Back in 1996, Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News broke a story stating not only that the Nicaraguan Contras – supported by the United States in a rebellion against their left-leaning government – were involved in the US crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, but also that the CIA knew and turned a blind eye to the operation.
As a result, Webb concluded, the CIA was complicit in a drug trade that was wreaking havoc on African American communities in Los Angeles.
The bombshell report sparked outrage across the country, but when national newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post weighed in on the matter, they dismissed Webb and attacked his story to the point that it was disowned by the Mercury News. Webb was forced out of journalism and ultimately committed suicide in 2004.
Now, however, the whole ordeal is being looked at with fresh eyes in the form of two new films: “Kill the Messenger” and a documentary called, “Freeway: Crack in the System.” Additionally, several figures involved in the operation have recently spoken out, lending further credibility to Webb’s original reporting.
Coral Baca, who had a close relationship with prominent Nicaraguan drug dealer Rafael Cornejo, told the Huffington Post that she remembered numerous occasions in which she meet Contra leader Adolfo Calero near San Francisco. During these meetings, she said Calero handled bags full of money, and he clearly knew that money was made through the drug trade.
“If he was stupid and had a lobotomy,” he might not have realized, Baca added. “He knew exactly what it was. He didn't care. He was there to fund the Contras, period.”
If true, the news would contradict multiple reports made by national media outlets at the time, which doubted just how much cash was going to the Contras – or even if the Contras knew it was coming from crack cocaine sales.
While Webb was also criticized for suggesting the CIA intentionally devastated African American communities with crack, he defended himself saying that was not the case.
“It’s not a situation where the government or the CIA sat down and said, 'Okay, let’s invent crack, let’s sell it in black neighborhoods, let’s decimate black America,’” Webb reportedly says in the upcoming documentary. “It was a situation where, 'We need money for a covert operation, the quickest way to raise it is sell cocaine, you guys go sell it somewhere, we don’t want to know anything about it.'”
Following the scandal, in 1998 the CIA quietly published an internal inspector general’s report into the matter, which prior to its release was much-touted for whitewashing the agency’s reputation. Instead, it seemed to add legitimacy to the accusations, saying, “CIA knowledge of allegations or information indicating that organizations or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by CIA.” At other times, the “CIA did not act to verify drug trafficking allegations or information even when it had the opportunity to do so.”
“No information has been found to indicate that CIA informed Congress of eight of the ten Contra-related individuals concerning whom CIA had received drug trafficking allegations or information,” the report added.
Meanwhile, Nicaraguan drug importer Danilo Blandon recently confirmed to documentary filmmaker Marc Levin that he was involved in drug trafficking, and that he supported the Contras. Back in 1996, Blandon was asked in court if he ran the LA drug operation, which he confirmed. Then, too, he said all the profits went to the Contras.
Despite a 1986 LA County arrest warrant detailing allegations that Brandon “filtered” drug money to the Contras, other newspapers dismissed Webb’s allegation that the Contras’ drug trafficking operation directly impacted the increased use of crack in the US – primarily, they said, because Blandon split off from the group and ran his own drug venture.
Last year, though, former LA Times reporter Jesse Katz apologized for attacking Webb’s story and reputation.
“As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope,” Katz said, according to LA Weekly. “And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
“We really didn't do anything to advance his work or illuminate much to the story, and it was a really kind of tawdry exercise. ... And it ruined that reporter's career.”