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‘In the war on drugs, which side is the CIA on?’

Cover Design By Andrew Nunez (100288)
Cover Design By Andrew Nunez Credit: Cover Design By Andrew Nunez

The Hollywood film industry has churned out two movies this month covering the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged Black communities in the 1980s. One, a docu-drama produced for the big screen called “Kill the Messenger,” and the other is a documentary titled “Freeway: Crack in the System.”

Both films focus on Ricky Donnell Ross and investigative reporter Gary Webb. Film critics say viewers are shown an insightful and extremely jarring chronology of the crack epidemic that simultaneously ravaged America’s inner cities and financed a Reagan Administration Central American civil war.

During this tragic time in history, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) apparently turned a blind eye as a subsidized micro-war was financed by importing drugs into the inner city. But “funding war with drugs” wasn’t a new strategy said Sen. John Kerry in 1988 during a congressional deposition. The end result was inadvertently creating a pipeline that would subsequently feed drugs into Black ghettos.

Heroin Harlem  the OSS and Naval intelligence

The relationship between drugs, guns and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor to the CIA) was first established in 1943 during World War II to protect the United States Army that was invading Italy and to provide military intelligence about strategic entry into the country.

At the time, Italians were attempting to topple the Mussolini government. In the European Theatre under Supreme Commander and future President Dwight Eisenhower, the Allies had begun to prep for invasion of the Nazi regime by way of Italy.

Mafia drug kingpin Lucky Luciano assured his drug-running contacts that the U.S. had no intention of disrupting their business during its amphibious invasion, according to a Department of Defense journal.

At the same time, the U.S. wanted to protect its Eastern ports from German sabotage. This was done by cultivating Luciano, who controlled the U.S. ports on the East Coast, said Victor L. Marchetti Jr., former special assistant to the deputy director of the CIA, during the Kerry deposition.

In return for preventing Axis sabotage and assisting American landings in the Italian Campaign, Luciano (who had been convicted of racketeering) was given an abbreviated sentence, and allowed to immigrate to Sicily, according to Marchetti.

Once in Italy, Luciano helped keep communism out of the nation by using physical force and intimidation. As a thanks, official records say America turned a blind eye to his drug activities which directly impacted Black ghettos.

While American ghettos may not have been specifically targeted by the United States government, the poor socio-economic conditions there made it more likely that the illegal drug pipeline would eventually lead to these neighborhoods. Research has historically found that oppressed people often look for ways to numb their suffering by self-medicating themselves.

America’s greater interest in defeating the Nazis and later suppressing communism allowed drugs to ravage Harlem between 1943 and 1970s. The illegal narcotics trade became such a powerful destabilizer of Black ghettos on the East Coast that screenwriter Mario Puzo alluded in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Godfather.”

“I don’t want drugs. It’s a dirty business.. but, if you just have to sell drugs.. only sell ‘em to the Darkies… they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”

Don Zaluchi, “The Godfather.”

After W.W.II, Luciano’s crime family imported and sold heroin to Black and sometimes Puerto Rican wholesalers on a regular basis. At the lower levels of the heroin distribution system, user-dealers would generally be advanced several “bags” of heroin to sell; they would use some, and sell enough to pay their supplier in order to “reup” (gain the next bundle of heroin to sell).

According to a 1989 Drug Enforcement Agency study, prior to World War II, heroin was primarily confined to a few large cities, especially

New York city.

But the profile of the people abusing the drug changed once W.W.II began. Prior to 1940, about 20 percent of those arrested for narcotic

law violations were Black; that figure increased to more than 50 percent by the mid 1950s, according to Drug Narcotic Research Inc.

Prior to 1940, the prevailing stereotype of a narcotic addict was a White or Asian. However, after the migration of  thousands of Southern Blacks to New York to fill wartime industrial jobs, their children began to use the drug. In fact, a study conducted by New York University psychiatrist Judith S. Brook found that most first-generation African Americans migrants who relocated to New York, avoided drug and heroin use and abuse.

Secret war in Laos 1965

By 1965, the CIA was involved in a secret war, but this time, the battlefield was Indochina or as it was commonly known by the public during that era Vietnam. What was different this time from W.W.II, was that Indochina was an undeclared war the U.S. became involved in during the Kennedy Administration (1962) and it continued until the Nixon Administration (1973). While the war in Vietnam was offically funded, related combat in Cambodia and Laos was not.

America began bombing Cambodia and Laos in an effort to destroy a supply route for weapons known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This road originated in North Vietnam, veered into Cambodia and Laos and then back into South Vietnam. The Vietcong constantly transported arms, food, medical supplies and other war accouterments items by bicycle. The highway played a major role in helping the North Vietnamese defeat the U.S., according to former Vietnam veteran and South Los Angeles resident Alfred Johnson.

In order to fund this segment of the war, opium grown in Laos was sold in America to generate cash, according to Ron Rickenbach, a former official of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The drugs were later smuggled back to the U.S. by CIA operative and French national Vang Pao.

Poa operated his own airline, given to him by the CIA. Naturally, the imported heroine ended up in the Black communities through the infrastructure initially set up after W.W.II. Ironically, these communities also provided much of the fighting force deployed to liberate South Vietnam.

In response, former CIA Director William Colby  said: “. . . CIA has had a solid rule against being involved in drug trafficking. That’s not to say that some of the people the CIA has used or (have) been in touch with over the years may well have, themselves, been involved in drug traffic(king), but not the CIA.”

One former Vietnam veteran, Andy Neuman, recalled that heroin usage was allowed within his compound, an aviation unit near the coastal city of Qui Nhon, but he never witnessed drugs being flown out of Vietnam from his air strip.

He also noted that at the same time, opium and its derivatives were frowned upon by the higher powers because a prime by-product of heroin was “nodding off” (falling asleep); not an ideal habit in a combat environment.

Marijuana, on the other hand, was preferable to alcohol since it did not produce a “hang-over” effect, an unacceptable condition in a shooting war in   the eyes of officials.

Although smoking opium and injecting heroin was tolerated in Vietnam, said Neuman, the soldiers who only smoked weed in Asia were not satisfied with the quality of stateside weed. This unhappiness was due to the potent tropical jungle weed and the “high” the soldiers had become accustomed to while fighting in the bush. They consequently moved on to stronger drugs like heroin when they returned to America.

The impact of African American young adults strung out on drugs took its toll on Black America. Overall, Blacks represented 12.5 percent of the deaths in Vietnam at a time when Blacks of military age were only 13.5 percent of the nation’s total population. The remainder who survived the war more than likely had to deal with drug addiction, according to the think tank Narcotics Drug and Research Inc.

Vietnam vet and South Los Angeles resident Alfred Johnson witnessed the devastation of his neighborhood from crack cocaine, and when he first heard of Iran Contra and Ricky Ross, the connection between cocaine and the U.S. government was not new to him. He remembered the Hmong people in Laos and how the CIA used the opium they grew to finance a war in Laos.

“Growing opium was a natural agricultural enterprise for these people, and they had been doing it for many years before the Americans ever got to their country. When we got there, they continued to do so. When a farmer raised a crop of opium, what he got for his year’s worth of work was the equivalent of 35 to 40 U.S. dollars. That amount of opium, when it was refined into a morphine base, then into morphine, then into heroin and sold on the streets of New York, would be worth $50, $60, maybe a $100,000 in 1969 dollars maybe a million dollars today.”

John Kerry, Kerry Committee Report April 13, 1989 congressional hearing deposition

Ricky Ross, Sandinistas and Nicaragua 1981

By 1981, six years after leaving Laos, the CIA was fighting another secret war, this time in Central America. The secret army was the Contras, fighting to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega. The Contras were trained and equipped by the CIA, according to the Foreign Policy Journal.

“If the CIA is to maintain the safety of our country and freedom by manipulating foreign powers to do what this country wants, and if the guy who’s holding the power at that particular moment happens to be a drug lord, then you have to get involved with the drug lord.

Ramon Millian Rodriquez (Cuban-born accountant serving a 43-year prison term in the U.S. for money-laundering)

“The thing I don’t like about crack is the fact that when it came on the scene it brought the whole neighborhood down. It’s made a lot of people money, don’t misunderstand me. But look what problems it brought. I mean it brought the police in. It brought the media in. It made kids kill their mothers for a hit … It just fuc*ed up everything for everybody.”

Kitty, a “respectable” cocaine seller of  “Dial-A-Gram” service

(Excerpt from Terry Williams 1989, field notes Narcotic and Drug Research Inc.)

“During the Ricky Ross era, there were elders who would often say, Who is letting all this dope in our community. This president, Ronald Reagan, knows who’s doing it, and he needs to stop it. Isn’t it amazing how an elderly Black woman in the church knew there was a problem,” says Jerry Wilbur, a former purchaser for Whiteys Enterprises drug organization. Wilbur, who was an active cocaine dealer, also remembers Freeway Rick changing the game of cocaine but never imagined the CIA was involved. “Hell, I only remember the acronym CIA from the song “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”

“You have to realize a drug operation is like a corporation; you have overhead and the most expensive expenditure is transporting. We could not believe this guy’s prices. Wilbur remembers the neighborhood slogan for Freeway Rick’s product: “Buy a key; get a key free,” which translated into buy a kilogram of cocaine get a kilogram of cocaine free.

He also remembers that many of the Los Angeles dealers believed the secret to Freeway Rick’s organization was the ability to supply that much dope to wholesalers and consumers was the way he was cutting the drug. Wilbur had no idea Ross’ prices were based on the amount of cocaine he had access to thanks to Danilo Blandon, a major cocaine importer and distributor for the Contras and the CIA.

Ross confirmed in a phone interview that: “I never transported dope. Blandon always delivered it to me in South Los Angeles.”

While the seemingly unlimited supply of cocaine was a sign to street dealers, law enforcement had noticed other abnormalities in their battle against the drug trafficking that were not picked up on. Current Los Angeles Coroner investigator and former Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Clark remembers the crack epidemic that particularly devastated his childhood neighborhood.

“You could drive down Central Avenue, and it looked like an episode of the “Walking Dead.” Skinny and “smoked out” African Americans were walking like zombies up and down Central Avenue looking for a hit. That was a sign a crack house was near.” During the Freeway Rick Ross-era, Clark believes a red flag was overlooked by law enforcement agencies that would have pointed you towards thinking CIA.

“Usually when you confiscate large amounts of dope in a sting, you sit back and wait for dead bodies to appear. It was a sure thing, because someone had to answer to the confiscated dope.” It was a given, said Clark.

He and some of his associates in law enforcement knew something wasn’t right.

“We were making all these raids, seizing all this cash along with kilos of dope, and no dead bodies followed, a few of us knew then something wasn’t right.”

Unfortunately, no one pursued this angle and CIA-backed cocaine continued to flow into the community until the mid 1990s.