One wonders if the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post had been first to the story if the same thing would have happened. Eventually even Webb's paper the San Jose Mercury News backed off the story and issued a retraction. Webb was moved to another office in Cupertino to write obituaries. He later resigned from the paper and never made a living as a journalist again.
Congressional inquiries continued and little by little evidence mounted that Webb's story was correct. In 1998 the CIA's own Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz admitted before a congressional committee that the CIA did know about the Contra and cocaine trafficking connection and did nothing to stop it. In addition, it was exposed that a secret agreement between the Justice Department and CIA in 1982 stipulated that the CIA did not have to report drug trafficking by its assets during the years 1982 to 1995. In other words, drug trafficking could be ignored for the "higher" purpose of supporting the Contras. This story would have been a vindication for Gary Webb, but the nation was at the time in 1998 consumed with the Bill Clinton Monica Lewinsky scandal so the revelations were largely ignored by the news media.
Gary Webb in 1999 published the book "Dark Alliance" which detailed the investigative work he'd completed on the CIA involvement with the Contras and cocaine. He'd now been proven correct but he'd been blackballed from the newspaper business. He suffered deep depression and later in 2004 tragically died of an apparent suicide.
Oscar Danillo Blandon served time in jail then was let out and on the DEA payroll when he took part in a sting operation on Freeway Ricky Ross. Ross was sentenced to 20 years in jail but got out of jail in 2009. He's since been involved in a lawsuit where a rap singer used the name Ricky Ross. Hmmm. Funny how being a drug dealer and spending many years in jail makes others want to take your name.
In 2014 the feature film "Kill the Messenger" came out detailing the life of Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner). While as always, movies take liberties in telling a true story, the release of the film brought fresh attention to the story and vindicated Gary Webb's legacy as a courageous investigative reporter.
In the end, this is a tragic story of our government going to any lengths possible to carry out the war in Nicaragua because they could not get public approval for aiding the Contras, and this meant allying themselves with international drug dealers. This is also a tragic story of how flooding the inner cities with cheap crack cocaine caused untold pain and drug addiction among people of color in the inner cities. Even more painful for the inner cities is the fact that for years possession of crack cocaine (poor colored person's drug of choice) could land you in jail much more easily than possession of powder cocaine (rich white person's drug of choice). This law was changed by the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 but for years unfairly imprisoned people of color from the inner cities.