Black, Paranoid and Absolutely Right

In an excerpt from the new book, "This is Your Country on Drugs", Ryan Grim explains how the press covered for the CIA in the Iran-Contra drug scandal that rocked the black community in the '90s.

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In the summer of 1996, the San Jose Mercury News broke the story of the connection between L.A. crack dealers and the U.S. funded Nicaraguan Contras. More than a month later, the Washington Post weighed in with a five-story, roughly 10,000-word broadside that ripped the series apart, debunking its central tenets and wondering aloud what it is about black people that makes them so paranoid.


The Post’s editorial board explained that “the shock of the story for many was not simply the sheer monstrousness of the idea of an official agency contributing to a modern-day plague—and to a plague targeted on blacks. The shock was the credibility the story seems to have generated when it reached some parts of the black community.”
But it wasn’t their fault they were so gullible, the Post assured in a separate piece, blaming a “history of victimization” that had led to “outright paranoia.”


“It doesn’t matter whether the series’ claims are ‘proved’ true,” read another story. “To some folks—graduates of Watergate, Iran-contra and FBI harassment of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—they feel so true that even if they’re refuted, they’ll still be fact to them.”


Facts, indeed, are a funny thing. The Washington Post, while it launched its assault on the Mercury News, had facts at its disposal demonstrating that the story was accurate. 


The Post’s longtime Central American correspondent, Douglas Farah, was in El Salvador when the story, written by the Mercury News’ Gary Webb, broke, revealing that the Contras, a confederation of paramilitary rebels sponsored by the CIA, had been funding some of their operations by importing cocaine into the United States. One of their best customers was a man named Freeway Rick—Ricky Donnell Ross—then a Southern California dealer who was running an operation that the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the Wal-Mart of crack dealing.”


“My first thought was, ‘Holy shit!’ because there’d been so many rumors in the region of this going on,” Farah said when I interviewed him for a book on the history of drugs in America 12 years later. “There had always been these stories floating around about [the Contras and] cocaine. I knew [Contra leader] Adolfo Calero and some of the other folks there, and they were all sleazebags. You wouldn’t read the story and say, ‘Oh my god, these guys would never do that.’ It was more like, ‘Oh, one more dirty thing they were doing.’ So I took it seriously.”


Farah immediately hit the streets of Managua, which was in the midst of an election, meaning all the players he needed were right there in town. “I had an amazing run of luck where I had rounded up everybody I needed to see in 24 hours,” says Farah, who filed a lengthy exposé confirming and even advancing Webb’s story. “I thought my story was really cool.”


That’s when he ran into trouble.  His story was eventually cut and buried—running on page 18 at a mere 948 words.“I did have a long and dispiriting fight with the editors at the Post because … their basic take was that I was dealing with a bunch of liars, so it was one person’s word against another person’s word, and therefore you couldn’t tell the truth. But it was pretty clear to me,” he says. “I wasn’t in general in confrontation with my editors, but this thing was weird and I knew it was weird.”  

“One of my big fights on this was with Pincus,” Farah recalls, “and my disadvantage was that I was in Managua, and he was sitting in on the story meetings and talking directly to the editors. And we had a disagreement over the validity of what I was finding. At the time, I didn’t realize he had been an agency employee for a while. That might have helped me understand what was going on there a bit.”