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Tracking the Genesis of the Crack Trade

Cocaine: The epidemic was not sparked by a single conspiracy, but by an array of suppliers and dealers. All followed their own agendas, driven by changing tastes and cold economics.

October 20, 1996|JESSE KATZ | This story was reported by Times staff writers Ralph Frammolino, Jesse Katz, Victor Merina, Tony Perry, Bill Rempel, Claire Speigel and Dan Weikel. It was written by Katz

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 Times investigation has found that the explosion of cheap, smokable cocaine in the 1980s was a uniquely egalitarian phenomenon, one that lent itself more to makeshift mom-and-pop operations than to the sinister hand of a government-sanctioned plot. Anyone, even an illiterate high school dropout, could learn to cook crack on a kitchen stove, hawk it on a street corner and be $100 richer--all in the same day.

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 dealer named "Freeway" Ricky Ross. Ross, in turn, purportedly funneled his supply to the Bloods and Crips, generating the cash that paid for their automatic weapons and catapulting the crack crisis across urban America.

That notion, advanced by activists and politicians and popularized via airwaves and computer lines, 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; an editorial cartoon appearing in newspapers last month showed CIA agents driving through the ghetto, tossing nuggets of crack from their car.

For many African Americans, such a scenario is within the realm of belief, even if the details might be inaccurate or unverified. It appears to help explain how the plague of crack infected a community that had neither the resources nor the machinery to import cocaine. It also fits into a pattern of official discrimination and disregard--from Jim Crow laws to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments--that is 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 a cast of interchangeable characters, from ruthless billionaires to strung-out curb dealers, none of whom is central to the drama. They operate in a world of shifting alliances and fleeting fortunes, where buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers, sometimes from one day to the next, depending on the vicissitudes of supply and demand.

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, including its black neighborhoods, long before the Nicaraguan traffickers arrived on the scene. Oscar Danilo Blandon, the ring's Los Angeles point man, was not "the Johnny Appleseed of crack in California," as the Mercury News contended. Crack already was here. 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. Far from the "millions" allegedly sent, 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 gang 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, for his part, 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. Even then, Ross continued to curry favor with a host of other cocaine suppliers of various backgrounds, playing one group off the other in a quest for the best possible price.

"This was not some grand design of the drug cartels or someone at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., who was sitting around thinking up ways to raise money for the Contras," said UCLA 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, from a worldwide glut of powder cocaine to shifting tastes among addicts to the entrepreneurial moxie of the inner-city hustlers who marketed it, according to court records, epidemiological studies and numerous interviews with law enforcement officials, drug dealers and academics.

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