Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (3)
High up in a skyscraper overlooking the port of San Francisco, California, Coral Talavera Baca began telling the story of “Dark Alliance” that no one in the USA had yet heard. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, 15 February 1997, and a TV documentary program crew from Japan (for which I served as coordinator) had her wired for sound and the video camera rolling. It was all going on the record — her first public comments ever in regard to the controversial “Dark Alliance” investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb that was published the year before.
A former gymnast with short brown hair and dressed in a dark-blue pant suit, Talavera Baca sat somewhat nervously at a long conference table in a meeting room of a San Francisco law firm, where she was employed as a legal worker. She told us how U.S. government involvement in drug trafficking wasn’t some sort of “conspiracy theory”. It was fact. Her boyfriend, Rafael Corñejo, a Nicaraguan national, was then still in prison in California in connection with cocaine trafficking in the Bay Area, and she had long moved in family circles that allowed her to know firsthand of such U.S. government links to the illicit cocaine trade.
She recalled visits to a small, secluded island in the Bahamas some years before that was owned by Carlos Lehder (she used the pseudonym “Carlos Perez”), a Colombian drug lord and co-founder of the infamous Medellín drug-trafficking cartel. People who she came to understand were working for Lt. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staff member under former president Ronald Reagan, would fly cocaine shipments from South America and “stop off at his [Lehder’s] island usually and refuel, and then fly back to the United States”. Talavera Baca characterized North as “the biggest drug trafficker in the United States’ history” despite North’s repeated denials over the years of having anything at all to do with such criminal activities.
It was through fighting her boyfriend’s court case that she first reached out to San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in 1995. Actually, she had contacted reporters from three other major newspapers as well — the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner — but none of them seemed “too smart” when it came to understanding the complex issues of drugs in society. She decided to open all her files exclusively to Gary Webb instead, which led to “Dark Alliance” eventually getting published, and she was sure now that she had made the right choice.
“When Gary started looking in all these boxes, I think he was pretty much blown away. I think he planned to come in and peruse them and make lunch in the city and what have you,” she said. “He was at that office the whole day, and at the end of the day, he says, ‘Can I take these boxes with me?’. And there was just a chemistry there, you know? From the first time, he was a great guy. He was a professional in every sense of the word. …I made a really, really good choice because he’s done a great job on this”.
“He documented everything [in ‘Dark Alliance’] beautifully,” she added.
Contrary to the portrayal of Webb by the big media companies as something of a journalistic loose cannon who was sloppy in reporting facts in “Dark Alliance”, Talavera Baca had found Webb to be just the opposite: a bit too cautious and even naïve about high U.S. government involvement in the cocaine trade . “His story very clearly implicates the United States government,” she said. “And I don’t think Gary went far enough. Gary just takes it to the CIA. I think he needed to take it and go right up to the steps of the White House. And he didn’t like me saying that to him. However, I got a phone call recently from [Webb] and he says, ‘Wow, you were right. It led all the way to Oliver North’”.
We asked Talavera Baca if she thought her life might be in any danger, now that she was going public on "Dark Alliance" through our interview. She put on a brave face and shrugged it off, making an oblique reference to the assassination of the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy. “No one has ever made threats,” she said. “But you know, it’s like, if they really want you taken out, they’ll just take you out. And if they can get to a president, they surely can get to me”.
Much of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca, the prime source for Webb in the “Dark Alliance” investigation, turned out to be a bit rambling and anecdotal, but there was enough information there to mold into a solid story. After the interview she saw us all off to the elevator, where we shook hands and said goodbye. As soon as the doors slid shut and the elevator started descending with all five of us and our gear crammed inside, I and Scott Gorman, our U.S. coordinator and interviewer, gave each other some triumphant high-fives. “Can you believe that?” “We got it!”
The other three Japanese members of our film crew looked on, a bit puzzled, at my and Gorman’s elation. I explained over lunch later to the Japanese crew members the gist of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca and Gary Webb, and how important they were. This could be the centerpiece of our documentary film — a real scoop, I said, that no journalist in the U.S. has yet gotten. I explained to them in Japanese all about the CIA and drugs and the contras. “Contras?” came the reply, with blank looks. I explained: “Yeah, you know, the right-wing terrorist army run by the CIA in Nicaragua back in the 1980s”. More blank looks: “Nicaragua?” Me again: “Nicaragua, yeah. You know, the country in Central America?” Still more blank looks. They did not seem to have the slightest idea where Nicaragua was geographically, let alone the historical significance of all this information we had gathered over the past few days concerning “Dark Alliance”.
It was at that point, for the first time in our 10 days of filming in the U.S. for a Japanese TV program on the so-called global “drug scourge”, that I realized we might be in trouble.
From there, the five of us headed up north to Washington state, where Scott Gorman had lined up for us some more good interviews with struggling drug addicts, drug treatment counselors, methadone center staff and others. Together with all the footage we had shot over a week and a half in New York City, San Francisco, Sacramento, and now Seattle and surrounding environs, we had what I considered to be the makings of one hell of an exposé on the state of America’s drug problems to be included as part of the Japanese TV program.
I was the one entrusted to hand-carry all the video footage in a locked aluminum briefcase with me from California back to Tokyo, while the other Japanese crew members continued on to Europe to get more drug-related footage for our planned documentary.
Two months later, with great anticipation, I sat before my family’s living room television in Japan and tuned into TV Tokyo during the evening prime-time hours of Tuesday, 1 April 1997 — April Fools’ Day, appropriately — for the broadcast of our two-hour program on drugs. By the second half of the program, I was still waiting for the part about “Dark Alliance” to come on. With each passing minute of the program, my heart sank lower and lower. With about 10 minutes left in the program, I had given up all hope, and it was all I could do just to keep the TV on through the closing credits.
There was no “Dark Alliance” in it. No Gary Webb. No Coral Talavera Baca. And very little of the best footage we had shot over 10 days of filming in the States. Instead, the TV program focused on some of the more sensational scenes of drug addicts getting high, scary background music, sloppily shot footage from Europe, and even some episodes that, to my trained journalist’s eye, appeared to be what Japanese media critics call yarase (faked scenes). Even the facts were screwed up: Seattle, for example, was referred to in the documentary as “America’s third largest city”, a major mistake. And in fact, I now realized that it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, per se, at all. It was conceived as just the typical kind of low-quality tripe that is so pervasive on the so-called “wide shows” of all the corporate TV networks in Japan, and that is what it finally delivered.
So much for the perfect alignment of the stars….
Picking Up the Pieces
I should have seen it all coming, back when the film crew members expressed puzzlement about Nicaragua that time in San Francisco. But looking back then, I couldn’t say I was totally surprised. There were lots of tense moments throughout our 10 days of filming between the Japanese and American team members. The three Japanese members were younger than us and had no journalism qualifications whatsoever; they were just employees of some Tokyo production company, not reporters. Scott Gorman and I had had more seniority, both age-wise and in the news field, and we did use that seniority often during our shooting schedule to keep things journalistically honest, which no doubt went unappreciated among our less-experienced brethren from Japan.
(And in the interest of public disclosure 20 years later, toward the end of our filming leg in the USA, Gorman and I did conspire among ourselves on how we might liberate and rescue all the “Dark Alliance”-related video footage we’d shot from a possible editorial death on the cutting room floor in Tokyo, and maybe use that footage instead to make a hard-hitting documentary film of our own on the issue in the States. But that conspiracy, dear readers, is another story for another time.)
In May 1997, just one month after our TV program on drugs bombed out in Japan, the hammer fell at the San Jose Mercury News in California. The newspaper abandoned the “Dark Alliance” investigation and essentially hung its star reporter, Gary Webb, out to dry. The “Dark Alliance” website itself was pulled down not long afterward. It was all over. Webb left his news company in disgust by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Scott Gorman, back in Washington state, had become managing editor of an online news magazine called REALNews. Gorman kindly offered to help salvage something of our “Dark Alliance”-related interviews by publishing our joint analysis of “Dark Alliance” and its significance to journalism in the new age of the Internet. REALNews later went defunct, but that analysis survives today as one of the first of its kind to recognize the long-term importance of “Dark Alliance” in the digital age of journalism.
I still had Gary Webb’s business card, though, and I kept in touch with him by e-mail, offering whatever long-distance sympathy and support I could as a fellow journalist in the ranks of the newly independent, for what it was worth. I told Webb that if he could somehow pay his own way over to Japan, I would try to use my connections over here to help set up a paid speaking tour for him in Japan concerning his “Dark Alliance” investigation and make sure his accommodations were taken care of while he was in the country. Webb thanked me in reply but politely declined my offer, saying that under his new job as investigative writer with the California state government, he was not allowed to accept outside remuneration. In hindsight, I should have realized the real reason — that Webb was going broke at the time and had no extra money to be flying anywhere.
It was encouraging, though, to hear a year later that Webb got full his “Dark Alliance” investigation published in book form by the New York-based Seven Stories Press. Of course, I ordered a copy of it here in Japan and devoured every word.
The last time I ever heard from Webb personally was some time in 1999, when he let me know in an e-mail that Seven Stories Press was coming out with a paperback version of his book Dark Alliance, and that I might want to pick up a copy, since it contained a lot of new information. And with the future looking bright once again for the journalist that the U.S. media establishment had tried so hard to discredit, I moved on and mentally wished him all the best.
Five years later in 2004, I happened across a news article on the Internet that referred to Gary Webb in the past tense, as “was”. No, I thought, it can’t be. But it was true, and Webb was found dead at age 49 of two gunshot wounds to the head in his Sacramento, California home. The date of his departure: 10 December 2004 — seven years to the day after he had left the San Jose Mercury News.
Like many of his colleagues in journalism I felt devastated, and overwhelmed by a personal and professional sense of loss. I still do. And the real loss, of course, is as much for the public as it is for the journalism community.
I can’t say that Gary Webb was a close friend. I can’t say I knew him well or that we worked closely together. And I can only imagine the deep despair he found himself in, a few years after enduring the sustained assault on his credentials by those in a profession to which he devoted his life. But as one who has worked in the media field for some years, I do know a very important news story when I see one and I do recognize a damn good journalist when I meet one. And Gary Webb was the best journalist I’ve had the honor to personally know in my lifetime.
Webb’s seminal work, the “Dark Alliance” investigation, has stood, and will continue to stand for many years, the test of time as a classic, high-quality work of journalism. And in a way that I wish could have turned out so differently, Webb and his laudable work will have the last word on it all. Of that much, I am certain.
In the post-“Dark Alliance” world of corporate-created news cycles, pompous press personalities and media self-censorship in the United States, the challenges remain as daunting as ever for those among us who still feel some sense of responsibility to the higher purposes of journalism and to take the kind of risks Gary Webb took in getting the facts and the truth out to the people. Twenty years after “Dark Alliance”, the real work, in many ways, begins now.