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'Dark Alliance: The Cia, The Contras, and The Crack Cocaine Explosion' by Gary Webb

Webb backs up his reporting on the CIA-Contra-crack connection

Sunday, September 13, 1998

By Paul Rosenberg


Dark Alliance: The Cia, The Contras, and The Crack Cocaine Explosion

By Gary Webb

Seven Stories Press


Seven Stories Press. $24.95.

By Paul Rosenberg

The book “20 Years of Censored News” by Carl Jensen and Project Censored lists six stories from 1987 to 1993 involving CIA connections with drug trafficking. And Manuel Noriega’s dual role as drug dealer and CIA asset has been known for years. So what made Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gary Webb’s newspaper series connecting the CIA-backed Contra army to America’s crack epidemic so controversial?

In part it was the very fact such stories had always been stifled in the past — as was Webb’s story. The San Jose Mercury News pulled the plug on his follow-ups to “Dark Alliance,” stories that he says went well beyond rebutting his critics.

In this new book, Webb finally is able to complete his mission.

He has the space and freedom to tell his story with the depth, complexity and nuance needed to quiet the critics. He draws heavily on government documents and court transcripts in the public record — including, ironically, the recent CIA Investigator General’s report that supposedly “exonerated” the CIA, as well as a 1989 Costa Rican government report that resulted in Oliver North and four associates being banned from that nation for life for their roles assisting drug smugglers.

Webb’s original newspaper series focused on three men — crack dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross and Contra supporters and major traffickers Danilo Blandón and Norwin Meneses.

“Dark Alliance” not only adds considerable depth and substance to their stories, it weaves them into a larger context of previously documented drug-dealing, cover-ups and active interference with law enforcement, creating a comprehensive picture of the extent to which the Reagan administration’s Central American policy was entangled with a whole stratum of characters morally indistinguishable from Noriega.

Webb makes it clear he never claimed “the CIA’s ‘army’ of Contras” deliberately targeted the black community for crack cocaine sales, as the Washington Post claimed he did. But he quotes participants — men who funneled drug money to the Contras — saying that no one cared what happened in the black community, and that attitude was the key to what eventually did happen.

What Webb does argue is that Ross played a unique role in promoting the growth of crack cocaine when other dealers showed no interest in it; that his connection with Blandón and Meneses allowed him to undersell competitors and maintain market dominance; and that his low-profile and business-like approach avoided police attention while he developed his business in an unusually orderly fashion.

Webb argues further that Ross’s success created a mature market in L.A., pressuring his customers to branch out and open new crack markets around the country. This cause and effect was lost, Webb writes, because the media neglected crack during the early ’80s, followed by an avalanche of sensational coverage in 1986 that resulted in the media impression of a “tidal wave” appearing everywhere simultaneously.

Furthermore, Webb places Blandón and Meneses in a larger milieu of drug-dealers whose long-standing ties with the Contras protected them from prosecution. Blandón, for example, was granted permanent residency status in 1984, a year after his federal drug file was opened.

Eventually, more than 300 Drug Enforcement Agency reports would clog his file, yet he was released because of his role in the conviction of Ross after luring Ross back into dealing.

While some in the black community certainly misread Webb’s series just as simplistically as the Washington Post did — with quite opposite intentions — his story is all the more damning precisely because it does “not” fix blame on the CIA. Rather, blame is distributed across a range of local and national institutions — including the press — which have failed to do their duty to protect the American people.

Paul Rosenberg is a free-lance writer in California.

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