An explosive report from a relatively unknown journalist, Gary Webb, claimed the CIA helped foster the crack epidemic that ravaged Los Angeles in the 1980s.
In 1996, a bombshell report by journalist Gary Webb claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported cocaine trafficking into the U.S. by Nicaraguan Contra Rebel organizations. The U.S. support was an effort to destabilize the left-wing Nicaraguan government which the U.S. viewed as a threat. The report claimed that trafficking lead to the crack epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Gary Webb wrote the three-part exposé called “Dark Alliance”, for the San Jose Mercury News in California, in August 1996. Webb had anonymous sources (he eventually named one in a later book) who had been involved in the Nicaraguan drug ring to back his allegations up.
Some of Webb’s sources would later speak out in a 2015 documentary called “Freeway: Crack in the System” which was about Rick “Freeway” Ross who created a crack empire in the 1980s. Ross was a central character in Webb’s Dark Alliance allegations.
According to Webb in the 1980s, when the CIA exerted a certain level of control over Contra groups such as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the agency as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) granted amnesty to and financially backed important Contra supporters and fundraisers who were known to the U.S. Government as cocaine smugglers.
The Contras were U.S.-supported right-wing rebel groups, active from 1979 to the early 1990s, in opposition to the socialist Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government in Nicaragua.
The U.S. Justice Department and its agencies — who were aware of the Contra-linked drug trafficking operations of the FDN supporters — allegedly thwarted local police investigations and blocked the prosecution of the Contra-linked cocaine traffickers.
Gary Webb’s claims in the Dark Alliance report were bold:
“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.
“This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the ‘crack’ capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.’s gangs to buy automatic weapons.
“Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine — a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA’s army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices.”
The explosive allegations enraged the communities most affected by the crack epidemic here in the U.S.
In October 1996, two months after the publication of Webb’s articles, a Boston Globe reporter wrote that the story was “pulsing through [L.A.’s] black neighborhoods like a shockwave, provoking a stunning, growing level of anger and indignation. Talk-radio stations with predominantly black audiences are deluged with calls on the subject. Demonstrations, candle-lighting ceremonies and town-hall meetings are becoming regular affairs. And people on the street are heatedly discussing the topic.”
Webb would publish a book based on his articles two years later, entitled “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”.
The book won a Pen Oakland Censorship Award and a Firecracker Alternative Book Award.
Given the high-profile subject and its incendiary matter, many observers dismissed Webb’s report as conspiracy theory too.
The Media Turns On Gary Webb
Eventually, the media would mostly turn against Webb, attempting to discredit him. Notably, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times ran articles calling his allegations unfounded. The Mercury News, who originally stood by Webb’s reporting, complied with these new denunciations and published an apology for the series in May 1997.
This came at the price of Webb’s career and ultimately his life: on December 10, 2004, the journalist was found dead in his apartment, with two .38-caliber bullets to the head — from an apparent suicide.
Two years later, Gary Webb’s own story would become the subject of a biography written by award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou, who also worked as a consultant on the 2014 film of the same name, Kill the Messenger. The film was a depiction of Webb’s life, starring Jeremy Renner.
Perhaps the extreme backlash Webb faced was inevitable since he was taking on such a large, furtive and powerful entity as the CIA.
It was acknowledged that Webb did not state outright that the CIA ran the drug trade or even knew about it. However, the implications were deemed clear — and this was dangerous for the public image of the agency.
Webb would later say that he did contact the CIA during his research but that the agency would not return his calls. Along with no mention of this in his “Dark Alliance” series, many thought he refused to contact the CIA which undermined his credibility in the eyes of other reporters.
Allegedly, the CIA did not have to do much to unravel the journalist’s reputation afterward; the controversy surrounding Webb’s work proved enough for his fellow journalists and media outlets to attack him.
In a 2013 interview, reporter Jesse Katz recounted with remorse: “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. 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.”
Was Gary Webb wrong?
According to The Intercept, Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer who wrote an internal report on Webb’s series, pointed out that much of what was reported in “Dark Alliance” was, in fact, not new.
As early as 1985, Associated Press journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger found that Contra groups had “engaged in cocaine trafficking, in part to help finance their war against Nicaragua.”
A special Senate subcommittee, chaired by then-senator John Kerry, investigated the AP’s findings and, in 1989, released a 1,166-page report on covert U.S. operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
It found “considerable evidence” that the Contras were linked to running drugs and guns — and that the U.S. government knew about it.
The report stated:
“On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.”
Curiously, this remained largely unnoticed by the media until Gary Webb picked up the story years later in 1996, and linked it to the CIA.
In a related affair, in 1993 Robert Bonner, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), said on the CBS show “60 Minutes” the Venezuelan national guard smuggled cocaine into the United States in cooperation with the CIA. However, when Webb’s report came out three years later, this accusation seems to have been forgotten.
But there are those who still believe Webb’s reporting got it wrong. As recently as 2014, Jeff Leen, an assistant managing editor for major investigations for the Washington Post, wrote an article titled “Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill The Messenger’ says.”
Leen alleged that Webb’s report was overblown and his claims were insufficiently substantiated. Leen referenced a 1998 report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz as evidence the CIA was not involved in drug trafficking. However, Hitz’s report echoed the Senate subcommittee’s findings that while the CIA did not conspire to bring drugs into the U.S., it did not cut off ties to individuals alleged to be involved in trafficking drugs.
“As I said earlier, we have found no evidence in the course of this lengthy investigation of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States. However, during the Contra era, CIA worked with a variety of people to support the Contra program. These included CIA assets, pilots who ferried supplies to the Contras, as well as Contra officials and others.
“Let me be frank about what we are finding. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
Some say Webb’s downfall was linking the cocaine to the socioeconomic effects of drugs on the black community in Los Angeles. Some interpreted the connection as part of a CIA conspiracy to purposefully target the black community, an allegation Webb denies he ever made.
“I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague,” Gary Webb wrote in his book. “. . . The CIA couldn’t even mine a harbor without getting its trench coat stuck in its fly.”
Webb’s biographer would eventually state that perhaps this was the main legacy the late journalist ultimately paid the price for: “he documented for the first time in the history of U.S. media how CIA complicity with Central American drug traffickers had actually impacted the sale of drugs north of the border in a very detailed, accurate story. And that’s, I think, the takeaway here.”