Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
From Laos to Plan Colombia to the Sudan, the role of the US War on Drugs in promoting war around the globe has taken a terrible toll on humanity.
by Peter Gorman
The war on drugs, as promulgated by the United States, has caused, since its inception, misery of incalculable proportions. In the US, it’s provoked racism, classism and been used to incarcerate millions. It has destroyed both inner cities and rural regions. It is responsible for thousands of deaths to both law officers and offenders. It has given rise to obscene forfeiture laws—intended to go after the property of drug lords but used almost exclusively on small time and otherwise law-abiding drug users. In the name of the War on Drugs we have watched our civil rights and liberties eviscerated—from out right to be secure in our homes to our rights of privacy on telephones and the internet.
Worse, the US economic, military and political power in the last 35 years has had the clout to export its dirty war to every country in the world. And with it, those countries too have watched their incarceration rates rise, their families destroyed, their liberties curtailed. More than that, though, the War on Drugs has created a black market in illegal drugs estimated by the United Nations (in 2003) to be as high as nearly a-trillion dollars a year. And that black market has become a source of funding of nearly every conflict and war—whether declared or covert—in the world in the past three decades.
Drug prohibition didn’t start with the US, however. Conquering peoples have prohibited substances—from hashish to opium to coca leaves—among the conquered since the beginning of history. In modern times, the British and then the British and French used opium as an economic and later military lever in China. But the United States was a quick study, and prohibition pushed by the US set in motion a violent spiral that will never be stopped until the black market is eliminated with drug legalization. Unfortunately, too many factions, movements and whole countries have become addicted to the black market money for legalization to appear likely any time soon.
THE OPIUM WARS: A BRIEF HISTORY
Though it’s been used for thousands of years in a vast swath of territory that stretches 5,000 miles from the former Yugoslavia to Southeast Asia, it wasn’t until the late 1600s that opium was introduced to southern China via India. Reports of its abuse reached the Emperor Yung Chen by the 1720s, and in 1729 he prohibited its sale and use. But Chen’s edict didn’t stop the trade, and in 1750, when the British East India Company assumed control of the Indian states of Bengal and Bihar—the primary opium-growing districts of India—the opium trade in China increased. Realizing that it couldn’t stamp it out, the Chinese rulers declared that all opium shipments would have to go through Canton, in the southern province of Guangzhou, where shipments could be controlled and taxed. Over the next 50-years, the black market of Indian opium in China exploded—in large part because of corrupt Chinese officials who are getting a slice of all the opium coming through Canton—with the British East India Company having a monopoly over the trade. Emperors continued to declare edicts against its importation, sale and consumption but they had little effect on the booming trade.
But in 1839, China’s Emperor decided to enforce the prohibition against opium and destroyed a huge quantity seized from the British East India Company in Canton. Britian responded by attacking several coastal Chinese cities with gunboats. The Chinese were defeated and forced to sign two treaties which opened several ports to British merchants and gave Hong Kong over to the British as well.
Less than 15-years later, in 1856, a second war broke out when a British ship was searched—allegedly illegally—near Canton. British and French troops then took the province of Guangzhou. The treaty formally ending that conflict, legalized the import of opium among other things.
Drug prohibition had had a hand in its first major modern-era wars.
EARLY DAYS OF THE DRUG WAR IN THE US
The first anti-drug law in the US was put in place in San Francisco in 1874, prohibiting the sale or use of opium within the city limits, and limiting its use to Chinese outside the city. It was followed quickly by further laws, prohibiting the use of opium at all, even among the Chinese. Those laws were passed after a lurid scare trumped up by William Randolf Hearst’s newspapers claimed that Chinese opium smokers were luring white women into becoming drug addicts and then forcing them into sexual slavery to pay for their drug habits. In fact, the real scare was that the Chinese, brought to the US to help build the railroads, were good workers and beginning to take jobs in the San Francisco area from whites. The lesson was not lost on future leaders of the Drug War.
During the early years of the 20th century, drug laws were applied not only to opium and its derivatives morphine, heroin and laudanum, but to cocaine as well. They were used alienate and or imprison not only Chinese immigrants, but southern blacks, Mexicans, jazz musicians and poor whites. When marijuana was tossed into the prohibition mix the laws were turned on beats, and then hippies, radical blacks, poor whites and gays. And when the Drug War finally hit high gear, during the early 1970s, it was aimed at inner city blacks and Latinos, poor whites, marijuana smokers of all colors and creeds and anyone who challenged the status quo, from environmentalists to anti-war protesters railing against Vietnam war.
But while prohibition leading to an elimination of the drug trade—on which all social ills have been pinned for more than 100 years—is the mantra of Drug War warriors, in fact, those same warrior have frequently shared beds with the largest and most ruthless drug suppliers in the world. According to Peter Dale Scott in the preface to his book Drugs, Oil and War (Lanham, MD; Rowman and Littlefield, March, 2003), the US CIA “have engendered a US strategy of indirect intervention in Third World countries through alliances with drug-trafficking proxies. This strategy was originally developed in the late 1940s to contain communist China… The result has been a staggering increase in global drug traffic and the mafias assorted with it…”
Almost immediately following the end of World War ll, US Army Intelligence and then the CIA began making its unholy alliances in an effort to stop the spread of communism, which the US was terrified would replace the Nazis and Facists that they’d just defeated. In Italy, the OSS turned to the Cosa Nostra to see that left-leaning politicians didn’t get into office while turning a blind eye to the heroin dealing those mafias were involved in. The strategy worked, though in the long run it led to an Italy in the political and economic grasp of mobsters who were out of control. Similarly, the OSS and later the CIA turned to the Corsican mafia in Marseilles, France, who controlled the Turkish heroin refining and export to the US east coast. The mobs were permitted to run all the heroin into New York City that they wanted in exchange for US security that the French ports on the Meditteranean would always be open to US vessels.
According to Alfred W. McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, the local mobs in both France and Italy were used as CIA assets—and covered with the CIA’s umbrella of protection—for a number of reasons. First, they had large networks that reached into every part of society. They also had funds to carry out their covert operations, were ruthless, and finally, were capable of keeping quiet about their CIA connections should they ever be exposed.
McCoy also notes that at the same time the US CIA was protecting the Corsican mafia in Marseilles, the French government was also benefitting from being in bed with heroin dealers. In a 1991 interview with Paul DeRienzo, McCoy tells of visiting Maurice Belleux, former head of the French equivalent of the CIA and being told that the French financed all their covert operations through monies earned from their control of the Indochina drug trade. The French, McCoy goes on to say, “protected opium trafficking in Laos and northern Vietnam during the colonial war that raged from 1946 to the French defeat in 1964 at Dien Bien Phu.” Among those covert French operations was the organization and funding of their notorious death squads during the Algerian war for independence.
The US was not far behind. When Mao Zedong and his Communist Party of China took power following the Chinese Civil War with the Koumantang in October, 1949, the US immediately sent CIA operatives to Burma, where deals were struck to contain China’s southern border with remnants of the Koumantang who had crossed the border into Burma’s Shah states. The US saw it as vital that China’s communism did not spread into Southeast Asia, and permitted their new assets to fund themselves with the profits from the opium trade.
The US-Southeast Asia partnership lasted 30 years. When the French bowed out of their conflict with Vietnam in 1954, the US CIA and Pentagon stepped in and took over the entire region. In the initial stages of the covert operations, between 1958-1960, the US took over a massive secret army (the Armee Clandistine) the French had initially created made up of Hmong hill tribesmen and troops from Thailand, Taiwan and elsewhere in SE Asia. The CIA and State Department then rigged elections and organized coups at least three times in the next three years in order to prevent the communist Pathet Lao party from inclusion in the Laotian government. The Pathet Lao, allied with the Viet Cong, were contained to a large degree throughout the US-Vietnam war and Laos did not move toward communism. But successfully serving the US interests came with a price. Where the areas of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos met, opium production was an ancient commodity, but the area’s production was traditionally used for the region’s needs, with some opium being shipped into China. With the protection of the CIA, it took less than a decade for The Golden Triangle, the name given the region, to become the number one supplier of raw opium in the world.
In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, McCoy writes that “In the 1960s a combination of factors—American military intervention, corrupt national governments, and international criminal syndicates—pushed Southeast Asia's opium commerce beyond self-sufficiency to export capability. Production of cheap, low-grade no. 3 heroin (3 to 6 percent pure) had started in the late 1950s when the Thai government launched an intensive opium suppression campaign that forced most of her opium habitues to switch to heroin. By the early 1960s large quantities of cheap no. 3 heroin were being refined in Bangkok and northern Thailand, while substantial amounts of morphine base were being processed in the Golden Triangle region for export to Hong Kong and Europe. However, none of the Golden Triangle's opium refineries had yet mastered the difficult technique required to produce high-grade no. 4 heroin (90 to 99 percent pure).
“In late 1969 opium refineries in the Burma-Thailand-Laos tri-border region, newly staffed by skilled master chemists from Hong Kong, began producing limited supplies of high-grade heroin for the tens of thousands of alienated GIs serving in South Vietnam. The U.S. military command in Saigon began getting its first reports of serious heroin addiction among isolated units in early 1970. By September or October the epidemic was fully developed: seemingly unlimited quantities of heroin were available at every U.S. installation from the Mekong Delta in the south to the DMZ in the north.”
The protection given US allies who were supplying heroin to US troops during the Vietnam War era extended to the creation of Air America, a CIA-front that brought food and medical supplies into the remote Golden Triangle area and brought heroin out to Saigon and other ports from where it was shipped to Australia, Hawaii, and mainland USA.
At home in the US, the same dynamic was working. The disastrous covert 1961 CIA operation to invade Cuba and assassinate Fidel Castro, which became known as the Bay of Pigs, also included a mob figure making money on heroin. The plan was to overthrow Fidel Castro—who had, with Che Guevara, overthrown the Cuban government and subsequently nationalized all property belonging to Americans. The plan was concocted during President Eisenhower’s second term in the late 1950s while the Cold War was raging and the threat of Communism as a new Hitler was pushed down the throats of US citizens at every turn. Castro, who was allied with Russia and just miles off the coast of mainland USA, represented a Communist threat too close to home. The CIA convinced Eisenhower to let them train Cuban exiles living in the US to act as a covert army that could invade Cuba. The second part of the plan involved Sam Giancana, head of Chicago’s immensely powerful syndicate, with help from Miami mob boss Santos Trafficante and New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. The three hated Castro for shutting down and confiscating their extravagant gambling nightclubs and whorehouses—as well as drug smuggling routes—in Cuba after he took power.
With the apparent okay of President John Kennedy, who took office not long after the plot was hatched, the CIA, despite knowing that Giancana was in charge of all the heroin trade in the midwest—a trade that grew after alcohol prohibition was rescinded—contacted him with an offer to assassinate Castro after the exiles took the country. The CIA would get him within range of his target and Giancana would make the hit. Giancana was to be paid $150,000 for the hit, and he and the others were to get their Cuban rackets back, and be allowed to continue business as usual in the heroin trade.
The invasion was a dismal failure. Castro knew about it beforehand and the rag-tag invaders were almost all caught—with about 115 of them killed—shortly after they arrived. The failure would later be laid at President Kennedy’s feet because he refused the air cover he’d promised the CIA.
To Giancana, it was an outrageous double-cross by the president, and one compounded when, rather than the protection he was promised, Bobby Kennedy, then the US Attorney General, made putting Giancana in prison a priority. Several authors, including Giancana’s brother Chuck, have said that Giancana claimed that the assassinations of both President Kennedy and later, his brother Bobby, were his doing.
VIETNAM TO LATIN AMERICA: NIXON’S WAR ON DRUGS
In 1968, Richard Milhous Nixon became President of the United States. He’d run on a platform of law-and-order, and was determined to put an end to the heroin epidemic that was growing wildly in the US. The epidemic was the result, in part, of tens of thousands of US soldiers returning home from Vietnam as addicts. It was also the result of the streets simply being flooded with cheap smack, courtesy of the CIA’s covert operations in protecting the drug lords of the Golden Triangle. Nixon, either unable or unwilling to confront the dirty deeds of the CIA in Southeast Asia but still needing to look proactive in his quest to end the heroin scourge, in 1970 declared a war on Turkish opium.
Turkey, the traditional supplier of the French Connection opium in Marseilles—which wound up as heroin on the east coast of the US and Canada—was by 1970, no longer a major player in the opium trade, having been supplanted by the Golden Triangle. Moreover, its poppy fields had the same protections as those in the Golden Triangle, and for similar reasons: In exchange for protection Turkey remained a close ally of the US in a politically unstable region that was threatened by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Both McCoy and Scott have noted that by 1970 Turkey was producing only about 7% of the world’s supply of raw opium (most of which was sold to pharmaceutical houses to make codeine and morphine), with only a fraction of that making its way to the US.
Despite facts to the contrary, Nixon claimed that Turkey was producing “80%” of the heroin consumed in the United States and demanded they stop immediately. Nixon postured that Turkey might be tossed out of NATO—and with that lose its military aid from the US—if they didn’t comply, and his right hand man G. Gordon Liddy suggested that dead US addicts be sent in body bags to Istanbul.
Fortunately, a showdown between Turkey and the US was averted when Turkey’s government was overthrown by its military—in what many suggest was another CIA covert operation—in 1971 and the new Turkish military government made a deal that they would temporarily stop opium production in exchange for Turkish opium farmers being compensated for their loss of income. Nixon agreed, then declared a decisive blow had been struck against heroin.
The US public ate it up and Nixon decided to push even harder with his anti-drug stance. And then, during a June 17, 1971, press conference held while electioneering for a second term as President, Nixon dubbed illegal drugs use “public enemy number one in the United States” and declared a War on Drugs. Two years later, in July, 1973, Nixon, by Executive Order, created the Drug Enforcement Administration by combining all Federal drug control organizations with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD).
But while the War on Drugs slogan—as well as the later creation of the DEA—was instantly popular with conservatives who were putting the blame for all social ills at the feet of drugs and drug addiction, and while domestic arrests for drug began to skyrocket, in fact, drug use grew. By 1972 it had reached an all-time high in the United States to that point (though most of that, as is true still, was marijuana use and not hard drug use). But drug use was growing outside the US as well, producing funds that allowed small militias world wide to enter armed conflicts. In the Golden Triangle, the ruthless warlord and fierce anti-communist Khun Sa, took control of the opium trade throughout the region. In Lebanon, the Maronite Christian Falange picked up a large piece of the Turkish opium trade and used it to build up their militia. In 1976 Syria occupied Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and established a source of domestic production of opium to support for their proxy militia, Hezbollah, formed in 1982. Backed by Syria’s dope money, Hezbollah—made up of Lebanese Shiites—operates out of Lebanon fighting against Isreal and the Lebanese Christians. In a tragic turn of irony, it was dope money—only generated because of the US drug war—which paid for the Hezbollah suicide bombing that killed 200 US marines in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.
COCAINE, the CIA and LATIN AMERICA
Opium and its derivatives weren’t the only drugs paying for wars, however. In the early 1970s, the US CIA began getting in bed with Latin American cocaine barons—as usual, to stop the spread of communism. And as with heroin, the production of cocaine, which had traditionally been a drug for the well-heeled, production skyrocketed under the Agency’s protection.
In 1971 in Bolivia, a military coup placed General Hugo Banzer in power as president. Banzer was an ally of long standing with the US. He had attended the notorious US School of the Americas—where hundreds of murderous central and south American politicians and high-ranking military took courses in torture, civil repression, blackmail, enemy assassination and such in training for their future leadership roles throughout South America. He later was named Bolivia’s Military Attache in Washington, where he received the Pentagon’s Order of Military Merit.
The coup which placed Banzer in the Bolivian presidency was organized by the CIA after General Juan Jose Torres took power in 1970. As noted by author and associate professor of biological engineering at Tufts University Jerry Meldon in an article titled “The Return of Bolivia’s Drug-Stained Dictator (consortiumnews.com), Torres immediately “extended a friendly hand to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Torres also expanded commercial ties with the Soviet Union, nationalized US-owned tin mines and expelled the Peace Corps.”
An early 1971 coup attempt by Banzer was repelled by Torres, but on August 29, with help from the US—including the use of the US Air Force radio system when his own broke down.
For the communist-phobic US, Banzer was a dream: he denationalized the tin-mines, severed ties with Cuba, and began a violent and ruthless campaign against leftist dissidents that left more than 2,000 dead, thousands missing and thousands more raped and tortured. To fund much of his covert killing, Banzer, with the tacit approval of the US CIA, utilized monies from the cocaine black market supplied by his close friend Roberto Suarez, at that time Bolivia’s cocaine king.
Banzer, was ousted in 1978 in a military coup. It was, oddly, as Meldon notes, in the name of saving Bolivia from “international communism.”
Two years later, backed by Suarez’ cocaine money and Klaus Barbie—the Nazi ‘Butcher of Lyons’ who’d been protected by Banzer when the French tried to extradite him to face trial for war crimes—Banzer organized The Cocaine Coup which put two of his hand-picked generals in power. But while the generals, Garcia Meza and Arce Gomez, officially ran the show, it was Banzer’s political clout, Barbie’s muscle, and Suarez’ coke money that ran the country. Under the protective eye of the US, Bolivia’s production of cocaine rose by 2,500 percent—and though Meza and Gomez were ousted in yet another coup after less than two-years in office, Bolivia continued to float on flake as the world’s leading producer throughout the 1980s.
Allowing Bolivia to keep communism at bay on the cocaine trade became a model for the US CIA in other impoverished Latin American countries embroiled in war in the 1980s.
In Peru, interestingly, it was rebels who initially utilized the cocaine trade. The Maoist Shining Path revolt began as a grass-roots movement in Universities in the late 1960s. By 1980 it was performing its first acts of civil war: burning ballot boxes and downing power lines. But it didn’t take long for the revolutionaries to realize that if they were going to have any real power they were going to have to take it, and to take it they were going to need funds. They acquired them by taxing Peru’s cocaine trade, and by 1983 the Shining Path had secured arms. They’d gained substantial peasant support by killing disliked local figures; the support they couldn’t earn they took with violence. Whole towns were slaughtered throughout the 1980s for being considered aligned with the government. On the government side the brutality was equally horrific. Along with Peru’s military, militia’s, also armed with equipment bought via the cocaine trade—with the tacit approval of the US—began to form and attack the Senderos. The militias, known as rondas, were often used as a cover by direct US covert operations teams who eliminated whole towns of peasants thought to be aligned with the Senderos.
Throughout the 1980s the civil war raged; by the time it was over—shortly after the US-backed Alberto Fujimori took office in 1990 and the leadership of the Shining Path was captured (with US covert help)—more than 22.000 had died and 45,000 were missing. About half of each figure was placed equally at the hands of the rebels and the government by a 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Peru’s then-president Alejandro Toledo.
The CIA would continue permitting the use of cocaine to keep Peru stabilized throughout the 1990s, when Alberto Fujimori was president and his right hand man, Vladimiro Montesinos, ran the country. Montesinos, who had been trained at the US School of the Americas, was given $1 million a year to destroy the cocaine crop, which by then was the largest in the world. Instead, Montesinos, a lawyer who had worked with several Colombian Cartel leaders in a professional capacity, used the money to form a secret police, the SIN. The SIN was primarily an information-gathering group: They paid everyone from shoeshine boys to farmers money for leads on who was producing cocaine base. Those producers were then contacted by a Montesinos aide and told they would be paying a tariff. Those who didn’t wound up being offered up to the US DEA—which had a large presence in Peru—and the US could claim that Montesinos was indeed earning his money. But Montesinos was actually protecting all of the coca base makers who did pay. Additionally he struck a deal with the Colombian cartels to have them do all the refining of the base, in exchange for which the Colombians would allow the growing of the coca and the manufacture of the base to be left to Peru. The agreement was permitted tacitly by the CIA because it assured the US that Peru, while not an ally, would remain stable enough to keep from veering toward the left.
The most famous use of the US drug war to aid and abet real war, however, wasn’t in Peru or Bolivia or even Southeast Asia. It was in Nicaragua, and it was the first time that high ranking US government officials were named in connection with the use drug money to fund covert operations.
In 1967, Nicaragua elected Anastasio Somoza Garcia president. The election was merely a formality because the Somoza family—his father and brother had also been presidents—had ruled Nicaragua for more than 30 years. The younger Somoza, schooled in the United States and a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, was an ardent anti-communist, and therefore an ally of the US. But his administration was quickly mired in corruption and human rights violations. By political chicanery he drew up a new constitution that allowed him to run for a second term after a short interval in which he stepped down but maintained control of the Nicaraguan military. When he ran the second time he won, primarily by having all other parties declared illegal. Despite his dismal record on all fronts, his anti-communist stance kept military and humanitarian funding flowing from the US until President Jimmy Carter cut him off in the late 1970s.
By that time, a small political party that had been waging a civil war in Nicaragua, the socialist Sandinista National Loberation Front, had gained considerable backing—including several European countries, the Catholic Church and business groups, and in 1979 they overthrew the Somoza government. Somoza fled to Florida, and a day after he left, the Sandinistas took over. They formed a government and held Nicaragua’s first multi-party elections in 1984, which they won overwhelmingly.
But the Sandanistas didn’t sit well with the US government, which backed a number of independent pro-Somoza, conter-revolutionaries known collectively as the Contras. Initial funding to the Contras came through the CIA when President Ronald Reagan, who took office in 1981, signed a directive authorizing the CIA to support the Contras with $19 million in military aid. But in 1982, the US Congress passed the Boland Amendment, forbidding any additional funding for the Contras. The Contras then turned to cocaine to fund their revolution, aided in their drug trade by high level US officials and military. The Contra supply line was later exposed by a number of sources, most notably Celerino Castillo, a DEA agent on assignment in El Salvador. In an article he wrote for drugwar.com abridging sections of his book, Powder Burns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War, he notes, “At the height of the Contra war, I was stationed in El Salvador for 5 years as the only DEA agent. It was there that I came face to face with the contradictions of my assignments. I started to record intelligence on how known drug traffickers, with multiple DEA files, utilized hangars 4 and 5 [at El Salvador’s Ilopango airport just over the border from Nicaragua] to transport monies and drugs. The Contra supply operations utilized the most readily available capabilities: drug-smugglers, who had the planes and pilots to conduct clandestine flights from South and Central America to all parts of the United States. “Guns down, drugs back,” was the formula.
“I repeatedly warned the U.S. Embassy and DEA Headquarters that my intelligence revealed that the drug profits were being utilized to support the Reagan-Bush backed right-wing “Contras” in Nicaragua and surrounding countries. I was warned several times by DEA and the State Department to shut down my Contra investigations.”
The key man in the Contra operation was Lt. Colonel Oliver North assigned to the US National Security Council Staff.
When the scandal finally broke, the US denied involvement in the drug trade completely. A Congressional investigation in 1988 was largely stymied for reasons of National Security—though North was found guilty of several minor counts of blocking the investigation and so forth, convictions that were later vacated on a technicality.
But North, the Reagan administration and the CIA, while largely given a free ride by Congress, had none the less been exposed for their covert operations utilizing drug money. And in 1987, the Costa Rican National Assembly found Oliver North, the CIA station chief, the US Ambassador to Costa Rica and John Poindexter, the National Security Advisor for the Reagan guilty of running a cocaine smuggling ring out of Costa Rican territory. All four were barred for life from setting food on Costa Rican territory.
The impact on the US from the illegal Contra operations were detailed in Gary Webb’s explosive series Dark Alliance, published by the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. In it, Webb explained how much of the cocaine North et al shipped to the US for the Contras wound up in the hands of a Los Angeles coke dealer and finally on the streets as one of the Ground Zero points of the crack epidemic that swept the US from 1987-1992.
Interestingly, the Contra affair also figured into the death of Kiki Camarena, the most infamous killing of a DEA agent. In the mid-1980s, while most Mexican drug lords were distributing cocaine from Colombia into the US, the Caro-Quintaro clan was growing and moving marijuana.
At it’s height there was more than 10,000 acres being grown and the Caro-Quintero’s seemed immune to both Mexican or American government interference. The Mexicans kept hand-off because government officials at all levels were being paid off. The Americans left the clan alone, according to Celerino Castillo, because Nicaraguan Contras were being trained by American personnel on one of the Caro-Quintero ranches. Kiki Camarena, not aware of the CIA work with the Caro-Quinteros, wound up investigating and later busting them—and in retaliation was later tortured and killed.
It should also be noted that the Contra affair didn’t just affect Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica. According to Bill Weinberg, editor of World War 4 Report (ww4report.com), a website dedicated to dissecting the war on terror, and the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso; London, 2000), Panama, ruled by Manuel Noriega, was vitally involved as well. “The entire time the Contra operation was going on, Panama was used as a transshipment point for the Medellin Cartel, which was producing the cocaine used by the Contras. The US turned a blind eye to it because Noriega—who was trained at the School of the Americas—was our ally.
“Significantly, the US cut Noriega loose with the Panama invasion in 1989 just as the Contra war was winding down and he was perceived as having outlived his usefulness.
“This brings us to Colombia,” says Weinberg, “where the US, in the immediate aftermath of having used the Medellin cartel to fund the counter revolution in Nicaragua, jumped in bed with their rival, the Cali cartel. The DEA and the Colombian military explicitly collaborated with the Cali cartel to hunt down the Medellin cartel leaders, most significantly Pablo Escobar, who certainly knew too much about the Contra affair to be allowed to live.”
While the names of US officials involved in the drug trade were finally exposed during the Contra affair, it wasn’t the only time that happened. In 1987, in a letter to the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, Khun Sa, the warlord who had taken over the Golden Triangle opium trade nearly 15 years earlier, named names as well. The letter reads, in part, “CIA chief in Laos, Theodore Shackly, was in the drug business, having contacts with the Opium Warlord Lor Sing Han and his followers. Santo Trafficano (sic; the correct spelling is Trafficante the head of the Florida mafia) acted as his buying and transporting agent while Richard Armitage handled the financial section with the Banks in Australia. Even after the Vietnam War ended, when Richard Armitage was being posted to the US Embassy in Thailand, his dealings in the drug business continued as before. He was then acting as the US government official concerning with the drug problems in Southeast Asia. After 1979, Richard Armitage resigned from the US Embassy's posting and set up the ‘Far East Trading Company’ as a front for his continuation in the drug trade and to bribe CIA agents in Laos and around the world.”
Armitage, most recently the Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Bush Administration from 2001-2005, has had a long history as a consultant for the US Department of Defense—a CIA boy all the way.
The Reagan Administration, mired down in the Contra investigation at the time of Khun Sa’s letter, ignored it.
One of the CIA’s long-term operations involving the use of drug money for arms—and one which has come back to bite the US in several ways—involved the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1978, civil war erupted in Afghanistan, with insurgents looking to overthrow the Marxist government. The Soviets, backing the government, initially sent in consultants, but was soon drawn into a Vietnam-style conflict, trying to fight a standard war against an enemy which used the impossibly rugged terrain to hit-and-run, then disappear.
The US, backed the insurgency but couldn’t publicly join the fight. Which meant the CIA was brought in—and helped fund the insurgents by allowing their allys to turn to opium growing. “The CIA worked through Pakistan military intelligence and worked with the Afghan guerilla groups who were close to Pakistan military intelligence,” said Alfred McCoy in an interview with Paul DiRienzo. “In 1979 Pakistan had a small localized opium trade and produced no heroin whatsoever. Yet by 1981, according to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, Pakistan had emerged as the world's leading supplier of heroin. It became the supplier of 60% of U.S. heroin supply and it captured a comparable section of the European market…
“Who were the manufacturers? They were all either military factions connected with Pakistan intelligence, CIA allies, or Afghan resistance groups connected with the CIA and Pakistan intelligence.”
The Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989, but the monster created by the CIA didn’t disappear. Not only did the war spawn huge new opium producing and heroin refining regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the same people we looked to as allys against the Russians, most notably Osama bin Laden, have become our worst nightmare.
Bin Laden, once a member of the Saudi elite, was given access to enormous funding by the US CIA—much of it funneled through the Pakistanis and generated by the booming opium trade during the Afghan campaign. His job was to recruit and train mercenaries from throughout the Arab world to fight with the Afghan rebels against the Soviets. That army he constructed later became the core of al-Queda, the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
To create his organization following the end of the Soviet occupation bin Laden generated money from, of all things, the marijuana trade in southern Sudan. “In southern Sudan,” says Weinberg, “the model of guns for drug money is a little different. There was slave labor operating marijuana plantations there in the early 1990s to fund the pro-government warlords who were in control of the southern region. Those warlords were given a free hand to raid rebel villages for slaves who were brought back to the land granted the warlords and put to work on those plantations. The plantations, in turn, generated funding for their arms and the continued conflict.”
Bin Laden was given a free hand to run one of the slave labor plantations and used the money to fund his fledgling al-Queda.
THE WORLD AT WAR TODAY
Afghanistan remains in the news. Following the September 11 attacks the US invaded Afghanistan, where bin Laden was thought to be operating from. The country was then under the grasp of the Taliban, who had reunited Afghanistan following a civil war that factionalized the country after the Soviet withdrawal. Under the leadership of Mullah Muhammad Omar they worked to eliminate corruption and restore peace. But they also brutally enforced a strict version of traditional Sharia Islamic code, which included forbidding women to go to school or working outside the home, the elimination of televisions and radios, they forbade alcohol and tried to uproot the opium trade. Public floggings and executions became regular executions.
Prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan the US CIA permitted the Northern Alliance—a loosely knit alliance of warlords in the country’s north—to fund an insurgency against the Taliban with the opium trade.
The US attack on Afghanistan liberated the country from the Taliban rule but has led to factionalized fighting, not just aimed at the US but at each other again. To fund that fighting, Afghanistan turned to what it had been taught a decade earlier: Opium growing. It is now the world’s largest supplier, by far, of crude opium. The US, having made Afghanistan dependent on opium, is now trying to wipe it out. Ironically, the Taliban, all but left for dead five years ago, are now trying to return to power by earning the loyalty of the opium growers by protecting them from the US and their allies in the current war.
War continues to rage in Colombia as well. The civil conflict has now been going on for nearly 40 years, and it’s being paid for on all sides by cocaine money, exacerbated by the intrusion of US Plan Colombia, which is throwing billions of dollars to quell the insurgency, much of which winds up in the hands of the Auto-Defensa paramilitaries, who currently run most of the coke trade.
But drug money, which only exists because of the US War on Drugs and could be eliminated overnight, now plays into conflicts all over the globe. Currently there are at least two dozen conflicts occurring, and in nearly every one of them, drugs are supporting at least one, if not both, sides.
Among them are conflicts fueled by opium in Kashmir, Lebanon, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, and Pakistan (along the Afghan border); the Chechnya conflict is driven by heroin and black market prescription drug money; marijuana buys guns in the Congo, Uganda and southeastern Sudan; khat buys them in Somalia. And in Haiti, continually in crisis, cocaine is the fuel that feeds the fire. And new conflicts are on the brink of breaking out: In Peru, the Shining Path are trying to make a comeback with cocaine money; Mexico is tense as well.
“In southern Mexico,” says Weinberg, “poverty and repression have led to a profusion of armed peasant groups over the 12 years since the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas. The government uses the War on Drugs—with lots of guns and choppers provided by the US—as a cover for a small-scale counter-insurgency campaign against these groups, which the outside world has paid little note. Meanwhile, the pro-government paramilitary groups in southern Mexico are themselves funded by and protect the local drug trade.”
And then, of course, there are the armed gangs of drug dealers in the central and north of Mexico who frequently wage internecine warfare over the control of the heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy trade
“There is no question that drugs and arms are inextricably intertwined all over the globe,” says Weinberg. “Whenever a government has a little war going on which is a covert or unaccountable war—and this is by far the case with the majority of conflicts—you can bet the drug trade is involved.”
And, by extension, the US War on Drugs.