Examining Charges of CIA Role in Crack Sales

Adolfo Calero, the burly, back-slapping political leader of the Nicaraguan rebel movement known as the Contras, was in an ebullient mood. It was June 1984, and Calero was in San Francisco to rally American support for his cause--and to look for financial donors.

After a speech at the elegant St. Francis Yacht Club, where well-heeled conservatives cheered his calls of "Viva Reagan! Viva Nicaragua libre!" Calero repaired to dinner with about 20 supporters at Caesar's Italian restaurant near Fisherman's Wharf for a more intimate pitch.

"With God's help--and yours--we'll be in Managua within a year," he said.

At the table were conservative activists, Nicaraguan Americans--and a cocaine trafficker who quietly picked up the check for several hundred dollars, according to another guest.

The drug trafficker was Norvin Meneses, a Nicaraguan now imprisoned on drug charges in his native country who has suddenly become the center of a raging controversy.

The San Jose Mercury News asserted in late August that Meneses and one of his partners, Danilo Blandon, working with a Los Angeles drug dealer named "Freeway" Ricky Ross, "opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles" and funneled "millions in drug profits" to the Contras, even as the guerrilla army was being funded and advised by the Central Intelligence Agency.

On talk radio and in the street, others have taken those charges further--alleging that the CIA was directly, and deliberately, involved in drug trafficking.

The allegation that some elements of the CIA-sponsored Contra army cooperated with drug traffickers has been well documented for years. Meneses' own role in cocaine trafficking and his link to the Contras, for example, were the focus of a richly detailed article in the San Francisco Examiner in 1986.

What is new in the current controversy are three charges: that a CIA-related drug ring sent "millions" of dollars to the Contras; that it launched an epidemic of cocaine use in South-Central Los Angeles and America's other inner cities; and that the agency either approved the scheme or deliberately turned a blind eye.

But the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of those allegations.

Norvin Meneses was indeed a financial contributor to the Contras, but his donations to the rebel cause amounted to no more than $50,000, according to two men who knew him at the time. One of the men was an associate in his drug trafficking; the other a participant in Contra fund-raising activities who knew Meneses.

The assertion that Meneses and Blandon sent "millions" to the rebels "was based on the volume of cocaine that they were selling, and Blandon's statement that what he sold, he gave to the Contras," according to Dawn Garcia, the Mercury News editor who handled the paper's series.

But Blandon, who was involved in drug trafficking for many years, actually testified that he donated his profits to the Contras only during one relatively brief period of several months in 1982. After the Contras began receiving substantial U.S. government funds that year, he kept his profits for himself, he testified.

Meneses' contributions were also limited, according to the two sources who provided the $50,000 approximation and a third man who was also involved in Contra fund-raising. These three sources said Meneses paid for several fund-raising dinners in San Francisco, organized a truckload of blankets and made some modest cash contributions to the Contras--but nothing approaching millions.

The former Meneses associate said Meneses and Blandon never sent millions of dollars to Central America because they were usually awash not in profits, but in debt--hobbled by incompetent investments, a relentlessly competitive marketplace and their own cocaine habits.

"Not only was this the gang that couldn't shoot straight," he said, "this was the gang that couldn't stay straight."

And far from introducing cocaine to South-Central Los Angeles, Meneses and Blandon were only two among dozens of major traffickers pumping drugs into Southern California. Others came earlier and sold more, according to police officials who have spent their careers analyzing the narcotics trade.

The CIA Role

Over officials insist they knew nothing about Meneses' and Blandon's tainted contributions to Calero or other Contra leaders.

"I don't remember seeing anything like that, and I think I'd remember if I had," said former CIA Director Robert M. Gates, who was a top official at the agency throughout the Contra war.

Current CIA Director John Deutch, an outsider who was named to head the agency by President Clinton, told Congress last month: "Our initial review has found no evidence to support the [Mercury News] allegations. Nevertheless, I think it is essential that we pursue them in all detail, and I intend to do so."

Other CIA officials acknowledge, however, that a complete inquiry into the agency's records could yet discover that some agency officers knew about drug trafficking at the time.

From the cocaine-shipping airstrips of Central America to the opium lands of Southeast Asia, the CIA's secret wars have frequently crossed paths with the worldwide trade in illegal narcotics.

From the CIA's fledgling days in 1947 through its long crusade in Indochina, the agency's operatives sometimes winked at drug smuggling by local forces they were using in the Cold War struggle with communism.

But as the plague of narcotics became a greater concern at home, the agency tightened policies requiring its personnel to report all serious crimes--including drug crimes--by their foreign "assets."

Even today, CIA station chiefs occasionally turn a blind eye to misdeeds by the foreign collaborators they recruit. "The term is 'falling in love with your agent,' " former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro said. "It is an ethical violation, but it happens."

Still, he said, "there's no tendency to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It's too sensitive. It's not a fine line. It's not a shaded area where you can turn away from the rules."

In the case of Nicaragua, CIA officials heatedly deny ever directing, approving or even tolerating a cocaine-smuggling operation to fund the Contras.

"The agency neither participated in nor condoned drug trafficking by Contra forces," Deutch wrote to members of Congress last month, citing a review of agency files. "In particular, the agency never had any relationship with either Blandon or Meneses."

Deutch said he has ordered a full internal inquiry into the issue "to dispel any lingering public doubt." CIA officials say it is not clear when that probe will be completed.

Allegations of government knowledge of drug trafficking have been the subject of previous major investigations.

The special prosecutors who investigated the Iran-Contra scandal, for example, found excerpts in the diaries of then-Lt. Col. Oliver L. North indicating that from 1984 to 1986, when North ran a secret operation to maintain the Contras, he received several reports of allegations that drug traffickers were attempting to use the Contra airlift operation to ship cocaine. Officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration said North never took the information to them. Those diary entries have been public since at least 1994.

A congressional subcommittee headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that investigated charges of CIA-sanctioned drug trafficking issued a 437-page report in 1989, concluding that the Reagan administration had "delayed, halted or interfered" with anti-drug investigations when they conflicted with its determination to help the Contras.

But Jack Blum, the chief investigator for the panel, agreed there is no evidence that the CIA participated in the cocaine trade.

Nor is there any solid evidence that Calero's Contra organization made money from drugs, Blum added.

The real question, he said, is whether the agency knew that some Contra supporters were dealing drugs--and failed to stop them.

"Did the CIA have agents in Latin America selling drugs to fund the Contras? Categorically, absolutely not," Blum said. "But that's the wrong question."

"If you ask: In the process of fighting a war against the Sandinistas, did people connected with the U.S. government open channels which allowed drug traffickers to move drugs to the United States, did they know the drug traffickers were doing it, and did they protect them from law enforcement? The answer to all those questions is yes."

Current and former CIA officials who were involved in the Contra war argue that Blum goes too far--but they acknowledge that there might be something to what he says.

"Did someone turn a blind eye? I would be quite surprised by that," said Gates, who was the CIA's deputy director for intelligence during most of the Contra war.

"To me, it's inconceivable," he said. "That doesn't mean it's impossible."

Gates was worried enough about press reports of Contra drug trafficking in 1986 that he ordered a secret, full-scale internal investigation of the issue. Deutch revealed the existence of the study last month, but the CIA has refused to release the report, which was completed in 1988.

"My concern was provoked by articles in the press and continuing allegations by Contras and drug runners," Gates said. "I insisted that they go back and check everything. And there was basically no there there. It didn't come up with anything to speak of.

"There was a concern . . . about lower level contract people that had a checkered past, but never in terms of the people we were in touch with," he said, referring to the Contra leadership.

Asked whether the findings of the 1988 study indicated that the CIA knew about the Contra drug links for a long time before informing federal drug enforcement officials, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said he could not answer until the internal inquiry was complete.

Other officials said the study turned up "five or six" instances of apparent connections between drug traffickers and members of the main Contra organization--the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN--all in Central America.

For example, they said, the study found that one of the air cargo firms carrying U.S. aid to the rebels had a history of drug connections.

"There was no indication that there was any CIA support or involvement" in any trafficking, an official familiar with the report said. "Most of the allegations got turned over to DEA."

DEA officials, however, said they could not recall receiving any significant information from the CIA.

Although critics charge the CIA with turning a blind eye, agency officials note that at least one blind spot is required by law.

The CIA is not allowed to monitor political activities inside the United States--a prohibition enacted when the agency was created to prevent it from becoming a domestic spy agency.

As a result, officials said, the CIA never actively monitored the Contras' contacts with Nicaraguan exiles inside the United States--exiles like Meneses and Blandon.

Agency officials met frequently with Contra leader Calero--but "we didn't ask him" who his financial contributors were, one of them said.

"We are constrained from looking at domestic persons," another official said. "[Alan] Fiers [the CIA official who ran the Contra war from 1984 to 1988] was very concerned about keeping these organizations on the straight and narrow, but we could not look at domestic political activities of U.S. individuals."

Out of Nicaragua

The story of Norvin Meneses, Danilo Blandon and the Contras is a classic Central American intrigue, transplanted to the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It is a story of patriotism and greed, passion and betrayal. But it is the stuff not of a John LeCarre spy story as much as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez fantasy.

Juan Norvin Meneses Cantarero was a drug trafficker long before the Contras even existed.

Meneses, 48, the black-sheep son of a prominent Nicaraguan family, began selling marijuana in Managua in 1974, according to Roger Mayorga, a Nicaraguan police official who later prosecuted him. By 1976, Meneses was identified by the DEA as a "cocaine source of supply in Managua," a 1984 agency document says. (The DEA rendered his name as "Norwin," but Meneses says his name should be spelled with a "v.")

Meneses attended lavish, cocaine-laced parties at a home in Managua and at his island retreat on Nicaragua's remote Rio Escondido, an acquaintance recalled. "Everyone knew he was a trafficker," said the acquaintance, who asked not to be identified. "Back then, trafficking was sport. You weren't considered a criminal in Nicaraguan society to be trading in cocaine."

That high life ended in 1979, when the leftist Sandinista revolution overthrew Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family had ruled Nicaragua for 43 years. The Meneses family members were Somoza loyalists; Norvin's older brother was a general in the national guard and chief of the national police. Fearing retribution from the triumphant Sandinistas, the Meneses clan fled along with hundreds of other Somoza loyalists.

Some former Somocistas ended up in Miami or Guatemala City, began plotting their return and formed armed groups that became known as the Contras, short for contra-revolucion--the "counter-revolution." Their efforts resulted in a civil war that lasted until a cease-fire in 1988. But Norvin Meneses settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and quickly resumed his cocaine-trafficking career.

Another Somoza loyalist who left Managua in 1979 was Oscar Danilo Blandon Reyes, a minor government official whose in-laws were prominent in the dictator's Liberal Party. Blandon, now 45, was convicted of drug trafficking in San Diego in 1992; he is currently an informant for the DEA.

But in 1979, Blandon was an impoverished exile in East Los Angeles, selling used cars on Atlantic Boulevard. He soon found other exiles who shared his desire to oust the Sandinistas. In 1981, when former national guard officers formed the FDN--a guerrilla army that would become the largest Contra force--Blandon volunteered to raise money for the group in Los Angeles.

"At the beginning, we started doing some [fund-raising] parties," but those efforts raised only "a few thousands" of dollars, he testified in the trial of Los Angeles cocaine dealer Ross earlier this year.

Blandon said he even bought a car for the Contras in 1981, using his job as a used car salesman to get the loan application through--and promptly lost his credit when the guerrillas couldn't come up with the monthly payments.

Those were lean days for the Contras. The CIA wasn't yet flooding them with weapons and supplies; President Reagan didn't decide to underwrite the Contra army until late in 1981. Instead, the little guerrilla force depended on aid and advisors from the rightist dictatorship of Argentina, some modest help from the military regime in Honduras (where the FDN's troops were based), and fund-raising drives among Nicaraguan exiles like Blandon.

In 1982, Blandon testified, he got a phone call from another exile, an old college classmate in Miami, asking him to meet Meneses at Los Angeles International Airport. Meneses had a proposition for Blandon: Together, they could raise money for the Contras by selling cocaine.

Blandon testified that he agreed because the purpose was "to raise the money for the Contra revolution."

Blandon said he had never sold cocaine before, although a DEA document disputes that. According to his later testimony, he had a rocky start; it took him three or four months to sell his first two kilograms, an ounce or a few grams at a time, he said, adding that his total receipts came to about $60,000 a kilogram. Meneses and his associates were buying the cocaine in Miami for about $45,000 a kilogram, another member of the ring said. That meant their margin was about $15,000 a kilogram, and that had to cover wages, living expenses and operating costs before any profits were left over for the Contras.

"Whatever we were running in L.A. goes--the profit . . . was going to the Contra revolution," Blandon testified, describing those early months.

But there does not seem to have been much profit.

"I didn't make any money," Blandon complained.

In 1982, Blandon said, he and Meneses traveled to Honduras to meet with the Contras' military commander, Enrique Bermudez. (Meneses, interviewed by The Times in his prison cell in Managua, denied that the trip ever happened; but Calero said he remembers being told of the visit by Bermudez, who is now dead.)

Blandon testified that Bermudez encouraged him to raise money by any means necessary, although he did not explicitly mention drugs. "There's a saying that the end justifies the means," Blandon said. "And that's [what] Mr. Bermudez told us in Honduras, OK? So we started raising money to the Contra revolution."

Blandon also testified that he met with no U.S. government officials, CIA or otherwise, during his drug-trafficking career.

The Money Trail

How much money did Meneses and Blandon give to the Contras?

Not much, according to both Blandon and Meneses and the three sources who knew them at the time.

Meneses told The Times he gave the Contras only $20 or $30 at a time. Blandon testified that the two traffickers stopped sending their profits to the Contras after less than a year, once CIA money was flowing to the rebels.

Blandon and Meneses could be lying, of course. But others corroborate the central points of their account.

One of their associates in drug trafficking in Los Angeles--a man who said he had access to their books during the early 1980s--said the sum total of their contributions was "well under $50,000."

This associate spoke on condition that he not be identified, because he fears retribution from drug dealers with whom he dealt during half a decade of close collaboration with Meneses and Blandon.

"From what I observed, there could have been occasional contributions of a few thousand dollars," he said. "But I'd be shocked if more than $50,000 ever made its way to the politicians in envelopes or by fund-raisers or any other way. If there was any steady flow [of contributions] in those years, I definitely would have known about it. It didn't happen."

"I never saw a dime actually change hands from either Danilo or Norvin to anyone involved in any of the political fronts," he added.

In fact, the former associate said, the ring spent so much on high living--and consumed so much cocaine themselves--that they nearly defaulted on what they owed to their Colombian suppliers in Miami. "We were all sitting around half-stoned, trying to scrape together enough cash so we wouldn't be killed," he said.

He said Meneses lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a series of failed investments: a T-shirt factory, an East Los Angeles butcher shop, a fleabag hotel in San Francisco, an abortive scheme to sell weapons in El Salvador.

"It was like a leaky boat," he said. "You couldn't bail fast enough to stay ahead of trouble."

But Meneses had canny ways to reduce his risks. Fearful that someone might see something incriminating in his trash, he filled his two-car garage with dozens of garbage cans, full to the brim. Delivering kilos of cocaine to dealers from South Gate to Northridge, he would organize a three-car convoy, set off on the freeway, and then suddenly shout a new destination to his confederates in the other cars.

Meneses and Blandon never made enough in profits to produce "millions" that could go to the Contras, the associate said. During 1982-84, price wars among cocaine dealers kept profit margins painfully thin.

"We too often ended up clearing only $500 per kilo" each, he said. "We did millions of dollars in transactions, but the profits were often chump change."

Another knowledgeable source--an American who helped raise money for the Contras and who met Meneses at the 1984 dinner at Caesar's--said the drug trafficker's associates in San Francisco also told him that his contributions came to no more than $50,000.

"In talking to people, Nicaraguans out there, it became very clear to me that he was running a major drug operation," the Contra fund-raiser said. "He might give a pittance every now and then to the Contras. They estimated maybe $40,000-$50,000 to the Contras."

He said he concluded that Meneses "didn't care about the Contra cause and gave very little money. . . . Everybody was in it to make a buck."

Former CIA officials and former Contra leaders also say the rebels received no significant infusion of drug money.

"They [people connected with the Contras] were involved in drug running, but they bought villas and did not put it into the FDN," said Cannistraro, who helped oversee the Contra effort at the CIA. "We would have known, as we were tracking it so closely--especially the amounts that are allegedly involved."

In any case, as Blandon later testified, it soon became unnecessary to sell cocaine for the Contras: The rebels were getting CIA money instead.

"After Reagan get in the power . . . we received the $19-million help," Blandon testified. (The trafficker, noting that he was a member of the FDN's local organization in Los Angeles, frequently referred to the Contras as "we.")

The $19 million was the first of $195 million that the U.S. government provided the Contras between 1981 and 1988. A secret operation run by North from 1984 to 1986 provided an additional $43 million, most of it donated by Saudi Arabia.

"So you stayed in the cocaine business, but you kept the money for yourself?" Blandon was asked.

"Yes," he said, dating the change as "1982, 1983."

That date is significant because it was only late in 1983 that Blandon began to sell cocaine to Ross, a high-profile Los Angeles drug dealer. The new connection with Ross enabled Blandon to expand his cocaine business greatly. But according to Blandon's testimony, it occurred only after Blandon had stopped raising money for the Contras.

No solid evidence has emerged that either Meneses or Blandon contributed any money to the rebels after 1984. Beginning in 1986, the FDN no longer needed to seek private funds; that October, Congress resumed full U.S. funding for the rebels with an appropriation of $100 million. The Contra war ended with a cease-fire in March 1988.

The Ring Disintegrates

Blandon's close partnership with Meneses lasted less than a year, Blandon testified. By the end of 1982, Blandon was already trying to establish his own direct relationships with Colombian cocaine suppliers.

"I changed because Meneses . . . was charging me, you know, a big price that I couldn't meet," Blandon testified. "I couldn't make enough money. . . . So I start looking for my own resources or my own sources."

Besides, Blandon complained to his associate, Meneses was out of the country so often that he was becoming an unreliable supplier. Beginning in November 1982, Meneses was spending much of his time in Costa Rica and commuting back to San Francisco. A DEA internal document in 1984 reported that Meneses was using Costa Rica as a base for shipping cocaine from Colombia into the United States.

Blandon testified that he had stopped dealing with Meneses entirely by 1983. His associate and drug informants who were cited in a 1986 Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department affidavit said the two men still did business from time to time. But all agreed that Blandon relied increasingly on other suppliers, principally a Colombian named Aparicio Moreno. When Blandon was dealing with Ross in 1983 and 1984, Meneses was no longer his partner.

By the end of 1984, Meneses and Blandon also seem to have disappeared from the Contra fund-raising network, according to several sources who were active in supporting the rebels. One reason may have been the arrest on cocaine possession charges, in November 1984, of two of Meneses' lieutenants in San Francisco. One of those arrested was Meneses' nephew, Jairo Morales Meneses. The other was Renato Pena Cabrera, who had served as the press spokesman for the FDN support group in the Bay Area.

One of Blandon's drug trafficking associates described the scene at Meneses' house near San Bruno when the news arrived. "Danilo and Norvin had done some business," he recalled. "The deal involved 40 or 50 kilos. The money was all divvied up. There was cash all over the place. Norvin had steaks on the grill. It was going to be a big party.

"The phone rings and [Meneses' girlfriend] Margarita answers--and she shrieks: 'Jairo's been arrested!'

"Well, everybody cleared out in a heartbeat," he said. "They grabbed the money and ran. . . . I don't think anyone turned off the steaks."

Were They Protected?

The arrest of Pena Cabrera and Morales led to the exposure of the link between Meneses and the Contras. Morales testified in court in 1985 that his uncle Norvin was selling 30 or 40 kilograms of cocaine a week, according to the Examiner. Several FDN supporters in San Francisco talked to reporters at the Examiner and Associated Press, both of which wrote about the case in 1986.

Meneses headed back to Costa Rica. Blandon continued selling cocaine to Ross and others in Los Angeles. But law enforcement agencies in Southern California were already on his trail.

On Oct. 27, 1986, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents and other law enforcement officials raided Blandon's house in Rialto and a dozen other sites. Blandon, his wife, Chepita, and several others were arrested. That case fell apart, but authorities continued to pursue Blandon. He was eventually convicted of drug charges in San Diego in 1992, served about 21 months of a 48-month prison term and helped DEA agents set up the sting operation that snared Ross in 1995.

But Meneses' and Blandon's long drug trafficking career before their arrests has provoked the question of whether someone in the U.S. government was protecting them. The Mercury News charged that law enforcement investigations of the two Nicaraguans "were stymied not by the elusive Meneses, but by agencies of the U.S. government," and others have repeated the allegation.

The Mercury News presented no direct evidence of any such interference, and current and former law enforcement officials contacted by The Times vigorously denied that any interference occurred. "It's just preposterous," said Joseph A. Russoniello, the chief federal prosecutor in San Francisco at the time.

"Any type of directive [from the CIA or another agency] to go easy? Absolutely not. Never," said William T. McGivern, a career prosecutor who succeeded Russoniello. "No one ever said, 'Don't go after a case.' There was never any unspoken or subtle guidance in that direction."

The Times interviewed 10 former federal prosecutors who either dealt directly with the Meneses case or supervised those who did; none said he was aware of any contact or intercession by the CIA or any other "national security interest."

They said there were several apparent reasons that Meneses was not indicted until 1989--but political interference was not the cause.

"It [the case] was uninfluenced by any political aspects, whether Nicaraguan or U.S.," said Eric J. Swenson, a former assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco, who inherited the Meneses case in 1986 or 1987 and handled the indictment in 1989. "I never received any calls. . . . It was pretty much a routine San Francisco distribution case."

Swenson said that the case had been worked on over the years by agents from both the DEA and the FBI. The FBI agent who worked the case with him, Swenson said, suspected that Meneses "may have been providing information" to the DEA. The FBI agent, Don Hale, subsequently died of natural causes.

Swenson said that if Meneses was a DEA informant, it might explain why that agency did not push the U.S. attorney's office to seek an indictment sooner.

Swenson said he sought the indictment in 1989 to keep the case alive against Meneses; the main evidence against the trafficker dated from 1984, and the statute of limitations was nearing expiration.

Another former federal prosecutor who dealt with the case before Swenson, Rodolfo Orjales, said he received no contact from the CIA or any other national security-related agency.

Orjales said he did not seek an early indictment of Meneses in part because he hoped further investigation might yield an even better case. Orjales said he based his hope on a conversation he had with Morales and Pena Cabrera, the two Meneses lieutenants who were arrested in 1984.

In that conversation, Orjales said, the pair alleged that "the Meneses family" was smuggling cocaine into the United States with the help of Nicaraguan diplomats. The accusation this time was that Meneses was tied in, not with the Contras, but with the Sandinistas. The allegation was apparently never proved, Orjales said.

Robert Bender, the head of the DEA's San Francisco office in the late 1980s, also said there was no CIA or any other external contact regarding the Meneses case.

"I have never, in my 26 years of law enforcement, been pressured to drop a case because of another agency's involvement," said Bender, now special agent in charge of the DEA's Los Angeles office.

Was Meneses a DEA informant? "I can't recall," Bender said.

Asked if the CIA ever asked his agency to avoid prosecuting a drug suspect, John C. "Jack" Lawn, head of the DEA from 1982 to 1990 under presidents Reagan and Bush, said:

"It never happened on my watch. . . . I could not have done that, were I asked. As I testified before Congress, I [was] a law enforcement official, sworn to perform my duties, to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. I would not allow any cases to slip or slide because of some external pressure."

Epilogue

Blandon, released from prison in 1994, became a DEA informant, for which he has been paid more than $160,000, according to court testimony. Assistant U.S. Atty. L. J. O'Neale said his testimony has been "extraordinarily valuable." According to one former associate, Blandon was working undercover in Latin America last summer when his name suddenly appeared in the newspapers--and his operation was hurriedly closed down. DEA officials refused to comment on Blandon's current status or whereabouts.

Meneses was arrested in Nicaragua in 1991, fingered by other drug dealers who said he was involved with a 750-kilogram (1,650-pound) shipment of cocaine that was being packed into the struts and chassis of four Mercedes-Benzes for shipment to the United States.

The chief witness at his 1992 trial in Managua was another accused drug trafficker, a former Sandinista army major who testified that Meneses boasted of helping to finance the Contras by selling cocaine.

Meneses is serving a 15-year sentence at Tipitapa Prison outside Managua, living in a tiny cell with freshly painted light blue walls and a twin bed with flowered sheets. He has become a devout Roman Catholic and is the trustee in charge of the prison chapel.

"Everything that Blandon said about selling drugs is a lie," he says, insisting he is innocent of the many charges against him. "Danilo is just taking advantage of a person who is in prison," he complained. "He wants to justify his drug trafficking by smearing the [Contra] cause."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE COCAINE TRAIL / About This Series

The allegations were startling: A CIA-sponsored drug ring funneled millions of dollars in drug profits to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and, in the process, opened the first pipeline for crack cocaine to Los Angeles. With the resulting furor in print and on the airwaves, The Times assigned a team of reporters in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Nicaragua to investigate. This is their report:

* SUNDAY: Who first brought crack cocaine to Los Angeles, and how did it spread? What was the role of "Freeway" Ricky Ross in the drug epidemic? Who else played key roles?

* TODAY: Did a CIA-sponsored operation funnel millions of dollars to the Nicaraguan Contras? What does the evidence show about the drug ring at the center of the current allegations?

* TUESDAY: What impact have history and the renewed allegations of CIA involvement in drug dealing had in Los Angeles? And what journalistic issues have been raised by the controversy?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Timing the Crack Connection

The new allegations of possible CIA involvement in Los Angeles' crack crisis are based on the assumption that Nicaraguan drug traffickers Norvin Meneses and Oscar Danilo Blandon worked together with Los Angeles drug dealer "Freeway" Ricky Ross to funnel money from drug sales to the Nicaraguan Contras. But Meneses was a drug dealer before the Contras existed and after they folded. Meneses and Blandon worked together closely for only a short period, according to court testimony and interviews, and their collaboration overlapped barely, if at all, with Blandon's association with Ross or with the period in which the Contras were dependent on private funds.

Norvin Meneses

MENESES DEALS DRUGS

1974: Meneses begins his drug dealing career in Managua, according to Nicaraguan police sources.

1982: Meneses begins raising funds for Contras.

December 1976: Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Costa Rica identifies Meneses as a cocaine trafficker in Managua; notes that his brother, Edmundo Meneses, is commander of Managua police force.

1984: Meneses pays bill for contra fundraising dinner in San Francisco.

1987: DEA chief John C. Lawn tells Congress that Meneses is "well documented" as a cocaine trafficker. Lawn says DEA is aware of rumors that he is linked to the Contras, but "has been unable to substantiate these allegations."

1989: Meneses is indicted in San Francisco but not arrested.

1990: Meneses returns to Nicaragua from Costa Rica. Later in the year, he is arrested.

1992: Meneses convicted and begins serving prison term in Managua.

****

Danilo Blandon

MENESES WORKS CLOSELY WITH BLANDON

1979: Blandon comes to the U.S. from Nicaragua.

1981: Blandon meets members of Meneses family in San Francisco. At the time, Blandon is selling used cars.

Late 1982-Early 1983: Blandon cuts ties with Meneses and turns to Colombian wholesalers as source of cocaine supply.

1983: Begins selling to L.A. drug dealer Ricky Ross.

1984-85: Peak of Blandon's drug business.

1990: Blandon is by now an informant for federal authorities.

1993: Sentenced in San Diego.

****

Crack in L.A. and Ricky Ross

ROSS DEALS DRUGS

1976: Los Angeles' most prominent black drug dealer, Thomas "Tootie" Reese is introduced to crack cocaine and begins selling the drug.

1979: About 26 pounds of cocaine powder are seized from a Granada Hills warehouse. Officials identify Columbian cartel leader Carlos Ledher Rivas as the major supplier.

1981: More than 113 pounds of cocaine are seized in Van Nuys.

1987: Ross is arrested.

1989: Ross pleads guilty to interstate trafficking in drugs.

1995: Ross is released. Six months later he is arrested.

1996: Ricky Ross goes to trial in San Diego. He claims he was unfairly entrapped and charges that the CIA, working with Blandon, created the crack epidemic in Los Angeles.

****

The War in Nicaragua

CONTRAS DEPENDENT ON PRIVATE FUNDING

1979: Sandinistas topple Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Many wealthy Nicaraguans and members of Somoza's National Guard flee.

1981: Former National Guard commander Enrique Bermudez forms Contra group known as the FDN.

1981: In November, President Reagan authorizes covert CIA support for the Contras. Large-scale money begins flowing a few months later.

1984: Congress blocks further U.S. funds for contras, and Reagan administration turns to Saudis and others for money.

1986: Congress approves $100 million in Contra funds, ending need for covert support.

1988: Contra war ends with a cease fire.

Sources: Court testimony and documents; interviews by Times staff writers.

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