Libel suit threatens future of online drug-war publication
By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 4/4/2001
For much of the '80s and '90s, Al Giordano cut a wide swath among
Massachusetts journalists and political junkies. An antinuclear activist who
became the Boston Phoenix's political reporter, Giordano was sometimes
abrasive, usually controversial, always passionate, and invariably
innovative. (Who else would have sent GOP pundit Mary Matalin a little
tie-dyed T-shirt from a Grateful Dead concert as a baby gift?)
Giordano seemed to drop off the radar screen after departing the Phoenix in
1996 and then leaving the country. A year ago, he surfaced as publisher of
the online publication The Narco News Bulletin ( www.narconews.com ), which
sees its mandate as challenging ''the illusion that the drug war is about
Later this month, Giordano will return to New York from his undisclosed base
of operations in Latin America to celebrate the first anniversary of Narco
News. He will also formally respond to what could potentially become one of
the most riveting libel cases in recent history - if it actually goes to
The suit, filed in New York by Banco Nacional de Mexico (known as Banamex)
against Narco News, Giordano, and Mexican journalist Mario Renato Menendez
Rodriguez, pits the law firm of such ex-presidential intimates as Robert
Strauss and Vernon Jordan against two notable First Amendment attorneys. And
it happens to focus on the subject that has captivated Academy Awards voters
who recently honored the film ''Traffic'': the drug smuggling trade.
''For us, `Traffic' is not a movie,'' Giordano said in a phone interview
this week. ''We live it every day.''
The suit charges the journalists with ''defamation and interference with
prospective economic advantage,'' accusing them of ''maliciously smear[ing]
Banamex with accusations that, among other things, it is controlled and
operated by narcotics traffickers and has engaged in illegal activity.'' It
claims that the defamation occurred in New York last year in a Menendez
interview with The Village Voice; in a Giordano and Menendez interview on a
radio show; in remarks by the defendants at conference at the Columbia
University School of Law; and in Narco News articles.
The defense attorneys say the case is another effort to challenge Menendez,
following unsuccessful legal proceedings against the journalist in Mexico.
At the heart of the dispute are articles published by Menendez alleging
involvement by Banamex owner Roberto Hernandez Ramirez in drug smuggling.
In a statement released to the Globe, Banamex attorney Thomas McLish, of
Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, said, ''Menendez and Giordano have been
engaged in a campaign to convince people that Banamex and its chairman are
involved in criminal conduct.''
''The Mexican courts dismissed the claims on technicalities,'' the statement
continued. Yet ''the defamatory statements Menendez and Giordano made in New
York have not been addressed by any court.'' Banamex filed a lawsuit in New
York to ''clear its name'' of ''ludicrous'' charges, the statement added.
Giordano calls the suit an attempt to stifle his First Amendment rights.
''They're trying to exhaust us out of existence,'' he said in the interview.
''It's an attempt to silence freedom of the press, freedom of the Internet,
freedom of speech.''
While Giordano plans on representing himself, Narco News itself will be
defended by Northampton attorney Thomas Lesser, best known for successfully
defending Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter in a 1987 case stemming from their
participation in a protest against the CIA at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst. Lesser challenges the Banamex suit on the grounds
that, among other things, the defendants' New York appearances did not
interfere with the bank's ''economic advantage,'' and because there's ''no
question, in Mr. Menendez's mind or Mr. Giordano's mind, that these
allegations are, in fact, true.''
Menendez is defended by New York attorney Martin Garbus, whose client list
has included Lenny Bruce and Timothy Leary. Garbus has filed a motion to
dismiss, which is being opposed by Akin, Gump. ''There have already been two
cases brought by Banamex against Menendez, and they lost,'' Garbus said. He
also argues, as does Lesser, that the only rightful plaintiff is Hernandez,
not his bank. ''If I call Bill Gates a crook, can Microsoft sue me?'' Garbus
said. ''I don't think so.''
Meanwhile, the battle goes on for Giordano. (In the interests of disclosure,
he is a former Phoenix colleague of this writer and a nephew of Globe editor
Matthew V. Storin.) On Narco News, he is publicizing his legal defense fund,
which he calls ''Drug War on Trial.'' One backer is Gary Webb, author of the
explosive and highly controversial 1996 San Jose Mercury News ''Dark
Alliance'' series that alleged CIA complicity in a Los Angeles crack
Last fall, Giordano gained media attention when an Associated Press
correspondent in Bolivia resigned after Narco News reported that the AP
writer had lobbied the government there on a water project. Now the fate of
Narco News, which he calls ''an act of participatory citizens' journalism,''
hangs very much in the balance.
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