Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos - Shaun Attwood (2016)
Chapter 3. Carlos Lehder and George Jung
Carlos Lehder’s dream was to make millions from cocaine and to use the proceeds for revolutionary goals, including the destabilisation of imperialistic America. Of German-Colombian descent, twenty-four-year-old Lehder was arrested in Miami in 1973 for smuggling marijuana, and sentenced to four years. In minimum-security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, he rubbed shoulders with a more polished type of prisoner: white-collar criminals, Vietnam War protesters… Unlike the typical Colombian smuggler, Lehder spoke fluent English, enabling him to absorb knowledge from the eclectic mix of prisoners, which he filed away for future use.
Lehder was born in Armenia, Colombia. His father, Wilhelm Lehder, a tall German, was considered a dangerous Nazi by the Colombian police, who suspected him of running a fascist spy ring out of the hotel he owned with forty rooms and hidden transmitters. Wilhelm hated Jews and the American government, and longed for the installation of a totalitarian regime in Colombia. He had a vegetable-oil factory and imported canned goods and wine for his hotel, which his German common-law wife ran. His Colombian beauty-queen wife gave birth to Carlos Lehder.
The youngest of four children, Lehder moved to America with his mother at age fifteen. Considerably shorter than his father, he was handsome, intelligent and ambitious. But every time he turned to crime, he got arrested, commencing with the interstate transportation of stolen cars in America.
His arrest for marijuana brought him into contact with a cellmate called George Jung - whose life story was portrayed in the movie Blow, starring Johnny Depp. It was a meeting that changed their lives forever.
Born in Boston in 1942, Jung was a high-school football star and a natural leader. At the University of Southern Mississippi, he studied advertising, but dropped out to lead a life of smoking and dealing marijuana. Mesmerised by West Coast culture, he became a hippy, embracing LSD and free love. Noticing a discrepancy in the price of weed in South Los Angeles - $60 a kilo - versus on the East Coast - $300 a kilo - Jung started to bulk buy weed from the owner of a hairdressing salon. Demand far exceeded the amounts smuggled by the airline stewardesses he’d hired as mules - including his girlfriend - so he invested in motorhomes.
Soon he had hundreds of thousands of dollars. He bought a plane to fly weed from Mexico that cost $8-$10 a kilo. Only twenty-six, he hired a team of pilots. In 1974, he was busted smuggling 660 pounds of marijuana to Chicago. He bonded out and went on the run. When he visited his parents, they called the police. His sentence was reduced after he argued with the judge.
In 1974, serving a four-year sentence, Jung was bracing to receive a new cellmate in his seven-by-nine-foot room with a view of the countryside. When Carlos Lehder walked in, Jung was relieved by the presence of such a polite young man.
After exchanging pleasantries, Lehder said, “What are you in for?”
“Flying pot out of Mexico,” Jung said. For an hour, they discussed their experiences in the marijuana trade.
Standing in the line for the chow hall, Carlos said, “You must know a lot about airplanes and have a lot of people in the US who buy drugs. Do you know anything about cocaine?”
“No,” Jung said. “Tell me about it.”
“It sells in the US for $40-$50,000 a kilo.”
“How much do you get it for, Carlos?”
“Tell me everything you know about cocaine, Carlos. Everything.”
For sixteen months, the cellmates ironed out the logistics for distributing cocaine across America. Lehder told Jung that he could obtain unlimited amounts of it from two cousins: Gustavo Gaviria and Pablo Escobar. Aiming to make millions from air transportation, they obtained maps from the prison library, and plotted trafficking routes. Banker inmates taught them about money laundering and offshore accounts. After a doctor incarcerated for Medicare fraud mentioned Belize, which lacked an extradition treaty, Lehder contemplated setting up a regional haven for traffickers.
Jung wanted to transport cocaine to America in light aircraft, just like he’d done with weed. A pilot advised them that a small plane couldn’t carry enough fuel for such a long trip. The plane would have to stop somewhere to refuel. If a plane were to fly from Miami to the Bahamas, as if taking its occupants on a vacation, it could continue to Colombia, get the cocaine, and return to the Bahamas. If the plane returned with the end-of-the-week traffic, it would be invisible to the authorities.
Lehder affectionately referred to incarceration as his college days because he was learning so much. He obtained a high-school diploma. Due to his excellent grades, he ended up teaching Hispanic inmates. He never stopped reading. Jung introduced him to Machiavelli, Plato, Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse and Hemingway.
In 1975, Jung was released to his parents. In 1976, he received a telex from Colombia: “Weather beautiful. Please come down. Your friend, Carlos.”
Unwilling to violate parole, Jung sent a friend to Lehder in Medellín on a fact-finding mission. They arranged a fifteen-kilo transaction.
In April 1976, Lehder called Jung with instructions to send two female mules to Antigua with baggage. “Don’t tell them anything. We’ll explain everything when they get there.”
Jung approached his girlfriend and her friend at a schoolyard where they were watching a softball game. “Would you be interested in a free Caribbean vacation?”
The women took hard-shell Samsonite cases and spending money. They had a blast with the charming Lehder. Jung’s girlfriend slept with one of Lehder’s friends. They returned home with different cases.
Jung took the new cases home and removed the aluminium lips protecting the fibreglass false bottoms. Snorting the product, Jung thought it was wonderful. It was the beginning of a monstrous drug habit. Carlos paid Jung five kilos to distribute the cocaine. He sold four kilos for $180,000. He paid his female smugglers in cocaine. More trips were organised.
A setback occurred on October 19, 1976, when Lehder was arrested for smuggling Chevrolet wagons into Colombia. Through bribery, Lehder arranged to serve his time in a special terrace in Bella Vista, a new prison in Medellín. While most of the prisoners slept on a filthy floor and ate rotten-horsemeat soup, Lehder had his own bed and ordered food from restaurants.
Lehder buddied-up with an American incarcerated for smuggling weed. He told the smuggler that he wanted to form “a conglomerate of small-time cocaine producers, and to put all their merchandise together into one shipment, so it would pay for the equipment necessary to get into the United States.” He aimed to use cocaine to conquer the world like Adolf Hitler.
After two months inside, Lehder was released in time for Christmas. Jung sent Lehder $30,000 and business resumed.
In February 1977, Jung received fifty kilos in Miami, which he transported to Boston to meet Lehder, who was a no-show. Unbeknown to Jung, Lehder had run into difficulty crossing the Canadian border and was on the run. Jung gave the cocaine to his former weed dealer, the Hollywood hairdresser. Two weeks later, it had been sold for over $2 million.
Lehder showed up at Jung’s parents, concerned about the fate of the cocaine and that Jung may have ripped him off. Many Colombians had lost cocaine by trusting Americans. When he saw his share of the cash - $1.8 million - Lehder was so delighted that he bought a new BMW. Soon, Jung was making $500,000 a week. Hidden in cars, millions were smuggled back to Medellín by Lehder.
By 1977, a plane was needed to move the cocaine, so Jung hired a Learjet. But constantly smuggling and using cocaine was wearing Jung out.
Lehder was such a strict disciplinarian that he put everybody he knew to work. An exhausted Jung asked Lehder to find someone to bring cocaine to California.
“I’ll call you as soon as I have that person in transit,” Lehder said. The next day he called Jung. “I have someone. They’re on the plane now.”
“Who is it?”
“It’ll be a surprise.”
The next day, Jung heard knocking on the door of his Holiday Inn room. Opening it revealed a little grey-haired lady: Lehder’s mother. When Jung objected, Lehder said that everybody had to work, and she had wanted a free trip to Disneyland.
As the business grew, the former cellmates fell out. Lehder viewed Jung’s cocaine habit as detrimental to work performance. Jung was snorting a gram at a time, earning him the nickname I-95 because his long lines of white powder reminded the Colombians of that Interstate Highway. Attempting to squeeze Jung out of the picture, Lehder demanded to know the name of the Hollywood hairdresser.
In August 1977, a pilot tested the Bahamas route - the plan hatched in prison - with 250 kilos picked up from one of Pablo’s farms outside Medellín. The plane refuelled in Nassau, the capital city of the Bahamas, on its eleventh largest island. It landed in the Carolinas, and the cocaine was transported to Florida. The cocaine sold within days. The profit was $1 million, which Jung and Lehder split. Lehder wanted to move the base of their operations to the Bahamas, but Jung argued against it.
“Look, Carlos, the only way to do this business is to hit-and-run. Keep changing our smuggling routes. Never stay in one place. Then we don’t have to be under anybody’s thumbs. We make ourselves a hundred million apiece, or whatever. You go your way. I go mine.”
Lehder wanted rapid expansion to help him achieve his revolutionary goals, whereas Jung favoured slow and steady progress. For cocaine supply, Jung had stepped on Lehder’s toes by marrying a Colombian whose brother was a supplier. Lehder obtained the contact details for the Hollywood hairdresser, so he didn’t need Jung as an intermediary anymore. Jung accused Lehder of going behind his back.
Lehder obtained a boat, and searched for an island in the Bahamas. He settled on Norman’s Cay, a fishhook-shaped landmass surrounded by some of the clearest blue water on earth, teeming with marine life. The central curvature harboured yachts. At the top of the island, a dozen beach cottages sat on a rocky coast. At the tip of the fishhook was a 3,000-foot airstrip adjacent to four miles of sparkling white sand, forming a beach that curved around water known as Smugglers Cove. On a hill by the airstrip was a yacht club with a four-stool bar, a restaurant and the only telephone on Norman’s Cay. Amid hundreds of islands, it was paradise.
Lehder paid $190,000 cash for Beckwith House on the north-eastern bend. He deposited millions in a trust company, which he used to buy up property on the island.
With Jung out of the way - or so Lehder thought - Lehder got down to the business of running all of the wealthy inhabitants off the island, so that he could turn it into a smuggling hub. He started out politely. He showed up at cottages with a suitcase full of cash and told the owners to name their price. Flashing large sums of money, and introducing himself as Joe Lehder, he came off as polite and intriguing.
“Joe, how much money are you worth?” a neighbour asked on Lehder’s thirtieth birthday.
“Oh, about $25 million.”
He bought the rights to the guesthouse, the bar and the airstrip. He closed the airstrip down for general use by painting a giant yellow X on it, which prevented other residents from flying in and out. He closed the yacht club, the diving school and stopped the hotel from taking reservations.
The remaining residents were starting to wonder what was going on, but Lehder was only just getting started. He decided that the homeowners who’d refused his cash had to go. To pressure them into moving, he filled the island with intimidating characters, including bodyguards and traffickers.
“In case I didn’t make myself clear,” Lehder told one resident, “if you’re not off this island today, your wife and children will die.”
A college professor who ran a diving business was told that diving must stop. When he returned for his gear, his plane was surrounded, and he was prevented from leaving. After shooting the plane’s radio, Lehder’s bodyguards instructed him to fly away and never return. In the air, he noticed that the plane lacked fuel. It had been siphoned. The plane had to emergency-land on a nearby island’s beach.
The police did nothing about the complaints from the residents. Lehder had paid everybody off. A Bahamian immigration officer initiated deportation proceedings against a remaining resident.
Emulating his hero, Adolf Hitler, in a way that would have made his father proud, Lehder hired forty German bodyguards, who arrived in the Aryan tradition with Doberman pinchers, automatic weapons and blonde hair. Toting black satchels, they patrolled in Toyota jeeps and Volkswagen vans. Any yachts that approached with tourists, sightseers or remaining residents were shadowed along the perimeter of the island by vehicles full of armed neo-Nazis and dogs capable of tearing limbs off. If they got too close to the shore, a helicopter would hover over them.
The famous TV anchor-man for CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite, travelled by yacht to Norman’s Cay on a Christmas vacation. Finding the harbour empty, he dropped his anchor.
“You can’t dock here and you can’t anchor out there!” yelled a man on the pier.
Cronkite continued to the next island, where he was told that it was common knowledge that the people who’d taken over Norman’s Cay didn’t want any visitors.
The last resident to leave was Floyd, a handyman who’d built his own house on the island. Lehder had hired him to assemble a couple of prefabricated hangars to store planes and cocaine. While working on a hangar, Floyd watched a plane land, men with rifles jump out, and a truck arrive, from which suitcases were loaded onto the plane. When his work was done, Floyd was ordered to leave the island, but he refused. He told the superintendent that he wasn’t interested in selling the house he’d built.
“He [Lehder] doesn’t have to buy it. He’s just going to take it.”
A foreman warned Floyd, “Look, he’s [Lehder’s] coming by and he has some pretty rough men there, and they probably won’t kill you, but they could certainly knife you up pretty bad.” After that, Floyd fled.
Planes landed every day. Lehder’s associates lived in several of the houses. Out of his twenty-two cars, Lehder preferred driving a 1932 Ford Replica, a classic car with a rectangular elongated body with two round lights at the front.
Even though he’d warned Jung about the detrimental effects of cocaine on business judgement, Lehder started to use cocaine heavily. His associates joined in, and they all became paranoid. To calm them down, planes full of women were flown in. Wild parties ensued with Beatles and Rolling Stones’ music. Cocaine-crazed neo-Nazis hauled a houseboat to the top of the island’s only hill, and left it there to be used as a lookout. Luxury properties were destroyed and vandalised. Laden with cocaine, a DC-3 crashed in the lagoon and was left to rot. Like his other hero, Che Guevara, Lehder started dressing in army fatigues and waving guns around. His alter ego continued to assert itself.
Meanwhile, Jung had been reduced to the man who had launched Lehder. In a confrontational mood, he flew to Norman’s Cay. Making only $500,000 a year, he coveted Lehder’s tens of millions.
“It’s over,” Lehder said, flanked by two armed Germans. “You have your brother-in-law… You can do your own operation, but this is my island. I own it.”
“I’m not going to let you get away with this,” Jung said. “There’s only one way this will end.”
For five years, pilots brought anywhere from 300 to 5,000 kilos. The 5,000 kilos were worth $150 million wholesale at the time. They arrived in a plane with twenty-eight-year-old Jorge Ochoa. The packages were marked with the letters CIA. Larger planes meant bigger cargoes. At Norman’s Cay, big loads were divided among smaller planes destined for Florida, creating a Federal Express-type method of delivery. Bales of cocaine were offloaded at remote airstrips or dropped into the water, where high-speed motorboats were waiting.
Lehder charged fees for other traffickers to use his airstrip. They brought marijuana, amphetamines and Quaaludes. Years later in court, Lehder was alleged to have made $300 million from 1979 to 1980. Never had more drugs destined for America come from such a tiny place.
Unlike Jung, Pablo was delighted with the amount of cocaine going through Norman’s Cay. Every week in the late 1970s, Pablo made millions, distributing cocaine to states as far away as Colorado for $72,000 a kilo, California for $60,000 and Texas $50,000. Depending upon the sizes of the loads, his pilots made up to $1 million per flight. The word among the pilots of that time was that Pablo’s organisation was the most efficient to work for. The merchandise was always on time.
Sometimes, pilots didn’t make it due to the combined weight of the cocaine and the fuel. Bad weather, such as a thunderstorm, could cause a heavy plane to stall. Pablo was making so much money that losing a plane was insignificant. Pilots who were arrested in Florida had usually performed dozens of trips. Already multimillionaires, they could hire the best lawyers.
Anything he fancied, Pablo bought, including planes and helicopters. Before he was thirty, he invested over $50 million in the construction of a 7,500-acre luxury ranch-style resort with the Magdalena River running through it. It had a landing strip, artificial lakes, a road system and swimming pools, all protected by mortar emplacements. On top of the cement entry way to Hacienda Nápoles, he’d mounted a lucky charm that had helped to start his fortune: the Piper airplane (tail number HK-617-P) which had transported his first shipment of cocaine to America. The plane welcomed his visitors, who had to drive through the entrance way. His private roads were lined with palm trees.
The suites sometimes housed over 100 guests. Seven-hundred servants attended their needs and kept things running. The guests enjoyed billiard tables, pinball machines, bars, jukeboxes, a bullfighting ring, tennis courts, outdoor dining areas, a games room and horse stables. If they liked Jet Skis, they could race them on the lakes. With the river so close, they enjoyed boats and hovercraft. Pablo hosted parties. Attendees ranged from politicians, business owners and artists to actors, models and beauty queens.
Pablo hired a professional cameraman to shoot home movies. The cameraman filmed Pablo, Gustavo and their gang on motorbikes in front of another of his proudest possessions: an early 1930s Cadillac that looked like the one driven by Al Capone. To make it seem as if Capone had actually owned it, Pablo allegedly had strafed it with gunfire.
Pablo’s zoo - with over 200 exotic animals roaming around - was open for free. “Nápoles zoo belongs to the Colombian people,” Pablo told a journalist. “We built it so that children and adults, rich and poor, can enjoy it, and owners cannot pay for what is already theirs.” It received 60,000 visitors in 1983; they drove through the grounds to watch animals such as antelope, elephants, gazelles, zebras, exotic birds, giraffes, hippopotami, ostriches, a soccer-playing kangaroo and an elephant that stole food from people’s cars. The zoo also had five life-size cement dinosaurs for children to climb. A lover of birds, Pablo owned a parrot that recited the names of Colombian soccer players. Unfortunately, she fell asleep after drinking some whiskey and was eaten by a cat. After that, Pablo banned all cats from Hacienda Nápoles, including lions and tigers.
The main property was protected by armed guards. Only people he had preapproved of were allowed in after their invitations were double-checked by Pablo, who received them by fax from his sentries.
The main house included a theatre, a disco and Jacuzzis. The kitchen had its own menu. Eating with his family, guests and bodyguards, Pablo enjoyed reciting poetry and singing tango music. He always sang in the shower. He enjoyed writing poems to his kids. Pablo and Gustavo lived on the second floor. The rest of the family had the first floor.
Pablo loved spending time with his family. If his son or daughter needed his attention, he’d halt business meetings. The police recorded a conversation between Pablo and his wife. While they discussed family matters, someone being tortured started to scream in the background. Pablo told the torturer to please keep the victim quiet because he was talking to his family on the phone.
With the business needing constant attention, Pablo, Roberto and Gustavo worked different shifts. Gustavo and Roberto were early birds, whereas Pablo didn’t usually wake up until noon. He was an obsessive tooth-brusher, who put on a brand-new shirt every day. After wearing each shirt once, he donated it. He also kept emergency supplies of clothes in safe houses. His favourite breakfast was a corn patty with scrambled eggs, chopped onions and tomatoes, accompanied by coffee.
Pablo despised the Colombian elites who scorned the masses, and politicians who promised to help the poor but didn’t follow through. He now had the means to realise his childhood dream of ameliorating the lives of the impoverished - something he knew would create powerful enemies for him.
In 1979, he started the social program Civics on the March. Poor neighbourhoods adopted trees in response to the United Nations having warned that industry was causing irreversible damage. Giving speeches, he encouraged people to join the efforts to preserve the environment. He extolled the value of planting trees and preserving green areas to improve the health of the community.
Pablo offered young people an alternative to crime by way of sports. He built public areas with volleyball and basketball courts and soccer fields. He installed electric lights in forty pitches in the poorest neighbourhoods, so that kids could keep playing at night. His investment in the professional soccer team, Atlético Nacional, raised their status internationally, which drew many young people into the game.
Pablo met people who lived in shacks at the garbage dumps. They attempted to make a living by sifting through the trash and finding items that could be recycled. A few weeks after his visit, one of the neighbourhoods caught fire. The shacks were destroyed. No one seemed to care except for Pablo, who commissioned the building of houses for the homeless. He invested millions in churches, streetlights, road improvements and recreation centres. He sent doctors into neighbourhoods to heal the sick. Street kids received 5,000 toys every Christmas.
“When we build schools,” Pablo said, “it seems that we re-encounter the nation that we long for. We have looked with pain upon children sitting on adobes, in ramshackle locales and upon teachers living without protection before the indifference of the State. We love Colombia and now are capable of giving back some of what this beautiful nation has given us. We are doing it.”
Even though they knew that Pablo was a criminal, the poor preferred him to a government they viewed as tyrannical for protecting the interests of the wealthy while allowing people to die of starvation and children to live at garbage dumps. Until Pablo, no one had dared to stand up to the criminals in power and attempt to give dignity back to the poor. Being good or evil in Colombia depended upon the perspective of who was viewing it.