LESSON ONE: The Problem
Finding a Better Solution Than Bribery
The secret of all secrets is the darkness, and you’re here to discover it. It’s the masterstroke, the brain wave, the revolution. The method of delivery in the dark changed the system of drug smuggling, changed the economy, changed the world. It’s a simple idea, as all the best ideas are, but one with unpredictable consequences: moving drugs by the ton using the legal economy as your carrier. If you are to understand it and put it into practice, there are a few little-known facts that you need to be aware of.
Have you seen Pulp Fiction? The War on Drugs was at its height when the film came out, and Tarantino had grasped something that Bush’s strategists hadn’t. The international market was changing; the American market was in deep crisis. Ronald Reagan’s smile had been extinguished, euphoria had drowned on a Black Friday that burst the financial bubble of the 1980s, the age of obligatory success and yuppie extravagance was over, and legions of forty-somethings had been knocked off the ladder to easy riches. Many people north of Tijuana began to taste the bitter fruits of failure. We traffickers too were attentive to the changes in demand, of course: some studied trends in consumption, as people do in all other businesses, and only an imbecile could still think of selling stimulants to the same poor bastards dressed in jacket and tie who had been our customers the year before. More relaxed models were needed now in the less “triumphant” United States. It was time to diversify supply, to suggest alternatives—sedative ones, if possible. And look what comes up on the screen. Instead of the hair-gelled, cocaine-snorting killers who abounded in the films of earlier years, here are Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, with their tailored suits and their professional calm, pulling out syringe and tourniquet like any junkies in Naples or Marseille.
Yes, some relatively new substances emerge during that period, such as ecstasy-like synthetic drugs (though in fact the Germans had already used those in the First World War), and old hallucinogenic classics such as LSD come back into fashion, but what the mass of North American consumers are really asking us for is good old heroin, the queen of sedatives. In the 1990s the supply of heroin in America rises by 300 percent, from the ghettos of the Southwest to the middle-class districts in the big cities. Naturally, production too falls into line. It’s expensive to transport heroin from Asia, and the land is fertile over here too, so in Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and above all in Mexico, a new plant springs up all over the place: amapola, the opium poppy.
A lot of things change: long-established organizations that used to control the routes and the refinement lose influence; even the Italians don’t matter as much anymore. It’s the Mexicans now who supply the United States with heroin and who have largely supplanted the old godfathers.
And cocaine? It has to find other markets or risk overproduction and all the other problems that any shrewd trader associates with a big warehouse full of unsold merchandise. Europe, then, but it’s not an easy market. It’s accustomed to thinking of cocaine as a luxury product, fuel for the rich when they need to boost their performance. A niche market, shall we say? At the beginning of the last decade, flooding it with mass supply becomes a matter of survival. We need to take unprecedented quantities across the Atlantic, think up new strategies. The system needs new perspectives, new rules, a new professionalism. This is where the people known in the trade as “sistemistas” come in: they’re the heart of wholesale smuggling, formidable logistic experts capable of shifting goods in tons, evading the nets of the police and the traps and snares that catch out every good entrepreneur. The sistemistas—that’s us.
The market is changing, it’s adapting to the global transformations, but it’s huge, and it still offers great opportunities to anyone who knows what he’s doing. The possibilities are almost infinite. Let’s get to work, then.
The War Between the Cartels
The problem was bribery. Around 1986, five hundred kilos produced in the forest by the Cali cartel in Colombia and carried by truck to the port of Buenaventura required significant investment. In the first place, you had to have the truck drivers on your payroll. But in the harbor too, dozens of customs officers had to be paid not to ask questions. The merchandise might have to be loaded, for example, as it often was in those days, onto a coffee container—“longboats,” we used to call them—and taken to Los Angeles or San Diego. Back then we didn’t worry too much about protecting the shipments, and nobody thought seriously about substances for putting the dogs off the scent or opacifiers to fool the densitometers; it wasn’t particularly important to hide the merchandise well. You put it in the sacks of coffee, and that was it. There was no need to do any more than that because in both Los Angeles and San Diego you had your own people in the harbor, not least the police, dogs included. Didn’t you know? Most of the breeding kennels for sniffer dogs in the Caribbean were run by us. Amusing, eh? And of course, we were only too happy to give the police our best animals free of charge. We gave them the dogs that were supposed to intercept our merchandise.
That’s the way of the world.
Cops, then, but also shipping agents, carriers, and customs officers, just like in the port of departure. These guys were Yankees, though—lieutenants and captains on contracts. The blue-clad cops of the United States are expensive, far more so than a Colombian cholo, even those with stripes on their sleeves and braid on their chest. And don’t forget the middle part of the journey, between Buenaventura and San Diego—the ship’s captain, the radio operators, and the crew. An enormous number of people who all need to be bribed. And the point is this: if they’ve taken bribes from you, they might take them from others. From anyone. In other words, you never know how far you can trust them.
Too many expenses. And too many men involved, all of them liable to rat on you sooner or later. The most important thing for a good narco to know is the most banal thing of all, the thing you’re in danger of forgetting when you’re faced with a beautiful sunset, a generous gesture, or an evening with a woman: every man has his price.
The bosses of the cartels who warred against one another about twenty years ago were only too mindful of this law. In every port it’s easy to find a little fish who’ll be ready to reveal a lot if a policeman looking for promotion grabs him by the balls. And all it takes for a policeman to grab the right little fish by the balls is a tip-off. That’s the way to deal with your competitors. The result in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the collapse of billion-dollar operations, massive losses of merchandise, money, and good men who ended up behind bars or, worse, being protected in some federal witness program.
There were no alternatives at the time. From the bananaboat sailor to the shipping agent—and maybe even the ordinary down-and-out guys sitting around day and night on the benches of ports or in the waiting rooms of airports—you had to give everybody something. And with the ruthless competition that had developed, you can see why handling heavy loads had become a serious problem. The cunningly altered suitcase, the swallowed ovules, yes, of course, you could always get those through, but—I ask again—how much can you transport using those methods? And the trouble was that the war between the cartels was reaching its height just as a huge market was opening up in Europe.
Cocaine Invades Europe
The first to wake up were the Croats. They’d known for some time that there was going to be a war, and if there’s one thing you can always be sure of, it’s that a war means there is lots of money to be made. The Serbs controlled the supply route of Turkish heroin and took their slice from all the westward shipments, and the Croats, who wanted to break away from the old Yugoslavia, started to seize everything that passed through their territory. Listen to this, it’s incredible. In 1990 the Croats were rewarded by Interpol for having the most efficient police force in the world when it came to seizing heroin. Then in 1991, all of a sudden, the most efficient police in the world were no longer seizing a gram. Simple: they had set up in business. They were an independent state now, and they took their bribes too, just as the Belgrade officials did. At that point heroin had to find a new route. The Serbs didn’t want to lose the largest share of the business, and heroin stopped passing through Croatia.
But there was us. Well, not me, actually. I don’t like working with the Slavs—they’re ruthless, they kill just to show off their muscles, they have a completely different mentality from the South Americans. You see, the old Croat Nazis who fled the country after the Second World War had made their fortunes in South America on the back of the financial transactions connected with cocaine; and on the eve of a nationalist war (something a good Nazi is always hankering after) they had an opportunity to combine what was useful (business) with pleasure (arming their fatherland). They were in contact with people of the caliber of the Fidanzatis and, for money laundering, the Caruana-Cuntreras in the Antilles, down on Aruba—in other words with Cosa Nostra. And Cosa Nostra had some able people on the border of the new Croatia. One of them became famous—Felicetto Maniero, I’m sure you remember him … The Brenta Mafia, they called it. It was Cosa Nostra plus the Croats. Colossal trails of cocaine led from the Andean cordilleras all the way to Zagreb, where in the meantime the ex-Nazis of Herzegovina (mountain Croats, as ferocious as mountain goats, grouped together into family clans more tightly knit than those of the Calabrians and therefore very well suited to our line of business) had gained control of several ministries, notably the most profitable of all at the time, the Ministry of Defense, which was run by our man Gojko Šušak, a guy who only one year earlier had been running a pizzeria in Montreal. They needed to get the stuff circulating; there was national independence and at least a couple of wars to be paid for. And besides, the stuff needed to find a new market because of the decline of consumption in the United States. It was time to change gear. El Dorado was in Europe now.
That’s how it works: when private and public interests miraculously coincide, the result is revolution. That, for us, was the revolution.
I’ve never been sure whether I really like the Italians. Oh, I don’t mean the organizations! Everybody’s learned from them. Where I come from, everybody remembers people like old Sam Giancana, who was one of the fathers of the United States in a sense, though they’re never going to put his big nose on Mount Rushmore. And his successors too—less brash, smoother guys, the fathers of governors. You can learn something from them at every turn, every time they breathe, from every gesture they make. If you’re not completely stupid, that is. But in Italy there’s an almost innate predilection for monopoly, for coming to a private understanding with people you like on favorable terms; it’s rare to find an Italian who has a clear idea of the real meaning of free trade. And that’s fine—I don’t say it isn’t. But to my way of thinking, a man’s profession comes first. The Italians are brilliant at setting up a family and making it function. But it’s the technique that I’m talking about. The logistics. It’s not the families that do the work. They put up the money, open the markets, control the outlets with their military machines, but then, for the more technical parts of the job, they turn to professionals who are able to solve real problems. They need people who are reliable, creative, practical, and able to save their clients time and money. There aren’t many people like that, believe me, and that’s why the opportunities are great. People like us don’t grow in a family; we’re entrepreneurs, independent minds. For the important operations you need unpredictability and organization, the ability to plan and also to improvise. We’re no different from the best business managers, only a bit better because of the additional difficulties we have to cope with.
So forget the ideas you’ve got from watching films. If you’ve bought a barrel of hair gel and a pinstripe suit, you can throw them away. What is a drug smuggler, technically speaking? A service provider. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter if the clients are heads of state, soldiers, guerrillas, mafiosi, or politicians. They’re at either end of the distribution chain. At one end they produce, at the other they sell and reap the profits of the move from wholesale to retail. They don’t smuggle: too dangerous, too difficult. In the middle of the chain there’s no room for families, honor, guns, and the sound tracks of Ennio Morricone. It’s a question of organizational science. Here, with me, you learn technical concepts; for the myth, apply at the other window.
I’ll explain the whole thing. But you must be patient and keep your ears pinned back. You must always think that if everything goes well, at the end you’ll really be able to enjoy yourself. But in order to get there, you have to be able to crush the competition: guns and threats don’t keep you in business; customers don’t choose you out of fear or affinity. They choose you for your efficiency. In order to keep going for a long time, you have to get to a point where you select your own customers. You get to choose between the Communist caudillo, the nostalgic mafioso, and the Contra operatives in Washington—they don’t choose you. Once you’ve achieved that, you’ve arrived. There are many people out there who would like to decide on your behalf and know very well how to make you toe the line, if it suits them. So it’s a matter of earning people’s respect. I succeeded in doing that. I built up a credit of two million dollars in cocaine. I mean that at the height of my career I could lose a consignment worth two million without paying for it, either with my wallet or with my life. Because they trusted me, I worked for the Orejuelas in Cali, for Castro, and Tirofijo. For many years I was the only person operating at that level. Because I solved the cartels’ biggest problem—I invented the trick of tricks: delivery in the dark. I was one of the guys who opened up the South Road. It was just after the fall of the empire of Pablo Escobar. Don Pablo will go down in history for devising and popularizing the multi-operator method taken up by our industry. He was intelligent, and he was the first to see that the bribery-based system was a problem, and he tried to replace it with one of his inventions. He was a guy who thought big. As big as the tunnel.
Don Pablo Escobar and the Horizontal Elevator
He was no pussycat, it’s true. But he was a jovial, lively, brilliant guy, and sincerely concerned about his people. At least so everyone thought at the time of his success. He had that rather molelike, amiable face, the black eyes behind which you sensed an intelligence constantly at work, curls thinning on his temples, dark mustachios. You know who he looked like? Gianni Minà, the journalist famous for his fawning interviews with Fidel Castro. I swear it. At the time, Don Pablo was still on the crest of the wave, he hadn’t yet annoyed the political establishment to the extent of getting himself assassinated, and he enjoyed a freedom that perhaps no narco has had since. In effect it was he, with the Orejuelas of Cali and a few others, who ran the whole United States–bound market. Flowers were his favorite system. Colombia’s a big producer, you see: biodiversity and all that crap. Flowers are a significant item on the national balance sheet. He used to fill the flower containers with powder and send them north by plane. If you controlled the customs offices, that was possible.
What’s more, Don Pablo realized before anyone else that the promised land was Mexico. He felt restricted by his own system, even though it was huge and involved landing strips in the jungle, light aircraft, motorboats, and even a submarine that shuttled to California. He had even grander ideas. So when he finally succeeded in getting into Mexico, he planned things carefully.
It wasn’t easy to establish yourself there. The local traffickers are fearsome people, very violent, drug addicts, pitiless murderers, guys who torture people for the fun of it. They’re different from the Colombians and from the South Americans in general—more mystical, perhaps. They make an industry out of their saints great and small, and they really believe in it, and witchcraft is part of the pact of membership and the rites that make them feel invincible. Witchcraft, well-oiled guns, and control of the border: they gave Don Pablo a lot of trouble. But he had the strength of la plata—silver, cash—and he knew how to use it. He also knew that money is not enough. You need a symbol. You have to be able to flaunt the greatness of your power and your wealth if you’re to earn your rivals’ respect. So to conquer Mexico, he needed some spectacular success. He used to send the stuff to Tijuana by truck, in fairly small quantities. Crossing the land border with the United States has always been a rather trickier business than getting through airports. To transport the cocaine, Escobar’s organization used compartments built into the big gas tanks of the tractor-trailors that ply the Pan-American Highway. When the vehicle got to the other side, someone dismantled the gas tanks and replaced them. A short-lived trick, it didn’t take much to see through it. Then Don Pablo started sending merchandise in tankers too. But that wasn’t a difficult system to break either. At customs they had only to check how many gallons had been declared, and with a few measurements and a simple calculation, they discovered the anomaly.
One day in Ciudad Juárez, Don Pablo Escobar had the idea of his life. To tell the truth, he had the idea of his life every week, and not all of them were that great. But this time he really did think up an amazing scheme. First of all, he erected a big building materials store at El Paso, on the Texan side of the border. Operating through the usual front men, of course. Like every self-respecting drug smuggler, he had plenty of dollars in ready cash: about fifteen billion dollars, as a matter of fact, equivalent to the GDP of a small nation.
The money was handled according to Don Pablo’s usual methods. He kept it in big ventilated rooms, underground vaults equipped to prevent the damage that comes with prolonged storage. The banknotes were vacuum-packed but humidified so they wouldn’t crumble. It was expensive, but not as expensive as having your money intercepted. Vacuum packing is a method we still use today. A parcel of money shrinks to an incredibly small size; you can practically get half a million dollars in your pocket. Because money’s bulky stuff. You won’t believe this, but when I used to travel around with suitcases full of payments, I was more scared than when I carried cocaine. Here too there are myths you’ve got to get out of your head: phantom finance companies, Chinese boxes, hidden transactions, cyberfinance. In our line of business, payment is strictly in cash, and it’s certainly a problem. Don Pablo always used one-dollar or twenty-dollar bills because they arouse fewer suspicions. When you work with those denominations, however, the bulk is considerable, even in vacuum packs.
Anyway, after building the store in El Paso, Don Pablo starts buying up plots of land in Juárez, and there too he sets up a little building materials business. Then he spends a year and an enormous number of dollars digging a two-mile tunnel equipped with air-conditioning, silent transportation by means of rubber trolleys, and a system of halogen lighting. A technological jewel that cuts like a razor through the most closely watched border in the world. He scatters the earth that’s dug out of the tunnel on the surrounding desert or carries it away in covered trucks. He uses teams of laborers, technicians, and engineers, different companies for each stretch of a few dozen yards, so that nobody really understands what the project is or what route the tunnel follows. That’s an old trick used by military architects in times gone by when building underground fortifications in order to keep the secret of their countermine defenses.
Of course, if you work that way, you can’t be absolutely sure you’ve pointed the tunnel in the right direction, but Don Pablo is a lucky man, and he hits his Texan store on the other side of the border dead center. Enormous amounts of cocaine pass under there. The tunnel is equipped with a system of pulleys for loading and unloading, which Don Pablo likes to call “the horizontal elevator.” The whole thing is a technological marvel. It doesn’t last, though. The entire investment falls foul of the usual banal, goddamned tip-off. The Americans have noticed that masses of stuff are arriving, the consumption and seizure figures have shot up, and the wholesale price per kilo on the Texan market falls in a very short time from 13,000 dollars to 6,500 dollars, half the amount. So the DEA, the American antidrug agency, and the FBI start looking for a deep throat.
Given the pharaonic methods of Escobar and of his times, it wasn’t hard to find a little birdie willing to sing. “Take it easy,” someone should have told him, but Pablo Escobar wasn’t the kind of guy who takes it easy. In any case, he heard about the tip-off in time and had the whole thing dismantled, so in the end all they found was a hole, no trace of his science fiction installation. Even today very few people know what really went on down there. Even in the dismantling, Don Pablo’s work was masterful. The project, however, was finished. It was time to think up something new: new in conception, not in the quantity and the methods.
At the time, most Colombian merchandise started its journey from Buenaventura. There was a fair degree of agreement among the cartels about sharing the logistical platforms, such as the port of departure, the port of arrival, and the docks. And these were lucky times; never had the United States represented a less serious problem. This was when cocaine was being procured from the Colombian cartels to finance the Contras in Nicaragua. They needed us. But Pablo Escobar wanted to become a parliamentary deputy. He had high ambitions, and among the other disasters that this lust for power brought upon him was a war with Cali, which led to slaughter on a massive scale.
During the conflicts between the two big cartels, someone even founded a national association for victims’ relatives. Too much bloodshed, too much visibility, and, as if that wasn’t enough, everything was ruined by the scandal of the so-called Iran-Contra affair, when the news broke of the triangular trade whereby the United States funded the Nicaraguan rebels through its supposed enemy in Asia.
The United States Versus Don Pablo
When the story of this trade between angels and devils got out, it opened the floodgates. The age of the War on Drugs began, and the DEA started setting up bases in Venezuela and Colombia and infiltrating men into the plantations, overflying vast swaths of the continent and spraying them with defoliants and some of the most poisonous chemical agents in existence. They had satellite guidance and easily found the landing strips, the fields, and above all the big kitchens (the workshops where the basic paste is refined). They made widespread use of herbicides, devastating fertile areas, ruining farmers in the tens of thousands, and driving them into the arms of my colleagues in order to survive.
Certainly, if a guy can earn in three months from a hundred grams of coca what he would earn in five years from tons of rice, it’s obvious that replacing the coca crops with something different is an idea that could have been dreamed up only by a bunch of smart-asses used to taking the elevator down from their glass towers in New York to lunch on expensive raw fish in the sushi bars of Manhattan.
The yield of coca is different from that of soya, for example, even assuming that soya is suited to the same kinds of soil as coca. It’s important to remember that our little plant is self-fertilizing—it clears the land where it grows of weeds and makes it fertile for a new sowing. It’s perfect for mixed crops (which also happen to be very useful for hiding it: one row of coca and one of French beans, for example), and for renewing the harvests. To insist on its being replaced by other plants that may poison the land, as some fruit trees do (in Italy the walnut, for example), is to kill the farmers, wipe out the villages, desertify the valleys. It’s a policy like the one the Soviets used to adopt when they needed to get rid of a few million nomads in Central Asia. Their method was to introduce a monoculture of cotton, say, so that the people would die of starvation. It never failed.
You might find it amusing that UN officials and American free traders work in the same way as the Soviet Communist Party. The difference between starvation and life doesn’t even cross their minds. They’re no better than we are, even if they cut an impressive figure with their tweed jackets, their big ties over their blue shirts, and their brows eternally furrowed from worrying about the welfare of the Third World poor. A lot of people have made a lot of money out of it. Under the pretext of eradicating coca from the Bolivian mountains, certain Italian and Swiss firms—including one well-known confectionery company—got their hands on huge areas of pasture for their animals, only to back out later because cattle don’t thrive at those altitudes.
Anyway, Bush senior’s War on Drugs forced the plantations to move into the woodland and spread out across the territory—in a word, to expand. And to come into contact with all the crooks who roam the forest, such as the guerrillas, who had to finance themselves, and certainly not with money of legal provenance. And the antiguerrillas too. Do you know who the worst bastards in the world are? The paramilitaries, the guard dogs of the big emerald traffickers. A narco can’t stand those guys, but he’ll do business with them. Cocaine became the means of exchange for all the business of the militaries, paramilitaries, and fazendeiros—for paying private bodyguards, for everything, everything you could possibly imagine, whether beautiful or ugly, ideal, filthy, or normal. And things became more refined: the producers tried to concentrate the whole cycle of the merchandise, as happens in other industries. Everyone looked after his own little quota, trying to bring it as safely as possible to the market, finished, ready for consumption.
By that time nobody could make a living without coca. The only alternative was to emigrate to the United States. Maybe to Miami, a city built on cocaine, constructed with the money from laundering, kept alive by the banks that processed the narcos’ money. A never-ending circle. But although it’s easy for money to get into Miami, for an aspiring laborer or unskilled worker it’s a different matter. He’s driven to illegal immigration, and that can end very badly. They’ll let your dollars in, but when you come along in person, they’re not interested. During that period the people who did real business were the good guys. It’s always been like that, really: 95 percent of the wealth created by the distribution of cocaine ends up in the banks of the rich countries; the producers are left with the crumbs and the blame. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund had dozens of projects, all at government level. They financed friendly governments, for example, donating five hundred million dollars for development, which—the day after it was delivered to some suntanned and trusted president—had already returned home to some bank in Miami. Besides, who would seriously have invested in the development of countries that had no infrastructure? It was a farce. Useful for political relations, for military control, and for economic influence. Calling it the War on Drugs added a pinch of symbolic pepper, but the truth is, it was precisely that policy which made cocaine the sole basis of all trade, and certainly not to the benefit of the starving farmers.
And—can you believe this?—sometimes it was the narcos themselves who got angry about it. Pablo Escobar, for example, was an idealist in his way. And for this very reason he catastrophically overreached himself. He said he was willing to pay off his country’s foreign debt. How about that for ambition! Thirty billion dollars. Utter bullshit, of course. But embarrassing for everyone. A populist move, but one that dramatically highlighted the huge gap between the statements of the great and good of the world and their actions. In fact, he and his partners really did possess at least half that sum between them. Money’s not something to be taken lightly, even if you have more of it than a fifth of the states in this world.
Don Pablo had conceived the crazy idea of going into politics himself, of gaining power and administering it. A mistake that every good drug smuggler nowadays knows mustn’t be made. Politics won’t bother you if you don’t bother it. It allows you to work, takes its own slice, and doesn’t touch yours, but if you try to oust it, it remembers that it’s a military force. The holder of a monopoly on violence. For Pablo they set up the bloque de búsqueda, a special search unit just for him, comprising the finest uniformed assassins on the continent. They fired two missiles at him, devastating eleven apartments. An Israelistyle operation, you might call it—one of those targeted murders with collateral damage that occurs every day somewhere on the planet. But this one irreversibly changed the world of the underground economy.
Today there’s a stoic element in the makeup of every true drug smuggler. He lives in hiding; his aim is to be as inconspicuous as possible. The so-called empire of drugs is far more complex than the criminal organizations that form a part of it. It’s a global economic system that includes other elements that draw on it in abundance: the police forces, the world of politics, the national and international agencies, the NGOs that combat drug smuggling—and the banks. What would become of beautiful Miami, with its palms, everglades, restaurants, and promenade, if it weren’t for our dollars? I’ll tell you: there would be a collapse, a crash on the scale of the one that occurred in Argentina. That world wouldn’t exist without us, and believe me, it will never really try to destroy us unless we threaten other people’s roles within the system.
Everybody has his own place. The politicians do the politics, we deal with the money side, and the do-gooders provide the goodness. And so we’ll go on forever. Escobar didn’t understand that. Orejuela, Don Gilberto of Cali, had a more modern approach. He knew how to diversify his investments, and he always had a very relaxed relationship with the political world. Ochoa and Cardona were the same. All these guys gradually came to understand that the narco’s highway runs parallel to the highway of politics, it doesn’t cross it. With Ochoa and Cardona comes the birth of modern, integrated drug smuggling. And through family ties and marriages, the shadow of Cardona stretches over the only empire that still exists today, the Guajira. The grand old men all live happily in New York—not in hiding on some small reservation in the jungle—and direct operations from a taxi or a plane, hunted by the authorities yet invisible to them. To some extent, things have been complicated for them since September 11, with the antiterrorism legislation, the fingerprinting, and all that stuff. Previously in the United States you could catch a plane the way you caught a bus; now everything’s a bit more difficult. Now they check your fingerprints, search your luggage, even look inside your underpants. And in the ports there are the scanners, the electric arches. They’re a nasty problem, but if you stick it out to the end of my course, you’ll learn how to deal with them.
The Cali Cartel at Work
With the fall of the cartels, the size of the shipments changed too. In Escobar’s day it was quite normal for those who could afford it to organize shipments of four or five tons. It was the age of spectacular schemes: the tunnel, the submarines. Don Pablo was even able, through an agreement with the Cuban government, to control military bombers, which would take off from Isla de Pinos and dump the merchandise, packed into floats, off Miami. They were picked up by the cartel’s men in fast, maneuverable Cigarette boats. They had a special technique: they would spread out in a ring around the prearranged dropping ground, then shoot off in different directions and slip into the maze of swamps in the Everglades, where they couldn’t be pursued. It was quite a sight. Imagine an enormous star resting on the surface of the ocean. The packages fall in the center, they’re picked up, the stuff scatters in all directions and disappears into the swamps. The risks were pretty low, on the whole. One guy even bought himself a small island in the Bahamas. It was eight nautical miles from the North American coast, and with the speedboats you could carry the stuff right to the homes of the Yankees along the Miami River. Later it became almost impossible to carry more than two hundred or three hundred kilos at a time. At least by sea. Until the invention of the darkness.
But when people began to realize that the traditional modes of transportation were running into trouble, they proceeded by trial and error. Poetic stuff, don’t you think? The prose was us, later. Efficient prose too, to the tune of billions, but you still can’t help feeling nostalgic for those romantic times. Pablo Escobar’s main competitors were the Orejuelas of Cali, the most powerful cartel in the world (that’s who I started out with, at the beginning of my career). The boss of the cartel, in the golden age, was Don Gilberto Orejuela, who was as imaginative as Pablo, a genius at improvisation and at organization. A maestro. A story that sums him up pretty well is the affair of the Panama crane.
There was a project undertaken about twenty years ago by a certain North American state—okay, Georgia—down on the Panama Canal. Infrastructure works, major building projects entrusted to private American firms with the endorsement of the Panamanian state. Their particular specialty was wide-span bridges. They needed huge telescopic cranes, hundred-ton monsters that weren’t easy to come by in Central America. Indeed, the state of Georgia had to supply them to the general contractor, the private firm that organized the works and awarded subcontracts to smaller firms. Two huge telescopic cranes.
The work was soon completed, successfully and to the great satisfaction of the local and American firms and the authorities. The next job was to get the cranes back home to Georgia. It was given to an American freight company. No special security measures were taken. After all, who’s going to steal them? Forty-eight hours before the cranes are due to leave, in the middle of the night, a few guys drop in on the night watchman, asking for the person in charge of the transportation of the cranes.
A team: decisive, professional, and calm. Some of them stay with the night watchman, who, naturally, doesn’t take five seconds to provide the name and address requested, while others dash to a hotel in the capital to make the American contact in charge of the shipment an offer he can’t refuse: either we kill you right now, or we put five hundred kilos of cocaine into the main arm of one of the cranes. “I don’t particularly want to die,” the Yankee must have said, or words to that effect, and then, since he wasn’t a fool, he probably added, “At least tell me how much I get out of it.” The reply was very tempting: Not only do you get a kickback, but you know what we’ll do? We’ll give one of the cranes a nice hard bash, damage it, and buy it back from you. That way you’ll get something for the scrap value too. And that way the Cali boys—you’d guessed who it was, hadn’t you?—will have access to the stuffed crane so that they can unload it and dismantle it themselves.
The next evening, as arranged, about twenty people turn up at the depot and get to work. They organize a collision between the two cranes, a carefully aimed blow. One of the cranes falls over with its arm extended, and it’s impossible to close it again. A damage assessment is immediately carried out by Panamanian officials whose palms have been crossed with dollars, and meanwhile, inside the two central columns of the crane with the jammed arm, our Colombian friends find fabulous cavities—Ali Baba’s cave. There’s room for a special shipment in there: two and a half tons. It’ll make the five hundred kilos they’d been planning look like chicken feed. To pack in the merchandise, they’ll need two days, but departure will have to be postponed anyway. The problem is that the stuffed crane really is damaged, and there is no way of closing that damned telescopic arm. There’s only one solution: little by little, as the tube is filled, bits of the arm are cut off. In the end the crane looks as good as new and sets off for Savannah together with its pristine twin.
The border crossing is easy. The crane is state property, so there are no special checks. The state authorities are reimbursed for the damage to the crane by the insurance company. But there’s a hitch. The crane is not for sale. It’s Georgian law: state property that has to be sold off must go to auction. Now, the Colombians aren’t vindictive. They don’t kill people for a simple mistake or to vent their frustration when a deal turns out to be unexpectedly complicated. Not immediately, anyway. In this case the cartel decides that it can’t blame the Yankee who made the agreement; he couldn’t have foreseen this quirk in the state laws, and after all, he’s lost out too, because he won’t get anything, apart from the original bribe. And his life, of course. So there’s nothing for it but to take part in the auction. The trouble is, it’s extremely difficult to cheat in an auction organized by an American state. The boys consider the matter. Should they find a front man and get him to buy the crane? That could be very expensive. So they decide to stand by and watch. They’ll attend the auction to see who buys the iron colossus.
A wrecker. That’s who wins—a wrecker from Oklahoma. The crane is motorized, it moves. It’ll be a slow journey, but it’s doable, thinks the cowboy, and he heads off westward with his crane. Slowly. He’s feeling hungry, so as soon as he gets beyond the borders of Georgia, he stops for a meal in a Longhorn on the interstate highway. Barely ten minutes later some politelooking, rather suntanned guys come in, sit down at his table, and strike up a conversation. It doesn’t take them long to come to the point.
“We’re in love with the crane. We’re collectors. We want to buy it.”
“Not on your life. I’ve waited years for a chance like this. I’m not selling.”
“What? Not selling? You can only gain from it, you know.
We can give you a good bargain, not like those thieves in the Georgia state administration. We know the real reason it broke down: it was defective in the first place. They’ve sold you a pup, friend.”
“Nothing doing. I know about these things, guys. That crane’s a beauty, and I’m keeping it.”
The boys think about it some more. The problem is not insoluble, but a murder in a Longhorn on an interstate highway causes a stir, attracts attention. That would be a problem. And then, after the deed, making off in that lumbering vehicle … No.
They let him go, and the cowboy travels back to Oklahoma at a very leisurely pace, with the Colombians still on his tail, looking forward to the great moment. Soon it will be time to see that magnificent steel arm in action. The cowboy turns the key; the arm’s little motor sputters but doesn’t fire. Of course it doesn’t, because there’s no pressure in the hydraulic system that powers the arm. There’s cocaine inside it instead of oil.
Purely by chance, like in the cartoons, two experts in hydraulics pass by. The United States is a big country. Why shouldn’t two experts in hydraulics with healthy complexions be out for a stroll at that time of day and outside that compound? “We’ll repair it. But we’ll have to inspect it in our workshop. Back home in Houston.”
So the crane makes another interstate trip, destination this time, Houston, Texas. The problem for the boys now is: Do we really fix it and give it back to the cowboy, or do we shoot him in the head?
Difficult decision. To clarify their thinking, they drop in at the Komatsu dealer for the spare parts. The Komatsu technician looks at the crane and, as dollar signs light up behind his glasses, suggests replacing the cylinder. For a mere 450,000 dollars, a snip. The whole crane is worth 200,000. At that time cocaine on the U.S. market sold at about 13,000 dollars per kilo, wholesale. There were two and a half tons of the stuff inside there. Well okay, we’ll have the repairs done and call the guy from Oklahoma to come and pick it up. He comes and can’t believe his eyes: “Wow, what a beauty!” But at this point the Cali boys have got to pull out at least one painful tooth. You can’t work like this—spend half a million dollars and just keep your mouth shut.
They’re furious with the Japanese guy from Komatsu. You know how it is. The big fish wins, the little one loses out and wants to recoup his losses. The Colombian boys don’t know where they stand in the food chain now, so someone has got to pay to reestablish order. What is this? We’re giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to a guy who has spent no more than eighty thousand to get the crane. That’s ridiculous! We told him it was a minor problem; we can’t come along now as if nothing has happened and present him with the real bill. He’d realize something funny was going on. Who cares? We can make him, too, an offer he can’t refuse, but a generous one, not a rip-off: a contract to lease the crane for five years, which includes paying the people who did the repairs.
The problem seems to have been solved, but they’ve forgotten all about the other crane, the undamaged one. The one that was supposed to remain virgin. The trouble is that one of the Cali guys, a small-time crook in his own right, had had the bright idea down in Panama of inserting a little operation of his own into the big operation, and we hid his cocaine in the toolbox of the control cabin. Not much: 150 kilos—150 kilos of cocaine! Unknown to the bosses. Take note: one of the most serious dangers when you send a shipment is that one of your men will slip his own junk in among your stuff. Or worse, that the person you’re working for will think it’s you who’s trying to pull a fast one. It’s essential that the quantity on arrival and the quantity on departure should be absolutely identical. It’s a question of professional ethics. It’s only with this kind of scrupulousness, obsessively adhered to, that you gain your client’s confidence.
The trouble is that the crane belongs to the state and is in good working order, so it’s liable to be called into service whenever there’s a need. Well, a need arises at once, and the crane leaves before the small-time crook or anyone else has been able to unload it. The guy sees what’s happening, gets scared, says nothing, and simply gives his 150 kilos of powder up for lost. A big mistake. Somebody opens the crane, finds that treasure trove, and calls the DEA. The first thing the DEA does, naturally, is to go and pick up the American contact who had been in charge of the work in Panama (the one our friends from Cali had called on in his hotel), give him a good going-over, and throw him into a federal prison in Florida, just in case he should feel like talking.
The second thing they do is to start looking for the other crane.
The DEA agents arrive in Oklahoma and hear the story of the broken arm, and it doesn’t take them long to reconstruct the monster crane’s route. They dash down to Texas, and in Texas they learn that the crane has been repaired. They see it. It’s clean. They do nothing. Nothing. They just wait and watch. Never underestimate those DEA guys, they’re not as stupid as you wish they were. And even when they’re corrupt, there’s always a chance one of them will be more interested in the kudos of a nice fat seizure or a prestigious arrest.
The news travels fast, and the feeling that he’s got away with it goes to the head of the small-time crook who lost his 150 kilos and needs to recoup his own losses. So he has a very bad idea, an even worse idea than putting his stuff in with an Orejuela shipment. I’ll call on Don Gilberto, he thinks, and blackmail him. A suicidal scheme, but one that has some prospect of succeeding owing to an excess of thoughtfulness on the part of Don Gilberto. This little punk can’t be so stupid as to blackmail me, thinks the old boss. There must be something else behind it. He suspects that the DEA has got something on him. He has the whole itinerary of the cranes retraced, to see if he’s left any clues, and decides that the only person who could know anything, apart from his most trusted associates, is the American contact in the prison near Miami. An unlucky man. Don Gilberto’s killers go looking for him in the United States. Killing a guy in jail is even easier and cheaper than doing it on the outside. You can always find someone who’s willing to do the job for you, and he probably won’t ask for more than a couple of cartons of cigarettes. But Don Gilberto scents a trap; he’s convinced the Yankee is collaborating. They’re trying to lead me on, he thinks. This calls for a countermove, so the big boss turns to a well-known Miami lawyer who specializes in drug smuggling and asks him to make a few inquiries. It doesn’t take much for an old fox to find out that the guy they’re looking for is in a federal prison and that he doesn’t have any protection. He’s unprotected, therefore he’s not a collaborator. The lawyer has him contacted in prison by some of his clients (he has clients everywhere), the guy swears he hasn’t squealed, and “prison radio” confirms this. Then the lawyer manages to get hold of the papers on his case and sees that the Yankee is not lying. Don Gilberto is puzzled.
But either you do things al brinco rabioso, or as time passes, even the biggest imbecile understands that something is not going right. In our case the imbecile is the guy with the 150 kilos who tried to blackmail Don Gilberto. He notices that nobody is answering him and guesses that something’s up. He immediately flees to Miami, hoping to blend in with the crowds up there. But he forgets about his parents in Colombia, and after all, even a patient guy like Don Gilberto has his limits. So the first time our friend hears from his parents is when they are tied to two chairs in front of a thug from Cali who’s holding a big knife in one hand and a telephone in the other and has just told them, “What a pity to have to die, and die such a nasty death, when you’re innocent. Let’s give your son a call.” They’re reluctant, but the thug can be very persuasive: “We could always write him a lot of nice little letters and put a little piece of mama or papa in every envelope.” Better the phone call. The message is: we’re old, the problem isn’t dying, it’s how we die.
The son understands. He takes the first plane for Bogotá, making an appointment to meet the Cali people in the arrivals hall at the airport, but he also arranges to meet a friend of his, who joins him there and immediately slips him the gun. Then he stands in the middle of the hall and looks around. As soon as he’s sure the Cali guys are watching, he pulls out the pistol from under his T-shirt and shoots himself in the mouth.
The moral? You want a moral from this story?
A Question of Credibility
A debt to a narco is undoubtedly a problem. And a serious problem at that. But it’s not the way you see it in the cinema: you’ve lost us some money, so a killer arrives, makes you suffer a bit, and then kills you. That’s the way of the Serbs, the Mexicans too. In South America, killing a debtor is either an act of folly or the last resort, the very last. The priority is not punishing; it’s getting your money back. It’s the sunny side of the narco. He doesn’t have a code of ethics or a hierarchy of principles to enforce. What counts is money and all the pleasure you can get from it. Nothing else. So first comes the seizure of possessions, and then, if the guy has nothing worth seizing, slave labor: you’re going to do for me everything I need you to do, from surveillance to collection to the occasional bit of intimidation in town, until I’ve recovered what you owe me. Then, if it’s really unavoidable, well, here the problem changes, because now it’s a problem of credibility, and credibility is crucial in business. In fact we do have a kind of ethical code of our own. If you fail, but you’ve worked well, have done everything right, and are not to blame, you don’t pay. This enables you to work with a certain degree of freedom. There have been exceptions, it’s true, but in the end they cancel themselves out. For example, there was a woman, known as “la Sanguinaria,” who operated in the Darién Gap, on the Panamanian border. She was a natural leader but way too violent. She didn’t allow any exceptions to her rules, and she never forgave. She was quite capable of shouting in an old professional’s face things like “I don’t give a damn about your excuses! You’ve got to pay!” She was vulgar. But one day she offended a friend of Pablo Escobar’s, and they had her head chopped off. Just like that. No more, no less.
As for the crane guy, he did something quite outrageous: he shot himself in El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá. Which is teeming with DEA agents and informers. Let’s spell it out in business terms: all the U.S. general contractors who work in South America will stop buying their machinery abroad, and in the event of importation—sometimes it can’t be avoided—they’ll impose strict controls on local operators. So, at the end of this long story, who made the billions? Caterpillar Brasil, Ltda.
That’s the way of the world.
In short, the bosses of the big cartels were very inventive people, capable of finding unexpected solutions, skilled and flexible enough to sail their way across the sea of money and problems that cocaine produces, and yet these qualities weren’t enough for survival. The fragility of the bribery-based system was in danger of sweeping away the whole white powder economy at the very time the doors of Europe were opening. Something else was needed, something more radical. The time of the sistemistas had come—people like me, who ply the trade I’m going to teach you. But in the late 1980s the big cartels, the ones that made the real money circulate, weren’t used to turning to a specialist in delivery systems. Their approach was very simple: first, produce; second, sell at once. And the method best suited to this approach was the old one—greasing, oiling, bribing. But this approach was getting them into trouble.
Even giants fall, then, and they make quite a noise. It was after the fall of Pablo Escobar, roughly speaking, that the war among the cartels began. His death in 1993 created a vacuum that everyone competed to fill. Each cartel had its own agreements with the authorities, each cartel tried to pay its own officials, and one of the main objectives of each cartel was to give satisfaction to the DEA or the FBI. To avoid publicly embarrassing them and to save their own skins. Of course, the problem was solved at their competitors’ expense. If you can put a rival’s merchandise in the hands of the cops, you’ve hit the jackpot. They leave you alone, and someone else suffers.
Admittedly, in the heat of the competition some pretty rough methods were used, as in the never wholly explained case (but now I’m going to tell you what really happened) of the archbishop of Guadalajara.
A Martyr to Drug Smuggling
Monsignor Posadas Ocampo, archbishop and cardinal, was killed on May 24, 1993, at Guadalajara International Airport by fourteen bullets that pierced his armor-plated car. Ocampo was included by John Paul II in the list of the martyrs of the twentieth century, and rightly so. He had distinguished himself in the fight against drug smuggling and has become a symbol. El Negro and El Güero, two bosses of the Juárez cartel, were accused of his murder, but things aren’t as simple as the hagiography and the judicial verdicts make them seem. The fact is, the cardinal didn’t know he was nurturing a serpent in his bosom.
At that time there was a war between the Payáns and the Rodríguezes, the two most influential families in the Mexican cartels. Both families worked in Baja California and in Tijuana. Like Don Pablo Escobar, they were tunnel enthusiasts. There was a Mexican, married to a Calabrian woman, who handled, on the Rodríguez family’s behalf, the transportation of merchandise from Puerto La Cruz, in Venezuela, to Tijuana, the main route to the U.S. border. One day our friend is approached by certain matones employed by the Payáns, who make him their offer: we want you to take some shipments for us, together with your own shipments, on your usual route. Matones, guys who will kill you without a second thought, if doing so won’t harm their boss. Our man is scared, but he has a problem. He works for the Rodríguez family, so he can’t say no, but he can’t say yes either, and what’s worse, he can’t explain why.
“I can’t take them to Tijuana for you. I have to do some jobs up there for someone else. But if you want, I’ll take them as far as Guadalajara.”
He must have been very worried about replying like that to the matón, but evidently the matón had been prepared for it, because unexpectedly, he accepts. So our man starts transporting for the Rodríguezes to Tijuana and for the Payáns to Guadalajara. The shipments go smoothly until one day someone brings him a message from the Payáns: “We haven’t got time to pick up the stuff at Guadalajara and take it to Tijuana this time. You must do it. You must at least get closer. Let’s say this: you take it to the outskirts and then we’ll take it into town.”
Again, an offer that can’t be refused. A very difficult situation, with five hundred kilos of pure cocaine at stake.
Before you enter Tijuana from the south, there’s a tunnel. He arrives there with his men and with his trucks well filled. But the tunnel is barred by the Feds. This means big trouble. The Payáns, who are following, to keep a check on him, think it’s an ambush that he has arranged with the Rodríguezes to block the shipment. A terrific balacera breaks out. People start shooting from all directions. Everyone at everyone else. In the end our man is captured, and off to jail with him go some of the Payáns’ men, who, naturally, once they get inside, try to bump him off. He’s shitting himself, and this time he does appeal to the Rodríguezes. They knew all about it, and he knew that they knew, so the conversation must have gone roughly like this: “I was only carrying cocaine for those guys, do you understand? Transportation and nothing else. And you allowed me to do it, so now it’s down to you to save my ass from the Payáns.”
The Rodríguezes think about it and decide that he’s right. By wholesale bribery they manage to get him out. The jails all over Latin America are open systems; inside you’re in contact with everybody. And inside, the narcos are not at war with other narcos. They’re at war with robbers, common criminals. In Tijuana prison, however, one of these robbers is on the payroll of the Rodríguezes. At their request, he offers our man his protection. But the man is scared to death; he thinks it’s a dangerous sign. As soon as I get out, they’ll kill me, he thinks. Things are complicated by the fact that the five hundred kilos of stuff have disappeared. The Payáns haven’t got them, the Feds haven’t got them, our man hasn’t got them. You have only to put two and two together. Who took the merchandise? The Rodríguezes, obviously. Their boss, El Gigio, is sitting on a mountain of dollars. With one part he pays his people, with the other he invests in more drugs or in real estate (the narcos’ favorite kind of legitimate business). El Gigio’s problem is that he has to invest the money in the United States if he wants it to earn really high interest. And who’s going to take it over to the other side? A mountain of money that has popped up out of nowhere, the product of half a ton of snow that fell from the sky one fine summer’s day. El Gigio, however, is a guy who knows how to organize, a forward planner, and he has a man in the curia too. In the curia, yes. No, I won’t tell you who. All you need to know is that a gentleman in the pay of the Rodríguezes had a good position in the archbishop’s palace. They called him Mr. Ten Percent, and we will too. Well, Mr. Ten Percent knows that Monsignor Posadas Ocampo is about to leave on a visit to the other side of the border. His armor-plated car will take him to the airport and then will be put, along with the prelate, on a freighter bound for the United States. Armor-plated because Monsignor Ocampo is a hero of the fight against drugs; therefore he needs protection. But what El Gigio thinks is: armor-plated, full of juicy little cavities, easy to fill. And safe: nobody will ever look in there, inside the monsignor’s tank.
Now observe the scene carefully. The archbishop is on his way to the airport in his archiepiscopal Cadillac to begin a long pastoral visit to the United States. He doesn’t know that everybody is at the airport and they’re all waiting for his car. In the first place, the Payáns, who of course possess the means to ensure that they receive the right tip-off at the right moment and who therefore know what El Gigio Rodríguez is up to. A family of a hundred people, all determined to get their money back at any cost. And the Rodríguezes, present in force to protect the shipment. Naturally, as soon as the cardinal’s armor-plated car appears, another fearful balacera breaks out. Again everyone shooting everyone else, and again many are left lying on the ground. Among them is the archbishop, martyr and future saint, because the rumor will soon spread that the gunfight was an attack on him.
When you kill an archbishop, it’s hard to hush everything up, and when this point is reached, all the plans, the protection schemes, and the infiltrations are abandoned. The FBI realizes that the balloon is about to go up and cuts all its contacts inside the organizations. Balanced strategy doesn’t matter now; the aim is to get them all, at once and in the same way, without diplomacy and without any consideration for one or the other. There are roundups, and as usual, large numbers end up in jail, but only very small fry. The person who pays for the broken dishes is the gunman. The bosses, as always, come out of it more or less spotless.
A moral again? There is no moral to be found in our stories. Only one fact: all it takes is a drunken customs officer boasting to a whore. Or a competitor’s envy. Or an idiot who tries to make money by overcharging for the transportation. And even an empire capable of mobilizing ships and submarines, airplanes, big cranes, and mechanical diggers, building roads in the jungle and paying tens of thousands of men, collapses like a house of cards. There are mistakes that simply must not be made. Don Pablo’s was to challenge the status quo in politics. He wanted to govern; he dreamed of becoming president and controlling the state, the police, the law courts, and everything else. But that’s not the way for a long life. The secret is to stay on your side of the fence. To accept that you’re a criminal. Anyone who crosses that line dies. Remember: you are not the law. The law is your antagonist, the other. And you must let the other play its own role. It’s a balance that makes everyone rich. You never know, maybe the day will arrive when they need a few billion to flush out some modern-day Abu Nidal and they’ll come and ask you for it.
Copyright © 2009 by Chiarelettere editore srl—Gruppo Editoriale Mauri Spagnol S.p.A.