The Dark Alliance
Gary Webb's 1996 San Jose Mercury
about the origins of the crack
cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles
Aug 22, 1996
Cocaine pipeline financed rebels _Evidence
points to CIA knowing of high-volume drug network
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
For the better part of a decade, a San
Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips
and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in
drug profits to an arm of the contra guerrillas of Nicaragua run
by the Central Intelligence Agency, the San Jose Mercury News
This drug network opened the first pipeline
between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods
of Los Angeles, a city now known as the "crack" capital
of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack
explosion in urban America - and provided the cash and connections
needed for L.A.'s gangs to buy weapons.
It is one of the most bizarre alliances
in modern history: the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting
to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the "gangstas"
of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.
The army's financiers - who met with CIA
agents before and during the time they were selling the drugs
in L.A. - delivered cut-rate cocaine to the gangs through a young
South-Central crack dealer named Ricky Donnell Ross.
Unaware of his suppliers' military and
political connections, "Freeway Rick" turned the cocaine
powder into crack and wholesaled it to gangs across the country.
Drug cash for the contras
Court records show the cash was then used
to buy equipment for a guerrilla army named the Fuerza Democratica
Nicaraguense (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) or FDN, the largest
of several anti-communist groups commonly called the contras.
While the FDN's war is barely a memory
today, black America is still dealing with its poisonous side
effects. Urban neighborhoods are grappling with legions of homeless
crack addicts. Thousands of young black men are serving long prison
sentences for selling cocaine - a drug that was virtually unobtainable
in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army brought
it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices.
And the L.A. gangs, which used their enormous
cocaine profits to arm themselves and spread crack across the
country, are still thriving.
"There is a saying that the ends
justify the means," former FDN leader and drug dealer Oscar
Danilo Blandon Reyes testified during a recent cocaine-trafficking
trial in San Diego. "And that's what Mr. Bermudez (the CIA
agent who commanded the FDN) told us in Honduras, OK? So we started
raising money for the contra revolution."
Recently declassified reports, federal
court testimony, undercover tapes, court records here and abroad
and hundreds of hours of interviews over the past 12 months leave
no doubt that Blandon was no ordinary drug dealer.
Shortly before Blandon - who had been
the drug ring's Southern California distributor - took the stand
in San Diego as a witness for the U.S. Department of Justice,
federal prosecutors obtained a court order preventing defense
lawyers from delving into his ties to the CIA.
Blandon, one of the FDN's founders in
California, "will admit that he was a large-scale dealer
in cocaine, and there is no additional benefit to any defendant
to inquire as to the Central Intelligence Agency," Assistant
U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale argued in his motion shortly before
Ross' trial on cocaine-trafficking charges in March.
The 5,000-man FDN, records show, was created
in mid-1981 when the CIA combined several existing groups of anti-communist
exiles into a unified force it hoped would topple the new socialist
government of Nicaragua.
Waged a losing war
From 1982 to 1988, the FDN - run by both
American and Nicaraguan CIA agents - waged a losing war against
Nicaragua's Sandinista government, the Cuban-supported socialists
who'd overthrown U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Blandon, who began working for the FDN's
drug operation in late 1981, testified that the drug ring sold
almost a ton of cocaine in the United States that year - $54 million
worth at prevailing wholesale prices. It was not clear how much
of the money found its way back to the CIA's army, but Blandon
testified that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit
was going for the contra revolution."
At the time of that testimony, Blandon
was a full-time informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration,
a job the U.S. Department of Justice got him after releasing him
from prison in 1994.
Though Blandon admitted to crimes that
have sent others away for life, the Justice Department turned
him loose on unsupervised probation after only 28 months behind
bars and has paid him more than $166,000 since, court records
"He has been extraordinarily helpful,"
federal prosecutor O'Neale told Blandon's judge in a plea for
the trafficker's release in 1994. Though O'Neale once described
Blandon to a grand jury as "the biggest Nicaraguan cocaine
dealer in the United States," the prosecutor would not discuss
him with the Mercury News.
Blandon's boss in the FDN's cocaine operation,
Juan Norwin Meneses Cantarero, has never spent a day in a U.S.
prison, even though the federal government has been aware of his
cocaine dealings since at least 1974, records show.
Meneses - who ran the drug ring from his
homes in the Bay Area - is listed in the DEA's computers as a
major international drug smuggler and was implicated in 45 separate
federal investigations. Yet he and his cocaine-dealing relatives
lived quite openly in the Bay Area for years, buying homes, bars,
restaurants, car lots and factories.
"I even drove my own cars, registered
in my name," Meneses said during a recent interview in Nicaragua.
Meneses' organization was "the target
of unsuccessful investigative attempts for many years," O'Neale
acknowledged in a 1994 affidavit. But records and interviews revealed
that a number of those probes were stymied not by the elusive
Meneses but by agencies of the U.S. government.
CIA hampered probes
Agents from four organizations - the DEA,
U.S. Customs, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and
the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement - have complained
that investigations were hampered by the CIA or unnamed "national-security"
One 1988 investigation by a U.S. Senate
subcommittee ran into a wall of official secrecy at the Justice
In that case, congressional records show,
Senate investigators were trying to determine why the U.S. attorney
in San Francisco, Joseph Russoniello, had given $36,000 back to
a Nicaraguan cocaine dealer arrested by the FBI.
The money was returned, court records
show, after two contra leaders sent letters to the court swearing
that the drug dealer had been given the cash to buy weapons for
After Nicaraguan police arrested Meneses
on cocaine charges in Managua in 1991, his judge expressed astonishment
that the infamous smuggler went unmolested by American drug agents
during his years in the United States.
His seeming invulnerability amazed American
authorities as well.
A Customs agent who investigated Meneses
in 1980 before transferring elsewhere said he was reassigned to
San Francisco seven years later "and I was sitting in some
meetings and here's Meneses' name again. And I can remember thinking,
`Holy cow, is this guy still around?' "
Blandon led an equally charmed life. For
at least five years he brokered massive amounts of cocaine to
the black gangs of Los Angeles without being arrested. But his
luck changed overnight.
On Oct. 27, 1986, agents from the FBI,
the IRS, local police and the Los Angeles County sheriff fanned
out across Southern California and raided more than a dozen locations
connected to Blandon's cocaine operation. Blandon and his wife,
along with numerous Nicaraguan associates, were arrested on drug
and weapons charges.
The search-warrant affidavit reveals that
local drug agents knew plenty about Blandon's involvement with
cocaine and the CIA's army nearly 10 years ago.
"Danilo Blandon is in charge of a
sophisticated cocaine smuggling and distribution organization
operating in Southern California," L.A. County sheriff's
Sgt. Tom Gordon said in the 1986 affidavit. "The monies gained
from the sales of cocaine are transported to Florida and laundered
through Orlando Murillo, who is a high-ranking officer of a chain
of banks in Florida named Government Securities Corporation. From
this bank the monies are filtered to the contra rebels to buy
arms in the war in Nicaragua."
Raids a spectacular failure
Despite their intimate knowledge of Blandon's
operations, the police raids were a spectacular failure. Every
location had been cleaned of anything remotely incriminating.
No one was ever prosecuted.
Ron Spear, a spokesman for Los Angeles
County Sheriff Sherman Block, said Blandon somehow knew that he
was under police surveillance.
FBI records show that soon after the raids,
Blandon's defense attorney, Bradley Brunon, called the sheriff's
department to suggest that his client's troubles stemmed from
a most unlikely source: a recent congressional vote authorizing
$100 million in military aid to the contras.
According to a December 1986 FBI teletype,
Brunon told the officers that the "CIA winked at this sort
of thing. . . . (Brunon) indicated that now that U.S. Congress
had voted funds for the Nicaraguan contra movement, U.S. government
now appears to be turning against organizations like this."
That FBI report, part of the files of
former Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, was made
public only last year, when it was released by the National Archives
at the San Jose Mercury News' request.
Blandon has also implied that his cocaine
sales were, for a time, CIA-approved. He told a San Francisco
federal grand jury in 1994 that once the FDN began receiving American
taxpayer dollars, the CIA no longer needed his kind of help.
None of the government agencies known
to have been involved with Meneses and Blandon would provide the
Mercury News with any information about them, despite Freedom
of Information Act requests.
Blandon's lawyer, Brunon, said in an interview
that his client never told him directly that he was selling cocaine
for the CIA, but the prominent Los Angeles defense attorney drew
his own conclusions from the "atmosphere of CIA and clandestine
activities" that surrounded Blandon and his Nicaraguan friends.
"Was he involved with the CIA? Probably.
Was he involved with drugs? Most definitely," Brunon said.
"Were those two things involved with each other? They've
never said that, obviously. They've never admitted that. But I
don't know where these guys get these big aircraft."
That very topic arose during the sensational
1992 cocaine-trafficking trial of Meneses after he was arrested
in Nicaragua in connection with a staggering 750-kilo shipment
of cocaine. His chief accuser was his friend Enrique Miranda,
a relative and former Nicaraguan military intelligence officer
who had been Meneses' emissary to the cocaine cartel of Bogota,
Colombia. Miranda pleaded guilty to drug charges and agreed to
cooperate in exchange for a seven-year sentence.
In a long, handwritten statement he read
to Meneses' jury, Miranda revealed the deepest secrets of the
Meneses drug ring, earning his old boss a 30-year prison sentence
in the process.
"He (Norwin) and his brother Luis
Enrique had financed the contra revolution with the benefits of
the cocaine they sold," Miranda wrote. "This operation,
as Norwin told me, was executed with the collaboration of high-ranking
Salvadoran military personnel. They met with officials of the
Salvadoran air force, who flew (planes) to Colombia and then left
for the U.S., bound for an Air Force base in Texas, as he told
Meneses - who has close personal and business
ties to a Salvadoran air-force commander and former CIA agent
named Marcos Aguado - declined to discuss Miranda's statements
during an interview at a prison outside Managua in January. He
is scheduled to be paroled this summer, after nearly five years
U.S. General Accounting Office records
confirm that El Salvador's air force was supplying the CIA's Nicaraguan
guerrillas with aircraft and flight support services throughout
The same day the Mercury News requested
official permission to interview Miranda, he disappeared.
While out on a routine weekend furlough,
Miranda failed to return to the Nicaraguan jail where he'd been
living since 1992. Though his jailers, who described him as a
model prisoner, claimed Miranda had escaped, they didn't call
the police until a Mercury News correspondent showed up and discovered
he was gone.
He has not been seen in nearly a year.
Aug 22, 1996
Salvador air force linked to cocaine flights,
Nicaraguan contras, drug dealer's supplier
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
One thing is certain: There is considerable
evidence that El Salvador's air force was deeply involved with
cocaine flights, the contras and drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandon
Reyes' cocaine supplier, Norwin Meneses.
Meneses said one of his oldest friends
is a former contra pilot named Marcos Aguado, a Nicaraguan who
works for the Salvadoran air-force high command.
Aguado was identified in 1987 congressional
testimony as a CIA agent who helped the contras get weapons, airplanes
and money from a major Colombian drug trafficker named George
Morales. Aguado admitted his role in that deal in a videotaped
deposition taken by a U.S. Senate subcommittee that year.
His name also turned up in a deposition
taken by the congressional Iran-contra committees that same year.
Robert Owen, a courier for Lt. Col. Oliver North, testified he
knew Aguado as a contra pilot and said there was "concern"
about his being involved with drug trafficking.
While flying for the contras, Aguado was
stationed at Ilopango Air Base near El Salvador's capital.
In 1985, the DEA agent assigned to El
Salvador - Celerino Castillo III - began picking up reports that
cocaine was being flown to the United States out of hangars 4
and 5 at Ilopango as part of a contra-related covert operation.
Castillo said he soon confirmed what his informants were telling
Starting in January 1986, Castillo began
documenting the cocaine flights - listing pilot names, tail numbers,
dates and flight plans - and sent them to DEA headquarters.
The only response he got, Castillo wrote
in his 1994 memoirs, was an internal DEA investigation of him.
He took a disability retirement from the agency in 1991.
"Basically, the bottom line is it
was a covert operation and they (DEA officials) were covering
it up," Castillo said in an interview. "You can't get
any simpler than that. It was a cover-up."
Aug 22, 1996
Trio created mass market in U.S. for crack
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
If they'd been in a more respectable line
of work, Norwin Meneses, Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes and "Freeway
Rick" Ross would have been hailed as geniuses of marketing.
This odd trio - a smuggler, a bureaucrat
and a ghetto teenager - made fortunes creating the first mass
market in America for a product so hellishly desirable that consumers
will literally kill to get it: "crack" cocaine.
Federal lawmen will tell you plenty about
Rick Ross, mostly about the evils he visited upon black neighborhoods
by spreading the crack plague in Los Angeles and cities as far
east as Cincinnati. Tomorrow, they hope, Freeway Rick will be
sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But those same officials won't say a word
about the two men who turned Rick Ross into L.A.'s first king
of crack, the men who, for at least five years, supplied him with
enough Colombian cocaine to help spawn crack markets in major
cities nationwide. Their critical role in the country's crack
explosion has been a strictly guarded secret.
To understand how crack came to curse
black America, you have to go into the volcanic hills overlooking
Managua, the capital of the Republic of Nicaragua.
Biggest military upset
During June 1979, those hills teemed with
triumphant guerrillas called Sandinistas - Cuban-assisted revolutionaries
who had just pulled off one of the biggest military upsets in
Central American history. In a bloody civil war, they'd destroyed
the U.S.-trained army of Nicaragua's dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
In the dictator's doomed capital, a minor
member of Somoza's government decided to skip the war's obvious
ending. On June 19, Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes gathered his wife
and young daughter and flew into exile in California.
Today, Blandon is a well-paid and highly
trusted operative for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Federal officials say he is one of the DEA's top informants in
Latin America, collecting intelligence on Colombian and Mexican
drug lords and setting up stings.
In March, he was the DEA's star witness
at a drug trial in San Diego, where, for the first time, he testified
publicly about his strange interlude between government jobs:
the years he sold cocaine to the street gangs of black Los Angeles.
Blandon swore that he didn't plan on becoming
a dope dealer when he landed in the United States with $100 in
his pocket, seeking political asylum. He did it, he insisted,
out of patriotism.
When duty called in late 1981, he was
working as a car salesman in East Los Angeles. In his spare time,
he said, he and a few fellow exiles were working to rebuild Somoza's
defeated army, the Nicaraguan national guard, in hopes of one
day returning to Managua in triumph.
But the rallies and cocktail parties the
exiles hosted raised little money. "At this point, he became
committed to raising money for humanitarian and political reasons
via illegal activity (cocaine trafficking for profit)," said
a heavily censored parole report, which surfaced during the March
That venture began, Blandon testified,
with a phone call from a wealthy college friend in Miami.
Blandon said his college chum, who also
was working in the resistance movement, dispatched him to Los
Angeles International Airport to pick up another exile, Juan Norwin
Meneses Cantarero. Though their families were related, Blandon
said, he'd never met Meneses until that day.
"I picked him up, and he started
telling me that we had to (raise) some money and to send to Honduras,"
Blandon testified. He said he flew with Meneses to a camp there
and met one of his new companion's old friends, Col. Enrique Bermudez.
Bermudez - who'd been Somoza's Washington
liaison to the American military - was hired by the Central Intelligence
Agency in mid-1980 to pull together the remnants of Somoza's vanquished
national guard, records show. In August 1981, Bermudez's efforts
were unveiled at a news conference as the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense
(FDN) - in English, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force. It was the
largest and best-organized of the handful of guerrilla groups
known as the contras.
Bermudez was the FDN's military chief
and, according to congressional records and newspaper reports,
received regular CIA paychecks for a decade, payments that stopped
shortly before his still-unsolved slaying in Managua in 1991.
Reagan OKs covert operations
White House records show that shortly
before Blandon's meeting with Bermudez, President Reagan had given
the CIA the green light to begin covert paramilitary operations
against the Sandinista government. But Reagan's secret Dec. 1,
1981, order permitted the spy agency to spend only $19.9 million
on the project, an amount CIA officials acknowledged was not nearly
enough to field a credible fighting force.
After meeting with Bermudez, Blandon testified,
he and Meneses "started raising money for the contra revolution."
While Blandon says Bermudez didn't know
cocaine would be the fund-raising device they used, the presence
of the mysterious Mr. Meneses strongly suggests otherwise.
Norwin Meneses, known in Nicaraguan newspapers
as "Rey de la Droga" (King of Drugs), was then under
active investigation by the DEA and the FBI for smuggling cocaine
into the United States, records show.
And Bermudez was very familiar with the
influential Meneses family. He had served under two Meneses brothers,
Fermin and Edmundo, who were generals in Somoza's army.
Despite a stack of law-enforcement reports
describing him as a major drug trafficker, Norwin Meneses was
welcomed into the United States in July 1979 as a political refugee
and given a visa and a work permit. He settled in the San Francisco
Bay Area, and for the next six years supervised the importation
of thousands of kilos of cocaine into California.
At the meeting with Bermudez, Meneses
said in a recent interview, the contra commander put him in charge
of "intelligence and security" for the FDN in California.
Blandon, he said, was assigned to raise
money in Los Angeles.
Blandon said Meneses gave him two kilograms
of cocaine (roughly 4 1/2 pounds) and sent him to Los Angeles.
"Meneses was pushing me every week,"
he testified. "It took me about three months, four months
to sell those two keys because I didn't know what to do. . . ."
To find customers, Blandon and several
other Nicaraguan exiles working with him headed for the vast,
untapped markets of L.A.'s black ghettos.
Blandon's marketing strategy, selling
the world's most expensive street drug in some of California's
poorest neighborhoods, might seem baffling, but in retrospect,
his timing was uncanny. He and his compatriots arrived in South-Central
L.A. right when street-level drug users were figuring out how
to make cocaine affordable: by changing the pricey white powder
into powerful little nuggets that could be smoked - crack.
Emergence of crack
Crack turned the cocaine world on its
head. Cocaine smokers got an explosive high unmatched by 10 times
as much snorted powder. And since only a tiny amount was needed
for that rush, cocaine no longer had to be sold in large, expensive
quantities. Anyone with $20 could get wasted.
It was a "substance that is tailor-made
to addict people," Dr. Robert Byck, a Yale University cocaine
expert, said during congressional testimony in 1986. "It
is as though (McDonald's founder) Ray Kroc had invented the opium
Crack's Kroc was a disillusioned 19-year-old
named Ricky Donnell Ross, who, at the dawn of the 1980s, found
himself adrift on the streets of South-Central Los Angeles.
A talented tennis player for Dorsey High
School, Ross had recently seen his dream of a college scholarship
evaporate when his coach discovered he could neither read nor
A friend of Ross' - a college football
player home at Christmas from San Jose State University - told
him "cocaine was going to be the new thing, that everybody
was doing it." Intrigued, Ross set off to find out more.
Through a cocaine-using auto-upholstery
teacher Ross knew, he met a Nicaraguan named Henry Corrales, who
began selling Ross and a friend , Ollie "Big Loc" Newell,
small amounts of remarkably inexpensive cocaine.
Thanks to a network of friends in South-Central
L.A. and Compton, including many members of various Crips gangs,
the pair steadily built up clientele. With each sale, Ross reinvested
his hefty profits in more cocaine.
Eventually, Corrales introduced Ross and
Newell to his supplier, Blandon. And then business really picked
"At first, we was just going to do
it until we made $5,000," Ross said. "We made that so
fast we said, no, we'll quit when we make $20,000. Then we was
going to quit when we saved enough to buy a house . . ."
Ross would eventually own millions of
dollars' worth of real estate across Southern California, including
houses, motels, a theater and several other businesses. (His nickname,
"Freeway Rick," came from the fact that he owned properties
near the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles.)
Within a year, Ross' drug operation grew
to dominate inner-city Los Angeles, and many of the biggest dealers
in town were his customers. When crack hit L.A.'s streets hard
in late 1983, Ross already had the infrastructure in place to
corner a huge chunk of the burgeoning market.
It was not uncommon, he said, to move
$2 million or $3 million worth of crack in one day.
"Our biggest problem had got to be
counting the money," Ross said. "We got to the point
where it was like, man, we don't want to count no more money."
Nicaraguan cocaine dealer Jacinto Torres,
another former supplier of Ross and a sometime-partner of Blandon,
told drug agents in a 1992 interview that after a slow start,
"Blandon's cocaine business dramatically increased. . . .
Norwin Meneses, Blandon's supplier as of 1983 and 1984, routinely
flew quantities of 200 to 400 kilograms from Miami to the West
Blandon told the DEA last year that he
was selling Ross up to 100 kilos of cocaine a week, which was
then "rocked up" and distributed "to the major
gangs in the area, specifically the Crips and the Bloods,"
the DEA report said.
At wholesale prices, that's roughly $65
million to $130 million worth of cocaine every year, depending
on the going price of a kilo.
"He was one of the main distributors
down here," said former Los Angeles Police Department narcotics
detective Steve Polak, who was part of the Freeway Rick Task Force,
which was set up in 1987 to put Ross out of business. "And
his poison, there's no telling how many tens of thousands of people
he touched. He's responsible for a major cancer that still hasn't
But Ross is the first to admit that being
in the right place at the right time had almost nothing to do
with his amazing success. Other L.A. dealers, he noted, were selling
crack long before he started.
What he had, and they didn't, was Blandon,
a friend with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of high-grade cocaine
and an expert's knowledge of how to market it.
"I'm not saying I wouldn't have been
a dope dealer without Danilo," Ross stressed. "But I
wouldn't have been Freeway Rick."
The secret to his success, Ross said,
was Blandon's cocaine prices. "It was unreal. We were just
wiping out everybody."
"It didn't make no difference to
Rick what anyone else was selling it for. Rick would just go in
and undercut him $10,000 a key," Chico Brown said. "Say
some dude was selling for 30. Boom - Rick would go in and sell
it for 20. If he was selling for 20, Rick would sell for 10. Sometimes,
he be giving (it) away."
Ross said he never discovered how Blandon
was able to get cocaine so cheaply. "I just figured he knew
the people, you know what I'm saying? He was plugged."
But Freeway Rick had no idea just how
"plugged" his erudite cocaine broker was. He didn't
know about Meneses, or the CIA, or the Salvadoran air-force planes
that allegedly were flying the cocaine into an air base in Texas.
And he wouldn't find out about it for
another 10 years.
Aug 22, 1996
Crack was born during 1974 in S.F. Bay
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
Though Miami and Los Angeles are commonly
regarded as the twin cradles of crack, the first government-financed
study of cocaine smoking concluded that it was actually born in
the Bay Area in January 1974.
After comedian Richard Pryor nearly immolated
himself during a cocaine-smoking binge in 1980, the National Institute
on Drug Abuse hired UCLA drug expert Ronald Siegel to look into
the then-unfamiliar practice.
Siegel, the first scientist to document
crack's use in the United States, traced the smoking habit back
to 1930, when Colombians first started it.
But what was being smoked south of the
border - a paste-like substance called BASE (bah-SAY) - was very
different from what Californians were putting in their pipes,
Siegel found, even though they called it the same thing: free
BASE was a crude, toxics-laden precursor
to cocaine powder. On the other hand, free base (which later became
known as crack or rock) was cocaine powder that had been reverse-engineered
to make it smokable.
When San Francisco Bay Area dealers tried
recreating the drug they'd seen in South America, Siegel learned,
they'd screwed up.
"When they looked it up in the Merck
Manual, they saw cocaine base and thought, well, yeah, this is
it," Siegel, a nationally known drug researcher, said. "They
mispronounced it, misunderstood the Spanish, and thought (BASE)
was cocaine base."
The base described in the organic-chemistry
handbook was cocaine powder separated from its salts, a process
easily done with boiling water and baking soda.
It was an immediate, if unintentional,
"They were wowed by it," Siegel
said. "They thought they were smoking BASE. They were not.
They were smoking something nobody on the planet had ever smoked
Using the sales records of several major
drug-paraphernalia companies, Siegel correlated crack's public
appearance with the appearance of base-making kits and glass pipes
for smoking it. The sales records zeroed in on the Bay Area.
"We were able to show to our satisfaction
that they were directly responsible for distributing the habit
throughout the United States," Siegel said.
"Wherever they were selling their
kits, that's where we started getting the clinical reports. It
all started in Northern California."
His groundbreaking study was never published
by the government, purportedly for budgetary reasons.
Siegel, who said he grew concerned that
the information would not be made available to other researchers,
published it himself in an obscure medical journal in late 1982.
Aug 23, 1996
Drug king free, but black aide sits in
jail _How cheap cocaine became the scourge of the inner city
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
For the past 1 1/2 years, the U.S. Department
of Justice has been trying to explain why nearly everyone convicted
in California's federal courts of "crack" cocaine trafficking
Critics, including some federal-court
judges, say it looks like the Justice Department is targeting
crack dealers by race, which would be a violation of the Constitution.
Federal prosecutors, however, say there's
a simple, if unpleasant, reason for the lopsided statistics: Most
crack dealers are black.
But why - of all the ethnic and racial
groups in California to pick from - crack planted its deadly roots
in L.A.'s black neighborhoods is something Oscar Danilo Blandon
Reyes may be able to answer.
Blandon is the Johnny Appleseed of crack
in California - the Crips' and Bloods' first direct connect to
the cocaine cartels of Colombia. The tons of cut-rate cocaine
he brought into black L.A. during the 1980s and early 1990s became
millions of rocks of crack, which spawned new markets wherever
On a tape made by the Drug Enforcement
Administration in July 1990, Blandon casually explained the flood
of cocaine that coursed through the streets of South-Central Los
Angeles during the previous decade.
"These people have been working with
me 10 years," Blandon said. "I've sold them about 2,000
or 4,000 (kilos). I don't know. I don't remember how many."
"It ain't that Japanese guy you were
talking about, is it?" asked DEA informant John Arman, who
was wearing a hidden transmitter.
"No, it's not him," Blandon
insisted. "These . . . these are the black people."
Arman gasped. "Black?!"
"Yeah," Blandon said. "They
control L.A. The people (black cocaine dealers) that control L.A."
But unlike the thousands of young blacks
now serving long federal prison sentences for selling mere handfuls
of the drug, Blandon is a free man today. He has a spacious new
home in Nicaragua and a business exporting precious woods, courtesy
of the U.S. government, which has paid him more than $166,000
over the past 18 months, records show - for his help in the war
That turn of events both amuses and angers
"Freeway Rick" Ross, L.A.'s premier crack wholesaler
during much of the 1980s and Blandon's biggest customer.
"They say I sold dope everywhere,
but, man, I know he done sold 10 times more dope than me,"
Ross said during a recent interview.
Nothing epitomizes the drug war's uneven
impact on black Americans more clearly than the intertwined lives
of Ricky Donnell Ross, a high-school dropout, and his suave cocaine
supplier, Blandon, who has a master's degree in marketing and
was one of the top civilian leaders in California of an anti-communist
guerrilla army formed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Called the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN), it became known
to most Americans as the contras.
In recent court testimony, Blandon, who
began dealing cocaine in South-Central L.A. in 1982, swore that
the first kilo of cocaine he sold in California was to raise money
for the CIA's army, which was trying on a shoestring to unseat
Nicaragua's new socialist Sandinista government.
After Blandon crossed paths with Ross,
a South-Central teenager with gang connections and street smarts
necessary to move the army's cocaine, a blizzard engulfed the
Former Los Angeles police narcotics detective
Stephen Polak said he was working the streets of South-Central
in the mid-1980s when he and his partners began seeing more cocaine
than ever before.
"A lot of detectives, a lot of cops,
were saying, `hey, these blacks, no longer are we just seeing
gram dealers. These guys are doing ounces; they were doing keys,'
" Polak recalled. But he said the reports were disregarded
by higher-ups who couldn't believe black neighborhoods could afford
the amount of cocaine the street cops claimed to be seeing.
"Major Violators (the LAPD's elite
anti-drug unit) was saying, basically, `ahh, South-Central, how
much could they be dealing?' " said Polak. "Well, they
(black dealers) went virtually untouched for a long time."
It wasn't until January 1987 - when crack
markets were popping up in major cities all over the nation -
that law-enforcement brass decided to confront L.A.'s crack problem
head-on. They formed the Freeway Rick Task Force, a cadre of veteran
drug agents whose sole mission was to put Rick Ross out of business.
Polak was a charter member.
"We just dedicated seven days a week
to him. We were just on him at every move," Polak said.
Ross, as usual, was quick to spot a trend.
He moved to Cincinnati and quietly settled into a woodsy, suburban
"I called it cooling out, trying
to back away from the game," Ross said. "I had enough
His longtime supplier, Blandon, reached
the same conclusion about the same time. He moved to Miami with
$1.6 million in cash and invested in several businesses.
But neither Ross nor Blandon stayed "retired"
A manic deal-maker, Ross found Cincinnati's
virgin crack market too seductive to ignore.
Plunging back in, the crack tycoon cornered
the Cincinnati market using the same low-price, high-volume strategy
- and the same Nicaraguan drug connections - he'd used in L.A.
Soon, he also was selling crack in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dayton
and St. Louis.
"There's no doubt in my mind crack
in Cincinnati can be traced to Ross," police officer Robert
Enoch told a Cincinnati newspaper three years ago.
But Ross' reign in the Midwest was short-lived.
In 1988, one of his loads ran into a drug-sniffing dog at a New
Mexico bus station, and drug agents eventually connected it to
Ross. He pleaded guilty to crack trafficking charges and received
a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, which he began serving in
In Miami, Blandon's retirement plans also
had gone awry as his business ventures collapsed.
He returned to the San Francisco Bay Area
and began brokering cocaine again, buying and selling from the
Nicaraguan dealers he'd known in his days with the FDN. In 1990
and 1991, he testified, he sold about 425 kilos of cocaine in
Northern California - $10.5 million worth at wholesale prices.
But unlike before, when he was selling
cocaine for the contras, Blandon was constantly dogged by the
Twice in six months he was detained, first
by Customs agents while taking $117,000 in money orders to Tijuana
to pay a supplier, and then by the LAPD when he was in the act
of paying one of his Colombian suppliers more than $350,000.
The second time, after police found $14,000
in cash and a small quantity of cocaine in his pocket, he was
arrested. But the U.S. Justice Department - saying a prosecution
would disrupt an active investigation - persuaded the police to
drop their money-laundering case.
Soon after that, Blandon and his wife,
Chepita, were arrested by DEA agents on charges of conspiracy
to distribute cocaine. They were jailed without bond as dangers
to the community, and several other Nicaraguans also were arrested.
The prosecutor, L.J. O'Neale, told a federal
judge that Blandon had sold so much cocaine in the United States
his mandatory prison sentence was "off the scale."
Then Blandon "just vanished,"
said Juanita Brooks, a San Diego attorney who represented one
of Blandon's co-defendants. "All of a sudden his wife was
out of jail and he was out of the case."
The reasons were contained in a secret
Justice Department memorandum filed in San Diego federal court
in late 1993.
Blandon, prosecutor O'Neale wrote, had
become "valuable in major DEA investigations of Class I drug
traffickers." And even though probation officers were recommending
a life sentence and a $4 million fine, O'Neale said the government
would be satisfied if Blandon got 48 months and no fine. Motion
Less than a year later, records show,
O'Neale was back with another idea: Why not just let Blandon go?
After all, he wrote the judge, Blandon had a federal job waiting.
O'Neale, saying that Blandon "has
almost unlimited potential to assist the United States,"
said the government wanted "to enlist Mr. Blandon as a full-time,
paid informant after his release from prison."
After only 28 months in custody, most
of it spent with federal agents who debriefed him for "hundreds
of hours," he said, Blandon walked out of the Metropolitan
Correctional Center in San Diego, was given a green card and began
working on his first assignment: setting up his old friend, "Freeway
Rick," for a sting.
Records show Ross was still behind bars,
awaiting parole, when San Diego DEA agents targeted him.
Soon after Ross went to prison for the
Cincinnati bust, federal prosecutors offered him a deal. His term
would be shortened by five years in return for testimony in a
federal case against Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives that
included members of the old Freeway Rick Task Force.
Within days of Ross' parole in October
1994, he and Blandon were back in touch, and their conversation
quickly turned to cocaine.
According to tapes Blandon made of some
of their discussions, Ross repeatedly told Blandon that he was
broke and couldn't afford to finance a drug deal. But Ross did
agree to help his old mentor, who was also pleading poverty, find
someone else to buy the 100 kilos of cocaine Blandon claimed he
On March 2, 1995, in a shopping-center
parking lot in National City, near San Diego, Ross poked his head
inside a cocaine-laden Chevy Blazer, and the place exploded with
Ross jumped into a friend's pickup and
zoomed off "looking for a wall that I could crash myself
into," he said. "I just wanted to die." He was
captured after the truck careened into a hedgerow. He has been
held in jail without bond since then.
Ross' arrest netted Blandon $45,500 in
government rewards and expenses, records show. On the strength
of Blandon's testimony, Ross and two other men were convicted
of cocaine-conspiracy charges in San Diego last March - conspiring
to sell the DEA's cocaine. Sentencing was set for today. Ross
is facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The
other men are looking at 10- to 20-year sentences.
Acquaintances say Blandon, who refused
repeated interview requests, is a common sight these days in Managua's
better restaurants, drinking with friends and telling of his "escape"
from U.S. authorities.
According to his Miami lawyer, Blandon
spends most of his time shuttling between San Diego and Managua,
trying to recover Nicaraguan properties seized in 1979, when the
Sandinistas took power.
Aug 23, 1996
Cocaine sentences weighted against blacks
by Gary Webb_San Jose Mercury News
When it comes to cocaine, it isn't just
a suspicion that the war on drugs is hammering blacks harder than
whites. According to the U.S. Justice Department, it's a fact.
The "main reason" cocaine sentences
for blacks are longer than for whites, the Bureau of Justice Statistics
reported in 1993, is that 83 percent of the people being sent
to prison for "crack" trafficking are black "and
the average sentence imposed for crack trafficking was twice as
long as for trafficking in powdered cocaine."
Even though crack and powder cocaine are
the same drug, you have to sell more than six pounds of powder
before you face the same jail time as someone who sells one ounce
of crack - a 100-to-1 ratio.
That logic has eluded Dr. Robert Byck,
a Yale University drug expert, from the moment he discovered the
100-to-1 ratio may have been his inadvertent doing.
In 1986, at the height of an election-year
hysteria over crack, Byck was summoned before a U.S. Senate committee
to tell what he knew about cocaine smoking.
Byck, a renowned scientist who edited
and published Sigmund Freud's cocaine papers, had been studying
crack smoking in South America for nearly 10 years, with growing
Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democrat
(and now that state's governor), was pushing for tougher crack
laws, and he asked Byck about testimony he had given previously
that "some experts" believed crack was 50 times more
addictive than powder cocaine. Byck acknowledged some people believed
Despite the speculative nature of the
figure, Byck said, the addictive factor of 50 was "doubled
by people who wanted to get tough on cocaine" and then, for
reasons he still finds incomprehensible, turned into a measurement
The resultant 100-to-1 (powder-vs.-crack)
weight ratio, Byck said, was "a fabrication by whoever wrote
the law, but not reality. . . . You can't make a number."
Recently, the U.S. Sentencing Commission
- a panel of experts created by Congress to be its unbiased adviser
in these matters - tried and failed to find a better reason to
explain why powder dealers must sell 100 times more cocaine before
they get the same mandatory sentence as crack dealers.
The "absence of comprehensive data
substantiating this legislative policy is troublesome," it
reported last year.
In 1993, cocaine smokers got an average
sentence of nearly three years. People who snorted cocaine powder
received a little over three months. Nearly all of the long sentences
went to blacks, the commission found.
Justice Department researchers estimated
that if crack and powder sentences were made equal, "the
black-white difference . . . would not only evaporate but would
Based on such findings, the commission
recommended in May 1995 that the cocaine-sentencing laws be equalized,
calling the 100-to-1 ratio "a primary cause of the growing
disparity between sentences for black and white federal defendants."
Apparently fearful of being seen as soft
on drugs, Congress voted overwhelmingly last year to keep the
crack laws the same. On Oct. 30, President Clinton signed the
bill rejecting the commission's recommendations.
Oct. 3, 1996
Affidafit shows CIA knew of contra drug
by Gary Webb and Pamela Kramer_Knight-Ridder
LOS ANGELES - During the early 1980s,
federal and local narcotics agents knew that a massive drug ring
operated by Nicaraguan contra rebels was selling large amounts
of cocaine "mainly to blacks living in the South Central
Los Angeles area," according to a search-warrant affidavit
obtained by the San Jose Mercury News.
The Oct. 23, 1986, affidavit identifies
former Nicaraguan government official Danilo Blandon as "the
highest-ranking member of this organization" and describes
a sprawling drug operation involving more than 100 Nicaraguan
The affidavit of Thomas Gordon, a former
Los Angeles County sheriff's narcotics detective, is the first
independent corroboration that the contra army - the Nicaraguan
Democratic Force - was dealing "crack" cocaine to gangs
in Los Angeles' black neighborhoods. Known by its Spanish initials,
the FDN was an anti-communist commando group formed and run by
the CIA during the 1980s.
Gordon's sworn statement says that both
the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI had informants
inside the Blandon drug ring for several years before sheriff's
deputies raided it Oct. 27, 1986. Gordon's affidavit is based
on police interviews with those informants and one of the DEA
agents who was investigating Blandon.
Twice during the past year, Ron Spear,
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman, told the Mercury
News that his department had no records of the 1986 raids and
denied having a copy of Gordon's search-warrant affidavit.
The Mercury News obtained the entire search-warrant
affidavit this week. Sheriff Sherman Block's office did not respond
yesterday to written questions about the affidavit.
A recent Mercury News series revealed
how Blandon's operation, which sold thousands of kilos of cocaine
to black Los Angeles drug dealers, created the first mass market
for crack in America during the early 1980s and helped fuel a
crack explosion that is still reverberating through black communities.
Both the CIA and the Justice Department have denied government
But according to a legal motion filed
in a 1990 case involving a deputy who helped execute the search
warrants, one of the suspects involved in the raid identified
himself as a CIA agent and asked police to call CIA headquarters
in Virginia to confirm his identity. The motion, filed by Los
Angeles defense attorney Harlan Braun on behalf of Deputy Daniel
Garner, said the narcotics detectives allowed the man to make
the call but then carted away numerous documents purportedly linking
the U.S. government to cocaine trafficking and money-laundering
efforts on behalf of the contras.
The motion said CIA agents appeared at
the sheriff's department within 48 hours of the raid and removed
the seized files from the evidence room. But Braun said detectives
secretly copied 10 pages before the documents were spirited away.
Braun attempted to introduce them in the 1990 criminal trial to
force the federal government to back off the case. Braun was hit
with a gag order, the documents were put under seal and Garner
was convicted of corruption charges.
Internal sheriff's department records
of the raid "mysteriously disappeared" around the same
time the seized files were taken, Braun's motion said. That claim
was buttressed in an interview this week by an officer involved
in the raid.
The officer, who requested anonymity,
said the alleged CIA agent was Ronald Lister, a former Laguna
Beach police detective who worked with Blandon in the drug ring.
The 1986 search-warrant affidavit identifies Lister's home in
Laguna Beach as one of the places searched. It says Lister was
involved in transporting drug money to Miami and was Blandon's
partner in a security company. The company, according to a former
employee, was doing work at a Salvadoran military air base in
the early 1980s. Lister pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking
War on Drugs