Given the high level of interest shown in my very brief previous report on Norman’s Cay and Carlos Lehder, I realized I owed it to my dear readers to provide a little more depth on this subject…
THE EARLY YEARS
The son of a German father and a Colombian mother, Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas began his life of crime as a low-level drug dealer in Michigan. But his notoriety as one of the founders of the Medellin Cartel, and his eventual megalomania, made him a legendary and feared figure much like Blackbeard – an earlier international rogue who once also had free rein in the Bahamas.
Lehder started out as a stolen car dealer, a marijuana dealer, and a smuggler of stolen cars between the US and Canada. While serving a sentence for car theft in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, Lehder decided that, upon his release, he would take advantage of the burgeoning market for cocaine in the United States, and enlisted his bunkmate, former marijuana dealer George Jung (Portrayed by Johnny Depp in the movie Blow), as a future partner. Jung had experience with flying marijuana to the US from Mexico in small aircraft, staying below radar level and landing on dry lake beds. Inspired by the idea, Lehder decided to apply the principle to cocaine transport and formed a partnership with Jung. While in prison he set out to learn as much information, that would be useful to him in the cocaine business, as he possibly could. Lehder would sometimes spend hours questioning fellow inmates on money laundering and smuggling. George Jung said that Lehder kept countless files and constantly took notes.
THE ROOTS OF THE EMPIRE
After their releases (both were paroled), Lehder and Jung built up a small stream of money through simple, traditional drug smuggling – they enlisted two American girls to take a paid vacation to Antigua, receive cocaine, and carry it back with them to the US in their suitcases. Repeating this process several times, they soon had enough money for an airplane.
Using a small plane and a professional pilot, they began to fly cocaine into the United States via the Bahamas, increasing their financial resources and building connections and trust with Colombian suppliers while spreading money around among Bahamian government officials for political and judicial protection. Their untraditional method of drug-smuggling began to gain credibility.
Shortly thereafter, Lehder talked other drug lords, already active in the marijuana trade into forming a cooperative that became a cartel based in the northwestern industrial city of Medellin (Colombia’s second largest city).
This rapidly growing network became known as the Medellín Cartel. The partnership of Lehder and Jung handled transport and distribution, while Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar handled production and supply (By the age of 32 Pablo Escobar was netting $500,000 a day). Other elements of the cartel, such as the Ochoa family, helped deal with political matters in Colombia.
Using an efficient, high-tech approach to cocaine smuggling that facilitated shipment of the drug in mass quantities, Lehder and Jung were soon rising stars.
In the late 70s, the Lehder-Jung partnership began to diverge, due to some combination of Lehder’s megalomania, and Lehder’s secret scheming to secure a personal Bahamanian island as a complete all-purpose headquarters for his operations.
That island was Norman’s Cay. Before Lehder, Norman’s Cay was a popular anchorage for visiting yachts. It was developed in the early 1970s as a small residential community with a clubhouse and marina. But in 1978 a Bahamian company called International Dutch Resources began buying up land there. IDR was set up for Lehder by a regular trust company in Nassau, which conveniently managed his working capital.
Lehder bought as much property on the island as he could and then chased off the remaining residents. Armed guards patrolled day and night and former Member of Parliament Norman Solomon was once threatened at gunpoint on the beach. As Lehder chased away the local population and began to assume total control of the island, Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, believed to have taken massive amounts of money in bribes from Lehder and associates, did nothing. Norman’s Cay became Lehder’s lawless private fiefdom. By this time, George Jung had been forced out of the operation, and international criminal financier Robert Vesco had allegedly become a partner. Jung used his prior connections to take up a more modest line of independent smuggling for Escobar, and stayed out of Lehder’s way.
Lehder’s smuggling operation on Norman’s Cay was an overnight success. Court papers show that the first (and modest) load Lehder handled reaped a $1 million profit for two days of work. From 1978 through 1982, the Cay became the Caribbean’s main drug smuggling hub and a tropical hideaway and playground for Lehder and associates. Cocaine was flown in from Colombia by jet and then reloaded into the small aircraft that then distributed it to locations in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. These unexpected destinations made evasion easier because U.S. authorities were watching only the country’s southern borders.
Lehder built a 3,300-foot (1,000 m) runway protected by radar, bodyguards and Doberman attack dogs for the fleet of aircraft under his command. In the glory days of his operation, 300 kilograms of cocaine would arrive on the island every hour of every day, and Lehder’s personal wealth mounted into the billions.
Court papers say Lehder earned $250 to $300 million a year. He owned 15 cars and trucks, three airplanes, a helicopter, 12 haciendas, an apartment building and nine other properties, including a huge Bavarian-style tourist complex in Colombia’s Armenia City, as well as assets throughout the world.
However, Lehder was not just legendary for his tax-free earnings, but also his social activities on Norman’s Cay. One of his long-time associates described the frequent orgies as follows: “Five males, 10 females and everybody runs naked and everybody switches partners and everybody drinks and smokes marijuana, and alcohol, and three days of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Lehder was also fascinated with the Nazis, dressing in military fatiques and comparing himself to Hitler. According to Tamara Inscoe-Johnson, who has written a book on Lehder: “He spent untold hours plotting a political career, aiming at the Colombian presidency. As his goals expanded, so did his fascination with Nazism; after all, Hitler’s goal was to take over the world, and it was the same with Lehder.”
In the 1980s, the Medellin drug ring was responsible for smuggling 74 percent of the cocaine used in the United States. In fact, they were bringing so much in that according to the DEA’s own estimates, in the United States in 1978, a kilo of 12-percent purity cocaine had sold on the street for an average of $800,000. But by early 1984, cocaine was so plentiful that prices for a kilo of cocaine dropped as low as $30,000 in New York City and $16,000 in South Florida.
FALL OF THE HOUSE OF LEHDER
At the time of his arrest in 1987 the net worth of Lehder, then 37, was estimated at more than $2.5 billion.
This mug shot of Lehder was taken after his arrest for drug smuggling.
Here’s what happened…
When law enforcement pressure became too intense, other major Medellín players fled to the protection of Manuel Noriega in Panama and began plans to establish an even larger operation there. Lehder, however, distrusting Noriega, sought protection in Nicaragua, paying the Sandinista regime for the privilege.
Eventually, Lehder was captured in the jungle, and lost his fight against extradition. In 1987, he was sent to the United States, where he was tried and sentenced to life without parole, plus an additional 135 years.
During this time, Carlos Lehder began cooperating with the government against Noriega. In 1992, in exchange for Lehder’s agreement to testify against Manuel Noriega, the sentence for life without parole plus 135 years was reduced to a total sentence of 55 years and Lehder went into the Bureau of Prisons’ version of the federal Witness Protection Program.
For his testimony, Lehder received special treatment in prison, a drastically reduced sentence, and protection in this country for his family. And, only a small fraction of his $2.5 billion cocaine-built fortune was seized.
How could the man who ran the world’s biggest drug operation, a man wanted for years by the American government, wind up as a federally protected witness?
Because the Justice Department desperately wanted Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, a smaller player in the drug trade but a bigger political fish.
Some even say that Lehder has already been released by the U.S. government and is leading a life of awesomeness and luxury – that Carlos Lehder is a free man who has kept his money, who travels the world freely. Lehder is even rumored to be living freely in my old zip code in Lafayette, California. How awesome would that be?
Unfortunately, it isn’t true. Carlos Lehder’s ongoing legal battles confirm Lehder remains imprisoned in the US, and that he is not likely to be released anytime soon. On July 22, 2005 he appeared in the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to contest his sentence. Lehder appeared pro se, arguing that the United States failed to perform its obligations under a cooperation agreement he had entered into with the United States Attorney’s Office, after he held up his end of the deal. (United States v. Lehder-Rivas, 136 Fed. Appx. 324; 2005). In May 2007, he requested the Colombian Supreme Court to order the Colombian government to request from the United States his release because of the violations of his cooperation agreement.
Lehder, Escobar, Jung, et al had a hell of a run. It’s too bad they didn’t get out in time…
Here are some pictures of Norman’s Cay today…
The main villa
The famous landing strip
The rusting remnants of a jet so loaded down with cocaine that it wasn’t able to make it off the runway – a fitting metaphor for the Medellin cartel?