Loadedby Robert Sabbag
Back in the early seventies, one man had the idea that bringing in a planeload of marijuana from Colombia might be a profitable enterprise. If nothing else, it would be one hell of an experience... In a vintage DC-3, reassembled from spare parts to avoid FAA scrutiny, Allen Long set off for Colombia and the adventure of his life. The pot was there, all right, thousands of acres of the cleanest, sweetest plants he'd ever seen. The first load was a cinch.
Loaded is the story of Allen Long's trip from small-town dreamer to international high-wire artist. At first it was fun, with the pleasures of evading authorities and bringing quality herb home to eager friends. In the back of a limo, with celebrities on the phone and beautiful women on his arm, Long was in heaven.
But as the wealth grew, so did the weirdness. There was the cocaine, of course, and the surreal screwups that came from doing business stoned. But even more, what had begun as a wild scheme with like-minded pals was looking alarmingly like organized crime. Long never carried a gun, but every day he felt more like a target.
Loaded is a classic American tale, the story of a man who risks everything to pull off one huge deal in a final bid for freedom. Written by Robert Sabbag, author of the international bestseller Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade, Loaded is high drama from a lost time. From mule trains in the Andes to boardrooms in Mahattan, from Mexico to the counterculture scene in Marin, from Studio 54 to the midnight streets of Miami, Allen Long is a consummate hustler, dreamer, entrepreneur, bullshit artist, and hero. His true story is as entertaining as the greatest fiction.
In Loaded, Robert Sabbag, a reporter for Rolling Stone, offers a somewhat darker view of the herb. This true-life tall tale about Allen Long, a frustrated American documentary filmmaker who began smuggling pot out of Mexico and then Colombia in the seventies, is like a cannabis version of the film "Blow," featuring countless near-death episodes in a rickety, marijuana-stuffed DC-3. Whereas Preston eventually concludes that marijuana is just "one of those goofy adult things like booze and sex," Sabbag's more critical examination of how the stuff actually finds its way into the United States reveals a major "triumph of greed over good judgment."(Mark Rozzo)
- Little, Brown & Company
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 0.94(w) x 6.00(h) x 9.00(d)
- Age Range:
- 13 Years
Read an Excerpt
1 EMERALD COAST
Allen Long descended from a short line of American aviators. He in effect was the first. One morning off the coast of South America, as his DC-3, with the break of dawn, violated Colombian airspace, there rose before him, as palpable as the peaks of the Sierra Nevada hovering on the horizon, the probability that he might be the last.
"Red to white, red to white, I have bad news for you, sir." Bad news in Allen Long's business, of which aviation was only a part, was typically very bad news, and transmitted on an air-to-air frequency from a clandestine Colombian landing strip, the news had to be that much worse.
"Sir, I am sorry, but you cannot land," squawked the voice over the cockpit radio. "You must go back, you cannot land. Repeat, you must go back."
Long and his crew, who had been airborne for fifteen hours, stared stupefied at the source of this advisory, the three of them gazing at the instrument panel as if the radio itself were crazy. Long's transmission was blunt. He keyed the microphone, and said: "We can't go back."
Nor could they put the aircraft down in nearby Barranquilla or over the border in Venezuela. To say that the plane was not "cleared" for that was an understatement at best, but Long said it anyway, and short of announcing the choices they faced, that was about all he said. "We have to land and take on fuel, or we're going to crash this airplane."
As it happened, they did both.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rise out of the Caribbean in a sheer, almost vertical ascent to an altitude of 20,000 feet, the highest coastal range in the world, its perennial snowcaps dominating the tropical beaches of Colombia's oldest city. From the fertile forests of Santa Marta the mountains run parallel to the shoreline and reach one hundred miles to the east. Here their north face terminates on a hot, semiarid peninsula, a flatland of hardscrabble and stunted vegetation that stretches to the northernmost point of the continent.
This inhospitable region into which the mountains decline, settled by Indians who survived the Spanish conquest and home to their descendants today, subsists outside the mainstream of Colombian life, sparsely populated, underdeveloped, historically bereaved of economic opportunity, and largely neglected by the federal government. Here in the northeastern desert is a Colombia untouched by the magical realism evoked by its finest literature, unenriched by the supernatural, a Colombia drained of its mystery, where the metaphysical happens only at night.
These are the Colombian badlands. This is the land beyond the RÌo Palomino. Independent, if not autonomous, unregulated, virtually lawless...
This is the Guajira.
This is where Allen Long conducted business in Colombia, trading on what the region's inhabitants extol as its principal natural resource: that "the Guajira is ruled by the gun."
In the fall of 1976, that morning as his cargo plane came within view of the mountains, Allen Long's business was booming. Up there, high in the foothills, waiting, lay the treasure of the Sierra Nevada. Up there, unburied, proliferating, was the Santa Marta Gold of legend. The finest marijuana in the world. And from there to the docks and the Mayday strips that were strung out along the Guajira, mule trains moved, by day, by night, in seemingly endless procession, under the weight of the find.
The gold rush was underway. Back home, 30 million American heads luxuriated in notions of getting twisted on nothing less than prime Colombian, and for almost a year now Long and his partners had been delivering it to them by the ton.
Among those partners were the pilots of the DC-3, Frank Hatfield and Will McBride. Allen Long American Flyer was really just a state of mind, his rating as an aviator being-well, call it unofficial. As architect of the criminal conspiracy and operational leader of the enterprise, Long was more than just along for the ride, but even in a mind as rich with fantasy as his, there abided no doubt that his taking control of the aircraft unsupervised was the functional equivalent of suicide.
McBride, an erstwhile musician, had known Long for about five years, and like Long, whose own pursuit of a career in the record industry was presently being ignored, he had been operating on the fringes of the marijuana business for much of that time. It was not in support of his musical ambitions that McBride had decided to take flying lessons. McBride was co-pilot of the DC-3. It was Hatfield who ran the air show, and it was Hatfield, the professional, to whom the other two smugglers looked when the radio message came in.
They were flying with the surf, following the shore break, having descended to about 2,000 feet on making landfall at Punta Gallinas. Banking southwest from there and running along the coast at a speed of 110 knots, they had begun picking up omens one by one as day was breaking behind them. Everything was different this time. The air was not crisp, but humid and heavy, the sunlight murky not bright. The underbrush below them was green, not brown. Clouds obscured the mountains. And just northeast of Riohacha, as the aircraft descended to a thousand feet, raindrops hit the windshield.
The precipitation merely suggested itself, a grace note, nothing more. Still, it was something new.
Breaking clear of it almost instantly, the smugglers started searching for smoke. A billowing column of thick, black smoke would bring them in to the runway. Spiraling from the flames of a burning tire, the plume could be seen on a normal flight to rise 200 feet in the air. Long, this time, was the first to spot it, and this time it hit the ceiling at fifty. At Camarones, they made radio contact. Only then did the omens add up.
"Sir, it has been raining here."
It had rained half the night. Torrentially. The downpour had ended only an hour before. Effectively, there was no runway.
The low drone of the radial engines, resonating through the cockpit, was the only sound for an instant. The ever-present hypnotic hum, the theme song of the operation, rising now on their collective silence, gave weight to the realization that they had seriously pushed the season.
The color drained from Long's face. He turned to Hatfield, the man in whose hands their fortunes rested-their lives and their fortunes literally, their sacred honor only if you stretched it-for something in the way of instructions. Hatfield, five years older than his partners, at thirty-three the oldest of three would-be millionaires whose lives were now up for grabs, differed from them most significantly in that he was not a smuggler by vocation. Marijuana, as far as he was concerned, was just a really good reason to fly. A professional pilot, Hatfield had been recruited the year before, and in a matter of months he had demonstrated an aptitude for crime that most pilots could only aspire to. But Hatfield remained true to his roots. His instructions were in keeping with conventions established by aviators throughout history, and characteristically brief.
He said: "Buckle up and hang on."
A flyover of the airstrip, under favorable landing conditions, revealed what could be called a runway only in the most optimistic interpretation of the term. Unidentifiable as such from the air, it was clearly discernible as a landing strip from only one point of reference. To see it you had to walk it, and trace for yourself the unmistakable tread marks of the various landing gear that had touched down there. The airstrip was invisible by design. Its engineering, or lack thereof, owed less to limitations of the local technology than to the threat of observation by government aircraft, which flew the coast routinely on drug-interdiction runs.
The strip began a couple of yards from the beach, which sloped up from the Caribbean to a rise of three or four feet. It extended eighteen hundred feet into the bush, a stretch of uneven ground, partially overgrown, the grass knee-deep in places. And today it was more than invisible. Today it was nonexistent, a third of a mile of fine, red clay that overnight had turned to mud. The field stood abandoned now, and crossing the strip, coursing the hardpan like rushing creeks, rivulets of rainwater ran so deep you could fish them.
Long's experience was limited, but what lay below him did not even approximate conditions as he had tried to imagine them when he had first heard a veteran flyer use the expression "soft-field landing." Just below the radar of his awareness, there was a sudden sense of his being in serious danger. The terror was stark and immediate. Catching sight of the airfield, he was overcome by a surge of adrenaline. His heart raced, his pulse quickened, his breathing grew rapid, and his palms began to sweat. It was a total and absolute physiological immersion in fear. And it was plain that he was not alone. The cockpit was filled with the smell of it.
Hatfield banked the airplane to starboard, circling north to make his final approach. He came in off the sea. With a wingspan of more than ninety-five feet, and standing almost two stories high, the airplane was more than sixty feet long and weighed 26,000 pounds. Buffeted by drafts and thermals, the wings of the aircraft seesawed as Hatfield nursed it down. He ordered McBride to lower the gear, and everything started to shudder.
The plane hit the runway at 80 knots, the gear throwing up mud, the trees visible through the cockpit glass speeding by in a blur. The instrument panel shook as the airplane thundered down the strip, the landing gear rumbling irresistibly through the depressions of the washed-out airfield. Struts thudding, fuselage rattling, the plane felt as if it were coming apart. Then the tail wheel hit. Momentum diminished dramatically. Shoulder belts and cargo nets strained under the shifting equilibrium of everything on board.
Hatfield's effort to slow the plane down was balanced now by an equally urgent need to keep it rolling. He had to circle the aircraft. He had to position it for takeoff, or no amount of fuel would get them home again. When the plane hit the end of the runway, the mud inevitably took hold, pinning it down as effectively as the arresting gear on a carrier deck.
Hatfield throttled up. He took all the power he could get out of the props. Engines roaring, tail wheel dragging, he slowly brought it about, inching the plane through the quagmire until the deep blue of the Caribbean filled the frame of the windshield. Moving just as sluggishly then, he taxied back up the strip, bouncing in the direction of the beach. Finally achieving the water's edge, he circled the plane again, pushing the revs to the redline to bring the tail wheel around. When he cut the power, the airplane sank, settling hub-deep in the mud, the cargo doors flew open, and the airstrip came alive.
Two trucks and twenty-five men broke cover. They bolted out of the brush from twenty yards off the runway, and they all converged on the airplane. The Colombians were in action now. Now there would be very few variables.
And there would be no testimonials. This was the Guajira. It was round-the-clock combat ops. Out-at-the-extreme, balls-to-the-wall flying was what it took to get business done here. It was the minimum required of aviators. The stunts typically associated with close air support on the battlefield were very cheap theatrics. Hatfield's would go unnoticed.
It was a routine pickup on the Guajira. A thousand gallons of flight fuel would be hand-pumped into the airplane's tanks from 55-gallon drums mounted on one of the farm trucks, as more than two tons of high-grade marijuana, nothing but gold and the finest Colombian red, were unloaded from the other. A well-ordered, methodical cargo oper ation, it would differ from the standard commercial procedure only insofar as it was conducted with unusual dispatch and almost exclusively by people wearing guns. Revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, automatic rifles...It was a real festival of lethal hardware, a classic Latin American get-together, one in which the three gringos always took part unarmed.
Long threw back the cargo doors and stepped down into the mud. He embraced the two men he did business with, the younger of whom, named Miguel, the one who had manned the radio, inevitably addressed him as "sir." Long took care of business with them, shook hands with a rugged character named Ernesto, the operational chief of the airstrip, and while Hatfield and McBride busied themselves shutting the airplane down, he set about inspecting the pot. Once approved for loading, each forty-pound bale would be hoisted aboard.
The first few bales had no sooner passed through the doors of the plane than they started flying back out. Long, bewildered, looked up to see Frank Hatfield standing on the cargo deck. Hatfield, at five-feet- ten, was about three inches shorter than Long, his military-cut, straight brown hair maybe that many inches shorter than Long's thick mane of blond. The lean but heavily muscled Hatfield was the beneficiary of quiet good looks, an easygoing manner, and an almost tangible good humor, the last of which appeared to have gone missing-in-action as he glared down at Long from the cargo doorway of the plane.
"What the fck are you doing?" he said.
Granted, this was not the first use of the word "fuck," not by any of the three smugglers, and certainly not since the initial shock of the radio announcement had hit. But Hatfield's use of it here was like the overture now to an entirely new symphony of invective. In the next two minutes, replicated, mutated, compounded, and prodigiously exchanged by Hatfield and Long, the word would be traded so fast that its movement would be utterly impossible to clock. It would run through their altercation like gonorrhea through the crew of a merchant vessel on liberty in the Philippines.
"If you load this airplane," Hatfield said, schooling Long in the dynamics of flight, "we're not going to make it out of here." Lifting off the runway in its current condition, even lifting off empty, was going to be a crapshoot at best, as any fool could see. Long, of course, was not any fool. Long was a fool of such sterling distinction that he was immediately willing to ignore the fact, even as he stood in ankle-deep mud, that having survived the landing just minutes before, he had already beaten the odds.
"I didn't come down here to go back empty," he said.
"We're not going back loaded," said Hatfield, and that should have been the end of it.
Long owned the franchise, it was he who ran the trip, but when it came to flying the airplane, and, yes, Long owned that, too, the chain of command started with Hatfield. The safety and ultimate success of the flight were Hatfield's responsibility. In the air Long always deferred to him. But right now Long was unable to think beyond a quarter-of-a-million-dollar payday, and for the first time in the months they had been flying together he challenged his pilot's authority. He started by taking a reckless position and elevating it to the arrantly ridiculous.
"Nobody said this was going to be easy," he said, challenging Hatfield's manhood.
Neither Hatfield's ability nor his courage, of course, was open to any question, but Long was not going to get very far by criticizing him for sound judgment. Hatfield, for his part, understood that in a beef as demented as this the last place to look for mileage was in an appeal to common sense. And so he fell back on simple intransigence. He just kept saying no, hoping that if the two of them screamed at each other loud enough, Long's delirium would burn itself out. Long tried pulling rank.
"If we go back empty," he warned Hatfield, "you're not coming back on the next trip."
Not an entirely idle threat, but one Long was unlikely to act on, the remark was Long's way of telling Hatfield that he was nothing more than hired help.
To the Colombians watching, the shouting match was strictly a gringo thing, the fair hair, the flashing eyes-the very blue of the irises, so out of place in a place like this. There were six of them now, eyes as limpid as the surface of the ocean, as Will McBride was inevitably drawn into the argument.
As tall as Long, as blond, his impression upon the Colombians manifestly Nordic, McBride was clearly averse to jumping into the dispute.
In what might be construed as the operation's table of organization, his authority outweighed Hatfield's, but he knew better than to think he knew better than Hatfield when it came to flying an airplane. When dragged into the fighting by Long, McBride, a man impatient with incompetence, ill-inclined to suffer clowns, shrugged his shoulders, threw up his hands, and voiced an opinion as brief as it was unequivocal: "Frank says no."
"If he doesn't want to go, that's fine," said Long. "I'll fly it out of here." He pointed a finger at Hatfield. "And I'll put a bale in your seat."
Maybe Hatfield really believed that Long was crazy enough to try it. If so, it was the pilot in him, his sense of responsibility for the lives of his partners, that made his continuing the argument with any conviction impossible. Maybe Hatfield was just exhausted. In any event, he finally gave up. In the end, the sheer force of Long's personality prevailed. The same insubmissive strength of will that had brought them all this far, that had enriched them each and fattened the bank of so many others, predominated once again in the face of conventional wisdom. In the end, every smuggler's story comes down to the triumph of greed over good judgment, and it would be no different here. "You'll probably get us all killed," said Hatfield. Long said, "I'd rather die rich."
It took every man on hand, and more, summoned from the local village, to push the airplane out of the ruts into which it had settled. The field was soft but firming up. The earth had begun to dry. Heaving on the undercarriage, muscling the struts, rolling the wheels up out of the eighteen inches of mud into which they had sunk, the Colombians inched the airplane forward, stepping away as Hatfield built up the speed of the engines. Props roaring, brakes on full, Hatfield pushed the revs, giving the airplane, standing still, more power than Long had seen him do in the months that he had been flying it. The airplane began to vibrate. The headphones crackled with static. Hatfield signaled the other two men to tighten up the straps on their seat belts.
"If we don't get airborne before we hit the end of the runway," he shouted, "we're gonna take the trees head-on. Just hope the cargo nets hold."
"It's not too late to unload," yelled McBride. "No," said Long. "Let's go. Let's do it now."
He flashed the Colombians a thumbs-up through the cockpit window, and Hatfield released the brakes. Slowly the plane started to roll.
As the plane lumbered down the runway, the Colombians fired their guns, urging the gringos on. The Colombians applauded machismo in all its manifestations, no matter how ill advised. The expression of manhood exhibited here was all the more highly prized for being so poorly considered. Not lost on the Colombians, either, was the fact that if the Americans went home empty, nobody was going to get paid.
When the plane hit 35 knots, the tail came off the ground. The plane leveled off and picked up speed. At 65 knots it would fly. When Hatfield ran out of runway, the plane was doing no better than 60.
"Raise the gear!" he shouted.
To Will McBride, flying right-seat, this particular order was miles off the intuitive grid. Raising the landing gear of an airplane, he knew, while the airplane was on the ground would lead to rudimentary, aerodynamic instability of a kind covered in every textbook. A classic loss of equilibrium known to every pilot, it was one that was subject to quite specific, technical interpretation in the science of flight. It was called crashing.
"Raise the gear!"
They were skimming the brush now, and suddenly McBride saw the danger; he understood the urgency behind Hatfield's command. The mesquite, if it entangled the undercarriage, was going to flip the airplane. With visions of a massive fireball cartwheeling down the field, he raised the landing gear. The smugglers could feel the fuselage drop as the undercarriage came up. Long was sure he was going to die, and McBride gave voice to the certainty.
"Shit, we're going down," he said.
With that the plane caught air. Gear up, it achieved rotation speed, and lifted ten feet off the deck.
And stayed there.
They hit the high brush, and started churning it up, the beveled edges of the propeller blades slicing shallow troughs in the undergrowth. The rpm's dropped abruptly, the high-pitched whine of the engines backing off to a roar. Two perfectly manicured parallel tracks sculpted in the high mesquite, interrupted only intermittently as the plane, struggling, managed to catch air, would follow their passage for several miles. They gained a couple of feet, and then a few more. They disappeared from view of the airstrip. The Caribbean was just off to their left, but the salvation it promised was way out of reach. With the mesquite growing more than twelve feet high, Hatfield was unable to drop the port wing to bank in the direction of the sea. He was forced to maintain a straight flight path.
They were fourteen feet off the deck, moving at 75 knots, unable to get higher or go any faster. Periodically a tall patch of brush would drop them back down a foot. And then, in all its majesty, the Caribbean circled their way. As the coastline curved to the south, the ocean rose up to meet them. Once over the water, they were safe, they knew, and all three were now sure they would make it. The panorama, in stunning color, opened up gradually before them. Ahead of them, they could see the breakers. And then they could see the shoals. And then, finally, they saw the beach. And lining the beach, a row of coconut palms. An unbroken row of tall coconut palms.
"Shit!" "Hold on!...Hold on!" said Hatfield. "Ahh..." They hit the palm trees. "...SHIT."
They actually uprooted one of the palm trees. They caught it full in the starboard engine. It remained hanging there as they flew. Smaller palms drove holes in both wings. Flight fuel poured from the star-board tank. Miraculously they were still flying.
They were about twenty-five feet off the water, gaining altitude now as they dumped fuel. Hatfield, studying the instruments, performed some rapid calculations.
"What do you think?" said Long. "We can make it maybe four hundred miles. Which will put us maybe a hundred off the southern coast of Haiti." Proceeding, therefore, was not an option.
One of the distinguishing features of the marijuana business, as pursued by Americans like Allen Long-one of the attributes that distinguished the marijuana business from other fields of criminal endeavor-was a conspicuous and, to those who thought about it, rather consoling absence of gunplay. This can be explained by the fact that, for many of the industry's pioneers, the marijuana came first, in both time as well as importance. The industry was created by pot smokers, a casual brotherhood of aficionados, loosely associated, relatively young, usually stoned, united around little more than a near-religious passion for the noble weed. A characteristically (and understandably) merry band of outlaws, who pledged at least passing allegiance to the values of the counterculture to which they and their customers belonged-"Peace and Love" being prominent among them-these people were accomplished pot smokers long before they were professional criminals. Prohibition would have gone down pretty much the same way if alcohol had been new in the Roaring Twenties and Al Capone had been one of a loose affiliation of drunks who had discovered bootleg whiskey in college.
Guns were a big fixture of the business south of the border and in American cities like Miami, where the money had begun to attract gangsters for whom dope was just one more commodity. Like a large majority of Colombians, whose disinclination was cultural, these were people who never smoked pot. But raise the issue of guns with smugglers like Allen Long, and it was axiomatic that you better bring lunch. It brought forth dissertations. It invited an immersion in metaphysics, in a kind of mojo eschatology, with discourse on things like destiny and the implications of karma. In the end, what you came away with was...Well, there just seemed to be no place for guns.
Unless you were Frank Hatfield.
Frank Hatfield never embarked for the Guajira without a .45 caliber pistol within his immediate reach in the cockpit. The Colombians, who paid attention to such things, would recognize the handgun as a Model 1911 Government Colt. This single-action semiautomatic with the seven-shot magazine was at the time the official service pistol of the United States armed forces. And had been for sixty-five years. American pilots had been carrying the weapon into combat for generations. But it was not out of any sense of kinship with, or aspiration to the heroic stature of, the nation's military aces that Frank Hatfield always flew armed. He carried the sidearm not to use on the enemy. He carried it to use on himself.
Frank Hatfield sported an idiosyncrasy, a quirk that had become as definitive of his character as his brevity of speech, his winning smile, and his proficiency with airplanes and women. Frank Hatfield had a pathological fear of being eaten alive by sharks. It was the terror that alone haunted him. As brave as he was, as bold in the eye of danger, as brassbound as his aviator's balls had proved to be, it was the one manifestation of death's many faces into which Hatfield was unable to spit.
Haiti lay upon the island of Hispaniola, which, as islands will do, lay surrounded by a lot of water. And one hundred miles off the coast thereof, sharing a kitchen with the local marine life, was not where Frank Hatfield wanted to be.
Hatfield circled the airplane and headed back to the strip. The starboard engine was laboring, ill-equipped as it was to function with a tree choking the air intake of the cooling system. The temperature was rising, the oil pressure was dropping, and the engine was calling it quits. Then it went up.
"Fire in the starboard engine!" McBride yelled.
Flames licked along the cowling as the red-hot engine ignited. In fascination and horror, the smugglers watched the flames creep closer to the leaking fuel. If Hatfield shut the engine down, the airplane would explode. He had to keep her moving, had to keep the propeller turning, he had to hope the prop wash would blow the fire out.
The tongues of flame receded, and finally the fire died. Hatfield feathered the engine, and made for the airstrip on a single prop. As the starboard propeller went dead, he could see that the blades were warped -bent back at severe angles and twisted, violently and instantly made junk upon impact with the trees-and he had to assume the same to be true of the port-side prop as well. They never would have seen Haiti. They would be lucky now to make it back to the beach.
It was no place for endorsements, but not lost on any of the three smugglers aboard was the miracle of engineering being exhibited for their aeronautic enjoyment: The wings of the airplane were perforated by trees. The landing lights had been ripped entirely out of them, further deforming the airfoil. There was a palm tree hanging from the starboard engine. That engine was dead, and the propeller blades of the other, the one operational engine, were presumably warped to resemble the tines of a garden rake. The plane was dumping fuel. Soon the oil would be history...
And still the airplane was flying. And flying with a heavy load. It flew that way for six miles.
Closing in on the beach, coming in dangerously low, the plane did not project any undercarriage. Deploying the landing gear was a lux-ury Hatfield could not afford. He could not risk adding a degree of resistance to the drag he was already up against. He had to make the runway. And he had to hope that what remained of the mud that had so effectively fouled his takeoff would now give him the skid he needed to land the plane in one piece.
With a smoking engine on the starboard side, with flight fuel pouring from the tanks, with hot steel glowing everywhere-with the likelihood of an explosion now came the added thrill of the bales. Some two and a half tons of lethal cargo would come crashing through the cockpit bulkhead if Hatfield came up short on the landing.
Hatfield skimmed the sloping beach, and put the plane belly-down on the runway. Sheet metal screaming, fuselage buckling on collision with the ground, the disabled craft crashed down the strip, slamming in with all the excitement of a freight train leaving the rails. The cargo nets held, the mud did its job, the plane slewed at an angle of about 30 degrees, nosed to a stop, and the smugglers bailed out.
Long obliged the starboard engine with a blast from the cockpit fire extinguisher, and backed away to wait for the explosion. The engine smoldered but failed to ignite. A column of smoke rose from the starboard wing, and would do so for better than an hour. The airplane refused to surrender.
Long offered a silent prayer for the well-being of the good people of the old Douglas Aircraft Company who forty years before had engineered the plane-this, the DC-3, the venerable commercial airliner in service since 1936, which as the C-47 Skytrain had become the most widely used military troop-and-cargo transport in history.
And now, more than just a part of history, the airplane literally was history. It was finished. It was the latest in a line of similar losses that stood as the hallmark of a new industry. In the multibillion-dollar enterprise that drug smuggling had become, such expenditures were a routine write-off, a line item in the operating budget under the heading "disposable birds." One preferred to write them off empty, however, on landing strips back home.
The Colombians had departed the airstrip. They had left after the airplane vanished from sight, assuming the takeoff had been successful. The smugglers were now on their own. Soon, a small group of Indians who had witnessed the crash assembled. No, they told Long, there was no phone in the village, they had no car, there was no way to reach Ernesto.
"Do you know what we need to do?" Long said. "We need to get rid of that airplane. We need to get the marijuana out of that airplane."
The villagers knew what to do. This was not the first plane that had crashed here, they said. A simple, familiar gesture of the hand served as the DC-3's epitaph.
"Fine, chop it up now," Long said.
"We can't just leave it like this," said Hatfield.
And he and McBride began removing from the airplane anything that might identify it, anything bearing its registration number, anything that might lead back to them. They destroyed all the documentation, then went to work on the hardware. The transponder, the radio transceivers-all the plane's avionics had to go. While the pilots, using screwdrivers, worked on the instrument panel, the villagers unloaded the pot. And once the starboard wing stopped smoking, the Indians started butchering the plane.
It was noon, and Long was sitting on the beach, the sun directly overhead. The air temperature was pushing 110, the humidity skyrocketing in the wake of the rain. With the local Indians to his back, cannibalizing the smoking aircraft, he stared out over the Caribbean like a man who had not only lost his dog, but had just seen its name on a witness list in a divorce proceeding against him.
"Look, man," McBride said, walking up behind him, "you told me and you told Frank, if anything like this ever happened down here, these guys would take care of it. You said the Colombians would get us out of it."
"I know." "Well..." "What?" said Long. "Get us out of it." "I'm working on it." "Okay."
There were no arguments now about who was in charge. Their lives and freedom were in jeopardy. The responsibility for their escape rested with Long.
And Long was working on it. Okay.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Robert Sabbag
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