Hung Out to Dry: 'Dark Alliance' Series Dies
By Georg Hodel
The "Dark Alliance" contra-crack series, which I co-reported with Gary
Webb, has died with less a bang or a whimper than a gloat from the
"The San Jose Mercury News has apparently had enough of
reporter Gary Webb and his efforts to prove that the CIA was involved in
the sale of crack cocaine," announced Washington Post media
critic Howard Kurtz, who has written some of the harshest attacks on Webb.
"Editors at the California newspaper have yanked Webb off the story and
told him they will not publish his follow-up articles. They have also
moved to transfer Webb from the state capital bureau in Sacramento to a
less prestigious suburban office in Cupertino."
[WP, June 11, 1997]
Webb got the news on June 5 from executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had
publicly turned against the series several weeks earlier with a personal
column declaring that the stories "fell short of my standards" and failed
to handle the "gray areas" with sufficient care.
[SJMN, May 11, 1997]
In killing the new stories, Ceppos said Mercury News editors had
reservations about the credibility of a principal Webb source, apparently
a reference to convicted cocaine trafficker Carlos Cabezas who has claimed
that a CIA agent oversaw the transfer of drug profits to the contras.
Ceppos also complained that Webb had gotten too close to the story.
Ceppos then ordered Webb to the paper's San Jose headquarters the next day
to learn about his future with the newspaper. On June 6, as that final
decision was coming down, I called Ceppos to protest. I wanted him to
understand the human as well as journalistic costs of what he was doing,
not just to Webb but to other journalists associated with the story in
Nicaragua where I have worked for more than a decade.
I thought he should know that his decision to distance himself from the
"Dark Alliance" series -- combined with earlier attacks from major
American newspapers -- had increased the dangers to me and others who have
been pursuing this story in the field.
Just as Webb has been under personal attack in the United States, I have
faced efforts from former contras to tear down my reputation in
Nicaragua. Ex-contras also have harassed Nicaraguan reporters who have
tried to follow up the contra-cocaine evidence.
In one paid advertisement, Oscar Danilo Blandon, a drug trafficker who has
admitted donating some cocaine profits to the contras in the early 1980s,
called me a "pseudo-journalist" and accused me of having some unspecified
links to an "international communist organization." Blandon also accused
Nicaraguan reporters from El Nuevo Diario of "trying to
manipulate" members of the U.S. Congress looking into the contra-cocaine
Former contra chief Adolfo Calero declared in an article in La Tribuna
what he thought should be done to these politically suspect Nicaraguan
and foreign reporters. He used metaphorical language that refers to
leftist Nicaraguan journalists as "deer" and fellow-traveling foreign
reporters as "antelopes." "The deer are going to be finished off," Calero
wrote on Feb. 2. "In this case, the antelopes as well." As a Swiss
journalist, I would be an "antelope."
Less subtly, there have been threatening phone calls to my office. In
late May, a male voice shouted obscenities at me over the phone and
threatened to "screw" my wife who is a Nicaraguan lawyer representing
Enrique Miranda, one of the Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers who has spoken
with congressional investigators.
Earlier I had sent Ceppos a letter which complained that his May 11
"column provoked ... a series of very unfortunate reactions that seriously
affect my working environment and exposes unintentionally everybody here
who has been involved in this investigation." In the phone conversation
on June 6, Ceppos first denied having received the letter, but then
admitted that he had it. Still, he refused my request that the letter be
A Clear Message
My appeal also did not stop Ceppos from informing Webb later that day that
the investigative reporter would be transferred to a suburban office 150
miles from his home where he and his wife are raising three young
children. That would mean that Webb would have to relocate from
Sacramento or not see his family during the work week. The message was
clear and Webb did not miss its significance: he saw the transfer as a
clear message that the Mercury News wanted him to quit.
The retributions against Webb were a sad end to the "Dark Alliance" series
which has been enveloped in controversy since it was published in August
1996. The series linked contra cocaine shipments in the early 1980s to a
Los Angeles drug pipeline that first mass-marketed "crack" cocaine to
The series drew especially strong reactions from the African-American
community which has been devastated by the crack epidemic. In fall 1996,
however, The Washington Post and other major newspapers began
attacking the series for alleged overstatements. The papers also mocked
African-Americans for supposedly being susceptible to baseless "conspiracy
The furor obscured the fact that "Dark Alliance" built upon more than a
decade of evidence amassed by journalists, congressional investigators and
agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration who found numerous
connections between the contras and drug traffickers. Some of that
evidence was compiled in a Senate report issued in 1989. Other pieces
came out during the Iran-contra scandal and still more during the
drug-trafficking trial of Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1991.
But the contras were always defended by the Reagan-Bush administrations
which saw the guerrillas as a necessary geo-political counterweight to the
leftist Sandinista government that ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s. With a
few exceptions, the mainstream media joined the White House in protecting
the contras -- and the CIA -- on the drug-trafficking evidence.
[For more details about the controversy, see Robert Parry's Lost
History: Contras, Cocaine & Other Crimes or I.F. Magazine,
Still, from time to time, even The Washington Post has
acknowledged legitimate concerns about contra drug trafficking. Last
fall, for instance, after initiating the attacks on "Dark Alliance," the
Post ran a front-page article describing how Medellin cartel
trafficker George Morales "contributed at least two airplanes and $90,000
to" one of the contra groups operating in Costa Rica. The story quoted
contra leaders Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo "Popo" Chamorro as admitting
receipt of the contributions, although they insisted that they had cleared
the transactions with their contact at the CIA.
[WP, Oct. 31, 1996]
The Post did not mention the name of that contact, an omission
that angered Chamorro. He told me that the CIA man was Alan Fiers, who
served as chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force in the
mid-1980s. Fiers has denied any illicit involvement with drug
traffickers, although he testified to the congressional Iran-contra
investigators that he knew that among the Costa Rican-based contras, drug
trafficking involved "not a couple of people. It was a lot of people."
While admitting some truth to the contra-cocaine allegations, the Post
story stopped short of any self-criticism about the newspaper's failure to
expose the contra-drug problem in the 1980s as the cocaine was entering
the United States. In the Oct. 31, 1996, story, the Post
only noted that "a broad congressional inquiry from 1986 to 1988 ... found
that CIA and other officials may have chosen to overlook evidence that
some contra groups were engaged in the drug trade or were cooperating with
The Post then added obliquely: "But that probe caused little
stir when its report was released." With that indirect phrasing, the
Post seemed to be shunting off blame for the "little stir" onto
the congressional report. The newspaper did not explain why it buried the
Senate report's explosive findings on page A20. [WP, April 14, 1989].
Instead, last fall, the Post and other big papers focused
almost exclusively on alleged flaws in "Dark Alliance."
When that drumbeat of criticism began, Ceppos initially defended the
series. He wrote a supportive letter to the Post (which the
newspaper refused to publish). But the weight of the attacks from major
newspapers and leading journalism reviews eventually softened up the
Mercury News. Inside the paper, young staffers feared that the
controversy could hurt their chances of getting hired by bigger
newspapers. Senior editors fretted about their careers in the
Knight-Ridder chain, which owns the Mercury News.
In the meantime, Webb and I continued following contra-drug leads in
Nicaragua and the United States. The new information eventually became
the basis for Webb's submission of four new stories to Ceppos. Webb has
described these stories as completed drafts although Ceppos called them
Though I have not seen Webb's drafts, I know they include two stories
relating to witnesses in Nicaragua who were part of the cocaine networks
of Norwin Meneses, a longtime Nicaraguan drug trafficker who was based in
San Francisco and who collaborated closely with senior contra leaders.
Meneses's operation surfaced with the so-called Frogman case in 1983 when
the FBI and Customs captured two divers in wet suits hauling $100 million
worth of cocaine ashore at San Francisco Bay. The federal prosecutor
ordered $36,020 captured in that case be given to the contras who claimed
it was their money.
For the new "Dark Alliance" stories, we interviewed Carlos Cabezas who was
convicted of conspiracy in the Frogman case. Cabezas insisted that a CIA
agent -- a Venezuelan named Ivan Gomez -- oversaw the cocaine operation to
make sure the profits went to the contras, not into the pockets of the
Last year, Cabezas outlined his claims in a British ITV documentary.
"They told me who he [Gomez] was and the reason that he was there,"
Cabezas said. "It was to make sure that the money was given to the right
people and nobody was taking advantage of the situation and nobody was
taking profit that they were not supposed to. And that was it. He was
making sure that the money goes to the contra revolution."
The ITV documentary, which aired on Dec. 12, 1996, quoted former CIA Latin
American division chief Duane Clarridge as denying any knowledge of either
Cabezas or Gomez. Clarridge directed the contra war in the early 1980s
and was later indicted on perjury charges in connection with the
Iran-contra scandal. He was pardoned by President George Bush in 1992.
The new "Dark Alliance" stories also would have examined the claims of
other contra-connected drug witnesses in Nicaragua as well as the career
problems confronted by DEA agents when they uncovered evidence of contra
drug trafficking. But prospects that the full contra-cocaine story will
ever be told in the United States have dimmed with the shutting down of
I am also afraid that Ceppos's decision to punish Webb will strengthen the
campaign of intimidation inside Nicaragua. But beyond the personal costs
to Webb and me, Ceppos's actions sent a chilling message to all
journalists who some day might dare investigate wrongdoing by the CIA and
What's especially troubling about this new "Dark Alliance" tale is that
the investigative spotlight was turned off not by the government, but by
the national news media. ~
(c) Copyright 1997
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