domingo, marzo 27, 2005

I wrote this in May 1996 for High Times magazine. They shortened it somewhat when they used it. Here is the complete, unedited version:


Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

The public relations (PR) industry is one of the fastest growing businesses in the New World Order. In an effort to bolster their faltering credibility, governments and corporations are increasingly relying on PR firms. This situation has put the PR spin doctors in the position of global power brokers, with a glamour and influence undreamed of by their predecessors. In their excellent book Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995), authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton say that "today's PR professionals are recruited from the ranks of former journalists, retired politicians and eager-beaver college graduates anxious to rise in the corporate world. They hobnob internationally with corporate CEO's, senators and US Presidents".

According to gadfly environmentalist Mark Dowie, "The modern 'account' managed by a PR/advertising giant can now package a global campaign that includes a strategic blend of 'paid media' (advertising) and 'free media' (public relations). Add to that some of the other standard services offered by most PR firms--including 'crisis management', industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of civic and political groups-- and you have a formidable combination of persuasive techniques available to large corporations and anyone else who can afford to hire the services of a PR firm."

As we'll see, foreign governments corrupted by the international drug traffic have turned to the PR business in order to package themselves to the American public as heroic pillars in the war against drugs.


Take the case of Colombia, whose government one day started worrying about its international image as a violent hellhole and a compliant sanctuary for drug traffickers. Violent, indeed. Between 1986 and 1994 over 20,000 Colombians were killed for political reasons. But, don't the country's leftist guerrillas bear responsibility for half or most of these deaths? Not according to Amnesty International, which reported in 1994 that the government is behind most human rights violations in that country. The Colombia-based Andean Commission of Jurists was more specific, blaming the government for seventy percent of those violations. These findings are supported also by Americas Watch and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. A 1992 investigation by Latin American and European church and human rights groups concluded that "state terrorism in Colombia is a reality" and that its goal is "systematic elimination of opposition, criminalization of large sectors of the population, massive resort to political assassination and disappearance, general use of torture, extreme powers for security forces, etc." According to a Colombian human rights activist that insisted on anonimity, the paramilitary death squads tied to the army "use very savage methods, such as cutting off people's arms and legs with chainsaws".

Perhaps one could argue that the horrendous level of government-sanctioned violence in Colombia is a brutal necessity in the war against drugs. But what happened to Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar when he was captured? He was put under house arrest in a luxurious country house with a jacuzzi, air conditioning, three huge bedrooms and a guest room, walk-in closets and private baths, phone and fax machines, a soccer field, a game room and much more. In addition to that, the guards allowed him to constantly escape and surrender at will.

Furthermore, the links between the Colombian armed forces and the drug cartels have been abundantly documented for years. In 1989 a UN Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions visited Colombia and said that the paramilitary groups active there are trained and financed by drug traffickers and operate closely with elements in the armed forces and the police. Justicia y Paz, a Colombian human rights coalition comprising 55 religious congregations, has also done extensive investigative work on the cozy relationship between the drug cartels and paramilitary groups. The evidence led dissident extraordinaire Noam Chomsky to conclude that "The official (Colombian) security forces and their paramilitary associates work hand in glove with the drug lords, organized crime, landowners and other private interests in a country where avenues of social action have long been closed, and are to be kept that way, by intimidation and terror."

Help came in the form of the Sawyer/Miller consulting firm. Sawyer/ Miller had handled electoral campaigns for US senators John Glenn, Daniel P. Moynihan and Ted Kennedy, as well as Geraldine Ferraro's 1984 vicepresidential campaign. On the international front, the firm managed Corazón Aquino's 1986 presidential campaign in the Phillipines, the campaign against dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 Chile referendum, and the internationally acclaimed Peruvian author Mario Vargas-Llosa's unsuccessful bid for the presidency of his country in 1990. Closer to home, they worked for Virgilio Barco's successful campaign for the Colombian presidency. Sawyer/Miller had been representing Colombia since 1985, but with Cesar Gaviria assuming the presidency in August 1990, efforts to clean up the country's image were dramatically stepped up. S/M raked in nearly a million dollars from the Colombian government just in the first half of 1991.

S/M determined that Colombia had to change its image from villain to victim and then from victim to hero. The country's government then poured in millions of dollars into a lavish TV and newspaper ad campaign that extolled its courage in the war against the drug lords and passed the blame for the whole problem on American drug users. This campaign was accompanied by pamphlets and video news releases churned out by S/M. In addition to all this, Colombian officials themselves got involved by writing letters to the editors of newspapers.

S/M attempted to directly influence press coverage of Colombia. American reporters who wanted to interview Colombian officials had to go through S/M. As a result, sympathetic reporters got easy access while critical ones were told to take a hike. When the Miami Herald criticized Gaviria in an editorial for his lack of spine in dealing with drug lords, S/M immediately arranged for Colombian officials to meet with the Herald's editors to "educate" them. S/M flacks also met with New York Times Magazine editor Warren Hoge when they learned that his publication was about to publish a profile of Gaviria. The resulting profile, which was denounced as factually flawed by critics, omits any mention of the fact that Gaviria's election campaign was heavily funded by the drug cartels.

The Bahamas

The Bahamas islands, which have been immersed in smuggling for centuries, is another case in point. In 1972 fugitive swindler Robert Vesco arrived there and hooked up with political fixer Everett Bannister, who was close with prime minister Lynden Pindling. According to a US Senate Subcommittee investigation led by senator John Kerry (D-Mass), Bannister was the man drug dealers had to go through if they wanted to do business in the Bahamas. He provided similar services for Resorts International, a mysterious CIA and mob-linked corporation based in the Bahamas. Resorts was the parent company of Intertel, a private intelligence outfit that had extensive dealings with Howard Hughes, the CIA and organized crime in the sixties and seventies. Bannister was also the man who arranged for exiled Nicaraguan tyrant Anastasio Somoza to obtain sanctuary in the Bahamas in 1979. Upon Vesco's arrival, Bannister provided him with carte blanche at a Bahamas bank and arranged for Pindling to protect him from extradition to the US.

Pindling's role in protecting drug traffickers has an ironic tinge to it, since he owes the success of his political career to Operation Tradewinds, a top-secret IRS investigation that swept away his political rivals. The operation, aimed at eliminating the tax dodges that rich American racketeers used in the Bahamas, spelt doom for Pindling's rivals. His foes, known as the Bay Street Boys, controlled political life and gambling rackets in Nassau until Operation Tradewinds put an end to their reign.

Vesco didn't stay long, but he came back in 1978 with his new friend, Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder. Lehder took over Norman's Cay, a Bahamian island just 200 miles off the Florida coast, and drove all residents out at gunpoint. (Lehder's activities at Norman's Cay finally ended when they were exposed by NBC Nighly News on September 1983. The NBC report led to the creation of a commission of inquiry into drug-related corruption in the Bahamas, which motivated Lehder to return to Colombia.)

In response to the increasingly negative coverage that the US media was giving the Bahamas with respect to the drug issue, the Nassau government decided to hire a PR firm.

Apparently, the first attempt to secure a PR contract with the Bahamian government to handle the drug issue was made in the late eighties by retired admiral and former CIA deputy director Daniel J. Murphy, who was then an employee of the Gray & Co. firm. The Pindling administration was already familiar with Murphy. As operational manager of then-vicepresident (and former CIA director) George Bush's drug interdiction task force, he dropped in to Nassau along with Bush in 1982 to discuss the drug problem with Pindling. Now Murphy had jumped the fence and was offering his firm's services to deal with the PR problem.

In the two years he worked for Gray & Co., Murphy flew twice to Panama to meet secretly with general Manuel A. Noriega. The trips were ostensibly made to offer the firm's services to Noriega, but in reality Murphy went there as a secret emissary of his former boss, vicepresident George Bush. There may have been more to these trips, since Gray & Co. played a role in the Iran-Contra operation, a role that even to this day remains largely unexplained.

Accompanying Murphy on his trips to Panama was none other than Tongstun Park, an associate of Korean 'reverend' Sun Myung Moon and a key player in the 'Koreagate' influence-peddling scandal in the seventies. Incidentally, Moon was a Gray & Co. client. The plane for the Panama trips was provided by arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, who is now in federal prison for his key role in Saddam Hussein's illegal arms procurement network. Speaking of Saddam, Gray & Co. is known to have attempted to sell its services to Iraq.

The Bahamas account went instead to the Black, Manafort & Stone firm, which has some very impressive Republican connections. Its leading partner, Charles Black, was political director of the right-wing student group Young Americans for Freedom, chaired the Republican National Committee (RNC), and helped write the Republican plattform for the 1992 elections. Its second partner, Paul Manafort, was a strategist for Ronald Reagan's successful presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984. The late RNC chairman and Republican attack dog Lee Atwater was also a Black, Manafort partner. But in recent years the firm has acquired a bipartisan streak by bringing in former Democratic National Committee finance director Peter Kelly, who is currently a senior partner.

Black, Manafort also represents the Angolan CIA-backed terrorist group UNITA, as well as Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu became Zaire's ruler thanks to a 1965 CIA operation that resulted in the murder of his rival, nationalist Patrice Lumumba. Interestingly enough, present at the 1989 signing of Mobutu's $1 million a year contract with Black, Manafort was none other than Tongstun Park, the same global influence peddler that had accompanied Dan Murphy on his visits to Noriega.

According to a senator John Kerry's subcommittee, Black, Manafort assigned the Bahamas matter to Matthew Freedman, a former senior US State Department official who specialized in narcotics matters. The subcommittee's final report, 'Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy', noted with concern that "The role of the US consultants raises troubling questions about conflict of interest".

The strategists at Black, Manafort determined that the Pentagon and the State Department were the biggest supporters of the Bahamian government, while the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of the Treasury tended to be critical. The firm advised the Bahamas to lobby the White House, Congress and the National Security Council and to try to get the military and State Department to influence the DEA and Treasury regarding Bahamas policy. Black, Manafort also suggested taking advantage of the friendship between attorney general Ed Meese and defense secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Interestingly enough, Black, Manafort is now owned by Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest PR firm. B-M, better known for cleaning up the images of industrial polluters like Exxon and Union Carbide and representing totalitarian regimes all over the world, masterminded the drug-corrupted Mexican government's campaign for the North American Free Trade Agreement. B-M still represents Mexico, helping its ruling elite deal with embarrassments, like the crash of the peso, the popularity of the Zapatista guerrillas and, of course, the drug scandals that are compromising even the highest echelons of the ruling PRI party.

A Parting Thought

Next time you see an informercial presenting the drug problem as the exclusive fault of American drug users or an advertorial narrating the 'heroic' efforts of drug-producing countries to eradicate the drug traffic, treat them with extreme skepticism. As a Gray & Co. senior vice-president once put it, "Most of what you see on TV is, in effect, a canned PR product. Most of what you read in the paper and see on television is not news".


Arana, Ana. "The Colombia Connection:
What did Sawyer/Miller do for its Money?" Columbia Journalism Review: September

Center for Public Integrity. Private
Parties: Political Party Leadership in Washington's Mercenary Culture. 1993.

Chomsky, Noam. World Orders, Old and
New. Columbia University Press, 1984.
Jim Hougan. Spooks: The Private Use of
Secret Agents. Morrow, 1978.

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.
Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.
Common Courage Press, 1995.

Susan B. Trento. The Power House:
Robert K. Gray and the Selling of Access and Influence in Washington. St.
Martin's Press, 1992.

US Senate, Subcommittee on Narcotics,
Terrorism and International Operations. Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign

Vargas, Alvaro. "The Press Officer"
Granta: Summer 1991.


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