A Columbian Cartel Coke Ride
by Jorge Valdes with Ken
When Jorge Valdes and his family arrived in
the United States from Cuba in 1966, they were thankful for freedom and
the chance to pursue the American dream. Adept with numbers in high
school, Jorge got a job at a Federal Reserve Bank after graduation.
Then Jorge befriended a
Jamaican who dealt in ginger and yams. He offered Jorge an opportunity to
get rich quick?by laundering money and setting up offshore accounts to
avoid taxes. For a 20-year-old, the temptation was overwhelming.
new foreign account and contact led to another. In 1977, two Colombians
asked Jorge to join them in a lucrative banana business. As time went by,
the truth came out?behind the legitimate banana business, the Colombians
were building a fledgling cocaine empire?the Medellin Drug Cartel. Jorge
was asked to explore the possibilities of a California market.
Jorge told himself,
"Maybe if I make a couple hundred thousand dollars, I?ll quit while
I?m ahead. I can buy a nice house, help my parents buy a better house,
and still have money until my part of the banana business starts
His godly mother had taught
him the difference between good and evil. But the lure of money was about
to change his life.
Before leaving Miami to
oversee my first cocaine deal, I stopped to visit my parents. While Mom
prepared dinner, I slipped into my parents? bedroom. Memories of my
mother praying so often in that room flooded my mind, and I said in a
hushed voice, "God if you protect me, I?m gonna buy a better house
for my parents. Please make sure nothing happens to me. You know that I?m
not hurting anyone, that the ones who buy this cocaine are rich people,
and I?m not doing anything immoral." I honestly thought I was
telling God the truth.
I went back to California
and told my contact the deal was on. "Line up your people. We?re
bringing three kilos, and the price is $210,000."
If all went as planned, I
would never have to actually touch the cocaine; I would only pick up the
But Juanito, flying in from
Miami with the cocaine, met me in the airport without the suitcase. He was
ashen-faced and sweating profusely. He told me he was afraid somebody was
"Juanito! We can?t
lose this cocaine!" I growled.
"I?m not going to
pick up that suitcase, Jorge."
"What?s the matter
with you?" I replied. "We could get killed."
"You go get it,"
"Fine. Give me the
The suitcase was a black,
hard-shell Samsonite. I tried to act nonchalant, though I felt as if every
eye in the airport was on me.
We met our contact at a
prearranged hotel. I told him Juanito and I were going for a walk; while
we were out, he could take the cocaine.
When we returned, any
thoughts that I might be displeasing God disappeared the moment I returned
to the hotel room and found the cocaine gone and $75,000 (upfront money)
hidden in the closet.
After all the money was
collected and the deal was done, I pocketed $36,000. I felt certain I
would soon be the king of cocaine in California.
A month after I turned 22
years old, one of my Colombian partners asked to see me. "Tell me
about your clients in California."
I told him I believed
California could be a big market, since money was plentiful but pure
cocaine was difficult to find.
"One of my partners
used to work out of Los Angeles," the Colombian told me, "But he
went to jail. Would you be interested in distributing our cocaine, working
directly under me?"
By "our cocaine"
I knew he meant himself and his fellow drug lords, the pioneers in the
Medellin Drug Cartel.
After discussing some
details, I walked out to my car in a daze. I just agreed to go into
business with the biggest drug lord in the world!
Coke Comes In, Money Goes
We had several ways of
bringing cocaine into the United States. Some came aboard boats. Much of
it came through various Florida airports.
My main connection was two
elderly Cubans who worked in U.S. Customs at Miami International Airport.
They assisted in one shipment of cocaine per month hidden inside five to
seven enormous hollowed-out diesel truck engines in crates.
Each engine hid a 55-gallon
oil drum, containing 125 kilos of cocaine. Welded back together, the
engines were sealed with oil and greased, which allowed the coke to slip
by DEA dogs sniffing for drug shipments.
I hired smugglers to
transfer the cocaine from the people who brought it through customs. They
would drive a U-Haul to a designated place, then I would drive it to a
In addition to receiving
and distributing the cocaine, I was responsible for laundering the money
the cartel was making. To get the money out of the country, I paid bank
managers in Florida as much as $10,000 per transfer. In the early days, I
often walked into a Miami bank carrying paper sacks filled with cash-$4
million at a time.
Sometimes shady characters
would drop off bags of money at my parents? house. Dad seemed to buy my
story that the money came from the banana business, but Mom became
In her prayers, she kept
asking God to separate me from the new crowd surrounding me. She felt
certain I was headed down the wrong path.
A Change in Plans
In late 1978, I was making
contacts in Bolivia for a new source for cocaine. Most of our cocaine came
into the U.S. on commercial flights. I boldly suggested that we bring
cocaine all the way from Bolivia in our own plane. I enlisted the help of
two American drug smugglers?George Rawls, an expert in finding covert
landing strips, and Harold Rosenthal, who kept a ready roster of
The Bolivians promised a
two-for-one deal?an additional kilo of coke on credit for each one we
paid for. But when our contact arrived in Santa Cruz, our Bolivian
"friends" only had what we had paid for. Were we being
I decided to fly to
Bolivia, straighten things out, and return with the shipment worth $4.5
million. It was the spring of 1979.
Our flight would take us
across the corner of Columbia, over the Pacific passing Costa Rica and
Panama, to land in Managua, Nicaragua. I would then catch a commercial
flight and head for vacation.
Thirty-five minutes into
the flight, the radio went dead.
We had been experiencing a
little problem with the plane?s alternator, but there were two of them
"The alternator! We?ve
lost the second alternator!" one of the pilots screamed.
Within minutes the left
engine sputtered and stalled and we began losing altitude rapidly.
on?" I yelled.
"Buckle up tight. We?re
Suddenly I heard a loud
screech as the plane?s belly slammed into the ground. We skidded a short
distance, bounced a few feet upward, then dove nose-first into the ground
with a crunching thud.
I heard the pilots scream,
not from pain but from joy. We were still alive! The plane had plunged
into mud up to the pilots? knees, the tail up in the air.
"We gotta get out of
this plane! It could blow any second!"
The five of us scrambled
out the rear door. From a safe distance, I took my first long look at the
damaged plane. The front end was totally destroyed, the propellers sheared
off. The underbelly and sides looked as though they had been strafed by
gunfire. Yet we had only a few bruises and cuts.
I brushed aside any
thoughts that I should thank God for this. It was just another instance of
beating the odds.
Wherever we were, it was
only a matter of time before someone discovered us. Maybe I should get the
flare gun, shoot the plane to explode it and destroy drug-smuggling
evidence. But I had 4.5 million reasons to take a chance, thinking I could
get back to salvage the cocaine.
In less than an hour,
however, the woods were crawling with people. We had crashed in western
panama. Within three hours, we were in jail.
Three men came to see us?Agent
Art Sedillo, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Lieutenant
Jorge "Lino" Latinez (head of G-2, Panama?s national guard
that enforces martial law), one of the most feared men in Panama, and
Consul Joseph McLean from the U.S. consulate.
"Your airplane has
been searched, and drugs have been found."
Let?s Make a Deal
The following morning I was
taken to an office where a well-dressed man sat. He introduced himself as
Miranda, the attorney general of Panama.
"I know who you
are," he said icily. "The U.S. Government says you?re one of
the biggest drug lords in the world."
"I don?t know what
you?re talking about."
"I?m not going to
get into that game," Miranda responded.
"Neither am I. Sir, I
only want to ask you two questions.
How much will it cost to
buy back my cargo and belongings, and how much will it cost for my friends
and me to leave the country?"
Miranda stared at me,
wordlessly. I returned his stare.
"Young man, your drugs
have already been sold," he replied calmly. "It will cost your
workers $50,000 each to get out of here. But for you?the boss-the cost
"I?ll pay you the
A smile crossed Miranda?s
face. "My attorney will make all the arrangements. As soon as the
money?s been paid, you?ll be taken to Panama City to be interrogated
by the G-2. The investigators will establish that you hadn?t intended to
land in Panama but were forced to crash because of mechanical
True to Miranda?s word,
the attorney promised to make the necessary arrangements. I gave him phone
numbers to call for the money.
Two days later, he told me
that he had tickets for Costa Rica ready. But we still had to go through
interrogation in Panama City.
In Panama City, Lino was
waiting. He began to interrogate me in front of my pilots and Harold about
our trip and the cocaine.
"I don?t know
anything about any cocaine," I lied with an earnest face. "I was
given the suitcases in Colombia by some Cuban revolutionaries. I?m only
making $50,000 on this deal. Now that I see what the cases contain, I?m
furious. I hope the people involved will be arrested!"
Lino stopped taking notes
and raised his eyebrows. Then he left the room.
Suddenly the door burst
open and Panamanian officers and Lino rushed in, dragging a young man.
They proceeded to bludgeon and torture a stranger in front of us until he
Lino glowered at me. This
was his way of letting us know what we would receive if we failed to
One of the pilots, J.D.,
shrieked at Lino, "I?ll tell the truth! I?ll tell the
truth!" Lino smirked and separated the pilots from Harold and me.
After four-and-a-half hours
of interrogating J.D., Lino took great pleasure in letting Harold and me
know that he knew everything about the trip?even that I had bribed the
attorney general of Panama.
The DEA assured the pilots
that if they would talk, they could be on a plane back home within an
hour. The DEA stuck to their bargain. At the same time, Harold and I were
being shoved down a steep tunnel-like staircase, descending into the
bowels of Modelo, the most vile prison in Panama.
You Can?t Make Us Talk
Is this hell? I wondered.
Eight Panamanian soldiers rushed into the dimly lit cellblock, grabbing
Harold and me. The sergeant barked orders, "Kick them, beat them!
Make them talk!"
A soldier?s jackboot
crunched into my face, bouncing my head off the concrete floor. Blow after
blow followed. I ceased to feel anything. But my thoughts were still
cogent: Somehow, I?m going to beat them! I will not give in. Harold and
I fought back, verbally and physically.
Day after day, the beatings
continued, each time more severely. But being an informant was not an
option. I had given my word to my friends.
After one bludgeoning, I
didn?t know if I was alive or dead, in this world or another. I drifted
in and out of consciousness. I couldn?t move any part of my body and my
lips were swollen. Sleep became my friend.
More beatings followed.
Sometimes the soldiers cuffed us to the cell bars while pummeling us with
billy clubs. At other times they simply used their fists and feet. My
nerves frayed. When will the soldiers come next? How can I endure?
One guard was friendlier
than the others and never took part in the torture. After one particularly
brutal beating, he came by.
"Are you okay?"
he asked quietly.
I dragged myself over to
the bars and growled, "I want you to tell Noriega that unless he
kills me, I?m going to kill him and his whole family."
The guard shook his head.
"You?re crazy! I?m not going to say that to Colonel Noriega. They?ll
kill you for certain."
That?s exactly what I
want, I thought. The guard needed more incentive.
I wrote a note to my
brother instructing him to give the guard $10,000, explaining that the
guard had helped me. I handed it to the guard and said, "Now, go tell
Noriega what I said."
The following day, someone
swaggered to our cell. Even with my eyes swollen, I recognized Panamanian
leader Manuel Noriega. "Are you the man who threatened my life?"
I hurled obscenities back.
Noriega squatted right next
to me. "Calm down. Don?t blame me; blame those two workers of yours
"By the way,"
Noriega continued sardonically, "you paid the wrong man."
I took this as a sign of
hope. "I have money ? to pay you whatever you want, no strings
attached, if you?ll just give the order to release us."
Noriega stared at me. Then
ever so slowly, he smiled. "Your attorney will visit you," he
said then left.
It would cost me $250,000
to free Harold and myself.
Within hours of learning we
would be released, we began planning our next cocaine run to make up for
Waiting in the airport for
a flight to Costa Rica, a platoon of soldiers surrounded us. They escorted
us to a plane heading for Miami.
The U.S. authorities have
nothing on me, I thought confidently. If they tried pressing charges in
Miami, my people owned the legal arena in that city.
When the plane landed, DEA
agents were there to arrest us for conspiracy to bring narcotics into the
After almost a year in and
out of courtrooms in Florida and Georgia (where Harold Rosenthal was
facing charges as a fugitive), Jorge Valdes was found guilty and sentenced
to 15 years in a federal prison on February 28, 1980?his twenty-fourth
birthday. He served five years before being paroled.
From prison, Jorge kept his
hands in the California drug business. After his release a few phone calls
put him in serious money again. But the drug world had changed. Prices had
dropped and business had become more violent. Jorge slept with a gun under
his pillow and hired a bodyguard.
Two years later, the
sordidness of his life?especially the emotional pain suffered by his
loved ones?began to torment him. Jorge wanted out.
Because he had never
compromised his loyalty to the cartel, his Colombian boss respected his
decision. Jorge voluntarily walked away to pursue his horse-breeding
business. But in early 1990, his life was about to dramatically change
What I Really Want
Two months after a
wonderful trip with my fianc?e, I sat alone in my room. The cumulative
pain, despair, and misery of my life enveloped me. For no clear reason, I
began to cry.
I was surrounded by wealth
and soon to be married?why was I so miserable?
Jorge Valdes was not God. I
was nothing but a frail human being in need of a Savior. I had befriended
Christians over the years and Jesus did more for them than all my money,
power, alcohol, cocaine, and promiscuity ever did for me. He must be
amazing! Yet since he was so good and I was so evil, I stood little chance
of making it into heaven.
In desperation, I fell to
my knees beside my bed and cried out, "Jesus, I don?t know if you
are real or not. I know that if you are for real, you might look at me and
think I have lived such a sordid life that you don?t want me.
"But Jesus, there is
something about these Christians that I want. I want the peace and
tranquility they possess, and if you accept me and if you will help me
change, I?ll give you my whole heart, and I will serve you. As much as I
have lived for the devil in the past, I will do ten times as much for you,
no matter what the price or the place."
It was a genuine plea for
help. And God heard my cry.
Peace flowed through my
body, mind, and spirit. I felt refreshed and clean!
With faith starting to
blossom in my heart, I became conscious of the price Christ paid for my
salvation. As a businessman, I understood costs; I understood buying low
and selling high. But Jesus turned my accounting system upside down. Why
had he, the highest, suffered an excruciating death on a cross for me, the
My parents were overjoyed
at the news. My dad wrote me a moving letter, reminding me that faith was
all a man needed to survive.
In September, my wife and I
were heading to a horse show in Illinois, when the state police pulled us
over and ordered us out of the car.
Additional squad cars
arrived, one with a canine unit. The officers demanded we open our
suitcases, while the dog sniffed inside our car and through our
"Did we do something
wrong?" I kept asking. "Are you looking for something in
particular? Perhaps I can help you."
The troopers refused to
give us any information. After several hours they finally let us go.
When we eventually got to
the horse show, I thought back to my drug days. Back then, if I?d had
such a close encounter with the authorities, the next day I?d be out of
But I was a Christian now.
I was a new person; why should I worry?
The next morning at the
show I was arrested. Two days later I was taken to the Atlanta
Penitentiary on my way to Mobile, Alabama, for trial. In my cell I prayed,
"I don?t understand all this, Lord, but I gave you my word that I
would live for you."
Whatever happened, I wouldn?t
try to find a legal loophole to avoid punishment. I couldn?t confess to
be a Christian and purposely lie.
The Mark of a Changed Man
When I was in the drug
world, the maximum sentence a convicted drug seller could get was 15 years
in prison. Near the end of 1987, the laws had changed. The sentence for a
convicted drug runner now carried a mandatory life sentence without
possibility of parole.
Even though I had retired
prior to the change in the law, the people with whom I had formerly
"conspired"?which meant we had done business together?had
continued their activities beyond 1987. I was still considered part of
their conspiracy and was to be charged.
line," my lawyer Alan Ross said, "is that you?re facing a life
sentence without the possibility of parole for each count on which you?ve
been indicated?eight of them."
"Alan, I?ve made a
promise to God not to lie, and I?m not about to break that oath."
Bewildered, Alan agreed to
meet with the prosecutors. Later that day, he returned to see me.
"Jorge, it?s very
simple," Alan said somberly. "They want everything you have?all
your money, all your property, all your horses, everything." That was
the trade-off for the possibility of getting a reduced sentence.
"I?m willing to give
up everything I own."
Then I added, "God is
the God of new beginnings, but that beginning doesn?t start until I come
clean with the past, so perhaps he?ll give me the chance to start a new.
And if not, he?ll give me the strength wherever he sends me, and I?ll
tell others about my past and that I?m a different person."
I waited in the Mobile jail
16 months before finally being sentenced.
Both my lawyer and two
federal agents called to the stand testified that I was a changed man.
The judge looked at me, and
I was stunned at his words. "Jorge Valdes, I sentence you to ten
Editor?s note: While
incarcerated, Jorge got baptized, studied and taught the Bible, and
received a bachelor?s degree from Southeastern Bible College through
correspondence courses. He applied to Wheaton (Illinois) Graduate School,
hoping to study via correspondence.
But God had bigger plans.
On March 5, 1995, Jorge was released from federal prison, paroled after
serving five years. A year-and-a-half later, he accepted a position at
Wheaton College as an adjunct professor. Today Jorge travels across the
country, telling his story. For information, write Coming Clean
Ministries, Inc. PMB 200, 312 Crosstown Road, Peachtree City, GA 30269 or
email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.comingclean.net.
Excerpted from Coming Clean. Copyright 1999 by Jorge Valdes. Used by
permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved.