Drug trafficker links fugitive to laundering

November 27, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Convicted cocaine trafficker Carlos Lehder testified yesterday that Robert Vesco, the fugitive financier accused of looting millions from a Swiss-based mutual fund, helped him ply the drug trade in Cuba and the Bahamas.

"Robert Vesco was one of my partners in the Bahamas," Lehder said during his final turn on the witness stand in Gen. Manuel A. Noriega's drug trial.

Mr. Vesco fled the United States in 1972 to avoid prosecution on charges that he swindled Investors Overseas Services Ltd. out of $224 million. He was also accused of secretly donating $200,000 to Richard M. Nixon's presidential campaign as part of a scheme to deflect a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since the mid-1980s he has lived in Cuba.

Lehder, once a high-ranking insider in the Medellin cartel, testified last week that he received authorization to use Cuba as a drug way-station from Defense Minister Raul Castro, brother of President Fidel Castro. During five days of testimony, he has described how the cartel funneled cocaine through various Central American and Caribbean nations, bribing officials such as General Noriega to protect drug shipments.

Yesterday, he testified that he first visited Cuba in 1981 to meet with Mr. Vesco and Raul Castro.

"Did you go to Cuba to visit your friend Robert Vesco?" asked Frank Rubino, the lead defense attorney.

"That was one of the reasons, sir, yes," the witness replied. "We discussed money laundering and discussed the use of the island as atransshipment point."

During the visit, Lehder said, he donated a plane to Raul Castro as part of a deal to allow the cartel to ship drugs through Cuba. One year later, Lehder said he became the cartel's "connection" for shipping drugs through Cuba.

"If necessary I could use Cuban territory to funnel cocaine to the United States, as well as overfly Cuban airspace to the Bahamas," he said.

In 1984, Lehder testified, he again saw Mr. Vesco in Nicaragua with Manuel "Redbeard" Pineiro, the head of Cuba's intelligence service. Last week, Lehder testified that the Cubans directed cocaine traffic through the Central American nation with the complicity of the Sandinista government.

Lehder's testimony contradicted a 1990 prison interview he gave to Playboy magazine. At the time, he said he knew nothing about drugs passing through Cuba.

But now, Lehder says he knows a lot and is helping federal investigators explore alleged drug dealings by high-ranking Cuban authorities.

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