The other CIA asset indicted recently is former Haitian police chief Michel-Joseph Francois, charged with smuggling 33 tons of cocaine and heroin.
Like a similarly named unit in Peru (see below), his National Intelligence Service, or SIN, functioned as what the New York Times called “an instrument of political terror.” Before the CIA stopped directly supporting the unit in 1991, it gave the organization as much as $1 million a year in equipment and training. One U.S. official said of the SIN, “It was a military organization that distributed drugs in Haiti. It never produced drug intelligence. The agency [CIA] gave them money under counternarcotics and they used their money to do other things in the political arena.” Haiti’s corrupt officials protected about 50 tons of cocaine a year that transited the island for the United States in the early 1990s.
As we show in Cocaine Politics, such cases are not so much anomalous as paradigmatic. In country after country, from Mexico and Honduras to Panama and Peru, the CIA helped set up or consolidate intelligence agencies that became forces of repression, and whose intelligence connections to other countries greased the way for illicit drug shipments.
Although each of these cases is now public and has received scattered coverage in mainstream media, journalists (and politicians) remain reluctant to squarely address the recurring CIA-drug problem. One exception is Gary Webb, whose stories on the CIA, Contras, and cocaine (which focused on the Contra supporter Norwin Meneses: see p. 107 of this book) appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News in August 1996. After they received national attention through talk radio and the World Wide Web, his stories were soon attacked, at extraordinary length, in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Attacks on his stories soon became attacks on his personal integrity. As we go to press, Webb has currently been demoted from his position in the state capital of Sacramento to the small town of Cupertino.
Webb’s stories, which sketched a provocative link between the drug trafficking of Contra supporters and the crack problems of south-central Los Angeles, were admittedly controversial. His claim that millions of profits had reached the Contras depended largely on the debatable testimony of one trafficker, while many experts disputed his claim that the national crack cocaine epidemic had been created by Meneses’ drug connection. But even Webb’s harshest critics had to concede — as the San Francisco Examiner had first documented ten years earlier — that Meneses and his colleagues did bring large drug shipments into the country, that they did meet with top CIA Contra proteges, that they gave at least tens of thousands of dollars to the Contra cause, and that they were given extraordinary special treatment by U.S. federal prosecutors.
Whatever the problems with Webb’s pieces, they managed, as Peter Kornbluh wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review to “revisit a significant story that had been inexplicably abandoned by the mainstream press, report a new dimension to it, and thus put it back on the national agenda where it belongs. It concerns us that Gary Webb may have joined the ranks of other journalists, notably Robert Parry, whose careers suffered after daring to report on the Contra drug story. As we report in this book, similar challenges to the CIA have terminated Congressional careers (p. 163). Webb’s co-author George Hodel in Nicaragua has received death threats, like one of Webb’s sources a decade ago.
Ironically, lost in all the squabbling over the details of Webb’s stories were the abundant facts already pulled together in Cocaine Politics which documented wider CIA (and overall Reagan Administration) protection of Central American drug traffickers. These problems are of more than historical interest, given that the problem of a U.S.-protected drug traffic endures. Today the United States, in the name of fighting drugs, has entered into alliances with the police, armed forces, and intelligence agencies of Colombia and Peru, forces conspicuous by their own alliances with drug-traffickers in counterinsurgency operations.
One of the most glaring and dangerous examples is in Peru. Behind Peru’s president, Alberto Fujimori, is his chief adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, the effective head of the National Intelligence Service or SIN, an agency created and trained by the CIA in the 1960s. Through the SIN, Montesinos played a central role in Fujimori’s “auto-coup,” or suspension of the constitution, in April 1992, an event which (according to Knight-Ridder correspondent Sam Dillon) raised “the specter of drug cartels exercising powerful influence at the top of Peru’s government,” Recently Montesinos has been accused of arranging for an opposition television station to be bombed, while in August 1996 an accused drug trafficker claimed that Montesinos had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs. According to a column in the New York Times by Gustavo Gorriti, a leader among the Peruvian intellectuals forced into exile, “Mr. Montesinos built a power base and fortune mainly as a legal strategist for drug traffickers. He has had a close relationship with the C.I.A., and controls the intelligence services, and, through them, the military.”
In the New York Review of Books, Mr. Gorriti spelled out this CIA-drug collaboration more fully.
In late 1990, Montesinos also began close cooperation with the CIA, and in 1991 the National Intelligence Service began to organize a secret anti-drug outfit with funding, training, and equipment provided by the CIA. This, by the way, made the DEA… furious. Montesinos apparently suspected that the DEA had been investigating his connection to the most important Peruvian drug cartel in the 1980s, the Rodriguez-Lopez organization , and also links to some Colombian traffickers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fujimori made a point of denouncing the DEA as corrupt at least twice, once in Peru in 1991, and the second time at the Presidential summit in San Antonio, Texas, in February . As far as I know, the secret intelligence outfit never carried out anti-drug operations. It was used for other things, such as my arrest.
Others have pointed to the drug corruption of Peru’s military establishment, which also receives U.S. anti-drug funding. Charges that the Peruvian army and security forces were continuing to take payoffs, to protect the cocaine traffickers that they were supposed to be fighting, have led at times to a withholding of U.S. aid. This is a reminder that Washington bureaucracies are sometimes divided over priorities and the proper choice of allies in third world countries.
Such charges against Fujimori, Montesinos, and the Peruvian military are completely in line with what we have written in this book about Peru over the last two decades (pp. 84, 191). But the pattern of high-level involvement is becoming clearer, and larger, than when we first wrote. In 1995 it was reported that Peruvian police had seized a single shipment of 3.5 tons of pure cocaine worth $600 million; and members of this cartel later admitted to having shipped more than ten tons (worth about $1.8 billion) to Mexico in the previous year. The San Francisco Chronicle also reported from Mexican officials that “Vladimiro Montesinos…and Santiago Fujimori, the president’s brother, were responsible for covering up connections between the Mexican and Peruvian drug mafias.”
Since our book appeared, the world has also received additional information revealing just how important, and coherent, was the pattern of support for the Contras in this period from virtually all of the biggest drug cartels in the region.
For example, CIA aid for the Contras in Costa Rica was channeled chiefly through the tightly-controlled Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador, a base where the real power was exercised by a U.S. Colonel responsible for Contra support. The local DEA Agent at the time, Celerino Castillo, has since charged that two hangars there under CIA and Oliver North’s control doubled as depots for major cocaine shipments. Castillo claims that his documented reports on Ilopango to DEA in Washington were never acted on. Certainly a number of known drug traffickers flew regularly in and out of Ilopango, a drug plane given over to the Contras and CIA was stationed there, and Ilopango allegedly served as a base for American drug networks such as the notorious “Company,” which distributed drugs through the entire United States.
Castillo was kept under wraps by the DEA during his service in Central America and was not called to testify before the Kerry Committee, which investigated links between the Contras, drugs, and the U.S. government in the 1980s. His first-hand account was published in Canada, and has been almost entirely ignored in the U.S. media.
The Miami drug trial of former Panamanian strongman in 1991, after this book went to press, also supplied intriguing new details about the Central American connection. Manuel Noriega was at one time also a Contra supporter, and his initial drug indictment in 1988 was for shipments with pilots who were at the same time flying aid for Contra camps in Costa Rica. (This potentially embarrassing charge was ultimately dropped.)
Some of the Government’s witnesses against Noriega provided more information than the show trial was scripted for. To quote from a 1991 Washington Post editorial, “What is one to make of the riveting assertion, made by a convicted Colombian drug kingpin at Manuel Noriega’s Florida drug trial, that the Medellin cartel gave $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras? Carlos Lehder is a key prosecution witness; the U.S. government cannot lightly assail his credibility.”
This was not the only embarrassment for the U.S. Government caused by Noriega’s trial. In 1995 it was reported that one of the government’s chief witnesses against Noriega, former co-defendant Ricardo Bilonick, had been paid $1.2 million for his testimony by leaders of the Cali cartel. This confirmed our speculations that Noriega’s downfall followed his having sided with the Medellin cartel against their more established competitors in Cali (see pp. 73, 82).
Since we wrote it has also become more clear just how cynical were the government’s claims that the apprehension of Noriega would help constrain the hemispheric drug traffic. Within a year of Noriega’s ouster, U.S. drug agents admitted that the Cali cartel had turned Panama into a financial and logistics base for flooding North America and Europe with cocaine. And U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton complained in 1993 that Panamanian authorities had not arrested a single person for the crime of money laundering in the three and a half years after Noriega’s capture in a bloody U.S. invasion.
Washington’s proclivity to tolerate, protect and reinforce the influence of third-world drug traffickers didn’t die with the end of the Reagan-Bush years. Indeed, the Clinton Administration, guided by White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, has consistently asked for large increases in counternarcotics aid to compromised Latin American police and military forces. To enlist support for this, he has helped revive the discredited propaganda bogey of the “narco-guerrilla” (see pp. 94-98, 191). As a critical New York Times editorial observed, “Until taking the drug czar job, General McCaffrey was head of the United States army Southern Command, which worked with Latin militaries and police to fight cocaine. He knows that the overseas programs have succeeded largely in pushing cocaine from country to country.”
Such funding priorities must be repudiated. The misnamed “War on Drugs,” a pernicious and misleading military metaphor, should be replaced by a medically and scientifically oriented campaign towards healing this country’s drug sickness. The billions that have been wasted in military anti-drug campaigns, efforts which have ranged from the futile to the counter-productive, should be re-channeled into a public health paradigm, emphasizing prevention, maintenance, and rehabilitation programs. The experiments in controlled de-criminalization which have been initiated in Europe should be closely studied and emulated here.
A root cause of the governmental drug problem in this country (as distinguished from a broader social drug problem) is the National Security Act of 1947, and subsequent orders based on it. These in effect have exempted intelligence agencies and their personnel from the rule of law, an exemption which in the course of time has been extended from the agencies themselves to their drug-trafficking clients. This must cease. Either the President or Congress must proclaim that national security cannot be invoked to protect drug-traffickers. This must be accompanied by clarifying orders or legislation, discouraging the conscious collaboration with, or protection of, criminal drug-traffickers, by making it clear that such acts will themselves normally constitute grounds for prosecution.
Clearly a campaign to restore sanity to our prevailing drug policies will remain utopian, if it does not contemplate a struggle to realign the power priorities of our political system. Such a struggle will be difficult and painful. For those who believe in an open and decent America, the results will also be rewarding.