CIA, Contras, and Crack

The days when the "contras," American-backed guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's Sandinistas, were frequent Page 1 news are long departed. But if an investigative series recently published by the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News is right, US support for the contras has left a lasting mark on inner-city neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles.

The newspaper articles draw a connection between the Central Intelligence Agency, which sustained the contras, two Nicaraguan drug merchants operating in California in the 1980s, and local Los Angeles drug dealers who bought from the Nicaraguans and developed the crack-cocaine market.

The Nicaraguans, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, got huge quantities of relatively inexpensive cocaine from Latin American suppliers, presumably with contra ties. They sold it at unheard-of low prices to Los Angeles dealers. The quantity and the price stimulated the production of crack, a concentrated, smokable form of cocaine that could be sold in small quantities at prices affordable to users in the city's poor sections.

Much of the profit raked in by the Nicaraguans went to help equip the contras. Drawing on court records, particularly testimony by Blandon at the trial of one of his largest customers, reporters weave together a story that is, at the least, highly disturbing. Did the CIA know about and countenance narcotics sales as a way to underwrite the contras? Is the agency therefore implicated in sowing the crack plague? These questions aren't entirely new. In 1986, congressional investigators explored some of the same ground, and came up with testimony, from CIA and other officials, that clearly indicated a knowledge of the drug-contra connection.

Because of the Mercury News series, fresh calls are being issued to clear up this murky piece of recent history. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California has asked CIA director John Deutch to look into the matter. Barry McCaffrey, the top federal anti-drug official, said last week that an investigation will move ahead at the CIA, the Justice Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

This may not all add up to a government conspiracy to ruin the lives of poor black Americans by hooking them on crack, as some have charged. But the train of events suggests an alarming lapse of ethics on the part of government operatives bent on helping the contras at almost any cost. That possibility has to be explored and the findings made public.

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