I came into this book, after having read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and a few other things that I can’t immediately recall, thinking that the basic premise of this book was an historical fact agreed upon by all knowledgeable people. The CIA helped funnel cocaine into American cities as a way of helping to fund the Contra’s in the 1980s. Whether this was all a concerted effort on the part of the white establishment to intentionally suppress African American agency is an issue I don’t feel qualified to fully tackle in this review.
Gary Webb’s series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News outlined the evidence, and his book Dark Alliance solidified the narrative for the American public. People can argue whether or not it was done with the intention of decimating the urban African-American population (again, that’s beyond this review), but that it happened is beyond question.
If I’m being perfectly honest, while reading this book I was kind of scratching my head. I mean, much of this seems fairly well researched and indisputable….but other parts seem overly-reliant on dots connected by someone who already knows the pathways without having proof that they even exist. So much of this book seemed to boil down to, “we’ll probably never know the truth, but what other explanation is there except a conspiracy on the part of our government to funnel cocaine into the Los Angeles?”
I chalked up my skepticism to having just read a book on the JFK assassination, but the deeper I got into the book, the more it seemed to be jumping some cracks in the narrative.
So I spent some time reading some background on Google, and quickly found out that many, many people are highly skeptical of some of Webb’s claims. In fact, it’s safe to label this as a somewhat plausible conspiracy theory rather than an established fact.
I mean, the CIA itself found that the agency had (at the very least) been ambivalent to drug trafficking by the Contras. So it’s not like Webb is coming completely out of left field with this. But that the CIA intentionally skirted the prosecution of Rick Ross, Norwin Meneses, and Danilo Blandon to further their aims in Nicaragua never seems to be a fully developed connection.
Ultimately, it’s inarguable that Contras did benefit from Cocaine smuggling, and that the US government was complicit in this. But the notion that there was a direct line between the drug trafficking and sale of crack by Meneses, Blandon, and Ross on US streets and the US support of the Contras is murky. Webb asserts that it was real. Others disagree that the evidence supports the conclusion.
One example of the discrepancy is that Danilo Blandon sold millions of dollars worth of cocaine during the 1980s and, it is alleged by Webb, admitted to turning all the profits over to the Contras. But court documents tell a different story. Blandon only admitted to giving $50,000 to the Contras before US funding skyrocketed after 1982, at which time he kept the profits for himself.
As to CIA connections to drug smugglers….I mean. Look. We’re talking about intelligence agents involved in highly secret back channel dealings with foreign political groups (who themselves are operating outside the law). Is the expectation that they would have some kind of moral stance against dealing with drug dealers? They work with whomever they have to in order to accomplish their objects. Is it really that surprising that they would, at times, deal with traffickers?
I don’t think it is.
Do I think the basic premise of this book is true? I don’t know. But I do think it’s plausible. We are talking about Iran-Contra, after all. The Reagan administration was corrupt – possibly the most corrupt administration in between Nixon and Trump – so it’s not like we can give them the benefit of the doubt.
But I also think Gary Webb bent over backward to believe that his premise is accurate, and that’s why I think his reporting dances awfully close to conspiracy theory for my tastes.
The postscript to this story is tragic, however. Gary Webb’s reputation was pretty severely challenged for this story. He was subject to several investigations by other newspapers (and was heavily criticized by the Washington Post and New York Times), and was eventually forced out by the Mercury News. After several years of treading water doing investigative research for the California legislature and freelance reporting, he eventually committed suicide in 2004. His death is subject to several conspiracy theories, as you can probably imagine.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in Iran-Contra (though this book doesn’t really only deals with this one aspect of the overall affair) or the history of drug epidemics. It may not be the most reliable bit of reporting on its subject, but it’s a fairly important work that has influenced many.