Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series boldly claimed the CIA knew about a U.S. drug trafficking scheme that ravaged the country's inner cities to fund Nicaragua's Contra rebels. Years later, he shot himself in the head.
In a three-part exposé, investigative journalist Gary Webb reported that a guerrilla army in Nicaragua had used crack cocaine sales in Los Angeles’ black neighborhoods to fund an attempted coup of Nicaragua’s socialist government in the 1980s — and that the CIA had purposefully funded it.
It sounds like a Tom Clancy novel, right? Except it actually happened.
The series of reports, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, set off a firestorm of protests in L.A. and in black communities across the country, as African-Americans became outraged by the assertion that the U.S. government could have supported — or at least turned a blind eye to — a drug epidemic that had ravaged their population while at the same time incarcerating a generation with Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs.”
For Webb, his reporting “challenged the widely held belief that crack use began in African American neighborhoods not for any tangible reason but mainly because of the kind of people who lived in them.”
“Nobody was forcing them to smoke crack, the argument went, so they only have themselves to blame. They should just say no. That argument never seemed to make much sense to me because drugs don’t just appear magically on street corners in black neighborhoods. Even the most rabid hustler in the ghetto can’t sell what he doesn’t have. If anyone was responsible for the drug problems in a specific area, I thought, it was the people who were bringing the drugs in.”
Those people, he found, were backed by the CIA.
On the other hand, more prominent newspapers couldn’t believe that a small-time newspaper had scooped them in such a groundbreaking story. Webb faced an onslaught of reports from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and especially the Los Angeles Times that sought to discredit him — and it worked.
The CIA, amid a public relations “nightmare,” broke its policy of not commenting on any individual’s agency affiliation and denied Webb’s story entirely.
Facing intense pressure from the biggest names in media, Webb’s own editor-in-chief rescinded support for his story.
Gary Webb’s career was ruined, and in 2004 he ended it all for good with two .38-caliber bullets to the head.
Here’s how Webb’s groundbreaking story propelled him to the national stage — and spelled his doom.
Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance”
Webb’s “dark alliance” consisted of a group of rebels trying to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua. These Contras were funded by a Southern California drug ring and backed by the CIA.
“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to an arm of the contra guerrillas of Nicaragua run by the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Let’s go back to where it all began.
The U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua came to an end with the Sandinista Revolution of 1978 and 1979. With no legal recourse to topple the five-person junta that took Somoza’s place, CIA interests had to find alternative means to plant a figurehead of their choosing.
President Ronald Reagan allocated $19.9 million to set up a U.S.-trained paramilitary force of 500 Nicaraguans, what eventually became known as the FDN, or the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Democratic Force).
But in order to topple the Sandanistas, the FDN, also known as the Contras, needed a lot more weapons — and a lot more money. And to get that money, it needed to look beyond foreign aid.
Soon enough, according to Webb, the FDN set its sights on the poor, black neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles — and rendered it ground zero of the 1980s crack epidemic.
Webb’s reporting, focused on a few central players of the L.A. coke scene and the Contra rebels, illustrated how a CIA-backed war in South America devastated black communities in southern California and across the country.
At worst, the CIA orchestrated the drug ring. At best, they knew about it for years and did absolutely nothing to stop it. All the better to serve the country’s economic and political interests abroad.
Shepherding Traffickers To Safety
One of the most notable street-level players was Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes, a former Nicaraguan bureaucrat-turned-prolific cocaine supplier in California.
From 1981 to 1986, Blandón seemed to be protected by invisible higher-ups that quietly held jurisdiction over local authorities.
After six years of shepherding thousands of kilos of cocaine worth millions of dollars to the black gangs of L.A. during the early 1980s without a single arrest, Blandón was busted on drugs and weapons charges on Oct. 27, 1986.
In a written statement to obtain a search warrant for Blandón’s sprawling cocaine operation, L.A. County sheriff’s Sergeant Tom Gordon confirmed that local drug agents knew about Blandón’s involvement with the CIA-backed Contras — all the way back in the mid-1980s:
“Danilo Blandon is in charge of a sophisticated cocaine smuggling and distribution organization operating in Southern California… The monies gained from the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered through Orlando Murillo, who is a high-ranking officer of a chain of banks in Florida named Government Securities Corporation. From this bank the monies are filtered to the contra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua.”
All of this and more was later backed up by Blandón himself, after he became an informant for the DEA and took the stand as the Justice Department’s key witness in a 1996 drug trial.
“There is a saying that the ends justify the means,” said Blandón in his court testimony. “And that’s what Mr. Bermudez [the CIA agent who instructed the FDN] told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money for the contra revolution.”
Meanwhile, Blandón testified that his drug ring sold close to one ton of cocaine in the U.S. in 1981 alone. In the following years, as more and more Americans became hooked on crack, that figure skyrocketed.
While he wasn’t sure how much of that money went to the CIA, he said that “whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going for the contra revolution.”
Blandón confessed to crimes that would have meant life in prison for the average dealer, but instead he spent just 28 months in prison, followed by unsupervised probation. “He has been extraordinarily helpful,” said O’Neale to Blandón’s judge while arguing for his release.
The DOJ proceeded to pay him more than $166,000 in the two years after his 1994 release, for his services as an informant for the U.S. government.
Even Blandón’s lawyer, Bradley Brunon, was convinced of Blandón’s alliance with the world’s most powerful intelligence agency.
Brunon said that his client never specifically claimed he was selling cocaine for the CIA, but figured as much from the “atmosphere of CIA and clandestine activities” that surfaced during that time.
That big aircraft came largely from El Salvador, according to U.S. General Accounting Office records.
When DEA agent Celerino Castillo III, who was assigned to El Salvador, heard that the Contras were flying cocaine out of a Salvadoran airport and into the U.S., he began logging flights — including flight numbers and pilot names.
“Was he involved with the CIA? Probably. Was he involved in drugs? Most definitely… Were those two things involved with each other? They’ve never said that, obviously. They’ve never admitted that. But I don’t know where these guys get these big aircraft.”
He sent his information to DEA headquarters in the 1980s, but the only response he got was an internal investigation — not of these flights, but of him. He retired in 1991.
“Basically, the bottom line is it was a covert operation and they [DEA officials] were covering it up,” he told Webb. “You can’t get any simpler than that. It was a cover-up.”
A cover-up with devastating consequences. L.A.’s drug lords had come up with a way to make cocaine cheaper and more potent: cooking it into “crack.” And nobody spread the plague of crack as far and wide as Ricky Donnell “Freeway Rick” Ross.
Freeway Rick And South-Central: Crack Capital Of The World
Gary Webb believed that if Blandón, Meneses, and Rick Ross had worked in any other legal line of business, they “would have been hailed as geniuses of marketing.”
According to Esquire, Ross raked in more than $900 million in the 1980s, with a profit encroaching on $300 million (nearly $1 billion in today’s dollars).
His empire ultimately grew to 42 U.S. cities, but it all came tumbling down after Blandón, his main supplier, turned into a confidential informant.
Webb first heard of Ross while researching asset forfeitures in 1993 and found he was “one of the biggest crack dealers in L.A.,” he recalled in his 1998 book. He then discovered that Blandón was the CI that got Ross imprisoned in 1996.
When Webb realized that Blandón — the fund-raiser for the Contras — sold cocaine to Ross, South-Central’s biggest crack dealer, he had to speak to him. He eventually got Ross on the phone, and asked him what he knew about Blandón. Ross had only known him as Danilo, and figured he was regular guy with an entrepreneurial streak.
“He was almost like a godfather to me,” said Ross. “He’s the one who got me going. He was [my main source]. Everybody I knew, I knew through him. So really, he could be considered as my only source. In a sense, he was.”
Ross confirmed to Webb that he met Blandón in 1981 or 1982, right around the time when Blandón started dealing drugs. Webb spent hours talking with Ross at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where he found that Ross knew nothing about Blandón’s past at all.
He didn’t even know who the Contras were, or who was financing their war. Blandón was just a smooth-talking guy with an unending stash of cheap cocaine.
When Webb told Ross that Blandón had worked for the Contras, selling drugs to finance their weapons supplies, Ross was flabbergasted.
“And they put me in jail? I’d say that was some fucked up shit there,” said Ross. “They say I sold dope all over, but man, I know he done sold ten times more dope than me… He’s been working for the government the whole damn time.”
Ross learned how to read at the age of 28 while imprisoned and found a legal loophole that set him free. The three-strikes law had been falsely applied, which led to a sentence reduction of 20 years after he appealed. He was released in 2009, and has since spread his story far and wide.
Problems With Gary Webb’s Reporting
To be sure, there were serious problems with Webb’s writing and reporting. As Peter Kornbluh laid out in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1997, Webb presented some powerful evidence that two FDN-affiliated Nicaraguans became prolific drug smugglers in the 1980s U.S.
But when it came to the most enticing bit of the story and the part that most animated and enraged the American public — that these smugglers were linked to the CIA — there was, on a closer reading, very little direct evidence.
In all 20,000 words of “Dark Alliance,” Gary Webb never claimed outright that the CIA knew about the Contras’ drug scheme, but he certainly implied as much.
Kornbluh writes: “Speculative passages like ‘Freeway Rick had no idea just how “plugged” his erudite cocaine broker [Blandón] was. He didn’t know about Norwin Meneses or the CIA,’ were clearly intended to imply CIA involvement.”
It was clear that Blandón and Meneses had connections to the FDN, and it was a known fact that the FDN was backed by the CIA, but Webb failed to make a compelling case for Blandón’s and Meneses’ direct connection to the CIA.
“To some this may seem a trivial distinction,” Kornbluh writes. Rep. Maxine Waters said at the time that “it doesn’t make any difference whether [the CIA] delivered the kilo themselves, or they turned their heads while somebody else delivered it, they are just as guilty.”
But, in the words of Kornbluh, “the articles did not even address the likelihood that CIA officials in charge would have known about these drug operations.”
Failing to do so — and crafting the whole piece as a one-sided, damning report without presenting contradictory evidence — was a major oversight by Webb and his editors, and made his exposé wide open to criticism.
The Major Papers Poke Holes
And that criticism came like a tidal wave — after a brief blackout.
While some Bay Area papers and talk radio, particularly black talk radio, pounced on the story, the country’s major newspapers and TV news networks remained mostly silent.
“Dark Alliance” was breaking internet records, boasting 1.3 million site visits daily — a remarkable feat at a time when only about 20 million Americans had home internet access. And all the while, at least for the first month after the series’ release, America’s most popular news sources were mum.
Then, on October 4, the Washington Post published a scathing “investigation” declaring that “available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras — or Nicaraguans in general — played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.” Even though Webb’s article focused on southern California, not the U.S. in general.
A couple weeks later, the New York Times released it’s declaration: that there was “scant proof” for Webb’s main contentions.
But the greatest criticism came from the Los Angeles Times, which assembled a 17-person team; one member remembered it being called the “get Gary Webb team.” On October 20, the L.A. paper — incensed that it had been scooped in its own backyard — began publishing a three-part series of its own.
Like the other major papers, the Times relied on the very hyperbole and selective reporting in its own takedown series that it criticized Webb of committing.
Reporter Jesse Katz, who two years prior had written a profile of “Freeway Rick” Ross describing him as “a criminal mastermind…most responsible for flooding Los Angeles streets with mass-marketed cocaine” did a complete about face and characterized Ross as just one small player in a sprawling landscape of L.A. crack dealers. “How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross,” he wrote.
All three papers ignored evidence already out there — including a mostly ignored Associate Press report from 1985 and a House Subcommittee from 1989 that found that “U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua.”
According to a CIA article that was finally released in 2014 titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story,” the media’s penchant for jealousy and cannibalism worked in the agency’s favor. Rather than mount a stealth public relations campaign, all the agency had to do was provide reporters with comments of denial. The reporters didn’t need to be convinced to go after Webb, they did it gladly.
“Clearly, there was room to advance the contra/drug/CIA story rather than simply denounce it,” Kornbluh wrote. Instead of investigating the questions Gary Webb raised and provide crucial information to an enraged public that had been devastated by crack addiction and the War on Drugs, the “big three” papers made it their main goal to discredit Webb.
The “Dark Alliance” saga began as a matter of, “Look what horrible things the government may be implicated in.” But it turned into, “Look at what a sloppy journalist Gary Webb is.”
Steve Weinberg of The Baltimore Sun was one of the few who rationally defended Webb’s supposed guesswork.
“[Webb] took the story where it seemed to lead — to the door of U.S. national security and drug enforcement agencies. Even if Webb overreached in a few paragraphs — based on my careful reading, I would say his overreaching was limited, if it occurred at all — he still had a compelling, significant investigation to publish.”
Kill The Messenger: The Death Of Gary Webb
Whatever the desired effect was — To vindicate their own journalists for not covering the groundbreaking story first? To assure black Americans that all was fine and the CIA really did have their backs? — the biggest impact it had was on Gary Webb’s life.
Jerry Ceppos, then the executive editor of the Mercury News, wrote an open letter to readers in May 2017 rescinding support for Webb’s reporting and listing the editorial flaws in “Dark Alliance.”
The news media took his apology and put it on blast. Webb, who just a few years prior had won a Pulitzer Prize, was reassigned to the Cupertino desk, where his thirst for investigative reporting went depressingly unquenched. He resigned from the paper by the end of the year, and his reputation was so tarnished that he couldn’t get a good job anywhere else.
He was forced to sell his home in 2004, but on moving day he shot himself in the head with two .38-caliber bullets.
Webb’s rise and fall was most recently dramatized in the 2014 movie Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, based on journalist Nick Schou’s titular book.
“Once you take away a journalist’s credibility, that’s all they have,” said Schou. “He was never able to recover from that.”
Webb’s reporting ultimately panned out: We now know that the U.S. government was complicit in drug smuggling in order to support its foreign policy interests. It was a phenomenon that, combined with the “War on Drugs,” devastated large and mostly black swaths of Americans for generations.
Still, the journalism world’s response to Webb’s “Dark Alliance” spelled his doom.
“It’s impossible to view what happened to him without understanding the death of his career as a result of this story,” said Schou. “It was really the central defining event of his career and of his life.”
After reading about Gary Webb exposing the CIA’s potential complicity in L.A.’s crack epidemic, learn all about Nellie Bly, the pioneering investigative journalist who faked insanity to expose the inner workings of a Victorian-era insane asylum. Then take a look at 37 startling photos of 1980s New York City, when crack was king.