[back] Gary Webb
Interview with Gary Webb at San Jose Mercury News office
Sacramento, California - Thursday, 13 February 1997
By Brian Covert
The following two parts of this three-part tribute to journalist Gary Webb and his series “Dark Alliance” continue the next morning at Webb’s San Jose Mercury News office, suite 345, in the press center building on L Street, located just across from the California state capitol complex in downtown Sacramento. Webb was late in arriving for the interview, and when he finally did he was casually attired in tennis shoes and faded blue jeans, with shirt sleeves rolled up and no necktie — not exactly the image one would have of a hard-driving newspaper bureau chief covering the government of one of America’s largest states.
But once he was seated behind his cluttered desk and the Japanese TV production crew’s camera and sound started rolling, Webb was the consummate professional. His story had been raising controversy around the world for the previous six months, and the controversy showed no sign of subsiding. He was eager to talk about it. He fielded all the interview questions openly and forthrightly, occasionally showing signs of defensiveness, but nevertheless making his case strongly and confidently. So confidently, in fact, that I wondered during the interview if Webb truly understood the stakes of what he was saying. He simply wasn’t afraid to report the truth.
The footage featuring Gary Webb’s interview in Sacramento, along with the other “Dark Alliance”-related footage we shot, unfortunately never made it into the final cut when the program on drugs was aired on prime-time Japanese television in April 1997. But the audio portion of the Webb interview was saved, and is transcribed and presented here in its entirety (with minor editing) for the first time anywhere. A small part of this interview with Webb was first published in 1997 by the website REALNews (now defunct) under the title of “The Use of the Web in Investigative Reporting: A Case Study,” written by myself and Washington state-based freelance writer Scott Gorman. Gorman served as the questioner during the interview in Sacramento with Gary Webb that follows, as Webb takes the audience through the past, present and future course of “Dark Alliance.”
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QUESTIONER: Gary Webb, reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and author of the extraordinary series “Dark Alliance,” which has generated interest all over the world: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.
GARY WEBB: Sure.
Q: I know you’ve had to do this a number of times. But if you could give us a brief understanding, a brief narrative, of what the series entails and the major stories related to it and what its implications are. And then we’ll go from there.
WEBB: OK. It’s actually several different stories within one.
WEBB: One of the them, and I think the one that generated a lot of the interest, was the involvement of these Nicaraguan Contra rebels bringing tons and tons of cocaine into Black Los Angeles in the early ’80s, right when the “crack” market was getting started — and how they essentially created this “crack lord” named “Freeway” Rick Ross, who was by 1986 the biggest crack dealer in Los Angeles. He controlled the market. And it sort of spun off in a number of directions from there, showing what effects cracking down on crack users had on Black Americans. We also talked about how these guys did it: how they were able to bring in all this cocaine all these years without ever getting caught, and their involvement with the agencies of the United States government, specifically the CIA, the DEA and other agencies.
Q: I’m sorry, again, I know it’s difficult: If you wouldn’t mind expanding just a little bit, maybe just a brief kind of narrative of what you found and how you found it.
WEBB: Well, it was really the story of this trio of drug dealers. Two of them were Nicaraguan Contra [supporters] — very close to the late dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was overthrown in 1979. These men were on Somoza’s side. One of them worked for the Somoza government; the other one’s brother was one of Somoza’s ambassadors. They came to the United States because they felt their lives were in danger, because they lost the war. And one of them, this fellow, Norwin Meneses, was already a major cocaine trafficker and he immigrated to the United States, set up shop in San Francisco and started supplying what was then a very new market in Los Angeles for powdered cocaine. Because back in the early ’80s, it was very expensive. And the man who did it for him down in Los Angeles was this former Nicaraguan government official named Danilo Blandón, who had an MBA in marketing; he was running Somoza’s — he was director of wholesale markets for the dictator, which meant that his expertise was in creating markets for products. And what he did in Los Angeles was he created a market for cocaine. And he did it very well.
Q: Again, because a lot of the Japanese viewers won’t know, could you talk a little bit about as far as your knowledge of the Somoza regime?
WEBB: Somoza was one of the United States’ allies, strongest allies, in Central America for many, many years. His whole family had been sort of nurtured by the United States government. We created and trained his army, called the “National Guard,” which was one of the most brutal polices forces. And it really wasn’t a police force: It delivered the mail, it ran all the gun shops in the country. You needed licenses from the National Guard to do everything. I mean, it really controlled and sustained the Nicaraguans for Somoza. And these men were very influential in that community. Blandón’s father was one of the biggest slumlords in Managua. Meneses’s brother was the chief of police, which helped him greatly when he got into the drug business, because he owned bars and whorehouses and motels with waterbeds and porno movies. I mean, this guy was a racketeer for the National Guard. And this is the man [to whom] the United States government said, “OK, well, since you guys lost, you can come and settle in our country.”
Q: Wasn’t that in the way of payback? Wasn’t Nicaragua, and essentially Somoza, a client of the United States?
WEBB: They had a very close relationship. And Somoza was very proud of it. I mean, he sent his sons to West Point; he was a West Point graduate himself. And he was a friend of every American administration since probably Roosevelt.
Q: Now, that would be related to the fact that, again, as well, there has been I believe some documentation that the United States was involved in the death of Sandino, the rebel leader.
WEBB: I didn’t get into that, but that’s part of the lore of Nicaragua. And you know, Nicaragua has had for a long time a strong percentage of the population that is very anti-American because the Americans ran Nicaragua, essentially. They launched the Bay of Pigs, part of it, from Nicaragua. That’s how close [of a relationship] the agencies — specifically the CIA — has had. And Meneses’s brother was murdered in Guatemala City in 1978 by the Guatemalan rebels. They issued a press release, which I found, which talked about how they murdered him because he was setting up these police programs for repression of leftist movements all over Central America. So he was very important and this was the kind of work he was doing. [Norwin] Meneses, when he was in Nicaragua, worked for the Office of National Security; he infiltrated Cuban communist groups down there for the OSN, which was Somoza’s secret police. This is the kind of men you were dealing with that came to the United States and started running this drug ring — in support of the counterrevolution that began with Somoza’s exile forces and his ex-army people, together with this group called the “Contras.” There were several groups that became known as the Contras. These were adopted by the United States as this sort of de facto guerrilla army of ours down there to destabilize the Sandinistas.
Q: Wasn’t it essentially payback by the United States, as in “You protected our interests,” you know, “you were our frontmen, so now we are going to help you and protect you”?
WEBB: I don’t know if it was, specifically, in regards to Blandón and Meneses. It was that way for a lot of Nicaraguans that came over here: Somoza, his generals. The United States went down and rescued a bunch of them after the revolution to bring them to the United States. So, they were welcomed into the United States. And among these men that were welcomed were people that were known cocaine traffickers — like Norwin Meneses, who had DEA files going back to 1974.
Q: And DEA being?
WEBB: The Drug Enforcement Administration. This is the biggest anti-narcotics organization in America, the federal drug administration. They knew, in 1974, that Norwin Meneses was a major cocaine trafficker and was responsible for bringing cocaine into the United States — into New Orleans and San Francisco — and by 1993, they knew he was bringing it in all up and down the west coast. And they knew this when they let him into the country.
Q: In a speech we heard you make [yesterday at City College of San Francisco], you referred to these two gentlemen as essentially “thugs and cutthroats.”
WEBB: No, not them. If you want to look at it particularly as to their place in society, they were gentlemen criminals. I mean, Meneses was regarded as brutal in Nicaragua. He had been accused in 1977 of assassinating the head of customs for the Nicaraguan government because this guy stumbled across this stolen-car ring that he was running. So, he certainly was [a thug and cutthroat]. Blandón was a dilettante. He was a rich kid; he worked for his dad and worked for the government.
Q: To what end were these people smuggling cocaine into the United States? What was their goal? Why did they do so?
WEBB: According to what Blandón testified in a trial in March in San Diego, he got into the cocaine business to raise money for this Nicaraguan exile group, the Contras, who were trying, as he put it, to rebuild Somoza’s National Guard and march back into Managua and take over the country. And he says that’s how he got into the business. The way he explains it, he was down there minding his own business, selling cars in Los Angeles, and all of a sudden one day he gets a phone call that says, “You gotta go to the airport and pick up Mr. Meneses.” And he goes there and picks him up and Meneses starts telling him how “we have to start selling cocaine to raise money” for this group.
Q: So specifically, it was to buy arms and other materiel to fund the Contras.
WEBB: Yes. Right.
Q: This was prior to the Reagan administration helping to fund the Contras.
WEBB: Not really. That was at the same time. The Reagan administration officially began funding the Contras in December of ’81. Unofficially, they’d been doing it since, like, the Carter administration had been helping. What Reagan did was to put the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency, in charge of the Contras in December 1981 with an executive order. This was the same time, Blandón testified, that he’d met with Meneses, went to Honduras, met with the military commander, and was instructed to raise money. It was in conjunction with the Reagan administration putting the CIA in charge of the operation.
Q: In your view, why did the United States government wish to support the Contras?
WEBB: Because they didn’t like the Sandinistas. Because the Sandinistas were socialists and some of them were Marxists. They were communists. That’s the bottom line. That’s it.
Q: Didn’t it have anything to do with American business interests in the region?
WEBB: It might have. I think the Reagan administration’s hatred of communism and all things communistic was far more important than American business interests.
Q: But the United States had been, in a sense, supporting the Somoza dictatorship for years before there was a so-called “communist threat.” Correct?
WEBB: Well, there had been a communist threat there since ’67, when the Sandinistas started.
Q: But even before that, back into the ’40s, the popular movements—
WEBB: Oh, we created, we modeled the Nicaraguan National Guard after our own Marine Corps. I mean, that’s how deeply ingrained our military system was with theirs. We spent more money on their army than we spent on any army in Central America. And they did what we told them to do.
Q: Is there a historical context in this, in the sense of Central America? You know, the United States wanting to have a sure, friendly government?
WEBB: This is a perfect example of what has been going on in Central America since the 1800s regarding the United States: We want to tell people what to do there, because we consider it our backyard, our sphere of influence. It goes back to the Monroe Doctrine, if you look at it historically.
Q: Again, just to draw an economic comparison: It’s been said that the United Fruit Company owned Honduras.
WEBB: Yeah, yeah. Right. And you know, the banana plantations down there were monstrous.
Q: So it was almost a wholly owned subsidiary, is what I’ve heard people say.
WEBB: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a bad description of the way things were down there at certain periods of time.
Q: So the intent was to sell massive amounts of cocaine to fund these activities of the Contra rebels.
WEBB: That was part of it. I think the other part of it was obviously to make a very handsome living for themselves. But this was what they said they were doing.
Q: Who gave them the orders? Who asked Blandón? Who called him at the car dealership while he was selling his Lexuses or whatever he had?
WEBB: Well, he was selling cars in East Los Angeles.
Q: No Lexuses. [chuckles]
WEBB: A man named Donald Barrios called him from Miami, who Blandón said was another member of FDN, another member of this Contra group, and told him that he needed to go pick this man up. Donald Barrios was a man about whom very little is known. He had a lot of money, he was an insurance company owner, married to an American woman, and was living in Miami and ran a restaurant up there. And Blandón said he was taking his orders from this man.
Q: Didn’t the sales first begin in the San Francisco Bay Area?
WEBB: Well, Meneses had been selling cocaine in the United States since the mid-’70s, primarily in San Francisco. But like I said, he was bringing it into Houston, he was bringing it into New Orleans. He was an international cocaine trafficker, and he was one of the first ones. I mean, his connections to the cocaine trade go back to the Peruvians, before the Colombians were even anybody. He was getting into drug dealing with the Peruvians — that’s how far he goes back. So he had an established cocaine smuggling route in the United States at the time of the Contra war. He was a perfect guy to go to if you wanted things brought in and out of the country without people knowing about it, because he was doing that for years. That was his expertise.
Q: How were they able to import tons and tons of cocaine in the United States without being detected and arrested?
WEBB: Well, they were detected. They were detected. The DEA knew that they were doing it. The San Francisco Police Department knew they were doing it. They were arresting some of Meneses’s nephews and nieces and friends and buddies for cocaine all through it. They could just never get to Norwin for some reason. And in the end, they did get to him; they did arrest him. And he became a DEA informant — just like Danilo Blandón. He went to work for the [U.S.] government. So they eventually got them; it took them years and years, and specifically down in Los Angeles, where it was really critical. What happened was that in 1986, the police raided his operation. And they found cocaine and they found pay-and-owe sheets, and they found mannitol, which is the cutting agent to make [cocaine], AR-15 assault rifles. And they found documents indicating that these guys were involved in counterintelligence activities in El Salvador. They found weapons manuals for air-to-air missiles. They found weapons lists. They found routes, maps for how to get weapons in and out of the country. And they stop and think, “Hey, we’re on a drug raid — what are these guys doing with all this stuff?” And the police, who I interviewed, believed very strongly that they had busted into a CIA operation. And after that, the case disappeared.
WEBB: Nobody was prosecuted, nobody was charged. And what happened was that Danilo Blandón — the target of this operation, the head of this drug ring — he goes to the Immigration Service a couple of months later and says, “I’d like to become a permanent resident of the United States.” And he lists on his application, which I’ve got: “I was arrested on drugs and arms charges.” And they said, “OK, fine.”
Q: So the inference — at least the inference — is that somehow, someone at a higher level said, “We don’t care what you have. Leave him alone.”
WEBB: That’s the inference the police drew from what happened, as a result of their investigation. And they had been told before they did this that the federal government was very unhappy about their idea of raiding this drug ring. It was at that time under DEA investigation; it was at that time under FBI investigation. And a lot of people knew what they were doing. But nothing ever happened. And you’ve got a man who you could kick out of the country because he’s not a citizen; he’s here asking for political asylum. Three agencies believe he’s a major cocaine trafficker, and they say so in writing. They go before a judge and swear to it in writing. And he’s not kicked out of the country!
Q: Not only not kicked out of the country, but the implication is that he was given benefit for both he and his wife by establishing a very quick avenue towards permanent residency.
WEBB: Yes. What he did after this drug raid, instead of fleeing the country — because, you know, “the cops are on to me” — he goes and settles in Miami. And he becomes a very visible business owner. He owns a very swank restaurant where all the Contra leaders hang out when they go to Miami. It’s getting reviewed in the Miami Herald as one of the best Nicaraguan restaurants [laughs] in Dade County [Florida]. He opens a 24-city rental car business and he proceeds to make deals with Chrysler and General Motors to rent cars for tourists in Miami. Not exactly hiding out.
Q: He had friends in high places.
WEBB: He certainly had friends in high places when it came to Meneses, because Meneses was a very close friend of the United States government at that time.
Q: Talk to us, at least a little, about the reality of “crack” cocaine and what difference that made — its development and how it came about.
WEBB: It was sort of a parallel track to what was happening. And as we explained in our story, what was happening in Nicaragua in the middle to late ’70s, specifically 1979, and what was happening with crack in the same time period — they were on parallel tracks and they sort of collided and ran across each other in South Central Los Angeles. Crack had been — it was not a new drug; it was just a new way of consuming cocaine. Most people in the United States in those years consumed it through the nose, which didn’t get you real high and took a lot to get you really wasted. And it was very, very expensive. I mean, this was movie-star drugs.
WEBB: Yeah. Well, before yuppies. I mean, it was Wall Street brokers, it was film executives, it was high-priced lawyers. It was a parlor drug and these people consumed it not on the street corners — they had personal deliveries to their penthouses where they could consume it at parties and with close friends. I mean, that Woody Allen movie “Annie Hall” is a perfect example of what people thought about cocaine at that time. But it wasn’t in South Central Los Angeles, for obvious economic reasons.
Q: Could you explain that a little for our viewers in Japan?
WEBB: South Central Los Angeles is a very large section of Los Angeles; it is primarily made up of Black Americans. And historically, it has had some of the highest unemployment rates in the United States, some of the lowest earnings per capita in the United States, a very impoverished area. And what happened was, in these neighborhoods, kids didn’t have anything to do; they didn’t have jobs, most of them dropped out of school early. So they hung around and they started gangs.
Q: Those gangs were?
WEBB: Those gangs were, well, it was a number of them. They eventually coalesced into a group called the “Crips,” which is the biggest one, and then the “Bloods,” which is another dominant one. The Latinos have their own gangs in their neighborhoods; the Anglos have their own gangs in their neighborhoods. But these were the Black gangs. And they started out mainly as neighborhood nuisances. They would beat each other up every once in a while, they would go steal leather coats. This was the kind of stuff they were into — until crack came along. Well, this is before: Then they started getting into this drug called “PCP,” which was known as “water” or “sherm.” And it was bad news. I mean, this drug could drive you crazy. It wasn’t all that popular, but it was an economic means, primarily, to get money.
Q: Isn’t that also referred to as “angel dust” on the street?
WEBB: Yeah, primarily.
Q: So cocaine, in this case, went from being essentially a “cute drug” with a limited market to being a street drug with an enormous market.
WEBB: Yeah. And it occurred solely because of the realization that if you smoked cocaine, you didn’t need a whole lot of it. You only needed a tiny bit of it to get higher than you would have gotten before. And unlike cocaine that you take up your nose once in a while, if you smoke crack every day, you become a horrible crack addict — what’s known as a “crackhead.” You can talk to crack users and they’ll tell you, and these scientific reports have shown: Nothing else in life becomes important except getting a hit off that pipe. People will sell their children, sell their kids, into prostitution — have done so — just to get this drug.
Q: So, an inexorable physical addiction.
WEBB: Yeah. It’s the worst drug ever invented.
Q: So what connection is there to the cocaine that came into the United States with the people who had been in cooperation with the United States government?
WEBB: Well, the connection was that this was the cocaine that was being turned into crack. I mean, to make crack you need powdered cocaine; that’s where it starts. If you don’t have powdered cocaine, you don’t have crack. So they were supplying the powder to this man, “Freeway” Rick Ross, who was one of the very first people to see the economic potential of this drug in Los Angeles — and the only one in South Central to have access to the enormous quantities of it, through these Nicaraguans who were supplying it. And he talked about how he had started out as a cocaine dealer, buying ounces and grams and selling it to some friends, you know, the typical way anybody starts a ground-floor business. Except he had the good fortune of having some men who could get all the cocaine he could ever want — at cheaper prices than anybody else in town could give him. And he also had a market out there that was exploding for this new drug, for this new way to take this drug.
Q: Is there any way of knowing who was the person who found a way to make this into the so-called “rocks”?
WEBB: Yeah. Well, there have been — and we wrote about this in the series — there was a study done, a federally financed study done back in the early ’80s. Most Americans found out about smoking cocaine when Richard Pryor, the comedian, caught himself on fire.
Q: That was the process called “freebasing.”
WEBB: That was freebasing. That was a different way to arrive at the same product. It involved the use of ether and very flammable chemicals. Richard Pryor blew himself up doing it and suddenly everybody said, “What is this? What is freebase?” So the government went and hired this man named Ronald Siegel, who was a drug researcher at UCLA, and said, “Find out what you can tell us about this smoking [of cocaine].” So he went and tracked it down and found out that it started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974. And it was a result of a sort of misunderstanding of Spanish. The whole idea of smoking cocaine is really a recent invention; it didn’t start until 1974, down in Lima, Peru, where the sons of the middle class where smoking this stuff called basé. It was sort of a precursor byproduct of making cocaine.
Q: [How much in U.S. dollars] could be obtained out of a kilo of cocaine?
WEBB: Thirty-thousand. Thirty-thousand out of one kilo — and that’s with a three-to-one cut. If you cut it, like some dealers are doing, seven-to-one, you’ve got 210,000.
Q: Meaning additives to stretch it.
WEBB: Right, right. Ross used this anesthetic called “prococaine,” and he said he cut his kilos three-to-one with prococaine. So he got one kilo; he ended up with three.
Q: And the obvious reason for doing that was that you could stretch the profits enormously.
WEBB: Right, right, right. And nobody used, at that time, pure cocaine. Even the powder that you were buying was, like, 25 percent.
Q: So this crack cocaine, which Rick Ross basically created from the powdered form—
WEBB: He didn’t create it, you know, he didn’t invent crack.
WEBB: He just made it. And he made it in these houses that he had bought with his cocaine profits. He would go and buy these houses in the ordinary-looking neighborhoods and he’d go inside and gut them. And then he would bring in big restaurant-size gas grills and have people go in and cook this stuff up in pots that were, like, this big [gestures with arms]. And that’s how he supplied his customers — with that. “Ready rock,” it was called.
Q: He established a street network of other people who worked for him?
WEBB: Yes. Absolutely.
Q: And they were selling it in almost exclusively South Central Los Angeles?
WEBB: Right. Right.
Q: Was South Central Los Angeles targeted by them for a particular reason?
WEBB: No, it wasn’t. Because that’s where Rick Ross lived and that’s where the man that introduced him to cocaine was buying it from these Nicaraguans. His [Ross’s] auto upholstery teacher — he was going to vocational school — introduced him to the drug, and the teacher happened to be buying it from one of the Nicaraguans that was working for Blandón. You know, this is how these two men came together. I think it was more accident than design. Except for the fact that at the time — and this is Danilo Blandón’s thinking, I’m sure — there was no cocaine in South Central.
Q: Because of the cost.
WEBB: Because of the cost. And therefore, there was not a lot of competition. I mean, if you needed to sell cocaine and you needed to make a market for it, you don’t go to where there are a thousand other cocaine dealers. You go where nobody sells cocaine. And that’s where he went.
Q: And again, it essentially became something which was like a specialty shop at Macy’s to being available wholesale at Woolworth’s.
WEBB: Yeah. And it happened at just the same time he decided to go down there and start peddling this cocaine down there, which, if crack hadn’t come along, probably nobody would have known this.
Q: Much has been known about these particular activities and drug-running, and potential connections between the CIA and drug-running for purposes of funding the Contras — isn’t that so? — long before your series.
WEBB: Yes, absolutely. That’s what was so amazing to me when I started researching it. When I got this tip, when I got these documents that suggested there was a link between the Contras and cocaine, I mean, I recalled vaguely reading about this in the mid-’80s, very briefly. And when I went to check my memory, I found out that, yeah, there were a couple of stories. And they were based on this series of hearings that were held by a congressional subcommittee chaired by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, that, to an amazing degree, laid out all the components of this various U.S. government Contra-cocaine-and-arms operation. They had the pilots there under oath on videotape and they had some of the CIA agents that I ended up writing about in my series: this fellow named Marcos Aguado. He was on videotape admitting that he had sold cocaine, done it — didn’t want to do it, but there were people in the field who needed this equipment. And I’m thinking, “How come I never read this in the newspaper before?” [laughs] The other thing it did, it confirmed what I had been told: that it was not such a far-fetched notion that these guys were selling cocaine to the Contras, because it had been documented that the Contras had been selling cocaine.
Q: And they were given — at least it was suggested, and I believe, to some extent proven — that they were given safe passage to airfields in Texas.
WEBB: In our case, the case of Meneses and Blandón, there is testimony in Nicaragua — in a Nicaraguan court case — that they were sending the cocaine into the United States via Salvadoran military aircraft from the government of El Salvador, which the United States was also helping [to] help the Contras. They were our surrogates down there to help the Contras when we weren’t allowed to. When Congress said, “We don’t want any more government involvement, CIA involvement, with the Contras,” this underground operation run by [Reagan aide Lt. Col.] Oliver North sprang up and began supplying missiles.
Q: Since all this was known, why was there no outrage at the time? Why wasn’t the U.S. public going, “My God, my country is....”?
WEBB: Because the U.S. public was never told. When it was told, it was told in these stories that said, “Oh, isn’t this crazy?”, you know, “Oh, there’s nothing to this, but some people are saying this is going on.” And it wasn’t some people were saying it was going on — it was a lot of people that were saying it was going on, and these were people who were in a position to know. This was a congressional investigation.
Q: So, it was out there but people just didn’t pick it up.
WEBB: People didn’t pick it up because the media didn’t tell them about it.
Q: Why would the media not tell them about it?
WEBB: That’s a damn good question. I mean, to me it seems like a natural story.
Q: Were they scared off the story?
WEBB: The experience that the reporters that tried to tell the story back in the ’80s [had] was that when they wrote about it, all hell broke loose. Their editors would get calls from high government officials, saying, “There’s nothing going on here. Your guy’s out in left field.” Bob Parry, who was the AP reporter who first broke the story, talked about how his bureau chief was having lunch with Oliver North! And Oliver North was telling him, “Oh, there’s nothing to this.” So, you would get a lot of official denials. And the press, they’re going to look at this reporter and go, “Well, everybody else is saying he’s wrong. Why should we go out on a limb?”
Q: Is it fair to say that to some extent they were in bed with their sources?
WEBB: That’s certainly true in a number of cases, yeah. They were getting information from the same people who were supposedly involved in this thing.
Q: And just burying it.
WEBB: And not believing what other reporters were writing.
Q: Is it because it seemed so incredible?
WEBB: I think that was part of it. I mean, you’ve also gotta remember the time: This was when the drug war in America was at its highest pitch of hysteria. This was when “48 Hours on Crack Street” became one of the highest-rated shows on television. People were consumed with this anti-drug hysteria that the media had been, in large part, responsible for creating. And suddenly stories come out that say, “Well, maybe some of these drugs are being brought in by your own government.” It was received in that sort of “Let’s wipe out the drug dealers, all drug dealers are bad guys, our government’s out there fighting the good fight” [sentiment]. And people said, “What are you talking about?”
Q: To what extent does this relate to people being overwhelmed with conspiracy theories?
WEBB: I think it relates more now than it did then. I think for some reason that I can only attribute to, like, maybe the approaching end of the century [chuckles], people have suddenly become fascinated with these ideas of vast government conspiracies. And I think that’s probably a manifestation of the fact that I don’t think people trust the government anymore. I think we trusted our own government a lot more in the 1980s — when Ronald Reagan was president and we were “starting to feel good about ourselves again” and all these other clichés at the time — than they are now, when people regard our government very suspiciously. And I think people would see what happened in Waco, Texas, with the Branch Davidians; that really horrified a lot of people, a lot of them — people who considered themselves good Americans.
Q: So there were conspiracies going on.
WEBB: Well, in this case there was a definite conspiracy — it’s called “conspiracy to import cocaine.” It’s a federal crime, and people go to jail for it all the time in this country. Except these [Nicaraguan] guys.
Q: And you have the papers to prove it.
WEBB: Oh yeah! I mean, they have admitted that this was going on. That’s the beauty of this story: It’s not allegations that the police were making — it’s the fact that the police were making these allegations that these men have now admitted. Danilo Blandón works for the [U.S.] government and this story, for the most part, came out when he took the witness stand down there [in San Diego] in March 1996 and testified against “Freeway” Rick Ross, his former main customer. So that’s what the interesting part of the story is: It’s not allegations anymore. What the cops believed in 1986 was actually going on, according to the man who was doing it.
Q: How did you get started on this story?
WEBB: I got a phone call from a woman [Coral Talavera Baca] in Oakland whose boyfriend [Rafael Corñejo] was part of this Nicaraguan drug operation, and he was in jail and she thought he was there undeservedly. She called me up and told me about his case, and in the process of telling me about his case, told me about this man, Danilo Blandón. After he poured all this cocaine into Los Angeles and became a rental car magnate, he then went to work for the United States government as a DEA informant. And this was one of the cases he was working on for them, against this woman’s boyfriend. In the process of preparing for that case, his lawyers had gotten a lot of information from the government about who Danilo Blandón really was. He wasn’t just a DEA informant: He had a long history of dealing drugs in California, and specifically South Central [Los Angeles], and he implicated himself in dealings with the CIA. And when their lawyers said, “Well, this is all very interesting, what’s under all this black stuff that you’ve put all over these pages?”, like this— [holds up blacked-out government documents]
Q: Would you mind showing that paper, and explain what it is?
WEBB: [holding up papers for TV camera] This is some documents we got from the DEA in response to a “Freedom of Information Act” request, which presumably gives the public the right to ask the government for documents about things like these cocaine dealers. And this is what you get back, because this is all considered secret or an invasion of his privacy or some other such nonsense.
Q: Who makes the judgment as to what should be considered secret?
WEBB: Oh, the agency that keeps the files goes through them and says, “Well, they don’t need to know this and they don’t need to know all this stuff here,” and they just cross it all out. So what you end up with is, like, a name and an address on a piece of paper. Some of these are even about newspaper stories. They are really agency rewrites of newspaper stories, and they’ve crossed them out.
Q: This woman [Coral Talavera Baca] called you. But you’re an investigative reporter, pretty well known, you’ve covered a lot of things in California, you get lots of calls. And I’m sure you get lots of calls from people telling you stuff that you look into and it’s totally preposterous, and you say, “Thank you very much.” Did you first think [in this case], “Aw, come on lady….”?
WEBB: Yeah. I mean, I thought “Oh, come on, lady” because she started talking about the CIA and drugs, and the thing that surprised me was that she had sounded very rational and very intelligent up to that point. And suddenly I started thinking, “What is she talking about?” And that’s when I started saying, “Well, I’ve written about this before. Thanks for your time. I appreciate your call.” And then she said, “Well, you don’t have to believe me, ’cause I’ve got documents. I can show you this stuff. I can prove it. If you want to look at the documents and say I don’t know what I’m talking about after that, fine. But at least look at them.” I thought that was a very intelligent [laughs] way to approach it and I said, “Fine I’ll come over and take a look at it.” I met her in court in San Francisco, when her boyfriend was having another one of his hearings. And she showed me these documents — and they did indeed back up what she was telling me.
Q: From this point, you were on it.
WEBB: Well, I was on it to the point that I thought, “Well, I believe what she’s saying. Now how do I know this stuff is right?” So that’s when I set out to try to figure out if there was evidence out there that would document what this man [Blandón] was telling the federal grand jury, which was he was selling cocaine [for] the Contras and the CIA knew about it.
Q: When you discussed it with your editors, did anybody say, “Aw, come on, Gary….”?
WEBB: I don’t think I told them about it until I had actually seen the documents. At that point, I’m sure the reaction — I don’t remember it, but I’m sure it was: “OK, yeah, what evidence does she have of this?” And that’s when I said, “Well, these federal grand jury transcripts, these DEA reports, these FBI reports, all these names and dates and places — she knows what she’s talking about.”
Q: Was Rick Ross essentially a classic fall guy?
WEBB: In the end, he was. He wasn’t a fall guy in the beginning. I mean, he was a major participant and he was one of the major reasons for this crack problem in Los Angeles. And he knew it. But Rick Ross was a businessman; Rick Ross didn’t take crack himself. He invested all his earnings in real estate, he built a multimillion-dollar crack empire from nothing. And he couldn’t read or write while he was doing most of this. Which is why he got into drug dealing in the first place.
Q: Where is Rick Ross now?
WEBB: He’s in prison.
Q: And what sentence?
WEBB: His sentence was life without the possibility of parole. So he is in jail for the rest of his life.
Q: The other principals, I assume, were given pretty much the same sentences.
WEBB: Well, he was the only principal. Blandón was a witness against him. And when he was caught — he got caught a couple years before Ross did — his mandatory minimum sentence was life in prison and a four-million-dollar fine. He ended up doing 28 months with no fine and getting a government job with the DEA. And that job happened to be setting up Rick Ross.
Q: Your series caused enormous consternation and anger in the Black community of the United States of America. [Columnist] Carl Rowan stated that “If this is true, it shows that millions of Blacks’ lives have been ruined and prisons clogged with young Blacks because of a cynical plot by the CIA that historically has operated in contempt of the law.” That’s very strong.
WEBB: Yes, it is. And I think that’s one of the implications of this series, is that if the government was aware that these drugs were coming in and they didn’t do anything to stop them, then they bear just as much responsibility as the people who were actually out there on the street selling it. Because under the federal conspiracy laws that we have that we prosecute people under all the time, that’s the law! If they knew about it and didn’t do anything about it, they’re as guilty as the guy that was selling it.
Q: Is it a result of racism? Or is it just like, “Well, so, Black people….”?
WEBB: There’s some indication that that was Blandón’s thinking. I’ve talked to a friend of his who said he [Blandón] had held all middle-class and lower-class people in a sort of contempt because he was a rich kid. Actually, this fellow that we interviewed was one of his contemporaries, and he told us of a conversation that he had with Blandón in which Blandón encouraged him to get into the Black drug market in San Francisco. And he said, “Why?” And [Blandón] said, “Well, ’cause nobody cares what happens to them….You’ve got a free rein down there.” And this dealer that we talked to said he was kind of offended because he was from San Francisco and considered himself a liberal [laughs] and he thought that was an offensive thing to hear. But there’s no indication that I have that it was anybody else’s motive to do this. It was an opportunity, more than anything.
Q: Many Black people, though, have said quite publicly — including Congresswoman Maxine Waters and others — that they feel that in some ways, if it wasn’t specifically targeted, it was ignored because it was affecting the Black community and poor people, as opposed to middle-class whites.
WEBB: According to the police who were down there [in L.A.], it was ignored because people didn’t believe the Black community could support the amount of cocaine that was coming in, that the cops saw coming in. When I interviewed one of the cops who was actually down there walking the streets, he said, “We started seeing guys who would be seen with ounces — and suddenly they had kilos! We couldn’t figure out where all this cocaine was coming from.” And he said, “We called down there [to headquarters] and said, ‘These guys are dealing kilos now’.” And he said the response was, “Aw, bullshit. How much cocaine could they be dealing down in South Central? It’s too expensive.” They weren’t believed.
Q: An extraordinary thing happened: The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who usually stays quite well behind locked doors, John Deutch, ended up addressing a community forum in Watts in Los Angeles.
Q: Why do you think he did that?
WEBB: Because they had to tell people that they were serious about getting to the bottom of this. The denials in the newspapers, in the Washington Post, hadn’t had any effect. People were still mad about it. And people were mad about it because they were able to read our story everywhere in the United States because we put it on the Internet. There had been this national uproar over it that wasn’t going away.
Q: Did your series state that there was a direct CIA connection?
WEBB: No. No. Our connection was spelled out: Our connection was the fact that these men took their orders, took their fundraising orders, from a man whom was on the CIA payroll. That’s Enrique Bermúdez. That was testified to in a federal court, and it’s a fact that he was on the CIA payroll. Now, what the CIA knew about these activities, we don’t know. But there’s an important thing to remember: that when they set up the Contras, like a day later, Reagan signed an executive order putting the CIA in charge — for the first time in history — of collecting information on drug trafficking. It was their job to know about this kind of stuff.
Q: So really, it wasn’t an allegation you made, but people have suddenly, for some reason, drawn this inference. In some of the firestorm over your series, people say, “Well, he said the CIA did it, and there’s no proof.” But you didn’t say there was proof. Is that correct?
WEBB: There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that the CIA knew about this drug operation. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence — that’s the evidence that we put out. We never said it was ordered by the CIA. We never said this was a CIA-run operation. We never said that CIA officers were involved in running this operation. Because we don’t know.
Q: Do you feel that you were careful enough with the series that anybody who would draw this inference were simply wrong — were reading something that wasn’t there?
WEBB: I think they were reading things they might have wanted to be there, and things that I think a reasonable public has come to believe that the CIA is capable of doing. I don’t think that was out of the realm of possibilities. But the series never said that.
Q: You noted the strong circumstantial evidence. You allowed people to draw their own inferences.
WEBB: Right. Not only did we note the strong circumstantial evidence, we put it on the Internet so anybody that wanted to look at it could read it. Because it was documented.
Q: You appeared, I believe, at a rally in Los Angeles with Maxine Waters.
WEBB: I appeared at a town meeting, because they had asked me to come down and speak to the leaders of the community down there because they were having a hard time believing the story themselves and they wanted to hear it from me. They wanted to ask me questions about it and I said, “Fine, I’ll be happy to talk.”
Q: So you were there as a reporter talking about what you found, not as an advocate in any way.
WEBB: Right. Right.
Q: Were you concerned that people would feel that you might have crossed that line?
WEBB: You know, I really didn’t consider it because I was just talking about what had already been in the newspaper, what I had written. I had requests from public officials down in South Central to come talk to them about this story that they were very concerned about. And I thought it was my responsibility to go down there and talk to them about it, and let them ask me questions.
Q: Let’s discuss, if we can, the response — particularly by the mainstream press and others — to your series. You came under an enormous hailstorm of criticism from all counts. I mean, really like piling on. Would you characterize it as that way?
WEBB: Oh, it was a lot, it was a lot. It was coming from everywhere.
Q: It was said that you had quoted government documents out of context or deliberately omitted sections that did not support your quote-unquote “thesis.”
WEBB: False. False.
Q: Can you explain that?
WEBB: Yeah. I don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never produced any documents that were allegedly quoted out of context. What we posted on the Internet was stuff that we had found. We published hundreds of documents.
Q: What would be the motivation for someone making that statement in the mainstream press?
WEBB: Oh, because they didn’t want to tell people there’s nothing to the story.
WEBB: Because they blew it.
Q: They were jealous, they were upset? Their credibility was in danger?
WEBB: They had blown the story 10 years ago — that’s the problem. This is an institutional problem for these papers because they had written this stuff off as nutty conspiracy stuff back in the ’80s. Now there’s all this evidence that shows that it wasn’t nutty conspiracy stuff — that it was actually happening. They blew the story. That’s the problem.
Q: You even came in for at least what might be construed as some criticism from another Mercury News reporter, who said that there were discrepancies in Blandón’s testimony and other records. Is that so?
WEBB: There aren’t.
WEBB: I disagree.
Q: OK. But that was written in the Mercury News.
WEBB: It was written by [reporter] Pete Carey, but I don’t think it was written in that term. I mean, tell me exactly what this thing was and I can tell you what he was talking about.
Q: OK. No, I understand. I understand. David Corn of The Nation — and that’s not highly established, you know, that’s not necessarily the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.
WEBB: No, but it’s a respectable publication.
Q: OK, but not necessarily, you know, the “establishment” newspapers, right? He criticized you too, and says your claims were not well-substantiated.
WEBB: Because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, OK? Pure and simple.
Q: Fair enough.
WEBB: David Corn knows about the CIA. He doesn’t know anything about crack.
Q: Why did the L.A. Times publish a massive three-part rebuttal to your series?
WEBB: Because they were the ones that were hurting the worst. This was in their backyard. This was a huge story in L.A. that they had absolutely nothing to do with, and they came under an intense amount of criticism from the alternative press in Los Angeles, from the Black community — who has always said that the L.A. Times does not cover South Central Los Angeles, doesn’t cover Black Los Angeles. Here was more proof.
Q: Was it a territoriality thing?
WEBB: No, they were scared. I mean, they were scared. Because this story made them look awful.
Q: According to reports in the Columbia Journalism Review, although it was not quoted by name, someone from the Los Angeles Times said they basically had developed an “attack Gary Webb” team.
WEBB: Well, that’s very flattering. [laughs]
Q: In many ways, yes, that’s a medal for reporting respect.
WEBB: Yeah, yeah.
Q: Do Oliver North’s notebooks, some of which are public, substantiate the basic premise of your series?
WEBB: Some of the stuff in North’s notebooks substantiate the fact that he was aware that there was drug involvement among Contra supporters. The names of these companies that were run by known drug traffickers appear several times in North’s notebooks. There’s evidence that he was aware that — well, not only North’s notebooks, but some of the stuff that came out during Iran-Contra were these memos that he had gotten from his man in Central America, Rob Owen, who was telling him: “This guy’s involved in drug trafficking, [and] this guy’s involved in drug trafficking, [and] this guy’s involved in drug trafficking….” They’re all major Contra supporters. So North knew about it.
Q: The CIA has historically been proven to have a large involvement in drug trading.
Q: To what extent are you aware of, for instance, the “Golden Triangle” operations with the Hmong tribesmen during the war in Vietnam? Can you discuss that a little bit?
WEBB: Well, there was an entire book written about the CIA involvement with heroin trafficking called The Politics of Heroin by a professor named Alfred McCoy. It tracked the CIA’s involvement in transporting opium for the Burmese and for the warlords in Laos, specifically during the secret war in Laos back in the ’70s, and using Air America, a CIA proprietary airplane, to do that.
Q: And these are substantiated claims.
WEBB: Oh yeah, there’s no question about it.
Q: So in your case, you’re not saying the CIA was directly involved. In those cases, it was proven that the CIA was directly involved.
WEBB: Yeah. I think a reasonable person cannot look at this stuff and say “it’s not true,” because it’s documented.
Q: It seems to be a pattern, again: a client state helping to support a war effort.
WEBB: Yeah. And similar allegations emerged about what happened in Afghanistan. I mean, the same allegations are coming out now that part of our covert operations in Afghanistan involved allowing them to ship heroin.
Q: Your executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, he wrote a letter to the Washington Post, who also had an enormous hailstorm of criticism for you: “We have discovered through an extensive investigation that Gary Webb’s story was not da-da-da-da-da….” And Mr. Ceppos wrote a letter — not once, not twice, but three times — recasting it a number of times to try and satisfy the editors of the Washington Post so that it would be printed.
Q: Was it ever printed?
WEBB: They never printed it.
Q: Was there ever an explanation for that?
WEBB: Yeah. Their explanation was that “Well, since our stuff came up, the New York Times says we were right” [laughs]. Which is interesting; I guess they must have all talked to the same unnamed sources. But that was the official reason why the Washington Post didn’t want to let another newspaper respond to its stories.
Q: Isn’t that rather extraordinary in terms of—
WEBB: I’ve never heard of it happening before. I mean, honestly I haven’t.
Q: That’s rather extraordinary. The piece, also, in the Columbia Journalism Review: While the gentleman tried to also protect you to a certain extent, he did also claim that your story was, quote-unquote, “overwritten and problematically sourced.” Your response to that?
WEBB: Yeah. I don’t know what he means by “overwritten”; maybe he doesn’t like my writing style. “Problematically sourced” — there were no unnamed sources in it! It was all sourced in the documents. I just don’t understand that criticism at all.
Q: In the United States, newspapers quite frequently — including in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times — government officials and others are frequently quoted without using their names.
WEBB: You can barely find a name in the stories that come out of Washington anymore. I mean, if you read them, they’re all “senior administration officials” or “government sources.” In my case — and the New York Times wrote this — they were quoting people who claimed to have read documents that they couldn’t produce. This is the level of sourcing in the New York Times — which, if I had used that kind of sourcing [laughs], I would have deserved to have been ridden out of town on a rail. I mean, come on. This is an important story; you don’t use unnamed sources.
Q: Did the mainstream press in general abandon their responsibility to the public?
WEBB: I think the mainstream press has abandoned its responsibility to the public numerous times. I think this is just another example of that.
Q: Are you in any danger?
WEBB: Not that I know of.
Q: Did it concern you?
Q: Why? I mean, obviously these are heavy players.
WEBB: But you know, I’m a newspaper reporter working on a story and that has never, in this country, been a hazardous occupation. I mean, it is in Central America, it is in Mexico. But journalists don’t get killed in the United States very often for writing a story.
Q: I remember a gentleman who wrote about Synanon, who got a rattlesnake in his mailbox [in 1978].
WEBB: Right. But it didn’t kill him.
Q: Have you become a hero to Black America?
WEBB: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Q: Do you get e-mail, do you get responses? Do people say, “Thanks, you stood up for our side”?
WEBB: Yeah. I got a lot of letters — a whole lot of letters — about that. Actually, the only people that haven’t liked this story were the Washington Post, the New York Times and the L.A. Times. I mean, the American public was delighted to see this stuff.
Q: Now, you’re a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, a Knight-Ridder newspaper, correct?
Q: A very well-known paper, but not one of the larger newspapers.
WEBB: It’s not one of the Big Feets, no.
Q: [chuckles] The Big Feet. And you work in a bureau in Sacramento, far away from even your home office. I guess what I’m trying to understand is, how did you come by this and why were you the only person who jumped on this story?
WEBB: Well, because I’ve been an investigative reporter for 18 years and I know what I’m looking for — and I know how to find it. Secondly, I had an incredible stroke of luck in getting these documents from this woman. Literally, this story would never have been written had she not called me.
Q: You mentioned in a joking sense [in yesterday’s speech at City College of San Francisco], but I think with some truth behind it, that “the planets must have been aligned correctly.”
WEBB: You know, that’s the feeling I got when I was working on this thing because the stuff I was looking for, I was finding! I mean, that happens very rarely. Usually you run into a lot of dead ends and dry holes. And the hole just got wetter and wetter as I kept going on this thing, because there was really so much information.
Q: [So the mainstream national media had here a] story in a paper that wasn’t one of the Big Feets, and they embargoed it and criticized you. It’s very unlikely that many people would know about this story. Is that correct?
WEBB: Yeah. Right.
Q: Well then, what’s the difference now?
WEBB: The difference now is that we have this amazing medium called the Internet, and we put our story on the World Wide Web. See, our newspaper is in the Silicon Valley, and we sort of pride ourselves on using computers and being really up on the latest. I’m not saying we always are [laughs], but at least we pride ourselves on that. And we had started an online edition of the Mercury News called “Mercury Center,” which we were very eager to sort of show off. When we sat down and looked at this story, this was, I thought, something that I had wanted to do as an investigative reporter for all my career — was to be able to show people what I got! Part of the pride in your work is knowing when you got something nailed down, and it was always very frustrating to be looking at government documents and having to write two sentences about them. And people would have to take your word for it. Well, this [“Dark Alliance” series] was a perfect story to do it: People didn’t have to take our word for it. They could look it up themselves.
Q: And a perfect story in a sense that many people would go, again, “Aw, come on, Gary….”
Q: So literally, if they go to your website — and we’ll give that site — what will they see?
WEBB: Well, they’ll not only see stuff, they’ll hear stuff. Because we’ve got undercover DEA tapes that we digitized and put on the web. We’ve got Danilo Blandón’s testimony in federal court that was tape-recorded; we digitized it and put bits and pieces of it on the web — the important stuff that we quoted him as saying. They’ll see DEA records. They will see records that we got declassified from the National Archives that had the FBI reports. We got records from the Iran-Contra investigation that have never been published before; we had gotten ahold of them through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on the web. So you’ll be able to see the building blocks of the story. You’ll be able to hear these guys testifying in their own words. And that, to me, was the reason that people weren’t so easily dissuaded that there’s nothing to it — because if they’ve read it and they’ve looked at the documents, they know there’s something to it.
Q: Can you talk to us briefly about the implications for journalism of just that sort of event, of this type of thing happening?
WEBB: Well, I had thought that doing something like this would really raise the standards for reporters, especially investigative reporters, where you really have to rely sometimes on unknown sources: to be able to show people what you have and prove what you’re writing — and let people make up their own minds. One of the beauties of this story was the way we presented it: People didn’t have to believe us. And the other thing it did is when I was on radio talk shows and I was on television telling people about this story, I could say, “Look, go to your computer, call it up and read it yourself, and make up your own mind.” And people did that. A lot of people did that.
Q: Ten thousand, 20,000?
WEBB: Hundreds of thousands. We had one day where we had 1.3 million hits on the web.
Q: Pardon me, 1.3 million?
WEBB: Yeah. It started out at like 600,000 [to] 800,000 a day, and it just sort of climbed up from there. So clearly, a lot of people were reading this and using the Internet that had never really used it for reading news before.
Q: What is the website URL?
WEBB: It’s www.sjmercury.com/drugs.  The Dark Alliance series
Q: You had mentioned to me that you had gotten e-mail to a pretty large extent from Japan, where this will be broadcast.
Q: And apparently there was some interest from Japan.
WEBB: Yeah. I never figured out how that interest came up, other than the fact that there was a lot of web traffic, a lot of Internet traffic, about it. But I was getting it from Japan, I got it from Bosnia. I got a lot of e-mail from Colombia and Venezuela. You know, this is a pretty big story down in Latin America. Actually, parts of it were reprinted in La Prensa, the Nicaraguan press.
Q: In terms of the communication you got from Japan, were they just inquiries? Were they positive responses? Negative responses?
WEBB: They were positive, and several of them offered suggestions on other things I might want to look at, which I am always happy to get.
Q: Things that you might want to look at in Japan?
WEBB: No, it was things I might want to look at about this story from people who were living in Japan, who knew about it. I couldn’t exactly figure out — you know, it’s hard to tell who these people are. And I got a lot of e-mail from Japanese students who had heard about it or read about it.
Q: Is this story now complete?
Q: What’s next?
WEBB: We’re doing another two parts because there’s a lot more information about it.
Q: Can you share in any sense, just a general sense, of what those will be?
WEBB: It’s mostly about who else in the United States government knew what these [drug-dealing] guys were doing and how they managed to release the case of the raid and all that, how they managed to avoid prosecution.
Q: One last question: Have your feelings been hurt? Have you ever felt under siege?
WEBB: No, because I’m sort of used to it. I mean, you do investigative reporting long enough and you make enough people mad, you don’t even notice it anymore. If this kind of stuff happened 20 years ago, I probably would’ve been horrified. But I’m used to it by now. [laughs]
Q: Gary Webb, thank you very much for your time and thank you for talking to us.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Those were Gary Webb’s last words in the interview. Afterward we joined Webb for lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant, then walked over to the California state capitol library to get footage of Webb while he searched through microfiche files relating to his investigation. As the TV production crew from Japan parted with Webb that winter afternoon at the California state capitol in Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that somehow the worst was yet to come for the gutsy newspaper reporter and his fateful investigation.
The next day we were headed back down to San Francisco, where, at our request, Webb had taken the unprecedented step as a journalist of arranging for us to exclusively interview his prime source in the “Dark Alliance” investigation, Coral Talavera Baca. It was to be her first public interview ever, as Webb had been taking great pains to protect her privacy and relative anonymity from the U.S. media. We met Talavera Baca at the law office where she worked, high up in a skyscraper in the Embarcadero district of downtown San Francisco. Although her interview ended up with little in the way of substantive, new information — consisting more or less of personal anecdotes and general background regarding “Dark Alliance” — some of what she related then is especially noteworthy in light of later events.
Talavera Baca said that Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News was actually one of four reporters of major U.S. newspapers she had initially contacted with her explosive information about the cocaine-dealing Nicaraguans: The other three were reporters for the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle. Those other three reporters, she said, “weren’t too smart”; Webb was the only one among them who seemed to really understand the legal processes involving drug-related cases. She now felt she had made the right choice in trusting only Webb with her painstakingly compiled legal documents that would go on to become the foundation of “Dark Alliance.” “He documented everything beautifully,” she said. But even Webb was slow in grasping the depth of his own “Dark Alliance” investigation, according to Talavera Baca: “His story very clearly implicates the United States government. And I don’t think Gary went far enough. Gary just takes it to the CIA. I think he needed to take it….and go right up to the steps of the White House. And he [Gary] didn’t like me saying that to him. However, I got a phone call recently from him and he says, ‘Wow, you were right! It led all the way to Oliver North’.”
But Webb’s eye-opening revelations would be short-lived. My sinking feeling in Sacramento the day before about the future of Webb and his investigation turned out, unfortunately, to be justified: A mere three months later in May 1997, Webb’s newspaper disowned the “Dark Alliance” series, forcing Webb out of the U.S. daily newspaper business forever and relegating his groundbreaking investigation to the back pages of history. As Webb himself would write: “And then, just like that, it was over.” On another winter’s day seven years later, Gary Webb was gone.
While this is a tribute to an honorable reporter and his important story, in the end it must be something more: If “Dark Alliance” is to mean anything today, then Webb’s lifework must be the fire that helps ignite younger generations in these times to carry on the tradition of independent journalism by documenting and investigating the hell out of corrupt governments and other powerful institutions in society — wherever they may be. It is needed now more than ever before. Getting the truth out is what Gary Webb and other journalists like him around the world have literally lived and died for. Let that true spirit of journalism be carried on.
Brian Ohkubo Covert is an independent journalist based in Hyogo, Japan.