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Drug agent thought
she was onto something big
Meneses' trail was getting warm when
her superiors took her off the case
Published: Aug. 19, 1996 [Other stories]
BY GARY WEBB 'Crack' born
Mercury News Staff Writer in San
On a November afternoon in 1981, San Francisco DEA agent Bay Area in
Sandra Smith inadvertently uncovered the first direct '74
link between cocaine and the secret army the Central It was a
Intelligence Agency was assembling to overthrow the failed
government of Nicaragua. attempt to
Smith, one of the first female Drug Enforcement something
Administration agents in the Bay Area, was investigating else
rumors that a cocaine ring run by Norwin Meneses was
bringing drugs into California and, for some reason, Shadowy
sending weapons down to Central America. origins of
It was, she said, ''the only (case) that I ever worked, epidemic
in all the time I worked there, that I thought was really Role of
She had good reason to be excited. Federal agents had [document link]
amassed a thick file on Meneses, running across his 1981
tracks in New Orleans and Los Angeles, a 1981 DEA affidavit
affidavit said. As far back as 1978, it said, agents knew for search
Meneses was bringing multi-kilo quantities of cocaine warrant
into the United States -- huge amounts by the standards
of the day.
Smith staked out San Francisco International Airport and
tailed two of Meneses' Southern California dealers to a
house at 8 Bellevue Ave. in Daly City.
Because Smith's investigation was terminated shortly
afterward, she never learned who lived in that house. But
two years later, its owner would become involved in one
of the more curious incidents in the annals of the war on
His name was Carlos Augusto Cabezas, and, like Norwin [document link]
Meneses, he'd been on the losing side of the Sandinista Cross-examination
revolution in Nicaragua. Then 37, Cabezas held degrees in of Carlos
law and accounting and ran the foreign division of the Cabezas
Bank of America in Managua. During the war, he was a
pilot for the Guardia, the army of U.S.-backed dictator [document link]
Anastasio Somoza. Statement
Yet by February 1983, Cabezas was in jail in San defendant
Francisco, accused by the FBI of being part of a drug Carlos
ring that brought more than $100 million worth of cocaine Cabezas
into the country aboard Colombian freighters. Police
cracked the case when they nabbed frogmen swimming ashore
at Pier 96 near Hunters Point with 400 pounds of cocaine.
At the time, it was the largest cocaine seizure in
California history, and 35 people were ultimately
Though Meneses was never charged, court records said
there was ''a direct and ongoing connection between the
Meneses organization and Carlos Cabezas.''
Bay Area papers treated the case like any big drug bust [document link]
-- a front-page headline and a picture of the dope. But Article from
the Nicaraguan press saw something else entirely. San
Managua press saw the story Chronicle
''Somoza supporters involved in drug trafficking,'' is cocaine
how the Feb. 20, 1983, edition of Barricada, a seizure
pro-Sandinista daily in Managua, headlined its story.
Citing unnamed Nicaraguan government sources, the story
said that among the group arrested ''there were many who
are linked to the ex-Guardia group of Somoza supporters
in San Francisco, and through this link in the cocaine
trafficking, they were giving economic support to the
The first inkling here that the Frogman Case was
something extraordinary came in June 1984, when the
attorney for the cocaine ring's alleged leader, Julio
Zavala, asked the government to return money seized from
Zavala's apartment the morning of his arrest.
Along with an assortment of arms, drugs, passports and
catalogs for machine guns and silencers, agents found
$36,800 in cash. Federal prosecutors declared it was drug
money and said they would use it as evidence at Zavala's
But Zavala insisted the cash wasn't from drugs; he said [document link]
the money had been given to him by the Contra army to buy Declaration
supplies in the United States. To prove it, two exiled of Zavala's
Contra leaders wrote the court and swore that the money defense
seized from the cocaine dealer was ''for the attorney,
reinstatement of democracy in Nicaragua.'' Judd Iverson
Those letters were hurriedly sealed after prosecutors
invoked the Classified Information Procedures Act, a law
designed to keep national security secrets from leaking
out during trials.
The money is returned [document link]
Soon, U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello decided he regarding
really didn't need the money as evidence. Nor did he want disposition
it forfeited to the government, which is standard of funds
procedure in drug cases. Instead, on Oct. 2, 1984, the
Justice Department gave Zavala the money back.
But that wasn't the end of the issue.
A few weeks later, at Zavala's trial, Carlos Cabezas took
the stand as a government witness against his old boss
and exposed additional details of the Frogman ring's ties
to the CIA's army.
Cabezas said Zavala, who was convicted of the drug [document link]
charges, had sent him to Costa Rica in late 1981 to pick Transcript
up two kilos of cocaine from a man named Horacio Pereira, of court
an exiled Nicaraguan businessman, and bring the cocaine proceedings
back to San Francisco. But when he got there, Pereira had for U.S. vs
changed his mind and wouldn't hand over the dope because Julio Zavala
he'd heard Zavala was drinking heavily.
Cabezas said Pereira didn't want someone unreliable
handling the money because he ''was helping the Contra
revolution in Nicaragua.''
Cabezas said he agreed to be responsible for the Contras'
cocaine profits and said Pereira eventually sold him a
total of 12 kilos, worth at that time about $600,000
Pereira, a business associate of Norwin Meneses, was [document link]
later convicted on drug charges in Costa Rica. Secret FBI report
tapes made during that investigation revealed he was in regarding
frequent contact with Contra commanders. In addition, a cocaine
1982 FBI report -- which wasn't made public until 1988 -- distribution
identified him and two other Contra leaders as the by Julio
cocaine suppliers for the Frogman ring. Pereira was Zavala
''chopped into tiny bits'' a few years ago as a result of
a drug debt, according to Meneses.
Why DEA agent Smith's investigation of Meneses -- which
predated the FBI's Frogman bust by two years -- was
halted is not clear. Smith said her superiors didn't
share her enthusiasm for the case and she was sent off to
investigate motorcycle gangs in Oakland.
''I'm not so sure the DEA management took (my
investigation) seriously enough to allow me the time and
the assistance I would have needed,'' she said.
When she quit in 1984, Smith asked her fellow DEA agents
if they wanted the intelligence files she'd collected on
Meneses in case ''anyone might be interested in picking
up where I left off,'' she recalled.
''No one was. So I had a lot of notes that I had made
that, just for lack of doing anything else (with them), I
just shredded. No one was interested.''
TUESDAY: The impact of the crack epidemic on the black
community, and why justice hasn't been for all.
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