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interview: juan david ochoa

 

picture of juan david ochoa

Ochoa was a narcotrafficker from Medellin, Colombia and a principal member of the Medellin cocaine cartel. The cartel's key members were Pablo Escobar, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, Jorge Ochoa and his brothers Juan David and Fabio. Juan David turned himself in to Colombian authorities in 1991 and served five years in jail. He currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
How did you and your brothers first get involved in the business?

This happened by accident. . . . Jorge [made a trip to the US and met someone who was involved,] and so that's how he began, then the rest of us, my other brother and I. That was around 1978, 1979. . . .

Do you remember your first transaction?

The first transactions . . . were when I lived in Bogota. My role to receive a commission for the business, in that I intervened as an intermediate. Later, I did a few business deals directly.

A few or many?

Several businesses. . . .

What was your feeling about the fact that you were trafficking in something that was highly illegal?

I didn't pay a lot of attention to that, that because at that time, no one said anything about anything. It was so easy . . . I didn't really pay much attention to the fact of whether . . . it was illegal or not.

Was it accepted in Colombia to be selling cocaine to the United States? Was it a problem socially ?

It wasn't properly accepted, but nobody ever said anything about it. And since nothing dangerous or grave had happened, there were no repercussions in getting involved. . . .

Can you describe the details that make the business work? You had distributors on one end, and you had producers. . . .

The DEA could have stopped the business, when it was much smaller and in the hands of a few people.  Now itºs in the hands of too many. The business worked in the following way. The supply people would bring it initially from Peru and Bolivia, and they would process it in labs here in Colombia. From there, you would buy the cocaine and you would contract it with someone to send it to the United States. Maybe it was through air or perhaps some maritime way, and there someone would receive it. It's this person who would receive it. That agent would be in charge of sending it other clients, from California, from New York, from different states. The person in the United States would be in charge of receiving the money and sending it back to Colombia. That's the way it would work.

What part of that business did you own outright, and what part did you have to contract with others for?

I had several ways of doing this. One was to buy the cocaine and to send it the way I explained, and my partner would sell it there. The other way would be to have your own lab where you would process it. You'd have your own way of transporting it, a plane or a boat or something like that. You send it at your own cost. Another way, you'd end up having to subcontract with other people to do the different stages, like processing, transport, and the transfer of sales to the person that you had contracted in the United States.

How much profit was there in the business along the way? You bought it for a certain amount, and sold it for another amount?

At the beginning, let's say that it cost 800 to 1,000,000 pesos a kilo, and you would sell it for $30,000-$40,000. Add to that the cost of transportation--around $10,000--and a few other expenses. That would leave a profit of about 50 percent. But that was only depending on the demand, and of course, on the supply. At the beginning that was the way it was. After some time . . . there was still demand, and the profit was a lot less, because there were a lot of people dedicated to this business.

How did the real profits compare to the profits that were publicized by the law enforcement agencies in the United States?

The press really exaggerates a lot. Of course there were times where the deal went really well, and the profits were huge. But the press really exaggerates all of this, because a lot of things go wrong. . . . For example, if you would try to transport something, you'd have to find a way of landing the plane in an alternate landing strip, because in one strip there was authority. So that would make things more difficult and it would take longer. Perhaps the plane would have to go back or many things like that. Maybe someone in the United States would get arrested or something, so then you'd have to change everything. You'd have to change the organization.

What percentage of the shipments that you sent to the United States do you think were intercepted by law enforcement?

In the beginning, none. Later on, I would say that 20 or 30 percent, something like that.

So it gradually got more difficult?

Yes, little by little, it became more difficult because there were Coast Guard planes with radar, and there were more controls in the airstrips. In general, there were a lot of controls and that of course would make the operation more difficult.

Did you have respect for your opponents--the DEA and other US law enforcement organizations?

Yes, of course. You'd have to be very careful and respect them very much because, if the contrary, you'd be in a lot of problems.

How many people were involved in the beginning? How large did the business become?

At the beginning, there weren't a lot of people--that's why the business was so good. There were 50, 60 people involved on the coast, in the south of the country, in Bogota. But with time, it started proliferating, and a lot of people got involved in this business.

What did you think when you first learned that Americans were willing to pay so much for cocaine?

I didn't understand it at all. I've never understood what they liked in that substance, because I don't think it has any positive effects. I don't understand why Americans liked it so much.

So the product that you made so much money with was not a product that you appreciated at all?

I don't appreciate it. I think it's a really stupid thing.

You have never used the product?

No, never, because I never found something that would interest me in this. I don't think there's any sense in using this.

Did it surprise you when you saw how widely accepted it was among the professional classes and the middle class of America?

Yes, of course it surprised me very much. There's nothing good about it. I don't see how anybody can get something good when they consume this, from my way of seeing things.

When you were trafficking, do you remember seeing it on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek magazine? What did you think? They called it "the champagne of drugs."

I didn't pay too much attention to that, because I don't think there's any sense to this. It might produce a different effect on them, but I just think that it has nothing good about it.

But did you ever sense that you were getting a lot of free advertising in the United States--in Hollywood movies, in magazines--in the way it was portrayed as a glamour drug?

Yes, of course. It was given publicity because it's consumed by people of high status in society, and that gives you publicity. That made it actually sell more.

Peter Bourne, the drug czar in the late 1970s, said at that time that it was a harmless drug. What is your reaction?

No. I think all drugs are harmful and anything that alters your normal states is bad for you. So like liquor, like cocaine, like marijuana, any drug is harmful. So I don't believe in what he said. I think it alters your states.

Did you think this at the time that you were selling it?

Yes, of course I thought of that same thing.

How did you reconcile the fact that you thought it was a harmful substance, but yet you were profiting from the sale of it?

I didn't think this would cause so much harm and that's why I did it. At that time I was also very young, and I was I didn't really think it could harm anyone. But nowadays I realize the grave and harmful thing that drug is.

Who was Carlos Lehder, and how was he important to the business?

Carlos Lehder was a boy from high society . . . . And he was important because he was one of the pioneers that started the traffic with this. He had his own planes and very sophisticated ways of trafficking. And on top of that, he was a kind of leader in this.

He also had some special property.

Something that also made Carlos famous and that made cocaine trafficking very easy was an island that he bought in the Bahamas. That was called Norman's Cay. That island was a sort of bridge for the planes for the trafficking of drugs. Because of that, Carlos was well known. . . . It made things easy, because it was a territory where the planes arrived freely. They would leave the cocaine, and then some much smaller other planes would take the much shorter flight to Florida. But remember, there were obviously other ways of getting the cocaine across through commercial airlines, and camouflaged export business. There were many ways of doing this.

What was the importance of Tranquilandia, and who owned it?

The initial owner of Tranquilandia was Gonzalo Rodriguez [Gacha], the Mexican. We had a part in that lab. It was very important because it was a bridge between Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. You could very easily process the cocaine there, because it was in the middle of a jungle where it was very difficult to go. There was no other way to go but by plane.

How large was the laboratory? What could it produce?

That lab would produce the amount that you wanted. It could produce a thousand kilos every two weeks, or perhaps even more. That was the capacity. . . .

How did you first meet up with Carlos Lehder?

My brother, Jorge, first met Carlos. Jorge and Carlos both like airplanes a lot . . . Carlos would come a lot to Medellin, so that's how I met him. . . .

Did he ever explain to you how he got into the business?

I never worried about asking him that question. Carlos was a very adventurous, curious man. He was an adventurer. . . .

Under what circumstances did you first meet Pablo Escobar?

I met Pablo Escobar because I lived in Bogota. They loved car racing. They would go to Bogota for the races, then they would go to my restaurant. That's where I met him. Later on, when I came to live in Medellin, I saw him a few times there.

But when did you first begin to enter the trafficking business with Pablo?

I never had any business directly with Pablo Escobar. . . . My brother Jorge did do a few deals with them.

In the United States, they talk about the Medellin cartel--that everybody was doing business together. What does that mean--the "Medellin cartel?"

That's a name given by the authorities or the press, because in itself, there was no group or association that was "the cartel of Medellin." That was what they called the traffickers from a certain place. From the people from Medellin, they would say the cartel of Medellin, the ones from Cali, the cartel of Cali. . . .

Was it a term that you used among yourselves at any time?

No, never. That was something the press used. I never heard any of us say the cartel of Medellin or the cartel of Cali. . . .

When you would read accounts of narcotrafficking in the press, or read accounts of law enforcement, did it frustrate you? What were the biggest misconceptions that you encountered?

. . . That these things weren't true. There were groups of people that were friends of course, but . . . it wasn't an association or anything like that. So that's a term that was something that was coined by the press, and everybody started using it. Everybody still uses to this day.

What role did Pablo Escobar play in the group or in the business?

He was a person that was so ambitious. He wanted to dominate and have the power of all the business. Apart from the business, he wanted to be involved in politics and in managing political issues in the country. So he pretended to be the head or the person that would rule everything at the moment.

And it wasn't true?

Yes, it was true. . . . It was true, but not everybody submitted to what he said. A lot of people left here, and others were never in agreement with him. He was chief in a certain way, but he wasn't an absolute chief.

In what way was Pablo the chief?

He wanted everyone to do it his way. And he wanted to be the one who ruled in the business, the total boss of the whole business. The person that would not submit to what he said was considered his enemy. . . . That's why a lot of people left Medellin.

How did you, the Ochoa brothers, fit in?

My brother Jorge was closer to Pablo. He tried to intervene so that things would be done in a non-violent manner. But Pablo didn't accept that very much. My brother and I were not very close to him. My brother simply tried to mediate when there was a war with the ones in Cali, so the war would finish and there would be no more violence or any more of that. When we had all given ourselves up, Jorge was the one who managed to convince Pablo to give himself up when he did. It was Jorge who mediated this, who convinced Pablo to give himself up . . .

In the early and mid-1980s, who was the biggest and richest narcotrafficker?

There was the Mexican. It was said he was one of the richest. . . . Pablo Escobar was said to be the richest. But it's very difficult to know how rich each of them was.

Were you open among each other as to how much you were making?

No, never. That's not something you need to discuss among yourselves. There were rumors that such and such is very wealthy, but nobody would know how much each would win or not.

Did you get together to discuss problems in the business, such as the trade routes and methods of transport, or difficulties getting payments? Did you come together like a trade association at any time to discuss industry problems?

There were meetings to make business but that was different from discussing problems. For all of us to get together like with the Mexican, yes, to make a business, yes, that did occur. . . . But not with a group of eight or ten people gathered in the business, no.

So what kind of industry is it? Sometimes people talk about it as if it's simply like the coffee business, except it's illegal. What kind of industry business was this?

It's a business like any business. It's a very profitable business, but it's prohibited. If it wasn't prohibited, it would be like any business of selling liquor or cigarettes or something of that manner.

There are large institutions on the other side--the DEA, the FBI, the US Customs Service, even the US military to some degree. Some people say that, also like a large business, they depend on you.

. . . If that business didn't exist, those entities would not exist. So one is a consequence of the other. . . .

Could they stop you if they wanted to?

I think so. Yes, of course.

So why didn't they stop you?

I don't know why they didn't. . . . If they were dedicated to controlling a very specific person, they can manage it. I don't know why they didn't do it. . . .

Do you think had other priorities? Would you speculate that was the reason that they didn't arrest you and extradite you, prosecute you, stop you?

You'd have to ask them that. . . . The business became so big and so complex, like everything. As things get bigger, they are harder to control.

But in the beginning they could have stopped you?

Yes. With sufficient collaboration from the Colombian authorities, they could have managed that. . . .

How big was the business, and how important was it to the economy of Colombia?

That business undoubtedly has brought a lot of money to this country. But of course it has also been detrimental, because it has so many ramifications--violence, and terrorism, and some. But it's true that a lot of money has entered the country. I think that's had great importance in the economic sector of the country. . . .



What happened in Tranquilandia?

That became very popular, very well known, and so there came a moment when authorities destroyed it. They confiscated it. It was well known that it existed, that it was a very large lab through which a lot of coca paste entered. You didn't just process coca there. It was also a bridge for other coca that was processed in other labs, because the airstrip was very large and very good for the airplanes. . . .

How did you learn about the famous bust at Tranquilandia? Did you know about it in advance? From your point of view, what transpired at Tranquilandia?

We had information of what the authorities were going to do. The Mexican knew, because he had informants. He told us that they were going to confiscate it, and so he asked what strategy should we use--should they repel the attack, an invasion there in Tranquilandia, with arms? Because he had armed people there. They decided no, that since we didn't really like any of the violent things with arms, and we decided that we should do nothing. And that's what happened. . . .

Following the raid on Tranquilandia, were there discussions or plans as to what you should do next?

No. Each of us simply kept on going through our own ways, and that finished. . . . Each of us on our own kept doing our own thing. We never did anything together as a society again.

What effect did the raid have on your business?

Setting this whole place up cost a lot of money, so we lost a lot of money.

Was it serious? How much money did you think you lost?

Yes, it was serious, because to set something like this up, in the middle of the jungle, is incredibly expensive. We might have lost around $5 million or $10 million, something like that. The airstrip and all the infrastructure that we had there was very expensive to keep. I couldn't calculate exactly, but of course we lost a lot of money there.

Did it affect your ability to supply the market to the United States?

At the moment, it affected us. But there were laboratories all over the place. There were a lot of people who could sell the cocaine that was ready. So we stopped processing the cocaine directly, and we had to buy the cocaine through third parties that were producing. . . .

I want to shift the conversation to Lara Bonilla. Who was he? What did he represent to the narcotraffickers?

He was the minister of justice of the time. For narcotraffickers, he was like any minister of justice. The government of Belisario Betancur started the persecution against drug trafficking because of Lara Bonilla's death.

It was not long after Tranquilandia that the decision was made to do something about Lara Bonilla. What did you know about that decision?

That was from Pablo Escobar. He made the decision. He didn't talk to any of us. He simply thought, he had ideas and he carried them out. At that time, since he was involved in politics, surely, maybe Bonilla was an obstacle for Pablo or something.

When you heard the news of Lara Bonilla's death, how did you react?

. . . I heard the news and I thought, "Oh, this is grave news." Because you can't stand up to the government and society in that way. I think it was a grave mistake to kill him, or anyone else, of the people that were killed.

Did you make a phone call to find out who had ordered it? What did you do?

No. I simply heard it on the news, and a few days later the persecution against us started. And that's when we left for Panama. We were there for a while. From Panama, I went to Brazil. I was there for a while, and then after that on to Equador. When the tension started easing after a while, I came back to Colombia.

Why did you go to Panama?

Panama is a country that's very easy to get to from here. You don't need a visa or anything. It's very comfortable there. We decided to go there because it's close and easy.

Who was the "we" who decided to go there?

My brothers and I. Rodriguez was there and Pablo Escobar.

There were discussions with the government when you were in Panama?

That was a meeting with Pablo Escobar, and Jorge my brother, with the ex-president, Alfonso Lopez, and with the prosecutor general. They wanted to find a way to end the business--a decorous way of getting out of this so we would get out of this business. But that didn't prosper.

What was discussed at that meeting?

I don't exactly remember what happened in that meeting, because that was a meeting that Pablo Escobar had with the prosecutor and ex-president. They offered to end the business and they offered to end all of that.

Why were you willing to end the business at that point?

Because the persecution was very high. We could just start to see that things were getting worse day to day.

And why was your offer not accepted?

I don't know. That was a matter of the government of Belisario Betancur. . . .

You were willing to accept that you would cease narcotrafficking. But what did you want in return?

. . . Since the pressure after Lara Bonilla, the persecution was so hard against us and our families. We thought it was a very dark future for us, so we decided that the best thing would be to leave the business alone. We proposed this to ex-President Lopez, but that had no answer. . . .

What did extradition mean to you?

Extradition was something that we thought was very grave for us. If someone would extradite you, that would be like being buried alive. We respected and feared extradition . . . very much.

And how did you react?

Several proposals were sent so that extradition would end for drug trafficking to end, but that never came to pass. There was a pool of lawyers that was working to legally stop extradition. But that also didn't work. . . .

What do you think about the politics of extradition?

I don't agree with extradition. If there was a justice system towards Colombians in other countries, where the sanctions weren't so big and drastic against Colombians, it would be fine to pay three or four or five years, in a dignified manner. But to spend your life in prisons that are high security and chained up--I think that violates your human rights.

But by your own admission, cocaine is a bad drug and it resulted in much harm to many people. Why should you not be punished more severely than four or five years in a dignified manner? Americans listening to you will think this.

Then they should also punish those who sell liquor, because it's just as or more dangerous than cocaine, but it's legal. It's just a manner of seeing things.

What started narcoterrorism, and what is it?

Narcoterrorism was started because of the extradition. As everyone knows, Pablo Escobar employed all sorts of methods, which, of course, I never believed in or agreed with. Because in that narcoterrorism, the great majority people that died were innocent. Those people had nothing to do with anything. So I think that's a grave error.

Who were "the extraditables?"

The extraditables were all of us who had indictments in the United States, including us, the Ochoas.

Were acts of violence were perpetrated by the extraditables?

Yes.

Then you supported or were involved in these acts?

No, no. We were never involved in violent acts. As I was saying before, the violence was generated by Pablo Escobar. But we were never in agreement with those terrorist acts. . . .

But there were acts of violence, and communiqués were written in which "the extraditables" claimed responsibility. That clearly points a finger at the Ochoas, since they were members of the extraditables group.

We were never involved or in agreement with any terrorist act, because our policy has always been to find a way to solve things in a non-violent manner so that no one is hurt--talking and negotiating only. Nevertheless, there were people that were in agreement with violence, and they would commit these terrorist acts. And the extraditables would take credit for that. We were extraditables, but we never had to do with "the extraditables." I like this question because it's important for you to understand.

But after Lara Bonilla was assassinated--a killing that was committed by Pablo Escobar--your brother negotiated side-by-side with Pablo Escobar and with the government. Why not isolate Pablo Escobar? It seems that you stood by him.

At that moment, simply, everything was just starting, and we never believed that it would come to the point of narcoterrorism violence. Jorge's policy was always to conciliate, to mediate. He was with Pablo Escobar but that didn't mean that he was part of the extraditables or believed in this. What he was trying to do was mediate, like everyone knows.

Did you ever talk among yourselves about separating from Pablo Escobar?

Yes, we thought of that but it wasn't something that was convenient for us--for lot of reasons I don't want to go into.

You were afraid.

Yes.

Can you tell me about Barry Seal?

What I know about Barry Seal is that he was a pilot that transported cocaine. And he had some inconveniences with the DEA and he started to work with them. And later on he was assassinated.

Did Barry Seal fly your cocaine?

Mine, no, never. He transported cocaine for several people--Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Jorge my brother. But for my own cocaine, I never had any accounts with Barry Seal. I only met him once, I saw him only once in my lifetime. . . . When we were in Panama, he came to Panama to talk to Jorge my brother, with Pablo Escobar and with Gonzalo Rodriguez. And I saw him perhaps three to five minutes. That was the only time in my life I met him. I never talked to him then or anything. . . .

Read the interview with Fernando Arenas, a pilot for Carlos Lehder who claims that the Ochoas had Barry Seal killed.

When you went to Panama, was Noriega helping to protect you? What was Noriega's involvement with the narcotrafficking?

No, at no moment did he protect us. He didn't even know that we were there. As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the drug trade.

Carlos Lehder himself, one of your associates, claimed and helped convict Manuel Noriega of drug crimes.

I can't really say, because I wasn't there. There's a saying here that if any of us have problems with the US, Noriega is the best lawyer you could have, because if you declare against Noriega, you're free. Perhaps Carlos Lehder didn't have another option but to do that. . . .

What was the Sandinista involvement in the drug trafficking business?

The Sandinistas offered through some people to cooperate to traffic drugs from Nicaragua. And that was something they tried to do precisely when we were in Panama. Personally, Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez went to Managua to try to start a new business. That was done through Barry Seal precisely. But that failed, because Barry Seal was already "twisted," as they say vulgarly. . . . With the Sandinistas, not much was done. That was a failure because it was done directly through someone with the DEA--Barry Seal. . . .

What was the involvement of the contras in the cocaine business?

That's not something I know of. I heard that they were involved. . . . But I never knew about it personally.

Was it your belief that they would have been? Does it surprise you that they might have been?

It wouldn't surprise me. In this business, if a person hasn't gotten into the business, it's because they haven't been able to.

What was Cuba's involvement in cocaine trafficking?

Through Cuba, we made several deals with officials from the Cuban government. But they were doing things on their own. I think the Cuban government had nothing to do with it. They got involved on their own. . . .

How significant were these Cuban officials? How large was their cocaine business?

That was a very small thing because that was something they were doing on their own. They turned their backs to the government, and since in Cuba everything's so controlled, it wasn't something easy to do. So it didn't succeed.

When did the Mexicans get involved in the business?

The Mexicans have always been involved, but in a bigger way starting from1984, 1985. . . .

Why was it important to involve the Mexicans? Were the Caribbean routes becoming more difficult?

Through Mexico was very easy because the border of Mexico with the US is very large. So the cocaine went from here to Mexico, and then there were those in charge of finding ways to move it through the United States. That border is very huge and it's probably uncontrollable.

But the US authorities' work in south Florida, through the South Florida Drug Task Force, did that. Was that why narcotrafficking moved out of the Caribbean and into Mexico?

. . . The drug trade through Mexico increased, because in Florida they started too many controls. It was very difficult through there. It was a lot easier through Mexico because there weren't that many controls. . . .

They became large groups of traffickers, large cartels. How did Mexican traffickers become so powerful?

. . . Because they weren't doing any business without the money being given in advance. So whether the business succeeded or not, they had the money. Without the money up front, they wouldn't move a finger. So it was very easy for them. But for us, we had to make great investments, not only to sell, but to send the drugs to Mexico. We'd give them the money up front, and pay its shipment across the border. So they would keep the money, and because of that, they managed to get so much money.

Is it true that you also paid them in cocaine?

Some charged a percentage in cocaine. I didn't have to do that. But I've heard of that.

People say that was a major reason they were able to build up their business.

Yes, possibly and also because they have nothing to lose. Before the shipment has even left, they already have the money in their pockets. . . .

In the 1986 indictment, you are charged with conspiring with Max Mermelstein and Rafael Cardona [Rafico] in Florida--that while you were living in the United States, you discussed how to get money out of the distributors in California. What is your response to that particular charge?

That's a false accusation, because I never gathered with Max Mermelstein to discuss a single business deal, because I never had a business deal with him. The only business I had was with Rafico, and I never had any problems with him money or anything. . . . And with Max Mermelstein I never had any meetings about drug trafficking at all.

In another part of the indictment it says that you were responsible for arranging for the shipment of 76 drums of ether, which ended up being sent to Tranquilandia.

That's also not true, because I never brought ether from the United States. The people that were in charge of getting ether were the ones . . . directly in charge of the labs. I never imported or brought ether, not even contraband. That was done by the people in the labs.

And not under your instructions?

No.

That indictment says that, in December of 1981, you got together with Rafico and with a man named Edgar Blanco in Dade County to discuss how the business was going. Is that also false?

Whatever is said by Max about the business that I've had with him is fake. I think he is the biggest liar in the world, and he is fantasizing. I never had any business with Max Mermelstein. I never had anything to discuss with him, because I saw Max Mermelstein two or three times in my life. I never talked to him because I never had anything to talk to him about. . . .

Why did you decide to turn yourselves in to the government?

We were tired of having to run. We were afraid we would get killed. We wanted a normal life with our family, to dedicate ourselves to our businesses, to our kids, and once and for all to finish with the headache, that nightmare that we lived.

Did the government win the war?

All of us won. The government won in, the sense that they didn't have to persecute us anymore. And we won also because we solved our problem. There's no winners or losers. Everybody was a winner, when there is a settlement like ours.

Did the policy of extradition work?

It works in part, because people are afraid of extradition. But even with extradition, or the death penalty, the business will never end.

What was your feeling when Carlos Lehder was extradited?

I got really sad, because I don't like when anyone is extradited, so I got very sad with his extradition.

What was your reaction to the death of Pablo Escobar?

None of us like that anyone dies. I would rather that he had a different ending, that he would have corrected all of his errors, that his ending wouldn't have been the death in that way. . . .

What is your opinion of the Rodriguez Orjuelas?

I think that if they manage to solve their problem that they have, and if they can pay their sentence, they will be fine in the eyes of society and like us, they can enjoy their families and lead a tranquil life.

What was the difference between the Rodriguez Orjuela brothers and the Ochoa brothers?

The difference is that we were never involved in wars or in problems with violence of any sort. And they were stuck in the middle of a very violent war against Pablo Escobar.

Are you saying the Ochoas didn't pay bribes, or engage acts of violence?

We were never involved in violent acts. Bribing was something that happened. In order to traffic, you've got to pay certain authorities, so that was something that just had to be done. But in terms of violent things, we were never involved.

At what level did you pay bribes? How high did those bribes go?

Let's say we would pay for information or for flights to leave an airport. It was sort of low-level, or middle-level payments--never high-level payments. We would contribute with propaganda for the liberal governments.. . . We made campaigns for the liberals because we are liberal. But we never gave cash to any politician. . . .

When did you feel bad that you had been in this business?

When I was blocked in many ways, and the family was being persecuted, and the kids weren't being accepted into the schools--when we started to do badly in the social sense.

What is your opinion of the war on drugs?

I think it's a war that's very uneven, because while there is a demand, there will always be a supply. They can put as many controls as they want. The only way to get out of this is to legalize this business, the same way that the liquor business is legalized.

What, exactly, do think that legalization would do?

We'd have to make campaigns educating people, as is done with liquor and tobacco, warning them that it's detrimental. That would be one way. Once that was legal, it would no longer be a business, and therefore it would end, or it would be greatly diminished, that business.

How much money did you make from trafficking cocaine?

I can't really tell you because I never really added it all up but it was a considerable amount. . . . Maybe $20 million, $25 million. Around that. I couldn't tell you exactly.

So if it had been legal, you wouldn't have made $25 million?

Probably not, but the business that I have now is a very good business, which is my horse business, something that I've always had, I think I would have even made more than that. . . .

Did you make as much as a million dollars a month at a certain point?

Possibly one month, yes. But not consistently, because I didn't consistently have success in each deal. . . .

But this is a very profitable business. The DEA would tell me that you made as much as $500 million, or maybe a billion dollars in the business.

I wish that was true. They're wrong about that. They're really wrong about that.

What is your opinion of the United States of America?

I think it's a great country. The United States is a great country. Nowadays, I really feel bad I cannot be there, or travel there, because I really love the US. It's a very beautiful country, a very large country, very free, with a lot of opportunities, with a lot of contrasts, and because I like it a lot.

A lot of Americans will watch you and say, "But this man has poisoned our country, as far as numerous deaths, sickness, and addiction." You brought a plague to the United States.

In part they are right, and all of us commit errors in their life. They also commit mistakes. They have this country full of arms and of other things. The ingredients, for instance, to make cocaine comes from the US, and the dollars to make the cocaine comes from the US, so they are also guilty of a lot of things. We can't judge each other. All of us make mistakes.

What is FARC's involvement in the cocaine business today?

I know that the guerrillas--I'm not quite sure what group--control the production of the coca plant. . . . That's not a secret, everybody knows that. It's not just something I would say. The government says it, the Americans say it, they admit it, and everybody knows that. They are practically the owners of that business nowadays.

What is the difference between the cocaine business before you went to jail and today?

Before, the business was in a few hands. Now the business is in the hands of a lot of people, a lot of partners, and individual persons and groups. The business is a lot more complex nowadays, and day after day, it will become more complex.

How is it is more complex?

It is more difficult to detect who traffics, because nowadays, the people that are involved in this they don't have a profile. They are not known by anyone, so it's more difficult to know who is involved or not than before. . . . That's why it's more complex and more sophisticated. The proof of it is that the US is still has cocaine coming in great quantities, as does Europe and all of the world. . . .

Is the war on drugs is a big failure?

The war on drugs as it's being waged is a failure. They have partial success, but generally it's a failure, because it's completely impossible to contain . . . as long as there's the demand, as long as there is great profit in the business.

You said earlier that they could stop it if they wanted to.

The DEA could have stopped the business, when it was much smaller and in the hands of a few people. Now it's in the hands of too many. It's a lot easier to control a few than a lot.

How has your involvement in the cocaine business--in all the persecutions, in all the death, all the violence--how has this changed you as a man?

Being involved in this has changed me a lot. I've had time to think about all of this. I've matured. I've seen all of this in a very different way than I used to. I was very young. I didn't really think of the consequences of what I was doing. Nowadays, I realize, and I see things in a very different manner.

At your worst, who were you?

Before I was what I am now, I was a trafficker. I was doing bad to society, committing crimes, and now I don't. That was before.

Who are you now?

I am a normal person. I'm a good person, I'm a father, I'm hard working, I'm honest. I've reinserted myself in society. I feel very good now.. . .

Are you sorry that you were involved?

I really regret having been involved, because as I said, at that time, I didn't think it was anything bad. It was like contraband, like anything else. I didn't think that it would have the consequences that it had, for my family, for myself, and for the rest of the world.

What do you say to Americans who have been hurt by cocaine?

I would tell them that all of us make mistakes. It's the same error for the one that sells like the one that consumes. And they should think about what they do before they get into it. Like someone that drinks and becomes addicted to alcohol. . . . Anything that causes you harm is bad. And so before you get involved in trafficking or consuming, you should really think about it twice. . . .

Some US officials believe that you and your brothers have continued to be involved in narcotrafficking, even after serving time. Can you comment?

I think that's a completely false statement. If that's true, show us the proof. We are the ones that are least interested in being involved in this business after having solved that problem, knowing the consequences that might come out of all of the trafficking.

But how can you sleep at night? You know that if someone in the United States has been charged with a crime, if they give evidence against you, you could possibly be extradited? It doesn't matter if the evidence is true of false.

This is very worrisome. The possibility of someone giving testimony against us in order to save themselves from a sentence is very worrisome, because that's the way of doing things in the US--to accuse someone to save yourself from a harsh sentence. So that worries us greatly. But we have the certainty, and on our behalf, we have a clean conscience that for us all of this is finished, that we are in a new life, a different life, trying to work hard honestly and normally.

What were your crimes? What did you do?

Let's not call it a crime. Let's say an error that was committed, and that was to traffic in drugs. . . . like selling liquor illegally. This is a very subjective thing. It's perception, because liquor is equally damaging, or even more harmful. Just look at the amount of people that die, and the family tragedies that the liquor causes on a daily basis throughout the world. So it's the same if someone produces liquor and sells it, they're harming the person. To those that are consuming, that's the way it is.

What were the differences in the roles you and your brothers played in the business?

. . . Jorge and Fabio, like me, were dedicated to drug trafficking. But that has changed. It's now different. That was a different stage in our lives. They are no longer involved in that business, and haven't been for a very long time. We were sentenced, and spent five and a half years in jail, and now we are living a normal life--a very different life.

Who was the leader?

Jorge was the most well known . . . He was the one that was most visible, but he wasn't properly a leader. We were all the same.

Why did you decide to do this interview?

Because I wanted to clear some doubts. I decided to give this interview because I thought it was convenient, because I could clear up things; a lot of doubts, and to show the rest of the world that life is different. Life teaches you things every day.

What did life teach you?

To live.

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