August 22, 1996
San Jose Mercury News
The Dark Alliance
Gary Webb's 1996 "San Jose Mercury News Exposé"
"Unable to stem the tide of pressure from the mainstream press, Gary’s editors withdrew their support and published a public apology for the way that story was “handled.” Despite the paper’s position, Gary Webb would not back away from the story. His career as a professional journalist was destroyed shortly after these articles were published."
August 22, 1996
San Jose Mercury News
By Gary Webb
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 has found.
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
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
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
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 show.
"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.
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" interests.
One 1988 investigation by a U.S. Senate subcommittee ran into a wall of
official secrecy at the Justice Department. 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
"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
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
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'
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 me."
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 in custody.
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 mid-1980s.
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
San Jose Mercury News
By Gary Webb
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
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 him.
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."
By Gary Webb
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:
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
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 trial.
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
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 den."
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 write.
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
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
Eventually, Corrales introduced Ross and Newell to his supplier,
Blandon. And then business really picked up.
"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 Coast."
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 stopped spreading."
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
San Jose Mercury News
By Gary Webb
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
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. 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
"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, hit.
"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 before."
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,"
"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
San Jose Mercury News
By Gary Webb
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 is black.
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 they landed.
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
"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
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 on drugs.
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
"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 ghettos.
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
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 home.
"I called it cooling out, trying to back away from the game," Ross
said. "I had enough money."
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" for long. 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
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 1990.
In Miami, Blandon's retirement plans also had gone awry as his business
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
But unlike before, when he was selling cocaine for the contras, Blandon
was constantly dogged by the police. 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 granted.
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 had.
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 police.
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
San Jose Mercury News
By Gary Webb
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
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
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 alarm.
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
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 of weight. 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
Justice Department researchers estimated that if crack and powder
sentences were made equal, "the black-white difference . . . would not
only evaporate but would slightly reverse."
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.
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