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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

His secret weapon, according to federal investigators, was Mario Ernesto Villabona, a member of Colombia's notorious Cali cartel. Police don't know how the two met, if Bennett was recruited or if he sought Villabona out. Either way, their relationship provided the first evidence of a link that law enforcement officials had long suspected. "This is the single most important partnership ever established between a major South-Central drug dealer and the Colombians," LAPD Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said at the time of Bennett's arrest in 1988.

By then, however, the tide had begun to turn against the Colombian cartels. U.S. authorities launched a massive money-laundering sting known as Operation Pisces, which resulted in 241 arrests, the confiscation of 4,500 kilos of cocaine and the seizure of $23 million between 1986 and 1987. If they couldn't stop the drugs from coming into the country, authorities hoped, at least they could stop some of the profits from flowing back out.

Smuggling had become the domain of a new generation of Mexican drug lords, now believed responsible for 70% of the cocaine that enters the United States. That was underscored in 1989, when 21 tons of powder were found in a Sylmar warehouse, still the largest single U.S. seizure. At trial, evidence showed the drug was flown from Colombia to Mexico, where it was trucked in tractor-trailers filled with pinatas across the Texas border and on to Los Angeles.

Authorities say Mexican nationals not only continue to transport but are playing the preeminent role in selling, too, the role long played by Colombians.

The Gang Connection

From the time it hit the streets of South-Central, crack has been almost synonymous with Bloods and Crips--a perception reinforced by the Mercury News, which said gangs armed themselves with profits from Contra drug sales.

Although there remains much debate over the role of gangs in controlling drug markets, many experts have come to conclude it is a matter of individual members selling cocaine, not the organizations.

"It's not like an organized crime family, where all the money goes to the godfather and the godfather parcels it out to the lieutenants, or capos," Los Angeles County probation officer Jim Galipeau said.

Crack is a racket, not so much for gangsters but for "players," explained Rodgers, the former Bloods leader. Gangsters, as Rodgers sees it, thrive on their reputation for violence. Players, of which he considers himself and Freeway Ricky Ross to be among, "take the muscle out of the hustle," putting financial gain ahead of brute force.

"We didn't see red or blue," said Rodgers, referring to the trademark colors of the Bloods and Crips. "We saw green."

Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson, USC sociologists who studied South-Central cocaine sales from 1983 to 1985, found that gang members accounted for only about 25% of all crack-related arrests. They said they were prompted to conduct their study largely because of media images that equated gang members with "African Americans, toting Uzis and selling crack," as Maxson put it.

A good crack ring "has to be cohesive, organized, strongly led and loyal--none of which fit with our understanding of the nature of street gangs," Klein added. "If a drug dealer has people in his organization who are throwing gang signs and doing drive-by shootings, that's going to screw up the business something furious."

Jim Brown, the former NFL hall-of-famer, has seen this whole story unfold from a ringside seat. He was called to comfort Pryor in the hospital when the comedian burned himself freebasing. Through Amer-I-Can Inc., his self-help program for ex-convicts and gangbangers, he has also struggled to keep some of Los Angeles' toughest characters toeing a straight line.

Although he believes the shadowy intelligence arms of the U.S. government are capable of anything, Brown insists that neither the CIA nor the Contras have much relevance to the crack trade. The drug business, he says, is ruled by its own economic logic; it preys on social conditions that continue to fester, regardless of any elaborate schemes.

"We need to deal with that reality," Brown said. "People are still hungry--and all this CIA-Contra stuff ain't going to feed them."

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:

* TODAY: 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?

* MONDAY: 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?

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