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Drug Lord Flouted Law, Courted Violence : Colombian Lehder a Devotee of Hitler

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Carlos Lehder, a boastful cocaine kingpin of unsurpassed ambition and appetite, is the biggest fish ever netted in the flagging international war against drugs.

A devotee of the Beatles, Adolf Hitler and violence, Lehder invested cocaine millions in quest of respectability and political power in Colombia. Denied those goals, he laughed at the law, and he was accused of trailing a cape of bribery, intimidation and murder from the United States through the Caribbean and into backland Colombia.

Among the top five members of a so-called “Medellin cartel” that produces, transports and sells three-quarters of the cocaine reaching the United States, Lehder is worth around $800 million, by estimate of Colombian sources.

“My God, the Virgin has fallen from the sky,” the nonplussed commander of the Colombian National Police assault team was quoted as saying when Lehder turned out to be one of 15 men caught in a dawn raid Wednesday on a dope traffickers’ lair on the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia. The other 14 were Lehder’s bodyguards.

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American and Colombian officials tempered their delight at Lehder’s arrest with caution Thursday. Reprisal is the trademark of what Colombians know grimly as the cocaine Mafia.

Two Officials Slain

Last month, Enrique Parejo, the former justice minister who in 1984 approved a U.S. request for the extradition of Lehder and other major traffickers, was shot and badly wounded on the snow-covered steps of the Colombian Embassy in Budapest, Hungary.

Parejo’s predecessor, Rodrigo Lara, was murdered by traffickers in 1984, triggering national revulsion in Colombia against millionaire drug traffickers who until then had moved freely in the highest levels of Colombian society. Lehder made no secret of the $325,000 that he and like-minded friends contributed in 1982 to the campaign of winning presidential candidate Belisario Betancur.

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Lehder was a nouveau riche big spender, boasting that he had made his first million by age 23. In 1978, he bought the island of Norman Cay in the Bahamas as an aircraft carrier for smugglers’ flights, reportedly suborning Bahamian officials along the way. A royal commission in 1984 found endemic drug corruption ranging from out-island policemen to Cabinet ministers.

Last month, while in hiding as one of the hemisphere’s most wanted fugitives, Lehder petitioned for registration of the neo-Nazi National Latin Movement, which he founded, as a political party in Colombia. The movement regularly attacks the Colombian government, the United States, drug enforcement efforts, Israel, Communists and, particularly, the U.S.-Colombian extradition treaty.

Hitler Defended

“An incorrect image has been spread of Hitler’s Germany. Much has been said since World War II that was incorrect,” Lehder told a press conference in Bogota in 1983 while a candidate for city council.

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“Cocaine and marijuana have become an arm of struggle against American imperialism,” Lehder, a relaxed fugitive, told a 1985 Spanish television interviewer in a jungle clearing with a watchful bodyguard behind him. “We have the same responsibility in this--he who takes up a rifle, he who plants coca, he who goes to the public plaza and denounces imperialism.”

On Thursday, after his surprise arrest and lightning extradition, Lehder stood in a Tampa, Fla., courtroom in jeans and a T-shirt that read “Cycling” to hear himself accused of crimes that could jail him for life. Better a tomb in Colombia than a cell in the United States, he is supposed to have said while a fugitive.

“Lehder is leader!” fellow citizens would shout in the coffee town of Armenia, Colombia. Favorite son Lehder brought fame and money to the town where he founded his political movement. He built a big hotel with a landmark statue of slain Beatle John Lennon, complete with an outsize bullet hole in his back.

Body Blow to Traffickers

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Lehder’s arrest is the first body blow to Colombia’s cocaine kingpins in a crackdown launched by the Colombian government after the traffickers’ assassination of Bogota newspaper editor Guillermo Cano last December.

Until his capture, which drew stunned front-page headlines throughout Colombia on Thursday, only small fry had fallen in the counterattack against a rampage of murder and terror that paralyzed the Colombian justice system and discouraged U.S. and Colombian officials glumly battling what seemed an almost overwhelming cocaine tide.

Colombian officials close to President Virgilio Barco acknowledge that there is no jail in Colombia that could hold a trafficker of Lehder’s wealth and clout.

Extradition is what traffickers fear most, particularly Lehder: He is no stranger to American jails.

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Deported in 1975

Born Sept. 7, 1949, in Colombia to a German father, he moved from the provinces to New York with his Colombian mother in 1967. After a string of arrests and two years in jail for marijuana possession, he was deported to Colombia in 1975, there to launch a cocaine empire that would make him one of the world’s richest and most wanted outlaws.

In November, a Miami grand jury delivered a 39-count indictment accusing Lehder and eight other Colombians of smuggling at least 58 tons of cocaine into the United States in this decade.

In Tampa on Thursday, Lehder denied that he had ever threatened to order the assassination of any judge who jailed him and told a federal magistrate that he had no assets in the United States. A public defender was appointed to represent him.

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