The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking Of Alleged Plot

Nicaraguans Had Limited Role In Bringing Drug to U.S. Cities


Washington Post Staff Writers

Friday, October 4 1996; Page A01

The Washington Post

On March 2, 1995, Ricky Donnell Ross, a paroled crack dealer, thought

he was hooking up with an old-time supplier when he went to pick

up $1 million worth of cocaine at a department store parking lot

near San Diego.

Instead, Ross found himself surrounded by federal agents--the supplier

had turned government informant. The story might have ended there,

but the informant was Oscar Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan who has

claimed that he once sent cocaine profits to help contra rebels who

later received CIA support in his homeland's civil war.

As recounted in three articles published in August by the San Jose

Mercury News, the story of Ross, Blandon and another Nicaraguan drug

dealer named Norwin Meneses has become the basis for charges by politicians,

commentators and others that the CIA helped launch and played a major

role in promoting the crack plague that swept America's largely black

inner cities in the 1980s.

The articles alleged that Blandon and Meneses gave money to the contras

and sometimes met with rebel leaders working closely with the CIA

early in the decade when they also funneled massive amounts of cheap

cocaine via Ross into Los Angeles's African American neighborhoods,

leading to a nationwide epidemic of addiction and violence.

The articles did not say directly that the spy agency knew about

the two Nicaraguans' drug dealing, although the stories hinted strongly

at CIA involvement. The resulting outcry led both the CIA and the

Justice Department to open probes, even as officials denied the charges.

A Washington Post investigation into Ross, Blandon, Meneses and the

U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s found that the available information

does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras--or

Nicaraguans in general--played a major role in the emergence of

crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.

Instead, the available data from arrest records, hospitals, drug

treatment centers and drug user surveys point to the rise of crack

as a broad-based phenomenon driven in numerous places by players

of different nationalities, races and ethnic groups.

Although Nicaraguans took part in the drug trade of that era, most

of the cocaine trade then can be attributed to Colombian and Mexican

smugglers, and distributors within the United States including Jamaicans,

Dominicans, Haitians and Americans of varying backgrounds, according

to widely accepted evidence from government reports and academic


The Mercury News stories echoed decade-old allegations that some

contras had engaged in drug trafficking, but the articles triggered

protests with the new charges on the origins of crack. The Congressional

Black Caucus, the NAACP and Jesse L. Jackson were among those demanding

an investigation. On radio talk shows and in other forums, some prominent

African Americans have argued that the CIA, in an act of pernicious

racism, wanted blacks to become addicted to crack.

The articles provided what appears to be the first account of Nicaraguans

with links to the contras selling drugs themselves in American cities

-- as opposed to smugglers operating in Central America. That went

beyond findings in the 1980s, by congressional investigators and

journalists, that a few of the contras, and some of the rebels' suppliers

and supporters, were involved in drug smuggling in the region at

a time when the CIA was deeply involved in contra operations there.

The CIA knew about some of these activities and did little or nothing

to stop them, according to accounts from then-senior CIA officers

and other government officials.

However, even considering the total drug trafficking attributed to

Blandon, Meneses, other contra sympathizers and contras themselves,

the Nicaraguans accounted for only a small portion of the nation's

cocaine trade.

The Mercury News characterized Blandon as "the Johnny Appleseed of

crack in California" and suggested that the drug later spread throughout

the country as a result of his efforts. But Blandon's own accounts

and law enforcement estimates say Blandon handled a total of only

about five tons of cocaine during a decade-long career. That is enough

to have damaged many lives, but it is a fraction of the nationwide

cocaine trade during the 1980s, when more than 250 tons of the drug

were distributed every year, according to official and academic estimates.

Meneses, who was Blandon's original supplier, may have handled more

cocaine than Blandon at times. But experts said no single drug network,

much less a pair of dealers, can be held accountable for the rise

of crack.

"So many different individuals and operations were involved in the

initial spread of crack that you could eliminate any one person or

group from the picture and be certain that the outcome would have

been the same," said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of public policy

at Carnegie Mellon University, who has conducted extensive research

on the dynamics of cocaine trafficking.

In addition, significant contradictions in testimony between Blandon

and Ross cast doubt on the articles' racially charged allegation

that "the CIA's army" of contras deliberately targeted the black

community in an effort to expand the market for a cheap form of cocaine.

The hypothesis that the CIA was behind Blandon was undercut by a

court filing by federal prosecutors last month saying Blandon "was

never involved in any drug dealing with or for the CIA." Since he

became a Drug Enforcement Administration informant, Blandon on several

occasions has denied having worked for the CIA, according to federal

law enforcement officials.

Gary Webb, the Mercury News reporter who wrote the articles, and

Ross's lawyer, Alan Fenster, said that Webb gave Fenster the idea,

several weeks before Ross's trial, that the CIA was involved with

Blandon's drug sales. Webb met with an investigator on Ross's defense

team and supplied him with information about Blandon, drugs and the

CIA, according to an affidavit filed in the case. Webb also suggested

questions to Fenster in the courtroom, according to Webb and Fenster.

During Fenster's cross-examination of Blandon, Assistant U.S. Attorney

L.J. O'Neale objected that the only foundation for Fenster's questions

was suggestions that Webb made to him during breaks in the testimony,

according to a transcript of the trial. This took place five months

before the articles were published.

Webb subsequently used some testimony by Blandon, elicited by Fenster,

in one of his articles to support the thesis of CIA involvement.

Fenster subsequently cited the Mercury News articles as the basis

for a motion to overturn the conviction of his client on grounds

of government misconduct.

Prosecutor O'Neale complained in a recent court filing that the articles

depend on the Ross case "as the primary source of information" and

Ross "then waves the articles aloft as `proof' that he was right."

Asked in a telephone interview yesterday why he went to Fenster before

the trial and suggested questions to ask Blandon about the CIA, Webb

said that otherwise "I would not have had his testimony at the trial"

to use in the stories.

Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos said yesterday he did

not know that Webb had met with Fenster's investigator or provided

questions to be asked of Blandon during the trial. But Ceppos said

another editor, who supervised Webb and is now on vacation, "may

have." Ceppos added, "I'm not sure any of [Webb's] actions were central

to the information that came out in the series."

Since the eruption of public protests over the allegation that the

CIA played a role in promoting crack, Ceppos and Webb have said that

the articles did not draw the conclusion that the CIA was directly


The first article in the newspaper said that cocaine "was virtually

unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army

started bringing it into South Central in the 1980's at bargain basement

prices." An illustration for the series that appears on the newspaper's

Internet Web site has the CIA's insignia superimposed over a man

smoking crack and below the title, "Dark Alliance--The Story Behind

the Crack Explosion."

An Issue Revisited

Regardless of how they were crafted, the Mercury News articles would

not have generated so much interest if the allegations had not fallen

on fertile ground. The contras have been associated with intrigue

since the Iran-contra affair rocked the Reagan administration in

late 1986 with the news that weapons were sold to Iran to help free

hostages from Beirut, and the proceeds ended up helping finance the

contras. And since the earliest days of the Cold War, the CIA has

faced accusations that it tolerated drug trafficking by groups it

supported, because it considered communism a greater evil.

All of these strands came together once before. Following a two-year

investigation, a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee concluded

in a 1989 report that the turmoil created by the Nicaraguan civil

war was "exploited easily by a variety of mercenaries, pilots and

cartel members involved in drug smuggling." In some cases the committee

found that drug smugglers were hired to move contra supplies and

that "individual contras accepted weapons, money and equipment from

drug smugglers."

Although it did not reach definitive conclusions about CIA involvement,

the committee report stated, "There are serious questions as to whether

or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address

the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua."

Asked how the latest allegations squared with these findings, the

subcommittee chairman, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said, "There

is no question in my mind that people affiliated with, on the payroll

of and carrying the credentials of the CIA were involved in drug

trafficking while involved in support of the contras, but it is also

important to note that we never found any evidence to suggest that

these traffickers ever targeted any one geographic area or population


Among individuals cited in the latest case, the one with the best-

documented links to both the contras and drug trafficking is Meneses.

He allegedly had a long history of criminal activity in Nicaragua

before the leftist Sandinista takeover in 1979, and Blandon says

Meneses recruited him to be a drug dealer in 1982.

Meneses is now in prison in Nicaragua on charges of trying to smuggle

1,650 pounds of cocaine into the United States in 1991. Earlier,

sometime around 1988, he began a sporadic, three-year relationship

providing information to the DEA, according to knowledgeable sources.

U.S. law enforcement officials said that while they had long suspected

Meneses of being a drug dealer, they never succeeded in catching

him in a sting operation, involving undercover officers posing as

drug dealers, of the kind that brought down Blandon and Ross.

According to the Mercury News, Meneses went into exile in San Francisco

while the Sandinistas were in power from 1979 to 1990, conducted

a massive drug trade in California, and "funneled millions in drug

profits" to the contras so they could buy weapons and equipment for

their fight against the Sandinistas.

Nicaraguan court records reviewed by The Post show that a former

associate who turned informant against Meneses testified that Meneses

had boasted about sending drug money to the contras, and about using

Salvadoran air force facilities to transship the drugs.

Adolfo Calero--the contras' chief political leader, who worked

closely with the CIA in combating the Sandinista government--confirmed

in an interview that Meneses did attend a 1984 fund-raising dinner

in San Francisco and was photographed with him in a group shot on

that occasion, as described by the Mercury News. And Calero said

Meneses visited contra camps in the early 1980s and met with Enrique

Bermudez, military leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force--the

contras' largest organization, known by its Spanish initials FDN

-- which the CIA actively supported.

Calero denied having other dealings with Meneses or knowing of his

criminal activities.

"We would arrive and be received by members of the community, and

most of the time we did not even know the names," Calero said. "We

had no crystal ball to know who they were or what they were doing."

He also said that neither Meneses nor Blandon were "leaders of the

FDN, any time or any place."

The way Blandon has told the story of his life, the contras were

the reason he got into drug trafficking.

As the Sandinistas completed their takeover of Nicaragua in the summer

of 1979, Blandon was working on a U.S.-supported project by the Nicaraguan

government to develop wholesale agricultural markets. He fled to

the United States, as did many Nicaraguans with ties to the collapsing

government of strongman Anastasio Somoza, according to his accounts

in federal court testimony when he was appearing as an informant.

Shortly after he established himself in Los Angeles, Blandon said,

he joined other exiles in raising money for the band of former Somoza

soldiers and other Sandinista opponents who had joined to oppose

the new leftist regime.

In 1982 Meneses, a distant relative then living in San Francisco,

persuaded Blandon to sell a few pounds of cocaine to raise money

for the contras and gave him a basic education in drug dealing, Blandon

said. At one point in 1982 or 1983, Blandon said, he was with Meneses

when Meneses went to the contra base in Honduras and met with Bermudez.

Bermudez offered Blandon and Meneses instructions that Blandon summarized

as "the ends justify the means." Blandon said he took that as a kind

of order that he should raise money for the contras, although drug

trafficking was never mentioned.

According to law enforcement officials, Blandon sold $30,000 to $60,

000 worth of cocaine in two transactions and delivered the money

to Meneses for shipment to the contras. A year or so after the visit

to Honduras, Blandon said, he broke off that relationship with Meneses

so he could go into the drug dealing business for himself. He said

he did so because the CIA had begun financing the contras and they

didn't need his money anymore.

Once "Reagan got in power," Blandon testified in a San Francisco

case in 1994, when he was a DEA informant, "the contras got a lot

of money from the United States . . . and the people that were in

charge, it was the CIA, they didn't want to raise any money because

they . . . had the money they wanted."

No evidence of specific transactions or of explicit financial links

has emerged to back up Blandon's and Meneses's claims of sending

money to the rebels.

But if the two did send funds, that would raise new allegations on

the extent and the nature of drug operations associated with the

rebels. It would implicate the contras and their direct supporters

in the drug trade in U.S. territory, rather than merely as smugglers

using remote airstrips in Central America.

Before the start of Ross's trial, prosecutors learned that his lawyer

Fenster was going to claim Blandon sold cocaine to raise money for

the contras and "did so in conjunction with, or for, the Central

Intelligence Agency," according to a motion filed in federal court.

Government lawyers said they believed such an allegation was "not

true" and was being made to "dissuade" the prosecution.

Citing the Classified Information Procedures Act, the prosecutors

asked the court to require Fenster to notify the court in advance

if he was going to bring up such an accusation because it would necessarily

involve classified information, even to be disproved. The court agreed,

and Fenster did not mention the CIA in the trial but referred to

the contras and the U.S. government in questioning Blandon.

Prosecutor O'Neale said he did not contact the CIA about the matter

and that no agency personnel talked to him about his motion.

Contradictory Accounts

The fury provoked by the newspaper series has been fueled in large

part by the allegation that Blandon, a member of the "CIA's army,

" helped Ross to expand drug sales among African Americans in South-

Central Los Angeles and thus triggered a new drug epidemic among

blacks. Last weekend a crowd of 2,000 people, mostly African Americans,

marched in Los Angeles demanding that U.S. officials be held accountable

for the damage done by crack.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a leading member of the Congressional

Black Caucus, made the case in a letter to Attorney General Janet

Reno last month that reviewed the allegations posed by the Mercury

News articles and concluded: "Thus, portions of this country may

have been exposed, indeed introduced, to the horror of crack cocaine

because certain U.S.-government paid or organized operatives smuggled,

transported and sold it to American citizens. . . . As someone who

has seen how the crack cocaine trade has devastated the South Central

Los Angeles community, I cannot exaggerate my feelings of dismay

that my own government may have played a part in the origins and

history of this problem."

This argument rests on the newspaper's contention that Meneses and

Blandon "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."

The story said Blandon achieved this by charging Ross a low price

for the cocaine.

A review of sworn testimony by Blandon and Ross, and interviews with

law enforcement officers familiar with Ross's career, cast doubt

on the allegation that Blandon was the major cause of Ross's success.

Testifying as a prosecution witness in Ross's federal court trial

last March, Blandon said that he first met Ross and began selling

cocaine to him in 1983 or 1984, by which time he had broken off with

Meneses and had stopped sending money to the contras. While he was

uncertain about the precise date, Blandon was consistent in claiming

that Ross was already "a big coke dealer" by the time they connected

and that Ross immediately began buying several kilos of cocaine a

day from him.

The relationship continued until 1986, when Blandon said he decided

to leave Los Angeles and give up drug trafficking after police searched

his home. Blandon said that Ross had other sources of supply from

the start and was acquiring large quantities of cocaine from these

dealers all along.

In 1992 Blandon was nabbed selling cocaine in an undercover sting

by the DEA. Because he became an informant, a possible life sentence

and $4 million fine were reduced to 28 1/2 months in prison and no

fine, and he retained the right to remain in the United States. In

exchange, Blandon offered information that led to the indictment

of a corrupt U.S. government official, helped solve a murder investigation

and contributed to the prosecution of various drug dealers, according

to court records. The deal did not include Blandon's help in Ross's


The Mercury News uses testimony from Blandon in establishing that

Nicaraguans selling drugs in California sent profits to the contras.

But if the whole of Blandon's testimony is to be believed, then the

connection is not made between contras and African American drug

dealers because Blandon said he had stopped sending money to the

contras by the time he met Ross.

And if Blandon is to believed, there is no connection between contras

and the cause of the crack epidemic because Blandon said Ross was

already a well-established dealer with several ready sources of supply

by the time he started buying cocaine from Blandon.

Ross, who was convicted at his trial and faces a mandatory life sentence

because it was his third drug felony, gave a very different account

of his relationship with Blandon. Ross testified that he was just

a poor street dealer in South-Central Los Angeles when he met Blandon

in 1982. Ross said he idolized the Nicaraguan, who taught him how

to weigh drugs, sold him his first guns and transformed him into

a high-stakes trafficker.

"Well, he was always the top--you know, he was the top man," Ross

said of Blandon. That account fit with Ross's contention that Blandon

"made" him.

Ross's account is at odds with Blandon's testimony that in 1982 Blandon

was a political refugee selling used cars who had just been recruited

by Meneses to help finance the contras by selling cocaine. At the

time that Ross says Blandon was the "top man" handling 100 kilos

at a time, Blandon said he was struggling to sell his first two kilos

over the course of three or four months a few grams at a time.

The fact that Ross and Blandon are responsible for the sale of large

quantities of cocaine to African Americans is not at issue. In his

court testimony, however, Blandon mentions that several of his customers

were Mexicans and other Latinos, while Ross appears to be the only

African American identified as a client. Similar information appears

in an affidavit by one of Blandon's fellow Nicaraguan dealers. So

if Blandon had an overall marketing strategy, it was not entirely

based on race.

According to the Mercury News, Ross was able to jump-start the crack

epidemic in Los Angeles because Blandon sold him vast amounts of

cocaine at bargain prices and taught him how to market crack by constantly

undercutting his competition. However, Blandon testified that he

gave Ross good prices because Ross bought in large quantities and

because Ross always bargained down prices.

In addition, under cross-examination, Ross contradicted his own assertion

that Blandon made him a successful crack dealer. Ross admitted that

he first started selling crack in 1979--years before he met Blandon

-- and rapidly expanded his business by emphasizing volume sales

and offering prices that undercut his competitors. Confirming the

contents of a 1994 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ross said

he felt that God "put me down to be the cocaine man"; that lengthy

autobiographical account by Ross makes no mention of Blandon or any

other Nicaraguans.

Moreover, the idea that Blandon and Ross alone could have launched

the crack epidemic is contradicted by well-documented evidence about

the nature of the cocaine trade and the emergence of crack. In Los

Angeles, the initial usage of crack appears to have been concentrated

in black communities but was distributed through widespread networks,

according to Malcolm Klein, director of the Social Science Research

Institute at the University of Southern California.

Klein and his colleagues have made detailed searches of arrest records

in an effort to trace the origins of crack in the city. The rapid

expansion of crack use from 1982 to 1985 in the black communities

"does not fit any clearly recognizable patterns such as gang territory,

" Klein said.

Ross, who was associated with the Crips gang throughout his career,

would not have been able to work in all these areas, Klein said.

Instead, he said, "there were several well-known and highly visible

middle men, like Ross, and probably several more that are unknown.

Crack became so widespread so quickly within South Central alone

that there must have been multiple routes into that community."

The Mercury News articles alleged that Ross was responsible for bringing

cheap crack not only to Los Angeles but to major cities nationwide.

Ross pleaded guilty to federal charges that he set up a group of

Crips to sell crack in Cincinnati in 1987 and that he sold cocaine

to relatives in Texas, but otherwise there is no evidence that Ross

conducted large transactions outside Los Angeles. Moreover, the mere

idea that any one person could have played a decisive role in the

nationwide crack epidemic is rejected out of hand by academic experts

and law enforcement officials.

"If Freeway Ricky Ross had become a born-again Christian and gone

to build Habitat for Humanity houses, crack would still have happened,

" Carnegie Mellon's Caulkins said. "We are talking about mid-level

operators who were not causes of these events but rather participants

in something that would have occurred without them."

Correspondent Douglas Farah in Managua and researcher Nathan Abse

contributed to this report.