On July 19, 1979, the Sandinistas took control of the capital city of Managua in Nicaragua during their successful overthrow of the brutal US-backed Anastasio Somoza regime. This event is of course a cause of jubilant celebration and pride in Nicaragua, as well as among socialists worldwide. It should also be a moment to understand that marginalized people in the US are connected to the socialist revolution in that country, and to all people in the Americas, because we were the victims of a war the US government waged upon us all as it sought to undermine Nicaraguan self-determination, as well as our own.
President Jimmy Carter’s focus on ‘human rights’ influenced his policies toward Nicaragua, when he suspended military aid to the country in light of the human rights abuses and after Somoza refused international observations of elections. Previously, Carter tolerated the rampant corruption of the Somoza family and the brutal repression of Somoza’s National Guard, particularly since Somoza was a virulent anti-communist and the family’s 40-year regime provided a bulwark in Central America against the United States’ sworn enemy, Cuba. But the abuses were laid bare and could not be ignored after the devastating 1972 earthquake in Managua. Without US support, the Somoza government was replaced when the Sandinistas formed a coalition with moderate opposition forces, resulting in the installation of an interim successor and victorious Sandinista forces entering Managua on July 19, 1979. They went on to oversee the installment of the PG, renamed the Government of National Reconstruction (GNR).
Carter then met with members of the GNR in the White House in September 1979 and resumed supplemental aid funding to Nicaragua and Central America: $75 million for Nicaragua and $5 million for other Central American states. The condition was that they “respect democratic values and human rights,” and not allow foreign forces in Nicaragua to threaten the security of the United States or any of its Latin American allies, which is imperialist-speak for keep communist Soviet Union and Cuba out of Nicaraguan affairs.
But when President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, his opening salvo in his attack on the Sandinista government was to cancel the final $15 million payment of the $75 million aid package to Nicaragua. On November 17, 1981, he then signed National Security Directive 17, authorizing the provision of covert support to anti-Sandinista forces. On December 1, 1981, Reagan signed a document intending to conceal the November 17 authorization of anti-Sandinista operations, claiming that the United States’ goal in Nicaragua was to stop the flow of arms from Nicaragua to El Salvador, where leftist guerrillas were receiving aid from Sandinista forces.
In late 1982 Congress approved $24 million for aid to the Contras, significantly less than what the Reagan administration wanted; supplemental funds had to be raised to fund the counter-revolutionary Contras in Reagan’s war against the Marxist Sandinistas. Aside from approaching other countries through secret channels for monetary support, like the $1 million per month that Robert McFarlane convinced Saudi Arabia to contribute through a secret bank account set up by National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, how did the Reagan Administration and the Contra network raise money for weapons? By selling drugs, of course.
Contra Cocaine Trafficking Funds War Against Sandinistas
The National Security Archive at George Washington University is an invaluable trove of documents on The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations. This includes the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, who helped run the contra war and other Reagan administration covert operations, which shows that North was well aware of Contra ties to drug trafficking. And if North knew, so did other US officials.
For example, in his entry from August 9, 1985, North summarizes a meeting with Robert Owen (“Rob”), his liaison with the contras. They discuss a plane used by Mario Calero, brother of Adolfo Calero, head of the FDN (Frente Democratico Nacional) or the Contras, to transport supplies from New Orleans to Contras in Honduras. North writes: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.” North later claimed that he passed this intelligence on drug trafficking to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, but there is no evidence that he ever did that.
In a July 12, 1985 entry, North noted a call from retired Air Force General Richard Secord, in which the two discussed a Honduran arms warehouse from which the Contras planned to purchase weapons. According to the notebook, Secord told North that “14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also documented Contra involvement in drug dealing. In February 1987, Dennis Ainsworth, a Berkeley-based conservative activist and Contra supporter told the FBI that “he has certain information in which he believes the Nicaraguan ‘Contra’ organization known as FDN (Frente Democrático Nacional) has become more involved in selling arms and cocaine for personal gain than in a military effort to overthrow the current Nicaraguan Sandinista Government.” Ainsworth’s information came from his extensive contacts with various Contra leaders and backers, which he also provided to the FBI.
US media also knew about Contra drug trafficking. On October 31, 1996, the Washington Post ran a follow-up story to the San Jose Mercury News series titled “CIA, Contras and Drugs: Questions on Links Linger.” The story drew on court testimony in 1990 of Fabio Ernesto Carrasco, a pilot for a major Columbian drug smuggler named George Morales. As a witness in a drug trial, Carrasco testified that in 1984 and 1985, he piloted planes loaded with weapons for Contras operating in Costa Rica. The weapons were offloaded, and then drugs stored in military bags were put on the planes which flew to the United States. “I participated in two [flights] which involved weapons and cocaine at the same time,” he told the court.
Contra operatives trafficked drugs — marijuana and cocaine mostly — to buy weapons to defeat the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. High-ranking US officials were not only fully aware of this but approved of the drug trafficking because it supplemented what they considered insufficient US government funding to the Contras. US law enforcement agencies and the media were in on it, but no effort was made to put a stop to any of it. This is part of the origin story, if you will, of the crack cocaine epidemic in the US, which ravaged working-class and poor mostly Black and Latinx communities. Everyone involved was willing to accept this devastation as collateral damage to carry out Reagan’s war against the Sandinistas, and his larger obsession with stopping the influence of communism in Latin America.
Everyone not only accepted the devastation that was unleashed upon the most vulnerable communities in the US, they played an active role in demonizing its victims, and not just in the US.
How Contra Cocaine Trafficking Led To Crack
What has been difficult to understand about the crack epidemic in the US for the layperson watching it emerge, was how exactly did the crack epidemic happen. Gary Webb’s blockbuster San Jose Mercury News series, Dark Alliance, purported to expose not only the connections between the CIA, the Contras, and the crack cocaine epidemic in the US, but also pointed to who Webb alleged were the primary drivers of that epidemic in the US:- drug “kingpins” Ricky Donnell “Freeway” Ross’ and Oscar Danilo Blandon.
However, crack cocaine had been around for some time in the US when they became involved in drug trafficking, and in court testimony, Ross confirmed that when he said that he was taught how to make crack from someone else. In fact, the archives of the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of Justice contains a document chronicling almost the literal history of crack cocaine in the US, while also revealing several incredibly important details that help fill in the blanks about how the crack epidemic happened.
The document notes that Dr. Ronald Siegel, a UCLA researcher who researched and documented freebasing practices, believed that crack cocaine was imported to the United States in the early 1970s by US cocaine smugglers who observed coca paste smoking while in South America. He is reported to have interviewed a drug trafficker in 1974 who conveyed his experience with smoking coca paste:
“[S]moking base (coca paste) is incredibly euphoric, just like shooting it [intravenously]. We don’t want too many people knowing about it because it will get out of hand. It’s incredibly addicting. But you need a lot of coke to make it, so only dealers will probably do it.”
Due to the age of the original monograph from Dr. Siegel, it is unavailable online, however the same OIG archives point to an interview Gary Webb did with the publication Revolutionary Worker, in which Webb says:
“[T]he technology to make crack had been around for a while. I found evidence that there were recipes floating around on how to do this conversion from powder to crack with baking soda in the late ’70s. The problem was, there just wasn’t enough cocaine out there to do it with. And it was too expensive. And what we found was that when you brought in a large quantity of very cheap cocaine, suddenly people that knew how to make crack had the wherewithal to make it. It was the raw material — these folks supplied the new material for this crack problem. And that was the connection. It wasn’t a situation where the CIA invented crack, or the Contras were bringing in crack. They were just bringing in powder and the drug users on the street had this knowledge of how to do it for a while but didn’t have the material to do it with.”
Here, I believe, is the critical connection between the crack epidemic and Contra cocaine trafficking – that Contra involvement in cocaine trafficking increased the availability of cocaine in the US so much that it drove the prices of the drug down, making it more accessible to existing drug dealers who could now sell the drug in poorer communities and make an enormous profit. Consider that the OIG document references a 1991 monograph Epidemiology of Cocaine and Abuse by Maurice Rinfret, who documented that at the beginning of the 1980s, the national wholesale price for a kilogram of cocaine hydrochloride ranged from $47,000 to $70,000. By the end of the 1980s, the national wholesale price dropped to between $10,000 and $38,000. Despite the increased effort by US law enforcement agencies to stop the growing flow of cocaine into the US, the amount of wholesale cocaine continued to rise throughout the 1980s because of Contra involvement in trafficking cocaine.
Contras acting as the intermediaries between the producers in Colombia and the buyers in the US funded their shortfall in military aid from the US, which is evidenced by documents in the National Security Archives at George Washington University, such as a February 10, 1986 entry in Oliver North’s notebook that reflects that a plane owned by Miami-based company Vortex that was being used to carry “humanitarian aid” to the Contras was previously used to transport drugs. Michael Palmer, who was at the time one of the largest marijuana traffickers in the United States, owned Vortex, and had a well-known and long history of drug smuggling; he would eventually be indicted on drug charges, but not before he was vetted by US officials and was paid over $300,000 from the Nicaraguan Humanitarian Aid Office (NHAO) — an office overseen by Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and CIA officer Alan Fiers — to ferry supplies to the contras.
Then there was the New York Times article published in 1996 that detailed the plan to enlist notorious Panamanian leader and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega. Journalist Seymore Hersh broke this story and wrote that the plan Oliver North cooked up was contingent upon how if “…U.S. officials can “help clean up his image” and lift the ban on arms sales to the Panamanian Defense Force, Noriega will “‘take care of’ the Sandinista leadership for us.” North told Reagan’s National Security Advisor John Poindexter that Noriega could assist with sabotage against the Sandinistas for a million dollars, to be paid from “Project Democracy” funds raised from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran, for the Panamanian leader’s help in destroying Nicaraguan economic installations.
The plan went so far as to include several meetings and communications between North, officials in the CIA, and a meeting between North and Noriega himself, and was only scuttled when the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November 1986.
The National Security Archives contains much more evidence of Contra trafficking of Colombian cocaine, and a 1996 article from the Institute for Policy Studies further provides a history of the CIA’s involvement in drug smuggling in other theaters of interest since the end of WWII, and buttresses Gary Webb’s assertions of not just CIA involvement in facilitation the crack epidemic in the US, but implicates the entire US government!
At the time, despite the insurmountable evidence of Contra drug trafficking sanctioned by the Regan administration that we now have access to, the CIA was able to exploit the vicious media campaign against Webb because of the relatively insignificant flaws in his reporting, such as crediting Ross and Blandon with being the primary drivers of the crack epidemic across the country, by simply watching the nation’s outrage at the story Webb broke turn to sympathy for the CIA as the media mercilessly discredited, and ultimately destroyed him.
So these fine and certainly not complete, but very important, details of how the Reagan administration’s war on the Marxist/Leninist Sandinistas in Nicaragua contributed to the crack cocaine epidemic we endured in the US were lost in the enormity and the complexity, as well as the obvious government obfuscation, of this scandal. But these details were not the only factors that obscured the US government’s role in the crushing drug crisis we faced domestically as collateral damage in US imperialism’s crusade against communism, inextricably tying our fate with the Sandinista revolution and its beneficiaries, which also connects our aspirations to them and others in similar situations.
Domestic neoliberal policies under Reagan, public sentiment and policy responses to the crack epidemic and its victims, and the War on Drugs itself also cast a net of suffering so wide that it blanketed not just working class and poor communities in the US with the misery of addiction, but ensnared Nicaraguans in that same net.
More on this, and why I was compelled to write this series, in part two.