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.”
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.