Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: Federal Correctional Institute, Otisville (US)
Date: Wednesday, June 21st 2000
Interviewee: George Jung
George Jung was perhaps the best-known – and almost certainly the most influential – of the original ‘cocaine cowboys’. Here he tells of his involvement with the cocaine trade, starting with the wholesale smuggling of marijuana in the 1960s, moving on to his fateful meeting with Carlos Lehder Rivas (the young Colombian who introduced him to cocaine and, a short while later, to the rising star of what was later to become the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar), then ending with George’s revenge on Carlos some years later.
It’s rather an unstructured interview (George loves to talk!) but covers the main bases in its own way. If you’ve seen ‘Blow’ (starring Johnny Depp) a lot of this will sound familiar: the film was based on George’s life story, as recounted in Bruce Porter’s biography of the same name.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
I went to several colleges – University of Tennessee, University of South Mississippi. In those days I was a high school jock but my knee was gone and it never came back, so that was the end of my football career. So I was sort of milking time. Then I started listening to Bob Dylan – you know ‘20 years of school and they put you on the day shift’ – and I believed him. I said to my friends, ‘Listen to this fucking guy. Can you get this?’ This was like in 1960. I used to go to the Golden Vanity coffee house in Cambridge and listen to him and Joan Baez…
Were there drugs on the scene back then?
…no pot yet. It was just Budweiser and vodka. And everybody went from the crew-cut to the Beatle-cut. I’m a great Beatles fan… So: University of Tennessee, and I dropped out of uni and went back home to Weymouth and worked a couple of jobs – construction, this and that, in the winter and the whole fucking thing. Tuna – he’s my buddy, he’s like John Belushi in Animal House – and I said ‘This sucks, Tuna’ and he said, ‘Yeah, it does suck’ and I said ‘Let’s go to California’ and he said ‘When? Now?’ I said ‘No. Let’s wait a couple of weeks.’ It was like, after Christmas, and the two of us are like: ‘OK, let’s go NOW.’
So we got in a little TR3 and we drove all across the country and we finally got out there and we went to Long Beach, California. It was like going to a fantasy world, like ‘Holy Shit! What’s happening out here?’ The women, the bathing suits – it was a make-believe world. You’d only read about it or heard about it. It was like it didn’t exist. And I didn’t smoke cigarettes or anything like that. So to smoke pot I had to make a water pipe and fill it with crème de menthe and ice cubes to inhale it.
So one thing led to another and soon we were smoking pot all the time and taking LSD and our whole perspective on everything changed. But I still continued to go to school out there. I went to Long Beach State and I was still torn between trying to be the American straight guy, playing on the edge, going back and forth. And then the army. I was getting ready to get drafted … I had a deferment because of my knee …
I went down to Manhattan Beach and resumed my life of partying and debauchery with Tuna and [a friend, *****] stopped by. We had this punchbowl full of pot. Everybody did. You could buy it for $60 a kilo from Mexico in southern LA. So ***** looked at it and said ‘Where’d you get that? How much did it cost?’ I said ‘$60’. He said ‘The whole thing!? Do you know how much we can get for this back in University of Massachusetts? $300!’ And I said, ‘Let’s go into business, *****!’
We got some capital together, sold our cars and started buying the pot wholesale and transporting it, at first with airline stewardesses. In those days they didn’t check the suitcases. Two large Samsonites – and we were making the money so fast and so quick that we couldn’t keep the stewardesses flying fast enough. Everybody was flying back and forth – hauling suitcases. It was crazy!
Then we thought ‘This is fucking crazy. Let’s get motor homes and drive the stuff across the country.’ So we’d load up motor homes with 1000lbs, 2000lbs – stuff it in there – drive it across the country, listening to Jimi Hendrix, smoking pot all the way. You know? I mean, nobody knew really what the hell was going on. The police were unaware. It was happening so fast. Every kid in America was getting turned on and they didn’t know what the fuck was happening. There was a great innocence to it to because there were no guns or anything. Everybody was dealing to their friends on every college campus all over America. I wasn’t the only one who was doing it. Everyone was doing it. We started to see hundreds of thousands of dollars. And those days if you got a job at $12,500 and a company car – that was a big deal, you know? Really. All of a sudden we had hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was crazy!
So then I said ‘Why don’t we get our own pot in Mexico and make more money? Go down there?’ We had been buying it until then from a barber in California, Richard *****. I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t know anything about Mexico but I had seen this movie, Night of the Iguana, with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner and I was a big Richard Burton fan – I thought he was fucking great – and I knew that they’d made the movie in Puerta Vallarta. So I said ‘Why don’t we go on down to Puerta Vallarta? That’s where we’ll find a connection and we’ll go into business.’ We all went down there and took our girlfriends with us. Couldn’t find a fucking joint!
[Eventually George and friends lucked into some contacts and started seeing large quantities of pot. They decided to fly it into the US]
We were 1220 miles south of San Diego. There was no road. … We only took like 500lbs. In a small plane you bulk out before you weigh out. You tear the seats out and you’re sitting on the stuff. Crazy!
We were getting it for $8-10 per kilo, so we were making a lot. Plus, we were on an adventure. And that’s what it was really about. I was about 26. The whole thing was an adventure. It was the romance. We rented a big house on the beach, it was beautiful and we could see Punta Amilla (sp?) from the patio. And after a while I started getting other pilots. We would sit there on the patio watching the whole thing go down, there on the patio with my girlfriends, drinking margaritas – the money pouring in. I thought it was some fucking fantasy world. It was! Everybody else was back in Weymouth shovelling snow!
None of it was serious in those days. That’s what made it so much fun. If you had money and you had lawyers, it wasn’t serious…
[until George met a new contact, who turned him in to the police]
This guy had been busted for heroin and I was sitting at the Playboy Club. It was the first time I had ever gone to a new connection but there was this pilot who flew for us, he said he had a new connection in Chicago. I was at the Playboy club talking to this beautiful blonde and I got this tap on the shoulder and some guy said ‘FBI’. I said ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘FBI. You’re under arrest.’ Then the guy told me, he said, ‘We’re really looking for heroin but this guy turned you in. We’re sorry’. I mean, in those days it was all innocent. Around ’68-69.
[George was incarcerated in Cook County Jail…]
A shithole. I was the only white guy in there. A dungeon. I posted bail in the morning, flew to LA and the next day I was doing another drug flight. I had a girlfriend and the deal was that I was going to get three years. In those days you did eight months on a year, and they had parole, too, so I said, ‘Fuck it – I’ll go and do eight, nine months in a country club and go on my way. It’s nothing.’
[Things didn’t work out that way. George’s girlfriend, Linda, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He skipped bail to be with her and the pair ran away together. He stayed with Linda for two years. When he returned to his parents’ home in Weymouth, he discovered that the police had been harassing them, trying to get them to reveal his location. Under duress, his mother phoned the authorities – who promptly arrested him.]
I go to the Charles Street Jail in Boston and I had sent Linda to San Francisco to live with a friend. I’m on the phone, talking to my friend in San Francisco and I say, ‘How’s Linda?’ and he says ‘She died this morning.’ I was fucking devastated. It destroyed me. So I went back to Chicago. And I was stuck in Cook County jail this time. There was no bond then.
The deal was for three years. My lawyer said ‘George, you know, just go and plead guilty and keep your mouth shut. Never mind all your cheap political rhetoric and all the shit.’
[But George wasn’t in the mood for advice]
I gave a speech to the judge about how ludicrous it was, taking pot across an imaginary line and the lawyer’s there, like ‘Shut the fuck up!’ and I couldn’t shut up (Johnny Depp does a good bit in the movie about that.) The judge came up. ‘Outstanding views you have. Unfortunately imaginary lines are real and the ‘weed’ as you call it is illegal’ he said. ‘Four years’.
So I went to Danbury in Connecticut, which was like a country club… It was all like white collar crime. It was a crime school for upper class criminals. And they had some big-time smugglers there. They were really good guys. It was great. And that was where I met Carlos…
[‘Carlos’: Carlos Lehder Rivas, a young Colombian with some extremely useful contacts in Medellin]
The gods brought him to me. They brought him to my bunk. You have two bunks, and one was empty. I took the bottom one. You don’t know who’s gonna show up next, could be Rambo or Charles Manson, you know? I’d just got there. It was about the third day. First you go to the hole, where they evaluate you to see if you can go into the population (are you all right, are you afraid of anybody are you homosexual?) Then they send you to the orientation dormitory. Both beds were empty and I took the bottom one. A few hours later, in walked Carlos. Just a kid. Young, handsome, well-mannered, polite – like he’d just come out of fucking prep school. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is great – you know – I got a nice guy.’ I was glad. It could have been an asshole. You know, so it was a relief.