Alfred McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of the classic The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.
How The U.S. Government Created America’s Drug Problem (Amazon book list)
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The cultivation of what we know today as the opium poppy goes back to the beginnings of recorded history, when the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia cultivated what they referred to as Hul Gil, or the “joy plant.” The practice was passed down through the Assyrians to the Babylonians and from there to the Egyptians, by which time the opium trade had begun to to flourish and was fast becoming the lynchpin of international trade across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Indeed, as far back as one cares to go, control of the international opium trade has been a key factor in the rise and fall of empires.
During the 18th century, the British monopolized the opium trade in India and shipped thousands of chests of opium per year to China as a way of financing their huge trade deficit with that nation. When the Chinese cracked down on opium trafficking in the mid-19th century, the British fought two wars to ensure their Chinese opium market.
By the 1830s, American traders were already getting in on the act, with Samuel Russell’s “Russell & Company” becoming the largest American trading house in China. Russell’s cousin, William Huntington Russell, founded Skull & Bones, a secret society at Yale that has formed the core of the American intelligence establishment, a set of documentable facts that the establishment media seems eager to avoid.
The association between Skull and Bones and the American intelligence establishment from the OSS to the CIA is well-established by now, with a litany of agents, directors, and of course Director of Central Intelligence, George “Poppy” Bush himself, having been Bonesmen before being recruited for the agency. But the connection between the CIA and the international drug trade is not simply a historical one about 19th century opium traders.
Just as the British empire was in part financed by their control of the opium trade through the British East India Company, so too has the CIA been found time after time to be at the heart of the modern international drug trade.
From its very inception, the CIA has been embroiled in the murky underworld of drug trafficking.
In the late 1940s, the CIA funneled arms and funds to the Corsican Mafia in return for their assistance in breaking up widespread labour strikes in France that were threatening to establish communist control over the Old Port of Marseille. The Corsican crime syndicate, in turn, used the CIA support to set up the trafficking network known as “The French Connection” which saw heroin smuggled from Turkey to France, and shipped to the US, feeding an American heroin epidemic.
In Burma in 1950, the CIA regrouped the remnants of the defeated Nationalist Chinese Army, or KMT, to start an invasion of Southern China and draw Chinese troops away from the Korean front. Easily beaten back by Mao’s forces, the KMT instead turned their attention to occupying Burma, imposing an opium tax on all farmers in the opium-rich Shan highlands. Members of the Burmese military claimed that the KMT opium was flown out to Thailand and Taiwan on the same unmarked C-47s that the CIA had used to supply the group in the first place.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the CIA recruited the Laotian Hmong tribe to fight communist forces in the region. The CIA encouraged the Hmong to grow opium instead of rice to make them dependent on CIA air drops of food. The agency could then force their compliance by threatening to withdraw the food aid. To make the deal even sweeter, they even located a heroin refinery at CIA headquarters in northern Loas and used Air America, a passenger and cargo airline that was covertly owned and operated by the CIA, to export the Laotian opium and heroin. Much of it ended up in Vietnam, causing an epidemic of heroin addiction in US soldiers.
In the 1980s, the locus of opium production shifted from the Golden Triangle, where the CIA was disengaging, to the Golden Crescent, where it was engaging with the Afghan mujahedeen in their CIA-funded struggle against the Soviets. Opium became a key funding mechanism for the insurgency, and as Peter Dale Scott explained on The Eyeopener earlier this year, the correlation between CIA involvement in the region and increasing opium production was not coincidental.
Also in the 1980s, the US supported the Contras in their fight against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Officially barred from arming and funding the Contras by congress, the CIA came up with a scheme to sell arms to Iran and use the funds to illegally arm and supply the Contras. CIA-protected drug smugglers flew down to Nicaragua loaded with arms to supply the Contras and flew back loaded with Columbian cocaine. A decade later, investigative reporter Gary Webb used official government documents to prove that the CIA had sheltered these drug smuggling operatives and followed the trail of this cheap Columbian cocaine to the beginning of the crack epidemic in South-Central LA.
Despite the numerous, documented and fully admitted examples of CIA involvement in drug dealing in the past, the idea that the agency is still tied in with international drug traffickers is largely dismissed as the stuff of conspiracy theory.
Over the last several years, however, some sensational but under-reported stories of plane crashes in Mexico have served to focus attention once again on the issue of agency complicity in drug dealing.
In 2004, a Beech 200 was apprehended in Nicaragua with 1100 kilos of cocaine. It was bearing a false tail number for a CIA aircraft owned by a CIA shell company.
In 2006, a DC9 was seized on a jungle airstrip in the Yucatan carrying 5.5 tons of cocaine packed into 126 identical black suitcases. The plane’s owner was linked to a company called Skyway Communications, whose CEO, James Kent, had previously held contract positions supporting intelligence projects for the DoD.
In 2007, a Grumman Gulfstream II jet crashed in Mexico carrying 3.3 tons of Columbian cocaine linked to the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel. Later it was revealed that the plane had previously been used by the CIA to carry out rendition flights to Guantanamo Bay.
In 2008, a Cessna 402c aircraft was seized in Columbia with 850 kilos of cocaine bound for the United States. The plane’s purchase history links it to a company that one ex-CIA asset has fingered as a company that has a history of being involved in US government operations.
Now, the issue of intelligence agency drug dealing has once again raised its head in spectacular fashion in a rather unlikely place: a Chicago federal courtroom.
The case revolves around the prosecution of an accused Mexican drug trafficker, Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla. Zambada Niebla is part of the famed Sinaloa drug cartel, an organization that has risen in Calderon’s Mexico to become one of the most powerful international drug trafficking cartels in the region, if not on the globe.
His case revolves around “Fast and Furious,” an offshoot of the ATF’s Project Gunrunner which was ostensibly set up to stop the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico but has in fact allowed over 2000 guns to be smuggled under the ATF’s nose into the hands of Mexican drug gangs.
Zambada Niebla is in court on charges of serving as the logistical coordinator for the Sinaloa cartel, helping to import tons of cocaine into the us by land, rail, and air.
The only problem is that Zambada Niebla is now claiming to to be an asset of the US government. In response to this claim, US government prosecutors are attempting to invoke the “Classified Information Procedures Act” to keep classified material relation to national security out of public court proceedings.
According to a former federal agent contacted for comment on the case by Bill Conroy of NarcoNews, the invocation of CIPA means that CIA involvement in the case “is a very reasonable conclusion” and that “there is hot stuff to hide.”
Earlier this week, I had the chance to talk to Bill Conroy about the case, and about the possible relationship between the CIA and the Mexican drug cartels.
Despite the startling nature of the case, and the likelihood of agency complicity in drug trafficking into the United States yet again, the establishment media has been almost completely silent on this aspect of the Fast and Furious scandal, with Bill Conroy at NarcoNews being one of the only reporters on the beat at the moment.
Perhaps this is not surprising, given the shameful history of the American media in their coverage of CIA-drug connections in the past.
After the publication of Gary Webb’s expose on the CIA-Contra drug connections in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, he was subjected to a fierce critique from the Washington Post, the LA Times and the New York Times. The backlash eventually forced Webb’s editors at the Mercury News to back away from the story. The CIA’s own internal investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz vindicated much of Webb’s reporting, but Webb remained a journalistic outcast and the story was commonly believed to be discredited.
In 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. The death was ruled a suicide.
In the end, perhaps it is a simple matter of economics. There are billions of dollars per year to be made in keeping the drug trade going, and it has long been established that Wall Street and the major American banks rely on drug money as a ready source of liquid capital.
In late 2009, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, even went on record to say that it was primarily drug money that kept the American financial system afloat during the 2008 crisis, estimating that some $352 billion dollars of drug profits had been laundered via the major US banks during that time.
With those kinds of funds at stake, it is unsurprising to see a media-government-banking nexus develop around the status quo of a never-ending war on drugs, aided, abetted and facilitated by the modern-day British East India Company, the CIA.
As Presidential candidate Ron Paul pointed out during his 1988 run for the White House, it is not until the people take back their government and repeal the drug laws that help to maintain this phony drug war and artificially inflate the prices of this age-old scourge that we can begin to actually deal with the root of the drug problem, and at the same time remove one of the key funding sources for the CIA’s illegal operations.
14 October, 2011