Pay to the Order of Puerto Rico
By Alexander Odishelidze and Arthur Laffer
(Complete work below in “Must Axxess Files” box.)
Vignette 1: Moncho’s other Family Business
The small boat rocked gently against the dock under the warehouse roof. Moncho and his brother Juanito and their cousin Augustin climbed aboard, pulling the drawstrings of their windbreakers tightly around their waists.
* * * *
Moncho was born and raised in the same town where he lives now, as were his father, his mother, his grandparents and great grandparents, as far back as he can trace his bloodline. He is a respected businessman, a local seafood restaurant owner and fish wholesaler/retailer in a small town on the south coast of Puerto Rico. He lives on the water with his wife and three children, just outside of town, about 500 yards down the road from his restaurant and warehouse. Moncho is successful in his trade, a member of the local Lions Club and also of the local Masonic Temple. He owns a very fast 42-foot sport fishing boat, which he can anchor outside his house or moor inside the warehouse.
Moncho has another trade as well. He uses his boat to pick up bales of cocaine and heroin that have been dropped off some 15 to 20 miles off the southern coast of Puerto Rico by either larger vessels or airplanes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama.
The boat and a satellite homing device were the key tools of that trade. Moncho would set out in the night with his brother and cousin and they would locate the floating contraband. They would haul it aboard swiftly, rev the engine full, and return home at high speed, with Juanito at the helm and he and Augustin busy on the narrow deck, transferring the bales into suitcases. Once they were home, the suitcases would be packed into boxes and crates, just like the ones he used for supplies and even fish in his restaurant and wholesaling business.
On a typical night, he and his relatives would bring back a load of 500 kilos, more than 1,000 pounds, of cocaine and heroin. The round-trip took little more than four hours, beginning at midnight. By the time they were within the walls of the warehouse and easing up to the dock, the drugs would have been broken down into about 25 suitcases or other travel bags, ready for sealing up. Moncho and Juanito would lift the bags onto the warehouse concrete, next to the restaurant, while Augustin would “take a look around” to make sure no one was taking any special interest in their night fishing trip. Two hours later, the small vans and private cars would begin to pull up to the warehouse. They would pick the boxes, to all appearances the usual product of Moncho’s trade. These vehicles did not attract the attention of the police. They looked like all the other trucks and cars that rolled up to Moncho’s every morning to pick up the previous day’s catch. Each vehicle would take two or three boxes, with one or two suitcases inside. Loading itself did not take long, but the vehicles did not arrive together. That would not look right. They came at intervals, and by noontime all the boxes would be loaded in the six or so vehicles needed for this transaction.
Once they were gone, so was the evidence, save perhaps a large quantity of cash that would have to be hidden among Moncho’s legitimate profits. Moncho and company did not have to do very much night fishing like this. Two or three times a year were enough to yield him and his family a cool $700,000 plus per year. Non-taxable, too. His regular business was profitable and he paid taxes on it. He did not have to worry about the Internal Revenue Service. This was a local business and there would no IRS scrutiny.
Moncho knew that his take was small change in the big picture. He was passing along drugs that were worth a minimum of $30 to $40 million, and perhaps as much as $150 million when it was cut up, diluted, and sold on street corners and in parks. His own portion would go for spending money, or real estate, or some speculation in the stock market. With Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, and Charles Schwab, Moncho keeps more than $6 million in stocks, bonds, and GNMAE’s. It was good business, a lot less work than the warehouse and the restaurant. It was worth the risk, Moncho thought. A trip every four months. Lots of others do it, too, spreading the risk around.
Once in awhile, someone got caught. He, Juanito, and Augustin had been at it several years. It had all started with a seemingly casual question from a visitor to the restaurant, a political discussion about drugs and the government’s many crackdowns. It turned out to be a proposition, not politics. Moncho was surprised at how readily he agreed. But someone was going to go to the bank and it might as well be him …
* * * *
It was hot in the tropics, even at night, but soon the speed of the boat and the spray from the ocean would pelt and chill them. The wind would push up from the south, soft and insistent, hinting of the Venezuelan jungles hundreds of miles away. They were used to this
trip and its discomforts.
Moncho and his companions worked quietly and quickly, Juanito storing a few items for the trip — food packets wrapped in canvas, the squat barrels of gasoline, a small radio, the fishing tackle they would not use — and Augustin tending to the massive outboard engine that kept the nose of the boat high in the water as it skimmed across the surface.
The trip was not long, but there was time to think. Moncho was not an unreflective man. As a youth, he had dreamed of the green diamonds of America, of playing baseball under the bright lights before big crowds. He could handle a bat and play the game. He loved the legendary “Baby Bull” and read about his father, but there were others, even in his neighborhood, who could play the game better, and only the best – the heroes – went north in the spring. Now here he was, under the dim lights of the Caribbean stars, a few twinkling signs of human habitation on the distant horizon behind him. He and the others were surrounded by silence,
except for the purring of the motors.
Hernando, another cousin, was in the marijuana trade. He sold the stuff on the island. Sampled some for himself, Moncho thought.
It was grown the old way. He wanted no part of that action. The product was bulky, and selling it directly to the users brought one into contact with all sorts of unsavory characters. It did not seem like business. The coca plant and the poppy were different. A small amount went a long way. The profits were excellent. He and Juanito and Augustin were middlemen. They spent most of their time at their legal labors. They did not deal with the users. For them what they hauled out of the water may as well have been flour or sugar except for the payoff that they banked for every trip.
“I would never do that,” Moncho said to himself. He let out the throttle a little on the go-fast boat. Like Orion striding down the night sky above him, Moncho knew his place in his small universe.
He was a middleman, yes, but trafficking in this part of the world meant fewer middlemen than there were along the land routes from Colombia, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the States. It was essential to buy one’s passage from the people in power, if you went by land. “And they do nothing,” he thought to himself, “but hold out their palms as the drugs pass. I am fortunate, there are no palms to cross out here. What is mine, I keep.”
The speedboat was now five miles from shore. Juanito and Augustin had finished their minimal duties and lay stretched out across the watertight boxes that lined one wall of the boat, ready to
receive their “catch.” Moncho spied the dark form of Caja de Muertos ahead and to his right. The intermittent gleam of its lighthouse flickered across his line of sight. Caja de Muertos. “Coffin Island,” they also called it. He had steered around its scrubby edges many times, but it was without interest.
The night was predicted to remain clear (“no weather” was good weather), and there would be no moon for another four hours. By then he and his companions would be at the drop site. No need for speed now. The water was smooth. Moncho mused that he could practically sleep at the helm and arrive safely, so straight was his direction.
Across open sea the speedboat could do 40 knots. “A to’ meter,” as Moncho would call it in his Boriqua jargon. It could be exhilarating. Moncho glanced at his instruments from time to time. It was uneventful and he had made this trip too many times for excitement, but there was a thrill to this thing, an adventure, money to be made, and, almost more exciting, a chance something could go wrong. Now as the foam of the northern Caribbean flew past the boat’s flanks, time sped up as well. They should pick up the signal from the bales soon. He turned to Augustin and nodded. Augustin adjusted the headset.
Moncho first confirmed the drop. He selected the frequency, pulled the microphone to his lips, and spoke three words that would be cryptic to anyone but the intended recipient. “Vamos mete
mano.” The reply was two words. “Pa’lante.” Fifteen more minutes and they were within range of the floating bales. The signal in Augustin’s ears was strong now. Five minutes more and they were alongside the bales, bobbing in the moonlight.
The three men hauled their catch aboard. It was best to get it done and not to linger. Juanito lifted the false bottom from the interior of the watertight containers. From Moncho to Augustin, five hundred kilos of sealed packets passed, then quickly to Julio, who thrust them into the containers, a second layer of plastic shielding the precious powder from the elements. A few more moments and the fishing trip had accomplished its purpose. The catch was aboard. Juanito had brought along a crate full of yesterday’s real catch, which he spread over the packets.
Moncho grinned and said nothing. He stood once more at the helm and turned his boat back to the north. No other boats were in sight. Not this night. Perhaps they had come earlier and picked up other bales from the same freighter. The drops were probably miles apart and the couriers were likely from other southern ports. Moncho and his partners did not view themselves as in league with them. In truth, they scarcely knew who they were. Some might even wear badges or sit at government desks in their regular jobs.
Moncho had no desire to know them. He was paid well. And it was not graft. He worked hard for his money, took the risk, and he was proud of this.
Now the difficult part of the trip began. Already in the east the sky was lightening a little. Distant clouds sent their gray fingers into the sky. It was an active sky, but not threatening. A shower, perhaps. But they would reach the warehouse before it hit. He was confident of his craft’s abilities. No, what nervousness he had was from the nature of his cargo, and one half-decayed load of fish was not going to disguise that. Concealment on the boat was only useful for casual inspections. It would not fool the police. No, to be stopped was to be caught. There was no point in carrying firearms.
He was in this trade for a better life, not an early death. The speedboats almost always got through. If they did not, surrender was the only option.
In his heart, Moncho envied the land-based couriers who would take the cocaine by road up to San Juan. They could be more creative and less conspicuous. Sometimes he and Juanito did this themselves. “One less mouth to feed,” he thought. The ship’s officers in the Port of San Juan who helped them, for a fee, had it even better. They had thousands of containers in their control to choose from for hiding places. They operated from one of the busiest ports in the world. The drug police had many investigators but few interceptors.
Interdiction was dangerous work, and those who did it often came to see it as futile. Still, Moncho was worried. Word on the street was that more pressure was coming. More Americans. They missed most of the drugs coming through, but they liked their shows of strength.
The speedboat made its way north across the sea. They wanted to be inside the warehouse before 4:00 a.m. The return trip to Puerto Rico always seemed slower. It was the clock wound by anxiety’s hand. He knew that they could outrun anything U.S. Customs or the Coast Guard had. The Puerto Rican patrol boats were no match for them, either. Moncho pressed down on the throttle for the last push.
That was when he saw it. “Y se quedó pasmao!” He froze!
Actually, Juanito and Augustin saw it first, streaking across the water toward them. It made no spray. It was a helicopter, 200 feet above the water, approaching from their right. Moncho turned. His companions’ eyes told him it was true. It was too early for a recreational flight. Businessmen did not fly this low or this fast. Forty knots would not be of much use if they turned and ran, that was clear. Moncho nodded. Julio turned and pulled up the container lids. He struggled with the false bottoms. Their precious cargo was about to make a visit to the deep. The macabi looked very forlorn as an alibi. Was it a crime to be a poor fisherman?
The helicopter was fast, too fast, but it was not as fast as the bullets that raked over the heads of the three men. Reflexively, Moncho eased up on the throttle, guiding the boat in a circle. His turn brought him parallel to the helicopter’s course. In an instant, the Blackhawk was upon them, and the restaurateur-drug runners could see its markings clearly, lit by the chopper’s running lights.
They could also see the marksman poised in its doorway, the .50-caliber automatic rifle trained on the boat, their speeds now matched.
“Puñeta,” Moncho muttered under his breath. They were like a dog on a leash now, being taken for a walk. Soon the dogcatchers would be here, too, the cutter or the local patrol boat, maybe both. Juanito slammed down the container lids. He shook his fist in the air. Ricardo cursed again. Of all the dumb luck. He had heard about the Blackhawks and the MH90s. And maybe this gunman was El Diablo, the sharpshooter they had been told about. But there were hundreds of go-fast boats and thousands of square miles of ocean.
What were the chances?
Moncho cut the engine. His wife and children would be surprised, he mused. They thought these are fishing trips were a remnant of his bachelorhood, a night out with his brother and cousin, a harmless if annoying pastime. Now they would find out it was something else. And he would get the questions. It was a good thing he knew so little. So little about the visitor, the freighters and their origins, the trucks and their owners. He and Juanito and Augustin were small pieces of the puzzle. The Americans wanted the big fish. They were going to be disappointed, he thought.