Image courtesy of Ron Chepesiuk
Carlos Lehder first got involved with the Medellin cocaine cartel headed by Pablo Escobar in the mid 70s, when it was stuck in the stone age of drug smuggling. The notorious Colombian crime syndicate had been using a variety of high-risk, low-reward methods to transport contraband, such as drug mules that had to be sent on commercial flights one at a time. Lehder revolutionized the way the cartel did business by introducing small aircrafts that could be flown at low altitudes to avoid detection, exponentially increasing the amount of cocaine Escobar's empire could transport across boarders. When federal US prosecutor Robert Merkle eventually prosecuted Lehder in 1988, he compared the drug lord's cocaine transportation system to what Henry Ford was to automobiles.
In less than a decade, Lehder went from a small-time marijuana crook to a major cocaine cowboy, allegedly accruing a fortune worth billions during the peak of his criminal activity. As his wealth and stature multiplied, the Colombian-born man became known for his erratic behavior, uncontrollable hedonism, and vocal support of both Hitler and John Lennon. Lehder also hated America, and was said to have viewed the cocaine trade as a way to spread chaos in the States. At one point, the crime boss bought an island in the Bahamas called Norman's Cay and used it as a midpoint to transit planeloads of cocaine into Florida, as well as a getaway for him to indulge in drugs, debauchery, and wild sex parties.
Ultimately, his inconsistent personality led to tension with his cocaine colleagues, and Lehder was ultimately caught and extradited to the US in 1987. Rumors abound to this day that Escobar himself was the one who told police of Lehder's whereabouts, as the cartel boss feared his one-time logistics mastermind would ruin the entire operation.
Lehder has been imprisoned since 1988 and he's allegedly protected under the US Marshals Service Witness Security Program, a security blanket granted after he agreed to testify at the trial of Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, another cocaine kingpin. In a new book by true crime author Ron Chepesiuk titled Crazy Charlie: Revolutionary or Neo-Nazi, the life and times of the Nazi-sympathizing drug lord cartel are explored in depth. Chepesiuk spent years reaching and talking to prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and incarcerated criminals to gather enough resources to publish the first biography on Lehder. VICE chatted with him to learn more about Crazy Charlie and the cocaine cartel.
For more on the Medellin cartel, watch our doc about the lasting legacy of Pablo Escobar:
VICE: Why did you title the book Crazy Charlie?
Ron Chepesiuk: It's the nickname that Lehder picked up along the way in his life of crime. I was never able to identify the source of the nickname definitively, but given Lehder's eccentric behavior, I think it fits him like a glove. He was impulsive, unpredictable, and unafraid of public opinion. The fact that Lehder was a free spirit was one of the factors that attracted me to writing the book.
What was Lehder background like before he became involved with the cartel?
He was essentially a loser. He grew up in Armenia, Colombia, went to the US in the 1960s, got involved in petty crime (selling marijuana, auto theft), and was busted and kicked out of the US. By his mid-20s, his life was going nowhere. Then he met George "El Americano" Jung, the cocaine smuggler who was a major player in the Medellin cartel.
Lehder was also depicted alongside Jung in the movie Blow. How would you characterize their relationship?
In the beginning, it was a pretty good one. They had a good business relationship. Lehder needed what George had in the US side of their partnership, and Jung needed what Lehder had in the Colombian side of their relationship. They made a lot of money together. But the relationship eventually soured. Lehder was ruthless in conducting business, and he eventually got Jung to reveal his [drug] connection. Once he had that, Lehder cut Jung out, went on his own and became a big shot in the Medellin Cartel. Jung was bitter and even contemplated killing Lehder.
What role did Carlos Lehder play in the Medellin Cartel?
In the early stages, Lehder played a very important role. He devised the transportation system that began the mass marketing of cocaine to the US market, the biggest in the world, which, in turn, led to a drug epidemic that ravaged the US in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Before Lehder, the Medellin Cartel and other Colombian cocaine traffickers relied on so-called mules, humans that smuggled drugs on their person. That isn't an efficient smuggling method, and you really can't smuggle large quantities of drugs.
Lehder bought an island in the Bahamas called Norman's Cay, which, in a nutshell, became a transit point where drugs were flown on to the island, and in which small planes were used to fly the drugs into the US. Before this time, it was too long a trip to fly drugs directly from Colombia to the US and this allowed the Medellin Cartel to smuggle not kilos on an operation, but tons. The Norman's Cay smuggling routes essentially operated from about 1978 to 1982 or '83 when the US closed it down and the Medellin Cartel developed other ways to get their drugs into the US. After this point, Lehder became less valuable to the cartel.
Can you tell me more about the island? What was going on there?
The island was about 210 miles from the Florida coast. It was ideally situated for drug smuggling. Published accounts say Lehder used it for his criminal purposes from 1978 to 1982, but I believe it was still being used until the mid 1980s. Lehder did what he wanted to do on the island because he had the right Bahamian authorities on his payroll. Lehder imported woman, and under his control the island became notorious for its sex parties and drug use.
What type of personality did he have?
An interesting and complicated one. Talk to sources, both the good guys and former bad guys, and they acknowledge his charisma. He was very handsome and both woman and men found him really attractive. There are stories about Lehder being bisexual. He was a hedonist and I think he had a problem with self-control. But when under control, which, with time, became less and less a reality, he could be quite capable and even brilliant. Contrary to the legend, he was not really violent. When I finished my book, I had to wonder if he had ever killed anybody.
It's said that Carlos had Nazi leanings. How intense was his support?
Wilhelm, Carlos's father, was a Nazi sympathizer and admirer of Hitler. Wilhelm emigrated to rural Colombia from Germany before World War II. He was a civil engineer and actually played a big role in modernizing the transportation system of rural Colombia. During World War II, the US Embassy in Colombia kept a watch on Wilhelm because of his Nazi sympathies. I think that, growing up, Carlos absorbed his father's neo-Nazis leanings and anti- Semitism. For example, he denied the existence of the Holocaust. There is plenty of evidence to support the characterization that Lehder was a neo-Nazi. He certainly wasn't shy about giving interviews or expressing his views. He often praised Hitler and railed against the Jews.
How did he mesh with the larger than life Pablo Escobar?
Escobar always had an uneasy relationship with Lehder because of Lehder's unpredictability and hedonistic personality. Escobar liked to operate low-key. You can say it was a personality clash. But in the beginning when Lehder devised the Norman's Cay connection, Escobar found him extremely useful and tolerated him, as a result. With time, as Lehder's value decreased to the cartel and he became what the Medellin Cartel considered a public embarrassment and even a liability, Escobar reached the point where he did not respect Lehder. Frankly, I'm surprised that Escobar didn't have Carlos killed. There is even suspicion that it was Escobar who actually snitched on Lehder's location, which allowed the authorities to bust and extradite him to the US, although Escobar denied he snitched in a letter he wrote for public consumption.
He was one of the first big cartel
leaders who was captured and extradited, right?
Before Lehder's capture and extradition to the States, Colombia did not send traffickers to the US when Uncle Sam requested their extradition. But after Lehder, there have been, I would say, hundreds of drug traffickers extradited to the US. Extradition became so common that the US media doesn't even report the extraditions. At the time, Lehder's trial was the biggest trial of foreign drug trafficker in US history.
Did he end up testifying against anyone else?
A lot of his comrades testified against him at his 1988 trial in Jacksonville, Florida, but he didn't really turn on anybody. He was a major witness in the Miami trial of General Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama in 1982. The US had invaded Panama in 1989 and hauled the general back to the US for trial. Lehder was hoping to get some kind break on his prison sentence. The word was he wanted to serve his time in either Colombia or Germany. Lehder was serving a sentence of life without parole, plus 135 years. Reportedly, in 1992, his sentence was reduced to a total of 55 years in exchange for his agreement to testify against Noriega,
Is it true that Lehder is in the federal
witness protection program in prison? That's pretty unusual.
He is in what is known as WITSEC, the federal program administered by the and operated by the . It is designed to protect threatened before, during, and after a . Three years after Noriega was convicted, Lehderk wrote a letter to a federal district judge, complaining that the US had reneged on a deal to transfer him to a prison. The letter was construed as a threat against the judge. Within weeks of sending that letter, Lehder was whisked away into the night from Mesa Unit in Arizona where he was incarcerated, according to several witnesses at the Unit. Lehder has shown up in court a couple of times regarding his grievances against Uncle Sam, but I'm certain he is still in WITSEC.
Where do you think he is now?
There have been a lot of conspiracy theories about Lehder's whereabouts. Some of them are really ridiculous. One of them even has Lehder out of prison and working for the CIA. But that theory was put to rest a couple of years ago when Lehder's lawyer showed up in US court to sue the US government on Lehder's [behalf]. I have no doubt Lehder is in prison where he will remain for the rest of his life.
Crazy Charlie is out January 15. Pre-order the book here.
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