Published: Monday August 4, 2008
When a California medical marijuana dispensary, Organica Collective, was raided last Thursday by agents of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency and local police, the Los Angeles Times ran a dramatic story on the incident, accompanied by a set of photographs showing the raid and its aftermath.
According to the Times, witnesses described the DEA agents as "removing computers, medicine and money, and using a steel cylinder battering ram to get into the upstairs bedrooms." When they left four hours later, all that remained was "trash, counters strewn with open and empty glass jars, piles of receipts thrown on the ground, upturned couch cushions, bits of marijuana on the edges of counters and an ATM with its doors torn open and emptied. ... An outdoor vegetable garden had plants uprooted, along with marijuana plants removed by the agents."
However, one particular photograph from the Times story has drawn more attention than anything else. That picture, which has now been widely reproduced at blogs, shows a long-haired man, wearing a Blackwater tshirt and with a pistol at his belt, passing a box marked "DEA Evidence" to other agents participating in the raid.
Blackwater, a private mercenary army often employed by the US government for security services and by local police forces for training, has drawn widespread criticism for its shoot-em-up tactics in Iraq and has recently aroused suspicion by its establishment of a private intelligence service and its growing role in global drug enforcement.
A medical marijuana website may have been the first to draw attention to the picture, noting, "We’re used to the DEA calling in help from various federal agencies and local law enforcement. But I guess none of their usual buddies were available yesterday because from the picture below, which appeared in the LA Times today, it looks like they had to resort to calling in Blackwater."
The next day, Tim King of Salem-News.com gave wider distribution to the story, writing, "Are members of a disputed mercenary killer group now working with the DEA? A photo from the LA Times shows proof of one of two things; either Blackwater members are now working for the Bush White House's Drug Enforcement Agency, or this semi-illegitimate band of rogue federal cops have worse discipline than any of us ever imagined."
The photo has since been taken down by the Times, but it has continued to circulate online. Although there has been no previous suggestion of a Blackwater role in domestic drug enforcement, the single picture was sufficient enough to set off furious discussion at both left-wing and libertarian message boards and blogs.
However, others found the idea possible, citing Sen. John McCain's recent call for an Iraq-style approach to urban crime. One poster even claimed, "They were also used in raids in Humboldt County last month against the growers....Operation Southern Sweep. Can't find any news stories about it, but some people I know have said they were using Blackwater as well as DEA agents."
At Boing Boing, however, a more skeptical commenter suggested, "I'm willing to bet he's DEA. Blackwater probably wouldn't hire someone who looked that scuzzy, but DEA agents frequently look like dirtbags. Would YOU sell dope to someone who looked like a federal agent?"