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Norman's Cay:  Playground for Drug Smugglers

 

Norman's Cay is a small island in the Bahamas--210 miles off the Florida coast. For four years it was a drug smuggling hub and tropical hideaway for Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder and associates. Lehder arrived there in 1978 and started buying up large pieces of property, including a home for himself, a hotel and an airstrip. With his arrival, the locals noticed a marked increase in airplane traffic on the island's tiny airstrip, as well as armed guards patrolling the beaches.
In July 1980, a yacht belonging to a retired Fort Meyers couple was found drifting with a corpse and blood stains on board near Norman's Cay. Eventually Lehder harassed the island's residents and visitors until they fled, while Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, who investigators believe had accepted Lehder's bribes, did nothing to stop him. He in effect took over the entire island.

Lehder's scheme was to revolutionize the cocaine trade by transporting the drug to the U.S. using small aircraft. Previously drug dealers had to rely on human "mules" to smuggle the drugs in suitcases on regular commerical flights. Under Lehder's scheme, much greater quantities could be transported with far less risk of interception. Norman's Cay became the stop-over and refueling hub for these planes, carrying cocaine for Lehder and other members of the Medellin cartel from Colombia to the U.S. Lehder built a 3,300-foot runway protected by radar, bodyguards and Doberman attack dogs for the fleet of aircraft under his command.

· Read the interview with Lehder's personal pilot, Fernando Arenas.

With the Bahamian authorities looking the other way and the local inhabitants scared off, the island became a haven of debauchery for Lehder and his associates. Carlos Toro remembers, "Norman's Cay was a playground. I have a vivid picture of being picked up in a Land Rover with the top down and naked women driving to come and welcome me from my airplane...And there we partied. And it was a Sodom and Gomorrah...drugs, sex, no police...you made the rules...and it was fun."

The party came to an end in 1982 when the Bahamian government, in response to pressure from U.S. law enforcement, finally began to crack down on the activities on Norman's Cay.

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