drug wars

special reports
interview: george jung


photo of george jung

Jung is a convicted drug trafficker. He started out as a marijuana smuggler in the early 1970's and eventually became involved in cocaine smuggling on a massive scale as part of Colombian trafficker Carlos Lehder's organization. He's portrayed by Johnny Depp in the movie "Blow" (2001). This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
Let's just start out by talking about marijuana days, how you came to be a marijuana dealer, how did that happen? Well, smoking marijuana--or most everybody who smokes marijuana deals it in small amounts to their friends, innocently enough. I think it's innocently enough. Then I begin to see the money aspect of it. That was the driving force. I suddenly began to realize that to become an entrepreneur in the marijuana business would make me fairly well off. And I also liked the lifestyle, my own working hours. Basically, the whole conception of this came about when a friend of mine came out to Manhattan Beach for the summer in California. He was attending U-Mass at Amherst and I had a large punch bowl of pot sitting on the table, for anybody to use at their leisure. He asked me how much it was worth and I told him something like $60.00 per kilo. He told me that it sold for $300.00 back East in Amherst. The wheels began to turn and the next thing I knew we were purchasing the $60.00 kilos and transporting pot back to Amherst making a profit of approximately $200.00 on each one less the airline fare, what have you. At that time that was a lot of money.

So you're sort of beating the system. Now you're sort of an outlaw.

Not sort of. I crossed over the line--but at that time I was still on the verge of not thinking that I was really doing anything against the law or anything bad because I was simply supplying a need that everybody my age wanted and I wasn't looked upon as the guy in the black hat in the Sedan hanging outside the school yard. In fact, I was welcomed. There were movie stars and rock stars. I became a pot star. I glorified in that. And of course as time wore on the business began to expand and grow. It went from more or less a college fun thing to a serious business. As the money grew, the power grew.

So at the time Nixon becomes president, in '68. At that point you're doing what?

In '68 I was transporting pot back to the Northeast in Amherst, the college areas. At that point I was buying it in Southern California and then conceived the idea of why not go down to Mexico and get our own pot and fly it across the border and then transport it back east in motorhomes, and triple our profit. And so, at that time I had no idea of Mexico. I've been to bull fights in Tijuana with some of my college buddies but that was about all I knew of Mexico. I had seen a movie called "Night of the Iguana" with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and I've heard it was filmed in Puerto Vallarta and ironically enough that's the area I chose to go to. Spent several weeks there looking for a connection. We couldn't speak Spanish and after about 2 weeks there everybody was more or less burned out on the whole idea and wanted to return to the United States and carry on with the supply of business we had. Find out the last day we were leaving, we met a young lady in a yellow Volkswagen beetle and she came up to us and took us for a ride. Asked us what we were doing there and we told her--

Mexican woman?

No. A little American hippie girl. She said I happen to live with a guy, Mexican, who has all the pot you want and so she took us over there. He was the son of a Mexican general. And that's how that all began.

So tell me about that meeting.

Well he was kind of crazy, too. But we went along with what he said. There were sport fishing boats in the Puerto Vallarta area, and Puerto Vallarta extends out into a point, which is called Point [Damia], and he [informed] us we could keep the plane at the airport in Puerto Vallarta and then hop over to Point Damia which was like 10 miles, and the pot would be taken over there across Banderas Bay and loaded onto the plane. There was no access road into Point Damia at that time. And it was simply a matter of flying back into the United States. As concerning where to land, up by Palm Springs, California there were dry lake beds and we used those. The first flight, I did it with myself and another fellow, and was in the Cherokee 6 and I wasn't really proficient in flying. I only took lessons to fly this Cherokee 6 and in the initial flight we got lost out over the Pacific and I knew I was somewhat 100 miles off my course and it was starting to get dark and I didn't have any instrument rating and paranoia set in. So I turned to the East and finally found the mountain pass and luckily just before dark set in I arrived at the dry lake beds. It was a frightening trip and all. After that I decided to hire professional pilots.

We were sitting at a table on the patio and he said, 'Excuse me.' He walked over, executed the man, and then came back to the table.  He simply looked at me and said, 'He betrayed me.' We rented a huge villa on the beach in Puerto Vallarta and from the balcony you could see Point Damia with field glasses and we set up a radio communication. We used to take 600-800 pounds of pot at the time in these single engine planes into the United States and we were basically getting it for $20.00 a kilo down there and selling it anywheres between $300-350 in the United States. But it was still a hell of a lot of work. It involved transporting it back in motor homes from California area to Amherst which was basically a 3-day trip in itself driving non-stop. What we tried to do is 2 trips a month. The income from it was probably, there were 3 or 4 of us involved, we were more or less making $50,000-100,000 apiece a month.

What kind of fear did you have of the narcs and the feds?

Basically in the beginning it was some fear, but like anything else if you do it enough time you lose your fear, or if you don't, you get out of the business. I analyzed this over the years, I was a fear junkie. That's what happened to me. The fear is the high itself. It's an adrenaline pump.

Did you feel good about what you were doing?

You mean in reference to morality? I felt that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing because I was supplying a product to people that wanted it and it was accepted. I mean nobody really was making any negative statements about marijuana. In fact it was being accepted, I think at one time, in the 60s it came close to being legalized. Have a Woodstock where half-a-million people showed up and everybody smoking marijuana. Where else will get a gather of half-a-million people where no one was murdered, there was no violence or what have you.

Nixon wasn't really considered the president by the youth of America. He was considered to be a fraud and which he proved himself to be. There were two mindsets. There was a mindset of the youth of that era that they were against the Vietnam war. And I think it was the first time in the history of the United States where a whole generation stood up and said no to the president of the United States and other authority figures because they felt they were morally right. You know I think it brought a fear to the government itself. And drugs just happened to enter on to the scene. People were basically looking the other way or just accepting it as kids will be kids and nobody really stood up to try to stop it. Nobody really came across and said it's evil. I don't think anybody understood it or really knew what the hell was going on. It was just like a snowball coming down a mountain and when it got too big, then they didn't know what the hell to do with it.

How did you end up in [federal prison] in Danbury?

I was arrested in Chicago with a trunk full of pot that I was transporting, and I was staying at the Playboy Club and the connection that was supposed to take the pot was also involved in the heroin business, which I had no idea he was doing, and he got arrested for that, and of course then to save his soul he informed on me and they arrested me for the pot. Strange thing, when they arrested me for the pot, the federal agents, they said, "We're sorry, we really don't want to bust pot people but this is tied into a heroin operation and we have to arrest you."

You were not involved. You were just in pot. You were not involved in heroin, other things?

I would have never involved myself. I thought heroin was evil and morally, myself, I thought that pot was okay. That it wasn't a bad thing and so therefore thought I wasn't doing a bad thing. I knew I was breaking the law but I thought that the law was wrong also. So I morally justified what I was doing. But if somebody had come to me and said will you move heroin, I would have told them no.

What happens when you go to Danbury?

Danbury was a very unique place within itself. It was mostly a population of white collar criminals, and some major smugglers were in there, but in those days you did very little of your time. They had a system of parole and you did more or less one-third parole and you were out. And it was a very mellow, laid-back place. I knew a lot of interesting people in Danbury. From bankers to lawyers to doctors to Indian chiefs. You could more or less learn anything you wanted to learn in there in reference to illicit activities. It was basically a school. My bunk mate was Carlos Lehder, he said he was from Colombia and he spoke excellent English, well mannered and his clothes were pretty neat. I figured I was pretty lucky to have somebody that was kind of mellow and well mannered and articulate in English. As time wore on, we got to know each other and then he asked me if I knew anything about cocaine and I told him no. And I said, "Why don't you tell me about it." And he said, "Did you know it sells for $60,000.00 a kilo in the United States?" And I said, "No. I had no idea. How much does it cost down in Colombia?" and he said, "$4,000 to $5,000." And immediately bells started to go off and the cash register started ringing up in my head. From then on Carlos and I were involved in an intense conversation and then it got to the point where I began telling him that I could transport an aircraft in the United States and I possibly had a major market for it and it just went from there.

He was what at that time?

Carlos was in there for stolen cars. As far as I knew, I believe he was like 7 or 8 years younger than myself. He was looking for a way to transport cocaine out of Colombia and people to sell it in the United States and there I was. It was like a marriage made in heaven, or hell in the end. But that's basically how it worked out. Carlos and I spent close to a year together, working and planning everyday. Of course it was to the point of redundancy in it too. But Carlos never ceased, never stopped. He was like a student is, constantly pumping people's brains about money laundering, about this, about that. About automobiles, about airplanes, about boats. In fact there was a guy in there for smuggling with boats and he spent hours and hours with him learning navigation, and there was a president of a bank in there and he pumped him constantly about the banking system in America and how one can launder money, and he kept files and files on everything. He kept notes constantly. He never stopped. He was obsessed with it.

So what happened?

Well we had made arrangements for him to spend--I was going to be paroled to my parents' house in Massachusetts and we made arrangements that upon Carlos' arrival in Colombia he was to send a telegram to my parents' home. Carlos informed me over the phone, he said, "Can you get two young ladies and go to the island of Antigua? I want you to get them Samsonite suitcases. All look alike." I said, "I don't know, you'll have to give me some time to try to do this. So it took me 3 or 4 days to convince two young ladies that [they] would like to take a paid vacation to the island of [Antigua] and haul these suitcases down there. They were more or less naive to what was going on and I told them that they'd be transferring cocaine, and really at that time, not very many people in Massachusetts knew what the hell cocaine was.

What happened is they went down there, did the first trip, came back through [Logan] airport. At that time it was easy to come and go through Customs, as far as moving drugs and drugs we concealed in the suitcases. Basically in the body of the suitcases were the plastic fiberglass shell. It sat upon the drugs and the lip of the suitcase riveted around. It was virtually undetectable. And the young ladies came back. They said they had such a wonderful time that they were turning around the next day and going back down to get more suitcases, which more or less boggled my mind, I couldn't believe they were going to do this again all in a matter of another day. So they went and they were successful both times. That was the beginning of the cocaine business for Carlos and myself.

And what's the next step then?

Well the next step is to get an aircraft. We had pre-arranged to meet Carlos up in Canada, because he was allowed to travel there. Meet him and discuss this airplane business. We all had plenty of money. I came across a pilot. It seemed he had connections in the Bahamas and he knew exactly where he would go, what he would do and how to transport this and also protection from paying certain authorities in the Bahamian islands. It wouldn't be a problem transporting cocaine in aircraft. Once we send the airplane down there, we enhanced our income again. We proved to the Colombians, that we were capable of transporting cocaine by aircraft safely and also distributing in the United States.

At that time, most of the cocaine coming into the United States was not by aircraft. It was mostly through suitcases in small amounts, such as the 2 girls did, or people body-packing it. This was the first time that we showed the Colombians that you could take huge amounts of cocaine and drop it into the United States via air and also there was a huge market there for it. The cash was generated in a matter of days, millions of dollars. So basically what happened is through the powers that be down in Colombia, and Carlos and myself, we formed a company. That was beginning of what is known as the cartel. The Medellin cartel.

Who was involved? What did you know about this company?

What I knew about it was it was myself, Carlos, a man named Pablo Escobar and the Ochoas. Basically Pablo was there for supplying [the cocaine]. Carlos and I were in the transporting and distribution of it. The Ochoas I think mainly were in the political aspect of it, taking care of the politicians and the other authorities as far as for protection or what have you.

So that was basically the beginning of the influx of cocaine in the United States. More or less everybody knows what happened from there. It became an accepted product, just like marijuana. I mean Madison Avenue promoted cocaine. The movie industry. The record industry. I mean, if you were well to do and you were a jet- setter, it was okay to snort cocaine. I mean Studio 54 in New York, everybody was snorting cocaine, everybody was laughing and having a good time and snorting cocaine. I don't think that the government of the United States had any idea what the hell was really happening until it was too late.

Why didn't they know what was happening?

Because there's a mindset in this country that it's okay for upper-class white America to do drugs and it's okay and they shouldn't be punished severely for it. If you're from the ghetto or what have you and you do drugs, then you should be punished severely. The government allowed the media and the record industry and the movie industry to promote [cocaine] and nobody ever stood up. Nobody ever said no to this.

What did you think of cocaine?

I thought cocaine was a fantastic drug. A wonder drug, like everybody else. It gave you [an] energy burst. You could stay awake for days on end, and it was just marvelous and I didn't think it was evil at all. I put it almost in the same category as marijuana, only hell of a lot better. It was a tremendous energy boost. It gave the feeling, a high, but nobody knew, well maybe a small percentage of people knew. But eventually everybody knew how evil it really was.

What did it do for you?

What did it do? It just made you feel really good. Then after you get done feeling really good then you start to get a Superman ego and that's the beginning of the end.

What was your habit like?

I used it because I was making flights twice a week back and forth from California carrying cocaine in commercial airlines and I used to stay awake basically. Then it went from just being a tool to stay awake to where I basically became addicted to it. At first I thought it was non-addictive.

When the cocaine started being flown in, how did it work?

He would leave the Bahamas on Friday night, fly down to Colombia--it's a five or six hour flight, according to what aircraft you use and the speed--and land on Escobar's ranch, stay overnight on the ranch. The next day, Saturday, he'd return to the Bahamas and leave the plane at the airport under police protection. On Sunday afternoons there's a tremendous amount of air traffic, all departing the Bahamas and the outer islands for the mainlands. They're basically known as mom and pop planes and so you get caught up there and lost in the radar. They're all many dots on the screen. Nobody's really paying attention. Then you simply drop down out of the radar off the deck of the ocean and bear to the right up the coast and then you're home free and land.

At that time you have to remember also that DEA was really not on top of what was going on in the Caribbean. I mean, they were offloading huge motherships constantly out there off the Bahamas and off the coast of Florida day and night and as far as aircraft coming going they really didn't have the equipment or the manpower to do anything about it even if they did know about it. I think that they knew about it but they didn't think it was that much of a really major problem and they just couldn't get the funding anyway because nobody believed it and nobody really cared.

How would the money go back?

The money would go back packed into Chevy Blazers exported out of the United States into Colombia. Carlos owned a place down there, a dealership, and was purchasing Chevy Blazers in the United States and then money would be packed into the door panels and what-have-you and they'd be shipped out of the country into Colombia. And later, as time wore on, I said, "We don't have to go through all that. We can fly legally out of the country. Why the hell not just fly the money back down?" Obviously they hadn't thought of that.

What's George Jung's life about at this point?

I was a guy who had a lot of money and unlimited access to cocaine and even if I looked like Bela Lugosi I still had the most beautiful women on the planet because everybody at that time, especially women, were in love with cocaine and of course in love with the money--the access to the automobiles, the clothes, the dinners, the lifestyle. Basically I was no different than a rock star or a movie star. I was a coke star. At that time I really didn't know who I was, to be honest with you. I was snorting a lot of cocaine and I had lost myself to a great degree. A lot of people, everybody was starting to realize what the coke was all about and they were all starting to get lost. Yeah, I began to wonder a lot what the hell it was really all about. Especially, [because] they say that the marijuana business is done with a handshake and the cocaine business is done with a gun. All the violence that was taking place surrounding this business--I mean, it was distasteful as hell to me.

Well, tell me about the difference in cultures between the two businesses.

Any marijuana transaction I ever did with anyone, there were never any guns involved, ever. It was simply just, you know, a handshake business and a trust factor. And then in the cocaine business it seemed suddenly everybody was carrying guns.


Why? I think the cocaine drove them crazy and that it was a serious business and there were huge, huge amounts of money, you know, in one place at one time and you were responsible for that and if you lost it you basically lost your life.

What was Carlos up to?

Unbeknownst to me, was researching an island about 210 miles off the coast of Florida called Norman's Cay. While he was doing this he ran into a fellow called Robert [Vesco] and they more or less became buddies overnight. [Vesco] somehow more or less took control of Carlos's psyche and he changed a lot during that time. He convinced him that this would be a base for planes to fly from Colombia and then shuttle smaller planes into the United States loaded with cocaine. He introduced him to Bahamian authorities and the Prime Minister and what-have-you and all this and pay-offs and [Vesco] wanted--you know, he was nothing but a cheap charlatan. I believe in the end he would have robbed Carlos blind and everybody else around him. That's more or less when Carlos and I split and went our separate ways.

But what was their plan?

Well the island encompassed an air strip, had a small marina, a yacht club, and maybe some one hundred homes on it. What Carlos basically did is he went to the owners of the homes and told them that he was buying them out and it was time to leave the island. It became something like out of a James Bond movie. I mean, everybody on that island was coke-crazed, living under fear of death and planes constantly coming and going loaded with cocaine shuttled into the United States--you know, sex orgies taking place and people riding around in jeeps with machine guns shooting at bottles and [sharks] and what have you. It was just a totally out-of-control situation. The DEA began to become aware of it. It was like putting a roller coaster in the Vatican, you know, as far as people wondering what the hell was going on there. That was the beginning of the end for Carlos. I was told that basically I was cut out of the cocaine end of that transportation deal and he and [Vesco] were working together, and later I found out that Richard had also cut me out and that I should go and work with another family. We argued about it and he more or less threatened my life and I went on my way.

After you broke up with Carlos, after you were betrayed by Carlos--tell me what you did.

Well, I still had the direct relationship. I mean, I was married into a family and I still had my connections with Pablo Escobar and I simply contracted independent loads. We snorted coke down there. He chopped a huge ball of coke open with a machete and said take what you want. We drank cognac. We sat there and watched the movie "Patton" over and over and over again to the point of redundancy. You know, it more or less--I had enough of Patton to last me the rest of my life. He worshipped Patton. I believe it was in late 1977 I went down there, and he understood completely what had happened to me. He knew that I wanted to take revenge and he told me that it would be a bad thing and it would cause many problems for everybody concerned. He understood--he didn't like Carlos either but Carlos was making money for everybody--and he would still work with me and that shouldn't be a problem for me or anyone concerned.

Pablo Escobar basically had a Neanderthal ideology. He didn't understand supply and demand, you know. It's that if you flood the country with cocaine the price is going to go down and also it's going to expose everyone and bring in more people at greater threat of being arrested or caught or what-have-you. Why not keep the operation small and the price high and run it that way? It would be highly efficient and people would be more or less safe from being arrested or what-have-you. Because the bigger the operation gets, the more people who come into it, the more you're at risk and the trust factor or what-have-you. What happened is Carlos had the concept where he wanted to flood the country with cocaine and destroy the political and moral structure of the United States. As he stated, cocaine was the atomic bomb and he was going to drop it on America. And so on one hand you have Carlos with his right wing fascist political ideology and I think Pablo--there came into being a hierarchy which I don't even believe he really had any concept of with regard to what was really going down. You know, as the operation grew, I mean, it involved the KGB, the CIA, and bankers and lawyers and doctors and money launderers and all these people came on board to ride on the ship. I think Pablo was still known as the head of the cartel but I think in that sense he really became a figurehead. It all grew beyond his comprehension.

You also witnessed something with Pablo.

Over the few days that I was there, an individual was brought to the ranch in a Chevy Blazer and he was taken out by two of Pablo's bodyguards and we were sitting at a table on the patio in the back and he simply said, "Excuse me." He walked over and executed the man and then he came back to the table. He simply looked at me and he said, "He betrayed me." They took him away and then he asked me what I'd like for dinner that night.

What did you think of this man at that moment?

I knew one thing for sure, that I was never going to betray him. You know, in a sense, I thought that I was playing out of my league. Basically, I really was, because I had never an inclination to execute anybody. But I stayed, though, you know. I was on a road to self-destruction and I couldn't turn the wheel to get off.

What did you do with your money?

What did I do with it? At first I used to hide it in certain homes that I had and then it became so much that I felt it best to get it out of the country so I transported it down to Panama, the Bank of Nova Scotia in Panama. At that time a lot of smugglers were using it. That's where I kept it, with the intention of transporting it out of Panama into other banks throughout the world.

So how big did that account become?

Close to a hundred million.

At the height of it, what was it like?

You know, I mean--you know, like in "Scarface", just dump it. You wanted this whole table filled with cocaine; I'll fill it three feet high. Who the hell cares? Snort it. Stay here twenty days if you want. I don't care. Burn some money in the fireplace, fuck it, you know, I mean--it all meant nothing. It was insanity. The money meant nothing. After a while, the cocaine--I didn't have any friends, you know. I was just alone and I didn't even like myself.

The night you got busted with your wife--can you recount that?

Yeah, that was terrible. You know, I mean, they took the baby out of the crib and took it away and--you know, my house was invaded, ripped apart. That was really the end of it, you know. That was the end of it---all coming down, house of cards. I went back there. There was only, like three or four ounces of coke there and the police thought that a huge load had been flown in and the house was full of kilos of cocaine and money. And they'd been watching and waiting for so long they got tired and when we were in there they came busting in and they didn't find what they wanted to find. They were highly disappointed but there was still enough to arrest everybody, you know, and the last I saw was my daughter who was only a year old being taken away by a police officer. That was the end of it.

But then you skipped out and you got busted again in Florida...

Right. Well, we were facing ten years mandatory sentences in Massachusetts and so I thought it best to leave. I was on the run from Massachusetts and I was looking for a pilot to fly another load and my intentions were to go down to Colombia and live. I ran into a pilot friend of mine, who used to fly in the '60s pot for me, and unbeknownst to me he was working for the DEA and he wined and dined me and I sold the load down in Colombia and it was all sponsored by the DEA and when the load came in I was busted and that was the end of it all.

And then you made a decision to become--you made a decision to be a rat.

Well, the reason I made that decision is that Carlos Ledher had come to the end of his rope too and he was captured in Colombia by the DEA, brought to the United States, and I was approached to testify against him and I told them no, I had no inclination to do that. And then several weeks later it came out in the "Miami Herald" that he had written a letter to the Vice President of the United States, George Bush, offering to cooperate fully for total immunity. I just felt that that was the final slap in the face and I picked up the phone and I agreed to go to Jacksonville, Florida. I made a phone call and I was taken up to Jacksonville and interviewed. My story was checked out and I simply became a witness.

So, from your perspective, what the hell was the war on drugs about?

The war on drugs was an ideology the government came up with, and there never really was a war on drugs. I mean, to stop the importation of drugs into the United States of America is an impossibility. There's 2,000 miles of border along the Mexican border and the coastal areas, thousands of miles, and there is no possible way to stop the importation of drugs into this country. But then, you know, we have to come to the pool of self-reflection and therein lies the monster of reason and we ask ourselves: was it the fact that Carlos and I the courage to be bad or why did millions of Americans not have the courage to be good?

home · drug warriors · $400bn business · buyers · symposium · special reports
npr reports · interviews · discussion · archive · video · quizzes · charts · timeline
synopsis · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
FRONTLINE · pbs online · wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation.