The US drug war in the European media

Issue 

In August 1996 the Mercury News of San Jose, California, ran a series detailing how a group of right-wing 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.

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 — finally printed a partial retraction in May 1997, and the series' author, Gary Webb, was reassigned to the paper's suburban bureau.

The implication was that no reputable journalist or publication would ever suggest that the US government 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.

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.

Last April, France's very establishment Le Monde Diplomatique ran two articles on the drug war. The first — by Mariano Aguirre, director of Madrid's Centre of Investigation for Peace — was entitled "Militarisation 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? ... 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, Edmundo Salazar, was about to demand the expulsion of the DEA's agents from the country; he was assassinated in Santa Cruz on October 10, 1986, shortly after making his charges.

"On August 20, 1992, the government of Jaime Paz Zamora approved decree 23-239", Lemoine continues, "for the purpose of regulating the activities of foreign agents authorised 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."

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 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 neo-liberal Ernesto Zedillo, president of Mexico, just like his predecessor, Carlos Salinas, gets off easy."

DEA follows the money

Possibly the most explosive accusations come from a 1995 series in the Spanish weekly Cambio16 Espana, 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 "super-agent", 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 US$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'."

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."

Like Lemoine, "Juan" insists that the US has ulterior motives for pressing charges that Colombian President Samper took pay-offs from the drug cartels during his 1994 election campaign — although the agent says that the charges are true.

"[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 and the others of the Cali cartel are in US territory."

Santacruz Londono case

There is no way to verify "Juan's" claims. 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 "re-evaluate", 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 January 11, 1996. At the end of the month, "Juan" contacted Cambio16 to say that the CIA had organised 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, 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 March 6, 1996, in what authorities called a shoot-out. 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.

[From Weekly News Update on the Americas, e-mail wnu@igc.apc.org.]