Carlos Lehder

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Carlos Lehder
Carlos Lehder (cropped).png
Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas

(1949-09-07) 7 September 1949 (age 73)
NationalityColombian, German
OccupationDrug trafficker
Criminal statusReleased from prison 16 June 2020, after more than 33 years and 4 months in captivity.
ChildrenDiana Lehder[1] (1981[citation needed])

Maria Del Mar Lehder[1] (1982[citation needed])

Mónica Lehder García (1983)[2][3]
Criminal chargedrug trafficking
PenaltyLife imprisonment plus 135 years; commuted to 55 years in prison

Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas (born 7 September 1949)[4] is a German-Colombian former drug lord who was co-founder of the Medellín Cartel. He was released from prison in the United States after 33 years in 2020.[5][6] Born in Armenia, Colombia, Lehder eventually ran a cocaine transport empire on Norman's Cay island, 210 miles (340 km) off the Florida coast in the central Bahamas.[5][7]

Lehder was one of the founding members of Muerte a Secuestradores ("MAS"), a paramilitary group whose focus was to retaliate against the kidnappings of cartel members and their families[5] by the guerrillas.[8][9][10][11] His motivation to join the MAS was to retaliate against the M-19 guerrilla movement, which, in November 1981, attempted to kidnap him for a ransom; Lehder managed to escape from the kidnappers, though he was shot in the leg.[12] He was one of the most important MAS and Medellin Cartel operators, and is considered to be one of the most important Colombian drug kingpins to have been successfully prosecuted in the United States.

Additionally, Lehder founded "a neo-Nazi political party", the National Latin Movement, whose main function, police said, appeared to be to force Colombia to abrogate its extradition treaty with the United States.[13]

Early life[edit]

Carlos Lehder is of mixed German-Colombian descent. His father, Klaus Wilhelm Lehder, was an engineer who emigrated from Germany to Armenia, Colombia in 1928, where he participated in the construction of several buildings which had elevators, a rather modern and unusual characteristic at that place and time. When he married Helena Rivas, the daughter of a jeweller from Manizales, Caldas, he changed his name to Guillermo Lehder. Guillermo and Helena had four sons, with Carlos Enrique, born on 7 September 1949, being the third.

In Armenia, Colombia, the family owned a small inn called Pensión Alemana (which would later inspire Carlos to have his own luxurious Posada Alemana hotel), where German immigrants would regularly meet. They also ran a small business producing vegetable oils and importing luxury goods such as wine and canned foods. In 1943, following intelligence reports from the United States, the Lehders, along with many Germans in Colombia, were suspected of ideological links with the Nazis and were investigated. The Pensión Alemana was alleged to have been a place where Nazis gathered intelligence.

Carlos grew up in Armenia, Colombia until his parents divorced when he was 15, after which he emigrated with his mother to New York in the United States.[14]

Criminal career[edit]

Early activities and prison[edit]

Carlos Lehder (left) snorting cocaine with former prison mate Steven Yakovac on Norman's Cay (1976)

Lehder started out selling stolen cars and marijuana, as well as smuggling stolen cars between the U.S. and Canada. While serving a sentence for car theft in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, Lehder decided that, upon his release, he would take advantage of the burgeoning market for cocaine in the United States. To that end, he enlisted his prison bunkmate, former marijuana dealer George Jung, as a future partner.[15] Jung had experience flying marijuana to the U.S. from Mexico in small aircraft, staying below radar level, and landing on dry lake beds. Inspired by the idea, Lehder decided to apply the principle to cocaine transport and formed a partnership with Jung.[16] While in prison, Lehder set out to learn as much information as possible that could be useful to him in the cocaine business. He would sometimes even spend hours questioning fellow inmates about money laundering and smuggling. Jung allegedly said that Lehder kept countless files and constantly took notes. Lehder's ultimate scheme was to revolutionize the cocaine trade by transporting the drug to the United States using small aircraft.[17]

Early cocaine career[edit]

After Lehder and Jung were released (both were paroled), they built up a small revenue stream through simple, traditional drug smuggling. Specifically, they enlisted two young women who were US citizens to take a vacation to Antigua, receive cocaine, and carry it back with them to the U.S. in their suitcases. Repeating this process several times, Lehder and Jung soon had enough money for an airplane.

Using a small stolen plane and a professional pilot, the pair began to fly cocaine into the United States via the Bahamas, in the process increasing their financial resources and building connections and trust with Colombian suppliers, while spreading money around among Bahamian government officials for political and judicial protection. Their unconventional method of drug-smuggling began to gain credibility.

Norman's Cay[edit]

In the late 1970s, the Lehder-Jung partnership began to diverge, due to some combination of Lehder's megalomania and his secret scheming to secure a personal Bahamian island as an all-purpose headquarters for his operations.[16]

That island was Norman's Cay, which at that point consisted of a marina, a yacht club, approximately 100 private homes, and an airstrip.[18][7] In 1978, Lehder began buying up property and harassing and threatening the island's residents; at one point, a yacht was found drifting off the coast with the corpse of one of its owners aboard. Lehder is estimated to have spent $4.5 million on the island in total.[19]

As Lehder paid or forced the local population to leave, and began to assume total control of the island, Norman's Cay became his lawless private fiefdom. By this time, he had forced Jung out of the operation, and international criminal financier Robert Vesco had allegedly become a partner. Jung used his prior connections to take up a more modest line of independent smuggling for Pablo Escobar and stayed out of Lehder's way.[16]

From 1978 through 1982, the Cay was the Caribbean's main drug-smuggling hub, and a tropical hideaway and playground for Lehder and associates. They flew cocaine in from Colombia on all sorts of aircraft able to land fully loaded on the airstrip, reloaded it into various small aircraft, and then distributed it to locations in Georgia, Florida,[19] and the Carolinas.[17] Lehder was believed to have kept one kilo out of every four that was transported through Norman's Cay.[5]

Lehder expanded a runway to 3,300-foot (1,000 m), protected by radar, bodyguards, and Doberman attack dogs for the fleet of aircraft under his command.[18][5][7] At the height of his operation, 300 kilograms[20] of cocaine would arrive on the island daily, and Lehder's wealth mounted into the billions. He accumulated such staggering wealth that on two occasions he offered to pay the Colombian external debt. In 1978, he made an offer to do so to President Alfonso López Michelsen, in exchange for a free space for drug trafficking. In 1982, through Pablo Escobar, who was a Colombian Congressman at the time, Lehder did so again, this time in an attempt to prevent his extradition.[citation needed]


Their government's approval of the extradition of Colombians encouraged Escobar and Lehder to participate in politics. Lehder founded the National Latino Movement (Movimiento Latino Nacional, in Spanish), which managed three congressional seats, and popularized itself by making speeches against extradition.

The April 30, 1984 assassination of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, the Colombian Minister of Justice, initiated the beginning of the end for Lehder and the Medellín Cartel. Lara had campaigned against the cartel's activities, and his murder marked a change in Colombian politics. President Belisario Betancur, who had previously opposed extraditing any Colombian drug lords to the United States, announced that he was now willing to extradite. Lehder was a leading individual on the crackdown list.

Other major Medellín Cartel associates fled to the protection of Manuel Noriega in Panama, but when Pablo Escobar discovered Noriega was plotting to betray him to the U.S. in return for amnesty, the cartel associates then fled to Nicaragua to seek the assistance of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Escobar had paid some of Noriega's closest colonels to inform him of Noriega's intentions.[citation needed]

Lehder's downfall was assisted by his blatant bribing of Bahamian officials, and the attention the activities on Norman's Cay were attracting.

Fugitive, capture, trial, and whereabouts[edit]

After Brian Ross's September 5, 1983 report, on the U.S. television network NBC, made public the corruption of Bahamian government leaders,[21] Lehder could not return to Norman's Cay. The government had frozen all his bank accounts and taken over his property and possessions, and he went from being a billionaire to nearly bankrupt. While on the run in the jungle, he got sick with a fever. Escobar sent a helicopter for Lehder and brought him back to Medellín, where he received medical attention to save his life. Even so, he was left very weak. When Lehder recovered, Escobar hired him as a bodyguard.

Eventually, Lehder wanted to rebuild his fortune, but he was captured at a farm he had just established in Colombia, when a new employee of his informed the police of his location. Another hypothesis supported by Jhon Jairo Velásquez, better known as "Popeye", the head assassin of Pablo Escobar, is that fellow members of the Medellín Cartel wanted him out of the picture due to his radical military-like behavior, which they believed would jeopardize their cocaine empire, and so Escobar himself provided Lehder's whereabouts to the police, leading to Lehder's capture.[22]

Having captured one of the Cartel's most powerful members, the U.S. government used him as a source of information about the details of the Cartel's secret empire, which later proved useful in assisting the Colombian government to dismantle the Cartel. In 1987, Lehder was extradited to the United States to stand trial for cocaine trafficking, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, plus an additional 135 years. Now all of the other leaders knew what would happen if they too were extradited; soon afterward, the Medellín Cartel began to fracture into separate organizations. These smaller organizations were left vulnerable to the multi pronged preexisting pressures being applied against the Medellin Cartel. A violent war began as the Medellín Cartel leaders tried to protect themselves by fighting back. Escobar's faction, initially both the most powerful and violent, rapidly disintegrated in the face of attacks by the rival Cali Cartel, Colombian police/army, organs of the U.S. government, and vigilante paramilitaries.

In 1992, in exchange for Lehder's agreement to testify against Manuel Noriega, his sentence was reduced to a total of 55 years. Three years after that, Lehder wrote a letter to a federal district judge, complaining that the government had reneged on a deal to transfer him to a German prison. The letter was construed as a threat against the judge.

Within weeks of sending that letter in the fall of 1995, Lehder was whisked away into the night, according to several protected witnesses at the Mesa Unit in Arizona. According to journalist and author Tamara S. Inscoe-Johnson, who worked on the Lehder defense during the time in question, Lehder was simply transferred to another prison and continued to be held in WITSEC, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' version of the federal Witness Protection Program. Inscoe-Johnson argued that Lehder had not been released, despite Internet rumors to the contrary.[23] Inscoe-Johnson also believed Lehder would never be released: allegedly, he would be privy to secret information regarding the CIA's and his own involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

On July 22, 2005, he appeared in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to contest his sentence. Lehder appeared pro se, arguing that the United States failed to carry out its obligations under a cooperation agreement he had entered into with the United States Attorney's Office, after he held up his end of the deal. (United States v. Lehder-Rivas, 136 Fed. Appx. 324; 2005).

In May 2007, Lehder requested the Supreme Court of Colombia and the Colombian government to intervene in order to comply with the extradition agreement established between Colombia and the US, which stated that a maximum sentence of 30 years would be applied to any extradited Colombian citizen. Lehder argued that, having already served 20 years in prison, which corresponded to two-thirds of the 30-year maximum time stated in the treaty, he had completed his legal sentence and should therefore be released.[24]

In May 2008, Lehder's lawyer declared to El Tiempo that a habeas corpus petition had been filed, alleging that Lehder's cooperation agreement had been violated and that "a court in Washington" had less than 30 days to respond to the notice.[25]

According to his lawyer, Lehder was transferred to a minimum security prison in Florida. He was visited regularly by family members and had access to TV and a computer with only email access. An article published by Cronica Del Quindio in January 2015 reported that Lehder could be released and extradited to Germany at any time.

On June 24, 2015, Lehder wrote a letter to then-President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, in which he requested mediation with the United States to be allowed to return to Colombia.[26]

Lehder was released from prison on June 15, 2020, and escorted to Germany by two US officials on a regular passenger flight from New York to Frankfurt and handed over to German authorities.[27] According to declarations made by his daughter, a reason for his release is a relapse of prostate cancer, which had been diagnosed years earlier. A charity in Germany has agreed to pay for treatment.[28]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Supuesta libertad de Carlos Ledher fue desmentida desde Armenia". Article from La Crónica del Quindío (in Spanish). Armenia, Colombia. 2015-01-15. Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  2. ^ Lehder García, Mónica (2015-10-04). "El peso del apellido Lehder: hija ruega para que el narco no muera en prisión". Los Informantes, TV program from Caracol Televisión (Interview) (in Spanish). Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  3. ^ Lehder García, Mónica (2020-06-16). "Carlos Lehder quedó libre en Alemania, confirma su hija Mónica Lehder". Article from Semana (Interview) (in Spanish). Retrieved 2020-06-28.
  4. ^ "Carlos Lehder | Biography, Crimes, Conviction, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  5. ^ a b c d e Lee, Rensselaer W. (1989). The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power. Transaction Publishers. pp. 5, 11, 14, 106–108, 113, 116. ISBN 1-56000-565-3.
  6. ^ Kelly, Robert J. (2005). Illicit Trafficking: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-915-5.
  7. ^ a b c "Drug War (Norman's Cay)". Frontline.
  8. ^ "El Mundo - Noticias de Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia y el mundo - Periódico El Mundo".
  9. ^ Tiempo, Casa Editorial El (July 25, 2013). "Murió Juan David Ochoa, uno de los fundadores del cartel de Medellín". El Tiempo.
  10. ^ "Marta Nieves Ochoa, hermana de Fabio Ochoa". October 18, 2007.
  12. ^ Astrid Legarda Martínez (2005). El verdadero Pablo: sangre, traición y muerte (in Spanish). Cangrejo. p. 91. ISBN 978-958-97604-7-5.
  13. ^ "Hatred of All Things Yankee Absorbs Lehder". 19 May 1988. Retrieved 17 July 2017 – via LA Times.
  14. ^ "Padre de Carlos Lehder, un activo militante nazi". El Tiempo. July 5, 1989. p. 12B. Retrieved 2019-05-14 – via Google News.
  15. ^ "Carlos Lehder". St. Petersburg Times.
  16. ^ a b c "Drug War (George Jung)". Frontline.
  17. ^ a b "Drug War (Carlos Toro)". Frontline.
  18. ^ a b Kirkpatrick, Sidney (1991). Turning the tide: one man against the Medellin Cartel. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Dutton. ISBN 9780525249986. The airstrip had been sliced diagonally across the broadest section of the island.
  19. ^ a b Chepesiuk, Ron (2003). The Bullet Or the Bribe: Taking Down Colombia's Cali Drug Cartel. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-97712-9.
  20. ^ Schneider, Stephen (2009). Iced: The Story of Organized Crime in Canada. John Wiley & Sons Canada. p. 499. ISBN 9780470835005. Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  21. ^ Ehrenfeld, Rachel (1994). Evil Money: the Inside Story of Money Laundering and Corruption in Government, Banks and Business. New York, NY: Shapolsky Publishers, Inc. p. 14. ISBN 1-56171-333-3. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
  22. ^ Velásquez Vásquez, Jhon Jairo (2016). Mi vida como sicario de Pablo Escobar [My Life As Pablo Escobar's Hitman] (in Spanish). Nashville, Tennessee: HarperCollins Espanol. p. 43. ISBN 9780718081287.
  23. ^ "NORMAN'S CAY: The True Story of Carlos Lehder, the Medellin Cartel, the CIA, and America's War On Drugs". Archived from the original on May 11, 2006. Retrieved May 11, 2006.Archived May 11, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ "Noticias de Lehder". El Tiempo (in Spanish). Bogotá. 6 July 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  25. ^ "Carlos Lehder podría salir libre por cumplimiento de pena". Terra Actualidad. May 22, 2008. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16.
  26. ^ "Carta de Carlos Lehder al President Juan Manuel Santos" (PDF). El Tiempo. June 24, 2015.
  27. ^ "Medellín cartel co-founder transferred to Germany after prison sentence". June 16, 2020 – via
  28. ^ "Carlos Lehder quedó libre en Alemania, confirma su hija Mónica Lehder" (in Spanish). 16 June 2020. Retrieved 17 June 2020.
  29. ^ "Manhunt: Kill or Capture - Colombian Rambo". TVGuide. August 26, 2016.

External links[edit]