The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring. No one trafficker, even the kingpins who sold thousands of kilos and pocketed millions of dollars, ever came close to monopolizing the trade.
Instead, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the explosion of cheap, smokable cocaine in the 1980s was a uniquely egalitarian phenomenon that lent itself more to makeshift mom-and-pop operations than to the sinister hand of a government-sanctioned plot.
A firestorm of controversy has followed a report in late August by the San Jose Mercury News that a Nicaraguan drug network with ties to the CIA-backed Contra rebels allegedly opened the first cocaine pipeline to the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
These Nicaraguans are said to have provided tons of cocaine over the course of a decade to a South-Central Los Angeles dealer named “Freeway” Ricky Ross. Ross purportedly funneled his supply to the Bloods and Crips gangs, generating the cash that paid for their automatic weapons and catapulting the crack crisis across urban America.
The notions of government and gang involvement in the drug trade has revived the long-running debate over the roots of South-Central’s painful clash with cocaine. Often repeated in hyperbolic terms, the allegations have bolstered suspicions of a genocidal conspiracy.
For many blacks, such a scenario is within the realm of belief, even if inaccurate or unverified. It appears to help explain how the plague of crack infected a community that had neither the resources nor machinery to import cocaine.
It also fits into a pattern of official discrimination and disregard still felt by blacks to a degree that many whites don’t readily comprehend.
The story of crack’s genesis and evolution, however, does not follow a simple, linear path. It is filled with ruthless billionaires and strung-out curb dealers, who operate in a world of shifting alliances and fleeting fortunes.
Although it’s unclear what, if anything, the U.S. government may have known about this trade, a few truths are clear: Cocaine was flowing from Colombia into Los Angeles long before the Nicaraguan traffickers arrived on the scene - Oscar Danilo Blandon, the Nicaragua ring’s Los Angeles point man, was not “the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California,” as the Mercury News contended. South-Central drug dealers manufactured it, not Latin American middlemen.
There also is no evidence that any significant drug profits from the Nicaraguan ring were pumped back to the Contras - less than $50,000 went to the rebel cause, according to a Contra supporter and a business partner who sold drugs with Blandon.
Nor did crack sales fill the coffers of the Bloods and Crips, although individual members profited from the drug. Most experts consider the gangs too disorganized and preoccupied with their own rivalries to function as efficient criminal enterprises.
Ross was determined to rise to the highest echelons of the drug world, with or without the help of his Nicaraguan sources. According to interviews and court testimony, he was an established crack retailer before meeting Blandon in 1983 or 1984, at which time the Nicaraguan said his tenuous links to the anti-Sandinista resistance already had been severed.
“This was not some grand design of the drug cartels or someone at CIA headquarters in Langley, (Virginia), who was sitting around thinking up ways to raise money for the Contras,” said University of California, Los Angeles Professor Ronald K. Siegel, who did some of the nation’s first research on smoking cocaine.
Rather, the rise of crack was driven by a broad array of factors - a worldwide glut of powder cocaine, shifting tastes among addicts and the entrepreneurial moxie of the inner-city hustlers who marketed it.
In many ways, crack cocaine’s emergence served the needs of all who touched it. For Colombian smuggling cartels, crack opened up a new market for exporting huge quantities of cocaine at a time when prices were plummeting. For users, crack offered a swifter, more intense high than snorting the drug, and at a unit price - about $20 - that seemed more affordable than it really was. For the street-level retailers, crack became a parallel economy, creating a new subclass of outlaw capitalists in an era of shrinking legitimate prospects.
“The crack cocaine market was highly decentralized, involving primarily free-lance distributors,” according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report on the history of crack. The trade, it added, was “open to any person with access to cocaine and a desire to distribute.”
Crack was breaking out everywhere - New York, Washington, Miami and Los Angeles - at almost exactly the same time in the early 1980s. In the East, it was spread by a slew of independent contractors, often organized along ethnic lines, including Jamaicans, Dominicans and Haitians with direct ties to the Colombian cartels. In the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the competition was equally fierce. Although Ross was a dominant figure, he still had to jostle with the likes of Thomas “Tootie” Reese, Wayne “Honcho” Day, Elrader “Ray Ray” Browning and the Bryant family - all drug lords of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who came on the scene either before Ross or at the same time.
Ross was still big enough that Los Angeles authorities in 1986 formed the “Freeway Rick Task Force,” which contributed to his reputation as crack’s leading entrepreneur. But even members of that squad acknowledge they could have picked any number of targets.
At the Mercury News, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos now acknowledges that he is unsure whether Ross’ Nicaraguan ring was the first to bring cocaine to Los Angeles’ black neighborhoods. But Ceppos says he continues to believe it was the first to import the drug in ” huge masses” that “people in South-Central could afford.”
Today, as Ricky Donnell Ross awaits sentencing on cocaine conspiracy charges, he paints himself as a victim - created and betrayed by Blandon, who himself was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1992 and then helped the government snare his old customer in a sting. If Ross can prove that the CIA or the Contras behaved more egregiously than he, he may be able to convince a U.S. District Court judge to spare him from a life in jail.
His introduction to cocaine came from a friend from his own South-Central neighborhood. His name, according to court testimony by Ross, was Michael Willie McLaurin. He was a few years older, a football player at San Jose State, “kind of like a big brother figure to me,” Ross testified. (McLaurin, who was acquitted of cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges after being busted in the same undercover sting last year with Ross, could not be reached for comment.)
Ross worked his way up the crack sales chain, finally slipping his phone number to Henry Corrales.
For much of the next year, probably 1982 or 1983, according to court testimony, Ross was supplied by Corrales and his brother-in-law Ivan Arguellas. By then, Ross had graduated from ounces to pounds.
Through Corrales and Arguellas, Ross testified that he was introduced to a circle of Nicaraguan dealers, alternately friends and competitors, including Blandon. College-educated, with a master’s degree in marketing, Blandon served as director of wholesale markets for a Bank of International Development project in Nicaragua until Sandinista rebels toppled the Somoza regime in 1979. He has told people that he arrived in America with just $100 in his pocket.
In recent court appearances, including the March trial in which Ross was convicted on cocaine conspiracy charges, Blandon testified that he began selling cocaine in 1982 at the behest of Norvin Meneses, a San Francisco Bay area drug dealer and Contra sympathizer. By the end of 1982, however, Blandon said, he had decided that the Contras were receiving sufficient funds from the Ronald Reagan administration and no longer needed his help. So he began pocketing the money.
About a year later, Blandon said, he met Ross, who by then was “a big coke dealer.”
According to testimony in his San Diego trial, Ross still dealt with Arguellas and another pair of Nicaraguan rivals, Jacinto and Edgar Torres, both of whom would later go to prison for drug trafficking. Police records and interviews also show that he maintained a long relationship with David Chow, “a major cocaine distributor in the Los Angeles area during the 1980s,” according to court documents that allege that Chow first sold heroin, and then cocaine, in the city’s black neighborhoods.
Although Ross had become a millionaire by 1984 - one of the first to make his fortune solely on crack - the market was so huge by then that even a dealer of his stature could seem dwarfed.
“Even on the best day Ricky Ross had, there was way more crack cocaine out there than he ever could control,” said Lt. Ernie Halcon, a narcotics detective in the Los Angeles suburb of San Fernando.
How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross. Before, during and after his reign, a bewildering roster of other dealers and suppliers helped fuel the crisis.
They were all responding to market forces that many experts believe would have created the problem whether any one individual sold crack or not.
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