Weekly News Update on the Americas
Nicaragua Solidarity Network of NY

In August 1996 the San Jose Mercury News of San Jose, California, ran a series detailing how a group of rightwing Nicaraguans supplied cocaine to one of Los Angeles' leading crack distributors in the 1980s and sent at least some of the profits to support the Nicaraguan contras, a rebel army set up and largely directed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Larger mainstream US media such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post launched a campaign to discredit the well-documented Mercury News series. The Mercury News -- a respected regional newspaper with a popular Web site -- finally printed a partial retraction in May 1997, and the series' author, Gary Webb, was reassigned to the paper's suburban bureau.

The implication of the media campaign against Webb and the Mercury News was that no reputable journalist or publication would ever suggest that the US government -- which claims to be leading the fight against the world drug trade -- might have tolerated drug trafficking by its own employees.

The European media took a different view of the story. In December 1996, at the height of the anti-Webb campaign, Great Britain's ITV television network broadcast a program presenting charges by a pro-contra Nicaraguan pilot that the CIA -- far from just tolerating drug running by the contras -- actually encouraged and directed the operation. The ITV story was given favorable coverage by The Independent, a reputable left-of-center British daily [see Update #359].

Alibi for Intervention?

In fact, over the last two years several stories have appeared in Europe's mainstream media that make the Mercury News charges appear quite tame.

This April France's very Establishment Le Monde Diplomatique ran two articles on the drug war. The first -- by Mariano Aguirre, director of Madrid's Center of Investigation for Peace -- was entitled "Militarization of the Struggle Against Drugs, Washington's Alibi." "The war on drugs seems to have replaced the 'counterinsurgency doctrine' applied by Washington during the 1980s," Aguirre writes. "It allows for a new American 'interventionism,' especially of a military type." After detailing US military involvement in anti-drug operations in Latin America, Aguirre asks: "Could the US use this infrastructure to carry out interventions of an imperialist character, as in the past? ...[I]t is clear that by accumulating information and keeping an important military support structure in place, Washington has means at its disposal that could prove to be quite useful for controlling one or another Latin American country." An accompanying graphic parodies the US dollar bill, showing George Washington with dark glasses and a thick moustache in the style of the late Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

A second article, by Maurice Lemoine, deals with the activities of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Bolivia. Lemoine states as a matter of fact that after "narco-general" Luis Garcia Meza seized power on July 17, 1980, "the CIA had its hands free to finance its Central American operations thanks to cocaine produced in a secret workshop in Huanchaca, located 700 km from Santa Cruz and 550 km from Trinidad." In 1986 the DEA was accused of "cocaine trafficking, encubrimiento (receipt of stolen goods), [and] financing Nicaragua's contras with the money from the drugs produced at that location ... since [the DEA] knew about the drug factory and said nothing about it." A Congress member from the Revolutionary Front of the Left (FRI), Edmundo Salazar, was about to demand the expulsion of the DEA's agents from the country; he was assassinated in Santa Cruz on Oct. 10, 1986, shortly after making his charges.

"On Aug. 20, 1992, the government of Jaime Paz Zamora approved decree 23-239," Lemoine continues, "for the purpose of regulating the activities of foreign agents authorized to operate in Bolivia. The government's intention was never carried out. Paz Zamora was later accused -- and with him his party, the Revolutionary Movement of the Left (MIR) -- of having links to drug trafficking. Thanks to information cleverly leaked by ... the DEA" [ellipses in original]. The drug war has had "real effects" on the drug cartels, Lemoine concludes. "But also -- by chance? -- on governments that don't have the good fortune to please Washington: the government of Manuel [Antonio] Noriega in 1989 in Panama, the one in Bolivia that the MIR participated in, and now the government of Colombian president Ernesto Samper Pizano -- often defined as a social democrat. The very neoliberal Ernesto Zedillo [Ponce de Leon], president of Mexico, just like his predecessor, Carlos Salinas [de Gortari], gets off easy." (Le Monde Diplomatique, April 1997)

The DEA Follows the Money

Possibly the most explosive accusations come from a 1995 series in the Spanish weekly Cambio16 España, by Carlos Enrique Bayo in Washington. More material appeared in 1996; all this was reprinted in the magazine's Colombian edition. The series, "Confessions of an Agent," is said to come from interviews with an active but disillusioned DEA "superagent," identified as "Juan." The agent says he is a Latin American who has worked for the DEA in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and the US; Cambio16 writes that his accounts "have been verified as far as possible during a broad independent investigation by this magazine."

According to "Juan," the US government is chiefly concerned with getting political and economic advantages from the drug trade -- a $50 billion a year business in the US, by his estimate. "The DEA acts only to prevent the flight from the US of hard currency from drug trafficking," the agent claims, "and has 'minimum' limits for the money it will get so that an operation will be profitable, guiding itself principally by this criterion of profitability." "The North American authorities know that most of the drugs enter the US in little consignments transported by modest 'mules' [carriers]. But they don't do anything to slow down this trafficking, which they could stop, because it isn't 'profitable' to take measures against these 'ants.'" But the US interest isn't just economic, "Juan" says: "Washington uses the DEA to pressure other countries politically." At times, the US permits drug trafficking so that it can get information to use to "blackmail foreign governments."

"Juan" says that the US agents he has worked with "are, for the most part, very honest; professionals who know their work and try to do it as best they can... The real corruption isn't in the middle ranks of the struggle against drug trafficking but in the dark heights of a system that only seeks its own benefit." As for this "system," the alleged agent says that it "doesn't want to finish off the trafficking in and consumption of drugs; at times it even encourages [trafficking], despite being totally aware that [the drug trade] causes tens of thousands of deaths in the US, because [the system] is turning it into an instrument of power." (Cambio16 Colombia, 7/10/95)

Like Lemoine, "Juan" insists that the US has ulterior motives for pressing charges that Colombian president Samper took payoffs from the drug cartels during his 1994 election campaign -- although the agent says that the charges are true. But "Juan" would deny that the US objects to Samper as too social democratic. "[T]he United States wants to get rid of Samper because he isn't capable of forcing the Senate to change the Constitution," which prohibits the extradition of Colombian citizens to other countries, "Juan" says.

"Why is there so much interest in taking the Cali cartel leaders to the US?" Cambio16 asks. "Because with the information that Pallomari has provided" -- "Juan" answers, referring to cartel accountant Guillermo Pallomari, who turned himself in to the US in 1995 -- "the billions of dollars in [drug] fortunes have already been located, and to be able to confiscate them legally it is much less costly and time-consuming, legally, if the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers [leaders of the Cali Cartel] and the others of the Cali cartel are in US territory. If they make a deal in the US, plead guilty and cut a deal with the prosecutors in exchange for reduction of sentences and other benefits, the confiscation of all those assets and properties is automatic. Otherwise, a judicial proceeding could take five, ten or even twenty years.

"In addition," continues "Juan," "in the exchange they will have to reveal all the details of the drug trafficking and money laundering networks that they control in the US, and that will bring the Treasury many more billions. Immense quantities are at stake, comparable to the public deficit of the US."

The Santacruz Londono Case

There is no way to verify "Juan's" claims either of being a DEA agent or of having inside information on the US government's motives. His charge that Mexican president Zedillo's 1994 campaign took money from the Cali cartel led to threats of legal action from Mexico, forcing Cambio16 to "reevaluate," as the magazine describes it.

But one of the supposed agent's charges seems to have received striking confirmation. The Cali cartel's number three person, Jose Santacruz Londono, escaped the high security prison in Bogota known as La Picota on Jan. 11, 1996. At the end of the month, "Juan" contacted Cambio16 to say that the CIA had organized the escape and that they had now located Santacruz. Two US infiltrators reportedly arranged the escape, and were trying to convince Santacruz to leave for Panama or Costa Rica, countries where the DEA would immediately capture him and transport him to the US. "If Santacruz insists on leaving for another country, where the CIA could lose his trail, or on remaining in Colombia, from which it will be impossible to extradite him, he is a dead man... The pertinent instructions have already been given," "Juan" said in January 1996.

Santacruz was shot dead by police agents in Medellin on Mar. 6, 1996 in what authorities called a shootout. Santacruz had eight bullet wounds in his chest; no police agents were wounded, there were no bullet holes in the police agents' cars, and journalists didn't find any bullet casings near the body. According to the daily La Prensa, forensic pathologists who examined the body found signs on the wrists that the cartel chief was handcuffed before he died [see Update #325]. (Cambio16 Colombia, 4/15/96)

Weekly News Update on the Americas * Nicaragua Solidarity Network of NY
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