It’s the 1980s. It’s the late Cold War. Its the War on Drugs in its most Tom Clancy-esque phase. This book oozes Regan-era America, with its mixture of right-wing ideology internationally and its domestic policies that herald neoliberalism and the post-modern era. This is also a work about American journalism, a stormy discharge of facts; a personal attempt at redemption and vindication.
Set largely in America’s southern border zone stretching from LA to Miami and south to Colombia, this is a tale of government hypocrisy, the bitter, depressing reality of journalism in America, and a study of ideology and power when clocked with the phrase “national security”.
The basic tale is this. South and Central America was a hotbed of Cold War proxy fighting. Every country either had a right-wing government with a left-wing guerrilla insurgency, or a left-wing government with the CIA desperately attempting to topple and sabotage it via a right-wing insurgency.
The Cuban experience: Batista, Castro, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and right-wing Cuban ex-pats in Miami formed the blueprint and ideological framework for what would happen in numerous South American countries over the coming decades. Nicaragua was ruled by the hated Somoza (hereditary) dictatorship. The Somoza regime, maintained ultimately by the financial boons to be had by taking sides in the Cold War, was a puppet of the US. Our Bulgaria. The Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional, or simply, the Guardia, was notorious for its viciousness and efficiency. It was the pet project of the CIA, a bulwark against communism in central America.
So well trained and funded was the Guardia, that Anastasio Somoza confidently predicted that the US would always protect his regime simply to protect its investment in the National Guard. With Jimmy Carter as president, Somoza was wrong. He was ousted in 1979 by the socialistic Sandinistas.
Two things happen as a result. Somoza’s ruling clique and its followers fled the country for the US, where, like Batista’s followers after the Cuban Revolution, they formed a highly politicised immigrant community. Second, the CIA immediately started efforts to undermine and eventually overthrow the Sandinista government. Soon, counter-revolutionary Nicaraguan groups where forming; these groups became known as the “Contras”.
With Reagan’s election, the Cold War entered its final phase, and the Reagan Administration adopted the cause of the Contras as its own. However, funding for the Contras was controlled largely by Congress, and therefore financial support for the Contras movement was never on a firm basis.
Essentially, the CIA provided crucial protection and immunity for key Somocista figures, most notably Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon, to import massive amounts of cocaine into the USA, all in the name of providing funds for the Contra organisations. The DEA and Justice and State Departments are all deeply implicated in Webb’s evidence.
The Meneses/Blandon organisation delt cocaine primarily to Ricky Ross, a fascinating character who came to dominate the drug trade in LA. The three men together form the core of the story. It was Ricky Ross who actually actually delt the cocaine and was the marketing brain behind the crack cocaine explosion in south-central LA during the ’80s.
In the end, the whole thing gradually unravelled with the massive Iran-Contra scandal and the fall from power of Oliver North. But not before Webb’s reporting became national news. The tragedy is that despite formidable research and significant circumstantial evidence, the major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post chose to ignore Webb’s evidence; and published stories that assured their readers that the federal government was not in the business of dealing cocaine.
Eventually, Webb’s editors sabotaged his story and he was effectively forced out of the story and his job. So no happy ending here folks.
The most powerful aspects of the book is the deep connection between the Reagan Administration’s ideological and international goals and its domestic policies. On one hand, this is the “Just Say No” Administration, which ratcheted up the War on Drugs to its highest level. On the other, it is achingly clear that this same administration eagerly looked the other way as cheap cocaine was flown into LA in the name of CIA controlled counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Webb’s story is massively complex and delves into the depths of our society and government where Law & Order and Crime, Degeneracy & Poverty are revealed to be interlinked and intertwined.
Some downsides. Webb’s book reads as the world’s biggest newspaper article. The sheer accumulation of facts and reportage is simply overwhelming. It also feels unverifiable and unfinished. It reads as raw: its both raw emotionally and raw in terms of data. And while the circumstantial evidence and government denials are damning, there is a murky “he said she said” problem.
For example, Person X will say that Person Y is definitely CIA, or definitely CIA backed and was completely involved in running drugs and weapons. There will be a complex story with some unexplained parts; strange airports in Costa Rica for example, or inexplicable early releases from jail. The problem is when Person Y is questioned by Webb, nothing is revealed. Person Y will claim Person W as his contact, and this Person W will be either be totally incommunicado, or will seem to at times be acting without the knowledge of his superiors in his department.
Rather than a conspiracy, it is rather a massive governmental turning-of-the-blind-eye towards what every other person and agency or organisation was doing, and the motivational or organising force was not Reagan or the “White House” but more of a knowledge by high level Washington officials in key departments the ideological priorities of the Reagan Administration. The closest figure of guilt and organisational intelligence is Oliver North. But as North has been crucified with the Iran-Contra affair, it seem that the major figures of the Contra drug dealing scandal have effectively escaped from their crimes and their hypocrisy.
This book is fascinating. It is dark. As I read this book before bedtime, I would have deliciously paranoid dreams about drug deals and government agents running wild across suburban neighbourhoods and south American banana republics. Be prepared, however, for some frustration both in terms of reading, and in terms of conclusion.
This book screams for a vindication and governmental investigation. Webb deserves redemption.