New Shows Examine the CIA’s Past Role in Latin America’s Cocaine Trade
The agency was up to something shady in the 1980s
This article originally appeared at InSight Crime.
A pair of new television programs tackles the role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the erection of Latin American drug routes, and while neither breaks much new ground, both reflect lingering suspicions regarding the agency’s legacy in the region.
FX’s dramatic series Snowfall and the four-part History Channel documentary America’s War on Drugs both premiered on American television screens this summer. Of the two, America’s War on Drugs casts a much wider net, aiming to run down — occasionally at great length and with copious detail — the entire catalog of ideologies and interests animating American drug policy dating back to the 1960s.
A persistent theme in America’s War on Drugs is that drug policy is not the product of a rational determination of goals and a calculation of the measures needed to achieve them. Rather, the History Channel filmmakers portray policy development as a grotesque consequence of politicians either cynically exploiting or falling victim to blind ideology and hysteria. And because there is no objective goal guiding American drug policy beyond empty platitudes like “Just say no,” the result is incoherence, waste and failure.
The second focus of the documentary is the Iran-Contra scandal and the CIA’s alleged role in the crack boom of the 1980s. The show explores long-simmering accusations of the CIA’s involvement in drug trafficking, including that the agency may have sponsored Rick Ross and Óscar Danilo Blandón, the Los Angeles wholesaler and his Nicaraguan supplier who helped spark the crack epidemic.
The FX series Snowfall delves deeper into this theme, presenting a fictionalized portrayal of the dawn of the crack era in Los Angeles in 1983. The show’s first season weaves together three occasionally overlapping storylines following characters at times inspired by real-life figures.
The storyline follows Lucía, the scion of a Mexican-American crime family; her partner, Gustavo; Franklin, a stand-in for Rick Ross; and Teddy and Alejandro, a disgraced CIA officer and his Nicaraguan associate [a fictionalized Blandón], who are working to channel the proceeds from cocaine sales to the Contra rebels.
Contra fighters in Nicaragua, 1987. Photo via Wikimedia
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Both television programs have ample virtues to recommend them.
The documentary America’s War on Drugs includes interviews with a wide range of figures, including former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who recount the targets of their efforts and the shortcomings of their results. Viewers are treated to first-hand accounts of how the CIA’s machinations among anti-communist movements in Latin America, which included many figures involved in drug trafficking, repeatedly brought the agency into conflict with the DEA.
Notwithstanding the massive role the war on drugs occupied in public discourse, counternarcotics policy was consistently secondary to the main Cold War foreign policy goals of the United States. In the case of Ross and Blandón, for instance, journalistic investigations have suggested that the CIA may have turned a blind eye to the Nicaraguan’s drug trafficking activities due to their mutual interest in backing the Contra rebels.
This clash of ideals and interests may have been inevitable, but there’s little doubt that the tension between the twin goals of combating narcotics trafficking and supporting pro-U.S. movements in the region could have been handled more sensibly. As the documentary explains, the CIA’s preeminence in policy circles not only hindered important narcotics investigations, but also helped upset the security of U.S. cities, particularly the African-American community that was buffeted by the crack epidemic during the 1980s.
Although it has its merits, America’s War on Drugs suffers at times from a sense of breathless sensationalism. The narrative, which necessarily sprawls across different eras and countries, is peppered with brief but overwrought dramatizations.
The film also overflows with self-justifying commentary from interested actors, without counterarguments. Based on flimsy evidence, the series unquestioningly includes the insinuation that, while serving as vice president, George H. W. Bush was personally aware that CIA assets were trafficking cocaine into the United States.
Despite being a fictional account, Snowfall feels more grounded and less sensational. It is often a joy to watch, particularly when the screen is occupied by Franklin, played by English actor Damson Idris. The ensemble cast includes reliable veterans of several famous crime dramas, among them Emily Rios of Breaking Bad and Michael Hyatt of The Wire.
Snowfall, created by John Singleton of Boyz n the Hood fame, presents the CIA’s partnerships with drug traffickers as one element of a perfect storm.
Teddy, the CIA operative, and Alejandro, the Blandón stand-in, don’t singlehandedly cause a massive increase in American urban violence in the 1980s. But the pair — along with the enterprising greed of amoral innovators like the Rick Ross-inspired Franklin, and the pre-existing criminal structures from which characters like Lucía and Gustavo emerge — provide a key ingredient that interacted explosively with the broader environment: the reliable flow of powder cocaine, protected by factions within the U.S. government.
The agency’s portrayal in the series is superficially sympathetic but ultimately brutal. Teddy, played by Carter Hudson, has an agreeable face and a talent for injecting levity into ugly circumstances. His patriotism surfaces only rarely, but he is clearly motivated by love of country rather than greed or hunger for power.
Teddy is also operating with the tacit approval of his superiors, though all are in violation of their legal obligations — he’s not a rogue agent so much as a convenient pair of hands for the agency’s dirty work.
However, Teddy is not a bystander whose assets take advantage of his naivety. Rather, he is an active cocaine trafficker, overseeing the diverse logistical details that a smuggling network relies on. Nor does he isolate himself from the worst of the drug trade. He unflinchingly assents to murder in the name of his operation’s safety. Teddy’s hangdog lamentations of his poor luck wear thin after you see him countenance acts of brutality.
But Snowfall is not without its missteps. Franklin’s manic odyssey towards becoming a crack lord is great fun, but it fits uneasily with the other storylines, which are narrated in a more methodical way. Key moments in the stories happen off-screen, which lead to confusion for the viewer. And the narrative loses its momentum as the first season progresses.
It is difficult to determine precisely how much responsibility the real CIA bears for the dramatic increase in drug-fueled violence around the region during the 1980s, to say nothing of the emergence of trafficking organizations capable of taking on Latin American governments. Much remains unknown about the details of different smuggling networks’ ties with the CIA in the 1980s.
Likely some of the claims from America’s War on Drugs — and certainly most of the specifics of the dramatization in Snowfall — are at odds with the details of what actually happened more than 30 years ago, which has sparked criticism from some quarters.
But the broad takeaway from both film projects is hard to dispute: The CIA cultivated unholy relationships with criminal gangs that flooded US cities with cocaine in the 1980s.
There is simply too much reporting, from too many sources — ranging from the testimony of Blandón and Ross to a CIA-employed pilot who admitted flying drugs to the United States and weapons to Nicaragua to the accounts of agents who built up the Shower Posse in Jamaica — to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory.
This article originally appeared at InSight Crime.