How anti-communism fueled CIA drug trafficking
By Kimberly Miller
Much attention is paid to both the Central Intelligence Agency’s massive fight against communism during the Cold War era and America’s destructive “War on Drugs” campaign. However, there is less attention acknowledging how these two historical phenomena intricately overlap and ended up paradoxically perpetuating one another. Utilizing lucrative international drug trafficking, CIA operations were funded for decades in the name of “combatting communism.” These operations fomented alarming geopolitical alliances for the United States, with far-reaching sociopolitical consequences at home. This came to shape racialized, classist policy to address the burgeoning drug epidemic it had been complicit in, with what became known as the “War on Drugs.”
During America’s second wave of “Red Scare” repression (1947-1957), “fighting communism” was rationalized as keeping the United States safe from an enemy that sought to “threaten” its “way of life,” and destabilize global security. With this sensationalized phantom enemy, “communism” increasingly became synonymous with “totalitarianism” and Soviet espionage, rather than worker’s power and egalitarianism. Communism was characterized as particularly hostile to supposed cherished American values like “freedom” and “democracy.” This historical American mythologizing of course masked the country’s genocidal settler-colonial foundation, capitalization off enslaved African labor, and continued dispossession of marginalized communities. Anti-communist propaganda sought to normalize “Red Scare” policies that targeted, repressed, and persecuted suspected left-wing activists and organizations. Moreover, how the CIA clandestinely fought this ideology and global movement of liberation abroad, exposed unsettling political ties to mobsters, organized crime gangs, drug smugglers, reactionary rebels, warlords, and violent anti-democratic forces that go back to the agency’s founding.
Long History of CIA Anti-Communist Sabotage
In the CIA’s first year of existence (1947), it had already cultivated unsavory political ties to the Italian mob and sought to create a foothold for the mafia to seize power in Sicily. These ties deepened as the prospect of suppressing communist activity in France, grew. This led the CIA to fund Corsican mobsters who utilized assistance from the agency to combat communist unions, vying for control of French city docks. The CIA aligned mobsters from Italy to France were integral in spawning the “French Connection,” an elaborate drug smuggling ring, which inadvertently supplied the vast majority of heroin into the United States through Canada around the 1960’s and 70’s. These mob ties were also vital to the CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, whose communist revolution in Cuba eradicated mafia puppet Fulgencio Batista and the drug networks that were allowed to thrive under him.
Moreover, in post-war Japan, the CIA sought to keep the country in a “non-communist” sphere of influence by aligning with Japanese organized crime gangs and installing corrupt politicians with close connections to the mob. In Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, he discusses how the CIA invested large amounts of money to reinstate former Japanese war criminals like Kodama Yoshio and select reactionary Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, with the sole purpose of suppressing communist and socialist movements. According to Weiner, Kodama had expansive connections to Yakuza (Japanese organized crime gangs) and was active in China’s black market. In the years following, the Yakuza played a predominant role in methamphetamine smuggling into Hawaii, emboldened by the CIA funding deeply corrupt political figures with ties to its mafia circles.
In China, the success of the revolutionary Communist Party proved to be a formidable force against the CIA allied drug empire it depended on for its geopolitical leverage. With the visceral reality of Chinese communists taking power, the CIA intensified its anti-communist campaign. The CIA provided arms, funds, and ammunition to Chinese nationalists in the pursuit of inspiring an anti-communist resurgence in the region. While they were ultimately unsuccessful in defeating the communists, the Kuomintang (KMT) resettled and eventually grew their opium trade from Burma and Thailand in what became known as the “Golden Triangle” of Southeast Asia. A little over twenty years later, the KMT would control eighty percent of the region’s opium trade.
With the emergence of the Vietnam War, the CIA furthered its entanglements in Southeast Asia, sponsoring a “secret war” in Laos to suppress its Pathet Lao communist movement and support of North Vietnamese forces. Heroin production skyrocketed, as the CIA formed new alliances with Laotian, Burmese, and Thai drug merchants and anti-communist political figures. The CIA’s anti-communist drive aided in giving rise to the world’s most lucrative heroin trade.
Additionally, the heroin trade experienced an expansive boom in Southwest Asia as the CIA funded reactionary tribes and guerilla forces in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Soviet backed leftist government took a hardline anti-narcotics stance, which challenged the semi-autonomous tribes’ opium exports. Opium production rose sharply throughout the 1980’s as the CIA feverishly supplied rebel groups like the Mujahedeen with notable members like Osama Bin Laden, weapons and tactical support to overthrow the “Marxist regime.” Even though Afghanistan became the dominant exporter of heroin, and the predominant source of poppy for Southwest Asia heroin in the United States, slowing production was not a priority for the United States government.
The CIA’s negligence of ‘looking the other way’ toward drug trafficking was explosively displayed in the rise of the crack/cocaine epidemic that devastated inner city communities in the 1980’s/90’s. Once again, anti-communism drove the CIA to fund reactionary dissidents with lucrative ties to the drug trade. This time it was right-wing paramilitaries in Nicaragua to combat the revolutionary Sandinista government. Nicaraguan Contras were given a pass by the CIA to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States, which initiated a nation–wide crack/cocaine epidemic.
War on Drugs
It is well-documented that the CIA’s complicity in international drug trafficking to combat communism, directly contributed to rises in drug addiction within the United States, to an extreme degree. While the “War on Drugs” was originally coined by President Nixon in 1971, drug prohibition policy and enforcement had already been racialized for many years, disproportionately targeting immigrant communities, African-Americans, and Latinos. The “War on Drugs” only accelerated this trend. Top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman described it as a form of containment:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
And by 1986, the drug epidemics the CIA helped create, inspired President Reagan’s notorious Crime Bill, distinct for introducing mandatory harsh sentencing for non-violent drug offenses. This was capitalized on by President Clinton who introduced mandatory minimums, along with further militarized police forces to aid in accelerating criminalization and mass incarceration. Poor communities and communities of color are still feeling the legacy of these policies today.
While communism is smeared as “anti-democratic” and uniquely “oppressive,” the forces that were heavily emboldened by the CIA to stop it, left a trail of human rights abuses, and conveyed the agency’s disregard for other nation’s sovereignty. The consequences of this anti-communist sabotage are innumerable and played a large role in creating the conditions for drug epidemics in the United States and destabilizing social policy in addressing it, to follow.
Institute for Policy Studies. A Tangled Web: A History of CIA Complicity in Drug International Trafficking inserted into the Congressional record of the INTELLIGENCE AUTHORIZATION ACT FOR FISCAL YEAR 1999 (House of Representatives – May 07, 1998)
Shanty, Frank. The Nexus: International Terrorism and Drug Trafficking in Afghanistan
Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA