Contra-Crack Guide: Reading Between the Lines
By Jerry Meldon
A year ago, the Big Media cast out the issue of the CIA and contra crack
from the realm of respectable debate. In lengthy front-page articles,
The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times deemed
an investigative series by Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News
flawed and simplistic. The papers claimed victory when Webb's editor Jerry
Ceppos agreed that the original series wasn't perfect.
Now, the other shoe is falling. The inspectors general of the CIA and the
Justice Department are completing investigations that will clear the CIA
and the Justice Department of wrongdoing. The results of those
investigations were leaked out in mid-December, but scheduled releases of
the actual reports were postponed. The delays meant that the supposed
findings could get major media play without any examination of the
According to the Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno requested
a delay in that report's release for "law-enforcement reasons." Department
officials would not specify what those reasons were, but apparently there
is fear that the report contains information that might jeopardize an
ongoing federal criminal case.
A broader CIA investigation into the question of Nicaraguan contra
connections to the drug trade -- outside CIA control -- continues. But it
is unclear how much information the spy agency will divulge, especially
given the mainstream media's eagerness to put the issue to rest.
Those, like Webb, who challenged the official orthodoxy on the CIA's
innocence have paid dearly. Webb was pushed into resigning his job, a purge
made official with an announcement by the Mercury News on Dec. 12.
Reached at his home in California, Webb said he is working on a book about
Still, the new government reports whenever issued seem likely to pour just
one more layer of cover-up on top of an already thick foundation. Over the
past half century, the federal government -- and the Washington news media
-- have never accepted what appears as obvious fact to many outsiders: that
CIA covert actions and drug trafficking go together like horse and
carriage, like hand and glove, like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.
You might use this article as a guide for reading between the lines of
whatever official words are uttered in the new government reports and
press stories that follow.
The first test will be whether the new government reports face up to the
seamy history. In particular, look for any reference to two heroin-stained
covert operations: in Indochina in the 1960s and '70s and in Afghanistan in
the 1980s. Both were well documented by Alfred McCoy in his landmark book,
The Politics of Heroin.
The second point of reference will be how the reports finesse the
overwhelming evidence of Nicaraguan contra-connected cocaine trafficking.
This unsavory reality was documented ad nauseam in "Drugs, Law Enforcement
and Foreign Policy," a 1989 Senate Foreign Relations report based on
hearings chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
The new reports also might have some difficulty explaining past admissions
by frank senior government officials. Gen. Paul F. Gorman, head of the U.S.
Southern Command, acknowledged in 1984 that "substantial evidence links
drugs, money and arms networks in Central America. The fact is, if you want
to go into the subversion business, collect intelligence, and move arms,
you deal with drug movers."
Gorman knew what he was talking about, situated as he was in Panama City,
next door to Gen. Manuel Noriega, who had been recruited by CIA director
William J. Casey and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North to help the contras. Noriega,
of course, is now incarcerated in federal prison for drug trafficking.
While Noriega helped the contras from the south, the Honduran military and
other drug-connected friends pitched in from the north. One was Juan Ramon
Matta Ballesteros, whose rap sheet dates back at least to 1970 when he was
arrested at Dulles Airport on drug-related charges and was sentenced to five
years in prison. Matta escaped before spending a year behind bars.
By 1975, Matta had linked Mexican and Colombian traffickers, giving a major
boost to the fledgling cocaine industry. Three years later, Matta financed
a coup d'etat by the military in his native Honduras, a putsch that
transformed the banana republic into a transit point for northbound white
By 1983, Matta had been identified in a U.S. Customs report as a Class I
DEA violator. He also was linked by the DEA to an airline with the acronym,
SETCO, that was run by "American businessmen dealing with Matta [and]
smuggling narcotics into the United States."
Despite such lineage, SETCO was hired as "the principal company used by the
contras in Honduras to transport supplies and personnel ... from 1983 to
1985," according to the Senate Foreign Relations report. Then, despite
Matta's tie to the 1985 murder of star DEA agent Enrique Camarena in
Guadalajara, Mexico, the State Department in 1986 renewed SETCO's contract
to supply the contras.
Matta is now serving dual life sentences for murder and narcotics
trafficking. You might look his name up in the indexes to the new
government contra-cocaine reports. [For more details from a non-government
source, see Cocaine Politics by Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan
Another name worth checking out is that of Syrian-born Manzer Al-Kassar,
who boasts a similar drug resume -- and a relationship with the U.S.
Reader's Digest reported in 1986 that Al-Kassar had supplied arms
and explosives "for terrorist operations in France, Spain and Holland" and
sold "silencer-equipped assassination pistols, rockets and other weapons"
to Libya, Iran, South Yemen and Lebanon." The article also linked Al-Kassar
to heroin deals involving up to 100 kilos (220 pounds). Two years earlier,
the DEA had classified Al-Kassar as a major drug trafficker.
Yet, when the Reagan administration's Iran-contra operations were exposed
in 1986, the ledgers of Oliver North's "Enterprise" revealed that it had
paid $1.5 million for contra arms shipments to the same Manzer Al-Kassar.
See how that is explained.
Then, there's the more recent case of former Venezuelan Gen. Ramon Guillen
Davila. A year ago, Guillen was indicted on charges of shipping up to 22
tons of cocaine to the United States between 1987 and 1991. According to
the Miami Herald, Guillen was the CIA's most trusted man in
Venezuela and the senior official collaborating with the CIA on narcotics
Guillen claims the CIA knew all along what he was doing. To date he has
successfully resisted extradition, but an accomplice, Adolfo Romero Gomez,
was convicted in Miami last October on cocaine trafficking charges. A key
witness testified that he overheard Romero and Guillen discussing deals
with the Cali cartel.
You might check, too, to see how the new reports deal with DEA agents who
tried to blow the whistle during the 1980s. Just as the contra-connected
drug trade was heating up, the Reagan administration closed the DEA office
in Honduras. But from Guatemala City, DEA agent Celerino Castillo III began
investigating reports of illegal drug activity at the Ilopango air base in
El Salvador, the home of North's contra resupply operation.
As Castillo describes in his autobiography, Powder Burns, his
reports on the drug trafficking of contra suppliers were initially ignored.
Later, they were criticized for grammatical errors. Then, he was told to
stay away from El Salvador and threatened with charges of improper conduct.
Finally, after receiving threats against his family, he quit.
Another curiosity -- given the CIA's 50 years of covert activities, often
side by side with drug traffickers -- is the absence of a single publicly
known criminal charge against a CIA officer for succumbing to the temptation
to accept a bribe or to abuse the job's secrecy by aiding and abetting a
Perhaps, the new government reports -- whenever the American citizenry is
allowed to peruse them -- will explain how the CIA found and recruited
individuals of such exemplary character. ~
(c) Copyright 1998
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