The Pariah: Gary Webb, The CIA, and Cocaine Trafficking
Jan 03, 2009
Two weeks after Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series appeared in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996, contributing editor Charles Bowden found himself in a bar, having a few drinks with some narcs (his idea of a good night). "For some reason, Webb's piece came up, and I asked the guys, 'So, what do you think? Is what Webb wrote about the CIA true?'" recalls Bowden, the author of fifteen books, including Blood Orchid and Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. "And they all turned to me and said, "Of course it is.' That's when I knew that somebody would have to do this story, and I figured it might as well be me." "The Pariah," Bowden's story on Webb -- a man he describes as "real smart, real straight, lives on a cul-de-sac, family man, all that crap" -- begins on page 150.
Editor's letter (excerpt):
....The world Charles Bowden leads us into in his story, "The Pariah" (page 150), is, on the other hand, a place few would willingly visit. Reporter Gary Webb chose to enter the alternate universe where the CIA sponsors armies and sometimes finds itself allied with drug dealers who sell their wares in the United States. Webb wrote a newspaper series that documented how the Nicaraguan contras of the 1980s were in part financed by just such an arrangement -- and he was then professionally destroyed for it. Bowden, in the course of reporting this story over the last six months, found considerable evidence that parallels and supports Webb's articles -- including revelations from one of the DEA's most decorated agents, who speaks for the first time about the CIA's complicity in the drug trade. It was not, however, the agency's ties to drug traffickers that Bowden found most disturbing. It was that a man can lose his livelihood, his calling, his reputation, for telling the truth....
Two years ago, Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that said some bad things about the CIA and drug traffickers. The CIA denied the charges, and every major newspaper in the country took the agency's word for it. Gary Webb was ruined. Which is a shame, because he was right.
By Brad Wilson Charles Bowden
Sep 01 '98
HE TELLS ME I'VE GOT TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT WHEN THE BIG DOG GETS OFF THE PORCH, and I'm getting confused here. He is talking to me from a fishing camp up near the Canadian border, and as he tries to tell me about the Big Dog, I can only imagine a wall of green and deep blue lakes with northern pike. But he is very patient with me. Mike Holm did his hard stints in the Middle East, the Miami station, and Los Angeles, all for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, and he is determined that I face the reality he knows. So he starts again. He repeats, "When the Big Dog gets off the porch, watch out." And by the Big Dog, he means the full might of the United States government. At that moment, he continues, you play by
Big Boy rules, and that means, he explains, that there are no rules but to complete the mission. [b]We've gotten into all this schooling because I asked him about reports that he received when he was stationed in Miami that Southern Air Transport, a CIA-contracted airline, was landing planeloads of cocaine at Homestead Air Force Base nearby. Back in the eighties, Holm's informants kept telling him about these flights, and then he was told by his superiors to "stand down because of national security." And so he did. He is an honorable man who believes in his government, and he didn't ask why the flights were taking place; he simply obeyed. Because he has seen the Big Dog get off the porch, and he has tasted Big Boy rules. Besides, he tells me, these things are done right, and if you look into the matter, you'll find contract employees or guys associated with the CIA, but you won't find a CIA case officer on a loading dock tossing kilos of coke around. Any more than Mike Holm ever saw a plane loaded top to bottom with kilos of coke. He didn't have to. He believed his informants. And he believed in the skill and power of the CIA. And he believed in the sheer might and will of the Big Dog when he finally decides to get off the porch.
As his words hang in the air, I remember a convict who says he once worked with the United States government and who also tasted Big Boy rules. This man has not gone fishing. This convict insisted that I hold the map up to the thick prison glass as he jabbed his finger into the mountains. There, he said, that's the place, and his eyes gleamed as his words accelerated. There, in the mountains, they have a colony of two thousand Colombians out of Medellin, guarded by the Mexican army. I craned my neck to see where his finger was rubbing against the map, and made an x with my pen. That's when the guard burst into the convict's small cubicle and ordered him to sit down.
The convict is a man of little credibility in the greater world. He is a Mexican national, highly intelligent and exact in his speech. He is a man electric with the memory of his days working as a DEA informant in Mexico, huddling in his little apartment with his clandestine radio. He said I must check his DEA file; he gave the names of his case officers; he noted that he delivered to them the exact locations of thirteen airfields operated jointly by the drug cartels and the CIA. The man's eyes bugged out as his excitement shredded the tedium of doing time and he returned to his former life of secret transmissions, cutouts, drinks with pilots ferrying dope, bullshitting his way through army checkpoints.
He said, "I'll be out in six months or one year, depending on the hearing. We can go. I'll take you up there." I have always steered clear of the secret world, because it is very hard to penetrate, and because if you discover anything about it, you are not believed. And because I remember what happened to one reporter who wrote about that world, about the Big Dog getting off the porch, about the Big Boy rules. So I thought about the convict's information and did nothing with it.
But this reporter who went ahead and wrote while I stopped, I kept thinking about him. When I mention him, and what happened to him, to Mike Holm, he says, "Ah, he must have drawn blood." Holm is very impressed with the CIA, and he wants me to slow down, think, and understand something: "The CIA's mission is to break laws and be ruthless. And they are dangerous."
I had been thinking about looking into the claim that during the civil war in Nicaragua in the eighties, the CIA helped move dope to the United States to buy guns for the contras, who were mounting an insurrection against the leftist Sandinistas. So I called up Hector Berrellez, a guy who worked under Mike Holm in Los Angeles, a guy known within the DEA as its Eliot Ness, and he said, "Look, the CIA is the best in the world. You're not going to beat them; you're never going to get a smoking gun. The best you're going to get is a little story from me."
What Berrellez meant by a smoking gun is this: proof that the United States government has, through the Central Intelligence Agency and its ties to criminals, facilitated the international traffic in narcotics. That's the trail the reporter was on when his career in newspapers went to rack and ruin. So I decided to look him up.
His name is Gary Webb.
GARY WEBB LOVES THE STACKS OF THE STATE LIBRARY ACROSS from the capitol in Sacramento, the old classical building framed with aromatic camphor trees. He enters the lobby and becomes part of a circling mural called War Through the Ages, an after-flash of World War I painted by Frank Van Sloun in 1929. The panels start with the ax and club, then wade through gore to doughboys marching off to the War to End All Wars. THIS HOUSE OF PEACE, the inscription on the west wall admonishes, SHALL STAND WHILE MEN FEAR NOT TO DIE IN ITS DEFENSE.
He was here in the summer of 1995 because of a call from a woman named Coral Marie Talavera Baca. She told him her drug-dealer boyfriend was in jail and one of the witnesses against him was "a guy who used to work with the CIA selling drugs. Tons of it." Webb was brought up short: In eighteen years of reporting, every person who'd ever called him about the CIA had turned out to be a flake. Webb started to back away on the phone, and the woman sensed it and exploded: "How dare you treat me like an idiot!" She said she had lots of documents and invited him to a court date that month. And so he went.
Coral's boyfriend turned out to be a big-time trafficker. She brought Webb a pile of DEA and FBI reports about, and federal grand-jury testimony by, a guy named Oscar Danilo Blandon. Webb was intrigued by government files that told of Nicaraguans selling dope in California and giving dope money to the contras. During a break in the hearing, he headed for the restroom and ran into the U.S. attorney, David Hall. Webb told him he was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, and Hall asked why he was at a piddling hearing. "Actually, I've been reading," Webb answered, "and I was curious to know what you made of Blandon's testimony about selling drugs for the contras in L.A. Did you believe him?" "Well, yeah," Hall answered, "but I don't know how you could absolutely confirm it. I mean, I don't know what to tell you. The CIA won't tell me anything."
Webb followed a trail of crumbs: some San Francisco newspaper clips, some court records in San Diego, where this strange figure, Blandon, had been indicted for selling coke in 1992 and, according to the documents, had been at it for years and sold tons. He and his wife had been held without bail because the federal prosecutor, L.J. O'Neale, said his minimum mandatory punishment would be life plus a $4 million fine. Blandon's defense attorney had argued that his client was being smeared because he'd been active in helping the contras in the early eighties. The file told Webb that Blandon wound up doing about two years, and that he was now out. The file recorded that at O'Neale's request, the government had twice quietly cut Blandon's sentence and that he was now working as a paid undercover informant for the DEA.
After about six weeks of this kind of foraging, Webb went to the state library. For six days in September, he sat at a microfiche with rolls of dimes and read an eleven-hundred-page report from 1989 compiled by a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a subcommittee chaired by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts that dealt with the contras and cocaine.
Buried in the federal document was evidence of direct links between drug dealers and the contras; evidence, dated four years before the American invasion of Panama, that Manuel Noriega was in the dope business; drug dealers saying under oath that they gave money to the contras (and passing polygraphs); pilots talking of flying guns down and dope back and landing with their cargoes at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.
Suddenly, Coral's phone call didn't seem so crazy. Webb called up Jack Blum, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who led the Kerry inquiry and said, "Maybe I'm crazy, but this seems like a huge story to me." "Well, it's nice to hear someone finally say that, even if it is ten years later," Blum allowed, and then he proceeded to tell Webb almost exactly what he told me recently when I made a similar innocent phone call to him. "What happened was, our credibility was questioned, and we were personally trashed. The [Reagan] administration and some people in Congress tried to make us look like crazies, and to some degree it worked. I remember having conversations with reporters in which they would say, 'Well, the administration says this is all wrong.' And I'd say, 'Look, why don't you cover the ****g hearing instead of coming to me with what the administration says?' And they'd say, 'Well, the witness is a drug dealer. Why should I do that?' And I used to say this regularly: 'Look, the minute I find a Lutheran minister or a priest who was on the scene when they delivered six hundred kilos of cocaine at some air base in contra land, I'll put him on the stand, but until then, you take what you can get.' The big papers stayed as far away from this issue as they could. It was like they didn't want to know."
Webb was entering contra land, and when you enter that country, you run into the CIA, since the contras were functionally a CIA army. (The agency hired them, picked their leaders, plotted their strategy, and sometimes, because of contra incompetence, executed raids for them.) This is hardly odd, since the agency was created in 1947 for precisely such toils and has over the decades sponsored armies around the world, whether to land at the Bay of Pigs or kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan. After a year of research, in August 1996, Webb published a three-day, fifteen-thousand-word series in the Mercury News called "Dark Alliance." It is a story almost impossible to recapitulate in detail but simple in outline: Drug dealers working with the contras brought tons of cocaine into California in the 1980s and sold a lot of it to one dealer, a legend called Freeway Ricky Ross, who had connections with the L.A. street gangs and through this happenstance helped launch the national love of crack. That's it, a thesis that mixes the realpolitik of the-ends-justify-the-means with dollops of shit-happens.
The series set off a firestorm in black communities, where many suspected they had been deliberately targeted with the dope as an act of genocide (there is no evidence of that), and provoked repudiations of the story by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The knockdowns of Webb's story questioned the importance of Nicaraguan dealers like Blandon, the significance of Ricky Ross, how much money, if any, reached the contras, and how crucial any of this was to the crack explosion in the eighties, and brushed aside any evidence of CIA involvement. But while raising questions about Webb's work, none of these papers or any other paper in the country undertook a serious investigation of Webb's evidence. A Los Angeles Times staff member who was present at a meeting called to plan the Times's response has told me that one motive for the paper's harsh appraisal was simply pride: The Times wasn't going to let an out-of-town paper win a Pulitzer in its backyard.
Later, when it was all over, Webb spelled out exactly what he meant and exactly what he thought of the CIA's skills: The series "focused on the relationship between the contras and the crack king. It mentioned the CIA's role in passing, noting that some of the money had gone to a CIA-run army and that there were federal law-enforcement reports suggesting that the CIA knew about it. I never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed, the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became. The CIA couldn't even mine a harbor without getting its trench coat stuck in its fly."
After a while, the San Jose Mercury News series disappeared except on a few byways of the Internet, Gary Webb was ruined, and things went back to normal. Things like Oliver North's diary entry linking dope and guns for the contras, like Carlos Lehder, a big Colombian drug dealer, testifying as a prosecution witness in federal court during the Noriega trial about the Medellin cartel's $10 million donation to the contras, like the entire history of unseemly connections between the international drug world and the CIA -- all this went away, as it has time and time again in the past. A kind of orthodoxy settled over the American press that assumed that Webb's work had been thoroughly refuted. He became the Discredited Gary Webb.
And so in June 1997, Webb wound up going to a motel room he hated. The Mercury News's editors were supposed to fix him up with an apartment, but they never figured he'd show up for his dead-end transfer from investigative reporter to pretty much a nothing. So they made no arrangements, just shunted him to the paper's Cupertino bureau on the south end of Silicon Valley, his family 150 miles away in Sacramento. After a few days of the motel, he found himself in a tiny apartment. He was in his early forties, and his life and his life's work were over. He endlessly watched a tape of Caddyshack and tried to forget about missing his wife, Sue, his three kids, his dog, his work. He was an ordinary guy, by his lights, with the suburban home, an aquarium in the study, two games a week in an amateur hockey league. Now, during the day, he visited the bureau, and the guys there treated him okay, because they were all in the same boat, people who had pissed off their newspaper and been shipped to its internal Siberia, where they were paid to retool the press releases of the computer and software companies. Webb was fighting the paper through arbitration with the Newspaper Guild, and so while his case dragged on, he refused to let his byline run. But he did his assignments. After all, they were paying him a solid mid-five-figure wage; he was their star investigative reporter, the guy they had brought in from The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1987 to do, in their words, "kick-ass journalism." Within two years, he'd helped them bring home a Pulitzer with a team of Mercury News reporters who jumped on the San Francisco earthquake. Then he blew the lid off civil forfeiture in California -- law enforcement's practice of seizing property from alleged crooks and then forgetting to ever convict, try, or even charge them. That series got the law changed. He was hot. He was good. He kicked ass.
Now Caddyshack flickered against his eyes hour after hour. His thirteen-year-old son asked, "Why don't you get another job?" And Gary Webb told him, "That's what they think I'll do. But they're wrong. I'm gonna fight."
But fight how? He was one ****g disgrace. Oliver North described his work as "absolute garbage." Webb was stretched thin. The week the series ran, he and his wife closed on a new house and moved in. Payments. So each morning, he went to the Cupertino bureau, and there were assignments from the city desk. Seems a police horse died, and he was supposed to nail down this equine death. So he did. He investigated the hell out of it and wrote it up, and, by God, the thing was good. Went on page one, of course, without his name on it. The horse died from a medical problem, constipation. The horse was full of shit.
HECTOR BERRELLEZ STUMBLED ONTO GARY WEBB'S STORY YEARS before Gary Webb knew a thing about it. His journey into that world happened this way: Hector was not fond of cops. He remembered them slapping him around when he was a kid. He was a barrio boy from South Tucson, a square mile of poverty embedded in the booming Sun Belt city. His father was a Mexican immigrant. After being drafted into the Army in the late sixties, Berrellez couldn't find a job in the copper mines, so he hooked up as a temporary with the small South Tucson police force to finance his way through college. And it was then that Hector Berrellez accidentally discovered his jones: He loved working the streets with a badge. The state police force hired him, and Hector, still green, managed to do a one-kilo heroin deal in the early seventies, a major score for the time. The DEA snapped him up, and suddenly the kid who had wanted to flee the barrio and become a lawyer was a federal narc. He loved the life. In the DEA, there are the administrators, who usually have little street experience, the suits. And then there are the street guys like Hector, and they call themselves something else. Gunslingers. His hobbies were jogging, weight lifting, guitar playing. And firearms. A Glock? Never. "Only girls carry Glocks," he snaps. "They're a sissy gun. Plastic. You can't hit anyone over the head with a Glock."
In September 1986, Sergeant Tom Gordon of the Los Angeles sheriff's narcotics strike force pieced together intelligence about a big-time drug ring in town run by Danilo Blandon. A month later, on October 23, Gordon went before a judge with a twenty-page detailed statement documenting that "monies gained from the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered....The monies are filtered to the contra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua." He got a search warrant for the organization's stash houses. On Friday, October 24, there was a briefing of more than a hundred law-enforcement guys from the sheriff's office, the DEA, the FBI. That was the same day that President Ronald Reagan, after months of hassle, signed a $100 million aid bill that reactivated a licit cash flow to the beleaguered contras. And on Monday, October 27, at daybreak, the strike force simultaneously hit fourteen L.A.-area stash houses connected with Blandon.
That's where just another day in the life of Hector Berrellez got weird. Generally, at that early hour, good dopers are out cold; the work tends toward long nights and sleeping. As Berrellez remembers, "We were expecting to come up with a lot of coke." Instead, they got coffee and sometimes doughnuts. The house he hit had the lights on, and everyone, two men and a woman, was up. The guy who answered the door said, "Good morning; we've been expecting you. Come on in." The house was tidy, the beds were already made, and the damn coffee was on. The three residents were polite, even congenial. "It was obvious," says Berrellez, "that they were told." The place was clean; all fourteen houses were clean. The only thing Berrellez and the other guys found in the house was a professional scale.
But there was a safe, and Berrellez got one of the residents to open it reluctantly. Inside, he found records of kilos matched with amounts of money, an obvious dope ledger, a photograph of a guy in flight dress in front of what looked to be a military jet, and photographs of some guys in combat. Hector asked the guy who the hell the people in the photographs were, and the guy said, "Oh, they are freedom fighters." What the hell is this? Berrellez wondered. He left and went to a couple of the other houses that had been hit, and Jesus, they were clean, the coffee was on, sometimes there were doughnuts for the cops, and the same kind of documents showed up. But no dope, not a damn thing.
For a holy warrior, October 27, 1986, was a bad day. At the debriefing after the raid, Berrellez remembers one of the cops saying that the houses had been tipped to the raid by "elements of the CIA." And he thought, What? "I was shocked," he says now. "I was in a state of belief." He was supposed to believe that his own government was helping dopers? No way. "I didn't want to believe," he says And so he didn't. He was that rock-solid first-generation citizen, and he believed in America. He remembers having this ongoing argument with his dad about whether there was corruption in the U.S. like the old man had tasted in Mexico. His father would ask, Do you really think things are so clean here? And Hector would have none of it; damn right they're clean here. And he was clean, and he was in a good outfit (a position he is still passionate about -- his absolute love for the troops he served with in the DEA), and he was in a holy war against a tide of poison.
In 1987, he was transferred to Mazatlan in Sinaloa, Mexico, to run the DEA station. Sinaloa was the drug center for Mexico; in the history of the Mexican drug cartels, all but one leader has been Sinaloan born and bred. He took the wife, got a beach house in the coastal city, and ran with the job. Two months into the assignment, narcotrafficantes chased his wife and two-year-old daughter from the beach back to the house, and they had to be evacuated to the States.
In October 1988, Hector and some Mexican federal police hit a small hamlet that housed a ton of coke and twenty tons of marijuana. The firefight lasted three hours, with thousands of rounds exchanged. When three federales were mowed down on the field of fire, Hector managed to pull them to safety with another agent. He commandeered a cab to take the wounded to a hospital, then returned to the shoot-out. For this combat, Hector and two other agents at the scene were brought to the White House and given a medal by Attorney General Edwin Meese. He was on a roll that would eventually earn him twelve consecutive superior-performance awards.
Hector Berrellez, twenty-four years in the DEA, known as the agency's Eliot Ness. As he read about Gary Webb, he thought, This shit is true.
In Mexico, Hector was running two hundred to three hundred informants, and he was bringing in a torrent of information on the drug world and its links to the Mexican government. But something else happened down there in Sinaloa that stuck in his mind. His army of informants was constantly reporting strange fortified bases scattered around Mexico, but they were not Mexican military bases, and, his informants told him, the planes were shipping drugs. Camps in Durango, Sinaloa, Baja, Veracruz, all over Mexico. Hector wrote up these camps and the information he was getting on big drug shipments. And each month, he would go to Mexico City to meet with his DEA superiors and American-embassy staff, and he started mentioning these reports. He was told, Stay away from those bases; they're our training camps, special operations. He thought, What the hell is this? I'm here to enforce the drug laws, and I'm being told to do nothing.
THE EMPTY ROOM SAGS WITH FATIGUE AS THE SPORTS TELEVISIONS quietly float in the corner. California's ban on smoking has emptied the watering holes. The hotel squats by a four-lane highway amid bland suburbs that blanket Sacramento's eastern flank against the Sierra Nevada. Everything is normal here; this is the visual bedrock of Ronald Reagan's America.
Gary Webb orders Maker's Mark on the rocks. He is a man of average height, with brown hair, a trim mustache, an easy smile, and laconic, laid-back speech, the basic language of Middle America. He moves easily, a kind of amble through life. His father was a marine, and his childhood meant moving a lot before finally coming to ground in Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. He's married to his high school sweetheart; they have three kids and live on a tree-lined cul-de-sac with a pool in back, a television in the family room, his Toyota with 150,000 miles in the drive, Sue's minivan, and on the cement the chalk outline of a hopscotch game. He looks white-collar, maybe sells insurance.
All he has ever wanted to be is a reporter. He started out as a kid, writing up sports results for a weekly at a nickel an inch. The Gary Webb who suddenly loomed up nationally with this bad talk about the CIA and drugs was a long time coming, and he came from the dull center of the country, and he came from an essay entitled, "What America Means to Me," for which he was runner-up in the fifth-grade essay contest, and he came from the smell of ink, the crackle of a little weekly where he nailed cold the week's tumult in the Little League.
Webb is not a drinker, probably because his marine father was, but now in the empty hotel bar, he is drinking. He is not used to talking about himself, because he is a reporter, and a reporter is not the story, but now he is talking about himself. When Gary Webb talks, he sometimes leans back, but often as not, he leans forward, and when he is really into what he is saying, he grabs his left wrist with his right hand as if he were taking his own pulse, and then his voice gets even flatter, and the words are very evenly spaced, and he never goes too fast, hardly any hint of rat-a-tat-tat -- he is always measured and unexcited. But when he grabs that wrist, you can tell now that the words really matter. Because he believes. In facts. In publishing facts. In the fact that publishing facts makes a difference in how people look at things. Believes, without reason or question, believes absolutely. As for coincidence, it doesn't fit in with his mission. He also has no tolerance for conspiracy theories. By God, if he finds a conspiracy, it is not a theory, it is a ****g conspiracy, because it is grounded in facts.
When he was twenty-three, he was kind of drifting, living in the basement of Sue's house with her parents. He was writing rock 'n' roll stuff for a weekly, still grinding away at college and about three units shy of a degree. His father walked out on the marriage, leaving his mother, a housewife, and his younger brother without a check. So Webb quit college to support them. A teacher in his journalism department told him that the strange guy who ran the Post in Lexington, Kentucky, set aside one day a week for walk-ins. Webb walked in and said, "I need a job."
The editor said, "Go do two pieces and bring them back in a week."
One was on the barmaids and strippers of Newport, Kentucky, the sin town across the river from Cincinnati. The editor tossed it aside and said, "Thrice-told tale." The other was on a guy who carved gravestones; that one the editor kind of liked. He said, "Bring me two more." Webb was shaken, went home and sat in the backyard, and then he thought, Fuck, I can do this. This goes on for weeks. A kid calls the paper about the dog he's found run over in the street. He's taken it to the Humane Society; they want to put it to sleep, and the kid is very upset. Webb is sent out to see if he can do anything fit for a newspaper. He talks to the vet, who says it is hopeless, that the dog will never walk again, whether he operates or not. When Webb reports back to the editor, he says, "Get that guy on the phone," and after a few blunt words from the editor, by God, the vet is going to operate. And it works. The damn dog is leaping in the air. Finally, the dog goes home to the kid who found him, a kid in a wheelchair who seemed to identify with an injured mutt and was horrified at the idea that a cripple should be done away with. Story and photograph on the front page. Webb is hired. Years later, the old editor would tell him, "If that dog hadn't walked, you'd have never been hired."
There is a guy in the newsroom who is kind of burned out, a city editor. He watches the new hire for a few weeks. He tells him he will teach him the ropes, how to ferret out facts, how to find out damn near anything, how to be an investigative reporter. On one condition. He says Webb has to swear never to become a ****g editor. Webb agrees. His first series was seventeen parts on organized crime in the coal industry. Then he moved up to a good job on The Cleveland Plain Dealer and was in heaven: Ohio was the mother lode of corruption in government. He got an offer from the Mercury News in 1987. After a brief bidding war, he moved the family west, great place to raise kids, and besides, during his father's wanderings as a marine, Webb happened to be born in California. Everything was fine. He was in the Sacramento bureau and so hardly ever in the newsroom, much less around editors. In a big story for the paper, he took on one of the area's major employers. After the first day of the story, the company bought a full-page ad refuting it. After the next installment, the company bought a two-page ad. Webb looked around and noticed that nothing happened to him. The paper backed him up.
GARY WEBB'S "DARK ALLIANCE" BROKE AN OLD STORY. THE HISTORY of the CIA's relationship with international drug dealers has been documented and published, yet it is almost completely unknown to most citizens and reporters. Webb himself had only a dim notion of this record. And so he reacted with horror when the implications of his research first began to become clear to him: that while much of the federal government fought narcotics as a plague, the CIA, in pursuing its foreign-policy goals, sometimes facilitated the work of drug traffickers. "Dark Alliance" is surrounded by a public record that bristles with similar instances of CIA connections with drug people:
-- Alan Fiers, who headed the CIA Central American Task Force, testified during the Iran-contra hearings in August 1987, "With respect to [drug trafficking by] the resistance forces...it is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."
-- In 1983, fifty people, many of them Nicaraguans, were caught unloading a big coke shipment in San Francisco. A couple of them claimed involvement with the CIA, and after a meeting between CIA officials and the U.S. attorney handling the case, $36,000 found in a bedside table was returned because it "belonged to the contras." This spring, when the CIA published its censored report on involvement of the agency with drug traffickers in the contra war (a report that exists solely because a firestorm erupted in Congress after Webb's series), this incident was explained thusly: "Based upon the information available to them at the time, CIA personnel reached the erroneous conclusion that one of the two individuals...was a former CIA asset." Logically, an admission that CIA "assets" can sometimes be drug dealers.
-- In 1986, Wanda Palacio parted company with the Medellin cartel and started talking to Senator John Kerry's subcommittee, which was looking into the byways of the contra war and dope. Palacio said she'd witnessed two flights of coke out of Barranquilla, Colombia, on planes belonging to the CIA-contracted Southern Air Transport. She also had the dates and had seen the pilot. She also said Jorge Ochoa, another drug boss, said the flights were part of a "drugs for guns" deal. On September 26, 1986, Kerry took her eleven-page statement to William Weld, who was then the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division of the Justice Department. Weld allowed that he was not surprised to find claims of "bum agents, former and current CIA agents" dabbling in dope deals with the Colombian cartels. On October 3, Weld's office rejected Palacio's statement and offer to be a witness because of what it saw as contradictions in her testimony. On October 5, 1986, the Sandinistas shot a CIA plane out of the sky and captured one of Oliver North's patriots, one Eugene Hasenfus. Palacio was sitting in Kerry's office when a photograph of Hasenfus's dead pilot flashed across the television screen. She whooped that the pilot was the same guy she'd seen in Colombia loading coke on the Southern Air Transport flight in early October 1985. An Associated Press reporter, Robert Parry, investigated the crash and obtained the pilot's logs, which showed that on October 2, 4, and 6, 1985, the pilot had taken a Southern Air Transport plane to Barranquilla, Colombia. Palacio took a polygraph on the matter and passed.
-- Through much of the contra war, SETCO Air, an airline run by Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros out of Honduras, was the principal airline used to transport supplies and personnel for the contras. Hector Berrellez later sent Ballesteros to Marion Federal Prison in Illinois to serve a couple of life sentences for dope peddling.
ABOUT THE SAME TIME GARY WEBB WAS MAKING HIS BONES AT The Cleveland Plain Dealer and winning part of a Pulitzer at the Mercury News, Hector Berrellez was becoming a legend. After two years of living at ground zero in Sinaloa, he was brought home to Los Angeles in 1989 to take over the most significant investigation in DEA history, that of the murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Camarena had been bagged in broad daylight from in front of the American consulate in Guadalajara in February 1986. His tortured body was found a month later. The investigation had stalled, so the DEA tossed it in Hector's lap. He ran with the new power, the raft of agents under his command, the huge budget for buying informants in Mexico. The case was a core matter for the DEA: The murder of Camarena was the event that gave the ragtag agency its martyr. The investigation was called Operation Leyenda, "Operation Legend."
During Operation Leyenda, a major drug guy in Sinaloa called Cochi Loco, "the Crazy Pig," put a contract on Hector's head. In the drug world, there are so many possible reasons for murder that a simple one is seldom clear. Whatever the immediate cause, in the early nineties a hit team was sent north to kill Hector.
One day in 1991, in the underground garage of the building in Los Angeles where the DEA and a bunch of federal agencies rent office space, someone walked up to a guy sitting in a car and clipped him in the head with a .22. The man died instantly and fell forward into the steering wheel, and the sound of a car horn wailed through the garage. Hector remembers that they found him with the motor running, and neatly placed on the floorboard of the car was the gun, in a Mexican-tooled holster, and the two latex surgical gloves that had been worn by the hit man. Someone wanted a clear message delivered.
The dead man was a guy from the General Services Administration who happened to work in the same building as the DEA. He had been in some kind of a hurry and had pulled into a DEA parking space. The guy was a ringer for Hector's partner. Three days after the hit, Hector picked up the phone in his office and heard the voice of Chichon Rico Urrea, a significant drug figure who was doing a stint in a prison in Guadalajara. Chichon told Hector, "You see what happened to your guy in the garage? That's going to happen to more of your guys."
Hector told the guy to go fuck himself, said he could kill all the ****g GSA guys he wanted. But Hector was questioning his faith. The faith was the war on drugs. The faith was that he was a righteous soldier in this war. The faith was that he was risking his life for the forces of light against the forces of darkness. And he was Eliot Ness, goddammit; he was the most decorated guy anyone could remember in the DEA, the man running its key investigation, the guy who had killed people, the guy bloodied in the world of Mexican corruption. All of that Hector could handle -- none of that could ever touch the faith. But other things could. Things he saw and learned in Mexico. And things he saw in the United States. He began to doubt that there was a real commitment to win this war on drugs. He saw his government winking at too many narcotics connections. He took Kiki Camarena's murder personally, because as agents they were mirror images -- gung-ho, committed drugbusters. And impediments to his investigation pissed Hector off. So in 1992, four years before Gary Webb sprang "Dark Alliance" on the world, Hector Berrellez sat down in his federal office in Los Angeles and picked up the phone and recommended action to the DEA. Things had come to his attention, and he thought, Somebody's gotta investigate this crap. In fact, he hoped to be that investigator.
Hector Berrellez wanted a criminal investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency. His $3 million snitch budget had brought in an unseemly harvest, report after report from informants that in the eighties CIA-leased aircraft were flying cocaine into places like the air-force base in Homestead, Florida, and the airfield north of Tucson long believed to be a CIA base. And that these planes were flying guns south. One of his witnesses in the Camarena case told him about flying in a U.S. military plane loaded with drugs from Guadalajara to Homestead. Other informants told him that major drug figures, including Rafael Caro Quintero, the man finally imprisoned for the Camarena murder, were getting guns delivered through CIA connections. Everywhere he turned, he ran into dope guys who had CIA connections, and to a narc this didn't look right. "I can't believe," he told his superiors, "that the CIA is handling all this shit and doesn't know what these pilots are doing." His superiors asked if he had hard evidence of actual CIA case officers moving dope, and he said no, just lots of people they employed. All intelligence services use the fabled "cutouts" to separate themselves from their grubby work.
The DEA in Washington asked for a memo, so Hector fired off a summary of his telephone request. Agents were assigned, and Hector shipped every snippet of new information to this team. Nothing came of the investigation. The DEA team came out and debriefed him and some of his agents. And then, silence.
Hector's Camarena work had burrowed deep, very deep, inside the Mexican government and found endless rot. With the vote on NAFTA in the air in the fall of 1993, his investigation started to get pressure, then his budget was cut. By 1994, after Justice Department officials had been in Mexico City, he was told, "Don't report that crap anymore." It was clear to Hector that the Mexican government wanted this Camarena investigation reined in. In early 1995, he learned of his future in a curious way. One of Hector's informants in Mexico City called another one of his informants in Los Angeles and said, Hector's getting transferred to Washington. The guy in Los Angeles said, No, no Hector's still here. Two months later, in April 1995, Berrellez was transferred to Washington, D.C. Over the years, Hector had become used to a certain amount of duplicity in the DEA. Some of his fellow agents, he had come to believe, were actually members of the CIA. The DEA had been penetrated.
At headquarters, Hector sat in an office with nothing to do. "There ain't no ****g drug war," he says now. "I was even called un-American. Nobody cares about this shit." He started going a little crazy. Each day, he checked into a blank schedule. So he caught a lot of double features.
In September 1996, he retired. He had had enough. The most decorated soldier in the war on drugs kind of faded out at the movies.
IN THE NEWS BUSINESS, IF YOU HANG AROUND LONG enough, you get a chance to find out who you are. Gary Webb was determined not to find out he was something ugly.
"I became convinced," he remembers, "that we're going to look back on the whole war on drugs fifty years from now like we look back on the McCarthy era and say, How did we ever let this stuff get so out of hand? How come nobody ever stood up and said, This is bullshit? I thought I had an obligation because I had the power at that point to tell people, Don't believe what you're being told about this war on drugs, because it is a lie. Very few people were in the position I was in, where I was able to write shit and get it in the newspapers. It was a very rare privilege. The editors at the Mercury gave me a lot of freedom because I produced. Then I got into this thing."
In December 1995, Webb wrote out his project memo, and suddenly, "I realized what we were saying here. I'm sitting at home, and this e-mail comes from a friend at the Los Angeles Times. And I had told him vaguely about this interesting story I was working on. I told him that he had no idea what his ****g government is capable of "And I was depressed because this was so horrible. It was like some guy told me that he had gone through the looking glass and was in this nether world that 99 percent of the American public would never believe existed. That's where I felt I was. When I sat down and wrote the project memo and said, Here's what we're going to say, and we're going to be accusing the government of bringing drugs into the country, essentially, and we've spent billions of dollars and locked up Americans for selling shit that the government helps to come into the country -- is just...If you believe in democracy and you believe in justice, it's ****g awful."
For six weeks after his series came out, Webb waited in a kind of honeymoon. His e-mail was exploding, he recalls, "from ordinary people who said, 'This has restored my faith in newspapers.' It was from college students, housewives that heard me on the radio; it was really remarkable to think that journalism could have this kind of effect on people, that people were out marching in the streets because of something that had been hidden from us all these years. The thing that surprised me was that there was no response from the press, from the government. It was total silence."
Finally, in early October, The Washington Post ran a story by Robert Suro and Walter Pincus headlined, THE CIA AND CRACK: EVIDENCE IS LACKING OF ALLEGED PLOT. The story focused in part on the fact that Webb had given a defense attorney questions to ask Oscar Danilo Blandon about his CIA connections. It also quoted experts who denied that the crack epidemic originated in Los Angeles, disputed that Freeway Rick Ross and Blandon were significant national players in the cocaine trade of the eighties (pegging Blandon's coke business at five tons over the decade, whereas Webb had evidence that it was more like two to five tons per year). And, the article continued, there was no evidence that the black community had been deliberately targeted (the "plot" referred to in the headline and a claim never made by Webb), that the CIA knew about Blandon's drug deals (also a claim never made by Webb, who in the series merely connected Blandon to CIA agents), or that Blandon had ever kicked in more than $60,000 to the contra cause (the Post based this number on unnamed law-enforcement officials;
Webb based his estimate of millions of dollars to the contras from dope sales on grand-jury testimony and court documents). Perhaps the best summary of the Post's retort to Webb came from the paper's own ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, some weeks later: "The Post...showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves. They were stronger on how much less money was contributed to the contras by the Mercury News's villains that their series claimed, how much less cocaine was introduced into L.A., than on how significant it is that any of these assertions are true."
In late October, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times weighed in on consecutive days. The Los Angeles Times had two years before described Freeway Rick Ross vividly: "If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles's streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick....Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices, and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived....While most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than five hundred thousand rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars." In the 1996 response to Webb's series, the Los Angeles Times described Ross as one of many "interchangeable characters" and stated, "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross." Both stories were written by the same reporter, Jesse Katz, and the 1996 story failed to mention his earlier characterization. The long New York Times piece the following day quoted unnamed government officials, CIA personnel, drug agents, and contras, and noted that "officials said the CIA had no record of Mr. Blandon before he appeared as a central figure in the series in the Mercury News."
A common chord rang through the responses of all three papers: It never really happened, and if it did happen, it was on a small scale, and anyway it was old news, because both the Kerry report and a few wire stories in the eighties had touched on the contra-cocaine connection. What is missing from the press responses, despite their length, is a sense that anyone spent as much energy investigating Webb's case as attempting to refute it. The "Dark Alliance" series was passionate, not clinical. The headlines were tabloid, not restrained. But whatever sins were committed in the presentation of the series, they cannot honestly be used to dismiss its content. It is puzzling that The New York Times felt it could discredit the story by quoting anonymous intelligence officials (a tack hardly followed in publishing the Pentagon Papers). In contrast, what is striking in Webb's series is the copius citation of documents. (In the Mercury News's Web-site version-cgi.sjmercury.com/drugs/postscriptfeatures.htm -- are the hyperlinked facsimiles of documents that tug one into the dark world of drugs and agents.) But when Jerry Ceppos, the executive editor of the Mercury News, wrote a letter in response to the Post's knockdown, the paper refused to print it because a defense of Webb's work would have resulted in spreading more "misinformation."
Despite Ceppos's initial defense of the series, the Mercury News seemed to choke on these attacks, and Webb could sense a sea change, But he kept on working, building a a bigger base of facts, following its implications deeper into the government. When the Mercury News forced him to choose between a $600,000 movie offer and book deals and staying on the story, Webb picked the story. He kept discovering people who had flown suitcases full of money to Miami from dope sales for the contras. He documented Blandon's contra dope sales from '82 through '86. Gary Webb was on a tear; he was going to advance the story. Almost none of this was published by the Mercury News; the paper grudgingly ran (and buried) one last story on New Year's Eve 1996.
The paper had printed the story of the decade, the one with Pulitzer prize written all over it, and now was unmistakably backing off it. Webb entered a kind of Orwellian world where no one said anything, but there was this thing in the air. The Mercury News assigned one of its own reporters to review the series, using the stories of the L.A. Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as the benchmark for what was fact.
Webb wouldn't admit it to himself, but he had become a dead man walking.
WHEN HECTOR BERRELLEZ SPENT HIS YEAR GOING TO MOVIES IN Washington, he knew he was finished in the DEA. One day in October 1996, a month after he retired, Hector Berrellez picked up a newspaper and read this big story about a guy named Gary Webb. Hector had lived in shadows, and talking to reporters had not been his style. "As I read, I thought, This shit is true," he says now. He hadn't a doubt about what Webb was saying. He saw the reporter as doomed. Webb hit a sensitive area, and for it he would be attacked and disbelieved.
Hector knew all about the Big Dog and the Big Boy rules.
Hector's body aches from the weight of secrets. When we meet, he is in a white sport shirt, slacks, a blue blazer with brass buttons, and a shoulder-holstered 9mm with fifteen rounds in the clip and two more clips strapped under his right arm. He may be a little over-armed for his Los Angeles private-investigation agency (the Mayo Group, which handles the woes of figures in the entertainment industry -- that pesky stalker, that missing money -- for a fat fee up front and two hundred dollars an hour), but not for his history. For the rest of his life, Hector Berrellez will be sitting in nice hotels like this one with a cup of coffee in his hand, a 9mm under his jacket, and very quick eyes.
He saw a lot of things and remembers almost all of them. He wrote volumes of reports. In 1997, he was interviewed by Justice Department officials about those unseemly drug ledgers and contra materials he saw during the raid on the fourteen Blandon stash houses back in 1986. His interviewers wanted particularly to know whether anyone besides Hector had seen them. They then told Hector that they couldn't find the seized material anymore.
Before he retired, Hector was summoned to Washington to brief Attorney General Janet Reno on Mexican corruption. He talked to her at length about how the very officials she was dealing with in Mexico had direct links to drug cartels. He remembers that she asked very few questions. Now he sits in the nice lounge of the nice hotel, and he believes the CIA is in the dope business; he believes the agency ran camps in Mexico for the contras, with big planes flying in and out full of dope. He now knows in his bones what the hell he really saw on October 27, 1986, when he hit the door of that house in the Los Angeles area and was greeted with politeness and fresh coffee.
But he doesn't carry a smoking gun around. The photos, the ledgers, all the stuff the cops found that morning as they hit fourteen stash houses where all the occupants seemed to be expecting company, all that material went to Washington and seems to have vanished. All those reports he wrote for years while in Mexico and then later running the Camarena case, those detailed reports of how he kept stumbling into dope deals done by CIA assets, never produced any results or even a substantive response.
Hector Berrellez is a kind of freak. He is decorated; he is an official hero with a smiling Ed Meese standing next to him in an official White House photograph. He pulled twenty-four years and retired with honors. He is, at least for the moment, neither discredited nor smeared. Probably because until this moment, he's kept silent.
And Hector Berrellez thinks that if the blacks and the browns and the poor whites who are zombies on dope ever get a drift of what he found out, well, there is going to be blood in the streets, he figures -- there is going to be hell to pay. He tells me a story that kind of sums up the place he finally landed in, the place that Gary Webb finally landed in. The place where you wonder if you are kind of nuts, since no one else seems to think anything is wrong. An agent he knows was deep in therapy, kind of cracking up from the undercover life. And the agent's shrink decided the guy was delusional, was living in some nutcase world of weird fantasies. So the doctor talked to Hector about his patient, about whether all the bullshit this guy was claiming was true, about dead men and women and children, strange crap like that. And he made a list of his patient's delusions, and he ticked them off to Hector. And Hector listened to them one by one and said, "Oh, that one, that's true. This one, yeah, that happened also." It went on like that. And finally, Hector could tell the shrink wondered just who was nuts -- Hector, his patient, or himself.
ON SUNDAY, MAY 11, 1997, GARY WEBB WAS hanging wallpaper in his kitchen when the San Jose Mercury News published a column by executive editor Jerry Ceppos that was widely read as a repudiation of Webb's series. It was an odd composition that retracted nothing but apologized for everything. Ceppos wrote, "Although the members of the drug ring met with contra leaders paid by the CIA and Webb believes the relationship was a tight one, I feel we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship." Fair enough, except that Webb never wrote that top CIA officials knew of the contra-cocaine connection. The national press wrote front-page stories saying that the San Jose Mercury News was backing off its notorious series about crack. The world had been restored to its proper order. Webb fell silent. He had to deal with his own nature. He is not good at being polite. "I'm just ****g stubborn," he says, "and that's all there was to it, because I knew this was a good story, and I knew it wasn't over yet, and I really had no idea of what else to do. What else was I going to do?"
What he did was have the Newspaper Guild represent him in arbitration with the Mercury News over the decision to ship him to the wasteland of Cupertino. "I'm going to go through arbitration, and I'm going to win the arbitration, and I'm going to go to work," he says. "I was just going to fight it out. This was what I did, this was me, I was a reporter. This was a calling; it was not something you do eight to five. People were not exactly beating down my door, saying, Well, okay, come work for us. I was...unreliable." So he went to Cupertino, and he wrote stories about constipated horses and refused to let his byline be printed. And then he went to his apartment and missed his wife and family and watched Caddyshack endlessly. He was a creature living a ghostly life. The only thing he didn't figure on was himself. Webb slid into depression. Every week, the 150-mile drive between his family in Sacramento and his job in Cupertino became harder. Every day, it was harder to get out of bed and go to work.
And he was very angry most of the time. He says, "I was going to live in my own house and see my own kids. At some point, I figured something was going to give." Finally, he couldn't make it to work and took vacation time. When that was used up in early August, he started calling in sick. After that, he went on medical leave. A doctor examined him and said, "You are under a great deal of stress," and diagnosed him as having severe depression. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't do much of anything. He decided to write a book about "Dark Alliance," but this time no one wanted it. His agent was turned down by twenty-five publishers before finding a small press, Seven Stories, that operates as a kind of New York court of last resort.
A job offer came from the California state legislature to conduct investigations for the government-oversight committee at about the same money he made for the Mercury News. His wife said, Take the job. Why hang around in this limbo? Webb thought about her words and told himself, What do I win even if I do win in arbitration? I get to go back to my office and get bullshitted the rest of my life. He watered his lawn, worked on the house, read more and more contra stuff. Drifted in a sea of depression. "I didn't know what to do if I couldn't be a reporter," he says. "So all of a sudden, I was standing there on the edge of the cliff, and I don't have what I was doing for the last twenty years -- I don't have that to do anymore. I felt it was like I was neutered. I called up the Guild and said, 'Let's see if they want to settle this case.' They sent me a letter of resignation that I had to sign."
Webb carried the letter with him from November 19 to December 10 of last year. Every day, he got up to sign the letter and mail it. Every night, he went to bed with the letter unsigned. His wife would ask, Have you signed it? Somebody from the Mercury kept calling the Guild and asking, Has he signed it yet? "I mean," he says softly, "writing my name on that thing meant the end of my career. I saw it as a sort of surrender. It was like signing," and here he hesitates for several seconds, "my death certificate."
But finally he signed, and now he is functionally banned from the business. He's the guy nobody wants, the one who fucked up, the one who said bad things. Officially, he is dead, the guy who wrote the discredited series, the one who questioned the moral authority of the United States government.
If Gary Webb could have talked to a Hector Berrellez in the fall of 1996, when his stories were being erased by the media, Hector would have been like a savior to him. "Because he would have shown what I was reporting was not an aberration," Webb says now, "that this was part of a pattern of CIA involvement with drugs. And he would have been believed." But Webb was not that lucky, and the Hectors of the world were not that ready to talk then. So Webb was left out there alone, one guy with a bunch of interviews and documents. One guy who answered a question no one wanted asked.
I CAN HEAR HECTOR BERRELLEZ TELLING ME that I will never find a smoking gun. I can hear the critics of Gary Webb explaining that all he has is circumstantial evidence. Like anyone who dips into the world of the CIA, I find myself questioning the plain facts I read and asking myself, Does this really mean what I think it means?
-- In 1982, the head of the CIA got a special exemption from the federal requirement to report dealings with drug traffickers. Why did the CIA need such an exemption?
http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/cocaine/13.gif http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/cocaine/14.gif http://www.cia.gov/cia/reports/cocaine/ex1.html
-- Courthouse documents attest to the fact that the Blandon drug organization moved tons of dope for years with impunity, shipped millions to be laundered in Florida, and then bought arms for the contras. Why are Gary Webb's detractors not looking at these documents and others instead of bashing Webb over the head?
-- The internal CIA report of contra cocaine activity has never been released. The Justice Department investigation of Webb's charges has never been released. The CIA has released a censored report on only one volume of Webb's charges. The contra war is over, yet this material is kept secret. Why aren't the major newspapers filing Freedom of Information [Act] requests for these studies?
-- The fifty-year history of CIA involvement with heroin traffickers and other drug connections is restricted to academic studies and fringe publications. Those journalists who find themselves covering the war on drugs should read Alfred McCoy's massive study, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, or Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall's Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America.
-- Following the release of "Dark Alliance," Senator John Kerry told The Washington Post, "There is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, on the payroll of, and carrying the credentials of, the CIA were involved in drug trafficking while involved in support of the contras." Why has the massive Kerry report been ignored to this day?
-- On March 16, 1998, the CIA inspector general, Frederick P. Hitz, testified before the House Intelligence Committee. "Let me be frank," he said. "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."