On 18–20 August 1996, the San José Mercury News published a three-part series of articles titled “Dark Alliance,” in which allegations were made about a conspiracy among the federal government, Central American political operatives, and California drug dealers that resulted in the introduction and spread of crack cocaine among the black community.
The series seemed to confirm the long-standing suspicions of many African Americans that the federal government had played a role in the creation of the drug problems faced in the inner cities.
Crack cocaine had first come to the public’s attention in the mid-1980s. This new form of the drug was less expensive than powder cocaine, allowing it to become a drug of choice for poor urban drug users for the first time. Although use of crack cocaine remained limited largely to the inner city, its appearance kindled fears of a widespread drug epidemic across the nation.
The resulting “crack scare” associated the drug with a wide array of existing and potential social problems. Both the Reagan and Bush administrations made drugs, and crack cocaine in particular, a high-priority target for federal law enforcement.
Historical Context of the Crack Cocaine Conspiracy Theory
The crack scare and its association with existing social, political, and economic problems was not unprecedented in U.S. history. The triangulation of existing social worries, the use of a drug perceived as dangerous, and the association of this drug with certain marginalized social or ethnic groups had appeared several times before.
This phenomenon can be traced at least as far back as the temperance and prohibition movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when racial, social, and political strife was often blamed by both corporate and middle-class America on alcohol and its use by recent immigrants who made up the working class.
On a smaller scale, the same constellation of anxiety, drugs, and “undesirables” was involved in the opium scares of the late nineteenth century, when a recession hit following the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Immigrant Chinese who had come to the country to work on the railroad became a source of anxiety for the white middle class when their service was done.
The practice of opium smoking, which some of the Chinese had brought with them, was suspected as an important factor in alleged criminal activity by Chinese immigrants, and this led to the first laws criminalizing opium in the United States. The first laws against cocaine and marijuana were also results of this dynamic when their use was associated with a variety of groups seen as undesirable, including Mexicans, African Americans, criminals, prostitutes, and transients.
Despite the fact that the social ills that concerned lawmakers had little or nothing to do directly with these drugs or the groups with whom they were associated, the linking of specific drugs with marginalized groups raised the fear that middle-class youth would fall victim (directly or indirectly) to the ravages of these drugs and those that used them.
In the case of crack cocaine, the social fears surrounding the drug resulted in new laws and sentencing guidelines that targeted dealers and users of the drug. Possession of crack generally led to longer jail sentences than a comparable amount of powder cocaine.
There was a significant rise in drug arrests, a disproportionate number of which were of African American men. In addition to the effects of crack itself on inner-city communities, governmental policies were perceived by many blacks as assisting in the destruction of the inner cities under the guise of protecting them.
It was in this context that rumors about possible government connections to the appearance of crack cocaine first appeared. Such rumors, however, remained largely contained to segments of the African American community. Not until the appearance of the “Dark Alliance” series did these rumors gain a national audience.
In the series, author Gary Webb suggested that during the early to mid-1980s, the CIA allowed and encouraged Contra rebel forces from Nicaragua to distribute a new form of cocaine, crack, in the Los Angeles area in order to finance the ongoing struggle against the Communist government of that country.
A series of charges, allegations, and denials erupted in the weeks and months that followed the publication of the articles. Town meetings were organized, political and social leaders of the black community held forth on television talk shows, talkradio pundits took up the topic with abandon, and congressional hearings were held.
While the “Dark Alliance” series brought about a reexamination of the drug problem and the plight of those living in U.S. inner cities, this public interest diminished over time, particularly after the editor of the San José Mercury News published a column that called into question the validity of some of the charges made in the original series.
At first glance, it is perhaps mystifying that the series would have caused the furor it did. The scope of the series was fairly narrow. Webb focused on the story of a notorious Los Angeles drug dealer named “Freeway Ricky” Ross and two Nicaraguan refugees, Oscar Danilo Blandon and Juan Norwin Meneses.
Webb stated that the two Nicaraguans (both of whom were vehemently anti-Sandinista) not only participated in the drug trade, but, through Ross, became the primary source of crack cocaine in Los Angeles, and ultimately many other urban centers in the United States.
Moreover, Webb implied that Menses and Blandon used profits from crack sales to fund the covert war against the Sandinistas during the 1980s and did so with the knowledge and approval, if not the outright assistance, of the CIA.
Despite the inflammatory nature of its allegations, the “Dark Alliance” series did little to prove that the “conspiracy” went beyond the specific individuals mentioned in the articles. Nowhere in the series did Webb specifically state that the CIA was actively involved in drug dealing or offer concrete proof that the CIA even knew about such activity when it was occurring.
Rather, Webb focused strictly on the drug dealings of Blandon and Meneses and implied that the CIA must have known about their activities given that they worked for (as Webb put it) a “CIA-run army” in Central America. Even if such allegations were true, it would in no way show that drug running was a primary mode of funding the Contras, let alone that the CIA was actually involved in funneling drugs to the inner city.
Despite the inferential leaps necessary to conclude that, based on the evidence presented in the “Dark Alliance” series, the CIA was directly responsible for the introduction of crack to urban America, the reaction from sections of the African American community was immediate and loud.
Within weeks of the series’ publication, the implied allegations were taken up by the black media, and calls were made by African American politicians and other public figures for official inquiries into the actions of the CIA.
The strength of this response is even more difficult to explain given the fact that the “Dark Alliance” series was not the first time allegations linking the CIA and drug trafficking had been made and investigated in a national forum. Charges that the government had colluded with drug runners had been made for many years.
Various groups alleged that the United States government had participated in the heroin trade during the Vietnam War as part of the “Golden Triangle” of drug trade in Southeast Asia. These charges came not only from the political Left, but also from members of the radical Right such as James “Bo” Gritz, a hero to many in the militia movement in the United States.
Specific charges involving cocaine smuggling and Central America had also been made previously, and they had been examined in some depth. Allegations about the connections between the Contras and drugs were made by Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger in 1985.
Several newspapers, including the San Francisco Examiner, also explored the possibility of such a connection in the years that followed. Congress itself examined the issue in a Senate subcommitee in 1989. The subcommitee’s report stated that the United States had at times ignored drug trafficking activity by those it considered foreign policy allies.
Yet, these charges did not create the same level of controversy as the “Dark Alliance” series. Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the contention that drugs, and crack cocaine in particular, had been brought into the country with the complicity of the federal government was limited largely to urban legends circulating among the African American community.
Reception and Impact of the “Dark Alliance” Series
One contributing factor for the impact of the “Dark Alliance” series was the specifics of the charges. While the narrowness of the series’ focus might have made it more difficult to suggest that it was proof of a government-wide conspiracy, the details of the charges and the evidence behind them made them more plausible.
The series named names, locations, and times that could serve as a framework on which to hang already-existing charges of conspiracy. Now, rather than simply “the government,” specific people could be accused. Demands for inquiries could be more focused. Investigations could be more specific.
That this particular incarnation of the link between the government and drugs came from a mainstream and respected newspaper also lent credence to the charges. The charges could no longer be written off as simply the paranoid conspiracy theories of people who had not truly examined the available facts.
Even if one doubted the conclusions of the series, it could not be denied that Webb had amassed a large number of facts that, if interpreted in certain ways, suggested government knowledge or participation in drug running. That Webb was white also added to the sense that the series was independent confirmation of long-held relatively private suspicions among African Americans.
A third factor was the availability of alternative media, particularly the Internet. In the weeks and months that followed, Websites, e-mail lists, online magazines, and talk-radio shows aimed at African American audiences repeated and elaborated on the “Dark Alliance” series.
Without relying on standard media outlets, the allegations could be disseminated across the nation. Use of the Internet by African Americans rose markedly in the wake of the “Dark Alliance” series. Within weeks, there were 2,500 separate Websites with links to the online version of the series.
These links, as well as other evidence or accusations, could be put together by anyone with access to a computer, and the end result was a website that could look every bit as professional and authoritative as that of a large newspaper, a scholarly journal, or even a government agency. This gave a new sense of authority to the ethos of the conspiracy narratives.
Finally, the fact that the charges were made in such a public and specific way made those outside the African American community aware of the them. A much larger audience that had been unaware of the allegations of government drug running became engaged in the dialogue about the conspiracy narrative.
The “Dark Alliance” series not only brought what had been urban legend to national attention, but it broadened the discussion of other issues such as the plight of the inner cities, the war on drugs, the disparate sentencing of crack and powder cocaine dealers, and the warehousing of young black males in the nation’s prisons. If these issues were not resolved, they were at least discussed—and these discussions were unlikely to have taken place without the force of specific allegations.
Eventually, the spread of the story became a story in itself, ensuring that the series’ content was reported in media outlets ranging from the New York Times to The National Review.
The wide publication of the “Dark Alliance” series, along with the public discussion of its implications, led to government action of various forms. Several members of Congress, including Maxine Waters, Kweisi Mfume, Mel Watt, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Elijah Cummings, and John Conyers, called for government investigations into the charges. The result was the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference titled “Cocaine, Contras, and the CIA: How They Introduced Crack into the Inner City,” which drew an audience of 2,000.
Within weeks of the publication of the “Dark Alliance” series, investigations were begun into the possible connection between the CIA and the crack cocaine trade by the Justice Department, Congress, and the CIA itself. In the case of the various congressional hearings into the matter, members of the African American community were able to participate not simply through their elected representatives, but personally.
A hearing sponsored by Representative Juanita McDonald on 20 October 1996, in Los Angeles, drew an audience of more than 500 residents from Compton and South Central Los Angeles, who interrupted the proceedings several times with cheers and boos, heckling witnesses from law enforcement agencies who testified that they had no evidence of CIA involvement with drug dealing, and cheering when Ricky Ross spoke to the hearing via telephone from prison and accused the CIA of “the destruction of my community.”
A similar scene was played out in Washington, D.C., four days later at a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Senator Arlen Specter, which was called to look into the allegations of CIA involvement in the crack trade.
Drawn in part by calls from local black radio station WOL-AM to take advantage of an opportunity to make their voices heard, 300 local residents filled the hearing room. When Fredrick Hitz, the CIA’s top internal investigator, responded in a way that displeased the crowd, they jeered him so vocally that Senator Specter threatened to clear the room if the outbursts continued.
The most dramatic gathering, however, included the appearance of CIA director John Deutch at a town hall in South Central Los Angeles on 17 November 1996. The often rowdy meeting represented the high-water mark for the CIA/crack conspiracy narrative’s political life on the national stage.
Hosted by Representative McDonald, the event was also attended by Representatives Julian Dixon and Jane Harman, a former colleague of Deutch’s when they served together in the Carter administration. The town hall meeting was broadcast on television by C-SPAN and drew ABC News’ Nightline television show, which broadcast from the site of the town hall after the meeting.
Attended by over 800 Los Angeles residents, the town hall allowed individuals from the inner city literally to point an accusatory finger at a figure who represented, if not embodied, the power they felt was responsible for the introduction of crack and its related problems to their community.
This tone was set early on by Representative McDonald herself in her opening remarks, in which she said, “It is not up to us to prove that the CIA was involved in drug trafficking in South Central Los Angeles ... rather, it is up to them to prove they were not.”
When Deutch was introduced, it was clear that the crowd was skeptical. Boos mixed with applause as Deutch began his remarks. Deutch addressed the audience, assuring them that the CIA had done much in the fight against drugs, that there was no evidence of a conspiracy, but that there would be a thorough investigation.
The hostility continued after he was finished and took questions from the audience. Several questioners drew comparisons between the spread of crack and the Tuskegee experiments or the slave trade.
Others accused Deutch, as a representative of the government, of destroying inner-city communities and killing children through the introduction of crack cocaine. Others, while not specifically accusing the government of destroying the inner cities, implied the federal government’s culpability by insisting that action be taken by the government to rebuild the inner cities and create jobs.
Some audience members chastised Representative McDonald for bringing Deutch into the community in the first place, claiming the event would lead to no concrete action and would signal the end of media interest in the story (a prediction that to some extent proved prophetic).
In its most rowdy moments, the town hall degenerated into profanity-laced diatribes and at least one open call for revolution as the only possible solution to oppression by the government. The town hall meeting ended as it had begun, with a mixture of boos and applause for Deutch.
If the town hall didn’t provide a productive forum for ideas, it did accomplish one goal that in some ways was just as important: it represented an acknowledgment by the CIA (and the government in general) of the grievances of the inner-city community. Even in sending Deutch to Los Angeles to deny the accusations, the CIA tacitly admitted the validity of the collective voice of protest from that community (although not the validity of the charges made with that voice).
The town hall represented the power of the coalesced narrative of conspiracy to win attention from those beyond the community in the media, the government, and the public at large.
The Los Angeles town hall was, in many ways, the zenith of the post–“Dark Alliance” media blitz. The CIA’s internal investigation of the charges was extended well beyond the original sixty days.
With any official resolution of the charges postponed indefinitely, a few politicians such as Maxine Waters, and some advocacy groups, such as “Crack the CIA,” continued to speak about the charges and call for the government to release all documents and findings concerning a possible connection between the CIA and crack dealing. Despite these efforts, however, the story began to recede from the headlines.
What news attention was paid to the story increasingly dwelt on the journalistic ethics of the San José Mercury News in publishing a series that strongly implied a CIA connection to crack cocaine without actually providing hard evidence to support the claim.
This reached a crescendo in May 1997, nine months after the “Dark Alliance” series was published, when Jerry Ceppos, the editor of the paper, published a column in which he apologized for running the series in its original form.
While clearly stating that he felt the story was valuable and that many of the basic assertions in the story were supported by the facts, Ceppos said the series went too far with a number of its implications, particularly those that suggested a direct link between the crack trade and the CIA and that the crack problem’s origins could be traced to the trio of Blandon, Menenses, and Ross.
This was a blow to the political efficacy of the CIA/crack narrative, a fact recognized by those who believed in the truth of that narrative. Numerous Internet postings on web pages devoted to the conspiracy allegations bemoaned the “cowardice” of Ceppos for backing away from the story.
While pointing out that Ceppos never suggested the bulk of the story was untrue or even unsubstantiated, many anti-CIA activists rightly noted that the mainstream press was portraying Ceppos’s statement as tantamount to a retraction and that the public would most likely see the allegations as the stuff of “conspiracy nuts.” Indeed, media attention continued to dwindle.
When the CIA finally released the report of its internal investigation in January 1998, it found no evidence of a link between CIA activities in Central America and the import or creation of crack cocaine. With that, the story largely disappeared from the national scene, apart from the occasional speech in Congress by Representative Waters claiming that the investigation was not adequate and that more needed to be done.