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The Coke Machine 

The Story behind the Contra-crack cocaine story

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998

Page 5 of 7

It was a motion filed by U.S. Attorney O'Neale, asking the court to unseal Blandon's plea agreement and a couple of internal Justice Department memorandums. "During the course of this case, defendant Oscar Danilo Blandon cooperated with and rendered substantial assistance to the United States," O'Neale wrote. At the government's request, his jail sentence had been secretly cut twice. O'Neale then persuaded the judge to let Blandon out of jail completely, telling the court he was needed as a full-time paid informant for the U.S. Department of Justice. Since he'd be undercover, O'Neale wrote, he couldn't very well have probation agents checking up on him. He was released on unsupervised probation. I walked back to my hotel convinced that I was on the right track. Now there were two separate sources saying - in court - that Blandon was involved with the contras and had been selling large amounts of cocaine in Los Angeles. And when the government finally had a chance to put him away forever, it had opened up the cell doors and let him walk. I needed to find Blandon. I had a million questions only he could answer.

Back in Sacramento, I did some checking on the targets of the 1994 grand jury investigation - the Meneses family - and again Coral's description proved accurate, perhaps even understated. At the California State Library's government-publications section, I scoured the indices that catalog congressional hearings by topic and witness name. Meneses wasn't listed, but there had been a series of hearings back in 1987 and 1988, I saw, dealing with the issue of the contras and cocaine: a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

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For the next six days I sat with rolls of dimes at a microfiche printer in the quiet wood-paneled recesses of the library, reading and copying many of the 1,100 pages of transcripts and exhibits of the subcommittee hearings, growing more astounded each day. The subcommittee's investigators had uncovered direct links between drug dealers and the contras. They'd gotten into BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) years before anyone knew what that banking scandal even was. They'd found evidence of Manuel Noriega's involvement with drugs - four years before the invasion. Many of the subcommittee witnesses, I noted, later became U.S. Justice Department witnesses against Noriega. Kerry and his staff had taken videotaped depositions from contra leaders who acknowledged receiving drug profits with the apparent knowledge of the CIA. The drug dealers had admitted - under oath - giving money to the contras, and had passed polygraph tests. The pilots had admitted flying weapons down and cocaine and marijuana back, landing in at least one instance at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The exhibits included U.S. Customs reports, FBI reports, internal Justice Department memos. It almost knocked me off my chair. It was all there in black and a white. Blandon's testimony about selling cocaine for the contras in L.A. wasn't some improbable fantasy. This could have actually happened.

I called Jack Blum, the Washington, D.C., attorney who'd headed the Kerry investigation, and he confirmed that Meneses had been an early target. But the Justice Department, he said, had stonewalled the subcommittee's requests for information, and he had finally given up trying to obtain the records, moving on to other, more productive areas. "There was a lot of weird stuff going on out on the West Coast, but after our experiences with Justice . . . we mainly concentrated on the cocaine coming into the East."

"Why is it that I can barely remember this?" I asked. "I mean, I read the papers every day."

"It wasn't in the papers, for the most part. We laid it all out, and we were trashed," Blum said. "I've got to tell you, there's a real problem with the press in this town. We were totally hit by the leadership of the administration and much of the congressional leadership. They simply turned around and said, 'These people are crazy. Their witnesses are full of shit. They're a bunch of drug dealers, drug addicts; don't listen to them.' And they dumped all over us. It came from every direction and every corner. We were even dumped on by the Iran-Contra Committee. They wouldn't touch this issue with a 10-foot pole."

"There had to have been some reporters who followed this," I protested. "Maybe I'm naive, but this seems like a huge story to me."

Blum barked a laugh. "Well, it's nice to hear someone finally say that, even if it is 10 years later."

There were two reporters, Blum said, who'd pursued the contra drug story - Robert Parry and Brian Barger of the Associated Press - but they'd run into the same problems. Their stories were either trashed or ignored. When I called Parry in Virginia, he sounded slightly amused.

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