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interview: jorge ochoa

 

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Ochoa was a drug trafficker from Medellin and helped to found the Medellin cartel in the late 1970s. The cartel's key members were Pablo Escobar, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, Jorge Ochoa and his brothers Juan David and Fabio. Jorge 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.

(NOTE: This interview was conducted through a translator).

Can you describe how you became involved in the cocaine business?

I was very young and I didn't have any experience, not even in life, or anything. By coincidence, I met a friend who was in that. We began a business that was very small. He introduced me to someone, and between the two of us, we sold him a small quantity. But it wasn't that I needed the money to live or anything. We were born in a wealthy family, to live well. We never needed anything. . . . The business started growing like any business. It becomes like a ball of snow. It grows by itself, and demand it makes it grow. The business grows on its own--not because you want the business to grow, but it's that the business itself starts growing. It seemed like a game, and nobody paid any attention to it. Nobody, nobody. "That was something very easy," I thought. . . .

Can you recount your first [shipment of] drugs that you sent to the United States?

. . . It was maximum about 20 kilos among many people. . . .

How profitable was the business in the beginning for you?

. . . It has always been lucrative. But back then, there was no kind of violence in the business or any kind of problem. When it got big is when the problems began. When it got big, the problems began, and a lot of people got involved. . . .

We've spoken with members of the DEA and also here with the investigators, the police, the DAS here. They said that, in the early years of the cocaine business, they were spending their time in the north of the country. They were concerned about the marijuana business and they really didn't pay any attention to cocaine.

Yes. In the beginning . . . the big business was the marijuana. Cocaine was not a big part. The marijuana business ended because they started to produce that drug in the US. Very few people exported marijuana. . . . They were growing marijuana in the United States, so then there's no need for them to receive any marijuana. So the business of cocaine was very small. It was very small. And then, little by little, it became more important than the marijuana business.



Do you remember a time--a particular deal--when you realized that this was really going to be big?

I ask for forgiveness for what I did.  It was more than enough the time that we were in jail. I think that people should forgive us. No, I don't remember a moment. That's something that became big on itself. And then a lot of Colombians started getting involved, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia. All these countries got involved in this business because the business of marijuana ended. That's why, I believe, that the cocaine business grew--because this is produced in Latin America and not in the United States. Marijuana ended here because they were producing it there. . . .

A lot of young Colombian men were involved in some way with the cocaine business. But you became a grand trafficker. What allowed you to reach the top of the business, while others did not?

I thought because we were a very-well known family in Medellin. Medellin is a very small town and so everybody finds out what people are doing. That's why I got famous, that's all.

In the beginning were you working with Pablo Escobar? When did you begin your relationship or friendship with Pablo Escobar?

I knew Pablo Escobar from many years ago. I met him in the business because he was involved in this business. But I wasn't a very good friend of his or anything. Everybody talked about him, but I wasn't a very, very good friend of his. But this is a small town and everybody knows each other. Everybody knows you and you always know everyone, including Pablo Escobar.

How important was Carlos Lehder to the cocaine business?

I met Carlos Lehder. He was a nice, intelligent and crazy kind of guy. He had an island called Norman's Cay. Because you know everyone in the business, I also met Carlos through them.

Was Norman's Cay important to your cocaine business?

Norman's Cay was a bridge that was used by everyone in the business at that time. It was something that helped me, and it helped a lot of people at that moment. It seems almost that law enforcement hardly existed at this point in time. It was easy to buy an island in the Bahamas. Is that the way it was? I don't really know. . . . Everybody used the routes that Carlos had. . . .

. . . When you needed to run cocaine to the United States, how did you make arrangements with pilots and with Norman's Cay?

Back then, people were involved in that business. They would offer you, "Hey, there's a really good route through the Bahamas," and you didn't quite know if it was Norman's Cay or where. . . .

Who, generally, were your pilots? What type of men were they?

The pilots were American at that time. You wouldn't even know who they were.

. . .

Did you get to know these Americans? What was their background? Where were they from? How did they learn to fly?

I didn't know any of them. I didn't personally meet any pilots.

Many people said that a lot of pilots came out of Vietnam, and afterwards got involved in the cocaine trade.

Yes, I think that's right, because it coincided at the time when the Vietnam war was happening. . . . There were a lot of pilots, a lot of crazy people. I had heard that a lot of them had been pilots in Vietnam, but I didn't meet any pilot personally. . . . The end of Vietnam did coincide with the beginning of the business.

I'm surprised that you didn't personally know the pilots. At what level were you operating?

I never went to an airstrip to send a kilo of cocaine. I didn't go personally to put the cocaine inside a plane, so I didn't meet any of the pilots.

What was an average day like for you in your line of work?

. . . You would buy the cocaine processed. You didn't even know where they were processing it at that moment. There were people that would sell it to you, there were people that would buy it, and there were intermediaries that would offer the cocaine. You didn't have your own lab back then.

I still don't quite understand what you did on a day-to-day basis.

One doesn't dedicate all one's time to that. At that time, I lived with my family. I tended to my family. I kept an eye on my daughter--at that time I only had one daughter, now I have three. I would get up, take her to school. I lived a normal life . . . and I also dealt with horses. I had a lot of activities. I wasn't solely dedicated to the business; it doesn't take all of your time.

So drug trafficking was a lucrative part-time job?

Part-time, yes.

At what point did you begin to build your own labs? . . . And why did you do that?

There was Tranquilandia, which was very famous. We would send to people to buy cocaine from there. . .

Were you a part owner of Tranquilandia?

I was not an owner. I was a client. . . .

Who owned Tranquilandia?

A lot of people were part owners. Lots of people worked there. . . . Everybody who wanted to buy a kilo or who had a kilo or who wanted to bring it from Bolivia, or from Ecuador--they would bring it to Tranquilandia and process it there. . . . But it wasn't like Tranquilandia had an owner. Everybody who wanted something would have access to this supermarket. So Tranquilandia was a sort of . . . a cooperative among several people. . . .

What happened to Tranquilandia in 1984?

In 1984, the police took over Tranquilandia. A lot of people were working there. . . . Mexican security agents arrived by air. . . . We could have defended Tranquilandia at that moment with violence. But we said "No, no, there should be no violence." So police took over the place . . . with no violence. They didn't fire a single bullet at anyone.

This was a huge laboratory. The DEA and the Colombian police had never seen such a laboratory. How big of a blow was its loss to the cocaine business?

. . . I don't think it affected the traffic much. There were many other labs all over the country, in many places. . . .

The DEA says that the bust in Tranquilandia was really the beginning of the drug war in Colombia. Is this true? Was that a turning point?

I do think that that was the beginning of the war on drugs; at least, they started to combat the drugs at that moment.

What began to change?

You'd have to change a lot of your methods. We started to run more. Before that, we lived at peace. But the problems began after Tranquilandia.

Shortly after Tranquilandia, someone made a decision--and it's popularly thought to be Pablo Escobar--to assassinate Lara Bonilla [the Colombian Minister of Justice.] What happened, exactly, and what was the significance?

That was Pablo Escobar. . . . Pablo was a very violent man. Pablo was a rebel, and Pablo did what he wanted to do. At that time, Pablo Escobar had been very much involved in politics. Lara Bonilla and Pablo Escobar were political enemies. So I think that they had their own personal problems beforehand, because they were from different political groups. . . . I think that it was a personal battle between the two of them.

What did you and your brothers and Pablo Escobar do after the assassination of Lara Bonilla?

We left. I left for Spain.

But first you went to Panama.

Yes. We went to Panama.

What happened in Panama when you got there and decided to have meetings with the government?

After Lara Bonilla, we went to Panama, and we tried to make contacts through the government. . . . We offered the government to stop the business. No one controls the business. . . . Pablo didn't control it, I didn't control it, nor the Mexican [Rodriguez Gacha]--nobody controls the business. The control, the business, exists because of supply and demand. We offered to the government that, in our respect, we would stop the business. But when they say that we offered to pay the debt, that was a total lie. That's a lie.

What did you want in return?

We wanted to live in peace. We wanted to live in peace with our family.

Why was your offer rejected?

. . . I'm not quite sure why they said no after we had talked two or three times with the people sent from the government. They no longer talked to us. . . . But it would have been a great moment, and I think a lot of things would have been done, because after that a lot of violence happened. That would have been the best thing that could have happened with the government--for there to be peace. . . .

From what you can remember, what were the points of the proposal that you made to the United States?

I don't remember, exactly. But we offered to give our strips, our planes, the routes, and to never traffic again. The offer was basically that. We would talk to everyone that we knew and ask them not to work in the business. That was basically the offer. What they said about external debt was a lie.

You made this offer together with the Mexican, your brothers, and with Pablo Escobar. Since you were were making a collective offer, could you . . . correctly be perceived as an organization larger than simply individual drug traffickers?

At that moment, it wasn't an organization. But we were the most well-known people in the business at that moment, so we were like the spokespersons for lot of people. But that wouldn't mean that we were an association. . . . We were simply the people that were talking, making an offer to the government on behalf of others.

However, for your offer to work, you needed a lot of control and influence over the other narcotraffickers. How were you going to accomplish that so they could stop the business?

Nobody has control of the business. The demand controls the business. But at that moment, we were the well-known people in the business. And the violence hadn't really begun back then. . . .

At that point, when you're in Panama and making offers to the government, how much money had you made in the business? That is, what was your net worth?

I don't know. We had a lot. . . .That business, as much as you produce, you spend just the same. It's all an illusion. Of course, there are people that make a lot of money, people that are more organized and spend less. But that business produces a lot more problems than money.

But at that time, it hadn't produced a lot of problems. Was that the wealthiest point in your career as a trafficker?

That was a moment when the business was tranquil, and I didn't have a lot of problems. Perhaps you can say that was a bonanza, although perhaps not mine. . . .

When you turned yourself in, how much did you confess to having made in the cocaine business?

I never gave an exact sum. I don't know the exact sum, because you never know what you made or how much you lost. . . .

At that point, were you worth $50 million?

No. No. The big business of the cocaine is for Americans. The ones that make the money are in the United States. The United States are the ones that make the business. The participation for Colombia is very small. . . . They say that the US makes about $300 billion dollars a year in the cocaine business. The big business is over there. That's why it won't end. . . .



Why did the violence begin?

Everybody knows that the violence in Colombia was Pablo Escobar. He was the violence in the business. When he died, the violence in the business was finished. That's the whole explanation.

You knew Pablo Escobar. You are one of the few people who can understand why he generated so much violence. . . . Why did he go to these extremes?

Pablo was a big rebel, and he did whatever he wanted. He didn't consult with anyone for what he wanted to do. Frankly, he intimidated us, and many other people in Medellin, Cali, and Bogota. He intimidated everyone. It wasn't just us, but the rest of Colombia and all of the United States. . . . He thought that whatever he wanted is the way it should be done, and he didn't ask anyone an opinion. He didn't take anyone into account to do this or that.

Did he ever ask you your opinion of what he should do?

No, nada.

Did you ever tell him what you thought?

I told him a lot of times; everybody would tell him. But he would not listen to anyone. He would intimidate you. He killed a lot of his friends. He killed everyone, even the ones that helped him. . . .

Did you ever complain to him after a murder? Can you remember any specific incident . . . where you told him that you were concerned about what he had done? Did you have a confrontation with him? . . .

You couldn't confront Pablo Escobar, because you knew what would happen: you would die. You couldn't confront him at all. You could perhaps maybe say, "Listen, Pablo, don't do this, Pablo," but with him directly, no. There was no way you could confront him. You would lose your life if you did. He even killed my brother-in-law.

What did you say to Pablo?

I couldn't say anything. I was in prison in Spain when Pablo had him killed. But I couldn't say anything to him--what could I say to him? The same thing would happen to me.

Did you discuss extradition with Pablo Escobar? . . .

The biggest enemy was extradition. He worked very much so that there wouldn't be any extradition. . . .

Why did he fear extradition so much?

Because justice for a Colombian is different than the US and for an American. . . . Look at all the time Carlos Lehder spent in jail. . . . You can't avoid that fear of extradition.

Who were "the extraditables" and what was their strategy?

The extraditables were all of us who are asked for in extradition. . . . That's who the extraditables were. But the group called "the extraditables" was a nickname that Pablo gave himself, so that he could direct all his violence and his terrorist actions towards the extradition. It wouldn't point to him personally, but "the extraditables" terrorist group was Pablo Escobar.

When you were arrested in 1987 at the toll plaza, you were put in jail. Then a communiqué was delivered to the home of the newspaper publisher in Medellín, Goméz Martínez, signed by the extraditables. It said, "If Jorge is extradited, we will declare total war." In the Americans' view, you are implicated you as one who advocated violence--violence was being threatened because of your capture.

. . . The communiqué; that came out within a day or two was certainly Pablo, because at that time I was isolated. How was I going to do that communiqué, being isolated, being in the brigade? I didn't know what was happening. They wouldn't even let me listen to the news. I couldn't do that communiqué. Certainly that communiqué was made by Pablo. So then, how am I going to make a communiqué and declare wars if I'm isolated? I didn't know about that . . . when I came out two or three months later. I didn't know anything about that.

Who was Barry Seal?

Barry Seal was an American pilot who worked for whoever offered him the most; he worked for the CIA, for the DEA, for the Sandinistas, for the traffickers, for everybody.

What was your business with Barry Seal before he became a DEA agent and informer?

I surely went on some of his routes, but I didn't personally . . . talk with him or pursue. And he didn't work for me exclusively. He was one of those pilots who offered his route. . . .

So you paid Barry Seal to run some of your cocaine?

No, I didn't pay him. I never personally paid him anything. I paid whoever had Barry Seals's route at that time. I don't know who was going to transport or not. I imagine it was Barry Seal. But I never paid him anything personally.

But your group used Barry Seal to run your cocaine? . . .

No. No, there was no group, as I explained. Remember, he supposedly signed with Pablo and the Mexican shipping cocaine, but not with me. I was not there. . . . He was a pilot of cocaine transportation, and I imagine that he didn't know who it belonged to at that moment. I didn't know that it would be him who would take it. One didn't know who it was.

But he certainly knew that he was running Pablo Escobar's cocaine? He was photographed there in Nicaragua.

Certainly, surely.

. . . Did you and Pablo spoke with the Sandinistas about opening up an airbase to run cocaine? Did you survey an airstrip and go together to talk to the Sandinistas?

No. I had already left for Spain. When that happened, I was already in Spain. I didn't talk with the Sandinistas or with anyone.

Why did you go to Spain?

Because I wanted to go in tranquility and peace. The problems had already started in Colombia and I left for Spain. At that time I was not working, I wasn't doing anything. I wanted to live in tranquillity. . . .

What Barry Seal do in Nicaragua, and what happened afterwards?

I don't exactly know what he did in Nicaragua, because I went to Spain and I stayed in Spain. . . .

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

In Spain . . . you're faced with extradition. How were you able to beat the Americans?

I think that I won because I was right. . . . God helped me and I was right. I was being charged with drug trafficking between Colombia and the United States. And the natural thing is that one should be judged in one's own country, not in a country that is not one's own. So it was a very hard legal battle and thank God we won . . . .and I was extradited over here.

How important do you think the so-called "Nicaraguan defense" was in helping your case--that the drug war had become politicized?

Yes, it was a very important political time . . . The United States tried to involve Nicaragua in the trafficking of drugs. When I was over there, they offered that I would have no problems if I declared against the ones from Nicaragua. But I didn't have anything to do with that drug trafficking, and I didn't even know if there had been or hadn't been, so I told them no. But yes, the interest of the United States in my detention in Spain was that I involve Nicaragua in the trafficking of drugs. That was something that I didn't know. . . . How was I going to involve them? I was never in Nicaragua.

What happened with Oliver North?

. . . They involved him in . . . taking cocaine in exchange for weapons to Nicaragua or vice versa. I don't remember how the thing was. But I remember about him also.

What do you know about cocaine and the contras?

Nothing.

Do you believe that the contras were making money in the cocaine business? Did you know any of the Nicaraguen contras who were involved in coming to Medellín or Calí and arranging for shipments?

No.

What was the involvement of the Cuban authorities in drug trafficking?

I don't know anything about that. When I was in the business, Cuba was not involved. I wasn't even around for Mexico.

You were not involved with any Mexicans? You never moved drugs through Mexico?

No. . . .

Finally, you win the battle of extradition, a great victory. But did the violence win?

When we presented ourselves to the law, there was a lot of violence. But the whole world knew it was Pablo Escobar. We presented ourselves even when the treaty was in force. They had not removed the treaty. . . . In 1990 we presented ourselves, and the [extradition] treaty was repealed in 1991. And so then we were very removed from everything. We were hiding and they were looking for us at that time to kill us. . . . They weren't looking for us to extradite us, but to kill us. And I think that we paid very highly for that.

What is your opinion of the United States?

I think that they are wrong in the manner they handle the problem. That problem has to be handled with the legalization and with education. Educate the youth and legalize that. Because that way you can control it. But that idea of restraining it-- they can't control it.

What is your feeling for the American people?

. . . A very good opinion of the Americans--the best.

During the crack epidemic in the US, violence intensified in many areas of society. Do you feel any responsibility for what . . . was going on among the American people, a people that you say are a great people?

I think that we're all at fault, and I also have a lot of fault in it, when they fall into this drug addiction and the youth becomes involved in that vice and all. But the responsibility belongs to all of us. They also have a lot of the responsibility. . . . They produce the weapons for the violence, and the demand. . . . This is not a problem that is only ours or of Colombia. It is also a problem of the Americans. And they have a great deal of responsibility in this problem. . . because that involves a lot of money and the big business is over there. I think they should try to solve it from over here as well as from over there. Of course you have to attack the problem and pursue it politically and all, but the people have to be educated as well. There is a need to try to stop the demand.

. . . But how do you feel about your role in the business?

I feel very badly for having been in that business and I ask for forgiveness. I have asked for forgiveness always, and they just gave us the opportunity to surrender. We say it right there. And to pay for our error, we paid for it and I paid it and I paid very highly. I hope that the world will forgive me for it.

Americans feel that you were not sufficiently punished, because you were able to keep a lot of your money. At least that is what I am told. . . .

. . . I ask for forgiveness for what I did. And I think that it was more than enough the time that we were in jail. God forgives one, and I think that people should also forgive us and the Americans also. With the issue of my brother, the law has to be just and it can't be vindictive. It cannot be vengeful. I think that they want to take revenge with him or something. It shouldn't be like that. And my brother is innocent. My brother is surely innocent. . . .

[Fabio Ochoa was arrested in Colombia in October 1999 as part of a large drug raid conducted by American and Colombian law enforcement. 31 alleged traffickers were taken into custody].

What did your career in the cocaine business teach you about life?

That I made a mistake, because that doesn't pay. It was the biggest mistake that we could have made.

. . . What would your mother and father--especially your mother--say to you about your business in drugs?

I lived very sadly. My father and my mother, my sisters and everyone was very sad that we had gotten involved in that business. At any given time, they could kill us, or they could take us, or they could extradite us, or they knew that we weren't doing anything good. Everyone in my family lived very sadly. My father, my mother, everyone. But we have been a very united family at this time. We are all here, at the . . . the injustice they are committing with Fabio. And we are seeing everything that we can do. Part of that is this interview. . . .

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