Former Colombian Drug Trafficker Carlos Lehder Recounts His Meeting with Raul Castro in Cuba

Carlos Lehder and Raúl Castro. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Clara Riveros, Miami, 14 January 2023 — The complicity between drug lords and the political leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, was key to the rise, positioning and expansion of the Colombian cartels in the decade of the 1980s, as extracted from Vida y muerte del cartel de Medellín  [Life and Death of the Medellín Cartel], the book published by Penguin Random House, with the memoirs of one of its former bosses, Carlos Lehder.

At just 24, Lehder had resources and capital beyond money, that is, education, culture, command of other languages, an American visa, and the ability and knowledge of how to move internationally. After almost 50 years, including 33 years in a United States prison, the Colombian with a German father now resides in Frankfurt: “contrite, rehabilitated, obedient to the laws and, at last, free,” he says.

Carlos Lehder, one of the most visible actors in the Medellín cartel, gives an account, for the first time, of the million-dollar economic relationships that he and his partners established with the Governments of Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua and the Bahamas. The leaders of these nations did not hide their desire for dollars and their eagerness to participate to some extent in the great drug business and its benefits. The cartels bought the revolutionary complicity of Castro’s Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua.

Carlos Lehder reports, for the first time, on the million-dollar economic relations that he and his partners established with the governments of Cuba, Panama, and Nicaragua and Bahamas

The young drug trafficker understood early on the importance of relationships with power to expand the business and extend the criminal empire through the conquest and domination of territories through “drug diplomacy” and the seduction of political power. Lehder had his kingdom in the Bahamas and Pablo Escobar in Panama. Later, Nicaragua became a better destination, much safer thanks to the emerging revolutionary government.

For almost eight years, Lehder was the master of drug trafficking in the Bahamas, according to the memoirs of the one time narc in the Colombian magazine Semana. It was President Ronald Reagan’s declaration of war on drugs that fractured his alliance with the authorities of that archipelago just 170 kilometers from Miami. He returned to Colombia and advanced with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In Havana they opened the doors for him and, practically, spread out a red carpet for him: “we need dollars,” they told him.

The Cuban power was associated with Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias El Mexicano, thanks to the negotiating skill of Lehder, who narrates that “the Castro dictatorship, through the intelligence and special operations agency of Havana” extended him “a formal invitation to visit the island, with all expenses paid by the Government.”

He was greeted on his first “business” trip by “a group of plainclothes officers.” He says: “In a waiting room we met the heads of this mission, led by Colonel Antonio de la Guardia, head of the Cimex Corporation, the ’special operations’ agency of the Castro dictatorship.”

Lehder clarified that he needed Cuba to smuggle drugs and the response was immediate. They opened the door for that immense business: “For now, I can only confirm that we need all the dollars we can get,” Tony de la Guardia supposedly told him.

They authorized him to use “Cayo Largo, an island twenty kilometers long, with a good landing strip, located forty kilometers from the port of Cienfuegos.” Cimex “needed to receive five million dollars in cash to cover the Government’s expenses.” In exchange, they offered him “the rooms required on the second floor of the hotel to reside there with your workers; in addition, we will open the kitchen. We do not know how much cocaine you will bring to the island, but the more, the better; we would only have to negotiate the price per kilo landed.”

Lehder wanted a direct relationship with the Castros and asked to be introduced to Raúl, then Minister of Defense. Before the meeting he received instructions: “Protocol requires strict respect for time. There are four minutes maximum for handshakes, a courtesy phrase and farewell. You will not mention your own name.”

They took his passport, took him to a room and, after being announced, “a man with glasses appeared who, looking at me shrewdly and intently, said: ’Nice to meet you, welcome to Cuba Libre’, greeted me and extended his cold hand to me.” with the glacial gesture of the potentate who greets a shoeshine boy,” Semana quotes.

Raúl Castro’s laconic words, which apparently had nothing to do with the business, closed the mafia deal. “Here in Cuba we have achieved many advances in education, medicine and agriculture. Our trade is growing, despite the Yankee blockade; the Cuban Revolution is invincible. Enjoy your stay. You can leave,” is an extract from Lehder’s memoirs.

Raúl Castro’s laconic words, which apparently had nothing to do with the business, closed the mafia agreement

Many shipments were made to the Island. Colonel De la Guardia transported them from there to the Bahamas. Lehder maintained contacts and complicity with political power in both places. The business flourished with the direct participation of Fidel Castro’s entourage, until the suspicions of the United States intelligence services forced the regime to suspend these operations. The dictator himself decided to prosecute and execute, in 1989, four of the officers involved, including General Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia.

Ten years earlier, Lehder began to take an interest in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista guerrillas, led by Daniel Ortega and supported by Havana, took power. In Managua he was given diplomatic treatment at the highest level. He was received by Tomás Borge, one of the nine commanders of the Revolution and powerful Minister of the Interior.

Later, in 1987, Pablo Escobar betrayed Lehder and facilitated his capture by Colombian authorities, who extradited him to the United States.  He was sentenced to two life sentences, but served only 33 years after negotiating a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega in a drug trafficking trial in 1992 in federal court in Miami.


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