If you’re a fan of the Netflix show Narcos you’ll be familiar with the name Carlos Lehder. A notorious member of the Medellin cartel and one of Pablo Escobar’s right-hand men, he had a bizarre obsession with both John Lennon and Adolf Hitler. Now aged 70, Lehder has been released from a US jail where he has been held since 1987.
Half German and half Colombian, Carlos Lehder was born in Colombia but moved to New York at the age of 15. He was described as highly intelligent and was a career criminal from an early age. During a short prison term for grand theft auto, Lehder was thrown in a cell with none other than George Jung who would go on to become a drug smuggler alongside Carlos Lehder. Jung’s life was portrayed in the Johnny Depp movie ‘Blow’.
Together, Lehder and Jung began working with the cocaine cartel in Colombia, specifically Medellin, and launched a smuggling operation using planes to transport Charlie into the US whilst making fuel stops in the Caribbean. In particular, they developed a soft spot for a Bahamian island named Norman’s Caye located around 200 miles from the cocaine hotspot of Miami.
The money involved in the cocaine trade allowed Lehder and Jung to essentially take over Norman’s Caye and turn it into a fully functioning cocaine transit point. He built a private mansion there that became known as ‘the Volcano’. However, Ledher’s excessive use of his own supply turned him increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Jung was soon forced out of the partnership by heavily armed men aligned with Lehder.
The DEA soon launched a raid on Norman’s Cay forcing Lehder to flee to his homeland of Colombia. However, he didn’t exactly lay low there. He quickly built a mansion. Outside on his lawn, he built a giant statue of John Lennon whilst inside was full of Nazi memorabilia. He even gave the Colombian government a plane as a present. As Escobar did, he threw himself into the world of Colombian politics during the 1980s.
Based on his admiration for Hitler, Lehder formed a Fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-US political party named the National Latin Movement that demanded drastic changes in the political landscape of Colombia. In his political rallies, he was fond of quoting Herr Hitler often.
“His legacy is that he stands out as probably one of the most intellectual capos of the Colombian drug trade because he was definitely smarter than Pablo Escobar. The only thing Pablo Escobar had was wholesale violence,” Vigil added. “Of the Medellin cartel, he was definitely the most intelligent.”
Despite his renowned level of intelligence and ability to pull off various operations, Lehder soon became a liability in the eyes of Pablo Escobar and it’s believed that Escobar handed Lehder over to the Colombian government in 1987. He was promptly handed over to the US authorities who put him on a military cargo plane and brought him to the United States. Lehder ironically became the first casualty of the very US extradition treaty he fought against.
A US court, in order to make a hair raising example of what is in store for drug traffickers, handed Lehder a life sentence with no parole plus an extra 135 years just for good measure. However, Lehder managed to strike a deal with the US and he provided key evidence against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega who had previously given support to the Medellin cartel throughout his reign.
Thus, Lehder proceeded to spend the next three decades of his life inside the US prison system and subsequently missed the carnage that would befall the drugs scene in Colombia. During and after Escobar’s reign, most of the original Medellin Cartel figures who rose up alongside Lehder would be killed. Lehder would be one of the very few who survived.
According to Lehder’s daughter, Carlos is planning to enjoy ‘quiet freedom’ following his release. He’s naturally not keen on returning to Colombia and instead will spend his retirement years in the US or Germany.
However, some law enforcement veterans are skeptical that Lehder is destined for a quiet end to his life. They’re fully aware of how innovative and determined Lehder was back in the day and fear he may attempt to reopen old drug markets. Personally, I think a thirty-year jail sentence may have taken the wind out of his sails.