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.
The arrest of the crime kingpin Erick Vargas Cardenasin Copacabana, just outside of the Colombian city of Medellin, on Aug. 8 made little more than a ripple on international news wires.
The scruffy, ponytailed man being led away by police cut an anonymous figure in photos — and a stark contrast to the iconic images of Medellin’s most famous son, Pablo Escobar.
Cardenas, known as “Sebastian,” headed the Oficina de Envigado (Envigado Office), a powerful mafia that emerged from the criminal networks of Escobar’s Medellin cartel. Since his arrest, the city has been buzzing with speculation about what will become of the criminal dynasty founded by the world’s most famous drug lord.
Names of possible successors are whispered among the gangs that rule the city’s hillside slums, while rumours fly about a possible war of succession or a confrontation with the Oficina’s rivals — a neo-paramilitary group that has been advancing on Medellin from the north, the Urabeños.
Sebastian’s grip on the Medellin underworld had become tenuous and the Oficina’s influence has been in decline, leading some to speculate that, with his arrest, the Oficina may fracture and Sebastian may enter history as the last of the Medellin cartel kings.
The Oficina de Envigado — named after the small town on the edge of Medellin where Escobar grew up — began as one of the Medellin cartel’s bands of enforcers.
Escobar had already built his cartel into a criminal empire of unprecedented power and wealth through a combination of ingenious smuggling techniques and extreme violence.
El Patron, the boss, as Escobar became known, extended his reach into every corner of Medellin life. He entered politics as a deputy congressman with the Liberal Party, threw lavish parties for celebrities and socialites and cultivated a Robin Hood image by funding public works projects.
In the cartel’s heyday, drug money flowed into Medellin so quickly it was weighed, not counted. “It was like a boom — youths would one day suddenly show up with a motorbike, expensive clothes and prostitutes,” said Sergio Patiño, a Medellin native who witnessed the transformation of the city as Escobar laid the groundwork for the criminal empire that today is run by the Oficina.
The wealth came at a price and violence consumed the city. After Escobar declared war on the state and his rivals, the Medellin murder rate hit 381 per 100,000.
It was Escobar’s capacity for war without quarter that would eventually bring about his downfall, a final act in which Escobar’s own contract killers in the Oficina de Envigado would play an instrumental role.
In 1993, police gunned down Escobar on a Medellin rooftop. However, they owed the opportunity to the efforts of a shadowy group known as the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), who drove Escobar out into the open with a relentless attack on every facet of his business and personal life. Among the PEPES founders was an Oficina hitman, Diego Murillo, who turned on Escobar after the patrontried to have him murdered.
Escobar’s death was the first time the Colombian authorities heralded the end of the Medellin mafia, a pronouncement they echo today with the capture of Sebastian. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos described it as “a mortal blow for the Oficina de Envigado.”
But Escobar’s downfall led to a new generation of Medellin criminals. “The idea that with the death of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin cartel died is a fallacy. It is a lie,” said Fernando Quijano, a human-rights activist and organized crime investigator. “What the cartel did is transform itself.”
This transformation was carried out by Escobar’s ally-turned-enemy, Diego Murillo, and his cadre of lieutenants — Sebastian among them. Murillo, better known as Don Berna, quickly established himself as the new patron and the Oficina de Envigado as the dominant force in the Medellin underworld, the legitimate heirs to the Medellin cartel.
Although ruthless with his enemies, Don Berna forged powerful alliances across the country, most significantly with the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a far-right paramilitary group terrorizing the country as it waged war against Colombia’s leftist guerrilla insurgencies.
Don Berna combined his position as Medellin drug lord with a new role as an AUC commander. He led a Medellin-based paramilitary unit into successive urban wars, first to drive out the guerrillas’ urban militias, then to destroy paramilitary rivals who had questioned his criminal operations.
“It was a mix of the mafia and paramilitarism,” said Quijano. “He brought together these two currents, these two types of crime.”
The conflict killed thousands of young people, but left Don Berna with a level of control over the Medellin underworld that exceeded that of Escobar and would dwarf the fragile grip of those who came after him, including Sebastian.
By 2004, Don Berna’s wars had come to an end and the Medellin murder rate dropped to unprecedented lows. Within the city, the decline was attributed to a deal allegedly struck between Don Berna and the authorities; the city’s murder rate would fall if Don Berna was allowed to run the Oficina without interference.
According to Quijano, the transformation was only on the surface. “(Don Berna) gave the order that no murders should be seen — so they chopped up (the bodies), they buried them and they burned them . . . this was the famous peace,” he said.
In 2008, the Colombian authorities changed tack and extradited Don Berna to face drug charges in the United States after he had been arrested in connection with the murder of a local politician. His departure sparked the decline in the Oficina that has left it fractured and vulnerable.
After Don Berna, “it was quite clear there was no centralized control,” said Jeremy McDermott, director of the organized crime analysis group Insight Crime and an expert on Medellin’s gangs.
“People began to do their own thing, which they would never have done under Don Berna. The Oficina ended in the sense that it stopped being the hierarchical organization that exercised hegemony over the Medellin underworld.”
In the chaos that followed Don Berna’s extradition, several presumed successors quickly came and went — some turned themselves in to the authorities, others were arrested. Erick Vargas Cardenas stepped into this power vacuum, but his ascent to Escobar’s old throne was blocked by a rival — Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias Valenciano.
The two fought a bitter war for the right to be known as the next patron and Medellin’s murder rate more than doubled in the space of a year. Sebastian’s victory owed much to the loyalty he commanded among most of Medellin’s neighbourhood gangs, known as combos, which have run the city at the street level on behalf of their mafia paymasters since the Escobar era. His position as the new don was cemented in 2011 when Valenciano was arrested.
This latest war left Medellin divided and Sebastian without major international drug trafficking contacts, which had been controlled by his rival. The combos tried to make up the difference in income by ramping up street-level drug dealing, extortion, gambling and prostitution. Some of the bigger gangs began to source cocaine base outside the city, which they could process into powder to turn a huge profit.
According to McDermott, with the extra income some of these gangs evolved into “super combos,” which have grown too large and independent to be controlled by the remnants of the Oficina hierarchy.
“They are not going to submit unconditionally now to a leader,” he said. “Anyone who wants to work with them will have to negotiate with them as partners.”
McDermott believes the name of the Oficina will live on, but only to describe Medellin’s fluid criminal networks, bringing an end to the era of cartels and kingpins.
Fernando Quijano doesn’t believe Sebastian will be the last Medellin don, pointing to the list of potential replacements currently circulating in the city’s underworld. He also believes the combos will continue to rely on a larger organization for protection. “Independence kills,” he said.
The landscape is complicated by the presence of the drug-trafficking neo-paramilitaries, the Urabeños, formed from the remnants of the now-demobilized AUC and led by Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias Mi Sangre.
Since the end of the war between Sebastian and Valenciano, the Urabeños have been quietly surrounding Medellin, assuming control of the key drug corridors while making incursions into strategic neighbourhoods inside the city.
“They are forming a ring,” said Quijano. “When they manage to close that ring they will suffocate (the city) and afterward they will come for everything.”
At the time of Sebastian’s arrest, skirmishes were already breaking out between combos loyal to the Oficina and others fighting on behalf of the Urabeños. According to Quijano, what remains of the Oficina leadership is split over whether to negotiate or fight with their rivals; the Urabeños are prepared for both options.
For Quijano, who recently survived an attempt on his life by Oficina hit men, whoever emerges to replace Sebastian as the public face of the Oficina — whether from the Urabeños, the Oficina leadership or even the combos — will not be a true patron in the mould of Escobar or Don Berna.
Instead they will be little more than a figurehead to unite the underworld and obscure where the real power lies — with the mafia and paramilitary families of years gone by, now keen to remain in the shadows and avoid the fate of Escobar.
“(The heads of the Oficina) have power and they have money, but they are not the real bosses,” he said. “The so-called Oficina is a façade. It is the wall that stops us seeing the reality of the mafia.” Source:thestar.com
Hard-won peace process clears path for bloody challenge to Medellín’s top cartel.
A team of bodyguards fans out through the three-storey building in central Medellín, calling out “clear” after each room is checked. One gunman remains stationed on each floor; another three guard the building’s entrance.
With the area secured, a young man in a designer T-shirt and baseball cap emerges on to the roof terrace, followed by his lieutenant. Javier is a trafficker with Colombia’s longest-surviving drug cartel, the Envigado Office, but he describes his work in matter-of-fact terms.
“The Office controls the illegal businesses in Medellín. Its main businesses are extortion, hired killings, the traffic in arms and drugs,” he says.
The heavy security is soon explained: Javier fears his cartel – and his home city – may be on the brink of another drug war.
Colombia was supposed to have overcome its bloody history. Over the last decade, the government has pushed leftist rebels back into jungles, overseen the demobilisation of tens of thousands of illegal far-right militia fighters and taken down various drug capos.
Washington foreign policy mandarins such as Paul Wolfowitz have held up Colombia as a model for other countries struggling with narco-chaos, such as Afghanistan and Mexico.
And Medellín, Colombia’s industrial heartland, was promoted as the embodiment of the country’s renaissance: the murder rate plummeted by about 80% over five years, reaching a decade low of 34 deaths per 100,000 in 2007. Once called the “city of death”, Medellín was now open for business.
But the root cause of Colombia’s violence – the country’s status as the world’s biggest cocaine producer – has not disappeared. And Medellín’s apparent peace lasted only as long as its underworld was run by one man, through the Envigado Office.
Named after a neighbourhood of Medellin, the Office was originally a group of hitmen acting for Pablo Escobar’s cartel. After Escobar’s death in 1993, the Office was taken over by a former ally turned bitter rival of Escobar, Diego Murillo, known as Don Berna, who cemented control over Medellín and moved the organisation deeper into drug-trafficking.
The Office will collect on anyone’s debt, as long as the creditor is willing to give over 50% of what is recovered. It has its own motto: “Debts get paid – with money or with life.”
“Many people know that the government won’t act as it should, it won’t help the people in what they need. Many people come to us to collect money, debts on cars, debts for drugs, basically anything,” says Javier.
In his book The Multinational of Crime: the Terrifying Office of Envigado, journalist Alfredo Serrano writes: “Whenever anyone died, people would say that ‘they had got on the wrong side of the Office’ – as if this criminal organisation held the power of life itself.”
Murillo handed himself in to the authorities in 2005 as part of a peace process with the far-right paramilitary groups, but was accused of continuing to run the Office from behind bars, which eventually led to his extradition to the United States. He was convicted of exporting tonnes of cocaine and sentenced to 31 years in an American prison.
After his conviction, the then head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration said: “American and Colombian communities are safer with the removal of this notorious drug kingpin.”
But it would not prove so for Medellín. With Murillo out of the way, a vicious power struggle erupted between his successors. Medellín’s homicide rate doubled in 2009, leaving about 3,000 people dead.
“Around 15 close friends were killed in the war. We couldn’t go out to clubs, we just had to stay home and not get killed,” says Javier.
The factional fighting within the Office came to an end last year with the capture of one of the rival leaders, and since then most of the group has reunited under a new boss, just in time to confront a new threat: one of Colombia’s emerging narco-militias, the Urabeños.
The Urabeños sprang up after the peace deal with the far-right paramilitaries. While the main militia leaders were jailed alongside Don Berna, most of the mid-range commanders – those who had been running the day-to-day cocaine operations – were free. Many of these commanders reorganised their old outfits, recruited other demobilised fighters, and returned to drug‑running.
The Urabeños are now a force across much of northern Colombia, bringing a military discipline to organised crime.
“They don’t think like average narcos,” said Jeremy McDermott, founder of Insight Crime, a thinktank that tracks organised crime in Latin America. “They are extraordinarily political, mixed with deep criminal experience.”
The group’s power was felt earlier this year when it forced dozens of towns to close all businesses after authorities killed a Urabeño leader. And now they are eyeing Medellín.
The looming battle between the Office and the Urabeños is for control of Medellin’s underworld, the vast local market and for positioning to be able to negotiate with the Mexican mafias that ship cocaine to the US.
“Many Colombians are moving over to Mexico to firm up relations,” says Javier. “We get our guns from there and they get the drugs from us.”
Earlier this month, a city-wide police sweep targeted gangs including the Office, arresting 49 people, including seven due for extradition. Last month, the brother of the current leader of the Office was arrested.
But observers say cracking down on the Office will not be enough to keep the peace in Medellín. Jesús Sánchez, who heads the human rights office for the city’s ombudsman, says the local government must offer legal alternatives to the legions of hitmen who would fight any drug war.
“The state must do more than just attack the crime; the state needs a greater presence in the poor neighbourhoods,” he said.
Infrastructure in the slums has improved, but Sánchez says the city still owes its young men a historical debt: two generations have grown up in a culture of violence and the easy money of trafficking. “When a young man doesn’t find work, he’s got the chance immediately to join a gang and get all the money he needs.”
Javier doesn’t see Medellín emerging from its problems soon. “If this is going to change, people must really want to change. But people always want money and power.”
Even though they say crime doesn’t pay, several rich gangsters prove otherwise. While most end up dead or in jail, a very lucky few get to spend their money. In the early part of the 20th Century, gangsters made a lot of money selling liquor during prohibition. In the seventies many gangsters made a killing off heroin. Nowadays, the richest gangsters make their money from importing cocaine from Colombia through Mexico and into the U.S. While it is hard to determine the exact wealth of these masterminds, here are the 10 richest gangsters of all time:
10. Frank Lucas
Frank Lucas capitalized off the heroin trade in the 1960s and 1970s by using an East Asian connection during the Vietnam war, cutting off the Italian mafia who controlled the trade in his Harlem at the time. Lucas, originally from North Carolina, employed members of his family to take over the heroin trade in New York and New Jersey. Lucas would claim to have sold one million dollars worth of heroin a day in his prime and claimed to have a net worth of over $52 million on top of a large supply of liquid assets, namely heroin.
9. Griselda Blanco
Griselda Blanco, also known as the Black Widow or The Cocaine Queen Of Miami, was a drug lord for the Colombian Medellin cartel. She controlled the cocaine trade through violence and intimidation making $80 million a month during the ’70s and ’80s. Reports claim that at her peak Griselda Blanco had more than a half a billion dollars. After serving 10 years in jail on drug charges, Blanco would return to her native Colombia.
8. Al Capone
Al Capone is perhaps the most notorious gangster of all time, and also one of the richest. During prohibition, Capone controlled the illegal alcohol, prostitution and gambling rackets in Chicago which brought in $100 million a year at its prime. Capone’s money allowed him to bribe police officials, judges and even the Mayor of Chicago. Unfortunately, he could not bribe the IRS who convicted him of tax evasion in 1932 and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
7. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera
“El Chapo” is one of Mexico’s most infamous drug lords. He is the head of the Sinaloa cartel which smuggles in billion of dollars from Colombia through Mexico and into the United States. Guzman became rich enough to make Forbes list of 1000 wealthiest people in the world as well as their top 60 most powerful people in the world, with a net worth of over 5 billion dollars. Guzman was jailed in 1993 but escaped from prison in 2001 and is currently number one of the FBI’s most wanted list with $5 million award for his capture.
6. Anthony “Fat Tony” Salermo
Italian Mobster “Fat Tony” Salermo made his millions running the numbers and drugs racket in East Harlem after most other Italian mobsters left the area as it became more Black and Latino in the 1960s making tens of millions of dollars. As the front man for the Genovese crime family, Salermo was named the America’s Top Gangster by Fortune Magazine in 1986 due to his wealth of more than one billion dollars and influence. In 1988 Salermo was convicted of racketeering charges and was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
5. Carlos Lehder
Lehder was one of the founders of the Colombian Medillin Cartel. While in prison Lehder met Boston-born drug trafficker, George Jung, who helped him import and distribute cocaine from his native Colombia into the United States accumulating $2.7 Billion. Cocaine made Lehder so rich that he owned his own island in the Bahamas and offered to pay of Colombia’s debt. Lehder would eventually be extradited to the United States and sentenced to life in prison which was reduced after he agreed to testify against former Panamanian President, Manuel Noriega in 1992.
4. Meyer Lansky
Lansky was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who would make a fortune of gambling, both legal and illegal. Lansky would join notorious gangsters, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Ben “Bugsy” Siegel to run a gang that would be known as Murder Inc. Lansky would later turn to focus on gambling setting up operations in Florida, Las Vegas and Cuba before the Cuban revolution.In 1982, Forbes would name him as one of the 400 richest people in America. Lansky would be indicted for tax evasion and fled to Israel. He would later return to the U.S. to face charges and was acquitted in 1974. Lanksy would die a free man in Miami at age 83.
3. Joseph Kennedy
Joseph Kennedy is the patriarch of one of America’s most powerful and prestigious families. One of his sons became President, another District Attorney and presidential candidate and another a Senator. At his peak Kennedy was one of the richest men in America but as the saying goes behind every great fortune, there is a great crime. Kennedy was already in the liquor business before prohibition but according to several books and gangsters, became a bootlegger with ties to the New York and Chicago underworlds after liquor was made illegal. After prohibition was ended Kennedy made a fortune off selling legitimate liquor as well as through Hollywood and the stock market. Kennedy was named one of the 20 richest people in America in 1954 by Fortune Magazine and had a net worth of more than $300 Million, which would be in the high billions today . It has been reported that Kennedy contacted mobster Frank Costello, who was known to brag that he was a bootlegger with Kennedy, to use another mobster, Chicago’s Sam Giancana to help his son John get elected through his ties to Chicago and the unions.
2. Pablo Escobar
Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug lord of the modern era. He ran the Medellin Cartel which imported billions of dollars of cocaine into the United States. Pablo’s money brought him great power as we was able to bribe officials or have them killed if they wouldn’t take his bribes. Forbes Magazine named Escobar the 7th richest man in the world with a net worth of $25 Billion. In 1993, Escobar was killed by Colombian forces with US assistance, after he escaped from a Colombian prison.
1. Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Amado Carrillo Fuentes was the head of the Mexican Juarez Cartel. He was known as “Lord Of The Skies” due to his private fleet of planes, including 22 private 727 jet airliners which were used to import cocaine from Colombia to Mexico where it was later smuggled into the United States. Fuentes had an estimated net value of $25 billion almost twice as much as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the DEA called him the most powerful drug trafficker of his era. He would die while undergoing plastic surgery to alter his appearance in 1997.