drug wars

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interview: fernando arenas


photo of fernando arenas

As a personal pilot for many years for Carlos Lehder, a Colombian drug kingpin, Arenas witnessed the inner workings of the Medellin cartel, including their internal power structure and their relationships with Noriega in Panama, and the Sandanistas and Contras in Nicaragua. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
What was your job and your role?

. . . At the beginning, my job was to take care of the maintenance of the planes, like keeping the licenses up to date. . . just support. At the time it didn't relate to anything about drugs, or moving drugs. . . . Every morning, Carlos had to have his newspapers, every single one. So my role was basically every morning like a paperboy. I had to go to the farm everyday with the papers, and any other stuff that we need to send him. . . That was my main role at the very beginning.

So you got to know him right away. . . . Working in an illegal organization isn't like getting a job testing Beechcraft airplanes. You're in an illegal operation. What kind of conditions were placed on you? What if you did something that compromised the operation?

. . . We never said, "Be careful," or, "If you go this far, you going to be dead," or something like that. You don't have to say it. It was implicit. We knew that because of who the people were that we were working with, we had to keep a low profile, basically. . . . And I had to keep silence of whatever I was going to do. So my family, my friends, and everybody, I just had to basically lie to them that I got a job and that was it. Not really lie, but just don't go farther than that. Are you working? Yes. For whom? Flying planes. So it doesn't have to be as specific. Just general for the whole deal.

How did you become his personal pilot?

Well, after I became a pilot for the organization . . . some weeks after Lara Bonilla, the minister of justice in Colombia, was assassinated. So that really stirred the pot. The chief pilot was doing the drug flights, the dope flights. I was doing my stuff. And everything was very quiet, really; if you can call it quiet in that area, in that business. But it was okay until Lara Bonilla was assassinated.

Did you have any warning? Did you know that tension was mounting and that there was going to be an assassination? . . .

The tension was mounting.

Explain that. Why was it?

We were doing 30 tons a year last year.  And now we've sent 60 tons.  So where in the heck is that 'no' policy they're talking about? Well, because Lara Bonilla started a campaign against them. Of course there was talk and it was going to happen, but we have to be careful. He knows that we know all about him, blah blah blah, but nothing really concrete about assassination. When it happened . . . Carlos was angry--not about the assassination or the attempt--but because he was not warned by Pablo Escobar about what he was going to do. We were caught with our guard down. We had to run, really run, trying to hide Carlos. . . . He was already in hiding, in Colombia on his farm. Everybody knew that he was there, but there were no attempts at catching him or anything like that.

But with the assassination . . .

With the assassination, it was a completely different environment. The picture changes completely. The police and the army sent an operation to the farm trying to catch Carlos, as well as they did in Medellin and every single place. He was very lucky. Carlos has been very lucky all his life with this thing. Because he had four or five attempts of catching him and arresting him, as well as against his life--kidnapping him. I don't know why he was very lucky, and he always escaped. This one was one of those occasions that he was not at the farm at the time of the raid. So a few employees were arrested there, and they remained, probably, two years in jail, I don't remember. But . . . he was able to escape. . . .

The assassination is on April 29, 1984. What do you do after?

Well, we have to run and we have to hide in a place that was safe for Carlos. We lost contact with the rest of the people from Medellin for a couple of days. . . . The radio stations were closed, so they had to run with those radios to someplace else. We had to change all the frequencies. . . . We have to change everything: locations, radios, code, names, everything. So we lost contact with them for a couple of days.

Carlos had a friend . . . who was an M19 [Colombian guerrilla] leader. And they became friends after the M19 tried to kidnap him one or two years prior to this. They tried negotiations with the Nicaraguan government to have a Plan B, like a safe haven. They didn't plan at the beginning that Nicaragua was to play a main role at all. The only thing that Carlos wanted was to have a place to hide until everything cools down. . . .

So negotiations had begun to get a hiding place, in case. And now you had to use it.

Right. . . . The deal, basically, at the very beginning was to let Carlos stay in Nicaragua for a price. The main contact was Thomas Borges, who at the time was the minister of interior, if I recall. . . . "La corporacion" was our house in Nicaragua. It was like a commercial relation between Nicaragua and a third country, or something like that. I don't recall exactly what we called it. . . .

So it was a front?

Right. And so, we opened a house there at la corporacion. And when everything was ready, Carlos moved with the chief pilot to Nicaragua. . . . We had a specific instruction in how to get there, issued directly by Thomas Borges, by the air force. No one in Nicaragua knew at the time that we were doing that, and it was a secret operation. And everyone in that group was supposed to report to Thomas Borges--nobody else. The military sometimes, they were like, what the heck is this plane doing here? They were asking questions. But they always said, "This is a Sandinista operation, and it's a secret, it's a Thomas Borges operation, don't ask."

So you were surrounded at times by the Sandinista military, protecting you?

Right, all the time. All the time. . . .

Why are the Sandinistas putting you up?

The main reason, from the Sandinistas' point of view, was money. . . . The M19 were the Sandinistas' friends, and they were supposed to be doing a favor for them. But they request an amount of money from us to open a house for us, like rent. The Carlos Lehder organization paid $1 million just to stay there.

For how long?

For as long as we need, and eventually we will have to give them like a monthly rent or something like that. We never got to that point, but we gave them $1 million. It was supposed to be in cash, and it was supposed to be a secret. So it was supposed to be delivered directly to Thomas Borges and nobody else; there were no mediators on the money. So our money went directly from our hands to Thomas Borges' office directly. . . . How he dealt with that money, I don't know. We never knew that.

Was it US dollars?

US dollars--cash. . . .

So, right after the assassination, you go to Panama.

. . . The first option that they grabbed was to leave Colombia and go to Panama. We were friends with Noriega. We had already our lab there. We pay him a little money, because they spent, I don't know how much. Because it was probably better than Tranquilandia, regarding installations, runway, supplies, everything. And the other good thing was that Panama, being halfway to the United States, you can go by either Mexico or the Bahamas. So it was a special place for them to be. . . .

That was the first option, to go to Panama. . . . Noriega was a friend of the cartel people, our "friend," in quotes. But at the same time, imagine if they hit that homerun of catching Escobar, the Ochoas, and the Mexican, Gacha, in Panama. He would be like a saint for the American government, and for everybody every place. So he was playing both ends, and at this specific time, he chose to play the arrest card. He was planning to catch them, as soon as they land in Panama.

For some reason, as was explained to us later for the pilots, the instructions the control tower gave to their plane were not really what it used to be. Because we went to Panama so many times, we started knowing the controllers, their voices, and the way they instructed the pilots how to land, where to land, where to park, everything. So the instructions were not clear enough, were kind of shaky, and were kind of an order instead of an instruction. So they said, "Something is not clear here." And Pablo immediately jumps and said . . . "Do not land. How much gas do we have?" And the pilot said, "We have enough to go to Nicaragua, or to return to Colombia, either way." . . .

Describe the scale of what they were building in Panama.

Huge scale. Tranquilandia is well known by everybody, I think. Tranquilandia has been shown in many documentaries, and in the news and everything. So basically this place in Panama would be like four or five times better than Tranquilandia, bigger than Tranquilandia, easier to handle than Tranquilandia. The operation would assign flights, hours, like any other airport in the world. . . .

So this is to be the biggest industrial production facility for cocaine in the world?


And Noriega, as far as you know, had blessed this.

Yes, he blessed that in return for money. How much, I don't know, because that was part of high-level negotiations. We never knew exactly how much went to Noriega. But he received a lot of money from them. Carlos never went to Panama, because Carlos never liked Noriega. He never trusted this guy. He said, "Don't trust this person, who has been involved with the US government for many years, and has been on the CIA payroll for so many years. Don't even talk with him." That was the reason why we went to Nicaragua, and the rest of the group went to Panama.

Carlos was right.

Yes. Carlos is a very smart person. He is very intelligent. And as I said before, his obsession is the papers. So he read every single line in every single paper, so he was up to date with what was going on almost everywhere in the world . . .

How do you learn about the betrayal by Noriega?

As I was saying before, when they were going to land already, something was fishy. . . . La corporacion, our house in Nicaragua, already had radios and all that, and we were in permanent contact 24 hours. . . . Pablo gave orders to the pilot not to land. So they abort the landing, and immediately they call Nicaragua, and they say, "We need your help. This is happening with our plane. We have to be careful. We need a place to be."

Colombian authorities were already warned about what was happening, so they were already back in Medellin, waiting for the plane . . . coming back. So the Plan B was necessary. . . . Immediately, Carlos contacted Federico and Thomas Borges . . . and they get us permission to land. The agreement was that each group has to pay what Carlos already paid. So it was $1 million for Gacha, $1 million for the Ochoas, and $1 million for Pablo Escobar, just for being there. "Pablo, of course," they say, "Yes, no problem." We need to land some place. So they were directly there, and that night at dinner was when we learned what really happened in Nicaragua, and why they had to run to Nicaragua.

Tell me about that dinner. What did you hear?

. . . That Pablo Escobar was really really really--not mad, not upset, not pissed off--he was just really out of whack with Noriega. He was like, "This guy is dead. No matter what, he is dead. He was ready to betray us, and after all we had done for him, after the money that we invested in Panama, after all the money that we invest in the lab. So this guy is dead, no matter what, no matter how much, is dead. We already killed a minister, so we don't care any more about anything. And this guy is dead." . . . Pablo was the main talker that night. The Ochoas were very quiet. First of all, Jorge was completely against the idea of going to Nicaragua. He wanted to go back to Colombia, to any farm, any airstrip, it doesn't matter. He didn't want to go to Nicaragua at all. The Mexican was quiet . . . but Pablo was really very outgoing and talkative. . . .

So you're at dinner. Noriega is declared dead by Pablo. What happens next?

We have to save whatever we have, and move it . . . The Sandinistas gave us a place . . . a hangar where we can park--not just the planes that we were using, the Carlos Lehder organization--but any other plane that we need, as well as a place to store the cocaine. And that was the beginning of what happened in Nicaragua.

Part of this cocaine has to be sent to the States. There was part of the paste still not processed. At the beginning, the idea was to go back to Colombia with that cocaine to process it. But then later on, Carlos has an idea. "Why don't we open a lab here? We have the Sandinistas' protection. We have airfields. We don't have to worry about airstrips or anything like that. We have everything here." So that's a good idea. They told him, "No problem." So that's another money to pay to the Sandinistas, on top of our monthly rent. That was the idea with that paste, and that paste stayed there probably until the very end. . . .

The cocaine that we had there was divided into two parts. One was supposed to be carried by our plane, and the other one was for Barry Seal's plane. Barry Seal was a friend of the Ochoas from before. He was a pilot that they really trust very much. . . . The first load, Barry Seal's load, is the famous load where the picture was taken, with Pablo carrying those things, and Ochoa carrying those things, and . . . It was a complete mess. . . . Gacha carried like two, no more than two. Pablo carried one, probably, and that was the one that really caught him in the act. . . . But they were very happy doing it, and congratulations to Barry Seal and good luck and take care, and all that. So Barry Seal left. And after a couple of minutes, they authorized us to leave, too. So we went back to Colombia, and Barry Seal went to the States. Of course, it was known already that Barry Seal's plane had cameras. . . .

How did you learn that?

I don't know. The first thing that we knew that the load was caught by coincidence, in a traffic stop in the States. There is no coincidence in this business. So everyone is asking, "Who was not in the operation? Who don't we know? So who was in the Bahamas, who was in the airstrips, and everywhere. Who is everywhere? Where is everyone? The drivers? The persons who is going to stash the cocaine? The person who is going to pick up the money?" They located every single person to find out what happened, because there is no coincidence.

Every evidence was pointing to Barry Seal. Of course, the Ochoas said, "No, no, no, that couldn't be, because he has been a friend of ours for so long. No, no, no." . . . And after, I don't remember when exactly, but internally we knew that that was it. And it was so clear, and the Ochoas were so convinced of that thing, that they launched the operation to find Barry Seal, and to kill him. It was so clear. Even though we didn't really have the picture yet, even though we didn't have all that mumbo-jumbo that came after the picture was introduced to the newspapers, we kind of knew what was going on there. And after the picture, of course--there is nothing else that killed this guy.

Who killed Barry Seal?

The Ochoas. . . . The Ochoas really trusted this guy with everything. He was in Colombia. He knew the families. He was treated like another part of the family, another member of the family. . . . Jorge especially had . . . a good time with him. He thought about him as an older brother, something like that. He really trusted this guy. He really liked this guy. So feeling betrayed in that way was a huge offense for him. So of course he had to go out. . . . Fabio wanted to do it personally. Jorge convince him not to, because of the risk involved. But Fabio really wanted to do it personally. . . .

After what happened with Barry Seal, the Nicaraguans got too nervous about what we were doing there. . . . and said, "We need that cocaine out of here as soon as you can." So we had to take that cocaine out. . . .

At this point, is there a crunch on the cartel for money?

On Carlos, yes. The rest of the guys, no, because this was just one part of the operations. Even though we were in a big mess . . . the flights continued going out, taking off from Colombia, as any other regular day. Somebody else was moving it. Not Carlos' planes, but somebody else's. So the operation never ended, never stopped. Never.

. . . At one point, Carlos controlled the majority of all transportation. And then it changed, and more people got involved? . . .

I wouldn't say that he controlled the majority of the transportation operations. What happened was that Carlos played a very special role in establishing the business in the States, because he had Norman's Cay. He was the owner of the island. Pablo sent that little plane that he had in his farm in Colombia . . . with two or three kilos of cocaine, and Carlos opens his island to do this. . . . So of course Carlos was a very big player in this. . . . He was the person that really expanded the view of the business. Before, they were sending a mule with something in their stomach, or one kilo here, one kilo there. He opened this as a major operation. He was the one who really creates the idea of being able to move thousands and thousands of kilos to the States. . . .

What happened with getting the dope out of Nicaragua?

. . . The Sandinistas wanted to get rid of the cocaine that they have . . . to prove that they didn't have anything to do with that business. . . . We had two little vans that we used to move around the city, in Managua. So we had to use those two vans to move that cocaine that was left after Barry Seal's flight, right to the house where they were. At the time . . . Pablo, the Ochoas, and the Mexican were already gone. But we had to move out . . . to the house where Pablo, and the Ochoas and the Mexican were living at the time. . . . And later . . . our plane took the cocaine already processed to Bahamas, and then to the States, and that load was safe. . . .

When you met the killers of Lara Bonilla, did they talk to you about the assassination?

When they got there, Pablo and the Ochoas and all that . . . there were about five people with them. We assumed, at that point, that they were just bodyguards being brought by Pablo and the Ochoas to be part of their security. Then the time came when we were in the house 24 hours, because we were not allowed to go out. Later, we did go out, but in the very beginning we were in the house 24 hours, doing nothing else but wait for either the option to go back to Colombia, or wait until something happened. So we started talking about this. And the man who was the group boss started talking about it, making jokes, about what happened in Colombia. . . . So finally they get familiar with us, they start trusting us. . . . One day finally they said, "Do you want to hear the story about the assassination?" I said, "Yes."

Okay, this is the story. They were planning to kill him as soon as he was leaving the ministry building, but they couldn't. So they have to follow him for many, many blocks. The traffic was so heavy that they couldn't find a place that was safe enough to shoot and run. Finally a guy who died that day, the one who actually shot Bonilla--the other guys, they were two motorcycles and two cars, total for the operation. They got to a point in Bogota, which is very heavy at that time of the evening, like five or six o'clock in the evening. The cars were stopped. They couldn't move. And the only motorcycle that had the chance to do something, to shoot, was this guy. He turned to the other people and says, "Okay, take care of my wife. I know that I'm going to die. Take care of my wife." So he told the driver, "Go for it. We're going to do it." He did it by himself, because the others were stuck back there. He decided to run, and was shot. So as soon as this happened, the group that was running the operation had to run, of course. They went to Nicaragua and stayed with us.

Did they talk about who ordered them to do it?

They were Carlos' people, directly. The Mexican didn't care. He didn't know exactly what happened, what the version was. When he heard, he was ready and he said, "Good." Jorge and the Ochoas they were not very happy with the operation. They thought that this is going to launch a huge, huge, huge operation against us, so this doesn't make any sense. Pablo was the one who carried over the whole operation. It was their people--his money--everything was his.

Did everybody live in fear of Pablo? Did you witness that?

Well, fear in that, in this business if you betray, you have to fear that something is coming, and they're coming after you. . . . If you snitch on somebody else, you have to be aware that you are dead--whatever happens, you're dead. . . . At the same token, among the people that were working with Pablo, there was a great feel of trust. "If Pablo said it, that's okay. Do it. Don't worry about it. Do it." Not because of fear but because the whole Medellin cartel trusts their judgment. . . .

What did Carlos think of Pablo?

Carlos never saw them as bigger or better or nothing like that, because he was equal among equals. He was part of the same group. . . . He always thought as friends, as partners, as people that he could trust, especially Pablo.

. . .

Was it not true, then, that Pablo is the king of it all?

No, I don't think so. What happened was this. The people who were more exposed to the public became the people that were feared by the society in general. But let me give you an example. The Ochoas . . . were not that open as Pablo in politics. . . . The Ochoas were very settled. A nice family, very gentle people. They are very family-oriented. So they were not as feared as the others. . . Fabio Senior is the clear image of a grandfather that is very good person, an excellent talker, very kind, very gentle. So this kind of image is the one that we give from the Ochoas.

But they were just as dangerous?

Yes, they could be as dangerous as anybody.

Do you know incidents where they were dangerous?

Like Barry Seal, for example, to give you just one. Of course, for the Ochoas, it was the last option. So the Mexican was the first option. You do something? Get rid of him. So Pablo, sometimes yes, and sometimes not. But for the Ochoas it was, "Let's think about it. Let's try to make a deal with the person that made the mistake.. . . . As a last resort--there is no way--we need to kill him? Okay, we have to." But that was their last resort. . . .

Did you ever hear them . . . discuss extradition in the United States under the DEA, for instance?

When Carlos said, "I'd prefer to be buried in Colombia than to be in jail in the United States," he really meant it, and he really expressed the feeling of all of them. That's basically what happened when Lara Bonilla . . . said that he is going to reestablish the extradition, and he's going to send everybody to the States. That is what really stirred the pot. . . .

Do you recount a call where Pablo or Carlos or the Ochoas were saying something about the Americans--extradition, or their policy of the drug war?

This concept was expressed by all of them, many of the people that were involved in the drug business at the time, as far as I know. Nothing happened until we start taking the money out of the United States. One concept was expressed by Carlos and Pablo, asking, "Who is using that cocaine? We are not using that cocaine. It is the States." . . . And the alcohol thing and Prohibition and all of that stuff for 12 years . . . They said that they could live with the entire Mafia, because the Mafia invests the money back into the United States again. That was okay. But when we, Colombians, part of a Third World, we that are nobodies in this world are taking millions and millions and millions out of the United States, that's when the United States started thinking about the war on drugs. They were okay until the money started getting out. . . .

That seems just like a rationalization. Many people in the United States were in favor of the drug war, because they saw so many people becoming dangerously addicted to cocaine. There was a lot of child abuse, domestic violence, shootings and destroyed families. There was never talk about that?

Not really. I don't recall any occasion that they were worried about what was happening here, no. They were worried about the business, that they were losing the money they were losing the properties that the US seized. . . . They say, "We have to be careful." But they never, never said, "We don't know if this is right or not" . . .

But within the organization, for example, Carlos had a policy that if you were caught doing cocaine, you were out. You are no longer part of the organization. Doesn't matter who you are. You could be the lieutenant. You could be a small soldier. You could be the cook. If you're caught doing cocaine, you're out. That was one policy, because he said that cocaine destroys your brain. Crack destroys your brain. Crack and cocaine were "No way, Jose. You're out of here." If such and such is caught at it, don't touch it. . . .

Did you ever hear them make jokes about Nancy Reagan, and "Just Say No," or George Bush talking about getting the drugs at their source? Did you ever hear them make jokes about Ronald Reagan?

Yes, a lot. The American policy was a laughing matter all of the time, because of this. On one side, you are launching a huge campaign against drugs. And then the other side, there are so many people in this country that use that, Hollywood, business people. . . So yes, they were worried about the interdiction and all of that, but they were making jokes about Nancy Reagan's saying "no", when in the meantime we are increasing our cocaine loads to the States. We were doing, say, 30 tons a year last year. And now we've sent 60 tons. So where in the heck is that "no" policy that they were talking about? That kind of stuff, and no specific joke or anything, no, I don't remember.

What did you think of the DEA?

I was lucky to be caught, because basically if I was not caught at the time that I was caught, probably I should be dead now--because I was going to a point of no return. I was having so many problems, the plane that I crashed, the load that the Mexican assumed that it was my responsibility and all of that stuff--I was heading to a dead end. So basically, I was lucky. I was lucky to be caught by the DEA. And I was lucky enough to have a second chance. Do I agree with all of the DEA policy? Probably not. Do I praise the DEA? Probably not. But I got a second chance because of the DEA.

What did you think of them at the time that you were flying drugs?

For me--and this is a very personal concept--I knew that I was completely wrong in what I was doing. I said at the time that I was going to make good money, and then disappear. This is a concept basically for all of the pilots. I don't know the other people, but all of the pilots we were involved in this because we want some money and get out. We wanted to make a couple of good flights, that we can save for life, and then get out. And because of the business, today you have money, tomorrow you don't have any. And then the way you can get back on track is doing another flight. So something keeps you in there.

Then, after a while, if you go back to your regular life, you miss that craziness. I have seen many people that go back to the drug business, not because of the money, but because of the excitement that is behind that. We are humanly absolutely nutcases. And we feel a different kind of excitement during that kind of a trip flying and knowing that somebody could be down there and they're going to catch you--that you're going to spend the rest of your life in prison or you can be killed by somebody.

This is a crazy excitement that you look for after a while. And that's basically what happens. It's like an addiction to this stuff. I have seen so many people going back to this, not because of the money and not because they don't have enough money, but because they miss that part of the life.

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