Carlos Lehder: From Humble Car Smuggler to Island Owning Billionaire Cocaine Kingpin With A Fleet Of Airplanes

By on March 5, 2016 in ArticlesEntertainment

It's amazing how many famous crimes have been committed by pairs of people.  The saying, "Two heads are better than one" clearly applies to doing horrible things, as well as good things.  Frank and Jesse James, The Lonely Hearts Killers, and Leopold and Loeb, are just some of the crime duos who took their mutual lack of morality and empathy and turned that into epic crime sprees.  Carlos Lehder began his life of crime smuggling stolen cars and dealing marijuana.  However, a chance meeting with another marijuana dealer led him to become one of the most powerful cocaine drug lords in the world.  For Carlos Lehder, two heads really were better than one.  Here's the story of how a marijuana dealer from a small town in Colombia, changed the worldwide cocaine smuggling industry forever and along the way amassed a net worth of $2.7 billion.

For anyone who has seen the movie "Blow" starring Johnny Depp, Carlos Lehder is the basis for the character Diego. Lehder was born on September 7, 1949 in Armenia, Colombia.  Like many young men and women growing up in Colombia in the 50s and 60s, he fell into a life of crime, and went on to head a successful smuggling and dealing operation that worked routes between the US and Canada.  His lifestyle eventually caught up with him, and he was sent to prison for car theft.  While serving his time in a Danbury, Connecticut federal prison, he designed a plan for smuggling cocaine.  He spoke with as many other inmates as he could, learning from them what worked and, more importantly, what did not.  As the end of his incarceration neared, he put the finishing touches on what was clearly a plan to create his own personal empire.

After his release, he immediately approached his former bunkmate, George Jung.  George was another marijuana dealer, but he had one skill that Carlos did not;  George could fly.  Not only could he fly, he had extensive experience flying below the radar and landing on nontraditional surfaces, like dry lake beds.  Rather than using drug "mules", or smuggling the cocaine in trucks or boats, the use of small aircraft provided a whole new means of transportation that was, at that point, largely unregulated.  Jung agreed to his plan and their grand partnership was born.  They began small, smuggling cocaine into the country by using two American girls who made repeated trips to Antigua for them.  They saved the money from their cocaine sales stateside and bought a plane with it.  They then hired a professional pilot, and began smuggling cocaine between the Bahamas and the U.S.  Their business grew quickly.  They formed strategic alliances with various Colombian cocaine suppliers, and paid off officials in the Bahamas in order to smooth over their trade routes.  With their private plane, they were able to move more cocaine at a time than their competitors, and their wealth increased exponentially.

However, simply amassing a great deal of money and power was never Carlos Lehder's end game.  He had even bigger plans.  In an absolutely unheard of move, Carlos set about trying to purchase an island in the Bahamas.  His shift in focus caused a rift between he and George, and the partnership began to sour.  Like with many crime duos of the past, their individual greed eventually lead to the dissolution of their relationship.  Lehder's entire focus shifted to funding his own private playground on Norman's Cay.  He built a yacht club, homes for his staff, and an air strip.  The people who lived on the island before his arrival were run off, or forced to move as he harassed, threatened, or killed anyone who wouldn't leave.  Norman's Cay became the premier smuggling hub for cocaine for much of the late 70s and early 80s, and due to corruption with the Bahamanian government, it was nearly untouchable by law enforcement.

At his peak, Lehder was passing 300 kilograms of cocaine through his island per day and making billions of dollars a year.  Incredibly, he even offered to pay off Colombia's entire national debt twice. Once in exchange for allowing him to continue his drug activities without interference from the Colombian government, and once in the hope that he could pay his way out of extradition.  During this time, he also co-founded the Medellin Cartel and founded Movimiento Latino Nacional, a political group that ultimately secured three congressional seats.  He also founded Muerte a Secuestradores, a paramilitary group whose sole purpose was to find kidnapped Medellin Cartel members or their family members, and to retaliate against the kidnappers.

In 1982, his power, wealth, and influence finally ran out.  The Bahamanian government froze his bank accounts and he was forced to leave Norman's Cay.  He hid out in the jungle, but was flushed out of hiding when he became very ill.  He became the bodyguard of another Cartel member, Pablo Escobar, while he attempted to rebuild his wealth.  Then the Colombian Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was assassinated in 1984.  A vocal critic of the Cartel and the government's willingness to turn the other cheek, his assassination caused a shift in the country's view of the Cartel.  The President of Colombia began a crackdown against all Colombian cocaine dealers.  Lehder was the first to be captured.  He was either betrayed from within, or simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Either way, he found himself on trial once again.  He was sentenced to life without parole and 135 more years beyond that.

His sentence was reduced to 55 years in 1992, when he agreed to provide valuable information to U.S. officials about Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega.  Since then, he has waged a protracted legal battle from within prison.  He has sued the government multiple times for going back on deals he made with them regarding information he provided about various governments and the cocaine trade.  Rumors that he has actually been released and is living comfortably in the United States abound.  No one really knows the truth of his whereabouts, as he supposedly entered the Witness Protection Program in the mid-90s.  One thing is for sure, he has a lot of dirt on a lot of people, and there is no government official who wants to see him walking around free.  After all, this is a guy who took a single jail house conversation and a handshake agreement with another prisoner and turned into one of the largest cocaine empires in history!

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