Lehder, Carlos - Cocaine Smuggler testified aga...

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Carlos Lehder

Cocaine Smuggler ran his empire from the Bahamas - Now in federal prison

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Early activities and prison

Lehder started out as a stolen car dealer, a marijuana dealer, and a smuggle rof 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. To that end, he enlisted his bunkmate, former marijuana dealer George Jung, as a future partner. Jung had experience 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 as possible that could be useful to him in the cocaine business. Lehder would sometimes even spend hours questioning fellow inmates about money laundering and smuggling. George Jung allegedly said that Lehder kept countless files and constantly took notes.

Lehder's ultimate scheme was to revolutionize the cocaine trade by transporting the drug to the United States, using small aircraft. Previously, drug dealers had to rely on human "mules" to smuggle the drug in suitcases on regular commercial flights. In Lehder's vision, much greater quantities could be transported directly by small private aircraft, with far less risk of interception.

Starting his 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 stolen 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 unconventional method of drug-smuggling began to gain credibility.

Norman's Cay

In the late 1970s, the Lehder-Jung partnership began to diverge, due to some combination of Lehder's megalomania and secret scheming to secure a personal Bahamian island as an all-purpose headquarters for his operations.

That island was Norman's Cay, which at that point consisted of a marina, a yacht club, approximately 100 private homes, and an air strip. In 1978, Lehder began buying up property and harassing and threatening the island's residents; at one point, a yacht was found drifting off the coast with the corpse of one of its owners aboard. Lehder is estimated to have spent $4.5 million on the island in total.

As Lehder chased away the local population and began to assume total control of the island, Norman's Cay became his lawless private fiefdom. By this time, he had forced George Jung 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.

From 1978 through 1982, the Cay was the Caribbean's main drug smuggling hub and a tropical hideaway and playground for Lehder and associates. They flew cocaine in from Colombia by jet and then reloaded it into the small aircraft that then distributed it to locations in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. Lehder was believed to receive 1 kilo on every 4 that was transported through Norman's Cay.

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 and the glory days of his operation, 300 kilograms of cocaine would arrive on the island daily, and Lehder's personal wealth mounted into the billions. Indeed, he accumulated such staggering wealth that on two occasions he offered to pay the Colombian external debt. In 1978, he made an offer to do so to President Alfonso López Michelsen, in exchange for a free space for drug trafficking; in 1982 through Pablo Escobar, by then a Congressman, he did so again, this time in an attempt to prevent his extradition.

Fugitive, capture, trial and whereabouts

n 1982, after Brian Ross' CBS report on U.S. television made public the corruption of Bahamian government leaders, Lehder could not return to Norman's Cay. The government had frozen all his bank accounts and taken over his property and possessions, and he went from being a billionaire to nearly bankrupt. While on the run in the jungle, he got sick with a fever. Pablo Escobar sent a helicopter for him and brought him back to Medellín, where he received medical attention to save his life. Even so, he was left very weak. When he recovered, Pablo gave him work to do. He was hired as a trusted bodyguard, although he was given the respect he had earned.

Eventually, Lehder wanted to rebuild his fortune, but he was captured at a farm he had just established in Colombia, when a new employee of his informed the police of his location. Another theory is that fellow members of the Medellin Cartel wanted him out of the picture due to his radical military-like behavior, which they believed would jeopardize their cocaine empire, and Escobar himself provided Lehder's whereabouts to the police, leading to his capture.

Having captured one of the Cartel's most powerful members, the U.S. government tapped him as a source of information about the details of the Cartel's secret empire, which later proved useful in assisting the Colombian government to dismantle the Cartel. In 1987, he was extradited to the United States, where he was tried and sentenced to life without parole, plus an additional 135 years. Now all of the other cartel leaders knew what would happen if they were extradited, and soon afterward, the Medellín Cartel organizations split up. These smaller organizations, especially Pablo's, were later attacked by the Cali cartel, by the Colombian police/army, and soon the U.S. became involved as well. A violent war began as the Cartel leaders tried to protect themselves by fighting back.

In 1992, in exchange for Lehder's agreement to testify against Manuel Noriega, his sentence was reduced to a total of 55 years. Three years after that, Lehder wrote a letter of complaint to a Jacksonville federal district judge, complaining that the government had reneged on a deal to transfer him to a German prison. The letter was construed as a threat against the judge.

Within weeks of sending that letter in the fall of 1995, Lehder was whisked away into the night, according to several protected witnesses at the Mesa Unit in Arizona. While many who believe he could have been released, others consider that this is not true. Carlos Lehder's brother, Federico Guillermo Lehder Rivas, who operated on the periphery of the business, might have been mistaken for Carlos, causing the reports of Carlos' being free and living overseas.

According to journalist and author Tamara S. Inscoe-Johnson, who worked on the Lehder defense during the time in question, Lehder was simply transferred to another prison and has continued to be held in WITSEC, the US Bureau of Prisons' version of the federal Witness Protection Program.

Inscoe-Johnson argued that Lehder had not been released, despite Internet rumors to the contrary. Inscoe-Johnson's work on Lehder, titled Norman's Cay: The True Story of Carlos Lehder and the Medellin Cartel, details why the author believes Lehder will never be released: allegedly, Lehder would be privy to secret information regarding the CIA's and his own involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

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 his release from the United States because of the violations of his cooperation agreement.

In May 2008, Carlos Lehder's lawyer declared to El Tiempo that a habeas corpus petition had been filed, alleging that Lehder's cooperation agreement had been violated, and that "a court in Washington" had less than 30 days to respond to the notice.