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The Mexican Drug War, launched in December 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderon, is approaching its eight-year mark.
The series of conflicts, which has pitted the Mexican military, cartels, vigilantes, and police forces against one another, has had a profound effect upon Mexico. It killed over 60,000 people between 2006 and 2012 but is far from over: In early October, 43 Mexican students vanished from Iguala, a town about halfway between Mexico City and the Pacific coast. The search for the missing students has so far been unsuccessful, although drug trafficking organizations were almost definitely involved and investigators have discovered freshly dug graves.
The drug war can be seen as the Mexican state’s long-overdue effort to impose order on the country after decades in which the government tolerated or even coddled the cartels’ activities. But the war has also pitted the major drug traffickers against each other in excessively violent struggles to maintain, or expand, their positions.
Here are seven of the country’s most notorious organizations, and where the last eight years of chaos have left them.
The Sinaloa Cartel
en.wikipedia.orgGunmen associated with the Sinaloa Cartel pose in front of a sign threatening the Los Zetas Cartel.
The Sinaloa Cartel is the single largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western hemisphere.
The Sinaloa is not a single hierarchical organization. Instead, it functions more as a confederacy of groups that are connected through blood, marriage, and regional relationships. Decisions for the group are ultimately made through board-of-directors-type mechanisms, and not by a single leader.
This operational flexibility has allowed the Sinaloa to continue to thrive despite several setbacks. In 2008, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), once a core component of the cartel, split from the group and began to wage war against it. And earlier this year, Chapo Guzman, the group’s multi-billionaire architect and a criminal business visionary, was finally arrested in the coastal resort city of Mazatlan.
However, the Sinaloa made new alliances and continued to expand.
Today, the Sinaloa are active in 17 Mexican states and throughout the US. They have connections that stretch to Australia as well.
The Sinaloa’s success is allegedly due in part to the organization’s history of preferential treatment at the hands of US’s Drug Enforcement Administration and the Mexicans, who are accused of using the Sinaloa as a source of information or (even as a hands-off means of enforcement) against other, less pliable cartels.
The Beltran Leyva Organization
Handout ./REUTERSSoldiers escort head of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel Hector Beltran Leyva in Mexico City, in this handout picture taken October 1, 2014 and released to Reuters on October 2, 2014 by the Attorney General’s Office.
The BLO was originally formed by four brothers as part of the Sinaloa Cartel and consisted largely of poppy and marijuana growers. Over time, the BLO changed its modus operandi and became muscle for the Sinaloa against the Gulf Cartel and its former military wing, Los Zetas.
In 2008, the Sinaloa and the BLO violent split. This conflict almost destroyed the BLO, as they were hounded by the Sinaloa, and had to deal with arrests of their leadership and in-fighting amongst the upper ranks of of the organization. This weakness led the BLO to form pragmatic alliances with Los Zetas, the Knights Templar, and the Juarez Cartel in an effort to strike back against the Sinaloa.
The BLO is likely on the ropes. In October, Hector Beltran Leyva, the last of the original four BLO brothers, was arrested.
The Juarez Cartel
Edgard Garrido/REUTERSA federal policeman escorts Vicente Carrillo, drug kingpin of the Juarez Cartel, at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney’s General in Mexico City October 9, 2014
The Juarez Cartel is one of the oldest surviving drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, with its roots reaching back to the 1980s. The group began its narcotics activities before moving into human trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion.
The wealth of the cartel was largely due to its control of the crucial border city of Juarez, a strategic trafficking corridor into the US.
Originally one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico, it began fighting the Sinaloa in 2004. Ciudad Juarez became the murder capital of the world for three years straight, before the city’s drug trade ultimately came under control of the Sinaloa. The loss of the cartel’s home city, coupled with an outdated business model, led to the group’s decline.
Today, the Juarez Cartel is struggling to maintain its relevance against the Sinaloa. It has aligned itself with the Zetas and the BLO in attempts to win back its former zones of control, although this might prove difficult as the group’s suspected leader was arrested in the beginning of October.
The Knights Templar
REUTERS/Jesus SolanoMexican vigilantes patrol through the streets against the Knights Templar
The Knights Templar are a relatively new group, and were formed in 2010 by Servando Gomez Martinez. Martinez was formerly a high-ranking member of the nearly extinct La Familia Michoacana, but he left the organization after its leader was killed.
As a splinter group of La Familia, the Knights Templar employ similar strategies and trappings. They model themselves as a “self-defense” movement against other cartels on behalf of the indigenous population of Michoacana state. The Knights Templar also made use of ritualistic killings and the dismemberment of rivals in an effort to dissuade resistance.
However, the Knights Templar’s brutal methods have backfired. A popular vigilante revolt — sanctioned by the Mexican authorities — effectively pushed the Knights Templar from areas across the state. Rival cartels joined in the effort, eager for a chance to help eliminate one of their rivals.
The Gulf Cartel
DEAA narco submarine used by the Gulf Cartel to smuggle cocaine
The Gulf Cartel, found in the region of eastern Mexico along the Gulf Coast states, started achieving considerable success and infamy in 1984 when it associated with the Colombian Cali Cartel. Once the Gulf had significant funds, it became one of the first cartels to turn into a mega-operation with a dedicated military wing that eventually mutated into Los Zetas, now one of the most violent criminal groups in the western hemisphere.
Ironically, it was the emergence of the Zetas as a seperate entity that did the most damage to the once-powerful Gulf. By 2010, the Zetas had broken violently from the Gulf Cartel and was waging an aggressive war for territorial control in the Gulf’s home state of Tamaulipas.
Aside from war with the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel also suffered from severe infighting and several high-profile arrests of its top membership during Mexico’s Drug War. Despite the setbacks, the Gulf still controls a lucrative smuggling corridor along the US-Mexico border into Texas, and the cartel has entered into alliances with the Sinaloa and the remnants of La Familia Michoacana against the Zetas.
Jorge Lopez/REUTERSWeapons are displayed on the floor before being presented to a judge as evidence during a trial against nine alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, January 30, 2014
Los Zetas are known as being amongst the most brutal of all the criminal groups in Mexico.
The organization’s origins go back to the late 1990s as the elite private security apparatus of the Gulf Cartel. In an effort to outdo their rivals, the Gulf Cartel formed the Zetas out of a core of at least 31 deserters of the Mexican Special Forces.
The formal military training of the early Zetas, along with their penchant for committing bloody and audacious acts such as beheadings and petrol bomb attacks, have led the DEA and the Mexican authorities to declare the Zetas to be their number-one enemy within Mexico.
In 2010, following the arrests and death of Zetas and Gulf Cartel leaders, the Zetas violently split from the Gulf Cartel, of which they had previously served as a military wing. The Zetas followed the split with a string of high-profile attacks against DEA and US immigration agents.
Today, the group has fractured somewhat under joint attacks from the Sinaloa and the Mexican government, but they have spread into Guatemala and diversified their criminal enterprises into child prostitution and oil theft.
The Tijuana Cartel
STRINGER Mexico/REUTERSAlleged members of the Mexican drugs cartel “Arellano Felix” and weaponry are being presented to the media in Tijuana February 10, 2010
During its heyday in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix, was among the strongest of the organized crime organizations in Mexico. The cartel controlled the lucrative corridor of Tijuana for running drugs and people into the US.
Today, the organization is a shell of what it once was. A series of high profile arrests and assassinations have decapitated the cartel. In 2013, the oldest brother of the family that ran the group was assassinated at a party by a man in a clown costume. Then, in 2013, the cartel’s leader was arrested as well, heralding a breakdown in the organization’s control.
The sudden vacuum of leadership in Tijuana enabled the Sinaloa Cartel to move in and take control of the border town in a relatively bloodless transition. It is now believed that the remnants of the Tijuana Cartel have been folded under the Sinaloa umbrella.
Willie Henderson Womble was convicted of a murder that he says he did not commit
OXFORD, N.C. -
A special three-judge panel has found a Durham man who spent nearly 40 years in prison for murder is innocent of the crime.
The state’s Innocence Inquiry Commission said the decision on 60-year-old Willie Henderson Womble was handed down in Granville County on Friday. Womble was released from prison later Friday afternoon.
In June, the commission recommended that the panel review Womble’s case.
Womble had testified that police pressured him to confess to the 1975 murder of a Butner convenience store clerk. He said a Durham police detective threw him to the ground, threatened him and forced him to sign a confession he didn’t write.
Joseph Perry, who was also convicted of first-degree murder in the case, told the commission last year that another man was responsible for the death.
MEXICO CITY — When President Enrique Peña Nieto took power at the end of 2012, counternarcotics agents quietly voiced concern that he wouldn’t go after the major cartel kingpins. But less than two years into his mandate, Mexican security forces have caught or killed the heads of most major cartels, shaking up the drug-trafficking world.
The latest arrest came on Oct. 9, when federal police and soldiers stopped a car carrying none other than Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, known as “The Viceroy.” He’s blamed for heading the Juarez cartel during a brutal war with the Sinaloa cartel that claimed thousands of lives in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Despite the takedowns, Mexico continues to face major gang violence. In the most recent tragedy, this month officials have discovered a series of mass graves in the southern city of Iguala. So far DNA testing of the badly burned remains has failed to match up with 43 students who recently disappeared there. The killers behind those graves are alleged to belong to an offshoot of the Beltran Leyva cartel, whose boss was also recently nabbed.
GlobalPost looks at which cartel capos have been taken down and who remains at large. Their alleged cartel allegiances and crimes are detailed in indictments and charges, although they have not yet been convicted following the recent arrests.
1. Miguel Angel Treviño
Head of Zetas cartel
Peña Nieto’s first major narco arrest came seven months into his mandate in July 2013. Miguel Angel Treviño, 43, was head of the Zetas, responsible for many of the worst massacres and atrocities in Mexico’s drug war. He also laundered money into the United States in stables with award winning racehorses. Officials arrested him in the middle of the nightwithout firing a shot, reportedly when he was visiting his newborn baby. Treviño is imprisoned in Mexico awaiting trial.
2. Joaquin Guzman
Alias: El Chapo (Shorty)
Head of the Sinaloa cartel
The president’s biggest prize of them all came in February, when Mexican marines nabbed Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a 5-foot-6-inch 57-year-old who was the most notorious living gangster on the planet. Guzman had been a hunted man since he escaped from a high-security prison in 2001 and was blamed for starting bloody turf wars all over Mexico, which led to a horrific spiral of violence. While on the lam, he married an 18-year-old beauty queen in 2007 and she gave birth to twins in a Los Angeles hospital. Despite being considered the “Public Enemy No. 1” in Chicago as well as Mexico, he was caught in an apartment in the seaside resort of Mazatlan with his wife and a single bodyguard. Guzman is in prison in Mexico, awaiting trial, while the United States has also filed an extradition request for him.
3. Nazario Moreno Gonzalez
Alias: El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), El Chayo,
Head of the Knights Templar
While still celebrating Guzman’s arrest, in March news broke that Mexican marines had shot dead Nazario Moreno, 44, in the drug war-battered southwestern state of Michoacan. A huge force of vigilantes also hunted Moreno, who trafficked crystal meth, wrote his own bible and was venerated by his Knights Templar followers like a saint. His killing was an embarrassment to former President Felipe Calderon, under whom federal police also claimed they had shot “El Mas Loco” dead in 2010, although they never retrieved a body.
4. Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano
Alias: El Ingeniero (The Engineer)
Head of the Tijuana cartel
The June arrest of Sanchez Arellano gained less international attention than some of the others but was an important takedown. Sanchez Arellano ran the Tijuana cartel, which controlled the valuable narco-trafficking route into San Diego, California. The Tijuana cartel was most infamous in the 1990s, inspiring the movie “Traffic,” in which Sanchez Arellano’s uncles are portrayed as the Obregon brothers. Sanchez Arellano was nabbed at a restaurant while watching the Mexico–Croatia World Cup soccer game. (Mexico won.) Sanchez Arellano is in prison in Mexico, awaiting trial.
5. Hector Beltran Leyva
Alias: “El H”
Head of the Beltran Leyva cartel
While Hector Beltran Leyva sported nice suits and posed as an art dealer he was the head of a cartel blamed for brutal crimes, such as the massacre of the family of a marine at a wake. He also might have been linked to an attack on US agents. Soldiers arrested Betran Leyva this October while he was eating seafood in the quaint town of San Miguel de Allende, the haunt of American expats and Hollywood stars. Beltran Leyva is in prison in Mexico, awaiting trial.
6. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes
Alias: The Viceroy
Head of the Juarez cartel
Soldiers and federal police caught the Juarez cartel boss earlier this month in the midst of national outrage over the Iguala attack on students. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes inherited the cartel leadership from his brother, who was known as “Lord of the Skies” because of he used a fleet of Boeing 727 airliners to transport cocaine. He led a ruthless group of killers called La Linea and was also said to work with a US prison gang, the Barrio Azteca. More than 9,000 people were murdered in Ciudad Juarez between 2008 and 2012. Carrillo Fuentes is in prison in Mexico, awaiting initial proceedings.
7. Ismael Zambada
Alias: El Mayo, (after an indigenous Sinaloan people), El Rey (The King), The MZ
Joint Head of the Sinaloa cartel
Ismael Zambada, at 66, is the oldest major drug lord and is reputed to be an old-school trafficker who prefers business to bloodshed. He’s a longtime ally of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and while Chapo was internationally known, many Sinaloan gangsters actually profess their first loyalty to the capo known as “The King.” In 2011, he appeared on the cover of Mexico’s top news magazine Proceso after inviting its most famous journalist to a meeting in a secret location. In a brief interview, Zambada said he had been close to being arrested several times. The magazine sold out within hours of hitting the shelves.
8. Juan Jose Esparragoza
Alias: El Azul (Blue)
Joint Head of the Sinaloa cartel
Juan Jose Esparragoza has been careful about getting too much media notoriety but is also considered a top-rank drug trafficker, and a contemporary of Zambada at 65 years old. His nickname, “El Azul” (“Blue”), is said to reflect the dark complexion of his skin.
9. Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes
Alias: El Mencho
Head of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel
A still from a video of masked alleged members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel holding supposed local kidnappers. (YouTube)
Nemesio Oseguera is considered a rising star in the drug-trafficking world, controlling the strategic state of Jalisco in the heart of the country. In 2011 he headed death squads against the Zetas. The Jalisco cartel has historical links with the Sinaloans and is believed to work closely with them. However, Oseguera is originally from Michoacan state and the Jalisco cartel is also expanding there following the demise of the Knights Templar gang.
10. Servando Gomez
Alias: La Tuta, El Profe (The Teacher)
Head of the Knights Templar cartel
Servando Gomez was No. 2 to the late Nazario Moreno in charge of the Knights Templar gang. Now on top of the cartel famous for meth trafficking, he’s considered less bloodthirsty than his late boss. He craves media attention and has given interviews to TV stations as well as releasing many of his own videos on YouTube. In some of those clips, he’s shown with public officials, causing scandals that rock his Michoacan state. Gomez has managed to escape thousands of soldiers, police and vigilantes combing Michoacan for him.
BALTIMORE (AP) — Charges have been dropped against a Baltimore man accused of killing an off-duty Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.
Kevin Carroll, 34, had been charged with first-degree murder in the February shooting death of bus driver Craig Ray in a dispute over loud music in south Baltimore. Court records show prosecutors dropped all charges against Carroll on Sept. 15.
Carroll’s attorney, Lawrence Rosenberg, said Thursday that phone records and other evidence proved Carroll was on the other side of town with his girlfriend at the time of the killing.
“He didn’t do it. There was nothing to corroborate that he did,” Rosenberg said, adding that his client was ecstatic about being freed from jail last week.
Rosenberg said detectives apparently relied on statements by Ray’s girlfriend that Carroll was the man who shot him.
Tony Savage, a spokesman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office — the office that dropped the charges against Carroll — was unable to immediately comment.
Baltimore police Detective Jeremy Silbert said the investigation into Ray’s killing was closed after Carroll’s arrest. He wasn’t able to immediately say whether it would be reopened but said he would speak to investigators about the matter.
Ray’s family members could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
DENVER (AP) – A federal jury on Tuesday found five Denver sheriff’s deputies used excessive force against a homeless street preacher who died in the city’s downtown jail and awarded his family a record $4.65 million in damages, a verdict an attorney said should send a message to law enforcement everywhere.
Marvin Booker died in 2010 after deputies shocked him with a Taser while he was handcuffed, put him in a sleeper hold and lay on top of him, apparently in an effort to control him. His family’s attorneys said that was a zealous overreaction to the 56-year-old, who was frail and suffered a heart condition. The city had argued the deputies’ actions were in line with the department’s policies for subduing a combative inmate.
“He didn’t deserve what these five sheriffs did to him that night,” his brother, Spencer Booker, said, fighting tears after the verdict. “The jury spoke very, very, very clearly that they used excessive force against my brother. Your actions call for consequences.”
The three-week civil trial came amid calls for a federal investigation of the department over other high-profile abuse cases that prompted the sheriff’s department to make sweeping reforms. Former Sheriff Gary Wilson resigned in July as the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle another federal jail-abuse lawsuit by a former inmate over a beating. It had been the largest payout in city history to settle a civil rights case.
The all-white, seven-member jury began deliberating Friday and delivered its verdict just before noon Tuesday.
“The community won’t tolerate this anymore, and things have to change,” Booker family attorney Darold Killmer said. “This verdict should reverberate around the country. This is a sign that people are not going to put up with it anymore.”
City Attorney Scott Martinez said the city was disappointed, but thanked the jurors for their work. “The city remains committed to its ongoing efforts to improve the Denver Sheriff’s Department,” Martinez said in a statement.
Booker’s family filed the federal lawsuit against the city and county of Denver as well as deputies Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp and Kenneth Robinette and Sgt. Carrie Rodriguez. In a rare move on the eve of the trial, the city accepted liability for the actions of the deputies, meaning it is responsible for damages.
Inmates told investigators that the struggle began when he was ordered to sit down in the jail’s booking area but instead moved to collect his shoes, which he had taken off for comfort.
Booker, who was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug possession, was cursing and refusing to follow orders, according to the deputies’ account. He was restrained by deputies who got on top of him, placed him in a sleeper hold, handcuffed him and shocked him with a stun gun.
During the trial, Booker’s attorneys told jurors deputies stunned him for too long and should have backed down when Booker said he was struggling to breathe. Killmer described a “dogpile” of deputies.
“Mr. Booker was essentially doing a pushup with all those deputies on his back,” he said, adding that the department then tried to “whitewash” the incident with a shoddy investigation. Among other mistakes, Killmer said the deputy who stunned Booker submitted the wrong Taser for analysis and questioned whether the right one was ever found.
Denver’s medical examiner said Booker died of cardiorespiratory arrest during restraint, and ruled his death a homicide. The report listed other factors in his death, including emphysema, an enlarged heart and recent cocaine use.
A lawyer representing the city of Denver, Thomas Rice, said Booker’s heart problems caused his death, and a healthier inmate would have survived the encounter.
The deputies “hadn’t the slightest notion that Mr. Booker had a heart condition,” Rice told jurors. “The bad heart was the trigger.”
Prosecutors declined to charge the deputies. Sheriff’s department officials never disciplined them, saying it was reasonable for the deputies to believe he could harm someone and that force was necessary to restrain him.
Four of the five deputies remain on the force. Booker’s relatives said they should be stripped of their jobs.
Key Figures In CIA-Crack Cocaine Scandal Begin To Come Forward
LOS ANGELES — With the public in the U.S. and Latin America becoming increasingly skeptical of the war on drugs, key figures in a scandal that once rocked the Central Intelligence Agency are coming forward to tell their stories in a new documentary and in a series of interviews with The Huffington Post.
More than 18 years have passed since Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb stunned the world with his “Dark Alliance” newspaper series investigating the connections between the CIA, a crack cocaine explosion in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, and the Nicaraguan Contra fighters — scandalous implications that outraged LA’s black community, severely damaged the intelligence agency’s reputation and launched a number of federal investigations.
It did not end well for Webb, however. Major media, led by The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, worked to discredit his story. Under intense pressure, Webb’s top editor abandoned him. Webb was drummed out of journalism. One LA Times reporter recently apologized for his leading role in the assault on Webb, but it came too late. Webb died in 2004 from an apparent suicide. Obituaries referred to his investigation as “discredited.”
Now, Webb’s bombshell expose is being explored anew in a documentary, “Freeway: Crack in the System,” directed by Marc Levin, which tells the story of “Freeway” Rick Ross, who created a crack empire in LA during the 1980s and is a key figure in Webb’s “Dark Alliance” narrative. The documentary is being released after the major motion picture “Kill The Messenger,” which features Jeremy Renner in the role of Webb and hits theaters on Friday.
Webb’s investigation was published in the summer of 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News. In it, he reported that a drug ring that sold millions of dollars worth of cocaine in Los Angeles was funneling its profits to the CIA’s army in Nicaragua, known as the Contras.
Webb’s original anonymous source for his series was Coral Baca, a confidante of Nicaraguan dealer Rafael Cornejo. Baca, Ross and members of his “Freeway boys” crew; cocaine importer and distributor Danilo Blandon; and LA Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Juarez all were interviewed for Levin’s film.
The dual release of the feature film and the documentary, along with the willingness of long-hesitant sources to come forward, suggests that Webb may have the last word after all.
* * * * *
Webb’s entry point into the sordid tale of corruption was through Baca, a ghostlike figure in the Contra-cocaine narrative who has given precious few interviews over the decades. Her name was revealed in Webb’s 1998 book on the scandal, but was removed at her request in the paperback edition. Levin connected HuffPost with Baca and she agreed to an interview at a cafe in San Francisco. She said that she and Webb didn’t speak for years after he revealed her name, in betrayal of the conditions under which they spoke. He eventually apologized, said Baca, who is played by Paz Vega in “Kill The Messenger.”
The major media that worked to undermine Webb’s investigation acknowledged that Blandon was a major drug-runner as well as a Contra supporter, and that Ross was a leading distributor. But those reports questioned how much drug money Blandon and his boss Norwin Meneses turned over to the Contras, and whether the Contras were aware of the source of the funds.
During her interview with HuffPost, Baca recounted meeting Contra leader Adolfo Calero multiple times in the 1980s at Contra fundraisers in the San Francisco Bay Area. He would personally pick up duffel bags full of drug money, she said, which it was her job to count for Cornejo. There was no question, she said, that Calero knew precisely how the money had been earned. Meneses’ nickname, after all, was El Rey De Las Drogas — The King of Drugs.
“If he was stupid and had a lobotomy,” he might not have known it was drug money, Baca said. “He knew exactly what it was. He didn’t care. He was there to fund the Contras, period.” (Baca made a similar charge confidentially to the Department of Justice for its 1997 review of Webb’s allegations, as well as further allegations the investigators rejected.)
Indeed, though the mainstream media at the time worked to poke holes in Webb’s findings, believing that the Contra operation was not involved with drug-running takes an enormous suspension of disbelief. Even before Webb’s series was published, numerous government investigations and news reports had linked America’s support for the Nicaraguan rebels with drug trafficking.
After The Associated Press reported on these connections in 1985, for example, more than a decade before Webb, then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) launched a congressional investigation. In 1989, Kerry released a detailed report claiming that not only was there “considerable evidence” linking the Contra effort to trafficking of drugs and weapons, but that the U.S. government knew about it.
According to the report, many of the pilots ferrying weapons and supplies south for the CIA were known to have backgrounds in drug trafficking. Kerry’s investigation cited SETCO Aviation, the company the U.S. had contracted to handle many of the flights, as an example of CIA complicity in the drug trade. According to a 1983 Customs Service report, SETCO was “headed by Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, a class I DEA violator.”
Two years before the Iran-Contra scandal would begin to bubble up in the Reagan White House, pilot William Robert “Tosh” Plumlee revealed to then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) that planes would routinely transport cocaine back to the U.S. after dropping off arms for the Nicaraguan rebels. Plumlee has since spoken in detail about the flights in media interviews.
“In March, 1983, Plumlee contacted my Denver Senate Office and … raised several issues including that covert U.S. intelligence agencies were directly involved in the smuggling and distribution of drugs to raise funds for covert military operations against the government of Nicaragua,” a copy of a 1991 letter from Hart to Kerryreads. (Hart told HuffPost he recalls receiving Plumlee’s letter and finding his allegations worthy of follow-up.)
Plumlee flew weapons into Latin America for decades for the CIA. When the Contra revolution took off in the 1980s, Plumlee says he continued to transport arms south for the spy agency and bring cocaine back with him, with the blessing of the U.S. government.
The Calero transactions Baca says she witnessed would have been no surprise to the Reagan White House. On April 15, 1985, around the time Baca says she saw Calero accepting bags of cash, Oliver North, the White House National Security Counsel official in charge of the Contra operation, was notified in a memo that Calero’s deputies were involved in the drug business. Robert Owen, North’s top staffer in Central America, warned that Jose Robelo had “potential involvement with drug-running and the sale of goods provided by the [U.S. government]” and that Sebastian Gonzalez was “now involved in drug-running out of Panama.”
North’s own diary, originally uncovered by the National Security Archive, is a rich source of evidence as well. “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into the U.S.,” reads an entry for Aug. 9, 1985, reflecting a conversation North had with Owen about Mario Calero, Adolfo’s brother.
An entry from July 12, 1985 relates that “14 million to finance [an arms depot] came from drugs” and another references a trip to Bolivia to pick up “paste.” (Paste is slang term for a crude cocaine derivative product comprised of coca leaves grown in the Andes as well as processing chemicals used during the cocaine manufacturing process.)
Celerino Castillo, a top DEA agent in El Salvador, investigated the Contras’ drug-running in the 1980s and repeatedly warned superiors, according to a Justice Department investigation into the matter. Castillo “believes that North and the Contras’ resupply operation at Ilopango were running drugs for the Contras,” Mike Foster, an FBI agent who worked for the Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, reported in 1991 after meeting with Castillo, who later wrote the bookPowderburns about his efforts to expose the drug-running.
“The charges could hardly be worse,” the article opens. “A widely read newspaper series leads many Americans to believe CIA is guilty of at least complicity, if not conspiracy, in the outbreak of crack cocaine in America’s inner cities. In more extreme versions of the story circulating on talk radio and the Internet, the Agency was the instrument of a consistent strategy by the US Government to destroy the black community and to keep black Americans from advancing. Denunciations of CIA — reminiscent of the 1970s — abound. Investigations are demanded and initiated. The Congress gets involved.”
The emergence of Webb’s story “posed a genuine public relations crisis for the Agency,” writes the CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer, whose name is redacted.
In December 1997, CIA sources helped advance that narrative, telling reporters that an internal inspector general report sparked by Webb’s investigation had exonerated the agency.
Yet the report itself, quietly released several weeks later, was actually deeply damaging to the CIA.
“In 1984, CIA received allegations that five individuals associated with the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE)/Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS) were engaged in a drug trafficking conspiracy with a known narcotics trafficker, Jorge Morales,” the report found. “CIA broke off contact with ARDE in October 1984, but continued to have contact through 1986-87 with four of the individuals involved with Morales.”
It also found that in October 1982, an immigration officer reported that, according to an informant in the Nicaraguan exile community in the Bay Area, “there are indications of links between [a specific U.S.-based religious organization] and two Nicaraguan counter-revolutionary groups. These links involve an exchange in [the United States] of narcotics for arms, which then are shipped to Nicaragua. A meeting on this matter is scheduled to be held in Costa Rica ‘within one month.’ Two names the informant has associated with this matter are Bergman Arguello, a UDN member and exile living in San Francisco, and Chicano Cardenal, resident of Nicaragua.”
The inspector general is clear that in some cases “CIA knowledge of allegations or information indicating that organizations or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by CIA.” In other cases, “CIA did not act to verify drug trafficking allegations or information even when it had the opportunity to do so.”
“Let me be frank about what we are finding,” the CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, said in congressional testimony in March 1998. “There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
* * * * *
One of the keys to Webb’s story was testimony from Danilo Blandon, who the Department of Justice once described as one of the most significant Nicaraguan drug importers in the 1980s.
“You were running the LA operation, is that correct?” Blandon, who was serving as a government witness in the 1990s, was asked by Alan Fenster, attorney representing Rick Ross, in 1996.
“Yes. But remember, we were running, just — whatever we were running in LA, it goes, the profit, it was going to the Contra revolution,” Blandon said.
Levin, the documentary filmmaker, tracked down Blandon in Managua.
“Gary Webb tried to find me, Congresswoman Maxine Waters tried to find me, Oliver Stone tried to find me. You found me,” Blandon told Levin, according to notes from the interview the director provided to HuffPost.
Waters, a congresswoman from Los Angeles, had followed Webb’s investigation with one of her own.
In the interview notes with filmmaker Levin, Blandon confirms his support of the Contras and his role in drug trafficking, but downplays his significance. “The big lie is that we started it all — the crack epidemic — we were just a small part. There were the Torres [brothers], the Colombians, and others,” he says. “We were a little marble, pebble, rock and [people are] acting like we’re big boulder.”
The Managua lumberyard where Levin tracked down Blandon.
Webb’s series connected the Contras’ drug-running directly to the growth of crack in the U.S., and it was this connection that faced the most pushback from critics. While Blandon may have been operating on behalf of the Contras early in his career, they charged, he later broke off on his own. But an October 1986 arrest warrant for Blandon indicates that the LA County Sheriff’s Department at the time had other information.
“Blandon is in charge of a sophisticated cocaine smuggling and distribution organization operating in southern California,” the warrant reads, according toWebb’s orginal report. “The monies gained through the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered through Orlando Murillo who is a high-ranking officer in a chain of banks in Florida. … From this bank the monies are filtered to the Contra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua.”
Blandon’s number-one client was “Freeway” Rick Ross, whose name has since been usurped by the rapper William Leonard Roberts, better known by his stage name “Rick Ross” (an indignity that plays a major role in the film). The original Ross, who was arrested in 1995 and freed from prison in 2009, told Webb in “Dark Alliance” that the prices and quantity Blandon was offering transformed him from a small-time dealer into what prosecutors would later describe as the most significant crack cocaine merchant in Los Angeles, if not the country.
His empire — once dubbed the “Walmart” of crack cocaine – expanded east from LA to major cities throughout the Midwest before he was eventually taken down during a DEA sting his old supplier and friend Blandon helped set up.
Levin’s film not only explores the corrupt foundations of the drug war itself, but also calls into question the draconian jail sentences the U.S. justice system meted out to a mostly minority population, while the country’s own foreign policy abetted the drug trade.
“I knew that these laws were a mistake when we were writing them,” says Eric Sterling, who was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and a key contributor to the passage of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, in the documentary.
In 1980, there were roughly 40,000 drug offenders in U.S. prisons, according toresearch from The Sentencing Project, a prison sentencing reform group. By 2011, the number of drug offenders serving prison sentences ballooned to more than 500,000 — most of whom are not high-level operators and are without prior criminal records.
“There is no question that there are tens of thousands of black people in prison serving sentences that are decades excessive,” Sterling says. “Their families have been destroyed because of laws I played a central role in writing.”
The height of the drug war in the 1980s also saw the beginning of the militarization of local law enforcement, the tentacles of which are seen to this day, most recently inFerguson, Missouri.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, former LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Juarez, who served with the department from 1976 to 1991 and was later convicted along with several other deputies in 1992 during a federal investigation of sheriff officers stealing seized drug money, described a drug war culture that frequently put law enforcement officers into morally questionable situations that were difficult to navigate.
The hunter and the hunted: A Los Angeles detective finally meets the kingpin he’d pursued.
“We all started getting weapons,” said Juarez, who served five years in prison for skimming drug-bust money. “We were hitting houses coming up with Uzis, AK-47s, and we’re walking in with a six-shooter and a shotgun. So guys started saying, ‘I’m going to get me a semi-automatic and the crooks are paying for it.’ So that’s how it started.”
But Juarez, who served in the LA County Sheriff’s narcotics division for nearly a decade, explained that what started as a way for some officers to pay for extra weapons and informants to aid in investigations quickly devolved into greed. Since asset forfeiture laws at the time allowed the county to keep all cash seized during a drug bust, Juarez says tactics changed.
“It got to where we were more tax collectors than we were dope cops,” Juarez recalled. “Everything seized was coming right back to the county. We turned into the same kind of crooks we’d been following around … moving evidence around to make sure the asshole goes to jail; backing up other deputies regardless of what it was. Everyone, to use a drug dealer’s term, everyone was taking a taste.”
* * * * *
Between 1982 and 1984, Congress restricted funding for the Contras, and by 1985 cut it off entirely. The Reagan administration, undeterred, conspired to sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages, using some of the proceeds to illegally fund the Contras. The scandal became known as Iran-Contra.
Drug trafficking was a much less convoluted method of skirting the congressional ban on funding the Contras, and the CIA’s inspector general found that in the early years after Congress cut off Contra funding, the CIA had alerted Congress about the allegations of drug trafficking. But while the ban was in effect, the CIA went largely silent on the issue.
“CIA did not inform Congress of all allegations or information it received indicating that Contra-related organizations or individuals were involved in drug trafficking,” the inspector general’s report found. “During the period in which the FY 1987 statutory prohibition was in effect, for example, no information has been found to indicate that CIA informed Congress of eight of the ten Contra-related individuals concerning whom CIA had received drug trafficking allegations or information.”
This complicity of the CIA in drug trafficking is at the heart of Webb’s explosive expose — a point Webb makes himself in archival interview footage that appears in Levin’s documentary.
“It’s not a situation where the government or the CIA sat down and said, ‘Okay, let’s invent crack, let’s sell it in black neighborhoods, let’s decimate black America,’” Webb says. “It was a situation where, ‘We need money for a covert operation, the quickest way to raise it is sell cocaine, you guys go sell it somewhere, we don’t want to know anything about it.’”
HOUSTON — A former Houston Police Department officer has admitted to providing security and cover for drug dealers while he was a member of the agency.
Marcos Carrion, 36, who was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, pleaded guilty and provided information on his role in the drug conspiracy as part of a plea agreement.
According to the Houston Police Department, Carrion worked for the department five years before he quit in February 2014. Carrion had been assigned to the Southwest Patrol Division.
Investigators said the case involved cocaine being shipped from mid-2013 through April 2014.
Carrion is set for sentencing for Jan. 8, 2015. At that time, he faces a minimum of 10 years and up to life in federal prison as well as a possible $10 million fine.