Newspaper reports that the CIA may have eased the way for a Latin American cocaine ring to push tons of the drug into South-Central Los Angeles are creating a firestorm of political and social reaction.
The claims, published last month by the San Jose Mercury News, have a special resonance among African Americans because black neighborhoods have been the hardest hit by the crack cocaine epidemic.
During the early 1980s, South-Central gangs established the first street sale networks for crack, a cheaper, more addictive form of cocaine than the powdered variety. Many blacks have long argued that there had to be a conspiracy by government forces to allow so much of the drug to flood vulnerable, impoverished neighborhoods.
Leading the charge is Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). At Waters' request, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last week asked the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate the Mercury News allegations.
The largest public gathering on the issue is expected Saturday, when black-oriented radio station KJLH-FM (102.3) plans a town hall meeting on the topic at the Vision Complex in the Crenshaw district's Leimert Park. Another congresswoman, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), has scheduled a public forum for next month in Compton. Community groups have also called for a candlelight vigil next week in front of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center to protest the alleged CIA involvement.
Also this Saturday, presidential candidate Ross Perot's volunteers will hold a town hall meeting in Van Nuys with the drug-smuggling allegations on the agenda.
Talk radio stations have been bursting with speculation about sinister forces assisting drug dealers, often featuring the author of the Mercury News series, reporter Gary Webb. The Mercury News published not only Webb's stories but also much of his documentation on its Internet site, attracting international attention.
Recently, a Washington radio talk show host who has devoted his entire daily show to the newspaper series for the past month demonstrated in front of CIA headquarters in Virginia with civil rights activists Dick Gregory and the Rev. Hosea Williams.
While the Mercury News series has been criticized as being vague and as not addressing the fact that other Latin American drug rings shipped substantial amounts of cocaine here, it nonetheless touched a deep nerve among people like Richard Price, a 69-year-old retired city traffic officer from Watts.
"The crap has to come from somewhere," Price said. "We don't grow cocaine; we don't manufacture guns."
The belief among many African Americans that the government played a role welled up throughout the 1980s as few black families--regardless of economic class--were left untouched by crack. Today, a shockingly high proportion of blacks can point to a relative or acquaintance who has either been addicted, been imprisoned or suffered personal grief because of the drug.
On the street, among the witting and unwitting victims of crack, the Mercury News accusations fit neatly into a thesis of power formed by people who speak of the government as a monolithic, oppressive entity--as "they."
"They" means the police who arrest you, the courts who take away custody of your children, the prison officials who incarcerate you. "They" means a power structure that many poor Americans view as targeting them for abuse or extermination.
The accusations also fit into a scene many blacks ruefully remember from "The Godfather," in which the head of a notorious crime family coldly suggests that drugs be sold among "the dark people, the coloreds. They are animals anyway, so let them lose their souls."
Rep. Waters, who had long contended that forces beyond the drug marketplace were behind crack-related violence and homelessness in her inner-city district, reacted with a thesis considerably broader than the newspaper report's.
"The origin of the crack cocaine trade in this country was led and designed by the CIA and their paid Nicaraguan agents, who introduced crack cocaine to South-Central Los Angeles," Waters said.
The Mercury News articles told the story of group of Nicaraguans operating in the Bay Area who sold tons of Latin American cocaine to Los Angeles trafficker Ricky Ross and leaders of other Los Angeles drug gangs during the 1980s. The newspaper said the profits from the drug operation were then funneled to the Contras, a group financed by the CIA to overthrow Nicaragua's socialist government.
As a possible cover-up, the newspaper suggested, the CIA blocked attempts to prosecute the Bay Area drug operation's leader. The Mercury News said it was stonewalled by federal agencies that denied most of its requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
The newspaper's implication that crack would not have come to Los Angeles had the Contra drug operation been smashed, mixed with long-held suspicions, created an instant furor.
Within days of its publication, Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden was demanding a federal investigation and comparing the government's role in crack to the U.S. Public Health Service's oversight of a study in which black men with syphilis were left untreated for 40 years to observe the "natural" course of the disease.
In the black-oriented Los Angeles Sentinel, columnist A. Asadullah Samad suggested that "every black family who was affected by this plot now has a claim [for reparations] against the U.S. government." The Nation of Islam's newspaper, the Final Call, made the controversy its cover story.
Waters met with Ross and his attorney in San Diego, where the accused dealer awaits sentencing for a federal conviction for drug trafficking. Earlier this month, the congresswoman invited Webb to discuss his findings with about 200 community residents and leaders at a South-Central community center.
Many at the meeting fumed when Waters released a letter from U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno stating that a preliminary Justice Department investigation did not support the allegations against the CIA. (Pressed by Waters, Holden and numerous other local and California politicians, the CIA has agreed to conduct an investigation, contending all the while that there is no substance to the allegations.)
The anger is rooted in the unparalleled social devastation crack caused. A 1994 Times study of crack's decade-long impact found that the drug had directly cost Los Angeles County taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in social and crime services. For example, the paper found that nearly half of all child welfare cases involved one or more parents who abused crack.
Richard Price says he has reason to believe so strongly that the government is involved. When government wants something stopped, he says, it stops it.
"It's funny," he said. "You have hundreds of tons of cocaine in this country, but you can't find one Cuban cigar."