"If you snorted cocaine in the late 1970s or early 80s, there was an eighty-five percent chance it came from us."
-George Jung (as repeated by Johnny Depp in the 2001 film "Blow").
It's probably not controversial to say that, in many social circles today, cocaine is just as common as a joint of weed or a can of beer. But, believe it or not, this wasn't always the case. Cocaine being used commonly is a relatively new phenomenon. Sure, if you read Keith Richard's autobiography, "Life", you will hear plenty of tales of rock stars snorting cocaine back in the 60s. But those rock stars were literally fighting over a diminishing supply of extremely rare pharmaceutical-grade Merck cocaine that eventually dried up forever. In reality, prior to the mid-1970s, much of the world had never heard the words cocaine, coke, blow, yayo. The marketplace for mass-scale cocaine production, distribution and consumption, simply did not exist. That is, until a man by the name of George Jung came along.
Side note: For a really cool multi-media experience, I highly recommend playing the "Blow" soundtrack while you read this article. Spotify users can access the soundtrack by plugging this URL into the application search box: spotify:user:119781742:playlist:0lscxXmiRdcSihlP3X1xi9
Everyone has some ability that makes them special. Some people are natural born leaders. They have the ability to draw people in and to inspire them to follow a cause. This power can obviously be used in good ways and in some… less good ways. People who fall on the side of good, end up running major businesses, launching charitable organizations, creating beautiful art, and generally restoring our faith in humanity. Other people, like George Jung, use their natural leadership abilities to launch a massive drug trafficking ring. And as you might expect, people who turn a blind eye to murder and flout strict Federal laws for years, end up going to jail for a long long long time. On June 2, 2014, George Jung was released from jail at the age of 71. Jung was actually released a few months early, a small consolation after spending 20 years locked away in a Federal penitentiary. Here's the story of how one young man, who had everything going for him, earned a massive fortune by inventing the market place for cocaine. How George became one of the most successful drug smugglers of all time, one of the most wanted men in America and the subject of a movie that is impossible NOT to watch when you surf by it on cable.
George Jung was born on August 6, 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He wasn't the brightest when it came to school work, but his ability on the football field made him hugely popular. Unfortunately, he showed a decided lack of common sense fairly early on. His first trip to jail occurred while he was still in high school. He was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, who also happened to be an undercover cop. Nevertheless, George graduated from high school, and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he planned to get a degree in Advertising. While in Mississippi, he started using marijuana. During a summer vacation in California, he threw a party where he left a large bowl of pot sitting on the table for anyone to take some. A friend of his, who was attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was astonished by two things: 1) George's generosity and 2) The insane potency of the weed. He asked George how much that much pot had cost, and George responded, "$60". Turns out, back east, near his childhood home, this quality of pot could easily fetch $300, or more. George Jung instantly recognized the potential for making a little side money.
Pretty soon, a little side money became a lot of full-time money. George dropped out of school and began flying the pot back and forth, hidden in his suitcases. Flights between Los Angeles and Boston were quite a bit cheaper in the mid-sixties, and even with buying $60 worth of weed and flying between the two coasts, he was able to make $200 profit on every kilo he sold. His girlfriend at the time, a stewardess, would often transport the drugs for him, because her bags were never searched. Initially, it was just a little money, but as word spread that he had a plentiful supply of good weed, he realized his business would need to grow in order to meet the demand. There was just one problem. George was still buying his weed from middle-men in California. People who knew someone, who knew someone, who had a direct connection with a supplier. That's when he decided to bypass purchasing in California altogether and go straight to the source: Mexico. It seemed innocent at the time, but this simple decision would eventually change the face of drug smuggling in the United States forever.
In 1968, George traveled down to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with the intention of finding someone to purchase pot. He chose Puerto Vallarta largely because it was the setting of the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton movie, "Night of the Iguana". However, finding someone willing to talk with him proved difficult, and it didn't help that neither he, nor his business associate/college buddy, spoke Spanish. The day they were scheduled to leave, however, a young blonde woman in a Volkswagon Beetle happened to give them a ride. They casually told her what they were doing in Mexico. This random woman took them to meet her boyfriend, the son of a Mexican general. According to George's own account years later, the boyfriend was pretty crazy, but he had a fairly brilliant plan for transporting large quantities of pot between Puerto Vallarta and Boston.
Using small planes, George and his small crew transported 600-800 pounds of pot at a time from Puerto Vallarta's Point Damia, to dry rock beds near Palm Springs, California. Then the pot was driven non-stop from California to Amherst, Massachusetts in large motor homes. They paid the local marijuana growers $20 per kilo in Mexico, then sold the same kilos for $300-$350 up and down the East Coast. Always looking to cut out bureaucracy, George soon got his own pilot's license so he could fly the plane and drive the motor homes. However, it quickly became too much. They started hiring professional pilots for the plane trips, and added additional planes to their pot smuggling fleet by stealing them from a small airport near Cape Cod. It took only a few months before they were pulling down $50,000-$100,000 each.
At first, they were cautious. Over time, they got more and more cocky. They knew the potential for being caught was always there, especially since they were driving massive amounts of pot across the country in big cars. However, they became so accustomed to the fear and adrenaline, that, after a while, they didn't even recognize it. By the mid-70s, George Jung was pocketing upwards of $250,000 a month (approx. $1.6 million in today's dollars).
Unfortunately, all the fun came crashing down in 1974, when one of his fellow smugglers was caught and gave up George's name. The other smuggler was also running heroin, and sang to authorities in order to get a lighter sentence. George was arrested with 600 pounds of marijuana in his possession in Chicago, where he'd been partying at the Playboy Club while waiting for a drug hand-off. When he was arrested, the cops actually apologized to him, saying "… we really don't want to bust pot people, but this is tied into a heroin operation and we have to arrest you."
Remember the famous scene in blow when George faced the judge and tried to charm his way out of a sentence? That was not fiction. Right before judgment came down, George tried to dance his way out of jail by explaining that he shouldn't be convicted for "for crossing an imaginary line with a bunch of plants".
The judge wasn't charmed and George was locked up in Danbury prison, which he described as a "white collar jail". In Danbury, George ended up being surrounded by intelligent, articulate, business people who had fallen afoul of the law in some way. Rather than it being a punishment, his time there proved to be an education in thinking bigger. By what only can be described as fate or kismet, George's cellmate was a young Colombian man named Carlos Lehder. Lehder asked Jung if he'd ever run cocaine, or if he knew anything about it. Jung was not familiar with cocaine, but after learning that cocaine could be purchased in Mexico for $4,000-$5,000, then flipped in the US for $60,000 a kilo, the math sunk in. George and Carlos spent the next year in jail together, planning everything, and Carlos Lehder worked with other inmates to make sure that nothing would go wrong. They consulted incarcerated bankers, boat smugglers, and cocaine growers. They literally used the system to build a revolutionary cocaine smuggling operation.
Once they were both out, Lehder sent a message from Colombia to Jung telling him to find two women to transport suitcases between Massachusetts and Antigua. It took him a few days, but he convinced two young women to make the trip. Though George told the women that they would be transporting cocaine, they actually had no idea what it was! They had such a good time on their paid vacation, that they delivered the first suitcases of cocaine, then turned around immediately and went back down to Antigua for a second trip, returning with more suitcases and more cocaine. George Jung and Carlos Lehder had graduated to the big time. They then implemented George Jung's system of flying drugs into the country, and suddenly they were no longer transporting small quantities in suitcases. Now, they were filling planes with cocaine. When they needed larger quantities of cocaine, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar was brought in to handle supply. Lehder and Jung were left in charge of transportation and distribution. The Ochoas (a trio of brothers) were tasked with keeping all the political and civil palms greased in Colombia so that they never ran in to legal troubles. Their business formed the backbone of the Medellin Cartel.
As the middle-man, Jung charged $10,000 per kilogram. Every time the operation was run, five stolen airplanes would each be loaded with up to 300 kilograms of cocaine. The planes would fly the coke from Colombia to California. Let me do that math for you; $10k per kilo X 300 kilos per plane = $3 million. And there were five plans. So every time this operation was run successfully, George Jung's middle man cut was $15 million. That's $60 million after adjusting for inflation.
As George himself learned from his early days as a pot smuggler, there's one major problem with being a middle-man: When they are cut out, profits go way up. Eventually, Carlos Lehder grew tired of paying Jung for transportation, and not surprisingly, cut George out. By this time, Carlos Lehder had taken his operation to an insane new level. In 1978, Lehder purchased a private island in the Bahamas called Norman's Cay. Lehder's Norman's Cay soon featured a yacht club, several luxury homes and most importantly… an air strip. Within a few months, 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 its peak of operation, Norman's Cay could offload 300 kilos of cocaine PER DAY. Carlos Lehder's operation would eventually generate billions of dollars per year in revenue. Lehder himself would grow to have a personal fortune just shy of $3 billion.
Meanwhile, working with other sources, and going directly to Pablo Escobar, George Jung continued to make millions of dollars each month as a transport middle-man. He knew he was in way over his head, but the money, the women, and his own rampant cocaine addiction caused him to ignore things like the amount of guns he saw everywhere, the executions that had become commonplace right before his eyes, and the ever-present fear that had become a constant part of his life. He started out hiding his money in various homes, but as his wealth grew, it became necessary to put it in a bank. He opened an account in Panama. By the mid 1980s, that account held nearly $100 million (roughly $240 million after adjusting for inflation).
George's run of success continued until the late 80s, when he was arrested in his home. He'd long been on the DEA's radar, and they simply got tired of waiting. They busted into his house one night and and were disappointed to find that he actually only had a few kilos in the house. Plenty for an arrest, though. George soon skipped bail and went on the run. But the lure of fast money and the adrenaline rush that came with outsmarting the authorities, quickly lured him back to smuggling. In 1994, he resurrected his old business, reaching out to one of the pilots he'd worked with running marijuana in the 60s. Unfortunately, his old pilot now worked for the DEA. He got all the information from Jung, flew the route, then delivered both the cocaine and Jung to the authorities. This time, George Jung didn't have 600 pounds of marijuana in a mobile home. This time, George had 1,754 pounds of cocaine in a stolen plane. He was sentenced to 60 years in jail. While he was serving his sentence at a correctional facility in Texas, Carlos Lehder was also arrested. George Jung testified against him, receiving a reduced sentence in exchange for his information about Carlos' activities.
The story of George Jung's rise to power, and his massive fall, has been chronicled over and over again. He's been interviewed many, many times, and interestingly, he says that he had no idea how much impact the cocaine trade would come to have, and how devastating it would become. Due to its expense, cocaine was viewed as an upper-class drug. If you used drugs in the ghetto, you got locked up. If you used drugs in a boardroom or at a corporate party, you were just being cool, and the most you'd get was a slap on the wrist. No one had any concept of how violent, pervasive, and destructive cocaine use would become.
As the "war on drugs" began, smugglers like George Jung shook their heads at the government's attempt to staunch the flow. In an interview in 2000 with PBS' "Frontline" he said:
"To stop the importation of drugs into the United States of America is an impossibility. There's 2,000 miles of border along the Mexican border and the coastal areas, thousands of miles, and there is no possible way to stop the importation of drugs into this country. But then, you know, we have to come to the pool of self-reflection and therein lies the monster of reason and we ask ourselves: was it the fact that Carlos and I had the courage to be bad or why did millions of Americans not have the courage to be good?"
As we mentioned previously, George was released from prison on June 2, 2014 after serving 20 years in a Federal prison.