CubaBrief: Colombian Ex-Drug Trafficker Recounts Meeting with Raul Castro in Cuba. Foolish for the U.S. to cooperate with Cuba against drugs. Noriega trial witness says cartel met with Raul Castro.

The United States government is sharing intelligence on drug trafficking with the Cuban dictatorship, despite its six decade record of attempting to flood the United States with narcotics with the objective of targeting America’s youth, that it views as a soft underbelly.

Carlos Lehder, a former cartel boss who spent almost 50 years in prison, has published the book Life and Death of the Medellín Cartel that provides more details on the role of the Castro brothers in the Colombian drug trade in the 1980s.

During the trial of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on November 26, 1991 Lehder testified that ”in 1981, he donated an airplane to Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro as part of a deal to permit the Medellin cartel to smuggle cocaine through Cuba.”

In 2001, despite this history Ex-drug czar Barry McCaffrey at Georgetown University expressed his concerns about a possible relationship between Castro and Colombian drug-trafficking guerrillas, but still “argued for sharing intelligence with the Cuban government.”

The 2023 mini-documentary, The Havana Cartel, provides an overview of the Cuban dictatorship’s relationship to drug trafficking from 1961 to the present day, and should raise a red flag to sharing intelligence with Havana.

14ymedio, January 14, 2023

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

By Clara Riveros

14ymedio, 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.

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.

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.

From the archives

Miami Herald, September 6, 2001

Foolish to cooperate with Cuba against drugs 

John Suarez. Published Thursday, September 6, 2001 in the Miami Herald

Re the Aug. 29 story “Ex-drug czar: U.S., Cuba should cooperate against trafficking”: I attended the presentation by Barry McCaffrey at Georgetown University and heard his concerns about a possible relationship between Castro and Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerrillas. At the same time he argued for sharing intelligence with the Cuban government.

McCaffrey seems unaware of several federal indictments and two investigative TV reports, one broadcast in July, linking Cuban officials, including Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, to drug cartels:

-In 1989, a federal grand jury indicted Robert Vesco for arranging safe passage for drug planes over Cuban airspace after obtaining approval from Cuban authorities.

-According to the 1989 indictment, Reinaldo Ruiz was allowed to land planes in Cuba to refuel after dropping drug cargo off the Cuban coast. Drug-smuggling motorboats would come from Florida to pick up the cargo, and Cuban Coast Guard radar monitored U.S. Coast Guard cutters to help the smugglers evade them. The indictments demonstrated the foolishness of sharing intelligence on drug operations with Havana.

-According to the U.S. indictment of Panama’s Manuel Noriega, he traveled to Cuba in 1984 after Castro offered to mediate a disagreement between the drug cartel and Noriega.

-In a 1991 Frontline documentary, Cuba and Cocaine, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Jeff Karonis, stated, “We would observe in the middle of the day an air drop going on inside Cuban waters. The scenario would be for a small twin-engine airplane with maybe 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cocaine to fly over Cuba, drop the drugs to a predesignated rendezvous point to several boats. Then it would exit back down off Cuba, and many times a Cuban military vessel would be in the immediate vicinity, right on scene with them.”

-In 1996, Jorge Cabrera was charged with importing 6,000 pounds of cocaine. At the time of his arrest, The Herald reported that Cabrera was carrying a photo of himself with Fidel Castro. Cabrera made a $20,000 donation to the 1996 Democratic presidential campaign after being approached in Havana in 1995 by anti-embargo activist Vivian Mannerud.

-In July, Madrid’s TV Channel 5 broadcast Cuba and Drug Trafficking. Spanish journalists filmed (with hidden cameras) their dealings with drug dealers in Cuba. “As to security, forget it. I pay here for the security; I answer only to one, the government,” the drug dealer said.

Noriega, still in prison for his role in drug trafficking, once received commendations from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration while turning in competing drug cartels. So it’s not surprising that Castro allows U.S. Navy ships to enter Cuban waters in pursuit of or to return Cuban refugees, but the ships aren’t allowed in Cuban waters in pursuit of narco-traffickers.

McCaffrey means well. We all would like to see more cooperation against drug trafficking. But given the historical record, it would be appropriate to respectfully remind him that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Program Officer,
Center for a Free Cuba
Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2001 Miami Herald

The Washington Post, November 27, 1991


By Michael Isikoff

November 27, 1991

MIAMI, NOV. 26 — Convicted Colombian drug smuggler Carlos Lehder testified today that, in 1981, he donated an airplane to Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro as part of a deal to permit the Medellin cartel to smuggle cocaine through Cuba.

In his final day of testimony in the trial of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega on charges of drug trafficking and racketeering, Lehder also indicated that he is cooperating with a continuing federal investigation that may include Cuban government involvement in drug trafficking.

In five days on the witness stand, Lehder has named several high-level Cuban officials as assisting cartel smuggling. Included are Raul Castro, brother of Cuban President Fidel Castro and No. 2 official in the Cuban government, and Manuel Pineiro, chief of the Cuban Communist Party’s Americas Department.

Today, Lehder provided new details about the alleged cartel-Cuban alliance and named another figure as being part of its operations — Robert Vesco, the fugitive U.S. financier living in Cuba.

Ariel Ricardo, spokesman for the Cuban interests section in Washington, ridiculed Lehder’s allegations, saying Lehder “could have a future in Hollywood writing scripts for a thriller.”

“I don’t know if this trial is a bad joke or a political show business,” Ricardo added.

Lehder, who served as the cartel’s chief of transportation before being captured in 1987 and sentenced a year later to life in prison plus 135 years, testified that he flew to Cuba in 1981 and met Raul Castro to negotiate an agreement for laundering drug profits and using the Cuban island of Cayo Largo as a transshipment point for U.S.-bound cocaine.

“I donated a plane to Raul Castro,” Lehder said. “The agreement was reached that, if necessary, I could use Cuban territory to funnel cocaine to the United States as well as Cuban airspace to fly drugs to the Bahamas.”

Since taking the stand, Lehder has depicted the cartel as a highly efficient group of business executives who held regular meetings at which they approved payoffs to foreign government officials without respect to ideology.

Lehder’s allegations about the Cubans were first brought out last week by federal prosecutors in an apparent effort to bolster their charge that, in summer 1984, Noriega flew to Havana to seek Fidel Castro’s help in mediating a dispute between him and the cartel.

Today, Noriega’s lead attorney, Frank Rubino, asked Lehder to amplify on his testimony about the Cubans. Rubino then read from an unpublished interview Lehder had given to Playboy magazine last year, before he signed a cooperation agreement with federal prosecutors, in which Lehder denied personal knowledge of Cuban drug smuggling.

Lehder said he had made an agreement with the interviewer that “I would not incriminate myself in any form.”

In the final round of questioning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis asked Lehder whether cartel drugs ultimately flowed through Cuba as a result of his agreement. “Yes,” he replied, “Colombian cocaine . . . on several occasions” in 1983 and 1984.

“Are you cooperating with U.S. officials on this case?” Lewis asked.

“Yes, sir, I am,” Lehder said.

Diane Cossin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami, said a continuing investigation is based on evidence developed during the Noriega trial, but she declined to comment on whether it includes Cuban government officials.

A senior Drug Enforcement Administration official said he was aware of no probe that has targeted Raul Castro. While there are ongoing cases involving Cuban smuggling, the official said, “there’s a lot more that’s needed than one person’s testimony” to indict a high-level foreign official.

Lehder also testified that Vesco, whom he described as one of his partners in drug trafficking through the Bahamas, had met with him in Cuba and Nicaragua during Lehder’s efforts to establish smuggling routes through those countries. “Did Robert Vesco know about your drug dealing?” Lewis asked. “Yes, sir,” Lehder replied.

Vesco is accused of stealing $392 million from mutual fund investors and secretly giving $200,000 to the 1972 reelection campaign of former President Richard M. Nixon in an attempt to obstruct an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.