Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 10. Arrests
Just like after Lara’s assassination, Cano’s death provoked demands for retribution and public opinion began to swing against the cartel. People from Cano’s profession marched in silence. Speeches were given, praising almost two-dozen journalists killed in recent years. Thousands attended the funeral, including the president, whose car led a convoy past mourners waving Colombian flags.
On top of Cano’s death, the president was dealing with the murder of Ramirez and the return of Jorge Ochoa from Spanish jail. To earn his freedom, Ochoa claimed to have paid $6 million to the Spanish judges.
Lara’s successor, who’d signed Pablo’s arrest warrant and the extradition order for Lehder, ran into trouble in Hungary. Hoping he’d be safe overseas, he’d gone to work in the Colombian Embassy. Death threats started coming in: “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Pablo’s men trailed him for weeks. They knew his routine, including when he drove to the embassy or took the bus.
January 13, 1987 in Budapest commenced with a blizzard. The ambassador left his house in the hills above the capital and examined his car. As the roads were iced over, he decided to walk to the bus stop. Going down a hill, he spotted a man.
“You, Enrique Parejo?” the stranger yelled.
Instantly, a gun was drawn. The first shot entered his neck. With a bullet lodged in his spine, he collapsed. Unable to move, he watched the man stand over him, take aim at his head and shoot him in the mouth, cheek and arms. Miraculously, he survived thanks to doctors who removed the bullets in two operations.
The authorities clamped down with the usual arrests, destruction of labs and seizures of property, cash, weapons and drugs that hardly disrupted the flow of cocaine. Something more needed to be done.
The government made a secret list of the 128 most wanted traffickers, including 56 on the extradition list, and managed to arrest eight of them. If only they could arrest one of the big four.
Thanks partially to Colonel Ramirez, Lehder’s organisation had disintegrated. Stories of Norman’s Cay had leaked out and it was no longer being used. The government liquidated his assets. He was almost bankrupt, after once being worth $2 billion. While on the run, he caught a severe jungle fever. Pablo sent a helicopter for him and had him treated in Medellín, where he recovered. They spent time together, travelling across the country, staying at ranches. Rather than keep working as a bodyguard for Pablo, Lehder wanted to remake his fortune.
George Jung – Lehder’s old cellmate, who he’d squeezed out of the business – was in federal prison, with revenge festering in his mind. For importing 300 kilos of cocaine, he was serving fifteen years. When the FBI offered to transport Jung to Colombia to entice Lehder into a trap, Jung said yes, not to help the FBI, but to murder Lehder. At night on his bunk, Jung fantasised about the different ways of killing Lehder.
In December 1986, Lemus, the police chief of Rionegro, started to receive information that Lehder was in a safe house in the area, soliciting Pablo to invest in a joint cocaine venture. In the wake of Cano’s death, Lemus had been granted special powers to search anywhere, but he’d turned up nothing. His gut told him that Pablo had put Lehder in a mountainside chalet, but he didn’t know which area of the vast forest to search.
On February 3, 1987, Lemus was introduced to an informant who had noticed some noisy men at a chalet in the woods. Upset with the mess they were making, the caretaker of the chalet had complained to the informant.
Around 4 pm, Lemus, accompanied by two policemen – who were under the impression that they were searching for guerrillas, not cartel leaders who could have their entire families slaughtered – located a two-storey chalet disguised by vegetation. It had a lawn upfront, an outbuilding at the side and behind it was a canyon with a stream. Three armed bodyguards protected the front and each side. For two hours, the police hid among the trees, observing sixteen occupants go in and out of the yard.
At 6 pm, Lehder emerged with a canvas chair.
Taken aback, Lemus whispered to a colleague, “Do you know that guy?”
Realising he was about to reveal the nature of the operation, which would have spooked his colleagues, Lemus kept quiet. He sent one of his men for reinforcements.
Thirty-six police arrived, including a special-weapons team. They surrounded the chalet. Lemus stationed a dozen men at the back. Others blocked the escape routes.
Even with his special powers, Lemus couldn’t raid the house before 6 am without a warrant. He sent a constable for one, who returned at 4 am by which time cold fog had descended. Unable to find anyone to sign the warrant, the constable had signed it himself.
At 6:30 am, a bodyguard fired at a police sniper. The bodyguard was shot. A gun battle erupted between bodyguards on the second floor and the police behind the chalet in the woods.
Fearful of Lehder escaping, Lemus charged for the front door, clutching his gun with both hands, ready to blast someone in the face. On the other side of the door, Lehder was racing towards it as the assault from the police at the rear had convinced him that the front was the best escape route.
When the door opened, Lehder almost ran into the gun of Lemus. “Little chief, don’t shoot me.”
“We aren’t killers,” Lemus said. “Put your hands on your head and get down on the floor.”
Lehder complied. As he dropped, he fished a wad out of a pocket and threw it on the floor. “That’s a million pesos.”
“Pick it up, señor,” Lemus said. “You’re going to need it for soft drinks.”
“Do you want green instead? How much?”
“No, I’m just doing my duty.”
“Oh, little chief, what a hot number you are. You’re the most famous man in the world. You know those gringo sons of bitches want to hang me by the balls, and now you’ve got me. Too bad we didn’t meet earlier.”
In the front room, the captives were searched and lined up. “Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Carlos Lehder.” The remark from Lemus was met with silence. Out in the yard, captives were photographed by Lemus. “Where’s the soccer ball? We’re taking the team picture.” Everybody laughed.
At 10 am, vans collected the captives. Taking no chances, Lemus transported Lehder in his car. A dishevelled Lehder chatted with Lemus and women along the road.
At a telephone booth, Lemus called his boss. “We got him!”
“Yes, calm down. You got who?”
“The Virgin has smiled on us. We have captured Carlos Lehder.”
While the reporters mobbed the police vans containing the captives, Lemus sneaked Lehder into the police station, where he gave him lunch. The telephone rang continuously and death threats were issued. Lemus was ordered to immediately gather his family and belongings, so that the US embassy could relocate them out of the country.
At 2 pm, an army helicopter landed to take Lehder to the Rionegro airport, where he boarded a military plane to Bogotá. Having been told that they could have Lehder right away if they had a plane available, the US embassy advised the Colombian government that a DEA plane was being rerouted to Bogotá. Lehder was rushed aboard a DEA Aero Commander. On the runway, a camera was filming. Fearing reprisals from the cartel, every soldier had his face covered with a black shroud. On February 4, 1987, 5:15 pm, the Aero Commander took off. The DEA issued a worldwide alert for cartel retaliation.
“You got me now,” Lehder told the DEA agents aboard.
The plane stopped to refuel in Cuba, where the army base was locked-down due to Lehder’s high profile. The DEA agents offered Lehder a cigarette.
“No, that’s all right. I only smoke marijuana.”
On February 5, 1987 at 2 am, the Aero Commander landed at Tampa International Airport, where it was immediately surrounded by agents with shotguns and automatic weapons. Lehder was rushed into a car. A convoy of armed agents escorted Lehder to a federal courthouse. His mugshot was taken.
In the morning, Lehder appeared in court, smiling. “I don’t have any money.”
“Is the information true?” a magistrate said.
“Yes, Your Honour. Most of my assets were frozen by the government of Colombia.”
Facing a maximum sentence of life without parole plus 135 years, Lehder was assigned a public defender. The US Attorney demanded that no bail be set because there had been death threats made against judges.
“That’s a lie!” Lehder yelled.
“He has said if he were caught, he’d kill a federal judge a week until he’s freed,” said the US Assistant Attorney.
At a hearing on February 9, Lehder claimed to have no access to any money.
“Are you aware that your watch is worth approximately $6,000?” the US Attorney said.
“Your Honour,” Lehder’s public defender said, “we understand that he [Lehder] was turned into the police by an underworld figure: Pablo Escobar.” No evidence was offered to back up her claim.
Lehder was refused bail. On the basis that Lehder had earned $300 million in 1979 and 1980, the IRS slapped a $70 million lien on him.
In a response mailed to Colombian newspapers, Pablo conceded that he’d had “personal quarrels with Lehder on several occasions, but these would not lead me to perform such a low and cowardly act as to betray him to the authorities.” Pablo believed that Lehder’s public defender had initiated a “plan to attack my moral and personal integrity.”
In Marion, Illinois, Lehder was housed in the highest-security federal prison in the country. Then he was transferred to Talladega, Alabama. Although in isolation, he was disturbed by a neighbour who “spent much of the night and day yelling and emitting unintelligible guttural sounds.” His lawyers complained that he “was unable to sleep day or night because of the incessant noise.” He ended up in Atlanta on a maximum security floor with empty cells. On the floors below him, 1,800 Cubans from the Mariel Boatlift disturbed his sleep. “Primal screams punctuate the air minute by minute, from time to time the din is so pervasive that one cannot hear himself think.”
Eventually, Lehder hired two high-priced lawyers. Without his lawyers’ consent, he sent a letter to George HW Bush on which the Miami Herald reported: “Accused Colombian Drug Chief’s Offer To Cooperate Described As Frivolous.”
His lawyers issued a statement: “It is absolutely false beyond any doubt that Carlos Lehder is cooperating. This letter [to George HW Bush] is to some degree the product of his solitary confinement.”
Frustrated with Lehder for thwarting his plan to murder him by getting arrested, George Jung was amused by Lehder’s letter to George HW Bush. Previously, Jung had refused to cooperate. But with Lehder in custody, Jung couldn’t resist the opportunity to get revenge. After contacting the FBI, he wrote a letter about Lehder.
Despite the authorities bracing for a violent response to Lehder’s extradition, none came, leading them to wonder what the cartel was up to.
Behind the scenes, cartel lawyers were busy battling the legality of extradition. On June 25, 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the president had acted unconstitutionally by re-signing the extradition legislation. Without going on a murderous rampage, the cartel had won its battle against extradition. The US authorities were appalled.
In custody, Lehder described the day of extradition reversal as the happiest of his life. He blamed his extradition on “the burial of a Supreme Court that had sold out to imperialist interests.” He mistakenly thought that with extradition ruled illegal, he would be returned to Colombia.
On July 22, 1987, three requests for the provisional arrest of Pablo were dismissed as unenforceable. Citing a lack of evidence, a judge withdrew orders for the arrest of Pablo and Gacha for the murder of Cano. Citing improper methods of obtaining evidence, a judge dismissed Pablo’s indictment for Lara’s murder. Now Pablo’s only outstanding cases dated back to the 1970s, and all of the witnesses were dead. With their legal difficulties behind them, the remaining big three factions of the Medellín cartel started to regain their strength.
Thirty-eight-year-old Lehder arrived for trial on November 17, 1987. Wearing a tailored suit and with his hair freshly cut, he grinned at reporters. During the proceedings, he took notes and ate sweets. Three armed US marshals sat behind him.
“This case will take you back in time to 1974,” the US Attorney said, “and forward over the course of many years in which Carlos Lehder pursued a singular dream, a singular vision, to be the king of cocaine transportation… He was to cocaine transportation what Henry Ford was to automobiles… He saw America as a decadent society. He saw cocaine as the wave of the future in the US, reeling from Watergate and Vietnam, particularly susceptible to the seductive allure of cocaine.”
Lehder’s lawyers portrayed him as a Colombian whom American smugglers – now turned informants against him – had preyed on. “Lehder was his own worst enemy. He was a young wealthy brash Colombian, flamboyant, to say the least… He confronted the DEA with his mouth.”
Numerous of Lehder’s cohorts testified against him. Even the TV personality, Walter Cronkite, described getting threatened at Norman’s Cay.
Jung took the stand, a small man with long brown hair. While he detailed his story, his wizened face lit up. He smiled often as if savouring his revenge. The cross-examination was structured to trip Jung up.
“Knowing you to have used people before when it fits your interest, would you be using Mr Lehder in this case in order to lower your prison sentence maybe?”
“Do you really believe that?” Jung said.
“I’m asking the questions.”
“And when you wrote down that you had been to Pablo Escobar’s farm numerous times weren’t you trying to sort of puff up your importance in this case, to see if you can get a better deal, better letter from the government, to see if they will reduce your parole and your sentence? Were you trying to do that, knowing Pablo Escobar to be somebody who has been publicised?”
“No. I didn’t have to expand my role. I was married into a Colombian family that is tied in to people down there. That was well known. I didn’t have to exaggerate my role. I mean, I was arrested in 1985 with 660 pounds of cocaine, and, in essence, they suddenly confiscated more on the airstrip, close to 3,000 pounds of cocaine. I don’t believe that I had to exaggerate my role with 3,000 pounds of cocaine.”
After the testimonies of 115 witnesses, the jury heard even more damning evidence: recordings from some of Lehder’s interviews over the years, in which he described himself as a poor Colombian peasant who had made something of himself.
From June 28, 1983: “This was our obligation, to bring the dollars back to our people however we could. So then, that is it. It can be called Mafia. It can be called syndicate. It can be called a bonanza. It can be called whatever you like, but the truth is that it is a fact, and it is out in the open. In other words, Colombia would not be able to deny that it was the world’s foremost producer of marijuana and cocaine.” At fault was the US, “where there are forty-million marijuana smokers and twenty-five-million cocaine consumers… What I ask that they do is help the Colombian drug addict that they themselves corrupted.”
From another recording: “I have never transported drugs. It is just that my lands, the flexibility afforded by their location being 200 miles from the US, provided the opportunity for the Colombians, who were being trapped like flies over there with little suitcases and with little boxes, of going in there, by means of a different system, a different means, a different platform.”
Speaking loudly, one of Lehder’s lawyers expressed outrage. “This is a case in which the government brought into this courtroom twenty-nine bought witnesses.”
Holding up a MAC-10 that had been found on Norman’s Cay, the US Attorney attacked Lehder’s businessman defence. “You have seen tragedy upon tragedy come into this courtroom. They were at war with society, together with Mr Lehder. He’s still at war. He hasn’t stopped… A trail of bribery, corruption, violence and personal debasement has been created and fostered by Mr Lehder with the help of those witnesses, and that wreckage exists in Colombia, the Bahamas and the US. That wreckage is the legacy of Mr Lehder’s children. That wreckage in Colombia and the Bahamas and the US is an open wound, and that wound will not be healed by vengeance. That wound will only be healed by justice and truth and reconciliation.” Holding up a spoon, he said it held one thirtieth of a gram of cocaine, and that Lehder was responsible for bringing in eighteen million grams or one billion snorts.
“Mr Lehder was an opportunity waiting to meet another opportunity: the US demand for drugs… His strength, ladies and gentlemen, was he was able to capitalise on the weakness of others… the disenchanted, the rogues, the crippled. He bought, charmed or pushed aside all obstacles. He’s finally come to a situation where he can’t do that.”
In his final rebuttal to Lehder’s lawyers, the US Attorney said, “The striking story in this case is that America, a substantial portion of America, has been an active partner with Mr Lehder. While it is true, as Mr Lehder told you on his own tapes, tragically, that his acts were motivated by hatred and bitterness against the US, it is also true that all of Mr Lehder’s money and all of his guns and all of his power could not force American pilots to fly for him, could not force American businessmen to sell property to him, could not force aircraft salesmen to sell planes for cash, could not force victims of Mr Lehder’s crimes to inject cocaine into their arms… or to snort it up their noses. The story of this case is the story of an absence of love, an absence of responsibility, a fleeing from responsibility by the witnesses in this case and by Mr Lehder. So your verdict is an act of reconciliation with truth, an act of reconciliation with the past. You have a duty and you have a privilege of returning a true verdict in this case, a duty which you must not shirk and you must not fear. Thank you.”
After the jury left to deliberate, Lehder held up a sign to the journalists and other attendees: “Just Say No to Racism.”
Over seven days, the jury deliberated for forty-two hours. In the packed courtroom, the anticipation of the verdict was palpable. While three women on the jury cried, the judge announced that Lehder was guilty on all counts. With a blank expression, Lehder gazed at the floor.
Both legal teams made announcements to the press. “Until we take the problem out of the schoolyard,” one of Lehder’s lawyers said, “you can put all of the Carlos Lehders you want in prison, but the problem is it doesn’t work. What have we accomplished? Do we have one gram of drugs less available to us because of this prosecution?”
The US Attorney claimed it was a victory for the good guys and the American people. It “reflects to people in other nations that we are a nation of laws and will not tolerate the violence of drug traffickers.” As if challenging Pablo directly, he said that the cartel had “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide… I think their days are numbered.”
A journalist asked about the effect on the drug trade.
“The War on Drugs is not measured in terms of the amount of drugs that’s seized. It’s a war of the human spirit… the real issue is will. The will of the American people versus the will of the cartel.” He said that the violent nature of the Medellín Cartel would be its downfall. “The Carlos Lehders of the world are going to have a narrower and narrower opportunity to wreak their crimes on this country.”
Lehder had grown a beard by the time of his sentencing hearing on July 20, 1988. He spoke for almost half of an hour. “I feel like an Indian in a white man’s court.” He said he was a political prisoner, a victim of an overambitious prosecutor, and it had been a case of “twenty-nine confessed criminals against one Latin… Witnesses that never had a second underwear claimed they made millions from Lehder… I was kidnapped from my own country with the complicity of some Colombian police officers… I was flown against my will to this country. It’s a far worse crime than any of these allegations. I am also against drug abuse. But I am also against kidnapping and extradition. This trial is illegal.”
“The truth of the matter,” the judge said, “is your main goal was to make money, and you did so at the expense of others. Your conspiracy burned a path of destruction and despair from the coca fields of South America to the streets and byways of this country. Accordingly, Mr Lehder, the sentence I impose on you today is meant to be a message for drug smugglers who control large organisations and for importers of cocaine and for street pushers. This sentence is a signal that our country will do everything in its power and within the laws to battle the drug problem that threatens the very fabric of our society.”
He sentenced Lehder to life plus 135 years without any possibility of parole.
On the afternoon of November 21, 1987, thirty miles east of Cali, a white Porsche worth a quarter of a million dollars slowed down for a tollbooth and was instructed to pull over by two policemen. They approached the driver’s side and requested to see ID. After the driver gave an unsatisfactory response, the policemen said that the car, the driver and his female passenger would have to go with them to Palmira. The driver offered $12 for them to let him go, which they refused. He increased his offer. They refused $200 and $48,000 and $400,000. There was no way around it: Jorge Ochoa was going to Palmira police headquarters.
Ochoa had an arrest warrant for a bull-smuggling conviction and for violating parole. Getting booked into the jail, he was hugged by a female lawyer, who promised to sort everything out. Attempting to get an official to sign his release, she made some calls, but was unsuccessful.
From a holding cell, Ochoa was transferred to an army prison, where he spent the night. On Sunday, a military plane took him to Bogotá, where policemen on motorbikes awaited him. By armoured van with a motorbike escort, he was transported to a military complex. There was no way for him to bribe his way out of the maximum-security prison cell they put him in.
The DEA issued a statement: “The president of Colombia could be courageous and greatly assist his country by throwing out Jorge Ochoa. Once Jorge Ochoa arrives in the US, he, like Carlos Lehder, will not be able to bribe, murder or intimidate his way out of police custody.”
Many Colombians thought Ochoa would be extradited as swiftly as Lehder, but Ochoa was only being held on bull-smuggling and the Supreme Court had ruled against extradition. The government’s strategy was to keep Ochoa incarcerated, while arranging his extradition. The US government sent a legal team to Bogotá to find an extradition mechanism.
Unlike Lehder, whose status in the cartel had slipped, Ochoa was a dominant force and one of Pablo’s closest friends. His extradition had to be stopped at all costs.
Shortly after Ochoa arrived at his cell in the military complex, a dozen hit men were dispatched to the house in Medellín of Gomez Martinez, the editor of the city’s biggest newspaper. They banged on the door. Peeping out of a window, the editor’s son yelled that murderers were outside.
Martinez stopped watching TV, crouched behind a chair, grabbed a gun and started firing. Hit men sprayed the house with gunfire. Attempting to break down a sheet steel garage door, a van reversed into it multiple times, only bending it.
After fifteen minutes of mayhem, a neighbour called the rest of the neighbours to arms. “They’re trying to kill Gomez Martinez. Let’s do something!”
Under fire from the neighbours, a hit man was shot. His accomplices loaded him into a van and they disappeared.
Having failed to kidnap Gomez Martinez with the goal of having him deliver a message, Pablo issued a communiqué:
We have found out that the government is trying by whatever means possible to extradite citizen Jorge Luis Ochoa to the United States. For us, this constitutes the vilest of outrages.
… in case citizen Jorge Luis Ochoa is extradited to the United States, we will declare absolute and total war against this country’s political leaders. We will execute out of hand the principal chieftains…
A week after his arrest, Ochoa’s six lawyers, including three former Supreme Court justices, started to demolish the case. They were aided by the departure of the US legal team in mid-December, 1987. By arguing that Ochoa had already served his time for bull-smuggling during his incarceration in Spain, Ochoa was released in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve.