In1988 El Tiempo ran a two-page special on Tamboer in their Sunday edition, “Podrirse en Bogotá” (Rotting in Bogota). See pictures and the full text translated below.
What is with the new guy in La Modelo? John Tamboer has four years to answer that question. From being a cowboy in Montana to marijuana smuggler, Tamboer is the unknown face of the extradition treaty on the other end of Carlos Lehder’s delivery to justice in the United States.
Nobody messes with the man called, “El Gringo”. He seems rough and he has money. He distributes it strategically to buy protection. The other inmates believe he is immensely rich and powerful; perhaps some kind of “godfather” in the United States. Everybody assumes he is the American counterpart of the cocaine baron, Carlos Lehder Rivas. That idea, although incorrect, is almost true. After all, Lehder was sent to the US to face drug charges. And the Americans sent “El Gringo” to Colombia.
When he tells people he was a small-time dealer, a messenger used as a bargaining chip in a game of international diplomacy, no one believes him. It would be completely implausible.
John Lincoln Tamboer – “El Gringo” – thinks a lot about Montana, the vast expanse of lonely prairies dubbed, “Big Sky Country”. He imagines himself in that land, looking at the clear horizon, without a sign of man or civilization. Perhaps he imagines riding horseback wearing his cowboy hat. For a long time he never saw anyone who was not wearing boots. That was life: honest work in the world of the real man, the Wild West.
His cell measures five feet by nine. Another inmate, known as “El Payaso” (Joker), sleeps on the bottom bunk. On the walls are posters of automobiles, horses, women, and Marlboro ads.
Tamboer sleeps on a mattress less than four inches thick. His pillow is a piece of foam and he has no sheets. At 8 p.m. every night a metal door closes automatically, and Tamboer tries to sleep while El Payaso listens to salsa on the radio.
The door opens again at 5 a.m. He buys food at an inmate restaurant in the yard, teaches English, and writes letters. There is not much more to do.
He avoids the dirty showers. There is no hot water. At night, after exercising, he bathes by dipping his hands in a bucket of water and splashing the water over his body. The water is so cold it hurts his fingers. He washes his clothes in the same bucket. He has three shirts, two pairs of jeans, one denim jacket, and one sweater. He sprays chemicals to kill the pests in the cell. His toilet is a hole in the ground in the corner.
Four thousand men are crowded into La Modelo prison, the old national prison of Bogota, built to hold one third of that. Most, like Tamboer, have not been tried and are awaiting their day in court. They wait entire years, if they survive.
This is the universe of Tamboer: “A distorted world of danger, murder, evil men and overwhelming boredom,” he wrote once wrote to a friend. He survives by closing down something within himself, drowning fears and emotions, and hardening like a scar.
“I’ve seen a dozen people stabbed here,” told a reporter and photographer from Tropic who visited him. “You laugh. A piece of garbage. Soon we’ll be free! I think I’m no longer a good guy.”
Carrot and stick
Americans are commonly locked up in jail. There are at least twenty in Colombian prisons. Each one is living their version of the movie, “Midnight Express”, in which a young, American smuggler is left to rot in a Turkish prison. Just like in the movie, Americans diplomats try to get them out of jail.
But not Tamboer. His government sent him from Boston to Bogota, making him the first American extradited to Colombia for drug trafficking.
He had hope. Months passed, then years. And still there was no trial. On May 18, everything was supposedly ready, but the trial judge delayed the trial again because only eight lawyers were presented and there are nine defendants in the case.
“I’m very sorry, it’s a problem in the system,” the judge told Tamboer. “I’m used to it,” he replied.
Tamboer – 56 years old hailing from Fort Lauderdale, Maine and Montana – is a rancher, sailor, pilot, and drug smuggler. Much has happened to him over the last 15 years. He abandoned his wife for a younger woman. He lost his ranch in bad business decisions. He began smuggling drugs across the Caribbean. He was caught, convicted, and began a new life. Then things became even more bizarre and Tamboer learned a new concept: extradition.
Extradition is critical in the war against drugs. Not one of the top bosses of the “Medellin Cartel” – responsible for almost 80% of the world’s cocaine market – is in jail. The mafia kingpins have achieved immunity by assassinating judges who dare to oppose them. They kill soldiers, statesmen, and journalists. If, by mistake, a cartel member is actually imprisoned, well-calculated bribes make the prison terms comfortable.
The only thing the cocaine barons is being shipped to the United States, where justice is not so easily subverted. The United States and Colombia signed an extradition treaty in 1979, but it wasn’t used for years. The cartels exerted pressure on Colombian politicians and many citizens opposed extradition for nationalist reasons, arguing that Colombia should not allow a foreign power to intervene in the judicial system. That argument lost merit in the spring of 1984, when the cartels assassinated the Minister of Justice. Meanwhile, the United States knew that Colombia would be more than willing to send their traffickers north if the United States sent a few south.
Colombia gave a list. One of the names was almost completely unknown; it was only known that his passport had been found in 1978 on a plane loaded with marijuana.
The Americans had no problem getting rid of John Lincoln Tamboer. It seemed to be the right move at the right time.
And as a matter of policy, it worked. After an American judge ordered his extradition, the first Colombian drug traffickers began arriving in the United States. The process culminated last year when Carlos Lehder was captured and promptly shipped to Florida.
Later, the game exchange ended. Last summer, influenced by the carrot-and-stick tactics of the cocaine cartels, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled the extradition law unconstitutional. The cartels triumphed. But Tamboer remained in Colombian prison.
Passport on the plane
On the night of September 10, 1978, a DC-4 cargo plane landed on a mile-long runway in the middle of a cotton plantation near Valledupar. The cargo was to be marijuana. One million pesos had been distributed among the appropriate authorities to ensure that there were no problems.
But they had not paid everyone. Or maybe some honest police officers decided to take action. One group, led by Lieutenant Juan Ernesto Trujillo Pacheco, advanced through the darkness toward the runway.
When he was near the plane, Trujillo ordered his men to open fire. It was chaos. Five smugglers were caught. The suspects began to complain. It was assumed that everything was arranged. One prisoner offered two million pesos to Trujillo, payable immediately. Trujillo refused.
Inside the plane, Trujillo found 37 bundles of marijuana, about 270 pounds. In the cabin he found some documents. Something caught his eye: a US passport belonging to one John Lincoln Tamboer.
It would have been just another drug seizure, which everybody would have forgotten, except for what happened hours later. The truck carrying the police and prisoners broke down en route to Valledupar. Trujillo and a sergeant, Juan Carlos Salamanca, continued with the prisoners on foot in the middle of the night. They walked for two hours before stopping to rest. One of the prisoners asked permission to urinate. Trujillo granted it, and kept sight of him as he walked away from the group. Trujillo suddenly heard gunshots. When he turned around, he felt pain in one leg.
Sargeant Salamanca fell dead with two bullets in his brain. Trujillo was crawling away. The murderers disappeared. Trujillo’s report identified them as Rodriguez and Mejia.
During that fateful night, no officer saw anyone who looked like Tamboer. But days later, under interrogation, one of the arrested traffickers looked at the passport photo and confirmed he had seen the American on the plane.
That was all that incriminated Tamboer, and a judge issued an arrest warrant. Nobody, of course, expected him to return to Colombia.
Marijuana on a boat
On one point, Jack Tamboer had achieved everything he wanted. “The American Dream. The truth is that nothing went well.” He had a 2500-acre cattle ranch in a valley of the western mountainous of Montana. He rode horses and worked hard. For fun he took his son to the airport to watch the planes, and occasionally they went to a boat show. Planes, boats, horses, guy stuff. Tamboer was always attracted to the sea and the mountains. He wore a cowboy hat and had an anchor tattoo on his arm.
He met his wife Ursula in New Jersey. They moved to Montana in 1963, began working on the ranch, and started buying the surrounding land for years. In the early 70s, Tamboer decided there was not enough space and began looking for a bigger property in the plains. He found it in the town of Chinook.
“Our marriage was really solid,” remembers Ursula. “He was responsible and trustworthy.” Then he met Roxana, a divorced, 24-year-old Chippewa Indian. “No one would have said she was not a pretty woman.” Tamboer was 42. “A time of confusion for anyone,” she says.
Ursula learned of the affair a year later, and suddenly everything she and Jack had worked for – their entire existence in Montana – was a sham. They tried to save the marriage by leaving the ranch and moving to Fort Lauderdale. They bought a boat and started cruising the Bahamas with her son, Mike. One day Ursula found out that her husband was making frequent long distance calls, and she realized that their marriage was over.
Tamboer went back to Montana for Roxana. With the family fortune he entered the business of buying and selling land, where he lost thousands of dollars.
He went back to Fort Lauderdale with Roxana, where they were married. He got a job selling sailboats, but he could not forget the mountains.
“I was broke,” Tamboer remembers. “What did I do? I decided to return to ranching. Needing money to start, I transported a shipment of marijuana in my boat for a somebody. Boom. I was arrested.”
The official record reveals that on January 7, 1982, Tamboer and his brother-in-law, James Stanley Espeseth, were arrested at sea on Tamboer’s boat, Land’s End. They had 2600 pounds of marijuana on board. Tamboer said he was not the owner, he was only transporting it.
Tamboer does not give many details about his sudden criminal tendencies. He calls his 1982 smuggling attempt an isolated incident. His ex-wife, Roxana, told “Tropic” that Tamboer transported drugs several times in the late 70s, but he was never a huge smuggler. At that time, she said, smuggling was easy. Almost all the adventurous boat owners in Fort Lauderdale participated in one way or another in the drug trade. They drank beer, listened to Jimmy Buffet, and brought drugs back and forth across the Caribbean.
“We knew many people who were involved and they turned out fine,” she said. “No one thought it was a crime.”
Caught in line
Tamboer’s opinion has not changed much. “I do not think carrying a load of marijuana is the world’s biggest crime.”
Tamboer and Espeseth pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and were sent to federal prison at the Eglin Air Force base. Tamboer completed a 21-month sentence. Roxana occasionally visited him in prison. One day Tamboer saw something strange in his young wife’s behavior. She broke the news. She found another man, much younger. “Easy come, easy go,” says Tamboer.
Once granted parole, he moved to Maine and to live on a boat. He and Roxana fought a tough battle for divorce; she was pregnant during the trial. Dejected, he did not know which way to go. Finally, after several months he and a friend obtained a bank loan and began importing sailboats from Hong Kong to sell. “Strictly within the law,” he says.
In July 1984 he applied for a new passport. He was told he could receive it by the end of the month. On August 2 he drove from his residence in Maine to the passport office in Boston, and took his place in line. A man approached him. “Are you John Tamboer?” The man showed a badge. A federal agent. Tamboer thought he would take him to the front of the line.
“You’re under arrest,” the sheriff said. “Why?” “We will tell you at the station.”
Tamboer was handcuffed. He was informed of his right to remain silent, and taken to a government office nearby. Upon arrival, the federal agent told him, “You are under arrest for extradition to Colombia.”
He could not understand. He was taken to the county jail. He thought, “This must be a mistake. How could they do this?” After all, he had already paid his debt. He had served his sentence. He had rights! The US government would not send one of its citizens to rot in a dirty prison cell in Latin America. “But what if they would?”
The judge denied bail. Tamboer, who had no difficulty getting bail before, could not believe it. The indictment against him in Colombia was nothing special – just a drug charge punishable by three to 12 years in prison.
But it was not long before Tamboer found out that the extradition process has inflexible rules, starting with the absence of bail. According to the law, he was a fugitive from justice in Colombia. No one can expect that a fugitive appear before a court.
He also learned that rumors are admissible evidence in court for extradition. Years ago, on an afternoon with plenty of rum, Tamboer had the indiscretion to reveal all his secrets to his former brother-in-law and partner in illegal activities, James Espeseth.
Testifying for the government, Espeseth said that Tamboer told him of the incident in Colombia years ago. Tamboer was the navigator of an aircraft raided by the Colombian police. The plane would carry marijuana from Colombia and drop the packages into the sea off the north coast of Cuba, where they would be picked up by a boat. But police in Colombia had not received adequate payment and the aircraft was riddled with bullets. Tamboer ran to hide in the jungle with nothing in his pocket except a pocketknife, when he realized he had left his passport on the plane. He was in hiding for several weeks before returning to the United States. Espeseth could not recall the date when this happened.
Tamboer’s lawyers argued that no one knew for sure if the attack he was speaking of was the same as the one on September 10, 1978. They also called into question the credibility of the Colombian authorities. Finally they appealed to simple rules of conduct – if Tamboer were sent to Colombia, they said, he would be killed by the cocaine cartels in protest against extradition.
“Mr. Tamboer will be prosecuted, judged, and subjected to grave injustice. Nobody can guarantee that he will even live to see a trial in Colombia,” the attorneys wrote to the court.
The attorney Martin Weinberg still feels perplexed by the case. “What’s the point in choosing this poor and decent human being? To show good will of the United States in extraditing its own citizens? He was a small-time player. He is not a major drug trafficker. ”
Robert Mueller, assistant Attorney General handling the case, stated that “small-time” and “small amounts” are a matter of personal opinion.
“There is a big difference between what is considered serious in Miami and what is serious in the rest of the country,” Mueller said.
The importance of Tamboer had no legal relevance. The court had a duty simply to state that he was wanted in Colombia, and that there was “probable cause” to believe he was the perpetrator (probable cause is sometimes defined as “more than likely”). Mueller said that from a legal standpoint, Tamboer’s case was as straightforward as sending a fugitive financier to Hong Kong or a mobster to Italy . Between 1975 and 1986, according to statistics from the Department of State, the United States sent at least 50 of its citizens to face charges abroad.
“I gave him the same treatment as any other extradition case. There was no excess or severity. I knew it was an important case because we were trying to bring drug traffickers from Colombia,” Mueller said.
They were not interested in Tamboer’s complaints about the Colombian legal system. “Whoever deals with narcotics and gets involved outside the United States is subject to the legal procedures of the country where he is accused, even if they are not as civilized as ours.”
Morris “Bud” Jacobs, formerly State Department spokesman and former cultural attaché in Colombia, says Tamboer received a fair deal. “Undoubtedly, there were no extrajudicial pressures involved. America has no interest in sacrificing the interests of American citizens to meet foreign policy goals.”
The December 11, 1984, Judge Robert B. Collings determined that there was probable cause to consider Tamboer guilty of the charge of smuggling. He approved the extradition.
A month later, the first Colombian drug dealers arrived in the United States. Tamboer, meanwhile, stayed in the United States pending appeals. He had few visitors in prison. He had not seen his son, then 22 years old, since before his prison sentence at Eglin. The memory of Roxana continued to torment him, and he contemplated suicide.
The appeal was denied in June. The guards came for Tamboer. They handcuffed him and shackled his ankles.
“It was basically time to give up.” He wondered, “What do they do there? Do they beat you on the head and shoulders? Do they lock you in a dungeon?”
The book quotes an abbreviated version of the 1985 New York Times article, “Dispute Rises in Colombian Drug Extradition Plea”. Here is that article in its entirety:
Seven years ago, on a remote airstrip in Colombia, the police seized a DC-4 airplane loaded with marijuana as its crew fled into the jungle. On board they found a passport in the name of John L. Tamboer, a United States citizen from Portland, Me.
Mr. Tamboer denied he had been on the plane and said he did not know how his passport got there. But Colombia has requested his extradition under a 1982 treaty with the United States, and Mr. Tamboer, who would be the first American sent to Colombia under the treaty, has become the focus of a sensitive diplomatic and legal dispute.
Its outcome could effect America’s ability to break up drug smuggling from Colombia, which the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency says supplies the United States with about 74 percent of its cocaine and 80 percent of its marijuana.
‘An International Chess Game’
Mr. Tamboer’s lawyer, Martin G. Weinberg, contends that the Federal Government is merely offering the 53 year-old Mr. Tamboer as a ”sacrifice” to insure that Colombia will extradite some Colombian drug smugglers wanted by Washington. ”He is a mere pawn in an international chess game,” Mr. Weinberg said. Mr. Weinberg admitted that Mr. Tamboer, who describes himself as a self-employed boat broker, served time in prison in the United States after being arrested with a boatload of marijuana in an unrelated incident. But in documents filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the First District, which will hear Mr. Tamboer’s case early next month, Mr. Weinberg asserted that ”Mr. Tamboer would be killed” if he was returned to Colombia to face trial.
Pressure on Colombians
Since last winter, when Colombia extradited four of its citizens to the United States on narcotics charges, the Government of President Belisario Betancur has been under intense pressure over the extradition issue. Drug traffickers threatened to kill five Colombian or American officials for every Colombian extradited to the United States.
But a State Department official denied that Mr. Tamboer was being singled out. The official said that although Mr. Tamboer was the first American wanted by Colombia whose case had gone before the courts here, Bogota has asked for the extradition of other Americans.
Colombia first asked for Mr. Tamboer’s extradition in June, and he was arrested by Federal marshals in August after he applied for a new passport. Then, in December, a Federal magistrate in Boston certified that there was ”probable cause” to believe he had been smuggling drugs aboard the DC-4 in 1978.
Key testimony against him at the hearing was provided by his former brother-in-law, James S. Espeseth, a cattle rancher from Montana. He said Mr. Tamboer had once told him he had been hired as a navigator for a flight from Colombia to a point off the coast of Cuba where marijuana could be dropped to waiting boats.
Mr. Espeseth told the court Mr. Tamboer said that his ”airplane was shot out from under him and he had to flee into the jungle,” leaving his passport in the plane.
Judge Cites Secretary of State
In January, Federal District Judge Walter Skinner in Boston declined to stop Mr. Tamboer’s extradition, agreeing with the earlier court ruling. Judge Skinner also found that under United States law he could not make a ”humanitarian” exception for Mr. Tamboer. The Secretary of State is in a far better position to decide if Mr. Tamboer’s life would be jeopordized by being sent back to Colombia, Judge Skinner said.
It is this ruling that Mr. Weinberg has challenged in the appeals court. He said he had confidential information that drug traffickers in Colombia would kill Mr. Tamboer ”to discourage” the Federal Government from sending other Americans back to Colombia for trial.
And this from the 1985 Los Angeles Times article, “U.S., Colombia Cooperate in Uphill Drive Against Marijuana, Cocaine”:
The walls of buildings in this port city, a hotbed of the drug traffic in Colombia, are scrawled with the slogan, “Extradition Is Treason.”
But the front pages of Colombian newspapers headlined with approval the recent arrival of John Lincoln Tamboer, an American who was extradited from the United States. He is to stand trial here on a charge of killing a policeman in a drug-smuggling case.
El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, said in an editorial that the return of Tamboer shows that the extradition treaty that went into effect in 1982–in the face of strident political opposition here–really benefits both countries.
Tamboer’s extradition is an example of the cooperation that has developed between the U.S. and Colombian governments on drug control since April 30, 1984, when a young gunman on a motorcycle killed Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who was cracking down on the so-called “drug mafia.” …