In Memoriam and Against Secret Wars: Fred Branfman (1942–2014) and Gary Webb (1955–2004)

Because the US government lies and journalists often accord those lies respect, because this country has more official secrets than it can keep track of, we live in a country where the term “secret war” is neither an impossibility nor an oxymoron.

Gary Webb showing his article on the drug fall out of supplying the Nicaraguan Contras.
Gary Webb showing his article on the drug fall out of supplying the Nicaraguan Contras.

In 1996, Gary Webb, a journalist with the San José Mercury News, broke a story of the interconnections between one secret American war, the funding and arming of the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua, and the spiraling traffic in crack cocaine to the United States in the 1980s. Webb’s exposé broke new ground for newspaper-online collaboration and cast the contradictory politics of the US-backed drug wars at home and abroad into sharp, public relief.

Webb had found flesh and blood individuals to be the face of an already-uncovered pattern of facts. A 1989 Senate investigation had found:

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.

With the issue of Contra backers running drugs into the US out in the open, major US newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post turned their investigative energies on… discrediting Gary Webb’s reporting. The CIA looked on, relieved. Exiled to a suburban desk at the San Jose Mercury News, Webb was unable to find a full-time investigative reporting position, and took his own life in 2004. (A motion picture adaptation of his life, Kill the Messenger, opens Friday.)

Fred Branfman
Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman, exposed the secret, massive bombing of Laos by interviewing refugees as a educational adviser in the country in the 1960s. Beginning in December 1964, US bombers ran over a half-million flights to drop bombs on Laos, but the war remained “secret,” that is out of the American press, until 1969. (The New York Times maintained its silence until December 1968, then failed to discuss any bombing of northern Laos while reporting the false US government line that bombing in the country was solely to attack supply routes to South Vietnam.)

Coverage elsewhere in the West came first. French journalist Jacques Decornoy offered a lengthy on-site report in Le Monde in July 1968. (Decornoy later authored .) Two years later, thanks to Branfman and the anti-war movement, his writing appeared in American wire services, like this one published in the Harvard Crimson:

On a “usual” morning . . . at 7 o’clock and AD-6 plane prowls overhead. It circles for about ten minutes, then leaves. At 7:30 the plane returns, makes a pass and drops three loads several kilometers from the “hotel.” At 8 o’clock there is a flight of jets. At 8:30, new jets and bombs. The same operation at 9 o’clock.

One of the officials of the Sam Neua district told us that during the first three years of bombing alone, sixty-five villages were destroyed. This is a figure impossible to verify for a short report, but it is a fact that between Sam Neua and a place about thirty kilometers away, not a single house in the villages and hamlets had been spared. Bridges have been destroyed, and fields riddled with bomb craters.

At the other end of Sam Neua the sight is even more painful. Enormous craters are everywhere. Churches and many houses are demolished. In order to be sure of hitting anyone who might be living there, the Americans dropped their all-too-familiar fragmentation bombs. Here by the side of the road lies a disembowelled “mother bomb.” All around for tens of meters, the earth is covered with unexploded “daughter bombs” containing hundreds of steel pellets, little weapons that the Vietnamese know so well. One of them had rolled into a shelter, under a mat, mortally wounding three people who had taken refuge there.

SINCE the bombing of Laos began some five years ago, F-4 Phantom and F105 Thunderchief fighter bombers which carry 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of bombs, and B-52s which carry four to six times that bomb load, have made daily runs. This past year they are reported to have flown over 20,000 sorties a month. This is over Sam Neua and the Plain of Jars area alone, which does not include the saturation bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Southern Laos. The result, as U. S. Ambassador to Laos G. McMurtire Godley testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is that almost one third of Laos’ population of three million has been made into homeless refugees.

Retaliating, the US Embassy pressured Laos to expel Branfman from the country in 1971. Writing in the New York Times soon after, he reported on thousands of interviews, “Each, without exception, said that his village had been totally leveled by bombing. Each, without exception, said that he had spent months or even years on end hiding in holes or trenches dug into foothills.” Branfman died of natural causes this week, at age 72.

Of course, no war is secret to its victims. And few targets of a war can fail to imagine who is behind them.

But in a country like ours, we need people to work diligently to end the secrecy that surrounds wars. To even make the possibility of democratic decision, public reparations, and even honest history, thinkable.

Facts on coca from UN question politics of drug war

The UN Office of Drugs and Crime issued its annual World Drug Report this week. Despite its fluffy image in the United States, the UN and this office in particular are committed to the global drug war. However, the office is also one of the most important factual sources on the production, circulation, and use of drugs.

Participation in the drug war is a vital metric on which the richest countries rate the progress/goodness/aid-worthiness of countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. In Colombia, this has meant American drug enforcers, military trainers, and herbicidal chemicals on the ground for over a decade now. However, the United States’ annual evaluation of countries’ cooperation in the drug war often has more to do with access for these arms of the American state, and rewarding loyal allies while punishing governments that question US foreign policy, than with actual results. In recent years, this has meant annual certification of Peru as effectively carrying out the drug war, while decertifying Bolivia. The main cost of decertification is cutting off drug aid funds and market supports for alternative products grown in coca-producing regions.

Let’s look at some facts provided by the UN to put this in perspective:

  • Coca leaf cultivation by country (p. 99): Back in 1999, coca eradication efforts had peaked in Bolivia, due to the militarization of the Chapare coca-growing region. Lethal clashes had accompanied eradication, but the area of Bolivia where coca is grown reached its low point: 14,600 hectares.  Colombia then dominated coca growing: 163 thousand hectares out of the global total of 221 thousand. In the past decade, coca growing in Bolivia bounced back (to 25,400 hectares in the years before Evo Morales, and since then more slowly to around 31,000 hectares). Meanwhile Peruvian cultivation has shown steady growth (two small annual declines vs. eight years of annual growth), moving from under 39 thousand hectares to around 61 thousand. The big squeeze in Colombia through eradication (including aerial spraying of pesticides and burning of fields) got production there down to about 62,000 hectares.
  • Overall, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia now have a 40-40-20 split of coca production, but only Bolivia is decertified by the United States. Peru, which is open to DEA agents and has been welcoming to US corporations, seems to have gotten a free pass on its doubling coca cultivation.
  • The global burden of cocaine seizures has shifted to police in South America (p. 99-100): Who’s fighting the drug war on cocaine? Measuring by seizures of the drug, it’s primarily South Americans, who accounted for 60% of the 732 metric tons of cocaine captured by drug enforces in 2009. This is a dramatic shift from 30-40% around the turn of the century.
  • Most cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia: US authorities trace 90% of the US supply to Colombia. European drug seizures with a country of origin are 25% from Colombia, but another 44% comes from primarily Colombian transit markets in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. “Cocaine produced in Peru and the Plurinational State of Bolivia, in contrast, is used more within South America, notably in countries of the Southern Cone.”
  • All of these seizures are failing to put any economic squeeze on cocaine use: The cocaine industry is the deadliest in terms of trafficking related violence, but this death and the drug war have not diminished overall use. As with production, we see a move in the centers of use. In this case, however, there’s no overall reduction. US consumption has slumped over the past twelve years, but European usage doubled from 1998 to 2006 and stayed steady since. (by the way: Despite these shifts, US users are still more common and consume more total cocaine than European users.)

Events in all three producer countries are linked to increased questioning of the role of coca eradication in the drug war. While Bolivia’s case is the most dramatic—the current president leads a union of coca-growing farmers—the traditional importance of coca leaves to Andean cultures is a shared factor in all three countries. The Plurinational State of Bolivia is committed to a formal expansion of the legal area for cultivation to include part of the Chapare. It has invested in the commercialization of products other than the ancient uses of coca leaves for chewing and brewing mate, such as coca candies, liquor, and foods. It also is interested in exporting leaves for traditional use by the 1-2 million Bolivians living in Argentina.

In Peru, President-Elect Ollanta Humala has expressed support for greater freedom for traditional cultivation and concerns about Peru’s eradication policy. And Colombia withdrew its initial objections and backed the removal of coca chewing as a penalized activity under the 1961 Vienna drug convention. And Colombia’s high court ruled Thursday that indigenous peoples must be consulted about coca eradication on their lands.

It’s important to note that none of these policies constitute a general open growing policy. In Bolivia, “social control” of coca cultivation which limits acreage per family and continues eradication outside authorized regions is the policy of the day. Social control policies are backed by the European Union, and Brazil has stepped in to replace US funds for drug control measures.

Finally, Ollanta Humala’s election offers a new test of the politicization of US drug war certification. Will the new government take the blame for Peru’s rising coca production, while friendlier governments have gotten a pass for the past decade? If the US moves to decertify Peru this year, blaming Humala for Alan Garcías failed policies, it will be a clear case of making drug aid a political stick to attack critics of American economic policies.

International Day of Action in Defense of Coca Chewing Underway

Massive coca leaf made out of coca leaves
On the plaza, a giant coca leaf made out of coca leaves

Coca growers from the Chapare (Cochabamba Department) and the Yungas (La Paz Department)—Bolivia’s two coca-growing regions—have travelled to Bolivia’s nine departmental capitals today to publicly chew the traditional leaf and to support the Bolivian government campaign to end the UN prohibition on coca chewing. Coca leaves are a traditional crop in the Andes and are both chewed in the mouth and boiled into a tea called mate de coca. Both forms are valued for their medicinal properties and cultural role in Andean culture, particularly the protection they offer against altitude sickness, fatigue, and upset stomachs. Bolivia’s demand that a 1961 UN drugs convention be amended has attracted broad support, including from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and Africa, and several countries that had expressed doubts about the move have been won over. However, the United States—a major cocaine-consuming country and the main international sponsor of Bolivia’s once-heavily-militarized war on drugs—and Sweden continue to block the move. The deadline for changing their position is January 31.

Events in Cochabamba are still underway, but here is an early preview of the gathering in the city’s main square, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre.

 

bagging and sorting coca leaves
Vendors from the May 27 Association bag coca leaves to give away
Marchers with coca plants
Two women from the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba march with young coca plants and bags of coca leaves
TV journalist interviews Leonilda Zurita, president of Coca Growers' Women's Federation

A more complete set of photos from today’s protest is online at flickr.