Pubdate: Tue, 03 Apr 2007
Source: Tallahassee Democrat (FL)
Copyright: 2007 Tallahassee Democrat.
Note: Prints email address for LTEs sent by email
Author: Tyler Bridges
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


LIMA, Peru - He was a strapping and fearless reporter originally from 
Tallahassee who wanted to earn his stripes to become a foreign correspondent.

So Todd Smith headed to the drug-trafficking hub of Uchiza in central 
Peru and photographed the small planes loaded with semi-refined 
cocaine bound for Colombia.

Smith did not leave Uchiza alive. His body, tortured and with a sign 
denouncing him as a U.S. undercover agent, was found in a Uchiza 
playground on Nov. 21, 1989. He was 28 years old and worked for the 
Tampa Tribune. He is the only U.S. reporter who has been killed while 
covering Peru's drug trade.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is asking President Alan Garcia to reopen 
the investigation because the man believed by authorities to have 
ordered Smith's execution, Fernando Zevallos, has never been charged 
with the crime. Nelson visited Peru in late February.

"I told President Garcia that it was important to me because we need 
to give closure to the parents of Todd Smith," Nelson said in an interview.

Smith came with his two younger sisters to Tallahassee in 1975 when 
his father, Robert P. Smith, Jr., was appointed to be a judge on the 
state District Court of Appeal. Smith got his start in journalism at 
Leon High School.

Under the tutelage of legendary teacher Judy Steverson, he drew 
cartoons, wrote stories and became co-editor of the High Life his senior year.

After his 1979 graduation from Leon, he went on to Washington & Lee, 
and after graduating from there, he got a job at the St. Petersburg 
Times and began to work his way up the journalism ladder. By 1989, he 
was making a name for himself covering local government for the Tampa Tribune.

But he burned to be a foreign correspondent.

So he went to Peru on vacation to investigate the country's role as 
the world's biggest producer of the raw coca leaf that is the 
essential ingredient for cocaine.

Smith had already been to hot spots in Nicaragua and Colombia and 
figured that he knew how to manage working in an area where asking 
the wrong question to the wrong person could get you killed.

Uchiza, a jungle town about 250 miles northeast of Lima, was too 
dangerous for the police to patrol when Smith went there. Drug 
traffickers held sway, paying off everyone from the mayor on down 
from their enormous profits. They even paid off the Shining Path 
guerrillas in the area, in exchange for protection.

Americans in the area were assumed to be with the CIA or the Drug 
Enforcement Agency, sworn enemies of the drug traffickers and the 
Shining Path alike.

Sharon Stevenson, then a free-lancer for Time magazine, met with 
Smith. Stevenson had been to Uchiza, accompanied by another reporter, 
and advised Smith that if he insisted on going that he stick only 
with the coca growers, who were not violent.

Traveling alone, Smith instead gathered information from all sides 
and shot incriminating photos of the semi-refined drug being loaded 
onto planes. Smith was about to fly out when four armed men in a 
pick-up truck grabbed him at the airport. His body was found three 
days later in the playground. The sign tied around his neck made it 
seem as if he had run afoul of the Shining Path.

A peasant named Reynaldo Beltran later fingered Zevallos. Beltran had 
tried to sell Smith an alligator in an accidental encounter in Uchiza.

The men first grabbed Beltran, then Smith. Beltran escaped when they 
untied his legs to use the rope to strangle Smith.

In 1992, Beltran gave secret testimony to Peruvian police in which he 
said he overheard the criminals discuss how Zevallos had ordered 
Smith's execution, believing that Smith worked for U.S. government 
anti-drug operations and had seen and heard too much.

At the time, Zevallos operated a fleet of small planes that operated 
out of Uchiza and other jungle towns. Zevallos has repeatedly denied 
any role in Smith's death. He is in prison today, sentenced in 2005 
to 20 years for money laundering and drug trafficking.

In 2004, the U.S. had called him one of the world's biggest drug "kingpins."

Sen. Nelson is hoping the new investigation will lead to Zevallos' 
extradition to the U.S. where he could be jailed for life.

In Tallahassee, meanwhile, Robert P. Smith Jr., now retired from the 
Hopping law firm, expressed appreciation that Nelson and others 
remain interested in what happened to his son.

"I hope Peruvian authorities get to the bottom of it," he said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman