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Hostage in Havana
By Noel Hynd
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Noel Hynd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAlexandra LaDuca stood in the elevator with Andrew De Salvo. She used the time to collect her thoughts, prepare her words, and set her shoulders squarely. This wasn't her first press conference, but it would be her most important.
The trip was thirteen floors down from the fifty-seventh floor to the forty-fourth floor of a Manhattan skyscraper at Duane and Wall Street and its expansive chamber used for press conferences.
She checked her reflection in the mirror above the brass buttons of the elevator's controls. What she saw was a woman who was fit, strong, and thirty years old. Her makeup was fine, her hair was loose to her shoulders, and she looked good. She wore a navy Chanel suit, a white silk blouse, and sensible pumps.
The elevator continued its descent: fifty ... forty-nine ... forty-eight.
Thirteen flights. The unlucky number, if one paid any attention to such things. Forty-seven. Forty-six. Almost there. She drew a breath and was ready to go.
"When you face the press, kiddo," De Salvo said, "don't smile too much. We don't want them to think we're having too much fun."
De Salvo was Alex's boss at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network — "Fin Cen," for short — a division of the United States Department of Treasury. He was an expert on many things, prominent among them, lawlessness in Central America and the Caribbean. De Salvo often used his sly, dry sense of humor to keep Alex calm.
She appreciated it. "I'll try to keep my priorities in order."
De Salvo, silver-haired and silver-tongued, gave her a wink. "About time someone around here does ... Go get 'em," he said. "Kick some butt, girl."
She grinned, then suppressed it. The elevator stopped at the forty-fourth floor. The brass door slid open. They stepped off. The hallway was crowded and crackled with excitement. As Alex and her boss moved quickly down the hall, people recognized them and gave way to let them pass.
Moments later, conversation stopped as Alex entered the conference room. Camera lights went on. All heads turned her way.
Operation Párajo was about to enter a new phase. Glancing around, she made a quick estimate. About fifty people, including coworkers, reporters, and camera people, were there. Good. Everyone she expected. Some of them she knew personally; the rest she had worked with via secure phone and internet.
A few approached her and greeted her. Rick Edwards, her CIA contact from Washington, gave her a congratulatory hug, as did Leslie Erin, a New York – based FBI agent who worked in international bank-and-security fraud for the same agency.
Alex's boss moved to one side of the conference table, pleased with how well Alex, the "new kid" at Fin Cen in Manhattan, related to the press. She glanced at her watch. Almost 9:15. She nodded to those in the room whom she knew from previous contacts.
"Good morning, everyone," she said as silence fell and cameras started to record the event. "First, a special word to my peers who have worked with me on Operation Párajo. Thank you for being here. I was hoping to see you all here. I wanted to thank you in person and let the media know where we are on Operation Párajo. To the media, I'll be putting hard-copy documents in front of everyone, and you'll also find flash drives accompanying them."
Two young assistants, a woman named Stacey and a man named Alan, had followed Alex into the room. They distributed the documents and software. The sound of large white envelopes being torn open could be heard everywhere. Then Alex called the conference to order as everyone settled into their chairs.
"Over the last forty-eight hours, and continuing this morning," she began, "a joint strike of American and Panamanian military and law enforcement agencies have dealt a significant blow to the operations of a major international criminal enterprise. At this hour, I can announce the arrests of two hundred and fifty-two individuals and the seizure of an ever-increasing amount of illegal drugs, weapons, and cash. Raids have been coordinated in six countries and five American states. The law enforcement activity has been aimed at the Central and North American operations of the Dosi money-laundering enterprise as well as four of the newest and most violent of this hemisphere's major drug cartels."
So far, so good. She paused for a breath and continued.
"While this enterprise may have operated from Panama, its reach extended well within the U.S.," she said. "On Wednesday, fifty-two people were arrested in Miami. In New York City, forty-four. Beyond these arrests, authorities seized 81 million dollars in U.S. currency, 4,700 pounds of methamphetamine, 5,000 kilograms of cocaine, 26,000 pounds of marijuana, and 56 pounds of heroin. More arrests are expected. The Dosis and their various undertakings finance the bulk of the drugs and weapons that arrive on our streets. That's why we're hitting them where it optimally hurts them — their revenue stream. If we upend their supply chains and financial underpinnings, then we disrupt 'business-as-usual.' "
After a pause, Alex continued. "As you all know, Panama remains particularly vulnerable to money laundering because of its proximity to such major drug-producing countries as Colombia and Mexico. It also maintains a highly sophisticated international banking sector. Its economy is based on the American dollar. Panama City is where globalization meets the black market, and the Panama Canal is the key bottleneck of global trade in the Western Hemisphere. Panama City is also a choke point for black-market trade between Colombia and the rest of the world."
She surveyed the room and felt calmer. No major gaffes so far, so she felt more confident and continued. "Panama is also home to the 'Colón Free Zone,' which is located by the city of Colón at the Atlantic gateway to the Panama Canal. The CFZ is the 'trading showcase' for Central and South America as well as for the Caribbean region. Think of it as the world's largest duty-free mall."
A hand rose in the audience. Alex pointed to a man with a question. "How big is the CFZ, financially?" asked Rick Edwards, a friend of hers at the CIA.
"Massive," Alex said. "In 2009 the CFZ generated exports and re-exports valued at more than 12 billion U.S. dollars. That figure includes all the ser vices and facilities offered by the Colón Free Zone. In other words, all importing, storing, assembling, repacking, and re-exporting products from all over the world. We're talking about everything from electric appliances to pharmaceuticals, liquor, cigarettes, furniture, clothing, shoes, jewelry, toys, even packaged food. Name it, they sell it. But naturally those are only the legal products."
There was a restlessness in the room. Half of those present were reading her documents as they listened. The other half had eyes locked on her.
"So, here in the CFZ," Alex said, "is where many problems begin for the U.S. Treasury and its enforcement arms. Many goods transshipped through the CFZ are bought with narcotics proceeds, often through a black-market peso exchange in Colombia. That's an overview. Now look at the surrounding financial establishment."
More rustling as those assembled examined Alex's paperwork.
"There are three thousand international companies established in the CFZ. After Hong Kong and the British Virgin Islands, Panama has the highest number of offshore-registered companies in the world, approximately half a million. Panama also has a large international financial sector, which includes fifty offshore banks. The volume of trade in the CFZ presents a 'perfect storm' for narco-money-laundering operations."
She paused and looked again around the room.
"You all know that much," she continued. "That's what each of us who combats international financial fraud and the monetary underpinnings of various terrorist movements lives with day-to-day. What I'm here to announce, however, is a new phase of Operation Párajo — the takedown phase. If our conviction rates are good, few of the owners will be enjoying their real estate any time soon."
Alex adjusted her prepared notes and made a note in a margin with a silver Tiffany pen with her name on it, a gift from Andrew De Salvo when she had started work there.
She moved to her final remarks, after which there were several questions.
"Incredible progress," Rick Edwards of the CIA said. "How did it fall into place?"
"The dominos started to fall when we received a major break in mid-March," Alex answered. "A Caracas-based narcotics trafficker named Hector Darío solicited a Panama City customs inspector to ease the smuggling of twenty bales of U.S. currency into Panama. Darío gave us our link to two individuals named Misha and Yardena Dosi, a husband-and-wife team, who are our principle targets. The Dosis hold Israeli passports as well as Panamanian. We believe they also have emergency 'escape' passports, forgeries, possibly South African or Canadian. Here at Fin Cen, we became interested in Señor and Señora Dosi after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration established that Misha Dosi maintained several islands on both of Panama's coasts, islands that have been used for running narcotics and currency via a fleet of state-of-the-art speedboats. The ships are designed with long V-shaped hulls and driven by a combination of high-speed motors. They can travel at one hundred miles an hour in smooth or choppy water, and even maintain thirty miles an hour in two-meter seas —"
"Outrunning any coastal patrols, in other words," Andrew De Salvo chipped in.
"Outrunning our navy, coast guard, and anyone else on the water," Alex said. "These boats can also haul multi-ton loads of cocaine."
Without notes, she continued, focused on a distant but bitter enemy.
"On the Caribbean coast of Panama, Señora Dosi owns two islands in the Islas Marias archipelago, near the Panamanian town of Veraguas. On the Pacific side, Señor Dosi owns Isla Escondida, near the Panamanian coastal town of San Carlos. The Dosis' central company, Nauticabonita, is the top marine supplies business in the country. Nauticabonita launders money. Here's how. Merchandise sold by Nauticabonita to normal customers is discounted off the books by twenty-five percent. The difference between the true retail price of the item and the price paid by the customer is then filled with dirty money. Money from cocaine enters Nauticabonita's financial statement as part of a legitimate sale, thereby washing the money of its origins. This stage, the "placement," is often the most difficult to accomplish. Once the illicit money is circulated into Nauticabonita's normal business accounts, it is then transferred to a number of banks — or 'layered,' or 'integrated' — and used to purchase items in Panama's free-trade zone. These items are then shipped to Colombia, where Dosi's clients receive them and sell various products such as refrigerators or washing machines in Colombia in exchange for Colombian pesos. Seems simple, but it went on successfully for more than a decade. But in the last months our sources began to get blowback in Miami and Panama City. There was a pervasive rumor that arrests were imminent and a Federal case in the United States was building. This, of course, turned out to be true. We were afraid we'd lose our two big fish, our 'barracuda,' Señor and Señora Dosi. Given the proper warning, he and his wife might have used their Israeli passports to flee to Israel and fight extradition for years."
She answered several more questions, then glanced around.
"Anything else?" Alex asked. There was nothing.
She flipped her folder closed and managed a smile. She gathered up her papers and put her pen away. De Salvo passed by her as the press conference broke up.
"Excellent work, Alex," he said. "I'm proud of you."
Chapter TwoManuel Perez, freelance contractor, sat in a short-term rented apartment in Bogotá, Colombia, shortly past nine on a hot morning in the middle of May. He anticipated the moment that, after weeks of preparation, was almost before him.
He set down the Spanish-language gossip magazine he had been reading as a television droned in the background. Enough of the love life of Paulina Rubio, a Latin singer he adored. Enough of the fabulous Shakira in her magical short skirts and explosive concerts. It was time to go to work.
His hair was gray, long, and shaggy, somewhat like a sixtyish latter-day hippie. Gray stubble crossed his face. By the door of his poorly furnished apartment were the two canes that he used when he went out for groceries or ventured into the public park on the other side of the expressway. He was kind and polite, had a good word for almost everyone, and most people simply addressed him as "Juan."
Since he spoke with a pronounced Argentine accent, some people referred to him as El Viejo Porteño, "the old man from Buenos Aires." A rumor had circulated that he had been a political prisoner in Argentina in the 1980s, but he never talked about that himself. He mentioned Juan Perón and Evita a few times, never favorably, but did speak well of Che. Yet with El Viejo Porteño one always knew to leave the past alone.
Perez wore latex gloves on both hands and a digital watch on his right wrist. In his line of work precision was an absolute necessity, a split second was the difference between life and death, much like a professional athlete or a neurosurgeon. That's how he thought of himself. He was as skilled as any of those people, smarter in most cases, and every bit as deserving of the money people paid him. Nanoseconds separated success from failure, as did millimeters. As for the latex, fingerprints were a bad idea.
It was not a coincidence that he had been educated in his craft in America two decades earlier. He liked Americans, most of them, the people, their lifestyle, their cities, their music. Yet he was wary of them as well. Part of his survival depended on knowing which ones to coddle and which ones to steer clear of.
Well, no matter. He turned off the television. It had been tuned at low volume to one of those goofy Mexican telenovelas that all the women drooled over. An old set of rabbit ears flopped to one side.
He needed quiet now and concentration to focus on his assignment.
Perez used the arm of the sofa to brace himself as he hoisted himself to his feet. His first step had a small wobble to it. On hot days like this, his right knee bothered him. He still suffered from a childhood injury that had plagued him for three decades. In the small town he had grown up in, he had been hit by a car when playing soccer on the streets. Medical intervention was primitive. The bones recovered but never set properly. He recovered from the accident with his right leg a quarter inch shorter than the left.
But that was long ago. This was now. He gained his stride, went to the door that led to the public hallway beyond, and glanced out. No one was there. Nonetheless he used one of his canes since neighbors were used to seeing him chugging along in his unbalanced way.
He limped down the hall to a spot near the emergency stairs. There he ran his fingers over an area in the wall till he found the one cinder block that he had rigged to come loose. He pulled it out. It opened a space between the inside wall of the hallway and the outer surface of the apartment building. There was a gap of about a foot between the two. He slid the block back into place. Only he knew it was loose.
He went back into his apartment and locked the door. Setting his cane aside, he withdrew a heavy steel case from under the sofa in the living room. He unlocked it by combination. Then he opened the case and gazed upon a thing of beauty.
The case contained the parts of a sniper's rifle, high tech, high caliber, high price tag, and high stakes. He checked for any tears in his latex gloves and found none. Then he removed the parts from the case, laying them side by side on the floor. He assessed the workmanship of the breech, the stock, the laser-telescopic sight, the three tubes that fit together to form the barrel, and, last but not least, the silencer.
He admired the craftsmanship of the interlocking parts. They meshed together as if God had created them. They were that good.
Perez gazed at the pieces for several seconds, in an almost meditative state. Then he assembled his weapon. When he finished, he buffed the rifle with a chamois cloth to remove any fingerprints. Even though he had been careful not to touch the weapon at any time since he had received it, he also knew that the gunsmith in Cali who had crafted it for him could eventually identify him to police or the military. So he buffed it vigorously, even though he had done this twice before.
Excerpted from Hostage in Havana by Noel Hynd Copyright © 2011 by Noel Hynd. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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