Protected Witness

A Six-Part Series by Bill Moushey
(c) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 26-31, 1996

Note: The "Protected Witness" series is copyrighted and cannot be disseminated without permission from the publisher, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Posted June 15, 1996

Hunted down, then protected

Once, Carlos Lehder Rivas was atop the most wanted list; but there was someone else the U.S. wanted more

By Bill Moushey
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Copyright, 1996 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For a while, Carlos Lehder Rivas was America's public enemy No. 1.

With business skills as strong as his taste for violence, Lehder had turned Colombia's chaotic cocaine trade into the Medellin Cartel, an efficient and murderous operation responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine that came into this country a decade ago.

So when Lehder was finally captured in a Colombian jungle in 1987 after almost four years in hiding, then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese hailed it as a major victory in the war on drugs. Lehder would be extradited, officials announced, and become the first foreign drug lord to face the full force of American justice.

Not mentioned in the burst of publicity surrounding the arrest was one curious fact: Lehder had already begun cutting a deal from his remote hideaway, a deal that would eventually land him in the federal witness protection program.

How could the man who ran the world's biggest drug operation, a man wanted for years by the American government, wind up as a federally protected witness?

Because the Justice Department desperately wanted Panamanian President Manuel Noriega, a smaller player in the drug trade but a bigger political fish.

In exchange for his testimony against Noriega in 1992, the U.S. government cut Lehder's sentence from life plus 135 years to 55 years. Lehder now claims he had an additional deal that would have further reduced his sentence and made him eligible for deportation and freedom. This deal, he complains, the government reneged on.

The Lehder case illustrates how far the federal government's use of the witness protection program has moved from its original intent of protecting innocent victims or informants who testify against major crime figures. Lehder was rewarded for turning in someone who was in effect an underling in his operation.

For his testimony, he got special treatment in prison, a drastically reduced sentence, and protection in this country for his family. And, only a small fraction of his $2.5 billion cocaine-built fortune was seized. The man originally in charge of Lehder's prosecution believes the deal between the government and Lehder was a travesty.

Robert Merkle contends that Noriega would have been convicted without Lehder.

"First of all, Lehder's testimony was entirely gratuitous and unnecessary for a conviction of Noriega. Secondly, they gave a deal to the guy who was directing the bad activities to convict someone who was following directions.

Merkle, U.S. attorney in Tampa at the time, is appalled by the Lehder case. "I never contemplated any kind of deal with Carlos Lehder," he said. "It never entered my head to even think about it."

But Merkle was overruled by his Justice Department bosses in Washington intent on putting away Noriega.

Protecting a menace
A look at Lehder's life raises the question about why the government would even consider a deal with him.

Born in the United States of a German father and Colombian mother, Lehder began his life of crime as a low-level drug dealer in Michigan. After doing time for a drug-related car theft, Lehder decided to seek his fortune in Colombia.

Barely eking out a living as a car dealer, Lehder decided to cash in on the burgeoning demand for cocaine in the United States in the early 1980s. Using an efficient, high-tech approach to cocaine smuggling that facilitated shipment of the drug in mass quantities, Lehder was soon a rising star. He found a remote landing strip at the southern tip of the Bahamas, Norman Cay, which he secured by bribing Bahamian officials and running off its inhabitants. Jets loaded with cocaine would travel to Norman Cay. The drugs would be reloaded onto smaller planes and dispatched to northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. These unexpected destinations made evasion easier because U.S. authorities were watching only the country's southern borders.

The smuggling operation was an overnight success. Court papers show the first load Lehder shipped in 1982 reaped a $1 million profit for two days of work.

Shortly thereafter, Lehder talked other drug lords into forming a cooperative that became a cartel based in the northwestern industrial city of Medellin.

At the peak of the cartel's power, every hour of every day a jet loaded with as much as 300 kilograms would roll into the Bahamian air strip.

Court papers say Lehder earned $250 to $300 million a year in the early 1980s. He owned 15 cars and trucks, three airplanes, a helicopter, 12 haciendas, an apartment building and nine other properties, including a huge Bavarian-style tourist complex in Colombia's Armenia City, as well as assets throughout the world.

By 1987, his net worth was estimated at more than $2.5 billion.

Violence was as crucial to the cartel's success as were Lehder's shrewd ideas for transporting cocaine. Although the United States charged Lehder with drug dealing and money laundering and not murder, acts of violence carried out on his behalf were documented in a federal detention order drawn up in 1987.

In it, the U.S. government says Lehder and others were responsible for assassinating Colombia's justice minister in 1984; for the 1985 armed attack on Colombia's Supreme Court building that killed 11 justices and 84 other people; for assassinating two newspaper editors in Colombia and 26 other journalists; for shooting the Colombian ambassador to Hungary in 1987; and for a long list of murders of police officers, informants and other government officials.

Lehder once threatened to kill one federal judge a week if he was caught, prompting U.S. officials to put narcotics agents, their families and other officials on worldwide alert after his arrest.

During his trial in 1988, U.S. marshals were parked outside the homes of prosecutors and other agents involved in the matter. But none of this dissuaded the government from making a deal.

Unjust deserts
Lehder had been named in drug-related racketeering indictments in Florida in 1984. But it took the United States three years to persuade the Colombian government to live up to an extradition treaty and turn Lehder over.

That happened in 1987. Lehder got special handling from the start. Instead of being held in Florida where he would be tried, Lehder was housed in a two-cell unit at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., and given a telephone.

There he made contact with aides to Vice President George Bush, who had run the Central Intelligence Agency during the early years of the cartel. Over the next 18 months, senior officials from the FBI, CIA and other investigatory agencies interviewed Lehder.

Merkle, the man who prosecuted Lehder, knew none of this. Lehder's seven-month trial proceeded normally and ended in 1988 with a conviction on drug distribution and related crimes. He got life in prison plus 135 years. Merkle felt justice was served.

Only later would he find out that Lehder was scheduled to testify against Noriega for a reduced sentence.

In April 1992, Noriega became the first leader of a sovereign nation to be convicted in the United States. He and 17 associated were found guilty on two counts of racketeering, conspiracy to import cocaine and a variety of other related crimes.

In his testimony, Lehder admitted he had no direct contact with Noriega, but said the Medellin Cartel paid millions to the Panamanian president. But he was not an impressive witness. Much of his testimony, laced with rambling tirades about American imperialism, was so incoherent the judge considered ordering a psychiatric examination.

Merkle, who had prepared a Noriega indictment in Tampa, was mystified by the decision to deal with Lehder. He believes to this day that his case was "very strong" without Lehder.

Lehder, he says, "got a very large quid for a very small quo. He would have done the United States a lot more good if he had forked over millions and millions of dollars he made selling coke."

Lehder, for his part, is not satisfied. He contends he's the victim of a double cross. Last fall he wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler of Miami, the man who presided over the Noriega case. Lehder asked to recant his testimony because he said the government reneged on a deal that would have cut his sentence to 30 years. That sentence reduction would have made him eligible for extradition to Germany or Colombia. Hoeveler has yet to rule on Lehder's motion. Ernst D. Mueller, a former federal prosecutor who tried the Lehder case with Merkle, said Lehder has already got more than he deserved.

"He has gotten everything we promised, and then some. There were no other deals that I'm aware of," Mueller said.

Mueller said a case could be made that Lehder didn't hold up his end of the deal. While Lehder professed to have large amounts of information about corrupt governments throughout Central and South America and in the Caribbean, he has testified only in the Noriega matter.

When Mueller made that point to Lehder, the Colombian offered nothing more.

Three years later, Lehder wrote his letter of complaint to the judge.

Within weeks of sending that letter last fall, Lehder was whisked away into the night, several protected witnesses at the Mesa Unit in Arizona say. No one has heard from him since.

Court papers do not show any further sentence reductions. German and Colombian officials say they know nothing about his whereabouts and Justice Department officials refuse to acknowledge that Lehder is even in the witness program.