Review: Arm and Hammer

Arm and Hammer, Jonathan K. Wade. Culver City, CA: Gambit Publishing, 2022.

Summary: A historical fiction account or the Iran-Contra affair telling the story of US NSC and CIA complicity with drug cartels distributing cocaine in US cities to fund the Contra resistance to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

It began with the downfall of the corrupt Somoza regime of Nicaragua to the Communist Sandinistas. The U.S. had watched this happen once before in Cuba. Fidel Castro had brought down a corrupt regime. A Communist regime was just 90 miles from the mainland and stubbornly survived the Bay of Pigs debacle and other covert attempts to bring it down. Now another country in the American sphere of influence had become Communist. Not only did it rankle the staunchly anti-Communist Reagan presidency, there were a group of former Somoza military figures and the resistance they recruited, the Contras wanting to bring down the Sandinistas. There was one problem. The U.S. Congress looked dimly on the whole affair after Vietnam. Initially funding aid, they cut, then eliminated appropriations. The National Security Council was tasked with finding ways to continue to fund the effort. Part was the covert arm sales to Iran, hopefully to secure releases of American hostages in Lebanon. Funds from the sales were diverted to the Contras. But it was not enough.

This book, a historical fiction account, tells the story of the other part of that funding effort. We learn how Nicaraguans in the U.S., who got into the cocaine trade working with Colombian cartels were persuaded to channel funds through CIA operatives to assist the Contra effort in exchange for the CIA securing landing strips and the cooperation of the DEA to look the other way as pilots ferried arms to camps along the Nicaraguan border and drugs back to the US. This book renders an account showing how high officials were “in the know”: William Casey of the CIA, Robert McFarlane and Admiral John Poindexter of the NSC, Elliot Abrams at State. We learn how Oliver North and his deputy, Robert Owen, ran the operation, working with Bay of Pigs assassin turned CIA operative Felix Rodriquez (a.k.a. Max Gomez), how newly affluent Nicaraguans siphoned off money until Rodriquez brought them brutally in line.

Most of all, we learn how cocaine dealers like Freeway Ricky went from two bit operators cooking crack cocaine in apartments to a multi-million dollar business, flooding the streets of Los Angeles and other American cities with crack cocaine. It’s from here that we get the book’s title. Baking soda is a key ingredient in “baking” crack.

It was all illegal. The story is a study of the justifications people used, from continuing the resistance to Communism that failed in Cuba to defending American interest to wanting to earn enough to get out of the ‘hood and the business. It unfolds year by year through the 1980’s up to 1987. Wade moves the story from the jungles of Costa Rica on the Nicaraguan border to the streets of Los Angeles, to offices in San Francisco and Miami where rich Nicaraguans ran drug operations, to the centers of power in Washington. Along the way, the brutality of both the drug trade and black ops is evident in hits and assassinations. Broken trust, or even the danger of it, could be fatal.

Then the reckoning, when a C-123 transport is shot down over Nicaragua in 1986, and one of the crew along with an incriminating black book survives. Over the next year it all unravels as Oliver North and his secretary try to frantically shred documents and a most incriminating ledger as agents knock on the office doors. We see who walks away and who takes the fall.

Wade offers a riveting, fast-moving account of how it all unfolds. My only quibble is his insistence on recording Oliver North “grinding his molars” in every meeting. I suspect this reflects an actual habit, but it is overused here. Aside from this, the story is a disturbing account of our governments complicity in the drug trade we official excoriated in the “war on drugs” and our incarceration policies. The key figures did see prison time, but nothing like the small time dealers and users, if they survived long enough to go to prison. It is a story of hubris and folly and ultimately of betrayal, one those in power do well to read and remember.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through BookSirens.

One thought on “Review: Arm and Hammer

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2023 | Bob on Books

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