Another Postcard from the Drug War



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This is a true story. Almost. And, it’s almost fiction. But not quite. I should know, I was there.



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I’m in La Paz. Not Bolivia. Baja Sur. I’m sitting in the back of a taxi with “my friend,” Jeff, heading out to score some coke and some weed. What’s new, right?

“Jeff” is living with his young, lithe, sexually provocative girlfriend on a small pocket cruiser in the slip across from me in the Palmira Marina. I’m ‘boat-sitting’ for a friend’s Passport 40, called Tumbleweed. That’s the story.

Jeff and I ran into each other on the docks because we’re neighbors. It doesn’t take long to get his story. He was a millionaire software developer, with “THE Killer Ap of 1999.” He cashed out early and has spent the last ten years bumming around, collecting scalps, if you get my drift, and developing a major league drug habit.

I learn from Jeff if you want drugs in Mexico all you do is get in a taxi and tell him what you want and he’ll take you someplace, go get it, and drive you home all for just a nominal surcharge over the normal cost of the cab ride. Well I was amazed by this. Any taxi in Mexico?

“Well,” says, Jeff, “Maybe not all of Mexico but that’s how it works here.”

“Well,” I say, “Next time you’re going to get some stuff let me know.”

“How about an hour from now? I hooked up with this taxi driver last week outside of Cinepolis and he scored some stuff for me and Angela, so he’s cool, why don’t you come along? What do you want?”

“Oh, a little pot, maybe a little coke for an Auld Lang Syne lost weekend with a senorita or two.”

“No sweat,” says Jeff. “I’ll knock on the hull when I’m ready to split.”

Coke addiction is a dreadful habit. It helps to be rich. Not many can keep it recreational. It always avalanches down to tweeker-dom. From the power of a god to a cockroach needing a fix of Raid. It’s getting strung-out which is the embarrassing part of drug addiction. Jeff’s a millionaire and he knows how to score. He’s not strung out.

Actually, he’s a sweet guy. Funny. Caring to his girlfriend. Yet he has the attitude of someone at the top of a game which has passed him by. Wistfully arrogant. Maybe he’s a soul-mate.

I’m sitting in the salon of the yacht making some notes, sending off some emails and arranging an exit strategy. The knock comes. We go.

The taxi is waiting in the marina parking lot. The driver’s name is Cuahutemoc. I’ve seen the name on nametags in restaurants and hotels, but can’t pronounce it to save my life. Jeff calls Cuahutemoc, Chucho, and off we go.

We head south from the marina toward the center of La Paz. It’s a sprawling city; a flat, hot, dusty desert oasis on the Sea of Cortez. We drive for about twenty minutes through town and then we are out in the campo, driving into the boonies. A desert moonscape. Tiny houses made of what looks like old clothes, with tin roofs. The richer folks have brick construction hovels and the super rich have plaster over the brick. We drive for another 20 minutes and the scenery becomes more isolated and bleak.

Jeff buys big quantities to fuel his habit and the crack-pipe-fuck-bunny party he’s got going with Angela in the forward berth of his small but sturdy yacht. I’ve got 500 pesos to score some weed and a bit of coke. Jeff has a brushed aluminum briefcase full of money. He opens it with a wink. Dollars. Lots of them. I’m thinking how much blow can two people do?

Finally, we pull into this apparently unfinished abandoned house with tablecloth curtains flapping in open windows and rebar sticking up and out of the construction to signal an ongoing project. If the house isn’t finished the government doesn’t charge property tax.

The roads have been dirt for miles and the house we’ve pulled into sits on a barren landscape of dust, stray dogs, the ubiquitous rooster, and men with guns. Invisible moments before, now you see silhouettes in doorways and behind window curtains.

Cuahutemoc gets out of the car and tells us to wait. He asks me for money and what I want. I hand him the five hundred peso note and say, “Some mota and some coca,” in toddler Spanish. He nods and turns to Jeff who hands him the case of cash.

“Get as much as you can,” Jeff tells the driver in much better Spanish than mine.  

We are both sitting in the backseat of the taxi like the stupid gringos we are. It’s hot. Horseflies buzz the car and a few hungry dogs come over to give a sniff and wait in the shade of the undercarriage for a possible meal. Minutes go by and nothing. Jeff and I really don’t have anything to say to each other. The sweat is dripping down my back. More minutes go by.

Cuahutemoc reappears and walks toward the car. He carries nothing. Behind him a few steps come two really tough looking kids with what look to my untrained eye like Beretta M92s. Old U.S. Army issue. The driver motions us out of the car.

“Please,” he says in broken English, “They are scared. When a gringo gets in a taxi and wants drugs, he usually wants a few joints to smoke on vacation. Like him.” He looks at me and I smile a lame thing like, “Yeah, I ‘m normal. Don’t point those guns at me. Please.”

“But you,” says Cuahutemoc, looking to Jeff, “There is $10,000 U.S. in your case. They think you’re D.E.A. and it’s some kind of set-up” Jeff lets out a huge laugh.

He says, “I’m not drug enforcement. I’m a druggie. Dude, I go through two grams a day, okay? My girlfriend does even more. I’m heading out of port tomorrow and going south to Guatemala. I’m going to be at sea a while. I need to stock up. Search me. Search him. It’s on the level, I swear.” Jeff wasn’t afraid at all. It was like, “Valet dude, go get my car.”

I hear a helicopter. At the same time I see a vehicle approach our location, a pickup truck kicking a trail of dust behind it. The sound of the helicopter dies away without getting closer. The truck pulls up next to us. We had not gotten out of the car yet and were both still sitting in the backseat. Trapped. Three more of these kids, late teens, with guns jump down from the truck. It is rusted through. These kids seem better trained than the others as they deploy a perimeter around the taxi. Cuahutemoc is very scared. He’s clean. I imagine, just a few years older than the joven soldiers confronting us, he has a wife and three kids waiting on him to bring home his ten dollars a day or whatever the hell he nets after paying the owner of the cab for the privilege of driving a taxi for 12 hours a day.

Cuahutemoc says, “Please get out of the car now. Slowly.” We do.

I put my hands up. They laugh.

Jeff says, “Listen you motherfuckers you’ve got my money, if you can’t get it up, then give it back and I’ll give my business to some other pieces of shit who know what they’re doing.” He says this in English, but the hombres get the gist. The pistols are cocked in unison. The guns are raised.

The Jefe of the operation steps out of the truck and says in perfect English with a Spanish accent, “Do you have any idea why you might have been followed here gentlemen if you are not the police?”

“Who followed us?” asks Jeff. The Jefe, in his mid-thirties, lean with a mustache and light-colored cowboy hat, looks up in the sky and says, “The satellites.”

“What?” Jeff is startled. “I swear, I’m just a buyer. I’m a user. This is for my own personal use.”

“No doubt,” says the Jefe. He makes a swift gesture with his head. One of the gun-kids brings the case of cash. “Unfortunately, we cannot help you.” Then he says something quickly to Cuahutemoc who dashes for the car. “Get in, get in,” he says in a frantic whisper.

“Fuck you motherfucker. You piece of shit,” Jeff says and I realize what a death wish is. This guy is trying to kill himself. With drugs or stupidity. Another quick head flick by El Jefe and before I feel any time pass whatsoever the kid who’d brought Jeff the case of money takes the barrel of his gun to the back of Jeff’s skull and lays him out cold. Another dude joins the first and they toss Jeff into the back of the taxi

The Jefe stands there and looks at me. He is curious and bemused. “This isn’t about drugs is it?”

“No sir,” I say.

“You asked for the satellite surveillance. What is this about?” he asks.

“Software,” I say. Here is the moment of delicate truth when professionals recognize a situation and go their separate ways as one operation brushes up against another in the long war.

“Software,” he says thoughtfully. “He’s a pirate?”

“He’s a genius,” I say, “Or he was.”

“Well whoever or whatever he was or is he’s your problem.” Another quick flick of his head and the front door of the taxi is opened by a polite young man with killer’s eyes. Before I disappear into the taxi I say, “I did give you 500 pesos of my own money for a little mota and some coca you know. Do you think…” and before I can finish, one final subtle flick of his head and something is placed into my hand. I get in the car and Cuahutemoc leaves in a rush of spinning dirt and flying rocks.

Jeff is completely out. Cuahutemoc and I have nothing to say to each other. It’s a long dreary drive back to the marina. When we arrive I run down to the dock and get Angela who is looking sleepy bedroom-eyed and high as a kite. I get her into the cab with Jeff, hand Cuahutemoc another five hundred pesos and tell him to take Jeff to the hospital.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting in the salon of Tumbleweed making some notes and sending some email and calling off the exit strategy. A few more weeks in paradise it seems. Maybe a taste of Angela. Waiting. Wanting. For what? Good question. Then it hits me.

My head raises in revelation, “Shit,” I say. I was had. The case of money. Switched. Shit. I was had. I race out of the salon up into the cockpit and jump off the boat onto the dock. I perform the cardinal sin of going aboard someone else’s boat without an invitation to find their boat stripped of all their personal belongings.

It wasn’t a drug buy. It was a software sell. Jeff never cashed out and retired; he went rogue. The Jefe, the smooth bastard, was the buyer. Advanced A.I. Encryption software to shield wire transfers of cartel money to the prying eyes of the NSA money-laundering squad. Transfers which reach into the nexus where crime and government become one. The rabbit hole. The unspeakable.

The whole thing was street theater performed for my benefit by the genius and his benefactors. A nose tweak. 40 years of drug war and they’re always two steps ahead us. Almost makes you think the drug war was designed to fail. Jeff, or more precisely his customer, was on to me from the beginning.

And I presume because I’m sitting in this salon with a few lines laid out and a few joints rolled with tequila shots and beer chasers to make a balanced meal, making some notes, sending emails and executing the exit strategy, I presume everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. The bad guy got away. The good guy was played the fool. And Power enjoys its perpetual win-win game.

 

1 comment

    • Diane G on April 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    heh. excellent.

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