The San Diego Union
November 21, 1991

Cuba helped cartel smuggle, witness says


MIAMI -- Senior Cuban and Nicaraguan officials, including the brother of Fidel Castro, helped the Medellín cartel smuggle cocaine into the United States during the mid-1980s, a founding member of the Colombian drug group testified here yesterday.

In his second day of testimony at the federal court trial of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the witness, Carlos Lehder Rivas, said he met twice in Havana with Gen. Raul Castro, Cuba's defense minister, to gain permission for cocaine shipments to fly over Cuban territory on their way to Florida.

Later, Lehder also said, the cartel organized a cocaine smuggling route out of Nicaragua with the approval of Sandinista leaders and the assistance of Cuba's top intelligence operative in Managua.

For at least a decade, there have been reports that Cuban and Sandinista officials were working in conjunction with the cartel, and the Reagan and Bush administrations have said so in arguing that the two Latin American governments should be isolated.

But until Lehder took the stand yesterday, no leader of the Medellín cartel had ever made such assertions publicly. It is difficult to determine how the jury will assess Lehder's credibility. No documentary evidence was introduced to corroborate his assertions.

"The Cubans were in charge of that cocaine conspiracy in Nicaragua," Lehder testified in English. He said he attended several meetings in Managua in his role as head of the cartel's transportation operations.

"It was not the Sandinista government, it was the Cubans" who were in charge of organizing and running the cocaine smuggling network from Nicaragua to the United States, he said.

As a result of discussions with the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments, the cartel "did fly cocaine through Nicaragua" during 1984, Lehder testified. He said the cartel was required to pay both governments, but he did not specify the amount paid and did not say whether payments were made to the national treasury of each country or to individuals.

Lehder said the cartel turned to Nicaragua as an alternative to Noreiga, who he said had become increasingly greedy and demanding.

Lehder's politically explosive account of the Medellín cartel's dealings with the two Latin American governments that were most hostile to the United States during the 1980s came during questioning about the drug-related activities of Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator who is being tried here on 10 counts of cocaine trafficking, money laundering and racketeering, and it had an immediate impact.

Lehder, one of nine founding members of the Medellín cartel, was captured by Colombian authorities during a raid on his jungle stronghold in February 1987 and immediately handed over to the United States, where he was wanted on 11 counts of cocaine trafficking and racketeering.

Following a 1988 trial in Jacksonville, Fla., he was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 135 years in prison.