Freeway Ricky Ross and the CIA Cocaine Conspiracy

For GQ Magazine, 2003

In the 80s the US government financed a dirty war by bankrolling the Contras against the left-wing Sandanistas of Nicaragua. To help fund their campaign, the CIA allowed rebels to flood American cities with crack cocaine, with the help of street dealers like LA's Freeway Rick. But when news of the conspiracy spread, someone had to take the fall.

Update

Freeway Rick was released in 2009 and is now blogging away. He looks well. The journalist who exposed the CIA plot, however - Gary Webb - committed suicide. At least that's what the coroner said. Naturally the conspiracy theories are rife. He was a great journalist. RIP Gary Webb.

Article

Ricky Donell Ross is up at five most mornings, like one of those workaholic CEOs for whom there are never enough hours in the day. First he does his pushups and stretches, then he reads personal development books like the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", all seven of which he can reel off, incidentally – Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, there's not a motivational guru he can't quote. Recently, he's been reading the biographies of Bill Gates and Sam Walton, the richest men in the world, confident that some day soon he will be able to apply their lessons.

But that day may never come – Ross is no powerlunching executive, he's inmate 05550 serving 20-to-life. For Ross, time is not money, time is just time, he's been doing it for years.

He pulls his chair up to the slim windows of the interview room and gazes out over a sunny San Diego, the city where he caught his terminal case. A slight and greying 42, he looks lean but unbeaten, always ready with a smile, no doubt one of the seven habits. "I'll be out in a month, maybe two," he says. "And in a year, with all the learning I been doing, I'll be a millionaire! You don't believe me but it's true." He nods, smiling. "It's my destiny."

Destiny, with a capital D, is a popular crux in the can, the way it explains and absolves and allows even lifers their dreams. But with Ross, you wonder. His has not been the customary arc of a South Central dope dealer. A veteran of the front page of most major newspapers, there are now books and movies dedicated to Ross' story. He is known to crack whores and congressmen; cops, rappers and senate subcommittees, and even – especially – the director of the CIA. For Freeway Rick, as the street knows him, may be the most ironic casualty of the disastrous war against drugs – although he was incarcerated for conspiracy to distribute vast quantities of cocaine, his case levels that same charge at his jailors, the federal government. And what else but Destiny propels an illiterate young dope dealer to the heart of a White House conspiracy?

You may have heard of it – the CIA-Contra-crack conspiracy. In its mildest strain it alleges that, in order to support the Nicaraguan Contra army in its war against the Sandanista government during the 80s, the CIA permitted Contra drug dealers to flood the ghettos of South Central Los Angeles with cocaine, so fuelling a crack epidemic that devastated, above all, the black community. In the 80s, as the tonnage shipments began to appear in the hood, rumours were rife that a powerful hand had to be steering such heavy traffic, and they don't call it the White House for nothing… But who in their right mind would seriously entertain this Cocaine Import Agency nonsense? It was Sandanista propaganda, surely. Communist lies.

When Ross went down in 1996, the rumours began to crystallise. He was snared in a sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and convicted on the testimony of his supplier, a Nicaraguan Contra supporter named Oscar Danilo Blandon who then retreated under the cover of DEA informant protection. That a major importer should walk having sent a customer to jail seems a prima facie inversion of justice – whatever happened to nailing the big guys? But worse was to come. Blandon had already confessed to sending profits to the Contras – he was a founder member of a Contras fundraising group – and it is no secret that the Contras were supported by the CIA. 'So go figure,' you might say. Well, someone did: Gary Webb, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. As Ross' trial unfolded, Webb unravelled a staggering conspiracy.

"Conspiracy theories" are typically discarded to the 'Area 51' heap, along with aliens in the fridge, a new world order and a living, breathing Jim Morrison – the far-fetched figments of David Icke-like imaginations which wander off and don't always come back. The CIA-Contra-crack conspiracy, however, deserves an upgrade. First exposed by Webb in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, and then fleshed out in his book, "Dark Alliance", the allegations are not based on a jumble of spurious and imagined connections, but on a strong and plausible chain of evidence. Webb wends a compelling route through Nicaraguan drug barons and Costa Rican DEA agents, corrupt LA narcs, the Justice Department and South Central drug dealers – the trail, buttressed by reams of documentary evidence, points towards CIA complicity rather like the murder of Nicole Brown points to OJ Simpson. At its core, supported by testimony before a federal judge, the facts are these: Blandon admits to selling cocaine for the Contras; he admits a connection to Enrique Bermudez, a Contra leader on the payroll of the CIA; and Ross admits selling Blandon's cocaine in South Central.

At first, the major newspapers and news networks yelped in outrage, demanding inquiries and haranguing congressmen. But within months, they performed a unanimous about-face and set about a vicious backlash against both the "conspiracy theory" and Webb himself. It was an undignified smearing, personal and sustained, that scarcely touched upon the substance of Webb's claims, let alone challenge his evidence. Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for The Nation, describes it in his book Whiteout, an excoriating account of the CIA, drugs and the media, as "one of the most venomous and factually inane assaults on a professional journalist's competence in living memory." Nevertheless, the assault was effective and Webb's story was buried. To this day, most readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the LA Times – not to mention the UK press – assume that "Dark Alliance" was a false alarm. And that's if they've heard of it at all.

But equally, Webb's central allegation remains intact – that there was a firm link between the CIA, Contra drug dealers and the ghetto crack explosion in South Central Los Angeles. In fact, the CIA, in one of the most underreported stories of recent years, actually admitted as much, in its own muffled, half-hearted way. On March 16th 1998 Fred Hitz, the Inspector General of the CIA, told US Representatives in sworn testimony that the CIA had worked with people known to be involved in the drug trade. According to Hitz, the CIA knew that drugs were coming into the USA along the same supply routes used for the Contras, and yet it still didn't sever relationships with these alleged traffickers. Hitz also revealed that in 1982 the CIA signed a "memorandum of understanding" with Reagan's Attorney General, which allowed the Agency to forgo reporting the drug trafficking of 'non-employees' – such as the smuggler pilots and the Contras themselves. This 'non-employee' memo pervades the CIA's recent words on the subject in May 2000, a defensive bluff by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence which repeatedly stresses that the drug dealers Webb mentions were not strictly CIA staff. But it does not deny complicity. Rather, to paraphrase the document, the admission is this: "yes, we dealt with drug dealers who dealt to Americans; no, we didn't stop all of them; and yes, we knew the money went to the Contras. But it wasn't much, nothing like the millions Webb alleges. More like $50,000."

Allow this to sink in for a moment. Crack's impact has been catastrophic – thousands of lives have been lost and thousands more squandered behind bars, families have been ruined, babies stillborn and billions have been spent to contain the social fallout. In most respects crack's toll dwarfs that of 9/11, and America owes this, in part, to the CIA. Imagine if 20 years from now, the Agency admitted to a similar role in New York's tragedy – "yes we dealt with Al Qaeda, no we didn't stop all of them" – and imagine if most newspapers dutifully towed the line that 9/11 would have happened anyway, so let's stop beating up on the CIA already... The confession is all the more remarkable because it is the outcome of an internal investigation by the world's foremost secrecy and propaganda organisation (no independent inquiry was or ever will be permitted). Clearly it would be naοve to accept the CIA's version of its own crimes, but if this is what the CIA wants us to believe, what is it hiding? It paints the Agency as an earnest bunch who were so focussed on curbing the evil Marxists of Latin America, that they inadvertently turned a blind eye to a spot of smuggling here and there. The crime was negligence, in other words, which the CIA seems to wear as a human failing, a shrug – OK, we're not perfect, but we mean well. "The CIA as an institution did not approve of connections between Contras and drug traffickers," reads the Hitz report, adopting an almost parental tone towards those naughty Contras. "And, indeed, Contras were discouraged from involvement with traffickers."

In fact, the opposite may well be true. Unless we are to ignore a wealth of research about the Agency, and particularly its involvement in Latin America, a very different impression of the CIA emerges, that of an organisation steeped in drug dealing worldwide for at least 30 years. The likes of John Stockwell, Victor Marchetti and Philip Agee – all high-ranking CIA whistleblowers – are unequivocal about the Agency's crimes and methods, its trafficking, assassinations and infiltration of national media. DEA agents like Michael Levine and Celerino Castillo found repeatedly that their investigations into central American cartels led to the CIA. "For decades," says Levine, "the CIA, the Pentagon, and secret organizations like Oliver North's Enterprise have been supporting and protecting the world's biggest drug dealers".

Perhaps most telling, in this case, however, is the testimony of Jack Blum, a former Chief Counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics and Terrorism chaired by Senator John Kerry in 1986. The Kerry committee unearthed an abundance of evidence of the CIA permitting and assisting Contra drug-traffickers and when Blum was called to testify to a Senate Intelligence Committee (chaired by Senator Arlen Specter) in 1996, he spoke plainly: "If you ask: 'In the process of fighting a war against the Sandinistas, did people connected with the US government open channels which allowed drug traffickers to move drugs into the United States, did they know the drug traffickers were doing it, and did they protect them from law enforcement?' The answer to all those questions is yes."

Blum went on to add, "I think that if people in the government of the United States make a secret decision to sacrifice some portion of the American population in the form of… deliberately exposing them to drugs, that is a terrible decision that should never be made in secret."

This is where the floodgates of paranoia swing open and conspiracy theory rushes in – when the CIA is credited with an intentional rather than an accidental role in the crack blight. Think too long about the terrible decisions made in secret and terrible questions will become compulsory, questions which threaten the foundations. Was the crack explosion in South Central planned? Did the CIA deliberately decimate the black community and demonise its young? Did it intend to inflate prisons with a vast disproportion of African Americans, remove their voting rights and, as Louis Farrakhan sees it, force them into the 'slave' economies of the burgeoning prison-industrial-complexes? Where is the line drawn? Whom can you trust? How strong is your faith in The System? Within this mist of fear and speculation, the vain grasping after answers that will remain forever cloaked under 'national security', there is at one extreme the blinkered denier who refuses to smell the coffee – it's all lies', he says, with his hands over his ears, 'nothing this bad can possibly be happening.' At the other is the shrieking doomsayer pointing with trembling fingers at the three sets of six letters in Ronald Wilson Reagan.

J Edgar Hoover, the long time chief of the FBI once said about the threat of communism: "the individual is handicapped by coming face to face with a conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists." Hoover would know – the architect of COINTELPRO, the FBI's counterintelligence program during the sixties, to monitor and disrupt centres of activism, Hoover used all manner of dirty tricks to subvert the Black Panthers, and he sanctioned the wiretapping and surveillance of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X until their assassinations. Little wonder that few black commentators dismiss the crack conspiracy as readily as might their white counterparts.

But conspiracy transcends colour in the US. Just as the class struggle motors the British psyche at some deep and rumbling level, America is driven by the sense that its pawns are systematically deceived by giants, by corporations in cahoots with Orwellian government. The CIA-Contra-crack conspiracy continues a tradition that includes the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Agent Orange and Iran-Contra. And from the outset, the war against terror has spun its own outlandish webs of allegation – 9/11 tipped the conspiracy theorists into overdrive – which is why there is no riper time to recall Ross' story. The CIA is as powerful and well-funded as ever, and in Afghanistan, it has already been embroiled in the regime change of a major drug producing country (heroin). Like 'drugs', 'terror' is sufficiently vague a threat to warrant a vast range of long-term coversion, and already the twin campaigns are being fused – lately, pundits have been treating the public to the news that drug dealers actually are terrorists and that Americans who take drugs are funding them. And throughout, an obedient press, for fear of flying a tainted flag, is withholding the tough questions. Ricky Ross is a quintessentially American tale, you can tick the boxes up and down. Illiterate ghetto boy becomes a millionaire drug dealer only to discover he's part of an international conspiracy that embraces the war against communism, the war against drugs and the cocaine economies of Latin America. Only in America could Ross reach such peaks of notoriety only to be dwarfed by The Man. And only in America could he still dream of freedom and prosperity.

"You know why they gonna let me out?" he says. "Because the only witness against me was Blandon, and he shoulda never been in the country to testify, they shoulda never give him a green card – he was a convicted dope dealer! But they did. Why? Who's pulling the strings here?"

Like the rocks he peddled, Ross's dope-dealing career was a sharp high followed by a long fall. The rags-to-riches began in a cluttered one-car garage in 1979. "We had 3 beds in there and a record player and an old couch that my mum threw out. We was living with about 10, 15 others – my brothers, all my friends, people sleeping on the floors." Ross was 19, a sometime car thief and occasional tennis player. He once dreamt of turning pro but illiteracy scuppered any chance of a sports scholarship, so, like many others in South Central, he slung a little dope instead.

"At the time we were doing $50 packages of powder cocaine, and making maybe $25," he recalls. "That garage was all I wanted, I thought I would live there forever. Maybe fix it up, get a nicer bed."

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, a revolution was underway. After 46 years in power, the ruling Somoza family was unseated by a popular left wing Sandanista uprising and President Anastasio Somoza himself was forced into exile in Florida. Brows were raised all over Washington. Somoza had been a loyal supporter of America's many, ill-judged foreign interventions, assisting in its assault on Guatemala and even offering attack bases during the Bay of Pigs crisis. So when Ronald Reagan won office in 1980, he promptly froze all aid to the Sandanista government and sanctioned $19m for the Contra rebel army. It was a paltry sum and reflective of the weak will of congress, but Reagan was undeterred. In March 1981, he authorised the CIA to explore further ways of supporting the Contras and undermining the Sandanistas. Which is roughly when cocaine prices began to plummet and crack began to take off.

Blandon was closer than most to the erstwhile Somoza regime. A friend of the family, his wife owned the food contract for Somoza's feared national guard, La Guardia, and his father was one of the biggest landowners in the country. Similarly exiled, this time to California, Blandon established a cocaine channel via the cartel boss Norwin Meneses, known in Nicaragua as 'El Padrino', or 'The Godfather'. He first sold to a few LA contacts, to Ross' suppliers in fact. It wasn't long before the two met.

"He looked like a small businessman, I really didn't think that everything was fin to change at that instant," says Ross. "But as much as I could sell, he could provide and at the best price. Where other people were getting $3000 an ounce, I was getting $1800. There was no limit to what we could do."

Back then, cocaine was less a hood staple as a deluxe buzz for the cash rich – the pimps, playboys and weed dealers of South Central. "They used to turn up at my mum's house in Cadillacs, with all these girls in short skirts. That's when my mum kicked us out," laughs Ross. Rocks were fairly new to the young dealer but what he had seen was promising – rock customers were ravenous, the turnover was swift and they always brought company. He moved quickly. "Before I met Blandon I was buying maybe $8,000 of dope at a time," he says. "With Blandon, the most I ever bought in one day was $3m – that's 100 kilos. We was buying 200 kilos a week at one time, easy. We had people coming from Kansas, Cincinnati, Texas, Oklahoma, all over…"

They were high times for the young hustler. He had girls all over town, any car he wanted and the kind of bling bling parties that still echo through the hood today. "Yeah I used to party with Freeway," says Nancy, from the Crenshaw district (they called him Freeway Rick, because he lived and owned property near the freeway). "He had the bowls of cocaine, bottles of champagne… I remember one party where two Rolls Royces pulled up, one black and one white. And then the gangsters stepped out, each one in all black and all white, all pimped out with the cane and the mink."

Ross grew up watching Supafly and by the time he turned 20 he had way overtaken his idol. He could spend $100,000 on a whim. "I bought people houses, I bought a party house for $250,000, all in one dollar bills," he says. "We had a problem with the ones." Though he couldn't read or write, Ross could count his money just fine. Prices varied according to the vagaries of the cocaine blizzard, but he could usually skim a clean $15,000 selling a whole kilo across the table and if he broke it down, his cut racked up sixfold. For 100 kilos, that's a minimum profit of $1.5m – which makes a mockery of the $50,000 that the CIA claims Blandon sent to the Contras. For Blandon, who would sell Ross up to 200 kilos per month, fifty grand was sofa-change. Still, Ross didn't splash his cash on the textbook mansion in the hills, careful not to draw attention to himself. Instead, he stayed in South Central, stoking a complex dope hive that at full strength involved over 300 workers and fourteen houses. The rockhouses were graded like poker tables – for $100 players, $1,000 players, $5,000 players and right up to Ross' house, where you bought kilos ('kees'), nothing less. There were ten of these rockhouses scattered through the hood, each one muzzled with bars, heavy doors and an armed guard. Compared to the fetid crackdens that became a ghetto fixture, these early versions were positively swish. "We had colour TVs, VCRs, beds and couches and everything," says Ross. "When I first started selling, it was to doctors, pimps and lawyers, people like that."

He had ladies in the counthouse, counting out the money, and homeboys in the cookhouse melting down the drugs.

"The cookhouse was our most vulnerable spot, because it was the most time we were around dope. So we only ever used one of three houses at a time, for maybe two weeks, and then we moved on. We had an escape strategy, too – we had gasoline, those wood chips that burn real quick. Our plan was to set the house on fire and jump out the first floor window." On cooking day, you'd find Ross and nine others in dustmasks labouring over three industrial cauldrons, yelling "more baking soda! more cocaine!" Once melted down with the baking soda, the drugs were poured into plastic trays, covered in ice and stirred until they hardened, when they could be smashed into rocks. To cook, cool, break, weigh and bag 100 kilos of cocaine took about 3 hours. "And you be high as a motherfucker when you leave. I didn't touch my own supply, I learned that from 'Scarface', but in the cookhouse, you can't help it."

As months became years and thousands became millions, the relationship between Blandon and Ross deepened. He became a mentor and father figure to Freeway, whose own father left him as a child. Blandon taught him how to use an electric scale, how to keep a low profile, to drive in cheap cars, not Ferraris. "I looked up to him," says Ross. "I tried to copy his moves, how he handled his business. We got to the point where everytime we bought from him we wanted more drugs – we wanted to show him that we were investing in the business." Everyone liked Blandon. He bought diamonds and bracelets for the count girls. He gave the boys cars from his rentacar business. "Sometimes he put the drugs in the trunk, handed over the keys and said 'keep it'. And he gave us guns, too, anything we wanted. He gave me a .22 with a silencer, and a silver plated Uzi. He brought my partner Ollie a grenade launcher!"

The weapons hinted at Blandon's proximity to the Nicaraguan war, but at the time, Ross was oblivious. There were other signs, however, that Blandon had friends in high places, signs that Ross now wishes he had heeded. "He gave us these scanners to listen to the cops and the DEA, and he knew all the codes. He used to tip us off sometimes about raids. One time, I was setting up to go to the cookhouse to cook up 100 kees we picked up that morning. It was probably around 8pm. Then he calls: 'don't do nothing tonight, lay low'. I'm arguing with him, I want to take care of business. But sure enough, the cops raided the cookhouse that night." To Ross, Blandon was a blessing – a mentor, friend, protector and purveyor of the cheapest cocaine in town. Why question his sources or his mysterious good fortune? "You don't ask the goose 'why you laying the golden eggs?', you just take the eggs!" Then in 1992, the goose was caught in possession. They found his accounts of drug deals over the years and he confessed to major trafficking over the previous decade. Still, Blandon only served 28 months in jail. "I just assumed he got lucky," says Ross, ruefully. "Now I know someone was looking out for him."

To be fair, Ross had enough on his plate – the 80s was a tricky time to be a crack kingpin in South Central LA. Subjected to a sudden deluge of cocaine and guns, this depressed patchwork of gang territories, became a hellish suburbia of drive-bys and gunfights, likened to Vietnam by a hysterical media. Crips and Bloods were portrayed as hordes of marauding, crack-crazed teens, and the authorities were never keener to noisily flex their wrath. Invoking the familiar jargon of terror, always a winner when it comes to shooing in hammerfist security measures, the high profile attorney Jim Hahn – now mayor of LA – referred to 13 year olds as 'juvenile terrorists'. He even asked for a 'pass law' provision. And Nancy Reagan, the concerned, crumpled face of the disastrous war against drugs, was warming up to her "Just Say No" theme that in 1989 would find her in the hood herself on a raid of so-called 'narco-terrorists'. Even as her husband presided over a CIA that, by its own admission, had 'permitted' cocaine traffic to south central LA, Mrs Reagan stood over the relics of his hypocrisy – a row of cuffed, proned-out kids. "These people are beyond the help of teaching and rehabilitating," she said, adjusting her hair for the television cameras.

Needless to say, Freeway Rick became a prime target. Not so much for the 'narco-terrorists' but for the cops, who first convinced Ross to invest in a bullet-proof vest. Ross was so notorious, he was assigned his own unit, the Freeway Task Force, one of the few times in LA's crime-fighting history that an individual commanded a joint police-sheriff team. And true to the spirit of corruption that colours Ross' story, the task force broke the rules – they threatened to kill Ross, routinely arrested his mother Annie and beat up his brother David. They also took to carrying drugs around to plant on him or his family (confirmed by Sergeant Robert Sobel to the LA Times in 1990). Ironically, when Ross turned himself in on May 5 1987, at the pleading of his mother, the judge threw his case out – in an odd quirk, task force officers were caught on tape bragging about how they had their stories all worked out…

Ross' crew threw a beach party at once and CBS news were there to shoot it: "LA Gang Godfather celebrates his release".

Two years on, Ross was again saved by cop corruption. He had decamped to Cincinnati to go straight, or at least that was the plan. But his resolve so weak and his profile so high, that it wasn't long before the front page of the Cincinnati Post was calling for the arrest of the "10 million dollar man" who had delivered Crips and crack to sleepy Ohio. But when the cuffs went on, the spotlight shifted to his captors – to Ross' delight, he found himself at the centre of an FBI sting called Operation Big Spender, dedicated to busting corrupt LA narcs. At the trial, the jury were treated to footage of task force officers stuffing their pockets with marked notes. They heard evidence that the indicted had spent their winnings – in true LA style – on liposuction and boob jobs for their wives. Though at one point, the lawyer for the accused officers, Harland Braun (now defending Robert Blake) raised the issue of a wider corruption – of CIA involvement and the apparent protection of Blandon – the judges would have none of it. Who are you going to believe? A corrupt cop?

So Ross served four rather than ten years, and upon his release, promised to go straight again. In an effort to 'put something back', he proposed the Freeway Academy, an educational centre to help veer youth away from drugs and gang life. In December 1993, he held a fundraising dinner for the Academy to which more than 200 people turned up. Ross claims that Magic Johnson, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube all pledged support. Even the LA Times hailed him as a genuinely reformed man.

He had six months of freedom.

Blandon, his supplier, mentor and close family friend, had turned grass. And Ross walked straight into his trap. "Blandon called, saying he got 700 kilos to get rid of. And I didn't want to do it. I wanted out. But I wasn't making any money and all he was asking for was a connection. So I said 'Chico Brown'. I was with Chico at this restaurant up on Hoover at the time. I told him I didn't want to be at the deal, I didn't want to be around the drugs, I just wanted to make the connection and leave."

So why did you go?

"It was a combination of helping Chico who was helping me financially, and I felt I owed Blandon… And I was helping myself too because they both woulda give me something for being there."

You didn't smell a rat at all?

"Looking back, there were some things. Like Blandon didn't want to do it at night – when we got there he was like 'oh man, they locked the garage, we got to wait for the morning.' Any other time, he'd just give me the dope. He didn't want to bring the dope to LA either, he insisted we pick up in San Diego. And he wanted the money up front. Usually we do the dope and the money at separate times.

"But I don't know. It was my destiny, I guess. I had to go."

It's just before 6am on KJLH, a community radio station in LA owned by Stevie Wonder, and David Ross, Ricky's brother, is a guest on the phone-in show, Frontpage. He's here to talk to presenter Carl Nelson about Ricky's case, the state of his appeal and the so-called conspiracy theory.

Carl: "We've got a caller on line one, where are you calling from?"

Caller: "I just want to say to David that Freeway Rick devastated our community, man, he put our men in jail and turned our women into ho's. And I know you was living large, you his brother, don't tell me you wasn't. And now you saying 'oh poor Rick, it was all the CIA…' No one forced your brother to deal dope!"

David: "But where did those drugs come from? Rick didn't bring them in…"

Caller: "I don't care where they came from. I don't care who flew the plane. All I care about is who's selling drugs to my children, and that was Ricky Ross, your brother. I say let him rot …"

Freeway Rick is no hero to black America. For all those that recognise the injustice in letting a kingpin walk, not to mention the CIA, while yet another street-level African-American takes the fall, there are many more who cannot bear to make a martyr of a drug dealer. He's no Mumia. There will never be a 'free freeway' campaign.

But Ross' betrayal of his community does nothing to lessen the betrayal of the CIA whose complicity, the community rarely call into question. Conduct a vox pop in South Central about the 'conspiracy' and it breaks down, broadly speaking, between the few who are well versed and recommend further reading, and the majority who recall "something about the CIA, right? Yeah, I heard it was true, you know." (Which is one aspect of the American race divide – the white majority "heard there was no proof.")

When the story broke in the San Jose Mercury News, KJLH hosted a meeting at the epicentre, a town hall in Crenshaw, to which over 1,200 people showed up, crack casualties all – mothers who had lost children to gang wars, kids whose parents were either jailed or addicted. There were tears that day of grief, helplessness and anger. Congresswoman Maxine Waters was among the speakers, and her verdict that there has been a lot of "blinking, winking and nodding at the highest levels" was greeted with an ovation. She invited John Deutch the then-director of the CIA to address the community at a later date and Deutch accepted. Weeks afterwards, his helicopters were hovering over a South Central school, swarming with bodyguards and snipers on the roof. Over the heckles of the crowd, he assured them of his confidence that Webb's allegations were unfounded. "Deutch promised an internal investigation," says David Ross. "And my mother Annie yelled out: 'how can you ask the fox to watch the hen house?'"

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) makes no bones about its suspicions. "It's like Enron," says Frank Berry, the western states director. "Many in the black community don't feel that the perpetrators will ever be brought to justice because they control the system. To bring in drugs and distribute them to such an extent, without the kingpins ever being brought to justice makes a powerful statement – who's controlling law enforcement and what do they work on? Who controls resources?" This kind of response has been dismissed by the mainstream press as "black paranoia", proof of an unhealthy appetite for conspiracy theories among black Americans in particular . No doubt, this appetite exists – at Eso Won, for example, a noted black bookshop in LA, the conspiracy section is one of the best stocked in town, replete with the apocalyptic ramblings of David Icke and his like. The urbane owner, James Fugate, flicks though the titles and laughs. "Our people pay too much attention to this stuff, if you ask me. But it sells." Fugate, however, files 'Dark Alliance' under 'politics', not 'conspiracy'. "You see, there is a difference between fact and theory," he says. "There's concrete proof that the US Public Health Service gave 400 black men syphilis as an experiment in Tuskegee Alabama [between 1932 and 1972]. That's a fact. COINTELPRO is a fact – we know the FBI were involved in monitoring Martin Luther King before he died. We know that their remit was to undermine the Black Panther movement. And we know that the CIA knew about drugs smuggled into our community – fact. So when I read articles in the NY Times and the LA Times about how black people are so paranoid, it's a little rich. Wouldn't you be?"

The response of mainstream American media has been perhaps the most sinister aspect of Ross' story, the way it has muffled what should have been one of the most incendiary news stories of the late 20th century. After all, everyone knows about Watergate, even those too young to remember, but few have heard of the cocaine conspiracy, let alone realise the CIA's guilt. While Woodward and Bernstein have gone onto great honours, Gary Webb has been widely defamed. There has been no clamour for answers, no evidence of the press' instincts in a democracy to question and berate government, expose corruption rather than conceal it. And as a final flourish any natural outrage at the endless secrecy and smokescreening is stifled and dismissed as paranoia. Conspiracy, anyone?

A remarkable feature of the backlash against Webb and his thesis is that it is at once so successful and so insubstantial. For example Webb's sources were scoffed at on the grounds that the testimony of drug dealers is not to be counted, even in a drugs investigation (apart from Blandon, presumably, who took the stand for the Justice Department). He was criticised for feeding questions to Ross' defence lawyer during his trial (a transgression of journalistic boundaries, sure, but how does it exonerate the CIA?) Webb's judgement was derided because he describes Ross as the first major crack dealer in California when there were in fact a handful of less significant others. But this at best diminishes rather than denies Webb's case. It does not at all affect Webb's central charge of CIA complicity. This tendency to diminish the conspiracy is accompanied by a recurring faith in the morality of the CIA. The Washington Post for example asserted, that "if the CIA did associate with drug pushers its aim was not to infect Americans but to advance the CIA's foreign project and purposes". Equally, the pieces of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reiterate time and again that the CIA has denied that it knew anything about the Contras drug-fuelled fundraising efforts – as though a CIA denial was especially compelling.

The most disconcerting aspect of the backlash, however, is the media's tendency to pursue Webb rather than his story. Surely journalists are paid to investigate tales of governmental corruption, law-breaking and secrecy at the expense of poor American citizens? That they haven't has led many to believe that the CIA is closer to the news media than one would like to admit. To say it controls the press might be overstating the threat, but it is not an allegation without precedent. The Washington Post has a notably chequered past, the ties between Philip Graham the publisher and the CIA are long and strong. In 1977, Carl Bernstein uncovered a list of 400 reporters for Rolling Stone magazine who had been in cahoots with CIA propaganda since the 1950s – the article included Life and Time magazine's Henry Luce, William Paley of CBS and James Copley of the Copley News Service, which owned and supplied reportage to a whole raft of local newspapers. Bernstein's list found at least 23 reporters and editors with Copley on the CIA payroll.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the CIA's reach extends into the most powerful news organisations in the country," says Gary Webb, now a magazine journalist based in San Jose. "That's their charter, that's what they do in other countries. Why should we be exempt?" In Webb's case, this resulted in CNN airing a piece on the conspiracy, by lumping it in with alien abductions. "That's the trick – make it a conspiracy and no one will believe it. These weren't aliens, these were real American government officials and real drug dealers." Even now, with the CIA admission on the table, if you call the DEA, a helpful man in the information department will tell you that "Gary Webb actually denied his theory in the end. If you look it up, he retracted most of it."

The chances of bringing the crack conspirators to justice slim by the day. Hopes that a journalist might uncover incriminating evidence were set back last October when President Bush decreed that 68,000 pages of White House archives from the Reagan years are to be kept from the public indefinitely. Maxine Waters was a beacon of hope for a while. A committed South Central representative, she pursued the issue for years even following Webb's leads to Costa Rica and Nicaragua – her research has confirmed Webb's thesis at every step. But since no arrests have been made or charges filed the half-life of her outrage seems to have passed. Certainly, she has refused to speak with GQ for over six months. And a class action suit that a couple of enterprising attorneys in Oakland, north California, decided to take up against the government – built on the CIA's admission – is floundering. One of the lawyers has left – "it was just too difficult, we weren't making progress" – leaving the other, Bill Simpich, to battle alone. "It's a sad situation," he says, downhearted. "The judge shipped the case to Florida. We're just hoping for a hearing, a chance to get the information out there, but it's not looking good."

Meanwhile Blandon remains a free man, or so we can assume – the DEA will not reveal his status. Oliver North, Reagan's notorious Iran-Contra henchman who is still wanted for drug trafficking in Costa Rica, has a regular chat show on FOX. The drugs continue to pour into South Central despite a national drug control budget of $18bn last year, up from $2bn in 1983 when crack was in its infancy. And Freeway's story is being committed to film – Dark Alliance, the movie, by Robert Greenwald Productions, is expected to go into production before the end of the year.

Freeway, himself, however, remains in jail, his life hitting new lows.

"I just heard my son got killed," he says. "He was 19 years old. He beat up some kid in Bakersfield and the guy came back and shot him." It's one of many bitter ironies of Ross' life that the crack fuelled gang world that claimed his son, is a world he helped to create. He has lost other family members to the drug he disseminated in such vast quantities – there's at least four cousins and an uncle on the pipe.

"I blame Blandon for my son," he says. "Because it woulda never happened if I was out. He woulda been a tennis player, and I would have got him the best coaches, everything. But I'll be free soon. I've grown too big for this place. I shouldn't even be here now!"

His lawyer, Frank Reagan, describes Ricky's case – to discount Blandon's testimony on the basis that he should not have been issued a greencard – as 'strong' and 'with precedent'. But it seems unlikely. Certainly Ross has long slipped into reveries about his imminent life on the outside. In one fit of bravado he insists that Shaquille O Neal, whom he doesn't know, will send a Rolls Royce to pick him up at the gate.

"I know it's going to happen. I can feel it."