Recently eight high-school students, members of the Baltimore
Environmental Justice Project, visited us. Over a brown-bag lunch, we
asked what environmental problem they considered biggest or worst.
Without hesitation, they said drugs, especially crack cocaine.
Homeless addicts, crack babies, drive-by-shootings, gangs, burglaries,
robberies, muggings, black-on-black youth violence. Where did this
scourge come from?
The twin centers of the crack cocaine industry are Los Angeles and
Miami. The first time the MIAMI HERALD ever mentioned crack cocaine was
April 20, 1986. The first time the LOS ANGELES TIMES ever mentioned
crack cocaine was two months later on June 30, 1986. The news
service Facts on File first mentioned crack on August 15, 1986, under
the headline, "'Crack' Explosion Alarms Nation." That story said
crack had been around for "as long as 3 years, but its use was said to
have exploded in the last months of 1985 and the first half of 1986."
From these sources, we conclude that crack first appeared about 1983
and began spreading quickly; by mid-1986, it was a nationwide problem.
What happened between 1983 and 1986?
Cocaine had been around as a sniffable white powder since the mid-
1970s, but it cost $200 a gram ($5600 an ounce) providing recreation
for the rich, not for working people. But by 1986 that had changed. The
MIAMI HERALD wrote April 20, 1986, "Described until recently as a rich
man's drug, cocaine has filtered down to blue-collar households and is
finding an eager market among high school students who can ante up $10
or so to buy some 'crack,' cocaine in a highly purified form suitable
for free-basing [smoking]." The LOS ANGELES TIMES wrote September
21, 1986, "The economics of cocaine have changed so radically that it
is no longer restricted to the well-to-do. The processing of
crystallized cocaine as 'rock' or 'crack' has so lowered the price--and
increased the availability--that junior high school students are
pooling their lunch money... to buy cocaine from schoolyard
dealers." How did crack spread throughout urban neighborhoods during
The story begins in Nicaragua. In 1979, the "Sandanistas" --a left-wing
revolutionary army --defeated the U.S.-trained army of dictator
Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Less than two years later, according to
the WASHINGTON POST (March 10, 1982), on November 16, 1981, CIA
[Central Intelligence Agency] Director William Casey proposed to
President Reagan that he approve $19 million for the CIA to organize a
counter-revolutionary force to overthrow the leftist Sandanista
government. The POST reported that President Reagan accepted Casey's
proposal and authorized the CIA to finance and train a paramilitary
commando force to provoke a counter-revolution in Nicaragua. According
to TIME magazine, throughout 1982 the CIA rallied anti-Sandanista
military forces, creating bases of operation in Honduras, on
Nicaragua's border. This became known as Ronald Reagan's "secret
war," but it wasn't much of a secret. In fact, it was so public that on
December 8, 1982, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed
the "Boland Amendment" to the 1983 military appropriations bill stating
that none of the appropriated defense funds could be used to "train,
arm, or support persons not members of the regular army for the purpose
of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua." This amendment made it
illegal for the CIA to continue funding its anti-Sandanista army, which
by then was calling itself the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Forces), but
was better known as the Contras.
After passage of the Boland amendment, the Contras desperately needed a
new source of funds. (This was several years before Oliver North set up
his Iran connection to divert money from arms sales to the Contras.)
According to a year-long investigation by the SAN JOSE (California)
MERCURY NEWS based on court records, recently declassified documents,
undercover audio tapes, and files retrieved via the Freedom of
Information Act, the FDN solved its problem by opening the first
pipeline from the Colombian cocaine cartels to black gangs --the Crips
and the Bloods --on the streets of Los Angeles.
The MERCURY NEWS investigation highlights three individuals in
particular: Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses, and Ricky Ross.
At Ricky Ross's drug trial in San Diego in March, 1996, the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration's (DEA) star witness was Danilo Blandon,
telling his story for the first time. Blandon was the son of a wealthy
Nicaraguan family who fled from Nicaragua to Los Angeles on June 19,
1979, at age 29, just as the Somoza dictatorship collapsed. His
family's ranches and real estate holdings in Managua, and his wife's
substantial wealth, were confiscated by the Sandanista government. The
Blandons worked in Los Angeles to build an anti-Sandanista movement,
holding rallies and cocktail parties, but Blandon testified that their
efforts raised little money. The trial record shows that, in 1981,
Blandon was introduced to Norwin Meneses, another Nicaraguan living in
California. With Meneses, Blandon flew to Honduras where they were
introduced to the military chief of the CIA's Contra army, Enrique
Bermudez. According to the MERCURY NEWS, "Bermudez was hired by the
Central Intelligence Agency in mid-1980" to create the FDN. The MERCURY
NEWS says, "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." (The Contra-Sandanista war ended
in 1988.) After meeting with the CIA's Bermudez, Blandon testified in
court, he and Meneses started raising money for the Contra revolution
by selling drugs in L.A.
Blandon's partner, Norwin Meneses, was known in Nicaragua as "Rey de la
Droga" (King of Drugs). In 1979, Meneses was under active investigation
by the DEA and by the FBI for selling drugs in the U.S. According to
the MERCURY NEWS, "despite a stack of law enforcement reports
describing him as a major drug trafficker, Norwin Meneses was welcomed
into the U.S. in July 1979 as a political refugee and given a visa and
a work permit. He settled in the Bay Area and for the next six years
supervised the importation of thousands of kilos of cocaine into
California." (A kilo, or kilogram, weighs 2.2 pounds.) Meneses supplied
Blandon with tons of cocaine and with assault weapons, which Blandon
sold to young blacks in L.A. Blandon's profits went back to Honduras
and Nicaragua, to support the CIA's Contra army. There seems little
doubt that the CIA cooperated in Blandon's operation. Indeed, NEWSWEEK
magazine on two occasions printed interviews and other evidence
indicating that the CIA and the DEA both cooperated in the Contras'
guns-and-drugs pipeline. (NEWSWEEK 1/26/87, pg. 26, and 5/23/88, pg.
22; and see WASHINGTON POST 1/20/87, pg. A12.) The MERCURY NEWS has now
provided additional confirming evidence.
Blandon didn't really know what he was doing until he met Ricky Ross, a
small-time African-American drug dealer. Because Blandon could supply
limitless amounts of cocaine at rock-bottom prices, Ross began to build
an enormous drug empire. When methods for turning cocaine into crack
became known in 1983, Ross already had a drug-dealing network in place.
Norwin Meneses routinely shipped 200-to-400-kilo quantities of cocaine
from Miami to Blandon on the west coast, who sold them to Ross. Ross
had 5 "cook houses" turning cocaine into crack. A former crack dealer
described for the MERCURY NEWS one of Ross's cook houses where huge
steel vats of cocaine were being stirred with canoe paddles atop
restaurant-sized gas ranges. At his recent drug trial, Ross testified
that it was not unusual to take in between $2 and $3 million a day.
"Our biggest problem had got to be counting the money," Ross testified.
Blandon told the DEA last year that during 1983 and 1984 he supplied
Ross with 100 kilos a week. As this crack flooded into the streets of
L.A., the gangs, chiefly the Crips and the Bloods, set up a national
distribution network, and crack cascaded across the country into black
neighborhoods everywhere, offering a cheap vacation from the miseries
of ghetto life. For $20, anyone could get wasted. The gangs themselves
were immensely strengthened by the money, guns, and connections that
the crack business brought them. And of course the CIA's army got the
millions it needed to keep alive Ronald Reagan's secret war.
Today Ricky Ross is facing life in federal prison without the
possibility of parole. Danilo Blandon is free, working as an informant
for the DEA. Norwin Meneses has never spent a day in a U.S. prison.
Although he figured in 45 separate federal investigations, he openly
supplied Ricky Ross's crack empire from his home in the Bay area, and
was never touched by the law. He has since moved back to Nicaragua.
According to the MERCURY NEWS, agents of four law enforcement agencies
--DEA, U.S. Customs, the L.A. County Sheriff's Office, and the
California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement --say their investigations
into Ross's empire were thwarted by the CIA or by unnamed "national
The rise of the crack industry has had lasting effects on communities
across America. In 1980, one out of every 453 Americans was
incarcerated. By 1993, one out of every 189 Americans was incarcerated.
Between 1980 and 1993, the U.S. prison population tripled (from 329,821
But not just anyone went to jail. Crack is a poor person's drug; powder
cocaine remains a recreation of the rich. Congress and 14 states passed
laws making penalties for crack up to 100 times as great as penalties
for powder cocaine. As a result, blacks were much more likely to go to
jail, and for longer periods, than whites. In 1993 blacks were seven
times more likely to be incarcerated than whites; an estimated 1471
blacks per 100,000 black residents vs. 207 whites per 100,000 white
residents were imprisoned at the end of 1993.
Prisons are now the fastest-growing item in almost all state budgets.
California spends more on prisons than it does on colleges and
universities. (NY TIMES 6/2/96, p. 16E) Former defense contractors are
now getting into the lucrative incarceration business. (NY TIMES August
23, 1996, pg. B1.) Almost three quarters of new admissions to prisons
are now African-American or Hispanic. If present trends continue for
another 14 years, an absolute majority of African-American males
between the ages of 18 and 40 will be in prison or in detention camps.
(NY TIMES 8/10/95, pg. A14.) A secret war indeed.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Bruce Goldman, "Cocaine: The Powder That Corrupts," MIAMI HERALD
April 20, 1986, pg. 10G.
 Scott Ostler, "Sudden Death Has New Meaning," LOS ANGELES TIMES
June 30, 1986, Section 3 (Sports), pg. 3. Ostler writes, "...the new
rage in the drug world is crack cocaine, which is smokeable coke. It is
cheap, plentiful, and intensively addictive."
 "'Crack' Explosion Alarms Nation," FACTS ON FILE WORLD NEWS DIGEST
August 15, 1986, pg. 600F3.
 Bill Farr and Carol McGraw, "Drug Enforcers Losing Nation's Cocaine
War; Massive Government Eradication Efforts are 'Overwhelmed by the Bad
Guys,' Official Says," LOS ANGELES TIMES September 21, 1986, pg. 1.
 "U.S. Shows Photos to Prove Nicaragua Buildup; CIA-Trained
Commandos to Hit Economic Targets," FACTS ON FILE WORLD NEWS DIGEST
March 12, 1982, pg. 157A1, quoting the WASHINGTON POST of March 10,
 George Russel, "Nicaragua's Elusive War," TIME Vol. 121 (April 4,
1983), pgs. 34-35.
 Gary Webb, "'Crack' Plague's Roots Are in Nicaragua War; Colombia-
Bay Area Drug Pipeline Helped CIA-Backed Contras '80s Efforts to Assist
Guerillas Left Legacy of Drugs, Gangs in Black L.A.," SAN JOSE MERCURY
NEWS August 18, 1996, pg. 1A; Gary Webb, "Testimony Links U.S. to
Drugs-Guns Trade; Dealers Got 'Their Own Little Arsenal,'" SAN JOSE
MERCURY NEWS August 18, 1996, pg. 17A. Gary Webb, "Odd Trio Created
Mass Market for 'Crack'; L.A. Dealer Might Get Life; Officials Quiet
About Role of Nicaraguans," SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS August 19, 1996, pg.
1A. And: Gary Webb, "S.F. Drug Agent Thought She Hit on Something Big;
As Trail Got Warm, Her Superiors Took Her Off the Case," SAN JOSE
MERCURY NEWS August 19, 1996, pg. 10A.
 Allen J. Beck and Darrell K. Gilliard, "Prisoners in 1994," BUREAU
OF JUSTICE STATISTICS BULLETIN [NCJ-151654], August, 1995, pgs. 1-13.
Descriptor terms: cocaine; crack; drugs; crime; violence; race; african
americans; criminal justice; prisons; gangs; california; nicaragua; los
angeles; miami; florida; contras; anastasio somoza; cia; dea; drug
enforcement administration; inner cities; urban life; hispanics;
statistics; central intelligence agency; colombia; sandanistas;