Contra case illustrates the discrepancy: Nicaraguan goes free; L.A. dealer faces life
|Published: Aug. 20, 1996Â BY GARY WEBB
Mercury News Staff WriterFOR THE LAST YEARÂ and a half, 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, who include some federal court judges, say it looks like the Justice Department is targeting crack dealers by race, which would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Federal prosecutors, however, say there’s a simple, if unpleasant, reason for the lopsided statistics: Most crack dealers are black.
”Socio-economic factors led certain ethnic and racial groups to be particularly involved with the distribution of certain drugs,” the Justice Department argued in a case in Los Angeles last year, ”and blacks were particularly involved in the Los Angeles area crack trade.”
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Tales to DEA of gun running, drug trafficking fall on deaf ears
|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 only Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes can say for sure.Danilo Blandon, a yearlong Mercury News investigation found, 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 crack 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 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.”
U.S. has paid Blandon more than $166,000
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,Â records showÂ — 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 Danilo 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 with a laugh during a recent interview.
1990 conversation between John Arman and Oscar Danilo Blandon
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Blandon discusses his contacts with Arman
Note: Strong language used in excerpt.
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More of the conversation between Arman and Blandon
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Confirmation of Blandon’s identity as an informant
|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, Danilo 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 toÂ 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 teen-ager who had the gang connections and street smarts necessary to move the army’s cocaine, a veritable blizzard engulfed the ghettos.Former Los Angeles Police narcotics detective Stephen W. 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.||
Oscar Danilo Blandon testifies about a conversation he had with Norwin Meneses
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|”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 pooh-poohed 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, a 21-year LAPD veteran. ”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 U.S. — 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 home in the woodsy Republican suburbs on the east side of town.”I called it cooling out, trying to back away from the game,” Ross said. ”I had enough money.”
His longtime supplier, Blandon, reached an identical conclusion around the same time. A massive police raid on his cocaine operation in late 1986 nearly gave his wife a nervous breakdown, he testified recently, and by the summer of 1987 he was safely ensconced in Miami, with $1.6 million in cash.
Some of his drug profits, records show, were invested in a string of rental car and export businesses in Miami, often in partnership with an exiled Nicaraguan judge named Jose Macario Estrada. Like Blandon, the judge also worked for the CIA’s army, helping FDN soldiers and their families obtain visas and work papers in the United States. Estrada said he knew nothing of Blandon’s drug dealings at the time.
Blandon invested in four-star steak house
|Blandon also bought into a swank steak-and-lobster restaurant calledÂ La Parrilla, which became a popular hangout for FDN leaders and supporters. The Miami Herald called it the ”best Nicaraguan restaurant in Dade County” and gave it a four-star rating, its highest.But neither Ross nor Blandon stayed ”retired” for long.A manic deal-maker, Ross found Cincinnati’s virgin crack market too seductive to ignore. When he left Los Angeles, the price of a kilo was around $12,000. In the Queen City, Ross chuckled, ”keys was selling for $50,000. It was like when I first started.”||
Review of La Parrilla
|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 was selling crack as far away as 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 1990.In sunny Miami, Blandon’s retirement plans also had gone awry. His 24-city rental car business collapsed in 1989 and later went into bankruptcy. To make money, he testified, he came to the Bay Area and began brokering cocaine again, buying and selling from the same Nicaraguan dealers he’d known from 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 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 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 cops to drop their money laundering case.
Soon after that, Blandon and his wife, Chepita, were called down to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in San Diego on a pretense and scooped up by DEA agents, on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. They were jailed without bond as dangers to the community and several other Nicaraguans were also arrested.
Blandon’s 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 aÂ secret Justice Department memorandumÂ filed in San Diego federal court in late 1993.
Prosecutor found Blandon ‘extraordinarily valuable’
Blandon, prosecutor O’Neale wrote, had become ”extraordinarily 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.
Motion for downward departure from sentencing guidelines
|Less than a year later, records show, O’Neale was back with another idea:Â 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.”And since it would be hard to do that job with parole officers snooping around, O’Neale added, the government wanted him turned loose without any supervision. Motion granted. O’Neale declined to comment.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 operation.||
Motion for reduction of sentence for Oscar Danilo Blandon
Targeted for a sting while sitting in prison
Records show RossÂ was still behind bars, awaiting parole, when San Diego DEA agents targeted him for a ”reverse” sting — one in which government agents provide the drugs and the target provides the cash. The sting’s author, DEA agent Chuck Jones,Â has testifiedÂ that he had no evidence Ross was dealing drugs from his prison cell, where he’d spent the past four years.But during his incarceration Ross did something that, in the end, may have been even more foolhardy: He testified against Los Angeles police officers, as a witness for the U.S. government.
Soon after Ross went to prison for the Cincinnati bust, federal prosecutors from Los Angeles came to see him, dangling a tantalizing offer. A massive scandal was sweeping the L.A. County sheriff’s elite narcotics squads, and among the dozens of detectives fired or indicted for allegedly beating suspects, stealing drug money and planting evidence were members of the old Freeway Rick Task Force.
1994 statement regarding Ricky Ross and Danilo Blandon
Grand jury testimony by DEA agent Chuck Jones
|If Ross would testify about his experiences, he was told, it could help him get out of jail.In 1991, he took the stand against his old nemesis, LAPD detective Steve Polak, who eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of excessive use of force and retired. But the deal Ross got from federal prosecutors for testifying — five years off his sentence and an agreement that his remaining drug profits would not be seized — galled many.”Ross will fall again someday,” Polak bitterly told a Los Angeles Times reporter in late 1994.By then, the trip wires were already strung.Within days of Ross’ parole in October 1994, he and Blandon were back in touch and their conversation quickly turned to cocaine. It was almost like old times, except that Ross was now hauling trash for a living. He was also behind on his mortgage payments for an old theater he owned in South-Central, which he was trying to turn into a youth academy.|
|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 theÂ 100 kilos of cocaineÂ Blandon claimed he had.
Drug-laden vehicle was a trap for Ross
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.
Drugs used in DEA’s bust (15K)
|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 theÂ truck careened into a hedgerowÂ and 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 is set for Aug. 23. Ross is facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The other men are looking at 10- to 20- year sentences.||
Ross’ truck at time of his capture by the DEA (13K)
|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 he left behind in 1979, when the socialists seized power and sent him running to the United States.
Additional reporting for this series in Nicaragua and Costa Rica was done by Managua journalist Georg Hodel. Research assistance at the Nicaraguan Supreme Court was performed by journalist Leonore Delgado.
Dealer’s sentencing postponed
Lawyer gets time to seek documents on alleged CIA-crack linkPublished: Sept. 14, 1996
BY GARY WEBB
|SAN DIEGO — U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff postponed the sentencing of former Los Angeles cocaine king ”Freeway” Rick Ross on Friday and agreed to allow Ross’ attorney to seek classified government documents relating to the potential involvement of CIA operatives in selling cocaine in black neighborhoods during the 1980s.Huff, who said it ”would be outrageous for the government to infect this country with drugs,” also suggested that federal prosecutors seek a sworn statement from CIA Director John Deutch regarding the spy agency’s knowledge of such activities.
Deutch, in a press release last week, disclaimed any CIA involvement in cocaine trafficking.
Ross’ defense lawyer, Alan Fenster of Los Angeles, filed motions this week seeking a dismissal of Ross’ recent cocaine-trafficking conviction, based on the Mercury News series ”Dark Alliance,” which detailed how members of a CIA-run guerrilla army imported thousands of kilos of cocaine into South-Central Los Angeles during the past decade, helping touch off the nation’s crack cocaine epidemic.
Dealer was key witness
One of those drug dealers, former Nicaraguan government officialÂ Danilo Blandon, was the key witness against Ross during his trial last March. Blandon, who now works as an undercover informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, has admitted under oath that he began selling cocaine in Los Angeles in 1982 to raise money for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest component of the rebel force commonly known as the Contras.
Fenster, during a three-hour court hearing Friday, argued thatÂ Ross’Â conviction should be thrown out on the grounds of outrageous government conduct, because Justice Department lawyers withheld information about Blandon’s involvement with the Contras and cocaine until it was too late for him to make any use of it at trial.
The only reason he had any idea of Blandon’s past activities, Fenster said, was because one of his investigators spoke to a Mercury News reporter about Blandon two weeks before the trial.
”If I had had that information when I needed it, I could have convinced a jury of 12 U.S. attorneys to dismiss this case,” Fenster argued. Instead, he said, the Justice Department ”stonewalled it. They kept you in the dark and they kept me in the dark. (Ross) is a victim of the most outrageous government conduct known to man.”
Government lawyer scoffs
But Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O’Neale scoffed at Fenster’s claims of CIA involvement, calling them ”the worst sort of supposition … it’s all innuendo and supposition.” He also said the Mercury News’ series did ”not make a solid case” of CIA involvement.
Moments later, though, O’Neale acknowledged that ”when Blandon says he sold cocaine for the Contras, yeah, he did … we have never found his credibility to be lacking in the slightest.”
O’Neale also agreed that ”Mr. Blandon thought the CIA was running things. Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know, but that’s what he thought.”
In March, Blandon testified that before he began selling drugs for the CIA’s army, he met in Honduras withCol. Enrique Bermudez, a longtime CIA operative who was selected by the agency to be the Contras’ military commander. Also attending that meeting, Blandon testified, was Nicaraguan cocaine traffickerÂ Norwin Meneses, who was the head of intelligence and security for the Contras in California.
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Sept. 13, 1996
Pair arrested while urging probe
Jackson calls for investigation
Series leads to CIA probe
Waters calls on Attorney General
Boxer calls for CIA probe
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Editorial: Another CIA disgrace: Helping the crack flow
Gary Webb radio and TV appearances
Biographical information onOscar Danilo Blandon,Â Norwin Meneses,Â Enrique BermudezÂ andRick Ross
More photos of Rick Ross
|Inner-city dealingsBlandon said Bermudez told him the Contras needed money and thatÂ ”the ends justified the means,”Â after which he began dealing cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles. During that time, he testified, he was receiving instructions ”from … other people.”
He told aÂ federal grand jury in 1994Â that at some point the CIA decided it didn’t need any more drug money because the Reagan administration had begun giving the Contras taxpayer dollars.
While O’Neale strenuously denied that the CIA was in any way involved with Blandon or his cocaine dealing, he also admitted to Judge Huff that he did not know if any CIA documents existed regarding Blandon or Meneses, who was Blandon’s boss in the Contra drug ring.
”Whatever files the CIA has are not available to an assistant U.S. attorney,” O’Neale said. ”I’m not privy to that.”
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Grand jury testimony of Danilo Blandon
|Before Blandon’s testimony at Ross’ trial, O’NealeÂ filed a motionÂ asking the judge to bar defense lawyers from questioning Blandon about his involvement with the CIA, saying that if it were true, ”it would be classified and if false, should not be allowed.”
Huff told Fenster on Friday that she had taken the motion under submission and had never actually made a formal ruling; Fenster said he was under the impression that he was not allowed to ask about the CIA, and he never did.
Motion to preclude references to CIA
|Huff agreed to let Fenster file a motion under the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA) seeking documents regarding the CIA’s connections to Blandon.Timing at issue
But O’Neale argued that it didn’t have any bearing on Ross’ case if Blandon was involved with the spy agency, since Ross’ conviction involved crimes committed in 1994 and 1995, not during the Nicaraguan civil war.
|Ross, whom O’Neale called ”the Wal-Mart of crack cocaine,” was arrested after Blandon lured him into a DEA stingÂ involving 100 kilos of cocaine.No matter what Blandon did in the past, O’Neale argued, it did not excuse Ross’ involvement in crack dealing.
”If there was great evil, and there was, regardless of who started that evil, (Ross) was Santa’s little helper,” O’Neale said.
Drugs used in DEA’s bust
|”If the United States government was involved in selling cocaine in the United States,” Huff asked, ”don’t you think that would be outrageous government conduct?””In this case, no,” O’Neale answered, prompting laughter and loud grumbling from the courtroom spectators.
Huff set another hearing for Nov. 19.