drug wars

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interview: carlos toro


photo of carlos toro

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.
Who was Carlos Lehder? What was his role in the Medellin cartel? What did he do for the Ochoas?

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.

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Young Toro
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.

Cocaine was seen by us Colombians as a harmless druglike we see Colombian coffee, Its just that Colombian coffee was not as expensive as cocaine, so  we went to a higher revenue. 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, correct?

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 did.

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.

Legitimate 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, Nova Scotia.

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 money.

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 States?

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 else?

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, personal 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 trade.

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 territory.

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