I am fascinated by the drug trade.
Not a user, myself. My preferred intoxicant was alcohol, which I used to swill in unseemly quantities, but that was years ago — and, anyway, it’s not about the high. My interest in El Narco is an offshoot of my explorations of the Latin American frontier(s), U.S. interventions from the Mexican war to the Mexican Revolution and beyond, from the Rio Grande down to Colombia. Continuity & Persistence. There’s a reason Mexican Narcos often appropriate Revolutionary iconography:
Last Saturday evening, my girls went out for the evening and I was tired from a hard Frontier Partisan Biathlon, so I figured I’d just relax on the couch, clean the guns and watch… something. I was also in a heavy funk. Most of the time, the demands of my newspaper job align well with who and what I am as a man. In the moment, I feel a certain responsibility to comment upon the national state of play that is at odds with what I would prefer to do as a man — which is to simply say fuck it and head out into the woods. Haven’t resolved that bit of tension yet, but that’s as may be…
Point is, I needed to cheer myself up, and nothing serves that purpose better than delving into El Narco, right? Yeah, I know. Anyway, I decided to watch the new Amazon Prime documentary The Last Narc on the 1985 abduction, torture and slaying of DEA agent Kiki Camarena at the hands of a piece of shit named Rafael Caro Quintero.
That horror story is the basis for Season 1 of Narcos: Mexico. Camerena was a real-deal hero, and his widow has made sure that he is not forgotten. But somebody apparently wants him to be. I looked for The Last Narc — and it ain’t there. Weird, huh? The documentary that was supposed to be released on May 15 never hit. Amazon has offered no alternative release date, nor any statement as to why it was pulled.
Retired DEA agent Hector Berrellez figures he knows. Berrellez reportedly features heavily in the documentary, and he has long asserted that the CIA was complicit in Camarena’s abduction and murder — because the DEA cop had turned up evidence of U.S.-Mexican collaboration with narcotraficantes, and arms dealers to facilitate drug smuggling to fund the arming of Nicaraguan Contras, who were engaged in a guerrilla campaign to overthrow the Sandinista regime, which the Reagan Administration considered a major threat as a potential Soviet satellite state in Central America
Bet you can guess who Berrellez thinks is behind The Spike.
If this all sounds familiar, you’re probably remembering Gary Webb’s 1996 San Jose Mercury-News series Dark Alliance. That’s a whole ’nuther story, which is detailed here.
This all could be dismissed as kooky conspiracy theory, except…
A Congressional subcommittee, in a 1,000+ page report released in 1989 (long before Webb’s work), detailed significant evidence both that the Contras were ass-deep in drug trafficking and that the U.S. government at least knew about it:
“On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.”
And Hector Berrellez isn’t some lefty crank who sees the CIA’s fingerprints on everything from LSD to heroin smuggling in the Golden Triangle to coups against democratically elected governments from Iran to Guatemala (ummm….).
Berrellez was, by all accounts one hell of a cop, the Wyatt Earp of the DEA, according to one of his former colleagues. And these guys aren’t the first (or last) cops to do their job a little too doggedly, who saw things they maybe shouldn’t have seen and can’t un-see.
Anyway, somebody doesn’t want The Last Narc up on our screens. Which, of course, just makes it more enticing.
Thwarted, I instead turned to Secret Heartbeat of America — The CIA and Drugs. This 1999 doco was created by journalist Daniel Hopsicker, who wrote a book on legendary pilot and dope smuggler Barry Seal — Barry & ‘the Boys’: The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History.
Seal smuggled cocaine out of Colombia for the Medellin Cartel in the early to mid-1980s — the baddest of bad guys. He operated out of a remote airstrip in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas — a place called Mena. Another famous swashbuckler operated out of Mena in the 1980s — a guy named Oliver North, who was running a clandestine operation out of the Reagan White House to arm the Contras. A guy named Bill Clinton was Governor of the State of Arkansas from 1979 to 1981 and again from 1983 to 1993. The name “Mena” has followed him around like a lingering steak fart through a long and scandal-ridden career.
Hopsicker’s narrative connects a lot of dots — and not everybody buys his thick, bold lines. The doco itself is a bit on the rough side — obviously put together on a tight budget, and the 1999 computer graphics are primitive and kinda weird. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating. There are two schools of thought about Seal — the conventional narrative (which is featured in the recent Tom Cruise movie American Made) is that he was a thrill-seeker who loved smuggling for the rush; he got popped and flipped like countless others before him. He did some stellar work as an informant, capturing pictures of Sandinista officials and Pablo Escobar himself loading a plane full of coke in Nicaragua — propaganda gold for the Reagan Administration.
The Sandinista sting was too sexy to contain, and Seal’s cover was blown. By sentencing him to a regular schedule at a half-way house, a judge set him up as a clay pigeon for the Medellin Cartel, who sent a hit team to blow him away with a Mac-10. The Colombians ventilated him on February 19, 1986.
Alternatively, Seal was a long-time CIA asset who was part of a pipeline that ran dope north and guns south for the Contras, an asset who died with Vice President George Bush’s phone number in his car. Barry’s old plane was the one that crashed in a Nicaraguan swamp crammed with a load of guns and combat boots bound for the Contras, with cargo-kicker Eugene Hausenfus the lone survivor. That, of course, could just be a coincidence.
The very nature of the nexus of El Narco, geopolitics and covert ops makes it impossible to know the truth. Virtually EVERYBODY involved has incentive to lie about the nature of the beast and their own role in the action. And that world tends to attract colorful risk takers and natural-born outlaws who may not be the most reliable sources of information under the best of circumstances.
Seal’s tombstone epitaph is a bit on the grandiose side (of course), but it places him firmly among the class of soldiers of fortune the likes of Lee Christmas and Tracy Richardson who played dirty and dangerous games on the Latin American frontier.
A REBEL ADVENTURER, THE LIKES OF WHOM IN PREVIOUS DAYS MADE AMERICA GREAT.