The Consortium

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 underlying facts.

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 his experiences.

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.

Drug Trails

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 powder.

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 Marshall.]


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. government.

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 control.

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 drug shipment.

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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