drug wars

special reports
interview: bobby nieves


Nieves was a special agent with the DEA from 1973 to 1995. He served as head of international operations and describes the inner workings of the global drug industry. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
When you go overseas [as] a federal agent and learn about drugs that are coming into the U.S., [is it] a crime if you don't stop it or inform authorities?

Yeah. There are controlled deliveries. You can't be a participant in drugs hitting the street. You're duty-bound, you're obligated to take the proper enforcement actions when you learn about shipments of drugs. No question...Essentially it's our job to take the drugs off the street. That's what it's about.

You've been publicly accused of letting it happen.

I was publicly accused by conspiracy theorists whose opinions don't value much. The person who publicly accused me was Gary Webb, in a book called Dark Alliance. The guy's a fabricator. Publications like the New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, have all said that his stories were fantasy. His own Knight-Ridder Publications retracted many of the things he reported, so I place no value on what Gary Webb says. He is a conspiracy theorist, his motivation was clearly to sell books. It's irrelevant what he says.

The suspicion is still there...

What you are referring to is the Iran-Contra affair. In my opinion, it's the second most investigated event in American history, the first being the J.F.K. assassination. Every stone has been turned. Every page has been written. Everybody who had any knowledge about it has been questioned ad nauseam. There is no story about Contra drug smuggling that hasn't been reported a thousand times by the Kerry commission, Tower Commission, the IG's...There is no story...

...The Inspector General of the CIA has said in a second volume of the report on Gary Webb that there were 51 known Contra-related people who were involved in drugs: 14 individuals who were directly related, working with the Contras; another 14 pilots who at one time or another had some drug connection; 23 of their support people, and 3 of the companies that were involved in supplying the Contras. If it wasn't a grand conspiracy, what was it?

First of all, I don't know that those numbers are accurate. I think they probably include uncorroborated reports. You have to understand Central America at that time was a haven for conspiracy theorists. The Christic Institute, people like Gary Webb, others down there looking to dig up some story for political advantage. No sexier story than to create the notion in people's minds that these people are drug traffickers.

I was given carte blanche to do my job.  Never once did anybody say anything about anything I was doing that wasnt supportive. What the American people have lost sight of, and what the liberals [and conspiracy theorists] would want you to lose sight of...is the fact that the Contra conflict was about indigenous people...fighting for survival...against the Communist government. They're lost in all these conspiracy theories. You never hear about them. At their height there might have been 10,000 Contras. Let's say that the [I.G.'s] right, and there were mentions of about 100 people. That's 1%, or less than 1% of the Contra movement that was even whispered about being engaged in this...

... [In Costa Rica] you were privy to what was going on in the region related to drug trafficking. What was going on at that time?

Heavy Colombian trans-shipment of drugs by way of Costa Rica. And huge cases were made...We were busy making real cases and not chasing fantasy shipments that people were imagining were taking place there. Because there weren't...All of these reports were looked at, all of these issues were found to be uncorroborated and unsubstantiated. There was no organized Contra drug trafficking supply line through Costa Rica. It just wasn't there. It's a fantasy, it's a conspiracy...

Why do you think that particularly in the [American] black community they believed these stories?

Because I think certain black leaders have embraced the conspiracy theory as a way to gain some political advantage in the political mainstream. It's just that simple. Creating in the minds of constituents the fact that the government must be to blame for drug addiction in X, Y or Z location, seems to be a tool that some politicians like to use to gain some political advantage. It's only politics. That's all it is.

So you're sitting here today and saying this was all created for political advantage?

I think so. There's no question in my mind about it. That's all it is. It's smoke. You think something like this could be secret? Do you think if people misbehaved the way Gary Webb says they misbehaved that [it] would go unproven? It can't happen. It just can't happen.

...What the conspiracy theorist does is he takes a shred of proof. Bob Nieves was the DEA agent in Costa Rica. And at that time, Mr. X was an informant in that office. Therefore, it follows that he must have known all of these things. It's not so. I'm here to tell you it's not so.

So all these reports on CBS news [about] John [Hull], a farmer in Costa Rica, [who] was a CIA operator running drugs--

How do you know? Well, I don't know what John Hull was and wasn't. I do know this--if he misbehaved as much as they say he did, why isn't he in jail?

...People misbehave, you get the proof, [and] they go to jail. And the bottom line is [if] there is no proof . . . nobody goes to jail. So the conspiracy theory thrives on the notion that you can just keep digging up this dirt and adding all these angles and spins to a story because it has political value...By the way, I don't think black America is sold on this theory. I think that a certain vocal minority among the black community buys into this, but I don't think black America by any stretch of the imagination is sold on it.

But there was a large flow of Colombian cocaine going through the region while you were there.

Then, now, all day, every day.

And [on] one of those flights [the C.I.A.] actually photographed Pablo Escobar and [Federico Vaughn] in Nicaragua.

I wasn't quite there yet, but I know what you're talking about.

What was that all about?

I wasn't involved with that at that time. I didn't go down until 1985 and that was 1984. But it was about getting the best evidence they could on Pablo Escobar, and they got it. They happened to get a person named [Federico Vaughn] on tape as well.

[What was the reaction in Washington when that information became public?]

Mixed. I think there was some consternation...Washington [is] an extremely political town. When you have that kind of proof, it takes on a certain political value. From time to time [the DEA] comes across these very political issues that can get in the way of investigations. It happens.

But it's pretty spectacular when you've got Pablo Escobar [and] a Sandanistan official [on tape].

I think it's very spectacular. It's a head of state's staffer engaging in direct contact and trafficking with Pablo Escobar, who at that time was a premier Colombian drug trafficker. So yeah, very significant event, no question. Especially when they are a declared enemy in this undeclared conflict in Central America. I think it's a very significant event. Hard to keep a lid on that kind of a political event, and so there were, I guess, more compelling, overriding reasons why it had to be [made public].

[Was the CIA helpful to you in overseas drug enforcement in the mid-1980s?]

I think they were as helpful as they could be, but they were busy on other things...The CIA, at that time in Central America, certainly had a different mission. Drugs was not necessarily their mission, it was our mission. And so there was very little overlap of jurisdictions, so to speak. They pretty much were focused on other things.

[In terms of drug policy, did you see CIA concerns override DEA concerns?]

...If you're referring to national policy, I really don't know. I think the CIA, the Department of Defense, all of the departments that have a hand or a role to play in the drug problem want to do something to solve the drug problem, or at least play their role. So I think those are policy issues. But when you're talking [about] a regional issue and you say to me, "How does the policy get set, and how do you interact with the CIA or somebody overseas?" The fact of the matter is, all relationships in the federal government, [even] policy, can be dictated by relationships based on personalities. And so I think when I was in Costa Rica I had outstanding relationships with the agency and others. I think I worked hard at doing that...

But was it frustrating to you on the ground to see CIA, State, Defense Department concerns override your primary objectives?

They weren't overriding our primary--never, under no circumstances. Contrary to what Leslie Cockburn, [and] Gary Webb think, the embassy was being run in a way that allowed me to do an outstanding job down there. I think we increased seizures in Costa Rica by a remarkable amount. We gave more assistance to the Costa Rican government than any other time prior to that. We had put a program in place that allowed us to engage in some of the best investigative efforts that were done in that country. Now all of that gets put on the back burner in favor of these outlandish conspiracy theories that people want to put forth that this was some kind of a Dodge City where the Sheriff was wrong. And the fact of the matter is, it's not true. It just didn't happen that way, it's all fantasy.

Well, I was thinking perhaps the truth lay somewhere between.

No. Well, from my perspective, I can only tell you this--that I was given carte blanche to do my job. Never once did anybody ever say anything to me about anything I was doing that was nothing but supportive. And so I've got the strong sense that the embassy was entirely behind what the DEA was doing in Central America at that time. And the evidence is that we were more productive at that time in Costa Rica than at any time before that. So there was no interference. There was no overriding priority, there was no competition, there was [nothing] except for support of the DEA's mission. And that's a fact.

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