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American Journalism Review
Sorting It Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2005

Sorting It Out   

Here’s what was wrong and what was right in "Dark Alliance."

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » The Sad Saga of Gary Webb
   » I Don’t Want to Talk About It
   » The CIA and Drug Trafficking

How much of Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" reporting was on target? Here are some of the key assertions from the top of the story (in boldface) followed by an analysis of their accuracy:

For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Contra-supporting members of a San Francisco drug ring sold tons of drugs in Los Angeles but kept most of the proceeds, according to a federal investigation. The length of time they contributed to the contras is also disputed: The government put the figure at less than two years, with the drug rings' members funneling less than $100,000 to the contras.

Contra leader Eden Pastora, who received "paramilitary and financial assistance from the CIA beginning in late 1981," also accepted financial assistance, cars and housing in 1984 from one of the drug traffickers Webb profiled, according to a federal investigation. Webb used government documents to show the traffickers continued to give money to the contras until October 1986, but subsequent investigations showed the evidence Webb cited was inconclusive. Webb omitted contradictory testimony, allowing him to state as fact the estimated number of years the traffickers actually contributed money to the contras.

The CIA trained and supported the contras and continued to work with CIA assets, pilots and contra officials accused of drug trafficking. "There are instances where the 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 or take action to resolve the allegations," according to CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz.

This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the crack capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America, and provided the cash and connections needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy automatic weapons.

Many networks opened the pipeline nationwide, experts say. The San Francisco drug ring of Oscar Danilo Blandón, the supplier Webb profiled, likely opened one of the first in Los Angeles. To some degree, Webb's findings echoed those in an article by Jesse Katz in the Los Angeles Times in December 1994, which chronicled the rise of "Freeway" Ricky Ross, Blandón's main customer in Los Angeles. Ross started trafficking sometime after 1979 and "already was dealing directly with the Colombian cartels" when "the market exploded in 1984," Katz wrote. "The Bloods and the Crips were the nation's most powerful crack-trafficking ring, urban terrorists who had achieved dominance in at least 47 cities due in part to their steady recourse and murderous violence," Katz said, quoting the U.S. Attorney General in 1989. "The most sophisticated gang factions [control] a large share of the wholesale trade, sometimes buying directly from Colombian suppliers. They also have embarked on an unprecedented cross-country migration, lured by profits many times higher than on Los Angeles' saturated streets."

On March 5, 1996, Katz published another story calling Blandón "the man who taught" Ricky Ross "the trade... Under Danilo's tutelage, Ross rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles underworld, becoming the first crack-dealing millionaire on South Central's streets." Katz described Ross' case as "a glimpse into the notorious Latin America-Los Angeles drug pipeline, which exported a social crisis--crack cocaine--to the city's poorest neighborhoods."

It is one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history: the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting "gangstas" of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.

Though the Reagan administration was indeed backing an army trying to overthrow the revolutionary socialist government in Nicaragua, the Mercury News led readers to believe gang members were somehow involved in supporting the war. The drug ring's main distributor--Ross--said he had no idea his suppliers were connected to the Nicaraguan resistance.

The army's financiers–who met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A.–delivered cut-rate cocaine to the gangs through a young South Central crack dealer named Ricky Donnell Ross. Unaware of his suppliers' military and political connections, "Freeway Rick"–a dope dealer of mythic proportions in the L.A. drug world–turned cocaine powder into crack and wholesaled it to gangs across the country.

Calling the San Francisco drug ring the "army's financiers" is misleading. Over the course of the decade, the traffickers Webb profiled kept most of the profits for themselves, but did donate some proceeds to the contra cause, according to the government findings.

Webb confuses CIA agents with assets. An asset enters into a clandestine alliance with the CIA, without necessarily coming under the agency's control. An agent is to some degree personally responsible to the CIA and can be termed "controlled." Members of the San Francisco drug ring appear in a photograph with contra leader and CIA asset Aldolfo Calero; Webb used the photograph as evidence of an "association between the CIA and drug trafficking," according to the federal findings. The government found "this type of proof fallacious."

The drug ring supplied tons of cocaine to Ricky Donnell Ross. In 1994, L.A. Times reporter Katz called Ross "the mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign..the one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles streets with mass marketed cocaine... Ross did more than anyone else to democratize [crack], boosting volume, slashing prices... He was a favorite son of the Colombian cartels, South-Central's first millionaire crack lord..transform[ing] a curbside operation into the Wal-Mart of cocaine... His coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than 500,000 rocks a day." Katz continued: "Like a supermarket that buys in bulk, thus selling its product cheaper than any mom-and-pop store, Ross began sinking everything he had back into dope, marveling each time the unit price dropped. By the end of the decade, he had helped cut wholesale rates from $60,000 a kilo to just $10,000."

In 1996, in a Times article discrediting "Dark Alliance," Katz described Ross as "a dominant figure" competing with other South Central drug lords.

The cash Ross paid for the cocaine, court records show, was then used to buy weapons and equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (Nicaragua Democratic Front) or FDN, the largest of several anti-communist groups commonly called the contras.

The San Francisco drug ring donated illegal drug profits to the FDN, the government's investigation found. "Nevertheless, their support was limited and was not sufficient to finance the operation."

Another contra faction, the Southern Front, "did receive support from individuals who were engaged in drug trafficking... Certain Southern Front organizations apparently accepted support from the drug traffickers knowingly, particularly when their support from the CIA ended."

While the FDN's war is barely a memory today, black America is still dealing with its poisonous side effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless crack addicts. Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine--a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army started bringing it into South Central in the 1980s at bargain basement prices.

The San Francisco drug ring donated money to the contras, supported the contra war and dumped tons of cocaine into South Central Los Angeles, helping to spark an epidemic that had multiple roots. But the series never conclusively proved a "dark alliance" between the CIA and the dealers.

Calling the drug ring the "CIA's army" prompted blanket dismissals of the Mercury News' charges. "The implications of the Mercury News – that the CIA was responsible for the crack epidemic in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the United States to further the cause of the contra war – were wrong," a federal investigation concluded.

-- Susan Paterno



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