March 1979, Acandi, Columbia
The helicopter flight was quick. A first for both Juan and I, and a Russian helicopter no less. We circled the small city by the Caribbean Sea. It looked like a seaside resort: sunny, warm, inviting, and beautiful. We flew a few miles to the north. Hovering over a clearing, the pilot landed us on the ground.
The co-pilot came to the cargo area where we sat. In English, he said, “Please get out; get out now! This is the end of the deal. Get out now!” We grabbed our bags and jumped as the co-pilot yelled, “Good luck; you’re going to need it!”
I glanced at Juan as the chopper lifted off in a cloud of leaves and dust. We’d been dropped in a small clearing surrounded by a thick forest. A clear-cut path a good distance back trailed off to some industrial buildings.
It was warmer here and still humid, but the trees were different. This area didn’t have the jungle feel. It was more like a dense, tropical forest. I didn’t feel the pressing, endless danger of the jungle here. The Darian seemed to have ten ways to kill you at any given moment. If one way failed, the next one was waiting for you around the bend. Here was different.
Here a dead man was hanging from the tree.
“WHAT THE FUCK?” I screamed. The stench of his rotting carcass hit me, and I gagged. “What the fuck, Juan!” I fell to my knees as my eyes found another, and another, and another. A forest of corpses dangling by their necks, frozen horror across their faces, surrounded us. The tortured bodies of men and women, young and old, fat and skinny, some reduced to skeletons and rags, lined the path.
I felt Juan drop to his knees next to me. Ashen and shaking, his forehead touched the grass. I heard him breathe a prayer into the ground, a desperate plea.
I didn’t bother. There was no God here.
“This is cartel.” Juan’s voice cracked as he spoke. He rose from the ground, kneeling on a piles of leaves. “I heard about this stuff at home, in Medellin. I’d never seen it. I wanted to think it was just legend. This is a warning, Richie, a deterrent.” He shivered, but his eyes focused ahead on the dirt path. “We are soldiers now. We have a job and a mission. So, if we keep our heads down, mind our own business, we will not end up in these trees.”
We picked up our bags, eyes in the dirt, and moved forward. The gruesome scene surrounding us called to me. I’d never seen anything like this, and it was hard to stop looking. I forced my head down, but the cold corpses continued to whisper to me, their unseeing eyes counting my every step.
Mid-way through the half-mile walk to the buildings, we became surrounded by a group of heavily armed men. We dropped our bags, hands in the air. I looked up and saw I was directly under the rotting body of what looked like a young woman. A commando jammed a machine gun in my right ribcage, forcing my gaze down.
If they planned to kill us, kill us. But Jesus, don’t hang us from a fucking tree.
These guys were dressed in U.S. Army surplus, much like what I’d worn for almost a month on our trek in the jungle. They shoved a Soviet-built machine gun into Juan’s gut, but he held their gaze, challenging them. In rapid-fire Spanish, Juan motioned to me, then to the building, then to the clearing where the helicopter landed.
A young boy, his face smooth, stepped into the tight circle. I put him at maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. He jammed a gun in my face. I felt someone kick me behind the knee, and I shoved my hands in my pockets as I dropped. Opening my eyes from the ground, I looked up at the corpse in the tree. The woman’s mouth was torn on the side, the gash black and rotting, creating a permanent frown. I wondered who she had smiled at last before they cut her, before they hung her scowling corpse from this tree forever.
If I was going to die here, like this, I could only hope they killed me fast.
The kid lowered his gun: a naive mistake. In my pocket, I found my switchblade. I used the same knife to kill that kid my first night in Yaziva. I was about to draw blood with it again.
In one arcing motion, I pulled the knife from my pocket and caught the kid in front of me. A flash of chrome and flesh filled my vision. His kneecaps buckled, gushing hot, red blood across my hands. He screamed and fell to the ground. None of his friends moved to help him.
Juan swore in Spanish, put his arms down, and motioned to me to stand.
“Welcome to Acandi; you brought a knife to machine gun fight. That’s good, they know now you’re a fucking idiot!” He shook his head. “You’re lucky that was a kid. A soldier would have killed you on the spot for way less.”
The kid with the bloody knees was in a panic; an older soldier slapped him hard across the face. Standing, we picked up our bags and strolled – still surrounded, but the guns now down – into the building. It was a bulky structure, the walls made of layered cinder blocks with small windows up near the roofline that let in thin rays of sunlight. Designed for privacy and production, the building felt unwelcoming, clinical. Two large pipes dumped foul-smelling chemicals into the air; I suppressed a sneeze, and began breathing through my mouth.
Two double-locking, steel doors opened into the plant, and a tall, thin, Middle-Eastern man greeted us with a cold smile. Behind him, a dozen men and women were working, moving bags and boxes back and forth. The man stood, hands in pockets, and looked at Juan and me as our armed escorts broke rank around us.
I recognized him. Juan recognized him. And he recognized us.
He motioned to a small office in the front, right-hand corner of the building. We followed him in.
The office was cramped and dark. Two, cheap, metal and plastic chairs sat across from the door. The walls were covered in some kind of late-1970’s, pseudo-wood paneling. To the left of the door were a desk and a chair. The room was impeccably neat: no papers on the desk, no pictures on the wall. The only other object in the room was a shortwave radio, similar to the one I saw in the hut in the Darian. It sat on a wooden stand in the corner.
Juan and I stood inside and waited.
The Middle-Eastern man walked in with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Scotch in his hand. Juan and I looked at each other in silent disbelief. Was this guy welcoming us or playing some weird, twisted game?
On the edge of the desk, he filled three glasses, pouring slowly. He took one and walked around the other side of the desk. He spoke: “English?” We both nodded and reached for our glasses.
Forgetting for a moment the Johnnie Walker Black, our favorite, this scene was eerily reminiscent of last year, back in New York. The room had a similar vibe: Juan and I were about to set out on to do a job with, at best, an uncertain outcome. This man, we knew he was the infamous prince, was no Vinny. There was a grimy feel to this guy. He looked like a famous porn star – a thick black mustache, a thin face with tightly spaced beady eyes, curly black hair grown into an out-of-place Afro – but I couldn’t recall the guy's name.
The prince wore a ridiculous multicolored, patterned shirt, with flowers and birds all over it. It was buttoned half way down, trying to cover a growing belly. I used to see guys in the Bronx wearing shit like this with their leisure suits. Sometimes, Juan and I would hold them up and rob them just as punishment for walking around in such an affront to manhood – fuck that – an affront to adulthood. We hated leisure suits.
A very hairy chest was the resting place for multiple gold chains that adorned the prince’s neck, some kind of Ramshorn and other crap I could not decipher. Perhaps he thought himself quite the stud. I thought to myself, “I should hook him up with Nicola!”
That image made me laugh and fake a cough. She’d kill this fuck.
The prince appeared very nervous, edgy, and tense – intense. He spoke first. “My name is Adir. I know exactly who you two clowns are. I’m not impressed. I was not impressed last December when you tried to kill me.
“You two owe me one hundred and twenty thousand US that will come off the top. If you fuck up, even once, if I even think either one of you fucked up, or you are fucking me, both of you will end up in the trees. I’ll kill you and hang you there myself. You should be wondering why I haven’t killed you already…”
“Things here are getting tense. When I heard through Juan’s family you two were here in country I decided it was better to have you on my side and where I could watch you. Men who can take orders and follow a plan are hard to come by. That buys you a little. You may prove useful to me, but you get one chance – or you’ll end up in the trees. I’ll hang you there from the neck still breathing. That’s how I do it, I’ll let you die and rot in the trees.”
“I was brought to the U.S. and here to set up and run two key operations. Moving product from Medellin and directing product from here into the U.S.” He looked squarely at Juan. “I know your family in that town. Again, don’t ever fuck me.” The prince took a sip of his drink and set it down on the desk.
“This place here,” he continued, “this building is where, on a very small scale, we process the best of the best coke into crack, freebase cocaine. That product is shipped in various ways to some very high-level U.S. government officials: politicians and U.S. corporate CEOs. We provide a steady, undetectable stream of product into the hands of these shit-heads.”
“That is to say, we did. We did until one or more CIA spooks went rogue and fucked up the entire operation. Now the game has changed. We work for the Soviets now. What complete, arrogant assholes.” He crossed his arms and looked at us through his dark, narrow eyes. “You two will have very specific jobs. There may be times where I tell you to kill for me. There are days I’d like to kill the entire Soviet operation here. It’s too much intrigue and cloak and dagger dealing with the CIA, still, and the Russians. We can all make a lot of money and go home rich someday soon, if – if – you don’t fuck with me.”
“I know you two blame me or blamed me for the atrocities that befell your families.” He relaxed his arms and grabbed for his drink. “Family is important to me, and I need to look you both in the eye and tell you that I had nothing to do with this. I am here to make money. People get hurt and killed sometimes, that’s true, but I do not and will not punish families. Business is conducted between those of us in the business. And that is where it ends.”
His gaze held ours while he said this. I glanced at Juan and him at me. We did. We believed him. We nodded.
“I’ve talked to your friend Vinny,” he continued. “I needed to assure him too. The ambush on me last year is forgotten, except for my money you two owe me. The American CIA brought me here to run this operation for them. I don’t know if they were involved, but I suspect. We’ll all find out the answer to this in time, together.”
He raised his glass to us. He saluted us. We returned the gesture and drank.
Adir put down his empty drink and rubbed his hands, back to the business at hand. “We are breaking up the two of you,” he said. “For a number of reasons, Juan Carlos, you will run an operation of boats out of Neocoli, across the bay. You were a boatman as a boy, I’m told, before you left Columbia.” He looked at me. “Mr. O’Malley, you’ll be driving a bus. Three trips a week.”
“A bus?” I said, not hiding my indignation. “A fucking bus?”
“Yes,” replied Adir, “a bus. A bus full of children and coke. The mission is coke, and the kids are the cover. Most of those kids are orphaned, or their parents are in prison. Don’t give me shit about the kids either. The system works. Very few have been killed or hurt. Right now, as we speak, a billion people are fucking across the world. It’s easy to make kids. Coke is more work and much more valuable.”
I looked down at the floor. Adir filled my glass again.
“Look,” said Adir, “before you protest, before you get on a pedestal, we own the church here. The kids, they all come from the church. You’ll take a nun and one or two kids for a ride. No one will fuck with the bus taking the orphans and nuns to a church orphanage. The nuns are with us. We borrow the kids.” He paused. “Try not to fuck the nuns.”
I shifted my weight and looked at the floor.
“When the CIA was here, it was all good,” said Adir. His voice was calmer now, the emotion from before gone. “Then that one asshole fucked it all up. Now, we are playing both sides of the game. The game gets ugly sometimes. Your job is to protect the coke. If you protect the coke, the kids will be safe too.
“Go get some supplies out in the back. A boat is waiting for you. You’ll find your jobs and how it all fits together when you get to Neocoli. “Just do your jobs.” Prince Adir walked out of the room, the door shutting behind him.
Juan threw his glass on the floor and turned to me. His eyes were on fire. “Did you learn nothing in the jungle, Richie? Do you need another month in that fucking jungle? I did two trips for us, and during one of them you stayed back and got your dick sucked by my cousin. Did that jungle not teach you anything? It taught me plenty. It taught me I am not ever, fucking ever, going back. That trip was supposed to strip you and leave you bare. Maybe you need another trip too? You are here. I am here. We will do as we are told!”
“Fuck you, Juan.” I threw my glass on the floor too. “Fuck you,” I said, again. “Fuck your bullshit little tests, and fuck your threats. You know what Juan? I’m glad we’re being separated. I think I’ve had enough of you and your fucked up games.” I leaned in close to his face, spit flying from my mouth. “The oil change, the first night in Yaziva, the kid in the jungle – I’m sick of your tests and lessons Juan. Those assholes outside the door here in the trees? What the fuck Juan? What the flying fuck?”
I walked out of the office, the door slamming behind me, and into the back of the building. A young kid was there. I told him I was there for supplies. I grabbed a bag, picked up a Russian machine gun, and walked down to the beach to wait for our boat across the bay to Neocoli.
A few minutes later, Juan came up next to me to wait.
“This split is a good thing,” I said. “It’s well past time. Since we’ve been in Central America, you’ve had an attitude like this is your turf and your show. I can assure you I’ll do fine on my own.”
The boat pulled up to the beach. The day had turned hot and sunny. The quiet bay was churned up by the wake of other craft, many of them fishing boats. Our boat, a Boston Whaler was larger than the others. Juan climbed in first and looked it over. I figured this was going to be his boat. Fine. Juan sat in the front, and I sat in the back. We both cradled our weapons on our laps, staring at each other. I realized for the first time that I could kill Juan as easily as I could kill anyone. My allegiance to anyone and anything was completely gone.
Juan got up and went by the skipper of this little ship. I heard them discussing storage places and the benefits of this boat for smuggling. I tuned out their chatter and watched the waves. The thirty-mile crossing took about two hours. I was anxious to get to where I was going to be working. I was anxious to get away from Juan Carlos.
The large boat finally pulled up to a frail and weatherworn dock. I hopped out of the boat as soon as it was close enough to the slip. I was never much for boats, especially long boat rides.
Neocoli was a shock: postcard pretty, beige sand, palm trees, deep blue water, and clear skies. It was possibly the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, so different from anywhere in New York, and so far from the Hell of the jungle, from Yaziva and Nicola.
A kid, maybe my age, was waiting for me in a Jeep. I looked at Juan, and he looked at me. We walked toward each other, slowly. Both of us with hands in our pockets, looking down. I said, “I guess this is how it is now. Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, you too Richie.” Juan walked over to the Jeep and spoke to the kid in Spanish. He walked back to me and said, “The kid speaks English.” Then, he walked back toward the boat, and I climbed into the Jeep.
We drove along some decent, secondary roads. For some reason, I had in my mind that once the road ended in Yaziva, everything south of there, presumably all the way to the Antarctic, were old beat-up, potholed dirt paths.
The driver, Eric, told me to get used this road. It was going to be a six-hour drive, and I’d be spending a lot of time on it.
I was miserable. I was tired as Hell, and the drive was rough. I realized I wasn’t completely recovered from the time in the Darian. Time alone for me was rare, and I feared solitude. These were the moments when, without the benefit of distractions, I had to face myself and what I’d done. I laughed to myself, my chin encased in my right hand, feeling this week’s stubble, looking off into the bushes, trees, the endless greenery and blue sky. I thought about the days when we used to count the dead. We used to tally and say, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to count my father; that makes nine.” Then more numbers were added. “Or fifteen, or twenty-five, or whatever... The numbers were now meaningless, one or a hundred or two hundred or twenty. One was too many…”
I killed that kid, Rafe, in the jungle. Perhaps that was mercy. If it was, it might have been the closest I’ve ever come to being merciful. But that kid, he didn’t even register. An act that could and should haunt someone all of their days, to me, was as significant as taking a piss or eating a sandwich. I realized, for the first time driving down that road, that I’d really lost count. That, in and of itself, should have scared me and made me want to run for shelter. It didn’t.
The kid was right: six hours later, and well after dark, we arrived in Medellin. It looked unlike what I’d expected. These past few months driving through the US Deep South, into Mexico, and then down into Central America, all were small towns and villages, made me think there were no big cities in South America. Medellin was pretty at night. Tall buildings rose in the center, seeming to rise right up out of the smaller, surrounding homes and shacks. A million lights lit the night sky. Palm trees swayed in the warm evening breeze.
Eric told me we would go to a place for food and meet my contacts. He drove fast through the poorly lit, narrow streets, nearly sideswiping cars parked along the curb. We pulled in front of what I assumed was a bar or a club of some sort.
He jumped from the Jeep, and we walked to the door. A fast exchange in Spanish ensued, and we were rushed to a small, cramped, back room through a narrow, smoky hallway. A bar was to our right. The mirror behind the bar advertised cigarettes and local beers. We vanished through the door almost hidden from view in the humid darkness.
A table, four chairs, and a woman were the only things in the dark room. I sat down and asked Eric if I could bum a cigarette. The woman offered me one instead, and I took it from her long-fingers noticing her full lips and sultry green eyes. I gave her a smile and lit up just as a large man walked into the room. Dressed in a clean suit, freshly shaven, he looked out of place.
Holding a drink in his hand, he eyed me up and down and said, “You are my nephew Juan’s friend from America? He speaks highly of you, said you are tough. You’d better fucking be.”
I was in no mood for yet another challenge. What the Hell was with these people? I inhaled my cigarette and said, “I am all that and more, and I need a fucking drink!”
I got up, exited the room, went to the bar, ordered a shot and a beer, and walked again into the back room. I sat down. I missed Juan. Good or bad with us, he was my best friend. The best and only friend I had for probably eight-thousand miles.
The suit looked annoyed. I was past the point of caring. “This is Sister Carmella,” he continued, “she is the nun from the orphanage.”
I choked on my drink. Sister Carmella was going to make it difficult to keep my promise to Adir. Her eyes narrowed as I wiped the beer off my chin, and I couldn’t help my eyes as they wandered down her curvaceous, petite body. Her one hand was wrapped around a bottle of good, Russian vodka, the other a half-empty glass of beer. I couldn’t help but imagine what was hiding under her conservative nun’s habit.
“She will accompany you with the children on your trips. I expect three trips a week. You will be the middle bus in a caravan of three vehicles. The front and rear will be heavily armed. Your job is to get the product on the bus to Necocli.” Juan’s uncle grunted and took a sip of his drink. “This is a new approach; we’ve had to adapt. We’re supplying the Soviets now. There are still a few American assholes hanging around here though. If they cause any shit, you need to kill them. It’s better if an American kills an American.
“Meet here tomorrow at six a.m. Be ready to drive.”
Juan’s uncle – I never got his name and wasn’t even sure he was Juan’s uncle – put down his glass. He smiled at Sister Carmella and walked out, leaving Eric and me alone with her. Eric motioned above and told me to ask the bartender about room there. He left too.
“So,” I said, turning toward Sister Carmella. “Are you a real nun?”
Sister Carmella poured down the last of the bottle, took a drag off a cigarette and said, “So, are you a real gangster?”
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