A Columbian Cartel Coke Ride

by Jorge Valdes with Ken Abraham

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.

Each 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 paying."

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 money.

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 following him.

"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," Janito said.

"Fine. Give me the claim ticket."

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.

"Yes," I answered.

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 Out

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 stash house.

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 increasingly skeptical.

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 drug-runner pilots.

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 double-crossed?

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 on board.

"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.

"What?s going on?" I yelled.

"Buckle up tight. We?re gonna crash."

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 is $100,000."

"I?ll pay you the $250,000."

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 failure."

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 passed out.

Lino glowered at me. This was his way of letting us know what we would receive if we failed to cooperate.

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 (the pilots)."

"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 the loss.

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 United States.

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 again.

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 lowest?

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 belongings.

"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 the country.

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.

"The bottom 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 years."

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 jlvaldes@mindspring.com 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.