Chuck Bowden’s Final Story Took 16 Years to Write
The unsolved murder of a DEA agent haunted the celebrated reporter for decades—and he finally completed his investigation in August, just before he died. His co-author talks about why it took so long and meant so much.
By Molly Molloy
Charles Bowden wrote this story for 16 years.
In 1996, he read Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury News about the CIA-drug trafficking partnership to finance an illegal war in Nicaragua. When mainstream media and Webb’s own paper attacked the story, Bowden wrote a profile of the discredited reporter for Esquire in 1998, aptly titled “The Pariah.”
Chuck re-examined Webb’s sources and found new ones — including retired DEA agent Hector Berrellez. Hector told him of his own discovery of the CIA-drug world links during his investigation of the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena and that Webb had written the truth. Bowden independently verified everything in Webb’s series, and he came to admire the reporter’s hard-nosed dedication to writing the truth even when it cost him his reputation and career.
When Chuck and I met a few years later, he learned I had spent time in Nicaragua during the contra war, and I learned of his connection to Gary Webb. In 1996, journalism on the internet, where Webb’s story really took off, was brand new. But the story of drug sales to support the Nicaraguan contras wasn’t new at all. I had worked at a newspaper in Managua in the 1980s that reported on Oliver North and the CIA-supplied mercenary contra army that killed thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. Webb’s series “broke an old story,” as Chuck wrote, but it was one that most Americans had never heard.
The media backlash around Webb’s reporting destroyed his career. Depression swallowed him up and Webb shot himself in December 2004. Chuck wrote to me when he heard:
“i can’t deal with e mails at the moment. … i just learned gary webb killed himself friday night. i don’t want to talk or communicate with anyone on earth right now. i am beyond pain and into some other country.”
He was heartbroken and angry and that wound never healed. He could have written more. He knew more as far back as 1998 that would have backed up Webb’s allegations about the CIA and contras and drugs, but his government sources would not go on the record.
Then in 2006, it seemed they might. Chuck wrote to me on December 21, 2006:
“i gotta decide whether to return one more time to the drug world.
yeah, i know. but i’ve got my dead to consider.”
Chuck did go into that world again and talked to Berrellez and to a shadowy CIA operative named Lawrence Harrison, the White Tower. Still, no one would go on the record about the CIA-contra connections with the Mexican traffickers of the Guadalajara cartel. In 2009, Lawrence Harrison wrote, “I felt so bad about Gary Webb because … after his firing he begged me to tell him something that would help him out…”
It was not until late in 2013, when the Mexican government prematurely released trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero—a main figure in Camarena’s torture and murder — that Berrellez decided to speak out. Berrellez provided access to eyewitnesses, corrupt Mexican cops, who saw and heard a Cuban CIA operative interrogating the dying agent.
But who would believe these witnesses — men who were involved in torturing and killing Americans on orders from their druglord bosses? Chuck and I traveled to California this year to hear their stories. We saw the stress in their faces and bodies as they went back into those rooms where they knew their own lives could be forfeit. They knew when they took the chance to testify in an American courtroom that if they lied they would be sent back. And that in Mexico they would be killed.
Caro Quintero is now free. Rumor has it that Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, another trafficker involved in the murder, may soon be released as well.
Enrique Camarena is dead now 29 years. Gary Webb is dead 10 years. Charles Bowden died August 30, 2014 — a few days after finishing the first draft of this story. He said in a video shot in 2005:
“Look you have a gift. Life is precious, and eventually you die. All you are going to have to show for it is your work, and whether you did a good job or not.”
“I know when something’s done…When I finish, my hands get cold, I think I’m dying…there’s nothing left.”
On that day, August 30, I left for work. I held his hands in mine and they were like ice.
The story begun in 1998 was finally over. From now on, he was going to write about birds … and the river.