Who was Carlos Lehder? What was his role in the Medellin cartel? What did
he do for the Ochoas?
Toro grew up with Colombian trafficker Carlos Lehder near Medellin, Colombia.
Lehder invited him into the cocaine business in the early 1980s as a public
relations representative for the cartel, managing political pay-offs, bribes,
and money laundering for the organization. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
Carlos knew about these forces, the Ochoas, the Gachas and the Escobars.
He knew they needed him, so he went in there on his own. Carlos Lehder
approached Pablo Escobar and he told him, he is the one who said to Escobar, we
have to change the way we're doing business, and they had a goal. The goal was
we are going to make cocaine the drug of the 1980s; and they succeeded. And
secondly, he said, we are going to rule this country; and they succeeded.
Right after that, the Ochoa daughter got kidnapped. Carlos was the mastermind
of the movement to go after the kidnappers. It was well funded and there were
killings everywhere, so serious that the kidnappers took him seriously. Carlos
earned that elevation in his power when they saw that he had tremendous
capabilities of getting organized and doing things. They saw that he was a man
that could transport anything. He had alternative routes and he had
connections where to scramble frequencies. He had radio people. Carlos became
the most important ingredient of the whole pie.
And that's how the cartel got started. Carlos was a very good pilot. Carlos
can fly anything. He can fly a helicopter, he can fly a Citation, a Turbo
Commander, you name it. And he knew the islands extremely well. In addition
to that, he had the charisma to convince these people in the islands and Cuba
and other surrounding neighbors to support him and to give him what he needed:
refueling opportunities; the protection of his people as they unloaded cocaine
and needed refuge overnight; and so on and so forth.
When did you get involved?
I came in with a very specific job description. My job was to be the diplomat.
My job was to be the P.R. man. He knew I was good at it. He knew I spoke
languages, and he knew I could go and hold the prime minister's hand and make
him listen to us that we needed more cooperation. We were going to Nicaragua,
or going to Cuba, going wherever necessary, go to talk to the airplane people.
Go talk to the police, go talk to purchase jet fuel.
I saw myself as an asset to Carlos. My fear always was, I don't want to be
part of a criminal organization where I'm going to be exposed to drugs. When
he told me, in his promise, that Carlos, you're going to be my P.R. man, you'll
never be exposed to drugs, money laundering, violence, none of the
assassinations. Whatever happens with the drug cartel, you are going to be my
right-hand man in doing public relations work. And that's how it started. I
started going to Nassau, meeting with the attorneys, meeting with the bankers,
meeting with the prime minister's son. But it's inevitable. In this line of
work, you'll get involved.
Give me a sense of the mission.
The sense of the mission was, I was going to help my friend iron some troubles
that he had there, to get his operation going.
Did you take bribe money to politicians?
I took money to politicians, took money to bankers, to attorneys, to police.
How did you meet the Ochoas?
Yes, the Ochoas. I made a trip to the island, before I was active. I was a
guest. I made a trip to the island. I worked as a cameraman for CBS in New
York City at the time. Carlos and I went into a room and he introduced me to
the Ochoas. In those days, before I joined to actively to work with him, I had
no perception of what was going on, and to me it was immaterial. It was really
insignificant to me, the Ochoas. I knew they were big people and they were
well known in the Colombian scenery of the drug trade, but I was not impressed.
I had my closest friend as my ally. It was not important. But they were there
and he introduced me, and we had a little private conversation. He indicated
to me how important his alliance with them was, because they will be the source
of cash in the USA to keep the machinery going here.
There's a certain audacity to having an island. You're like a hard target.
You're not flexible, you're not low profile.
Carlos liked publicity. Carlos liked the image. Carlos had no problem with
the world knowing he was a drug dealer. Carlos had no problem with it. He saw
it as a legal enterprise. In his mind, it was a way of making money. You have
to understand for many years, he had the support of the Colombian government
and he saw it as a way of conducting the corporation.
Did he ever fear the DEA when he was operating on the island?
That was always the greatest fear. The DEA was the greatest fear. The DEA was
indeed the only force capable of going there that could put us out of business,
and put us in jail and extradite us and do whatever was necessary. The
American government, though the DEA.
But they didn't.
Why they didn't, I don't understand because DEA know about the operations.
That was the paranoia that kept the group so well armed and so well protected.
There were contingency plans of blowing airplanes and blowing the airstrip and
dynamiting the whole thing, if we knew of a DEA plane or helicopter trying to
land on the island. We have plans of escape and we have boats and speedboats
and cigar boats and all kinds of equipment, as plan B or plan C to evacuate.
He also could operate on that island because he bought the government,
Precisely. He operated on the island from the beginning because he had the
blessing of the Bahamian government. They were funneling tons of money, and
don't ask me dollar amounts, because I was not active with him them. I knew of
his operation. I didn't know in those days, I didn't know precisely how much
money he was paying the Bahamian government. But the First Family of the
Bahamian government was getting lots of money--not only through Carlos'
pockets, but through a fund created by the cartel, by the Ochoas, by the
Escobars, by the Gachas. They joined in money funding for the Bahamian
government and other governments to be on retainer, and always fed moneywise in
the eventuality of anything happening.
The Bahamian government gave Carlos a promise. We will advise you. You will
get a wink from us, a signal, when things are getting too hot and you need to
move out of there. So, you might lose the island, but you and your people will
be safe. We'll tell you when to get out of there. And they believed in their
promise and they lived day after day and they partied like in heaven because
they knew that nothing was going to happen. There was going to be a phone call
and we're going to get out of here on time. That was the foundation of, it's
going to be okay. We can be wild, we can be loud and we can be seen. We are
not going to be touched because whatever happens, if the DEA is coming towards
us, they are going to find an empty island and that's how it happened. They
There was an incident where he even put pamphlets on an airplane?
It was in 1977, I believe. The Bahamian government had to do what it had to
do. The Bahamian government was very explicit, like Fidel Castro or anybody
else was part of this bribe game, which is Carlos. Sometimes we have to make
an arrest. It's going to look good on us, it looks good for everybody, so
there are going to be times when we cannot control one of your boys screwing up
and getting caught with a kilo of cocaine or on thing or the other.
Well, then there was the incident with the DC-3. People got arrested and
Carlos was furious at the Bahamian government for not releasing five
Colombians, close friends of his, right away. I didn't recall because I was
not close to the case, but the Bahamian government had to do what they had to
do. They went and proceeded through the legal process to put people in jail
and to indict them and put them in jail, whatever. Carlos went crazy. He got
on one of his airplanes and he took boxes of money in cash and he started to
throw those things out of an airplane all over Nassau, cash, paper money, as a
mockery to the government, like who gives a hell? It was the most stupid thing
I ever heard in my life. And this is what started to break the camel's back,
because he was no longer seen as a serious person. The clown, that side of his
personality was quite evident, and you just lose credibility.
Tell me about the parties.
Orgies. Five males, ten females and everybody runs naked and everybody switch
partners and everybody drinks and smokes marijuana and alcohol and three days
of Sodom and Gomorrah. I recall one of my first visits to the island--this is
a long time ago. This was well after we purchased the island that we were
there, that I went as a guest. And I remember, specifically, getting out of
the airplane, the plane hasn't even stopped taxiing on the runway, and this
Land Rover pulls up, and who's driving the Rover? A very beautiful naked woman
is driving the Rover, and she's going to welcome me. So when you open the door
to the plane and you find this beautiful lady naked, you say, wow, this is the
place to be.
What was your typical day like?
I would get up in the morning, have breakfast with my very close associates at
the cartel and plan the activities of the day. The three of us could most
likely be going to the Bahamas. I would fly to the Bahamas almost on a daily
basis in my effort to secure landing strips. That was my ultimate goal, to
secure refueling facilities, to find equipment, airplanes. I would go to
Wichita, Kansas, negotiate with the airlines manufacturer about putting an
extra tank on an airplane so we make it all the way to the mountains of
Missouri, instead of having to put a load down in the Bahamas where it is
already getting hot. And I will meet with pilots and engineers, trying to come
up with techniques that would make our operation more smooth, more productive,
in a short period of time. And I spend endless hours on the telephone with all
kinds of people, with bankers. The operation of Carlos Lehder became entangled
with other businesses.
No. There was the purchase of weapons. I had to meet one day with a gentleman
who came from Colombia on his way to Germany to purchase weapons that Carlos
wanted to donate to the M-19 movement, because they were protecting the growers
of marijuana and other crops.
You say you dealt with bankers a lot. These were legitimate banks?
Oh, legitimate banks. Bank of Colombia, Bank of Populaire. Panamanian banks,
What was your involvement with Manuel Noriega?
I had no personal contact with Manuel Noriega, only that we would fly to
Panama, where we would meet with members of his very close allies in the
banking industry. Manuel Noriega was benefiting a great deal from money
laundering, even more so than from direct cocaine transportation. Manuel
Noriega was always saying that he would welcome us into his country with drugs,
but he never did it. He would promise that you can bring a load, but it was
empty promises. He always, at the very last minute, when we were ready to
bring a load and we didn't find any other sources, and we called Mr. Noriega,
he'd say, "Yes, by all means. Put the deal together, let me know what the
logistics are, which coordinates, where are we going to land it, and I'll have
my army take care of you."
Yes. And Carlos would call me and says, "Listen, don't worry about it. Take a
couple of days off." I'd say, "Why, Carlos? Noriega is going to come through
for us." And he never did. He will make promises that, yes, we can bring the
load tomorrow. So I have to go and look for alternative ways of bringing loads
of cocaine into the United States.
So he didn't really help you ship cocaine north, but he helped you hide the
But he was a very, very instrumental help in getting monies back and forth.
How much money did you make altogether?
Personally? Believe it or not, when things started to break down, Carlos owed
me a tremendous amount of money. I could not collect because he went into
hiding. I really walked out of this deal very much in debt. I was using my
own credit cards to do things relevant to the operation, so they were
legitimate. And I had houses and automobile leases, and it was all in the name
of Carlos Toro, and a company that I used to own in Florida that was a
legitimate business. But I used that business as a front many times to acquire
tools and planes and automobiles and things like that.
But you never had a pot of money sitting in a bank somewhere, or invested in
stocks or bonds?
I should have, but I didn't.
So you lived the high life, but you didn't save any money.
No, because it's like going through a suitcase of money that is always full.
I don't understand. What exactly was the use of the island? I don't
understand why you don't just fly it into the United States. What is the
purpose, and then what did you do with it once you got it to the United
I'll try to explain it very simply. We had a number of airplanes that can only
go a certain range with a certain weight and a certain capacity of flying speed
and so forth; physics. The ideal thing would be to buy a 747 and load it with
20,000 keys of cocaine and bring it into Miami airport. That's wonderful. Now
how can you get away with that? Impossible. We had the means to do it. We
had the means to buy a 747; we didn't do it, because we knew we couldn't do
that. We couldn't get away with it.
So we had to find alternative ways of doing it, which is a small private
aircraft that will bring 1,000 kilos at a time. And when you leave out of
Colombia on, let's say, a King Air or a 640, you can only go so far when you
have 1,000 keys of cocaine, a pilot, copilot, and maybe another man with
weapons trying to save the load, That plane would be able to fly as far as
somewhere in the Caribbean, air drop the load to a waiting boat, and go and
refuel somewhere. That plane cannot go back to Colombia without refueling.
That plane will have about 50 gallons of fuel left, and that's not enough to
make it safe to Colombia. Once we get it to the island on the Bahamas, we're
home pretty much. Then we fly an American airplane out of Florida somewhere,
or somewhere in the United States, and do the second leg of the trip. We would
unload the Colombian airplane, put the cocaine somewhere overnight, or for a
few hours, and give the pilot enough fuel to go back to Colombia. Once he gets
to Colombia he can land anywhere on the coast and refuel. Load the second
airplane, and the flight from any of the Bahamian islands to the American coast
is not very long; we could do that with minimal gas or fuel.
Then you flew them into the United States.
The drugs would land at an airstrip either at Atlanta, in Georgia, or in
Florida. From there we would transport the drugs. There were many ways of
doing it, and there were many plans that we executed at different times,
depending on how we were prepared, and what we expected and anticipated--from
RVs, to just private automobiles in several shipments, you name it. We
masqueraded the whole thing so we looked pretty clean.
Where did those drugs go then?
The drugs went to a stash house. We had a house where the drugs were welcome.
We would take the load, and the load comes with a shipping manifesto, just like
any other shipping company. We had a bill of lading. And we had the name of
the parties that were the recipients of that cocaine--that would be the
distributors. And that all came coded. No specific names. But we knew who
they were, because we knew the codes, of course.
. . . Then we'll call someone, and say, "The shipment is here." He'll tell us
where to bring it. . . . So we'll do the same thing that we did with
exchanging money. We'll bring a vehicle with 100 kilos, and exchange
automobiles. And this man will then take his load, his 100 kilos, and take it
to San Francisco, California, or to New York. How he got it there, that's his
problem. The nickel-and-dime thing was not our game. We were not interested
in street dealing. And we didn't care. We brought the whole load, and we
delivered it to those people who had already paid us for the load.
In terms of the big players, you moved the drugs for the Ochoas and who
And Escobar. And Gacha for a while, but he disappeared.
And what happened?
What happened was that things started to go wrong for everybody. The
government of Colombia changed, Carlos goes in hiding. Carlos is being chased
out of his own country. Carlos made some serious mistakes in his political
campaign, statements that he made. He made admissions of being a drug dealer
publicly to the press. . . . He lost every credibility as a political figure.
He was seen as a clown and he was running. He went in hiding into the jungles
of Chile for a while and things got ugly.
So Carlos is on the run. What happens to you?
Carlos is on the run, obviously. Needless to say, the DEA had been pursuing
Carlos and had extensive information on him, intelligence and what not, and
there came a time when things were very difficult for everybody. I, myself,
and many other members of the CCQ were targeted as candidates for some very
serious indictments. I had an attorney in Florida to represent me in some
legal matters by the name of Fred Graves. Fred Graves, knowing intimately my
connection with the drug cartels, suggested that we contact the Drug
Enforcement Administration. Fred Graves knew a gentleman by the name of
Michael McManus. Michael McManus, at the time, was working out of the Ft.
Lauderdale office and I believe he had known Fred years back and were friends,
My friend and lawyer Fred insisted that I meet with McManus. Of course, I was
very skeptical. Why am I going to talk to a DEA agent, how am I going to trust
a DEA agent? And Mr. McManus and I arranged through my lawyer a meeting at an
empty house that Fred had somewhere in Lauderdale. Mr. McManus and some other
female agent of the DEA met with me personally and I said, "Okay, we got some
problems here and we can be of help to you. What can you do for me?" Mr.
McManus recruited me. I went to work with him starting that day. Needless to
say, I sort of signed my death penalty, but it was important.
Are you living in fear of being murdered?
Not as much as I did some years back. This has happened a long time ago.
There is one thing about the Colombian drug trade. They are relentless if
somebody becomes an enemy. That fear will never go away.
Did you deal with the Ochoas in Florida?
Yes. The Ochoas were the source of our cash flow. Let me give you an example.
We brought a lot of cocaine in. . . . The load is secure in Ocala, Florida,
where it ended up in the United States. We had an airstrip in Ocala. Once we
landed airplanes in Ocala and I got confirmation through my radio, then I will
proceed to pay the pilots. The pilots don't get paid unless the load made it
safely to the United States.
I would call the Ochoas and they would meet me at a mall down here in the
neighborhood around here. . . . And we would meet at a shopping center in
South Miami, somewhere, south Florida. We would go inside and we would have a
cup of coffee at the mall. I had previous knowledge of what he was driving, so
I would try to park my car next to his car and we'd just exchange car keys.
I'll drive his car, he keeps my car, so we don't have to get a suitcase of
money out in the middle of a parking lot at three o'clock in the afternoon.
There was never a question about the money being there and every penny being
accounted for--never. We had the machines that the banks used to count money
and we would use those machines only when we were paying somebody that was not
in our organization, somebody that we knew would count the money. But the
money that came from the Ochoas, it was good as gold. And I would take that
money, I would take suitcases of money: $600,000, $1,000,000, $1,200,000, and I
would bring it to the house. I would call my pilots and I would give them
whatever money was due to them. It's a very expensive operation.
Ochoa told me that he'd made tens of millions in selling cocaine. Does that
jibe with your experience, or is that an underestimation?
No, it's an underestimation. There is no question in my mind that the Ochoas
have amassed at least a billion dollars in assets from the business of drug
How can you be sure of that?
Because I was part of a group that was associated with him. Carlos was a close
partner. The Ochoas were instrumental in producing enough cocaine to export
tons, and I'm talking not 20 or 30 tons, but tons and tons of cocaine to this
country. They did it through Lehder and through many other sources. We were
not the only transportation source they had. We were the prime transportation
source at the time, but the Ochoas, and the Escobars continued after Carlos
went into hiding, and they continued operating after I joined DEA. . . .
Do you think they continue today?
I'm not a witness of it, but in my opinion, I have no question about it. I
would not doubt it for one minute.
Do you think the drug war per se can be won by Americans?
Never. More even now . . .
So what the DEA does is a waste of time?
Those people will have a job forever, and let me tell you why, especially with
what is happening in Colombia now. Colombia is now ruled by the leftist
guerrillas and the FLN and the internationals and all this FARC. . . This is
not a criticism of the government, but it's a reality. We have a government
that is totally helpless. The government has to rule and live by the threat of
fear. Our government does not appear as an independent government. Colombia
now is really ruled entirely by the narcotraffickers and the socialist
traffickers, and these people have more weapons, more training, more guts, than
any Colombian army put together.
And I don't think the Colombians are ever going to accept foreign aid in terms
of military assistance to Colombia, which would be the only way to win the war.
I think what we are looking at is--the war is just beginning. In my opinion, a
new phase of the drug war is about to begin, and is just beginning. Because
these groups are well formed, well financed, well trained, and they own the
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