J. Meneses' 1991 Arrest in Nicaragua

On November 3, 1991, the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) arrested Norwin Meneses, Enrique Miranda, and three others for drug trafficking in Managua. At the time of arrest, the police seized approximately 764 kilograms of cocaine and one kilogram of heroin as it was being loaded into cars and trucks for transport to the United States. According to a 1996 newspaper report, this was one of the biggest drug seizures in Nicaraguan history.

The Nicaraguan police reported to the DEA after the arrest that the drug trafficking organization, led by Meneses, had received a large shipment of cocaine from a Colombian organization, had stored it temporarily in Managua, and had loaded it into vehicles for shipment to the United States. Thirty to forty kilos of cocaine had already been loaded into one Mercedes, hidden in plastic pipes concealed in the rocker panels and a gas tank, and more cocaine inside plastic pipes was being loaded into the framework of a car transport truck. The destination was believed to be either Texas or California.

According to a DEA report from Costa Rica, on August 16, 1992, Meneses was convicted and sentenced to 300 months (25 years) in Nicaraguan prison. Enrique Miranda received 168 months.(37) Several other defendants received lesser sentences and two were acquitted.

In April 1997, when we interviewed Meneses in the Nicaraguan prison, his attorney stated that although Meneses was originally sentenced to 25 years, this sentence was reduced to 12 years and was still under appeal. Meneses told us that he has earned four and a half years of "good time." According to the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, Meneses was released on November 14, 1997.

When we interviewed him in prison, Meneses told the OIG that he has never been a drug dealer or been involved in drug trafficking. Meneses said he was "set up" by the Sandinistas, who advised drug traffickers to say they were part of the Meneses drug organization if they were arrested. Meneses claimed he is currently in prison because Enrique Miranda accused him of drug dealing and that everyone knows that Miranda is a drug dealer.

K. Allegation that DEA Attempted to Use Meneses Against the Sandinistas

In an article on October 4, 1996, The Washington Post reported that Nicaraguan officials believed that the DEA sent Meneses to Nicaragua as an informant to "implicate senior Sandinista officials in drug trafficking" and that DEA "washed its hands of him when he got caught trafficking in drugs himself." The article stated that the Nicaraguan police had witnessed a meeting between Meneses and DEA agent Villarreal before Meneses' arrest, but Villarreal had denied to the police that he knew Meneses and denied that he was an informant.

According to Villarreal and Lard, the DEA did not send Meneses to Nicaragua to target the Sandinistas. As we described above, they stated that Meneses contacted the DEA office in Costa Rica, and in September 1991, Villarreal met with him in Managua. Villarreal told us that at the same time he was meeting with Meneses, he was establishing contacts with the Sandinista national police in order to work drug cases with them. He recalled one meeting in which a policeman asked if Villarreal had had contact with Meneses. Villarreal said he responded "no" because he did not believe he knew the police well enough to share that information. Villarreal stated that the Nicaraguan police did not inform him that Meneses was a target of their investigation. A short time later, the Nicaraguans arrested Meneses.

Villarreal said Meneses had not told him that he was involved in drug trafficking, and he denied that Meneses was used to target the Sandinistas. Villarreal said he suspects that Meneses was trying to protect himself by being able to say he was still working for the DEA.

L. Status of 1989 indictment

The San Francisco indictment of Meneses remains open, although it is now unsealed.(38) Shortly after the arrest of Meneses in Nicaragua, FBI Agent Williams in San Francisco informed the FBI Legat, Mexico City, about Meneses' arrest. Williams wrote that he would work with the San Francisco United States Attorney's Office to obtain an international arrest warrant for Meneses and to explore the possibility of extradition, depending on the result of Meneses' case in Nicaragua.

San Francisco FBI Agent Gordon Gibler told the OIG that, despite Meneses' conviction in Nicaragua, the U.S. Attorney's Office did not want to dismiss the 1989 indictment. He said the FBI considered placing an extradition hold on Meneses, but did not because of his lengthy sentence of 25 years.

Several notes in the U.S. Attorney's Office file indicate that the Assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case in 1994, Ed Luckel, was aware that Meneses had been sentenced to 25 years in Nicaragua. A note states, "We need to evaluate strength of case and decide whether to keep open to [sic] dismiss in view of Nicaragua sentence." Another note states, "We should dismiss this case which involves very little dope, is very old and is supported by marginal evidence. It is also far less sig[nificant] than the case that resulted in the 25 yr. sent[ence]."

In the latest report we found in the FBI file, on May 25, 1995, an FBI agent summarized the evidence in the Norwin Meneses case and reported that the Assistant U.S. Attorney currently assigned to the case had advised the FBI that the U.S. Attorney's Office was still interested in pursuing the indictment and warrant. But because Meneses was still serving a 25 year prison sentence, the case was placed in pending status.

M. Meneses' entries into the United States

An important question in this case is how Meneses, a suspected drug trafficker who was under investigation by several United States law enforcement agencies, could repeatedly gain entry into and live in the United States. The San Jose Mercury News reported that some Nicaraguan officials expressed astonishment that Meneses could live, enter, and leave the United States without arrest. The articles also suggested that Meneses entered the United States as a political refugee in 1979 and was given a work permit.

In order to address this issue, the OIG requested all files on Meneses from the DEA, the FBI, the State Department, and the INS, including his INS Alien file (A-file). These files only provide sketchy information, however, and do not show how Meneses entered the United States repeatedly. Moreover, despite our requests to the INS, DEA, and the State Department for all files concerning Meneses' entries into the United States and their extensive efforts to find them, we are not confident that all such files have been identified or located because our knowledge of certain visits Meneses took to the United States are not reflected in the records we obtained.

The files that we reviewed contain the following pieces of information:

-- In February 1968, the Nicaraguan police believed that Meneses had traveled to the United States using a Nicaraguan passport issued in November 1965. The Nicaraguans requested criminal checks by the FBI on Meneses, which revealed that he had an extensive police record in San Francisco, beginning in 1962. The files do not reflect when Meneses first came to San Francisco.

-- In 1976 and 1977, the FBI noted that Meneses traveled to the United States and Mexico using false identities and had also received several visas in his own name to travel to the United States from the American Embassy in Nicaragua. The FBI noted that Meneses' wife, Paula Rosario Zeledon De Meneses, and child were legal residents of the United States.

-- DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) records reflect that a 365-day lookout was placed on Meneses in 1978, based on information from the DEA's Miami office. The remarks accompanying the lookout state: "Info from DEA indicates that subjects may smuggle cocaine into the U.S. concealed in auto or in shipment aboard Lanica or Pan Am airlines."

-- In August 1980, an anonymous tipster called the DEA San Francisco office and stated that Meneses carries passports from four countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua) and that he was currently out of the country, probably in Colombia.

-- The earliest entry in Meneses' Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) alien file (A-file) was a September 11, 1980, application for admission to the United States, at the port of San Ysidro, California. Meneses was denied admission because he lacked a valid visa. Meneses claimed to be living in Mexico and that he applied for a tourist visa every 60 days there. Meneses withdrew his application for a visa and failed to return to apply for asylum or to request an exclusion hearing.

-- On November 6, 1980, Mariel Baca, Meneses' sister and a naturalized United States citizen, filed a petition for a relative immigrant visa for Meneses, which would have entitled Meneses to permanent resident status. The application stated that Meneses last arrived in the United States "EWI," or "entry without inspection." On January 11, 1981, the petition was approved and forwarded to the United States Consulate in Mexico City, which was supposed to advise Meneses concerning the issuance of this visa. Since Meneses was then in the United States illegally, the INS notified him by mail that he had to leave the United States in order to obtain the visa. It does not appear, however, that this visa was ever picked up by Meneses. The State Department could not provide any record for us that Meneses received this visa.

-- According to his INS A-file, Meneses was admitted on a B-1 business visa to the United States in Miami on May 19, 1982, and the visa was extended on June 12, 1983 in San Francisco until November 30, 1983.

-- The INS A-file contains a memorandum stating that Meneses applied for admission at the San Ysidro Port of entry on July 30, 1983 and presented an I-94, Record of Arrival and Departure, replacement form, showing an extension of stay until November 30, 1983 but no passport. Meneses claimed he left his passport and visa in the United States and had gone to the Mexican immigration office at the Tijuana port of entry, where he was denied admission into Mexico. Meneses was searched, however, and his passport was found on his person. Immigration inspectors determined that Meneses had been traveling in Central America for about one month. Because Meneses did not have a valid visa for the United States, he was refused entry and sent back to Mexico.

-- According to records in his A-file, Meneses obtained Costa Rican identity papers in December 1986 that stated that he was then a resident of Costa Rica. As noted previously (see Chapter II, section G), in December 1986, Meneses came to the United States, along with a DEA confidential informant in connection with a DEA investigation. The DEA's Costa Rica files indicate that Meneses submitted his own application for a visa covering this trip.

-- In September 1987, Meneses traveled from Costa Rica to the United States with a United States visa to work in a DEA undercover operation. In August 1987, when Meneses applied for a tourist visa at the American Embassy in Costa Rica to come to the United States for this trip, the Embassy requested an indices check on Meneses because of information in the State Department's computer records suggesting that Meneses was suspected of drug dealing. This information had recently been entered into the State Department records as a result of a large data transfer from the DEA. The State Department informed the Embassy of the new information in its records concerning Meneses. The Embassy also received information from another agency that Meneses reportedly had been a narcotics kingpin in Nicaragua prior to the fall of Somoza and that he was involved in drug activities in Costa Rica. The DEA requested that Meneses should nevertheless receive a waiver for the visa -- that is, receive a waiver from visa ineligibility because of these reports of drug trafficking activities. The Consul General in Costa Rica and the INS Officer in Charge in Mexico City approved the DEA's request for a waiver, adding that Meneses had not received any other waivers previously. On September 19, 1987, Meneses traveled on this visa to the United States.

-- In November 1987, a second waiver for the issuance of a 45-day visa was requested and received by DEA, and Meneses again entered the United States to work on DEA investigations.

-- On July 6, 1988, Meneses obtained a tourist or business class multiple entry visa good for three months from the U.S. Consulate in Costa Rica. He was admitted to the United States in Miami on July 7, 1988. He obtained another visa on July 18, 1988 from the Salvadoran Consulate in Miami, but the date concerning the length of the visa was not completed. Meneses left Miami and was readmitted on July 30, 1988. Although the files do not so indicate, it is likely that this visa was issued at the request of DEA, because Meneses was again traveling to the United States during this period in connection with his informant work for the DEA.

-- In September 1988, Meneses traveled from Costa Rica to Miami, without notifying the DEA. He was stopped by the INS as a result of a lookout posted in its National Automated Immigration Lookout System (NAILS). The lookout system showed that Meneses was inadmissible because he was believed to be a drug trafficker. When he was stopped, Meneses claimed to be working for DEA, but the INS could not verify this, so it released him but ordered him to appear for a deferred inspection on September 14, 1988. After Meneses was released, his DEA contact, Raul Delgado, was contacted by the INS. Delgado told the INS that Meneses was not assisting him on this trip and the DEA had not expected him to enter the United States. Delgado therefore told the INS that Meneses should be set up for an exclusion hearing.

On September 14, 1988, Meneses returned to Miami for his inspection and INS ruled that he had obtained his non-immigrant visa with the help of DEA but had failed to assist them as agreed. INS declared Meneses was not a bona-fide non-immigrant. He withdrew his application for admission and agreed to leave the country.

Delgado told the OIG that although Meneses was assisting in drug investigations in Miami, and had come to Miami in July 1988, Delgado was not expecting Meneses in September. Therefore, when INS called Delgado, he refused to help Meneses. Delgado did not go to the airport and had no contact with Meneses at this time. Delgado believes he called the Costa Rica DEA office to report this incident and that office agreed with Delgado's refusal to assist Meneses. Delgado said the DEA suspected Meneses may have been trying to work a drug deal on his own.

-- As noted above (see section I), Meneses again entered the United States in May 1989 to work on a DEA undercover case targeting money laundering and cocaine smuggling in Miami and Los Angeles. The DEA arranged for him to get a visa for this trip. He remained in the United States until August 1989, when he returned to Costa Rica.

This 1989 trip was the last one for which we located any information in INS, DEA, or State Department files.

Information from informants also suggests that Meneses traveled into and out of the United States far more frequently than his Alien file would indicate, likely under falsified, borrowed, or stolen passports. One informant told us that Meneses was able to go in and out of the United States because he had a number of different passports, mostly Mexican passports. This informant believed that Meneses purchased the Mexican diplomatic passports with fictitious names from a Los Angeles Mercedes Benz car dealership.

Another informant told us that Meneses once showed him some blank Nicaraguan passports that Meneses said he had printed in Tijuana. The informant said that years later he came to doubt this claim and thought the passports were real and had come from the Nicaraguan government. Another informant told the DEA in 1987 that Meneses was once the designated consul for Nicaragua in San Francisco and therefore could secure travel documents and passport stamps.

In 1977, the FBI office in Mexico City reported that, according to the Nicaraguan police, Meneses had a Nicaraguan passport in someone else's name, which he used to travel to the United States and Mexico. According to the police, he also had a United States permanent residence green card in his brother's name. In 1984, an FBI source reported that Meneses had attempted to enter the United States through New Orleans or Miami, was turned away, then flew to Tijuana and entered the United States by land "possibly using one of the many green cards or passports he reportedly has."

In addition, we found in the DEA Costa Rica files a Costa Rican passport Gonzalez had seized from Meneses in 1987, with his photograph and various visa stamps, including a visa stamp for the United States in 1983. The file contained a handwritten note from Gonzalez stating that Meneses claimed he bought the passport so he could travel to the United States, although he never used it. Gonzalez told us that he remembered taking the passport from Meneses and also Meneses' claim that he had not used it, but Gonzalez said he did not know if Meneses was telling the truth about it.

According to the San Jose Mercury News articles, Meneses "was welcomed into the United States in July 1979 as a political refugee and given a visa and a work permit." When we questioned the INS about this claim, we were told that the INS has no record that Meneses ever applied for or received political asylum or had ever been admitted to the United States as a refugee. INS also said that it had no record of Meneses applying for or receiving any work permit.(39)

In our interview with him, Meneses did not provide answers as to how he entered the United States so frequently. He stated that often when he traveled to the United States, he would be stopped at the border and questioned because of a lookout in INS computers, but he would then be allowed to enter after a few hours of questioning.

In sum, it is difficult to determine how Meneses was able to come and go from the United States as frequently as he did. Until 1987, he could enter legally as a tourist. After that, he sometimes worked as an informant for the DEA, and he came using visas arranged by the DEA. At other times, he came on his own, probably with fraudulent travel papers.

N. Conclusions Regarding Investigation of Meneses

The evidence we found showed that Meneses was a large-scale drug trafficker who was pursued by various federal investigations for many years, but none of these cases resulted in his arrest or prosecution. We found several causes for this lack of success, but like in the Blandon case, we did not find that it was a result of any pressure from the CIA, any national security agency, or any other federal entity in Washington. Rather, the failure seems attributable to insufficient resources devoted to a targeted effort against Meneses, problems of communication and coordination among law enforcement offices, and a vacillation as to whether Meneses should be considered a target or an informant.

First, none of the numerous investigations involving Meneses that we reviewed contained any suggestion that they should be altered or closed for political considerations, and no witness provided any evidence of such actions.

Second, as recognized by Sandra Smith, the first DEA agent who investigated Meneses, any investigation of Meneses would be large and complex, involving various offices and agencies in different countries, and it required a coordinated approach. The DEA and FBI in the United States pursued Meneses in many separate investigations for ten years, from the late 1970s to 1991 when he was arrested in Nicaragua, but the United States authorities did not develop a concerted, coordinated effort. In the one task force case involving Meneses, the 1986-87 Los Angeles OCDETF case, Meneses was originally a target but then considered an informant, and the case was closed after he refused to cooperate. The FBI later proceeded against Meneses, indicting him in 1989 mainly to avoid a statute of limitations bar, but this effort was not coordinated or comprehensive.

Nor was there sufficient coordination or analysis when Meneses first offered to cooperate with the DEA in Costa Rica in 1986. All the entities involved in investigating him should have considered whether he should be used as an informant or targeted as a defendant. While a meeting was suggested for all the offices with an interest in Meneses -- the Costa Rica DEA Office, the Los Angeles and San Francisco FBI, DEA, and United States Attorney's Offices, as well as a representative from DEA Headquarters -- such a meeting never occurred, and it does not appear that a consistent approach to Meneses was ever developed. The DEA Costa Rica office considered him a valuable source of information against international drug traffickers, while the United States Attorney's Offices, the FBI, and the DEA in the United States continued its investigation and pursuit of him in the United States, with varying degrees of vigor. Thus, at the same time he was the subject of the FBI investigation and even the subject of a 1989 indictment, he was traveling in the United States on behalf of the DEA. The evidence shows that the coordination and communication between the FBI and the DEA during this period was lacking. This was a critical problem, especially because Meneses was so mobile and moved between countries easily.

However, we did not find that any of the actions in these cases were taken for improper purposes, as a result of political considerations, or with the influence of the CIA or other national security entities. Although some rumor and speculation surfaced that Meneses worked for the CIA, largely fueled by his own bragging, there was no evidence that this was true. Moreover, every time the CIA was queried, it denied any affiliation, and before Meneses was indicted, the CIA said it had no objection to his prosecution. In addition, we find it unlikely that the investigation of Meneses was altered by political considerations, because the evidence known to the law enforcement authorities who were investigating him suggested that he had ties to the Sandinistas as well as the Contras. Had political considerations been applied to this case, it is just as likely that a prosecution of him would have been encouraged, to expose Sandinista drug trafficking, rather than discouraged because of ties to the Contras. But we found no evidence of influence either way.

In short, the investigation of Meneses failed because of inadequate resources devoted to this case and inadequate coordination between law enforcement agencies, which are recurring law enforcement issues not unique to the cases of Meneses, Blandon, or the others that we examined in this review.

37. For a description of Miranda and what happened to him, see Chapter VII below.

38. In 1996, a copy of the sealed indictment was placed on the Internet by the San Jose Mercury News. The article stated that the newspaper found the indictment and arrest warrant in Nicaragua. According to Swenson, the indictment was sent to the Nicaraguan authorities, who used it in their attempt to deny Meneses bail after his arrest. The indictment therefore became a public record in Nicaragua. On August 4, 1997, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered it unsealed.

39. While we found nothing to indicate that Meneses had been a refugee seeking political asylum, we found that Blandon was. Blandon stated in grand jury testimony in 1994, which was posted on the San Jose Mercury News website, that he had come to the United States as a refugee seeking political asylum. The Mercury News articles may have simply confused Blandon's statement with Meneses.