Lehder — who has dual German-Colombian citizenship and got his start as a teenager selling pot by the hundreds of pounds in New York City — is now 70, and after serving 33 years in federal custody, is reportedly in poor health.
But in his heyday, he flew Colombian cocaine into the US by the ton from a Bahamian island he owned just 200 miles off the Florida coast, deploying a sneaky fleet of low-flying small planes and bribing local pols to look the other way.
And as a backstop, Lehder joined forces with no less than corrupt dictator Manuel Noriega to funnel still more cocaine and drug money through Panama.
By the time he was captured in 1987, Lehder had revolutionized the previously inefficient, drug-mule method of smuggling and risen to the top of Escobar’s Medellin cartel.
The handsome ladies’ man and cold-blooded killer was responsible for four out of every five bags of cocaine that reached the US, prosecutors said at the time.
“He was to cocaine transportation what Henry Ford was to automobiles,” the US Attorney in Tampa who prosecuted Lehder, Robert Merkle, would tell jurors in his opening statement.
“He saw America as a decadent society. He saw cocaine as the wave of the future in the Unites States.”
Lehder was also linked to a wave of violence against Colombian judges, police and journalists — fueling a fear of reprisal assassinations that spread to the U.S. after his capture.
“He has said if he was caught, he would kill a [US] federal judge a week until he is freed,” Merkle was quoted warning in a Feb. 6, 1987, New York Post story detailing Lehder’s extradition, at age 37, via an armed helicopter to Florida.
But the Colombia-born Lehder was as erratic as he was ruthless — a coke-addled Medellin cartel billionaire and self-proclaimed “Nazi” with a fascination for Adolf Hitler and a hair-trigger temper.
In Colombia, he owned a local newspaper and filled it with bizarre beliefs, including that Coca-Cola was “the only good thing about imperialism” and that Hitler was history’s “greatest warrior.”
The Jews, he wrote, were not killed by the Nazis during World War II, but rather “died only working in fields and factories.”
He staffed his Bahamian estate on the island of Norman’s Cay with German bodyguards and Doberman pinschers.
And in Colombia, he reportedly commissioned a bronze statue of his favorite rock star, John Lennon, for his home district of Armenia.
The statue depicted the Beatle holding a guitar and wearing nothing but a Nazi helmet.
Lehder’s private army called him “Commander Rambo” to his face.
But they called him “Crazy Charlie” behind his back, in wary tribute to the volatile charisma captured on the Netflix series “Narcos” and by the actor Jordi Molla in the 2001 movie “Blow.”
“Maybe I did betray you a little bit,” the Lehder character, “Diego,” cackles to Johnny Depp’s character, George Jung, in one scene from the movie.
In real life, as teenagers, Lehder and Jung had shared a Danbury, Conn., federal jail cell for a time, forging their fractious longtime partnership.
Betrayal would cut both ways.
Lehder did indeed try to cut Jung out of the lucrative business on Norman’s Cay. And Jung would be first on the witness stand against Lehrer, telling jurors how they met in a Danbury prison as teens.
Lehder’s his last night of freedom came in 1987, when the trafficking mastermind, on a fleeting impulse, shot dead one of Escobar’s own hitmen during a raging party at a sprawling jungle hacienda in Rio Negro, 18 miles outside Medellin.
The hapless victim had happened to knock on Ledher’s door while the trafficker was enjoying the company of a prostitute and a pile of cocaine.
Lehder was furious over the interruption; the resulting shots rang out above the pulsing salsa music.
“Lehder apologized to Escobar, the body was disposed of, and, of course, the party went on,” as DW.com noted in a recent profile.
But Lehder’s unpredictability was too much, even for Escobar, who, hoping to get into the Feds good graces, immediately tipped the Colombian police off to Lehder’s whereabouts.
Lehder — who once said he would prefer a tomb in Colombia to a jail cell in the U.S. — was captured the next day after a gunbattle between local police, federal agents and his 15 possibly hungover bodyguards at the Rio Negro ranch.
He was the first of several hundred drug smugglers Colombia would extradite to the US.
But he would have few rivals when it came to audacity. Lehder even wrote a jailhouse letter to then-Vice President George Bush offering to cooperate in return for immunity.
“This was not one of the run-of-the-mill drug traffickers,” Mike Vigil, a former DEA international operations director who interviewed Lehder after his arrest, told Business Insider.
“He was always looking for angles … probably one of the most cunning drug traffickers that I have ever met.”
After a seven-month trial in federal court in Jacksonville that left some jurors shaken and in tears, Lehder was sentenced to life in prison plus 135 years.
The sentence was greatly reduced in a post-conviction deal — still working angles even in jail, Lehder, at age 42, turned states’ witness against Noriega, the Panamanian despot and drug boss.
Described in press accounts as dapper in a smart gray suit and red necktie, Lehder testified that Escobar met personally with Noriega in the early ‘80s after Bahamian authorities began cracking down on the use of Norman’s Cay.
Together, Escobar and Noriega arranged “security and protection” for cocaine passing instead from Colombia through Panama.
Noriega, he testified, received a cash commission for every kilo shipped through his country and for every dollar laundered in a Panamanian bank.
Lehder’s reduced sentence culminated in his release on Monday.
He wound up outliving both of his more powerful partners. Escobar died in a police shootout in Medellin in 1993, and Noriega died of a brain tumor in a Panamanian prison in 2017.
This week marks the second time Lehder had been deported from the U.S.
He had lived in New York as a teenager — sent there by his German engineer father and Colombian mother upon their divorce at age 15.
At age 18, he was arrested in New York for trying to sell 200 pounds of marijuana, earning two years in a detention center, and after his release, he was deported to Colombia, where he continued in the business.
Later he boasted of having made his first $1 million by age 23.
On Monday, after 33 years in prison, Lehder was taken to Berlin, to be cared for by a charity, said his lawyer, Oscar Arroyave.
Lehder had retained German citizenship through his father, the lawyer said.
“He was always crazy but he was also very smart,” said Richard Gregorie, a former U.S. attorney in Miami who indicted Noriega.
Now, “He’s old, but I wonder how much craziness he still has left.”
With Post wires