The Origins of the Medellin Cartel

The 1979 incident at Dadeland Mall in Florida that had received national attention was the first visible evidence of the growing presence of a network of Colombia-based drug dealers in the United States.

Carlos Lehder conceived the idea of transporting loads of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
This drug alliance had been conceived by Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas, who had met George Jung, a drug trafficker, while in prison. Jung had been transporting tons of marijuana in private planes. Noting how successful this method of smuggling marijuana had been, Lehder reasoned that cocaine could also be moved in ton quantities.

In the late 1970s, Carlos Enrique Lehder-Rivas began cooperating with other Colombia-based traffickers in the manufacturing, transportation, and distribution of tons of cocaine to the United States and around the world. Lehder’s idea evolved into of the most lucrative, powerful, and deadly partnerships known–the Medellin cartel. Its membership included some of the most notorious drug lords of the 1980s–Jorge Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blanco, Gustavo and Benjamin Herrera, and Jose Rodriguez-Gacha.

By the summer of 1976, Jung and Lehder were out of jail and in the cocaine business. Lehder bought Norman’s Cay, an island in the Bahamas, which served as a base for air smuggling between Colombia and the United States. Lehder was just one of the hundreds of Colombia-based traffickers expanding the cocaine business.

By the mid-1970s, these traffickers, already active in marijuana trade, had established a virtual monopoly over cocaine distribution. The Andean city of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, was home to most of these traffickers. With cooperation, the cartels began processing even greater amounts of cocaine–from 25 tons in the late 1970s to 125 tons by the early 1980s. In the United States in 1978, a kilo of 12-percent purity cocaine had sold on the street for an average of $800,000. But by early 1984, cocaine was so plentiful that there were substantial price reductions in many U.S. cities. Prices for a kilo of cocaine dropped as low as $30,000 in New York City and $16,000 in South Florida.

Carlos Lehder Extradition (1987)
Carlos Lehder conceived the idea of transporting loads of cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

In 1981, Carlos Lehder was indicted on U.S. federal charges in Jacksonville, Florida, and a request for his extradition from Colombia was formally presented to that government in 1983. Up until that time, no extradition requests had been honored by the Colombian Government. Lehder, a major cocaine trafficker, had formed his own political party and adopted a platform which was vehemently opposed to extradition. He viewed cocaine as a very powerful weapon that could be used against the United States and referred to the substance as an atomic bomb. Lehder also claimed that he was allied with the Colombian guerilla movement, M-19, in an effort to protect Colombian sovereignty.

Fanatical in his efforts to prevent extradition, Lehder was instrumental in forcing a political debate on the merits of extradition and publicly faced off against Colombia’s Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara-Bonilla. When Lara-Bonilla was suddenly murdered in 1984, Lehder and the Medellin cartel, who had hidden behind the pseudonym “The Extraditables,” were suspected. Embarrassed and outraged by the terrorist tactics employed by the Medellin organization, the Colombian Government turned Lehder over to the DEA and extradited him to the United States in February 1987.

Lehder was convicted and sentenced to 135 years in federal prison. He subsequently cooperated in the U.S. investigation of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega and received a reduced sentence in return for his testimony. However, the Medellin reign of terror did not end. The Medellin cartel was responsible for the murders of many government officials, including Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos-Jiminez in 1988, and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989.