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ADVENTURES in the DRUG TRADE : How 4,000 Colombians Took the 'Champagne Drug' to the Inner City and Turned L.A. Into a Cocaine Capital

May 07, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | William Overend is a Times staff writer who has covered the growing cocaine problem since 1976.

THE FORMER OUTLAW drug prince, in T-shirt, jeans and a hippie ponytail, sits in his small house near Marina del Rey, recounting his career. In the space of a decade, he has seen firsthand an upheaval in the cocaine scene in Los Angeles. Marty, one of the names he uses, was one of the most active Westside coke dealers in the late 1970s. His customers included some of the most famous actors and rock stars in Los Angeles. He cruised the city in rented limousines, dined at the most expensive restaurants, bought a few small businesses and condos and basked in the status then attached by many to anyone with a constant supply of coke.

Despite his hair style, Marty was never a flower child. He had a cynical view of the world around him, and he saw himself as a local Al Capone. In the days when many L.A. drug dealers went unarmed, he had his own AK-47 automatic rifle and a small arsenal of other guns. But they were mainly for show. Marty was one of the early breed who wanted to look tough but hesitated when it came to violence. By the 1980s, there was real violence all around. The drug world in Los Angeles became a bigger, uglier and more vicious business than a generation of hometown dealers such as Marty ever anticipated.

"The glamour's gone," he says morosely. "Most of the guys I grew up with are out of the business now, trying to make it in the real world. What happened was that most of the middle class got scared off coke, and a lot of white dealers went broke. When the Colombians and the Mexicans and the blacks moved in, everything changed. It's not a rich man's sport anymore. It's a poor man's drug. It used to be a big status thing, but any bum can get it now."

Marty, who distributed as much as 50 pounds of cocaine a month during his most active years as a dealer, is in semi-retirement now; he stopped his serious dealing two years ago, he says. He still dabbles in cocaine, but mostly to cut the cost of his own use. His fall from the highest rungs of the L.A. drug hierarchy--along with the demise of many other white coke dealers--came as the public's view of cocaine was dramatically changing. The "champagne drug" of the rich in the 1970s has become the plague of the 1980s.

Nowhere has the change hit harder or more devastatingly than in Los Angeles, which now rivals Miami as the nation's coke capital. Cocaine has taken to the streets with a vengeance and become an urban nightmare. Heavily armed street gangs make the headlines day after day with their violence. Each week, there is a new drug bust that seems to be the biggest in history. The jails are full of cocaine users and dealers. And federal drug officials say the city's banks are stuffed with billions of dollars in illegal profits being laundered back to South America by Colombian mobsters.

The cocaine scene in Los Angeles was transformed by twin revolutions exploding across racial, cultural and economic borders.

First came the invasion of Southern California by Colombian drug dealers who formerly limited their U.S. cocaine sales to the Miami area. Driven from Florida by tough federal law enforcement and good business sense, the Colombians saw Los Angeles as a prize target for expansion. Smuggling drugs into Miami and then to the rest of the United States had become increasingly difficult. Although thousands of miles farther from Colombia, Los Angeles was reachable by land routes long used by Mexican drug smugglers. The Colombians and Mexico's drug families forged a partnership, and the Colombian drug cartels began sending ever-larger shipments of cocaine into California. With the drugs came first hundreds, then thousands of Colombian mobsters.

Their arrival in force sounded the death knell for the hometown L.A. coke dealers who had monopolized the relatively small cocaine trade during the '70s. No longer was a big-time dealer the flashy local boy with Miami connections who could bring 20 or 40 pounds of cocaine from Florida to Los Angeles. Now it was the unobtrusive Colombian newcomer who just rented the house next door, with 500 pounds to 1,000 pounds of the drug stacked up like cordwood in the garage.

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