Friday, October 31, 2014

How Colombian History Changed in Connecticut

George Jung, cheery smuggler.
Forty years ago this year, a California hippy and a Colombian-American from Armenia found themselves sharing a prison cell in Danbury, Connecticut, USA. Their chance meeting in 1974 would change Colombian history and make Pablo Escobar possible.

They made an odd couple - one was a hippie, the other an admirer of Adolf Hitler and megalomaniac. But what they had in common overcame their differences: a taste for illegal drugs, a German heritage, a disrespect for the law, and, most of all, an ambition to make a whole lot of money very fast.

George Jung, born in 1942 in Boston, had built himself a
Carlos Lehder arrested in Florida.
business flying planeloads of Mexican marijuana into California, when a customer ratted on him to the police. Carlos Lehder, born in Armenia, Colombia in 1949, was doing a four-year prison term after getting caught in Miami with 200 pounds of marijuana.

In their shared prison cell, Jung described to Lehder his system for flying planeloads of Mexican pot
across the border into California, from where the weed was distributed nation-wide. Lehder told Jung how inexpensive cocaine was back in Colombia.

The men's eyes lit up with the potential profits, and they turned the Danbury Correctional Center into a school for drug smuggling studies. Lehder proceeded to interview other inmates for information about narcotrafficking. He even interviewed an imprisoned banker about money laundering methods.

After their release, the two teamed up to fly planeloads of Colombian cocaine into the U.S. Until then, coke had been smuggled north ounces at a time in toothpaste tubes, in false bottoms of suitcases, and in people' stomachs. Jung and Lehder inaugurated an era in which planes carrying hundreds of kilograms of drugs landed on secret airstrips in Florida and Lousiiana or tossed their bundles into the Caribbean to be scooped up by speedboats and run into Florida inlets.

Worse for wear: George Jung
more recently.
For several years, Lehder even owned a small island in the Bahamas, where he partied and stockpiled
cocaine shipments. With his millions, Lehder not only created a right-wing political party in Colombia, but also built a giant nude statue of another one of his idols - assassinated Beatle John Lennon. Meanwhile, however, Lehder antagonized other drug kingpins with his instability and own chronic drug abuse.

For his part, Jung also worked with other drug cartel leaders, including Pablo Escobar. Once, while they were talking at Escobar's hacienda, a plane landed and two of Escobar's goons pulled out a struggling man. Escobar excused himself, walked over and shot the man, and returned and resumed the conversation. Jung's life hit the big screen in the movie 'Blow' starring Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp, left, plays Jung in the movie 'Blow.'
He's counting money with Carlos Lehder. (Foto: Flickr)
One of Jung's unrepentant web pages paints a cheery portrait of him, and recalls that during his career he sometimes earned $15 million per plane flight. On another website, he markets a line of clothing named Smuggler Ware.

The avalanche of cocaine produced lots of thrills, kept bankers working and partying all night and ruined countless lives, especially in poor neighborhoods in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

The Jung-Lehder innovation created Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, the Cali and Medellin cartels and a whole generation of violence, which still marks Colombia today.

It also produced characters like Barry Seal, as well as conspiracy theories - containing an element of truth - about U.S. government involvement in cocaine smuggling.

Jung and Lehder later separated. Both were arrested and ended up in U.S. prisons. Jung was released this year and at last report was living in a California halfway house. Lehder is still in prison in Florida, hoping to spend his final years in Colombia or Germany.

If these two men had not found themselves in the same prison cell in 1974, would Colombian - and world - history have been different? Not by much, I think. Perhaps the cocaine avalanche would have come a few years later, in less volume. But someone else would have realized that drugs were much more efficiently smuggled by the planeload than the stomach load and Colombian-American huistory would have followed the same lines.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Dan K said...

If you ever get a chance to visit Salento, look for the burned out and crumbling concrete shell on the side of the highway heading from Armenia, as you make the turn off to the road that leads to Salento. That ruin is the very same house where Lehder had that naked statue of John Lennon built.

Miguel said...

Thanks Dan. Sounds like Lehder was about the most colorful, and maybe the most malevolent, of Colombia's drug kingpins.

Search Youtube and you can find a video about his old mansion on Norman's Cay, the Bahamas island he bought. It's now similarly collapsing.

As for the Lennon statue, I heard that it got stolen. A pity for Colombian tourism.