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George Jung is one of America’s most well-known drug dealers, having been immortalized in the Johnny Depp film “Blow.”
But in 1974, he was a relatively low-level drug smuggler; one who had just been sentenced to four years at the Federal Correctional Institute at Danbury, Connecticut, after being picked up with a car trunk full of marijuana in Chicago.
Danbury, in Jung’s words, was a “very mellow, laid-back place.” But it was also a place where, “You could more or less learn anything you wanted to learn in there in reference to illicit activities,” Jung told PBS Frontline. “It was basically a school.”
At the time, Jung’s offense was relatively light and his term relatively short. But, in a decision that would alter the American drug landscape forever, prison authorities put Jung in a cell with Carlos Lehder, a young Colombian-American who had been picked up for stealing cars.
“He was looking for a way to transport cocaine out of Colombia and people to sell it in the United States and there I was,” Jung told PBS. “It was like a marriage made in heaven, or hell in the end.”
“Jung knew how to import drugs by plane; Lehder had contacts in Colombia,” Tom Wainwright, the former Mexico City bureau chief for The Economist, wrote in his book, “Narconomics.” Cocaine was a relatively little-used drug in the US at that point, Wainwright writes, but “When Lehder and Jung were released from prison in 1976, they set about changing that forever.”
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Once they were both released, Lehder sent a telegram to Jung at his parents’ house in Massachusetts, telling him to find two women and send them to Antigua with Samsonite suitcases.
“They were more or less naive to what was going on and I told them that they’d be transferring cocaine, and really at that time, not very many people in Massachusetts knew what the hell cocaine was,” Jung recounted to PBS.
The women returned to Boston with their drugs undetected, telling Jung they enjoyed themselves so much that they were going back the next day.
“So they went and they were successful both times,” Jung said. “That was the beginning of the cocaine business for Carlos and myself.”
At the next stage, Jung met Lehder in Canada, and the two of them tracked down a pilot with connections in the Bahamas.
“This was the first time that we showed the Colombians that you could take huge amounts of cocaine and drop it into the United States via air and also there was a huge market there for it,” Jung told PBS, saying they generated millions of dollars in a matter of days.
“Within a couple of years they were importing the drug by the ton, hooking up with Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in Colombia to send planeloads of cocaine to the United States via Norman’s Cay, a small island in the Bahamas that they used as their base,” Wainwright writes.
Escobar sat at the head of the one of the most expansive criminal empires the world has ever seen. At its peak in the 1980s, his cartel was supplying 80% of the world’s cocaine, moving 15 tons of it into the US every day. It’s thought he was bringing in as much as $420 million a week.
Jung and Lehder both became more deeply involved in the cocaine trade, but they eventually parted ways. Lehder, in Jung’s telling, became more unstable.
“He wasn’t crazy… he had delusions, though. He loved John Lennon and Adolf Hitler at the same time. That should have been a sign for me,” Jung said in an interview with High Times.
After being forced out of his partnership with Lehder, Jung began working more closely with Escobar himself, carrying the drug north. Jung even visited Escobar in Colombia, where the American witnessed the Medellín cartel chief execute someone he said betrayed him – after that, Escobar asked Jung what he wanted for dinner.
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He initially refused, but after news emerged that Lehder had written a letter to Vice President George H.W. Bush and offered to cooperate with the US against the traffickers he and Jung had worked with, Jung agreed to testify – after securing Escobar’s permission to do so.
Jung was released in mid-2014, after serving 20 years. He has become one of the most storied traffickers in American history, his name almost synonymous with cocaine. But, according to Jung, he owes that reputation to Lehder.
When asked by High Times if he would’ve gotten into the cocaine business if he hadn’t met Lehder at Danbury, Jung replied simply: “Never. Never would have happened.”