Gary Webb Radio Interview Part 1

[ Yes, this is a real interview with Gary Webb.This interview took place on KDVS-FM, 90.3mHz, Davis, California, either in December of 1997 or early 1998. Unfortunately, I neglected to label my cassette tape recording with the exact date. It’s possible that I can find the exact date at some future time. I may put up an audio file of the interview at some point. Upon reviewing it, I’m not entirely happy with my contribution as host; I think I interrupted him unnecessarily a few times, running my mouth too much. Readers may also notice that I don’t grant Gary a lot of time to summarize the story in the opening; he had been doing plenty of interviews that asked him the same basic questions, and I was interested in delving into the material in more depth. There are other interviews available on the Internet that may possible provide a more easily understandable outline summary of his work in the Dark Alliance series. This should be considered a rush transcript; I may make minor adjustments in order to help with the syntax, to make it more readable. The content will remain intact. This is part one of the interview; I’ll be publishing part 2 in the near future. Stay tuned. ed.]

Host: Just to review everything, Gary- could you tell everyone what you found out the first time around?

Webb: Well, that was a pretty good summary. What the series was about essentially was the men who started the first major crack market in the United States, in Los Angeles, and their connections with the Contras, and to the CIA, and as you said, other agencies we never really got a chance to identify because the series was deep-sixed after the first part of i. And actually, this is a story where I really didn’t start out looking for this, believe me- I mean, you couldn’t make this up, a story of how the CIA was involved in crack, they would have shown you the door immediately. This was the result of a series I had done for the [San Jose] Mercury-News back in ’93 on drug seizure laws, where the cops come in to take your property because they think you might be a drug dealer, and you have to prove that you’re not, or they get your money. It’s kind of a nifty game-

Host: -kind of a booming business-

Webb: -if you’re on the police side of the board-

Host: – getting to be multi-billion dollar- the domestic figure is creeping up into the multibillion dollar ranges, but the international figure is around maybe $30 million a year [c.1995. See The New War, by John Kerry.]

Webb: Well, if you have to start seizing the assets of Chase Manhattan Bank [since merged into JP Morgan Chase] and like that, that’s sort of frowned upon…

Host: [Aside] So that’s why we want people to write those sarcastic postcards to their elected representatives and the media organizations, because that’s who we want to be looking at.

So, to continue:

Webb: So, at any rate, I was interviewing the girlfriend of one of these cocaine dealers, and she told me I should look into her boyfriend’s case, because he had a problem with assets as well, and when I was researching his story, I found out that one of the witnesses against him at his trial was this rather mysterious Nicaraguan named Danilo Blandon, who had been an immigrant after the Sandinistas took over the government back in 1979…he came to the United States and then became a cocaine dealer for the Contras. And between 1982 and 1984-85 he became the biggest cocaine dealer in Los Angeles, dealing on an average of probably 100-150 kilos a week.

Host: Now, what- as I recall from the first set of stories you did, there was something about some terrific price break, a terrific advantage that he [Blandon] was giving to his new customers down there [in South Central L.A.]…

Webb: He was- he was really well-connected. His boss was this other Nicaraguan named Norwin Meneses, who had been dealing with the Colombian cartels since essentially before they were cartels, back when they were marijuana shippers. And so he had some long-standing ties with the Peruvians, and the Colombians, and hence he could get dope for next to nothing and pass the savings on to you [his customers]. And that is what he did in South Central [L.A.], sold it for very cheap, and his main customer for this Contra drug ring was a fellow named “Freeway” Rick Ross, who was, at the time they started out [in business together] a fairly minor dealer, bits and pieces of cocaine, he was selling $100 here, $100 there- and after a couple of years of his involvement with these Contras, he was going through $5 million bucks a week [in inventory]. At the heights of-

Host: There’s nothing that beats that [for business profit]. There’s nothing that beats- if you just do the math, as see what you’re getting cocaine for- at one point, Elaine Shannon [Time reporter, author od Desperadoes] mentioned that the price was dipping down to $8,000 a kilo, and $11,000 a kilo [Note: check references.] That’s $11 a gram, and $8 a gram, for something that you can retail for 6, 7,8, 10 times that price.

Webb: Yeah, and to show you, when they started dealing it, it was selling for $60,000 a kilo. And it was a rich man’s fix…

Host: It was acknowledged that when [kilo dealers] were getting the uncut cocaine, it was costing something in the neighborhood of $40, $50, $60 a gram, and people were still making money, doubling their money retailing it, and when you get down to [Blandon’s discount] price along with that surety [sic. assurance] of supply, so it isn’t just a kilo here and there-

Webb: Well, they were bringing it in by the freighter. They had a Colombian freighter line, the Gran Colombiana line, this is a part that I got into in the book that I didn’t get into in the series- this was a shipping company that was partially owned by the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments and they [the smugglers] were bringing it in literally by the freighter load, up and down the coast- the FBI watched these ships- they’d stop in Long Beach, they’d stop in San Francisco, they’d stop in Seattle- and they’d just bring in this stuff. And they’d off-load this stuff to frogmen, who would swim ashore-

Host: Tell me about the ‘Frogman case’-

Webb: Yeah, there was this very famous case in ’83, in San Francisco, when they busted these frogmen, and at the time it was the biggest bust in California. It was like 440 lbs. [check references] , which was for 1982 an enormous amount- well, it still is…

Host: Shortly (thereafter) eclipsed by multi-ton busts in Florida and California [like Sylmar], but nonetheless, right, a huge amount of money, (potentially) a multi-million-dollar load. Now, of course, one of the most astonishing things about the Frogman case was that these fellows [the smugglers] sued for the return of the money…?

Webb: What happened was-

Host: They got the money back? (superfluous interruption)

Webb: When the cops went into this one dealer’s apartment, they found this box [of cash] on his nightstand, and they said “Aha! This is drug money!” Which isn’t an unreasonable assumption, considering he had like kilos of dope [cocaine] around, and scales and mannitol [a popular substance to cut cocaine].{ha! more like probable cause. ed.} And about a year later, the judge gets a letter from these two fellows down in Costa Rica, saying “You know that money you took from those fellows, that wasn’t drug money, that was Contra money, and he was supposed to buy supplies for us, so could you please give us the money back?”- and usually when you get something [a request] like this, you say “Yeahh. Riiight”-

Host: -“tell it to the judge”, and that’s the end of it-

Webb: But by this time, as we know, alarm bells went off all over Langley (CIA headquarters), and the CIA General Counsel flew out to San Francisco and had what was later described as “a very opaque conversation” about how they [the CIA] would really like it if they [the court] would give the money back.

Host:<sarc>A very “plausibly deniable (circumstance)”- “patriotic effort” explanation- </sarc>

Webb: So, yeah, for the good of the country, make the problem go away, and nobody ever found out, and nobody ever found out why…now, as I wrote about later in the book, the two men were very worried, because they were CIA operatives, and they were dealing with the Contras and they were dealing with drug dealers, and the CIA cables that went back and forth were very revealing, because they talked about (Webb, paraphrasing) “what a disaster to our program this would be” if this got out, and how it was great that the Justice Department was so cooperative and had given his money back, and how “we really needed to keep an eye on this”, because, I think the phrase was that “this is a disaster in the making”, “an embarrassment”, you know…

Host: I think only later did it come out, from [ Kerry committee government investigator] Jack Blum, talking about it…

Webb: They still didn’t know. It just came out a few months ago in the CIA Inspector General’s Report that came out after I wrote my series, and they admitted that yes, there was CIA involvement in this case that they had denied for decades.

Host: Yeah.

Can you go into a little more detail about, first, the man Ronald Lister, and his arms outlet, and then continue into that second set of stories, that I’ve never heard nearly enough about…

Webb: Well, nobody ever did, because they [the SJ Mercury-News] never printed them…

Ronald Lister was a cop. He was a military police officer, he had a background in Political Science, he was debriefing prisoners of war during the Vietnam war, and they he became- I mean, this is a strange career choice if I ever saw one- the became a cocaine trafficker, and he was the right-hand man for this fellow Danilo Blandon when the Contras started dealing it. My belief is that he was the link between the Agency and the drug dealers.

Host: He was the ‘cut-out’ {the single pivot providing direct contact between two levels of a covert operation. ed.}

Webb: Right. He was the cut-out.

Host: To me, I start seeing the makings of a pattern when I see [recall] that a man named Richard Barile was a connection to the Medellin Cartel in the 1970s  He was a hairdresser in L.A. in the ’70s, but he also owned a gun shop, was a gun trader, a former Marine who trained counterinsurgency [methods] in the Philippines, who was working through a man named George Jung, it was George Jung who introduced (acted as wholesaler for Richard Barile.) {George Jung was Medellin Cartel founder Carlos Lehder’s former cellmate in Federal prison, and Lehder’s first and largest Stateside connection for years. ed.} Richard Barile bragged at the time that he was the man to see for cocaine in Los Angeles (in the 1970s), cocaine at that time was a premium item and it wasn’t easy to find uncut cocaine…also, in the book The Bluegrass Connection by Sally Denton, there was a man named Mike Kelly, who owned a gun shop around Fayette County (Kentucky) which I noted when I talked about it last week [on the same KDVS-FM radio program, an episode featuring material from The Bluegrass Connection. {Note that the Americans I just mentioned in this comment are not presently known, to my knowledge, have any connections with the drug operations mentioned in the Dark Alliance series. ed}

Webb: One of the things you learn when you’re writing about the CIA is, you learn pattern recognition…

Host: Hmm.

Webb: It’s not the same people [as those involved with Blandon, Meneses, Lister, and Ross] but again it’s the same type of these people with very interesting backgrounds and they’re suddenly doing something that they have no [civilian career] background in…

Host: They’re suddenly in the U-Haul business…or flying planes…

Webb: Or the drug business…

Host: Yeah, well, certainly, that’s what we’re talking about…

Webb: Well, he [Lister] was sort of the flip side of this drug business. The part that we wrote about in the San Jose Mercury-News series was the drug side of this operation {i.e., centering on Blandon and Meneses. ed.} The part that we were going to get into, that we didn’t get into, was the arms side of this peration. These guys were selling weapons to the Contras, they were down in El Salvador, they actually had a pistol factory down in El Salvador that had been set up after the Boland Amendment when the CIA got kicked out of the war [check date], they needed a steady supply of arms, so they set up a gun factory in this bus depot down in El Salvador, where you wouldn’t think anything about a bunch of guys leaning over a machine making metal items.

Host: This was very much like the story told by Terry Reed in the book Compromised-

Webb: Exactly.

Host: with a turnkey operation manufacturing untraceable weapons aprts, first in Arkansas, and later moved to Mexico.

Webb: That’s a good point, and as I pointed out in my book, that story and this story are very similar, in that they were both dealing with people who were known drug traffickers; in Reed’s case he was working through this guy Barry Seal, who was one of the biggest traffickers in the southern States-

Host: A legendary pilot- [Early in his career, the youngest pilot ever to fly for TWA Airlines;  later proven to be extensively involved for decades in smuggling both arms and drugs all over Latin America. ed.]

Webb: And, you know, [Reed] was sort of the cut-out to the CIA [between them and Seal. ed.]. And in this [Dark Alliance] case, you had Ronald Lister, who was down there [in El Salvador] with- what the police found when they raided Lister’s house in ’86, they didn’t find any drugs, because everybody knew the cops were coming. {It appears that Lister was tipped off. ed} But what they did find was some very bizarre paperwork: a proposal in Spanish, about a 15 or 20 page proposal, to the Defense Minister of El Salvador for [to provide] security services, counterinsurgency services, and I mean- the cops told me later, “This was weird enough, but the fact that we were on a drug raid and found this stuff made it even weirder. Suddenly we were dealing with [raiding] drug dealers who were dealing with heads of state.”

Host: Yeah. And with large quantities of automatic weapons. {Danilo Blandon at one time offered to sell the 59th Street Hoover Crips grenade launchers, in addition to the other inventory that they had purchased from Lister through Blandon. ed.} And in [former DEA field agent] Celerino Castillo’s book Powderburns, he talked about Walter Grasheim…{an American found to be dealing large quantities of arms in El Salvador, where Castillo was stationed. ed.}

Webb: Yeah, I interviewed him [Castillo] for this book. He was in Sacramento a while ago.

Host: Well, oh, good. I hope he comes back. I hope he’s doing well. Because it takes a lot of courage to review what you’ve done and what yo’re doing, and see the consequences and put two and ttow together, as to where it all might lead, in terms of state corruption [in the U.S.A. ed.]

(Aside, to audience) I recommend all these books [those mentioned thus far in the show], if you can find them. Powderburns is a good book.

(To Gary Webb:) I heard you say something that I found almost incredible- in an interview with Dennis Bernstein on KPFA (KPFA-FM, 94.1 Berkeley), something about photos of George Bush and Pablo Escobar, with Barry Seal…what in the world…? {Not an accurate framing of the story that Webb goes on to tell. But read on… ed.}

Webb: This was a thing I found in the National Archives. One of those things I got access to after the series- unfortunately, I didn’t have it before the series. The National Archives is in the process of declassifying Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Contra files. Millions of docs…they were just declassifying these files and I got a lot of information out of them. And one of them was a very weird set of memos from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Tampa [Florida] to the head of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington- talking about a debriefing they had done with a Colombian named Allen Wall Rudd [sp.? ed.]- a mid-level coke dealer who had gotten arrested in Florida and decided to become a government witness, and went into these extended debriefings about Pablo Escobar, whowas the head of the Medellin Cartel- and one of these briefings so alarmed the Justice Department that this U.S. Attorney sat down and wrote this
long memo that got kicked up the line, about a stement that Escobar made in one of his conversations he was having with this ‘Rudd’ [sp. ? ed.] fellow about transporting drugs into Florida. Rudd said that Escobar had become very agitated and starts bitching about George Bush, and said the man’s a traitor [sic], he used to work with us and now that he’s Vice President he’s got to be tough, and so he’s turning his back on his friends…

Host: Ahem.

Webb: …and this was very intriguing to this guy [the witness, Rudd. ed.]

Host: There’s a bell ringing in my head right now…

Webb: And this guy says “Well, what are  you talking about?” And Escobar says, “Well, we made a deal with him (then-Vice President George H. W. Bush) that we were going to ship weapons for the Contras, and they were going to give us free passage into Florida for our product.” And he said “We’ve got pictures of these planes, these American military planes would come down here with the weapons, leave the weapons, load up with cocaine, fly home, and we would take the weapons to the Contras.” They were another cut-out…

[Stay tuned for Part 2. Also in the works: a brief remembrance of meeting Gary Webb in person; a review and fact-check of the film Kill The Messenger, which I’ve just seen; as much supplemental material as I can manage to put up from my own investigations on the same subject. NOTE: be prepared for some minor format tinkering and customizing. I’m “bashing it out now, and tarting it up later”, as Nick Lowe would put it. ]

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Justice For The Messenger

Gary Webb, American News Media, and the War on Drugs

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