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."