. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little Evidence for CIA Crack Link, Paper Says

WASHINGTON -- Charges that the Central Intelligence Agency and Nicaraguan Contra rebels helped launch and played a major role in promoting the crack cocaine plague that swept America's largely black inner cities in the 1980s are not supported by the available evidence, according to a Washington Post investigation.


Instead, the available data from arrest records, hospitals, drug treatment centers and drug user surveys point to the rise of crack as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players of different nationalities, races and ethnic groups.


Although Nicaraguans took part in the drug trade of that era, most of the cocaine trade then can be attributed to Colombian and Mexican smugglers, and distributors within the United States including Jamaicans, Dominicans, Haitians and Americans of varying backgrounds, according to widely accepted evidence from government reports and academic studies, the investigation.


Charges of CIA involvement in the crack cocaine trade made headlines in August when the San Jose Mercury News -- in a three-part series -- alleged that Nicaraguan cocaine suppliers Oscar Blandon and Norwin Meneses had sent cocaine profits to help Contra rebels who later received CIA support in his homeland's civil war.


The articles did not say directly that the spy agency knew about the two Nicaraguans' drug dealing, although they hinted strongly at CIA involvement. The stories echoed decade-old allegations about drug trafficking by some Contras, but triggered a national outcry by black political leaders and other activists with the new charges on the origins of crack.


On radio talk shows and in other forums, some prominent African Americans have argued that the CIA, in an act of pernicious racism, wanted blacks to become addicted to crack. The response led the CIA to open an inquiry even while denying the charges; the Justice Department also opened a probe.


A Washington Post investigation into Blandon, Meneses and the U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s found that the available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed Contras -- or Nicaraguans in general -- played a major role in the emergence of crack in the United States.


The Mercury News articles provided what appears to be the first account of Nicaraguans with links to the contras selling drugs themselves in American cities. That went beyond findings in the 1980s, by congressional investigators and journalists, that a few of the Contras, and some of the rebels' suppliers and supporters, were involved in drug smuggling in the region at a time when the CIA was deeply involved in Contra operations there. The CIA knew about some of these activities, and did little or nothing to stop them, according to accounts from then-senior CIA officers and other government officials.


However, drug trafficking by Contra sympathizers and Contras themselves accounted for only a small portion of the nation's cocaine trade.


The Mercury News characterized Blandon as "the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California." But Blandon's own accounts and law enforcement estimates say he handled only about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career. That is enough to have damaged many lives, but it is a fraction of the nationwide cocaine trade during the 1980s, when more than 250 tons of the drug were distributed every year, according to official and academic estimates.


Meneses, who was Blandon's original supplier, may have handled more cocaine. But experts said no single drug network, much less a pair of dealers, can be held accountable for the rise of crack.


"So many different individuals and operations were involved in the initial spread of crack that you could eliminate any one person or group from the picture and be certain that the outcome would have been the same,'' said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who has conducted extensive research on the dynamics of cocaine trafficking.


In addition, significant contradictions in testimony between Blandon and Ross cast doubt on the articles' racially charged allegation that "the CIA's army'' of Contras deliberately targeted the black community in an effort to expand the market for a cheap form of cocaine.


The hypothesis that the CIA was behind Blandon was undercut by a court filing by federal prosecutors last month saying Blandon "was never involved in any drug dealing with or for the CIA.''