In August 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published a groundbreaking investigation, a year in the making, written by journalist Gary Webb entitled “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion.”
The series examined the origins of crack cocaine in Los Angeles that devastated vulnerable African American neighborhoods. Webb claimed the Contra rebels in Nicaragua were shipping cocaine into the U.S. In the mid-80s, and the cocaine was being turned into crack and flooding Compton and South-Central Los Angeles. Relatively new at the time, crack was a highly addictive substance sold in rocks that could be smoked.
Webb reported that the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua had played a major role in creating the U.S. cocaine trade. The profits supported their fight against Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s.
The Contras were right-wing rebel groups backed and funded by the U.S. and active from 1979 to the early ’90s. They opposed the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Webb suggested that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) knew about the Contras and protected their cocaine trade. The series findings enraged readers, particularly in the Los Angeles African-American community, and led to four major investigations.
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The secret flow of drugs and money, Webb reported, had a direct link to the crack epidemic that devastated California’s most vulnerable African American neighborhoods.
Here are 10 things to know about Gary Webb and his report that linked the CIA to crack cocaine.
Crack was almost impossible to find in Los Angeles’ Black neighborhoods before “members of the CIA’s army” began supplying the cheap high in the ’80s, Webb found.
By the time Webb worked on his series, there had already been mention in the press of the Contras’ link with the U.S. drug trade, “and by default, CIA involvement,” The Telegraph reported. But Webb did something no one else had done. He followed the supply chain to the streets of impoverished Los Angeles neighborhoods. He showed what happened to the cocaine after it was smuggled in by the Contras, its human impact, and what happened to the money made selling it.
“For the better part of a decade,” Webb wrote in the series introduction, “a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tonnes of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles, and funnelled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”
“It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history,” Webb wrote. “The union of a U.S. backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the uzi-toting ‘gangstas’ of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.”
In 1986, lawmakers came up with a “100-to-1” ratio for incarceration for crack possession. Five grams of crack triggered a mandatory minimum five-year sentence — the same amount of prison time as 500 grams of powder cocaine. These disproportionate sentences hit Black and communities of color hard. Large numbers of primarily young Black and brown men were removed from their communities and imprisoned for long periods. In 2009, the 100-to-1 ratio was rolled back to 17 to 1.
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Webb’s Dark Alliance has been called one of the most controversial and explosive exposés in American journalism. The first major national security story to go viral, it was published on the Mercury News’ fledgling website. It wasn’t an instant hit. Webb’s wife at the time, Sue, said that at first there was hardly any reaction. “It was really quiet,” she said in an interview reported by the Telegraph. “Then the phone started ringing.”
Infuriated that their own government could be responsible for the crack epidemic plaguing their homes, Black communities prompted the push for Congressional hearings. Webb didn’t anticipate and wasn’t prepared for the level of uproar it would cause in LA’s Black communities.
A special senate subcommittee, chaired by then-senator John Kerry, did an investigation in 1989. It found that the U.S. State Department had paid drug traffickers with funds authorized by Congress for “humanitarian assistance to the Contras,” according to a 1,166-page report on covert U.S. operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. You can find a summary here. The report found “considerable evidence” that the Contras were linked to running drugs and guns — and that the U.S. government knew about it, The Intercept reported in 2014. However, mainstream media at the time, including the Washington Post, reported that the investigation “stopped short of implicating the agency directly in drug dealing.”
On Sept. 18, 2014, The CIA released three decades’ worth of documents on secret government operations pulled from its in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. These included a previously unreleased six-page article titled “Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story.”
The document showed the CIA’s internal reaction to what it called “a genuine public relations crisis,” according to a Sept. 25, 2014 Intercept report. The document also showed “how little the agency ultimately had to do to swiftly extinguish the public outcry.”
The author of the CIA document was Nicholas Dujmovic, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer at the time of publication. He described how the CIA had media contacts willing to act as a government mouthpiece — “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists.”
The mainstream media, scooped by a small local newspaper, have been accused of attacking Webb rather than trying to dig deeper into the scandal he uncovered. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times displayed a “rare show of unanimity.” The LA Times assigned 17 reporters to “pick apart” Webb’s reporting. They denied trying to attack the Mercury News, but one staffer talked about the “get Gary Webb team.”
Major newspapers suggested the “Dark Alliance” claims were overstated. Webb “was uninterested in anything the Agency (CIA) might have to say that would diminish the impact of his series,” former CIA staffer Dujmovic wrote. Webb later said that he did reach out to the CIA but his calls were not returned. Efforts to get CIA comment were not mentioned in the “Dark Alliance” series.
In May 1997, the Mercury News published a statement saying that the series fell short in reporting and editing.
The largest newspapers in the country rescued the CIA from disaster and destroyed the reputation of an aggressive, award-winning reporter, the Intercept reported.
In 2014, the story of Webb’s investigative report and its aftermath was released as a Hollywood feature film, “Kill the Messenger.” It was based on Webb’s account of what happened and a book by journalist Nick Schou.
The film cast Webb in a sympathetic light, portraying him as a hero and some believe, fully vindicating him. The government and mainstream media were portrayed as the villains.
Webb resigned from The Mercury News in December 1997, just more than a year after “Dark Alliance” was published. He never worked for mainstream media again. He became an investigator for the California State Legislature, published a book based on the “Dark Alliance” series in 1998, and did freelance investigative reporting.
At age 49, Webb committed suicide on Dec. 10, 2004. He left several notes then shot himself in the head with two .38-caliber bullets. He had money troubles and other problems, Washington Post reported. The LA Times obituary called him a discredited reporter. That bothered journalist Schou, who decided somebody needed to set the record straight. Critics view the series’ claims as inaccurate or overstated. Supporters say the results of a later CIA investigation vindicate Webb. The LA Times and other newspapers have been criticized for directing follow-up reporting that focused on problems in the series rather than re-examining the earlier CIA-Contra claims.