JACKSONVILLE -- In Carlos Lehder's native Colombia, chaos reigns.
Jorge Ochoa, Lehder's reputed colleague in the notorious Medellin cocaine cartel, is freed from prison, walking out arm in arm with the warden. The country's chief prosecutor, investigating Ochoa's release, is kidnaped and murdered by a group that declares "total war" on the extradition of drug traffickers for trial in the United States. Politicians, diplomats, judges and journalists live in a virtual state of siege, hostages to drug-inspired terror.
But 1,500 miles away, in a wood-paneled Florida courtroom inscribed with the words Fiat Justitia (Let Justice Be Done), Lehder stands trial in federal court here on charges of smuggling more than three tons of cocaine into the United States.
Lehder "was to cocaine transportation as Henry Ford was to automobiles," U.S. Attorney Robert W. Merkle, the chief prosecutor, said as the trial started in November. The flamboyant Lehder, 38, is alleged to be one of the leaders of the Medellin cartel, reponsible for processing, transporting and distributing 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.
The prosecution of Lehder is significant because it represents the first -- and, given the current situation in Colombia, perhaps only -- time U.S. authorities have been able to strike at the top of the multibillion-dollar Colombian cocaine industry and send a message to cartel leaders that they are not immune from prosecution.
At the same time, the case illustrates the Sisyphean nature of the war on drugs, in which gargantuan profits guarantee that there will be willing replacements for traffickers who are caught. Despite the capture of Lehder at his jungle hideout near Medellin last year, more cocaine than ever continues to flood the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.
"I would think, in all candor, that measuring the impact on the supply of cocaine nationwide or worldwide as a result of any single prosecution would be problematic, but that doesn't mean it's not extremely important to keep the pressure up at every juncture," said Assistant Attorney General William F. Weld, who heads the Justice Department's criminal division. "You'd have to have rocks in your head" not to go after cartel leaders, he said.
The trial, which enters its 12th week of testimony Monday and is expected to stretch into April, involves a 1981 indictment charging Lehder and a codefendant, pilot Jack Reed, with transporting 3.3 tons of cocaine from Colombia through Norman's Cay, his private island in the Bahamas, to airstrips in Florida and Georgia in 1979 and 1980. Lehder was extradited under the terms of a treaty that the Colombian Supreme Court later invalidated.
But the prosecution testimony has gone far beyond the bare allegations laid out in the indictment, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the violent yet businesslike world of the Medellin cartel. Witnesses have described the cartel as the brainchild of Lehder, who conceived the plan to have Colombia's cocaine families pool their resources and let him arrange the all-important mechanics of getting the "product" -- football-sized kilos Lehder allegedly referred to as his "children" -- into the United States.
"Carlos Lehder pursued a singular dream, a singular vision, to be the king of cocaine transportation," Merkle, whose aggressive courtroom demeanor has earned him the nickname Mad Dog, said in opening statements.
Driven by hatred of the United States, Lehder, who idolized Adolf Hitler, Che Guevara and John Lennon, "saw cocaine as the wave of the future in the United States," a means of giving him "the incredible wealth necessary to pursue his political dreams," Merkle said.
Stephen Yakovac, an American, met Lehder in prison in Colombia in 1976, where Lehder outlined his vision of a cocaine empire between games of Monopoly. "The idea was to form a conglomerate of small-time cocaine producers and to put all their merchandise together into one group so it would pay for the high-tech equipment necessary to get it into the states, rather than go through the long, drawn-out slow process of doing it one suitcase at a time," Yakovac, who later joined Lehder's operation, testified. "He envisioned it becoming a worldwide network."
Lehder's lawyers, Edward R. Shohat and Jose M. Quinon of Miami, portray their client as a legitimate businessman who wanted to develop Norman's Cay into a tourist resort and ended up an unwitting victim -- first of drug smugglers on Norman's Cay who found themselves under heat and framed Lehder, and then of U.S. law enforcement authorities who cut deals and offered immunity to drug smugglers in an all-out effort to get Lehder.
"This case comes down to Joe versus the United States government," Shohat said in opening statements, using Lehder's nickname. Lehder, he acknowledged, was "his own worst enemy . . . a young, wealthy, brash Colombian, flamboyant to say the least," the perfect target for a setup.
"The government witnesses who have smuggled literally millions upon millions of dollars of drugs and thousands upon thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana into this society have been given the Government Express card to freedom: Don't leave prison without it," Shohat said.
Those testifying against Lehder, he said, are "a cast of characters, admitted perjurers . . . so grotesque with their own misdeeds that they make the cast of the 'Star Wars' bar look like the Miss America pageant." Indeed, the first witness against Lehder, George Jung, now serving a 15-year sentence for importing 660 pounds of cocaine, acknowledged his own flaws. "I'm not here representing the Vatican," he said.
As the case against him has unfolded over the last three months in a courtroom where federal marshals guarding Lehder often outnumber the spectators, Lehder listens carefully, exchanging friendly nods with local reporters, jotting in a spiral notebook, sometimes shaking his head as if disagreeing with the testimony. Conservatively dressed in dark suits, he looks more like a young stockbroker with an impish streak than the brutal cocaine lord witnesses have described. If convicted, Lehder, who once vowed he would be extradited "over my dead body," could be sentenced to life in prison plus 165 years.
According to trial testimony, Lehder, who received one kilogram of cocaine free for every four he shipped, started by transporting kilograms of cocaine in specially-constructed suitcases and quickly graduated to a fleet of aircraft ferrying half-ton loads. He operated from the secluded island of Norman's Cay, equipped with a 3,000-foot runway and protected by machine-gun wielding guards.
Former CBS anchorman and avid yachtsman Walter Cronkite described being turned away from the island in 1978 when he tried to dock his 42-foot sailboat there. Cronkite said outside the courtroom that he was later told it was common knowledge the island had been taken over by drug smugglers. "I was made to be the most naive yachtsman in the Bahamas that I had gone in there at all," he said.
Loaded with cocaine from underground processing laboratories, Lehder's planes could fly from Colombia into Norman's Cay and easily blend in with the "mom and pop" traffic from the islands to the United States, often flying on weekends when Customs agents would be mesmerized by telecasts of "Wide World of Sports," witnesses said. Although the indictment mentions only three tons of cocaine, witnesses have described some 15 tons of shipments arranged by Lehder.
A key prosecution witness, Ed Ward, a convicted drug smuggler now in the federal witness protection program, said he was using Norman's Cay as a marijuana smuggling base when Lehder arrived. Ward said he went to Lehder in early 1978 to discuss their mutual interest. "I just shook his hand, told him that I was a drug smuggler, I thought he was a drug smuggler, and I just didn't want him to be concerned about my operation affecting his," Ward testified.
Soon after that, Lehder asked whether Ward wanted to join his organization, and Ward started flying plane loads of cocaine for Lehder, he testified.
On the Colombian end, Jung said, Lehder forged an alliance with the M-19 revolutionary group, supporting the group with profits from cocaine trafficking. "They were protecting him, helping him consolidate political power in Colombia, and they carried out his executions when asked to," Jung said Lehder told him in a 1980 meeting at a Medellin hotel.
According to the testimony, Lehder and his men sought to assure their ability to operate in safety by paying hundred of thousands of dollars in bribes to top Bahamian government officials, including Prime Minister Lynden Pindling. A Bahamian commission of inquiry cleared Pindling of any wrongdoing. Lehder met Pindling, Jung testified, though fugitive businessman Robert Vesco, who, Jung said, also introduced him to Fidel Castro.
Increasingly under pressure from police raids on the island, Lehder left Norman's Cay in 1982. He returned to Colombia, where he established a neo-Nazi political party, the National Latin Movement, and built a Bavarian-style resort, Posada Alemana, whose discotheque was set off by a statue of Lehder's slain hero, Lennon, complete with guitar and bullet holes.
When the Colombian Supreme Court approved his extradition in 1983, Lehder went into hiding, giving a television interview from the jungle the next year describing cocaine as "a revolutionary weapon in the trouble against North American imperialism" and the "Achilles heel of imperialism."
Jung described the germination of Lehder's dream in federal prison in Danbury, Conn., in 1974. Jung, a student revolutionary, had been turned in on drug charges by his mother; Lehder, the son of a German father and Colombian mother who spent his teen-age years in New York City, had been caught with 237 pounds of marijuana in the trunk of his car.
Lehder, he said, told him of the financial promise of cocaine, and the two spent hours in the prison library, poring over maps to find the best smuggling routes, Jung said.
Cocaine was a weapon with which to attack America, Jung said. "He hoped that by flooding the country with cocaine it would disrupt the political system within the United States of America, tear down the morality of the country," he said.
Lehder, he said, "talked about revolution, and perhaps forming his own country, or an island, and he was looking for power, also, money and power. I was looking for just money."
They found plenty of both, the government alleges. Jung described shuttling back and forth from Miami to California on red-eye flights, bringing suitcases loaded with 15 to 25 kilograms of cocaine and returning with more than $1 million in hundred-dollar bills. The drug sold so well, he said, that when an emergency shipment was needed, Lehder once dispatched his mother to a Holiday Inn near the Los Angeles airport with two suitcases filled with eight kilograms of cocaine.
Jung said Lehder justified the move with a ruthless logic: "Everybody has to work, and she wanted a free trip to Disneyland."