By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
THAT THE CENTRAL Intelligence Agency regularly sponsored the smuggling of drugs and guns all through the 1980s is hardly a secret anymore, but most discussions of what transpired have been confined to the margins of the press, a handful of books, and news groups on the Internet. One such episode, having to do with smuggling operations conducted through the airport in tiny Mena, Arkansas, during the Reagan years, was recently taken up again by the House Banking Committee pursuant to its investigation of then-Governor Bill Clinton's affairs. But an aide to committee head Jim Leach told me not to expect hearings on Mena anytime soon. "That gets into some very sensitive areas," he said.
"Sensitive," that is, because any free people would be outraged by them, and because the United States is always arse-deep in them. It now appears, in fact, that the CIA is implicated in helping to develop the mass market for crack in Los Angeles and other American cities. Last month the San Jose Mercury News published a remarkable three-part series on a San Francisco-based drug ring that channeled profits from the cocaine trade to the main Contra army, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), while enjoying protection from the highest levels of the U.S. government. (It reminds one of the movie Deep Cover, which has been cited more than once as an instance of black America's deplorable tendency to seize on the most absurd conspiracy theories.)
Reporter Gary Webb's story begins in 1979, when, following the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza, a pair of Nicaraguans of unsavory lineage were allowed to enter the United States. Juan Norwin Meneses Cantarero was let in and given a visa and a work permit despite his well-known reputation as a major drug trafficker and his alleged responsibility for the assassination of a Nicaraguan Customs official; Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes was the scion of a family of cattle barons and Managua slumlords. He also held a masters degree in marketing, which would prove useful later on.
In 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan signed a secret executive order authorizing covert military operations against the Sandinistas, Meneses introduced his new friend Blandon to Col. Enrique Bermudez, a CIA employee then engaged in putting together the FDN from the remnants of Somoza's National Guard. The pair pledged to help Bermudez finance the endeavor, and promptly set about their business. Blandon cultivated a relationship with an ambitious South Central LA youth named Ricky Ross, who became the ring's connection to the major Los Angeles gangs. With the aid of such well-connected sources, "Freeway Rick" was able to undercut competitors on price. Even more important, the ring's business blossomed just as the mass market for crack--cheap and potent, and thus a means of taking cocaine to the poor--was becoming evident. Meneses, Blandon, and Ross weren't just in on the ground floor; for a time, they were the ground floor, wholesaling over 100 kilos of powder each week. Blandon also took up dealing automatic weapons to LA's gangs to raise additional funds. In time, their pipeline was responsible for moving crack to cities all across the country.
All the while, Meneses and Blandon lived charmed lives. A 1981 investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration linking the Meneses family's coke dealings to Contra leaders was summarily ignored. In all, according to the Mercury News, Meneses was implicated in 45 separate drug investigations, but US officials never arrested him. "I even drove my own cars, registered in my name," he later bragged to a reporter. One 1989 warrant for his arrest was never executed, and the indictment was eventually sealed. He was finally busted in 1991 by Nicaraguan officials after he'd gone back home. A witness at his trial, Enrique Miranda, testified that Meneses told him the Contra coke was transported with the help of the Salvadoran military to an Air Force base in Texas. Miranda, who went to prison himself, was disappeared on the same day that Mercury News reporters asked to talk to him.
Blandon, for his part, went untouched until October 1986, a couple of months after Congress finally buckled and authorized $100 million in funding for the Contras. He later told a San Francisco grand jury that he became expendable at that point. Even then, however, he apparently got a little help: When LA Sheriff's officials raided his facilities, they had already been cleaned out. According to one federal public defender, "The cops always believed that investigation had been compromised by the CIA." Blandon was eventually busted again a few years later, but he was released after 28 months at the behest of an assistant US attorney who attested to Blandon's "almost unlimited potential to assist the United States."
The FDN funding nexus was ultimately rendered moot by the 1986 act of Congress and the subsequent 1988 treaty between the Contras and Sandinistas, but there is a postscript. After his release, Blandon became a handsomely paid DEA operative, pulling down $166,000 in just 18 months. His first job was setting up a sting on Freeway Rick Ross, who was sentenced to life last month. CP
The complete Mercury News series can be found at cgi.sjmercury.com/drugs on the Internet.