The CIA's Role in the Crack Epidemic

CIA and Cocaine: Truth and Disinformation Part 4

Revolutionary Worker #886, December 15, 1996

Journalist Gary Webb performed a useful service: Last summer, in a series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News, he documented that a ring of CIA-linked contra mercenaries had created a pipeline of cheap Colombian cocaine. They introduced tons of cocaine into the Black communities of South Central L.A. and Compton during the early 1980s, just as the "crack epidemic" was taking off. Webb documented that the two right-wing Nicaraguans running this cocaine ring, Oscar Danilo Blandón and Norwin Meneses, were recruited by the leading CIA agent within the contra movement. Webb also documented how their operation was protected from police investigation for years. (See RW #873.)

Many people have heard (and believed) that the U.S. government was behind the so-called "crack epidemic." But at the same time, the story of CIA drug trafficking has been suppressed, denied and ridiculed in the media and courts. Instead, the rulers of this country have pointed their finger at the ghettos and barrios. They accuse the people of causing the drug traffic. They have packed their prisons with thousands of youth--who were just trying to make a living in devastated communities.

And then, last summer, it was suddenly documented in the pages of a mainstream daily newspaper that the CIA-organized mercenaries had financed themselves by selling cocaine in Black communities. At last, there was hard evidence that the U.S. government itself was deeply involved in creating the "crack explosion"!

Gary Webb has come under sharp attack. This has been the merciless, unjust, but predictable counterattack of a system that is determined to defend the CIA and the government from this devastating scandal. Virtually every part of Webb's series is being picked apart and challenged by the system's major newspapers: New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. His personal journalistic integrity has been questioned.

Most mainstream reports now insist that Webb's reporting has been "discredited" and "refuted." And it is said that there is still no credible evidence that the CIA was involved in cocaine trafficking or that their contras were funded by drug sales. And, the mainstream media claims, the Meneses-Blandón ring was just small fry. Blandón, they now claim, never gave more than $60,000 to the contras, and his South Central and Compton sales supposedly didn't play much role in the crack epidemic anyway.

Earlier in this RW series, we have documented that the CIA and its agents were deeply involved in cocaine trafficking--especially during 1981-1988, the years of their dirty contra war against Nicaragua. We documented that the CIA and other U.S. government agencies organized networks of airplanes to smuggle guns to the contras in Honduras and Costa Rica, and that these planes often flew back to U.S. airports and air bases loaded with drugs. We have documented that the CIA gave protection to major Latin American and U.S. drug traffickers--arranging to have charges against them dropped and to have their operations protected from investigations by the U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). And we have documented that this trafficking was known and protected from high places within the CIA and the U.S. government, including Reagan's White House.

In this final installment of our series, we will assess what the CIA's role was in helping to create the so-called "crack epidemic," and we will show that large sums of money were created through the drug trade for financing the contra war.

It's No Coincidence--
It's an M.O. for Covert War

You don't really need secret documents or the testimony of drug smugglers to find evidence of CIA drug trafficking. You just have to compare the history of CIA covert actions and the history of drugs in the U.S. For 40 years, major waves of drug trafficking have coincided with secret CIA wars waged in the Third World.

During the 1960s there was the so-called "heroin epidemic." Cheap heroin flooded oppressed communities. Later it was documented that the CIA brought this heroin into the U.S. from the opium-growing regions of Southeast Asia's Gold Triangle.[1]

The CIA was waging a secret mercenary war in northern Laos and Thailand--and was financing that war using heroin trafficking. CIA agents flew planeloads of opium out of the Gold Triangle on its cargo airline Air America. Once the opium was processed into heroin, it was sold to many different distribution networks, some operating within the U.S. military. One recently documented operation involved sewing large packages of heroin inside the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War, and then removing the drugs when the bodies arrived at air force bases within the U.S.

Twenty years later, during the 1980s, there was a new drug "epidemic" in the U.S.--this time involving cocaine. Cocaine had been available before the 1980s, but only at sky-high prices of $5,200 an ounce. It had been a prestige item among the wealthy. The L.A. Times estimates that in 1980 there were 400,000 cocaine users in the U.S., and only 10 percent of them were smoking cocaine. [2]

Suddenly, after 1981, the price of cocaine started to drop. Within a couple of years it had been cut in half. A kilo of cocaine that cost $60,000 in 1981, soon cost $30,000, or even $20,000. The drop in price was caused by a rise in supply. One estimate is that supplies of cocaine within the U.S. rose to over 200 tons a year.

By 1983 cocaine was plentiful enough and cheap enough within the U.S. to become a common "street drug." The sale of cocaine shifted from upper-class enclaves to the ghetto. A new cheap, crystallized, and highly addictive form of cocaine appeared--crack.

This new trade in cocaine drew people in at the street level in the poor neighborhoods, because it provided income to pay rent, buy food, clothes and cars for people who had no other economic options. At the same time, it brought much bitterness to the people: young people often ended up dead or disabled. Capitalist competition over markets intensified deadly conflicts among the people.

The number of estimated cocaine users rose to over six million--with over two million using it at least every couple of days.[3] Many thousands of new addicts lived and died in abandoned buildings, driven to desperate acts to feed their pipes. The L.A. Times reports that the number of crack-related medical emergencies in L.A. jumped from 40 in 1983 to 2,453 in 1989.

What fueled this "rise of crack" during the 1980s?

During those same years (surprise, surprise!), the CIA was waging a new secret war--this time in Central America. The staging areas of that war, in Honduras and Costa Rica, were halfway between the U.S. border and the major cocaine processing points in Colombia. The CIA was hiring mercenary pilots and airlines, flying secret flights to deserted airstrips, and trying to create a "self-financed" military operation--so that the war atrocities of the contras would be harder to blame on the U.S. government.

Once that contra war started to cool down after 1986, the use of cocaine started to decline in the U.S. But this did not mean that the U.S. government's attacks on the people also declined. In 1988, after years of promoting and protecting cocaine trafficking, the U.S. government announced a "war on drugs" that would take on the "demand side"--which meant targeting and punishing "street level" dealers and users. Since then, federal and local governments have used the drug economy as a justification to occupy whole neighborhoods with their police--harassing, accusing, brutalizing and imprisoning more and more people each year.

Protecting Drug Transport Was Key

"The Washington Post concluded that the CIA did not launch or play a major role in promoting the crack plague that swept America's largely black inner cities in the 1980s--but that the agency's support of the Contra rebels may have contributed to the drug influx. Available data from arrest records, hospitals, drug treatment centers and drug user surveys point to the rise of crack as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players of different nationalities, races and ethnic groups."

From the Washington Post's
Internet website [4]

"The force of the Mercury News account appears to have relatively little to do with the quality of the evidence that it marshals to its case...court documents, past investigations and interviews with more than current and former rebels, C.I.A. officials and narcotics agents, as well as other law-enforcement officials and experts on the drug trade, all indicate that there is scant proof to support the paper's contention that Nicaraguan rebel officials linked to the C.I.A. played a central role in spreading crack through Los Angeles and other cities."

The New York Times [5]

These arguments dodge the key issue here: No one is claiming that CIA agents and contra officials personally went out on every street corner and peddled vials of crack. The CIA's role was not concentrated at the distribution end of the cocaine trade. The CIA agents opened key new channels for smuggling large volumes of cocaine. They granted protection for fleets of airplanes loaded with cocaine, including large cargo planes, to fly across the U.S. border and land at U.S. airports.

In some cases, the street-level cocaine distribution organizations were tied to the CIA's contra armies directly--certainly that seems to have been the case with the L.A.-based Blandón ring that Gary Webb exposed. In many cases, the mid-level networks distributing cocaine out of Miami to other cities were built by organizations of right-wing Cuban exiles--who had their own extensive ties to the CIA. But, overall, the flood of cheap cocaine hit the streets through many different street organizations--including the Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles.

In other words, the fact that many organizations were involved in the distribution of cocaine in the 1980s is hardly proof that the CIA didn't play a key role in sparking the crack epidemic.

In the 1970s, the transportation of cocaine from Latin America into the U.S. was a major bottleneck of the cocaine trade. According to available analyses, the "cartels" that emerged in Colombia developed their control over 70 percent of the cocaine trade by pioneering new ways of smuggling cocaine--but still had trouble moving the drugs in large volume. Before the 1980s cocaine had been brought in by a "mule system" (where individual couriers strapped packets of cocaine on their body) or by light planes air-dropping duffel bags of drugs.

Then, in the 1980s, the methods of cocaine smuggling took a major leap: Cocaine started arriving in the U.S. in planeloads and cargo containers--shipments as large as half a ton, a ton, or even larger. The cocaine trade started using larger aircraft--and for that they needed airstrips where the planes could land and unload without U.S. Customs interference. [3]

As we documented in Part 1 of this series--this is exactly what the CIA offered major drug smugglers, in exchange for their help in laundering money and transporting weapons for the contras. There were undoubtedly smuggling operations that operated outside CIA channels--no one argues that all the cocaine entering the U.S. during the 1980s was under CIA protection. However, the available evidence indicates that large shipments and the networks of several big-time drug smugglers were under the protection of the U.S. government.

The CIA Alliance with the Largest Cocaine Traffickers

How much cocaine did the CIA sell directly? How much of the larger cocaine flow did they protect? It is hard to find any reliable figures to quantify this. Most of what is known comes from the testimony of drug traffickers in U.S. courts and congressional hearings. CIA officials insist that their accounts are lies.

Here is the overall picture of the CIA's involvement in the cocaine traffic--based on evidence gathered in the first three parts of this series:

At the start of the 1980s, there were two key centers for cocaine trafficking to the U.S. One was the alliance between the so-called Colombian "cartels" and Panama's military dictator Manuel Noriega. The other was the alliance between the Honduran military and the Honduran druglord Juan Matta Ballesteros.

Both of those operations developed extremely close ties to the CIA-contra supply operations. General Noriega was a life-long CIA agent. And the Honduran generals were U.S.-trained lackeys whose semi-colonial army had always crudely served the interests of U.S. companies like United Fruit. The CIA relied on these Honduran generals for setting up the main contra bases along the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

Inside U.S. borders, much of the early distribution of the cocaine was carried out by right-wing Cuban exiles based in Miami--many of whom had worked for the CIA in the Agency's many secret raids and invasion plots against Cuba.

CIA Alliances with the
Major Cocaine Operations

As the CIA war on Nicaragua grew, ever larger amounts of drugs and money were funneled through the Panamanian and Honduran operations.

In 1988, Ramón Milian Rodríguez, a leading money launderer for the Colombian cocaine operations, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that he had moved about $11 billion in drug profits from the United States, through Miami to Panama--on behalf of the Medellín cartel. [6] Most of these funds were not directly controlled by the CIA. Instead the CIA levied a kind of tax on these large drug operations. The cartel could protect their shipments from seizure and their apparatus from arrest by funneling money to the contras.

In April 1987 the Boston Globe reported that between 50 and 100 flights "arranged by the CIA took off from or landed at U.S. airports during the past two years without undergoing inspection" by the U.S. Customs.[7]

"Narcotics proceeds were used to shore up contra efforts," Milian Rodríguez testified. "I have laundered money for that network. I made it possible to transfer funds." Asked by Senator Kerry how the money was moved to the contras, Milian Rodríguez said: "I had a liaison with the U.S. intelligence--let's not call him `U.S. intelligence.' Let's call him `whoever was running the resupply.' " That man was CIA agent Félix Rodríguez. Milian Rodríguez testified, "Félix would call me with instructions on where to send the money." Milian said he personally laundered $10 million from the Medellín cartel to the contras--using about a dozen Miami companies. For one of the companies, Ocean Hunter, he moved about $200,000 a month in cash by courier.

Carlos Lehder, one of the "pioneers" of the Colombian Medellín cocaine cartels, gave the same figure during testimony in a U.S. courtroom--saying that the Colombian cartel had donated about $10 million to the contras between 1982 and 1985. In exchange for these payoffs, the cartel got valuable contra air bases, fuel, transit points for their smuggling operations, information on radar surveillance, and "a little friendship" from the CIA.[3]

Carlos Lehder described how he had developed the island of Norman's Key in the Bahamas as a base for large-scale smuggling between 1979 and 1982--before the contra war got started. Once he was in contact with the CIA, the U.S. government rented his island facilities for their smuggling operations and, in exchange, gave protection to the larger drug-smuggling operations he was running.

Meanwhile, General Noriega was making his direct financial contributions to the contras. [8] Noriega also provided pilots and aircraft for CIA-contra drug-smuggling operations [9] and set up his own ring, through pilot Floyd Carlton. The Noriega operation reportedly flew at least four tons of cocaine through CIA bases in Costa Rica in nine months.[10] A Costa Rican legislative commission concluded in 1989 that Noriega helped install in that country at least seven pilots who ran drugs to North America as part of contra supply operations.[8]

At the same time, the billion-dollar organization of Juan Matta Ballesteros in Honduras was hired--first by the CIA and then in 1984 by the State Department--to be the main supply airline of the contras. In 1985, Newsweek estimated that his organization supplied "perhaps one-third of all the cocaine consumed in the United States."

It is not clear exactly how much of Matta's organization was protected by the CIA--but Matta's alliance with the U.S. government appears to have played a major role in his emergence as one of the largest cocaine traffickers in the world. In 1983, just as Matta's contra supply operation was taking off, the DEA's office in Honduras was shut down. Matta remained protected from U.S. prosecution until 1988, right after the contra war finally stopped.

To discredit Gary Webb's articles, the mainstream press has been arguing that most cocaine entering the U.S. after the mid-1980s came through Mexico. What they neglect to explain is that the growing Mexican cocaine operations of the so-called "Guadalajara cartel" were themselves an outgrowth of Matta's organization and relied heavily on protection from both the Mexican federal police (the Dirección Federal de Seguridad--DFS) and the U.S.'s CIA. [11]

Smaller Operations

In addition to these major CIA-drug alliances, the contra supply operations also provided an umbrella for many smaller smuggling rings. These operations became especially important during 1984-1986, when the CIA-contra operations was cut off from direct U.S. funding and was ordered to become "self-financing."

During that period, the CIA arranged for Miami-based smuggler George Morales to supply and finance the Costa Rican-based contra group headed by Eden Pastora--by flying guns and drugs from the CIA airstrip on land owned by John Hull in Costa Rica. Morales testified that he passed $5 million to the contras in 1984 and 1985. In exchange, legal charges he was facing in the U.S. were dropped and his operations were protected. Colombian pilot Ernesto Carrasco testified that he personally saw Morales pay more than $1 million to contra leader Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro in a Florida restaurant in 1985.[7]

It was also reported that right-wing Cuban smuggler Frank Castro was giving the Pastora contra operation $200,000 a month.

Colombian smuggler Carlos Lehder estimated, in an ABC News interview, that Hull's operations were "pumping about 30 tons of cocaine into the United States" every year--that would mean an average of one or two half-ton shipments each week. Costa Rican authorities claimed that they had evidence of at least two tons of cocaine passing through the Hull ranch. One pilot, Fabiano Carrasco, testified in 1990 that he alone flew in at least a ton of cocaine for Morales between 1983 and 1986--with CIA protection.

One notation written by Reagan aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, gives a revealing picture of the role of drug profits. In Honduras, an operation run by Ronald Martin and James McCoy had accumulated between $15 million and $20 million in weapons for the Honduran-based contras headed by CIA agent Adolfo Calero. In North's diary, he wrote that $14 million of the money used to finance Martin and McCoy "came from drugs."

The Changing Story
of Danilo Blandón

Gary Webb's series documented how one contra drug dealer, Danilo Blandón, sold cocaine in Los Angeles to raise money for the FDN contra organization headed by Adolfo Calero. In 1994, Blandón testified before a federal grand jury that he sold between 200 and 300 kilos of cocaine for contra fundraiser Norwin Meneses. And in later court testimony, he said that all profits from those sales went to the FDN. He testified he was selling the cocaine for $60,000 per kilo--which means that the gross receipts for these operations were between $12 and $18 million.

Recently, Senator Arlen Spector, chairman of a Senate subcommittee, said that Blandón told the committee that he only passed between $60,000 to $65,000 to the contras. Blandón also denied having any contact with the CIA, and said the contras did not know about drug deals he was making. Blandón now claims that he was only working with Meneses for a few months, and that by 1982 or 1983, when his cocaine operation started to grow, he was totally independent of any contra ties.

In short, Blandón (who is now on the DEA's payroll!) has conveniently changed his story. Meanwhile, Meneses has told the L.A. Times that his contra contributions were often little more than $20 or $30 at a time. And the mainstream media has seized on this to claim that the Blandón-Meneses operations were not really selling drugs to fund the contras.

However, contra leader Eden Pastora contradicted Blandón's new story. Pastora recently testified before the same Senate subcommittee that Blandón gave Pastora's contras money after 1984. Pastora said he even lived in a house that Blandón owned in Costa Rica.

Let's Get Real

The U.S. government has responded to the reports of CIA drug smuggling with outraged protests. They say it is inconceivable for the U.S. government to allow, or profit from, drug sales. Who are they kidding!? This country was founded on profits from trade in drugs and stimulants--and the trade in slaves who were forced to grow those drugs and stimulants. The origins of New England's merchant capitalism are deep in the "triangle trade" where tobacco, coffee and rum from American colonies were delivered to Europe. The ships then went south to kidnap African people for the return trip. In England, the arrival of cheap, distilled alcohol had terrible effects on the masses of people. The profits from those deals financed the early wars that took land from the Indians of New England--killing many and selling the rest into slavery.

The Founding Fathers? Many of them were the early merchant capitalists and plantation owners who grew fat from this "triangle trade."

Two hundred years later, in 1996, oppressed people do not possess the planes, banks, airports and high-level contacts needed to conduct today's international drug trade. These operations have always been carried out in close alliance with governments--not just the corrupt pro-U.S. governments of countries like Bolivia and Peru, but the most powerful government of all--headquartered in Washington, D.C.

How much cocaine entered the U.S. under CIA protection? This much is known: Large amounts of cocaine--many, many tons--were passing through CIA-protected channels during the early 1980s. Tons of cocaine were being loaded and unloaded on CIA airstrips, by pilots working with CIA operations, sometimes onto the CIA's Southern Air Transport cargo shops, often under the direct supervision of CIA agents. Tons were sold in Los Angeles by the Blandón-Meneses cocaine ring, operating closely with the CIA agents Bermúdez and Calero. And this ring deliberately and specifically targeted the Black communities of Compton and South Central L.A. for their operations.

And beyond those direct CIA operations, the major Colombian cartels were themselves receiving various kinds of aid and protection during this period from CIA agents--starting with General Manuel Noriega in Panama, John Hull in Costa Rica, Félix Rodríguez in El Salvador, and ending with special CIA protection to drug shipments landing in U.S. airports and U.S. military bases. This protection of cocaine "pipelines" was carried out by the joint cooperation of the CIA, the Reagan White House, the Justice Department, the DEA, and U.S. Customs.

The CIA and the mainstream media are trying to shove these facts back under cover. They call people paranoid and gullible. They act like the only real shocker here is that people believe the stories of CIA drug-trafficking. But the secret is out, and these facts will not go away.

Did the CIA play a key role in triggering the so-called "crack epidemic" of the 1980s? After a close look at the available evidence, the answer is: YES!

Now we have some other questions: When do the people get justice!? When will they get the boot of police occupation off their necks? And what about all the brothers and sisters railroaded into prison during this "war on drugs"--When do they get their lives back? When do the cell doors open for the people? When do those doors slam shut to imprison our oppressors? When do the people of the world get freedom from the murdering hand of the CIA?


"Everybody's talkin bout crime. Tell me, who are the criminals?"

Peter Tosh


[1] The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Alfred W. McCoy, Harper & Row, 1972

[2] "Part 1, Tracking the Genesis of the Crack Trade," Jesse Katz, L.A. Times, October 20, 1996

[3] The Andean Cocaine Industry, Patrick L. Clawson and Rensselaer W. Lee III, St. Martin Press, 1996

[4] "Special Report: CIA, Contra and Drugs: Questions Linger," Christopher Johnson,, November 8, 1996

[5] "Tale of CIA and Drugs Has Life of Its Own," New York Times, October 21, 1996

[6] "Noriega Linked to Laundering of Billions," Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, February 12, 1988

[7] "The Contra-Cocaine Connection," Amy Lang, Convergence, publication of the Christic Institute, Fall 1991

[8] "Noriega: Our Man in Panama," Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Convergence, publication of the Christic Institute, Fall 1991

[9] "Stories of Alleged CIA-Contra Drug Operation Stir Controversy," San Francisco Chronicle, September 28, 1996

[10] Cocaine Politics--Drugs, Armies and the CIA in Central America, Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, University of California Press, 1991

[11] Drug Wars--Corruption, Counterinsurgency and Covert Operations in the Third World, Jonathan Marshall, Cohan & Cohen, 1991

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