By ROBERT MERKLE
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999
Twenty-five years ago, the son of a German father and Colombian mother had a simple idea.
From his jail cell in Danbury, Conn., where he was doing time for importing marijuana, Carlos Lehder Rivas saw massive cultural upheaval, crumbling social and moral constraints, and diminishing respect for the dignity of the individual.
To Lehder, it all added up to one thing: an opportunity to import and distribute cocaine to the American consumer on a massive scale.
A founding member of the infamous Medellin Cartel, Lehder knew America could not resist the exciting drug if it were affordable and readily available. Much as Henry Ford transformed the automobile industry through mass production, Lehder and his colleagues created a river of cocaine where only a trickle had gone before.
Lehder, who idolized Adolf Hitler, labeled his packaged kilos with swastikas and murdered anyone who got in his way. He commanded an armed garrison on a Bahamian island replete with hangars and a jet-capable runway. Twenty-four hours a day, his pilots injected cocaine by the ton into the United States. The cartel invested its immense profits in American goods and services or shipped them by Learjet to safe banking havens throughout Latin America and Europe.
In just a few years, the cartel succeeded in wreaking lasting injury to our society. Children dropped out of school. Men and women dropped out of jobs. Marriages were ruined. Morgues and emergency rooms swelled with the victims of drug-related street crime. Violence escalated everywhere. Businesses suffered from employee absenteeism, theft and incompetence.
Predictably, the reaction of our social institutions was overly broad and misdirected. Instead of taking a reasoned approach focused on shrinking the drug market, America declared "war" on Lehder and his ilk. We built prisons and toughened laws to the point of absurdity. Public fear and anger, fueled by political demagoguery, created a senseless national hunger for capital punishment.
The law enforcement ranks grew exponentially, with no discernible effect. A "bend the rules" mentality infected the police, eroding our civil liberties. Forfeiture laws were routinely abused, with personal property seized on the thinnest of allegations. Decisions previously vested in the presumed wisdom and experience of judges were now entrusted to inexperienced and ambitious prosectors.
Carlos Lehder was a destructive force, rendered effective by our own apathy and ignorance. We can thank him, his henchmen, his bankers, his lawyers, his financial advisers, and ultimately ourselves for higher taxes, threatened civil liberties, diminished national potential, an increasingly arrogant political class, and a deepening national cynicism.
Before his capture, Lehder sat on a throne in the jungle of Colombia and bragged of his attack on the cultural heart of this nation. His money, power and machine guns were only as strong as the American appetite for cocaine. That appetite flourished in a society slowly abandoning any sense of culture, history or tradition.
We were never really at war with Carlos Lehder. We were, and are still, at war with ourselves in those places where our national unity and strength begin.
Former U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle, now in private practice, prosecuted Lehder for drug trafficking in 1987-88. Lehder was convicted and sentenced to life plus 135 years in prison. He later struck a deal to testify in the drug trafficking trial of former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. Lehder's whereabouts are a government secret.