Meet the CIA’s 10 Favorite Drug Traffickers

Attacking drug cartels. Dismantling organized crime. US officials argue that these are two of the core objectives driving Washington’s foreign policy. But the record of US conduct abroad since World War II tells a different story. Around the world, Washington has consistently backed prolific drug smugglers, provided these groups advance US governmental interests. Justifications for this support have morphed over the years—it was anti-Communism during the Cold War, anti-terrorism today—but these rationalizations mask a consistent set of policy outcomes.

The Central Intelligence Agency, created in 1947, oversaw the distribution of many of the billions the US spread around. This paper trail was clandestine, its secrecy justified by supposed national security concerns. But the reality was that the CIA’s aims aligned easily with brutal figures worldwide. Public awareness of its feats would have embarrassed the agency.

One result is that huge drug syndicates have emerged; another is that countries have transformed into major drug producers. Because drugs are illegal, traffickers use some of their ill-gotten riches to pay law enforcement to look the other way, if not get in on the action. Corruption and criminality corrode governments. Civilians suffer.

Is expanded drug smuggling the real “drug war” legacy? That’s one question the just-released, much-praised film Kill the Messenger, about San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner), asks. Webb unearthed ties linking the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras to top drug barons bringing cocaine into the US. And that’s the question posed by this list of 10 of the CIA’s most favored drug traffickers, from World War II to the present.

The 1940s

Don Calogero Vizzini (Sicilian Mafia)

The Sicilian Mafia was decimated by the start of World War II. Mussolini’s repression left it clinging to strongholds in Sicily.

The Allied occupation reversed this decline. The CIA’s precursor, the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), teamed with organized crime during the July 1943 invasion of Sicily. That was when the US Army appointed Don Calogero Vizzini, a local Mafia boss, mayor of Villalba. He was certain his US ties gave him impunity, so he murdered the local intrusive police chief. The US installed mayors like Vizzini throughout western Sicily, as the US-Mafia partnership persisted.

Italy’s Communist Party was gaining power as the war ended, and social reforms would have eroded Mafia power. Both Washington and the crime bosses intended to crush the Italian left.

In 1946, while the Mafia was rebuilding, the US freed top gangster Lucky Luciano from his New York prison, deporting him to Italy. He contacted his friend Vizzini upon arrival, and the two helped construct an enormous drug trafficking network. Law enforcement did not interfere with the project. Morphine base arrived from the Middle East and was made into heroin at a Palermo laboratory Vizzini ran—which fronted as a candy factory—then shipped to the US.

The number of addicts there was near 20,000 at the war’s conclusion. In 1952, two years before Vizzini died, it was 60,000. Heroin dependence plagued 150,000 US citizens by 1965.

The 1950s and 1960s

Li Mi (Kuomintang Party, China)

The CIA formed in 1947. Its first allies included members of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) Party, which Mao kicked out of mainland China in 1949. KMT members were already seasoned drug smugglers, having brought opium and heroin into the US in the 1920s.

Among the KMT’s key North American contacts were Chinese residents of Mexico. The DEA’s predecessor, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, observed in 1946 that “in a recent Kuomintang Convention in Mexico City a wide solicitation of funds for the future operation of the opium trade was noted.” This future apparently was secured, as KMT opium continued entering the US from Mexico in 1947.

Mao’s victory came two years later. In its wake, some 12,000 KMT troops under General Li Mi fled to Burma. Journalist George Thayer writes in his 1970 book, The War Business, that “the CIA saw these troops as a thorn in Mao’s side and continued to supply them with arms and money,” even as Li’s forces secured control of Asia’s largest opium poppy fields. Reporters Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair explain, in their 1998 book, Whiteout, that “pilots working for the CIA carried loads of Li Mi’s opium on their return flights to Bangkok, where it was delivered to General Phao [Sriyanond, see below], head of the Thai secret police and a longtime CIA asset.” By the late 1950s, the region—known as the Golden Triangle—produced about half of the world’s annual raw opium output.

Washington awarded Li Mi the US Legion of Merit in 1946. He died in Taipei in March 1973.

Phao Sriyanonda (Thailand)

CIA-employed pilots carried Li Mi’s opium from Burma to Police General Phao Sriyanond in Bangkok, who later funneled weapons to Li Mi to aid a planned invasion of southern China. This elite Thai cop appointed himself head of the police department in the aftermath of a 1947 military coup. He then fortified his organization to the point where it rivaled the military by late 1950.

The CIA played a crucial role in this transformation. In August 1950, an agency team traveled to Bangkok where—with approval from the US State and Defense Departments—it worked out a deal to equip and train a Thai paramilitary force. US intelligence officials created a front entity, the Southeast Asia (SEA) Supply Company, as a cover for this operation.  Soon some 300 CIA advisers were on the SEA Supply payroll.  A few years later, from 1952 to 1953, the Thai police oversaw a harsh series of political purges. Generally Phao was seen as a merciless ruler who wouldn’t hesitate murder opponents, if doing so would help him advance.

And opium money fueled Phao’s rise to power throughout this period. He used police facilities for his drug smuggling, and employed a personal army of law enforcement officers. The Thai police became the country’s biggest opium-smuggling syndicate during the 1950s, as Thailand secured its position as a key player in heroin trafficking worldwide. The country relied so heavily on drug trafficking that when Thai officials proposed a ban on opium sales and use in 1956, the government balked, claiming it wouldn’t be able to find revenue sources to replace the lost funds.

Phao fled to Geneva after a 1957 coup.  He died there three years later.

Ouane Rattikone (Laos)

After some initial hesitation, Thailand did set to eradicating drug smuggling within its borders. In his 1972 study, The Politics of Heroin, Alfred W. McCoy writes that Thailand “unleashed a full military assault on the opium trade” in 1959. This crackdown coincided with the relocation, under pressure, of KMT forces from Burma to towns in northwestern Laos “that would soon become opium centers and CIA bases,” Peter Dale Scott explains in his 2003 book, Drugs, Oil & War.

US intelligence officials put down deeper roots in Laos in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1974, for example, they trained an army of 30,000 Hmong tribesmen who battled the native Pathet Lao Communists and guarded radar sites the US used in its North Vietnam bombing runs. The Hmong also grew opium for cash.

In 1965, General Ouane Rattikone became head of the military government in Laos, and tried to take over this local opium trade. He dispatched his troops in 1967 to secure KMT trafficking routes into Laos, and shut down the Corsicans who had flown opium out of the region on their own airlines.

But Laos couldn’t furnish enough aircraft in the Corsicans’ absence. The CIA filled this void, lending Hmong traffickers its own Air America planes so they could shift opium from rural villages to heroin labs in Laos or South Vietnam.

The 1960s and 1970s

José Miguel Battle, Sr. (The Corporation, Cuban Exiles)

Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba was an organized crime paradise. While he ruled, the Italian-American Mafia ran casinos and brothels, paying off government officials and cops to secure a loyal client base. José Miguel Battle, Sr., was one such policeman, and also served in Batista’s army.

Fidel Castro ruined this system when he toppled Batista on January 1, 1959. The gangsters and their Cuban affiliates fled the country, aiding Washington’s early campaigns to overturn the revolution. The CIA recruited Battle to play a key role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

But this campaign failed—as did the well-known Mafia-aided attempt to murder Castro. Cuban exiles therefore had to adapt to life in the US. Battle and his associates formed La Compañía—the Corporation—basing it in Miami, but operating in California, Nevada, New Jersey New York and elsewhere in the US. The gang imported cocaine, heroin and marijuana en route to becoming a $45-million-a-year illicit gambling collective. It firebombed its way to power, torching competitors’ homes and businesses.

By the early ’80s, Battle was ready for a quieter life, and retired to a 30-acre ranch in the South Miami-Dade area. US officials arrested him for racketeering in March 2004, sentencing him in January 2007 to 20 years. He was out on $1 million bond when he died the following August after struggling with liver failure and cardiac problems.

The 1970s and 1980s

Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros (Honduras)

Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros grew up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, trying to survive as a homeless child—and determined to change his fortune. Drug smuggling was one available escape. Matta pursued it, and as a young man, in 1970, US officials arrested him in Dulles Airport for possessing 24.5 kilograms of cocaine.

He escaped from prison and got back into trafficking. The DEA elected not to move in on him in 1973. Two years later Matta had reached the rank of go-between for Colombian and Mexican organizations moving cocaine into the US. With Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the kingpin of Mexico’s Guadalajara group—the term “cartel” wasn’t used much at the time—he became a top coke pusher, shifting the drug from Peru to Mexico.

He also moved $500 million in US-bound cocaine through Honduras each year. And with the proceeds, he financed a 1978 coup that installed General Policarpo Paz Garcia as the Honduran president. By that point, the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua—along the south Honduran border—was well underway. It culminated in the overthrow of the US-allied Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

Washington responded by organizing anti-Sandinista forces—the Contras—along the Honduran border. Coke barons like Matta and Mexico’s Félix Gallardo helped fund this campaign to restore Somoza to power. In 1983, for example, Matta’s airline, SETCO, was the main transporter bringing guns and food to the Contras. The CIA awarded SETCO its contract even after the DEA and US Customs highlighted it as a trafficking enterprise.

And there was more evidence the DEA understood the situation. Its agent in Honduras, Thomas Zepeda, researched the scene and concluded that the Honduran military was in on Matta’s drug running. But this was an inconvenient truth. So in 1983 the DEA pulled Zepeda from the country, and closed its Tegucigalpa office.

Another DEA agent, Enrique Camarena, met a darker fate. He was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1985 while on assignment in Mexico—and Matta was one of the killing’s suspected masterminds. US and Honduran forces raided Matta’s Tegucigalpa home three years later, extraditing him to the US. Last May marked his 26th year in federal prison in the US.

Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo (Guadalajara Group, Mexico)

Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo went beyond what earlier Mexican drug traffickers had dreamed possible. He started as a local cop in Sinaloa in the 1960s, climbing the ranks to become his governor’s bodyguard. By 1978 he was head of the Guadalajara group, a trafficking organization that dominated Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Like Matta, Félix Gallardo exploited his power at the time of the Nicaraguan Revolution to try to roll back the Sandinistas. When he wasn’t pushing four tons of cocaine per month into the US, he was proving the extent to which he was, as his pilot Werner Lotz put it, “a big supporter” of the Contras. Félix Gallardo once handed Lotz $150,000 to give to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan forces. On other occasions he bragged of how many guns he had sold them, or of how he had rallied his Mexican colleagues to the cause.

If this generosity made him a valuable CIA asset, Mexico’s Federal Security Directorate—a kind of hybrid CIA-FBI—had to be thanked for helping him realize his drug-running ambitions. In 1947, when Mexico’s drug trade was still small-scale and concentrated in Sinaloa, Washington had encouraged its southern neighbor to organize an intelligence agency. When the DFS formed, it began not only protecting smugglers—for a cut of the proceeds—but helping them expand their operations. It gave traffickers fake DFS badges, for example, so they could operate free of legal harassment. Early signs of today’s monstrous cartels can be detected during this period, throughout which the US and Mexican governments remained firm Cold War allies, as the CIA worked closely with the DFS.

Félix Gallardo was another kingpin implicated in Enrique Camarena’s 1985 murder. He was arrested in 1989, and is currently doing 40 years in “Altiplano,” a Mexican maximum-security prison.

Manuel Noriega (Panama)

Panama’s Manuel Noriega got on the CIA payroll in 1968. US intelligence officials discovered his drug trafficking ties in 1972. In 1981, CIA director William Casey invited Noriega to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Their discussion was productive, amicable—the start of what Noriega termed his “cozier relationship” with Washington.

This partnership lasted for much of the ’80s, when Noriega became military dictator, dominating Panama. Noriega ran weapons to the Nicaraguan contras as they worked to ruin the Sandinistas, and Panama transformed its Howard Air Force Base into a Contra training camp. This loyalty to Washington’s aims was what mattered to US officials. If Noriega remained obedient, he could keep moving drugs without any problems. His US allies would look away.

And they had to—evidence against Noriega kept surfacing. Senator Birch Bayh told Congress in 1978 he had information tying Noriega to Panamanian drug trafficking. The House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded, in 1985, that the dictator had poured funds into a narcotics lab on his country’s Colombian border. Then Seymour Hersh published a New York Times story the following June. The piece sketched an ugly portrait: Noriega laundered money for guerrillas and drug kingpins, and smuggled drugs himself. Senator Jesse Helms appeared on Meet the Press soon after and confirmed the charges.

These accusations didn’t undermine Washington-Panama cooperation. What did was Noriega’s disobedience—he passed information on the Contras to Cuba, for instance. So he had to be punished. President Bush, the former CIA director, attacked Panama in December 1989. The stated aim was to hold Noriega accountable for drug trafficking. “Operation Just Cause” leveled city blocks in a Panama City slum and killed its residents, who were dumped in a mass grave before the US military burned their remains—an effort to torch the evidence of Washington’s cynical campaign.

Noriega served 15 years of a 30-year sentence in the US for drug trafficking. He is now serving a 20-year sentence for murder in Panama.

The 1990s to the present

Carlos Castaño (Colombian Paramilitaries)

Colombia is a major drug war front, and some consider Washington’s “Plan Colombia” a success. But US interests there align with paramilitary aims. And these groups—right-wing, heavily armed—have a record of deep complicity in drug trafficking.

“Comparatively little is known of the CIA’s role in Colombia,” Peter Dale Scott writes in Drugs, Oil & War. It is known, however, that the CIA taught terror tactics to Colombian police officers in the 1960s. And Human Rights Watch described how “a US Defense Department and CIA team worked with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas.”

In 1993, Carlos Castaño, head of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, in its Spanish acronym)—the main paramilitary entity—teamed with Colombian authorities and the CIA to topple Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Castaño estimated before his 2004 assassination that 70% of his funding derived from drug smuggling, and the DEA agreed. Its former deputy administrator, James Milford, cited Castaño’s links to the North Valle cartel and concluded that the paramilitary leader was a “major cocaine trafficker in his own right.” Another DEA official, Donnie Marshall, explained that the paramilitaries “raise funds through extortion, or by protecting laboratory operations in northern and central Colombia,” and that they “appear to be directly involved in processing cocaine. At least one of these paramilitary groups appears to be involved in exporting cocaine from Colombia.”

But the US targets the FARC guerillas—the enemies of paramilitary groups. The guerrillas aren’t traffickers. They work with coca growers, currently mediating between small producers and cocaine processors. Garry Leech, a reporter with extensive experience in Colombia, points out that the FARC pays higher prices than the paramilitaries for coca paste. He suggests that Washington’s policy, by empowering outfits like the AUC, will lower cocaine production costs, meaning that “the street price of cocaine in US cities will most likely remain unchanged or, if anything, decrease.” Another drug war “victory.”

The 2000s to the present

Ahmed Shah Masood  (Northern Alliance, Afghanistan)

Drug prohibitionists could have seen their preferred policies pursued to an extreme in Afghanistan nearly 15 years ago. The Taliban banned opium production there in 2000, well before the US invaded after 9/11. Taliban militias destroyed heroin labs and imprisoned thousands of farmers to force the population’s compliance. The results were dramatic. Some 3,300 tons of opium were harvested in 2000, but that figure plummeted to 35 tons a year later.

In 2001, only one region in the country continued extensive cultivation: the 5% of territory the US-backed Northern Alliance controlled. When the Taliban stamped out opium farming, the Northern Alliance tripled their region’s yield. Ex-CIA analyst Melvin Goodman explains in his 2008 book, Failure of Intelligence, that the CIA teamed with “the Tajik-led Northern Alliance” to assault the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks—and before them, when agents “deployed teams to the Panjshir Valley of northern Afghanistan to meet with various tribal warlords, particularly with Ahmed Shah Masood, the head of the Northern Alliance.” At this time, Steve Coll writes in his 2004 book, Ghost Wars, “the CIA’s Counter-Narcotics Center reported that Massoud’s men continued to smuggle large amounts of opium and heroin into Europe.” But Washington would never let a little drug running prevent it from pursuing its foreign policy aims.

By 2005, Afghanistan was turning out some 90% of the world’s opium. And last spring, a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that Afghan opium farming occurs throughout the country at unprecedented levels. Opium poppies are now grown on well over 500,000 acres there—a 36% increase over the 2012 figure. The same report also found that in-country drug use rose from 2009, when 1 million Afghans were drug-dependent, to 2012, when the total had risen to 1.3 million.

The Afghan activist Malalai Joya summed up the US legacy: “Afghanistan, after eight years of occupation, has become a world center for drugs. The drug lords are the only ones with power.” It’s a familiar scene, in other words—at least for those attuned to the reality of Washington’s “drug war.”


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