Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gary Webb remembered

Robert Parry, the former AP writer who now does news analysis at, has done an excellent piece on Gary Webb, the former San Jose Mercury-News writer who committed suicide a bit more than two years ago, on December 9, 2004. Gary was a fine investigative reporter who wrote a series called "Dark Alliance" in 1996 that explored a link between the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years and the introduction of crack cocaine into inner-city neighborhoods in the 1980s. The gist -- I haven't reread it in years --was that the Contras sold drugs to raise money for their activities (it was prudent of them to have sources other than Oliver North) and much of it was cocaine, and they were instrumental in creating the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s.

I don't think Gary outright said that the Contras created the crack-cocaine epidemic single-handedly, and I would be a bit wary of such a claim. But there is little question that the Contras sold drugs -- as did the Sandinista government they were fighting -- to raise money.

This is hardly a unique situation. It's simply one of the ways that drug prohibition feeds violence. Drug runners and guerrilla fighters (or terrorists or insurgent groups or people addicted to adrenalin rushes) have certain common interests. Guerrillas need money and weapons and secure hiding places.

Under prohibition drugs are ridiculously overpriced, so they are a ready source of cash for unscrupulous or risk-taking or criminal-minded people who are adept at violence and clandestine activity. Drug runners also need hiding places and ways to transport things without the authorities being aware of them or being able to intercept them. It would be astounding if people with such intersecting needs and interests didn't run across one another, and they do. Drug money has financed all kinds of political violence -- in Colombia today, in Kosovo and plenty of other places.

Anyway, Gary was initially praised for his articles, but when they were criticized, beginning in the Washington Times, the journalistic "community" pretty much left him to hang out to dry. The Mercury-News transferred him to some podunk bureau where he would cover car wrecks and city council meetings and the like.

I remember calling him when I found out he was transferred and telling him I thought he was getting a raw deal and wishing him well. He thanked me and said I was one of only a few California journalists who had called and said they appreciated what he had done -- which despite the criticism still holds up pretty well, as Robert Parry shows in his article.

That was the only contact I had with Gary, whose life seems to have fallen apart after that. I regret now that I didn't stay in touch with him. He was a talented investigative reporter who was treated shabbily by his newspaper and most of the vaunted journalistic "community."

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