Saturday, December 1, 2018


by Michael Isikoff, Washington Post 1991

The Medellin cartel, once branded by U.S. officials as the world's most violent and powerful drug-trafficking organization, made a $10 million contribution to the U.S.-backed contra guerrillas fighting during the 1980s to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government, a former cartel leader testified today.

In startling new testimony at the trial of deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, convicted smuggler Carlos Lehder, one of the founding members of the Colombian cartel, also implicated top political figures in the Bahamas and Colombia -- major U.S. allies in the war on drugs -- in cartel activities.

The testimony creates a problem for federal prosecutors who have vouched for his credibility and used him as a key witness in their drug-trafficking and racketeering case against Noriega.

Once described by U.S. government officials as the most notorious cocaine trafficker ever apprehended, Lehder was sentenced in 1988 to life plus 135 years. He acknowledged yesterday that he was testifying for the government in hopes of winning a reduced sentence that will allow him to return to Colombia. "As a foreigner, I believe eventually I will be deported back to my country before I die," he said.

Lehder's comments about the cartel's links to the contras could prove invaluable to Noriega's lawyers, who are expected to argue that the Central Intelligence Agency deliberately overlooked and even condoned close connections between the contras and drug traffickers allegedly affiliated with Noriega.

Lehder provided no details about the cartel's alleged financial contributions to the contras and appeared to give the testimony reluctantly under relentless cross-examination by Frank Rubino, Noriega's lead attorney.

Asked whether the cartel had shipped cocaine to the United States using the Costa Rican ranch of American John Hull, a principal figure in the secret contra resupply network organized by then-White House aide Oliver L. North, Lehder said that "could have been" true but that he had no direct knowledge of it.

Then Rubino asked whether the cartel had contributed directly to the contras. "To the best of my recollection, there was some contribution to the contra anti-communist movement," Lehder replied. "It could be around $10 million."

Asked if he personally participated in the contribution, Lehder responded, "Apparently, I did."...

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