Aug 5 1987

Big Papers Give Drug Story Small Play

In These Times

In These Times: Withdrawal Symptoms

In These Times, August 5-18, 1987 (art: Miles DeCoster)

Journalists have documented, through firsthand testimony and confirmations from government officials, that Nicaraguan rebels either participate in or profit from cocaine traffic into the US.

But this news did not appear in the influential media outlets that set the bounds of political debate. The New York Times, the Washington Post and even the Miami Herald have limited their coverage of the Contra-drug connection to the barest mentions of other people’s investigations.

In fact, New York Times stories have consistently disparaged allegations of Contra drug-running. Three stories that ran over one week last month contained some variations on this theme from the July 20 edition:

Investigators, including reporters from major news organizations, have tried without success to find proof of … allegations that military supplies for the Contras may have been paid for with profits from drug trafficking.

Without validation by the elite press, crucial evidence of Contra drug involvement gels thrown away with yesterday’s newspaper, never entering public discourse. Yet the this evidence when assembled, points to a pattern of widespread, officially tolerated drug trafficking that may reach the highest levels of the Contra hierarchy and into the US government.

The first US report linking Contras to drugs came in a Dec. 20, 1985, Associated Press (AP) dispatch by Robert Parry and Brian Barger. They wrote that US and Costa Rican law enforcement officials and American Contra supporters told them Nicaraguan rebels in Costa Rica were financing their war through cocaine smuggling. The story also cited a secret C1A report that the Contra army ARDE had used cocaine profits to buy $250,000 in arms.

Hard-hitting as it was, the story distributed by AP was considerably watered down from the reporters’ version. According to the September/October 1986 Columbia Journalism Review, AP editors omitted, at the US government’s request, allegations involving John Hull, an American rancher who was the CIA’s Contra coordinator in Costa Rica.

“Hull has enough problems right now,” a US official reportedly told AP.

Even in this form, the story almost didn’t run. Only the unauthorized release of the story on AP‘s Latin wires on December 16 forced AP to offer it to their English-language customers, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

Freedom frogmen:

Seth Rosenfeld of the San Francisco Examiner reported on March 16, 1986, that two convicted drug smugglers said they were working for the Contra cause. “The money belonged to help the Contra revolution,” Nicaraguan expatriate Carlos Cabezas testified, before being convicted for his role in the 1983 “frogman case,” described as the biggest cocaine bust in West Coast history. (The case involved frogmen retrieving cocaine from a ship in San Francisco Bay.)

Another “frogman” defendant, Julio Zavala, made the same claim, and the US government appeared to endorse it by returning to Zavala $36,000 federal prosecutors had seized as drug proceeds at the request of a Costa Rican-based rebel group that claimed Zavala was a Contra official. The group, the UDN-FARN, later became the nucleus for Lt. Col. Oliver North’s “Southern Front.”

Zavala told the Examiner he had given $500,000 to the Contras, largely proceeds from cocaine sales.

In the June 23, 1986, Examiner, Rosenfeld reported links between the FDN Contra army and another major Bay Area cocaine importer, Norwin Meneses. The Examiner wrote that Meneses, a Nicaraguan expatriate, was an “organizer and financial supporter” of the Contras, employed FDN members in his operations and had met with such top FDN officials as Adolfo Calero and Enrique Bermudez.

In 1986 Jesus Garcia, a Cuban-American mercenary who worked with Hull, began talking about a Contra drug connection after being convicted on a weapons charge. “It is common knowledge here in Miami that this whole Contra operation in Costa Rica was paid for with cocaine,” Garcia told Vince Bielski and Dennis Bernstein, writing in In These Times (Dec. 10, 1986). “I actually saw the cocaine and the weapons together under one roof, weapons that I helped ship to Costa Rica.”

Guns in, dope out:

Other convicts told their stories to news operations like Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and CBS‘s West 57th: Gary Betzner and Michael Tolliver, imprisoned on drug charges, gave detailed accounts of flying weapons down to Central America and returning with cocaine and marijuana provided by North network figures like Hull.

George Morales, another convicted drug runner, said that he had given $3 million to the Contras in return for US government help with his pending criminal charges. West 57th confirmed, in an April 6, 1987, broadcast, that Morales had brought back $400,000 in one trip from the Bahamas. Contra official Octaviano Cesar signed the US Customs declaration.

In a July 11 report, West 57th presented the testimony of Ramon Milian-Rodriguez, a convicted narcotics financial expert, who told a Senate investigatory committee that he had helped the Colombian cocaine cartel funnel $10 million in donations to the Contras, at the request of Contra resupply overseer Felix Rodriquez.

A new link came from the Milwaukee Journal‘s David Umhoefer on July 8, reporting that a fugitive wanted on drug charges, Detlaf Thomas, told an undercover agent last December that 75 percent of his profits were going to the Contras, according to the agent.

Based on the testimony of these and other witnesses, including mercenary Steve Carr, who died mysteriously in Los Angeles last December, some journalists have alleged a direct US government hand in setting up a drug network. Wrote Bernstein and Bielski in the May 1987 issue of Spin:

To avoid getting caught arming the Contras during the congressional ban on such aid, the CIA turned to drug smugglers…who had their own planes and pilots with which to fly the weapons to the guerrillas. In exchange, the CIA opened up hidden airstrips in northern Costa Rica as refueling stops for the smugglers.

Evidence supporting direct US drug involvement has been uncovered by small newspapers for which Contra drug-running is a local story. For example, the Miami News‘ Michael Carrier reported on Oct. 30, 1986, that planes from Southern Air Transport–the airline that carried arms to Iran and the Contras–had been seen being loaded with cocaine in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Unfit to print:

Clearly the New York Times was wrong when it wrote on July 16 that charges claiming “the Contras were involved in smuggling drugs…have not been verified by any other people” than Morales, Betzner and Tolliver, the three convicted smugglers who appeared in the April West 57th program. Indeed, a public State Department report acknowledges that several persons “having various kinds of affiliations with or been involved in drug smuggling.” (The Reagan administration maintains such involvement is limited and does not involve Contra leadership, a contention disputed by several journalistic reports.)

The State Department document, released July 24, 1986, and sent to members of Congress, reports that a Colombian drug trafficker gave Eden Pastora’s Contra group $100,000 in 1984, as well as a cargo plane and two helicopters. Yet the Times still wrote on July 13 that news organizations have been unable to prove that “drugs were sold to buy weapons for the Contras.”

Hyper-caution has also led the Washington Post to misrepresent other people’s research. Its July 22 headline about a press conference by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) read, “Hill Panel Finds No Evidence Linking Contras to Drug Smuggling.” But in fact Rangel said his committee had found no evidence tying Contra leaders to drug-smuggling–but did find, as is obvious to anyone investigating the subject, that some Contras are cocaine smugglers. “Leaders Not Linked to Contra Drug Smuggling,” while a more accurate headline, would not have done as much to dampen a potentially explosive issue. (The worthiness of Rangel’s investigation is a different story—see page 6.)

Even the Miami Herald, which won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize this year for its Iran-Contra coverage, has been uncharacteristically quiet on the Contra-drug story. “We’ve devoted a lot of manpower to this story,” a Herald editor told In These Times. “We haven’t been able to prove it.”

But one of the Herald‘s top reporters, Alfonso Chardy, had a different view of his newspaper’s investigations. “I looked into it. We didn’t do any stories,” he said, adding, “That doesn’t mean I didn’t find anything.”

Why have the major papers tried to squelch the drug story, even after some of the allegations have been officially confirmed? Some journalists suggested to In These Times that reports to date have not been well-sourced, although at least eight alleged Contra drug participants have made public confessions. One reporter argued that the story has been covered so much that “people’s eyes would glaze over because they got sick of it.”

A more plausible explanation was offered by Keith Schneider, author of two of the New York Times pieces cited above. “This story can shatter a republic,” he said. “I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we can amass.”