Throughout history, profitable proceeds obtained through the drug racket were sought out by governments for economic benefit and/or a discrete cash flow. From the Opium Wars between Europe and China to the current narcoterrorists of South America, the revenue from drug trafficking and sales offer opportunities for the oppressed and the super power. Two recent abuses by CIA operatives using drug profits to fund covert wars at the expense of American soldiers and citizens deserve to be visited, as current situations in the world may lead to a similar case in the future. Presented below is a look into CIA operations in South East Asia before and during the Vietnam War, and in Central America as a part of the Iran-Contra scandal. The conclusion contains points aimed at hinting toward another possibility of prior and present US Government complicity in, or willful ignorance of drug trafficking out of Afghanistan.
CIA involvement in the South East Asian drug trade traces its roots to the 1950’s. They took over operations after the French colonial administration withdrew from Indochina. This spawned the creation of Laos, Cambodia , the pro-West state of South Vietnam and the Communist North Vietnam which would become a major battle ground for the American war on Communism in the 50’s and 60’s. In the earliest phases of the Vietnam War, before the formal beginning of the war, heroin sales used as a means to raise funds to fight between political and ideological lines was common. “That our Laotian allies were in the illegal drug business did not come as a shock.” wrote Joseph J. Trento “…the CIA had been allowing [the] rebel armies it supported and dictators it backed to engage in drug dealing to finance operations”.
In the 50’s the CIA supported a pointless war backing Chiang Kai-Sheck’s Kuomintang (KMT) in attempt to retake mainland China. The KMT took refuge in nearby Burma where they persuaded locals to grow raw materials for drug production rather than food. Using incoming Civil Air Transport (CAT) planes, run by Sea Supply, Inc. (which later became Air America), transporting food to Burma and weapons to the KMT, the returning planes were filled with opium for sale and distribution in Taiwan and Thailand. This was all coordinated and funded by the CIA and the American taxpayer.
The proliferation of drug funded wars in Southeast Asia spread through Burma and northern Thailand into Laos, a region known as the Golden Triangle for its lucrative poppy production and the effects of these processed poppies on the population. In 1954, heroin exports were moving through Saigon, no action was made to do anything as to protect the anti-Communist mafia in South Vietnam and their source of revenue. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), “the policy was not to stop the drug business in Vietnam but to win the war.” In the early 60’s Air America began providing free transportation for Vietnamese groups as a reward for loyal service and bravery. Air America became the most efficient means of transportation for regional drug trade. By the mid 60’s intelligence reports indicated drug trade was a supplement for anti-communist activities.
The combination of covert activities and drug trafficking led to problems within the Air America ranks and into the military forces fighting the Vietnam War by introducing two powerful forces into the soldier population, drugs and money. The man who served as paymaster for the favored anti-communist Vietnamese groups, William Corson, is quoted by Joseph Trento:
Corson’s colleague and friend Robert Crowley remembers many events where Air America pilots became extremely intoxicated and violent and one event where two pilots shot it out, the dead pilot was buried on the grounds of the CIA station in order to limit public attention. The drug problem was visible in the local Vietnamese population and soon affected large numbers of American soldiers. The problem of drug trafficking soon reached American soil, turning Dover Air Force Base in Delaware into a port used for the importation of illegal drugs, as well as fallen soldiers. The main way of smuggling these drugs into the country was concealing them within the thousands of caskets arriving from the war.
The Vietnam War invited drug abuse levels in veteran circles that some will defend as being equal in number to use in mainland US. I find that line of reasoning troublesome, for the percentage of veterans serving in the military during the Vietnam War abusing drugs matching the percentage of users not serving, back in the mainland US displayed lack of discipline and oversight of our nations prized army. Heroin abuse peaked in 1971; however 88% of Vietnam Veterans that were said to be addicted to heroin showed no addiction three years after returning from service. Supporting the effect that war has on humans, causing then to seek mood enhancement or isolation through drugs, as well as the difference in availability in SE Asia and mainland US; this drug supply was supported by Air America, the CIA, and other government organizations.
Despite the CIA’s obvious involvement in drug trade before and during the Vietnam War, proper action was all but avoided. In 1957, the laws pertaining to Air America pilots was such that someone found to be holding drugs would be removed from the flight at the nearest airfield, this law was enforced entirely by the pilot. Once the Air America crews began trafficking the drugs, the law had no effect. In 1972, revelations put forth in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred McCoy caused the investigation of CIA activities in the 50’s and 60’s. Although the investigation cleared the CIA and any of its top officials of permitting drug trafficking “as a matter of policy” blaming the overall problem on an individual, case-by-case discipline issue which is the most common way for military to cover-up wrongdoing. The negative publicity was enough to force the CIA to set up the Security Inspection Service to monitor operations . The use of drug money by the CIA to support covert operations in Southeast Asia was the first known and well documented instance of CIA and government mismanagement and corruption involving drugs; it would not be the last.
The campaign against communism continued in the 70’s in Central America. Cuba, Hispaniola, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua all saw US Government involvement in anti-communist activity beginning in the 50’s. The most notable event of this period was the Iran-Contra scandal. Conspiracy theories surrounded the scandal until it came to a head in the summer of 1987 with televised hearings regarding the matter. The following joint congressional report while quite large, “withholds the full story,” wrote Jonathan Marshal citing the lack of key issues such as the question of `conscious choice’ or ignorance, the resistance of congress to glaring accusations of wrongdoing or the willingness of the Reagan administration to lie, the contradictions between covert activity and a democratic society, the role of Israel, and the role of drug money. Marshal continues:
Again the media let the story slip into a conspiracy coma where it sat for almost a decade. In the summer of 1996 San Jose Mercury News reporter Garry Webb authored a series of articles linking the Contras and the CIA to the Los Angeles crack epidemic of the 80’s.
The main roots of the drug connection arose out of Nicaragua and the fall of the Somoza dictatorship to the leftist opposition Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front) usually referred to as simply the Sandinistas or FSLN. Anastasio Somoza was a heavy handed but anti-communist ruler who received large amounts of aid from the US from the Nixon/Ford administration. This lasted until the late 70’s when the Carter administration “…went on a human rights crusade, complaining publicly that the longtime dictator was just too dictatorial, and that his Guardia was wantonly killing people.” So funding slowly dwindled causing Somoza’s power to fade, introducing an opportunity for the Sandinistas to take over which they did in the late 1970’s. Somoza’s remaining followers spread out into neighboring nations, northern South America, and the southern US.
One of the first things the incoming Reagan-Bush administration did was cut ties their ties with the Sandinista Government and instructed the CIA to seek to undermine the government and their operations in Latin America. The policy that came with the Reagan administration towards Iraq differed greatly from Carter administration. Gary Webb wrote,
CIA operations scoured the US, Mexico, and Central America looking for anti-Sandinista groups. These groups were funded and supported by the CIA and eventually became the Contras.
The remnants of the Somocistas contained a number of businessmen and drug traffickers. A number of which developed and funded Central American counter-revolutionary organizations, some using drug money. Throughout the early 80’s the Contras sustained their activities with aid from the US Congress and Drug money from displaced Somocistas. As the guerilla war raged and the cooperation increased between the CIA and counterrevolutionaries which were now semi organized into the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN). In 1981 the US Congress granted the Contras a measly $20 million to “…overthrow the Sandinista. It called for the CIA to conduct a variety of covert operations. In 1983, the Congress stopped aid to the Contras, citing human rights violations and terrorist acts. This forced the Reagan administration to seek other means of funding for their Contras, such as funneling proceeds from illegal weapon sales to Iran or drug trafficking. The Iran-Contra scandal focused on Oliver North and his dealings with Iran, mentions of large scale operational drug trade was limited. Even with Senator John Kerry’s report of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations of the Foreign Relations clearly stating:
However, the findings were left unreported. Just before the funding was pulled on the contras, The Director of Central Intelligence, Bill Casey, received a memo from the Attorney General including this text:
This `free pass’ for the CIA to illegally fund their militias resulted in an increase from 80 metric tons of cocaine imported in 1979 to 600 metric tons in 1987.
The subject wasn’t mentioned in the main stream media until a series of columns appeared in the 1996 San Jose Mercury News (and later the book, Dark Alliance) by Gary Webb, where he claimed that the CIA peddled drugs to gangs in LA. He wrote on 3 October 1996:
The affidavit of Thomas Gordon, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s narcotics detective, is the first independent corroboration that the contra army – the Nicaraguan Democratic Force – was dealing “crack” cocaine to gangs in Los Angeles’ black neighborhoods. Known by its Spanish initials, the FDN was an anti-communist commando group formed and run by the CIA during the 1980s.
Gordon’s sworn statement says that both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI had informants inside the Blandon drug ring for several years before sheriff’s deputies raided it Oct. 27, 1986. Gordon’s affidavit is based on police interviews with those informants and one of the DEA agents who was investigating Blandon.
The damage caused by the influx of cocaine into our cities affected millions and is quite possibly a catalyst of the gang wars that rage in urban areas of the US in the 80’s and 90’s.
There is no doubt in my mind that there were and are other instances of misuse of drug money in our government. Many former members of Police Departments across the country have come forward with information that leads to the conclusion that Congresswoman Maxine Waters shares with many Americans, “…that the CIA, DEA, DIA, and FBI knew about drug trafficking…” and “[t]hey were either part of the trafficking or turned a blind eye to it, in an effort to fund the Contra war.” Many theories exist, most recently they surround Afghanistan. The soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent assistance to the Arab resistance coincided with an increase in US consumption of Afghan heroin from 0% in 1979 to 40% in 1985 – 1986. Before the 2001 US invasion the UN estimated the production of opium in Afghanistan to be 3276 tons, in 2001 it had dropped to 185 tons, 90% of it coming from land controlled by the Northern Alliance. Ex-LAPD narcotics detective Michael Ruppert claims that the CIA may use drug money to pad the US economy citing a June 1999 AP article where the New York Stock Exchange chief flew to Columbia to meet with FARC leaders to request their investment of funds in the US stock market. Ruppert also notes that the World Bank launders $1.5 billion every year, $500 to $600 billion is drug money. But these are just theories, conspiracy theories; as most stories pointing at government corruption begin.