The birds calling to each other in the early morning just after the dawn heralded another perfect day in the lush jungle south of Bogota. Pablo Echeverria, his skin a deep tan, his eyes the darkest brown, his hair almost to his shoulders, pushed back behind his ears, and his beard slightly overgrown, walked out of the hut where he and Paloma lived. She was expecting their first child, and the date was coming near. Paloma was as fair and light-skinned as he was dark, and her name suited her. In Spanish Paloma meant “Dove.” She was a bird of peace in the jungle where they lived and Pablo worked. He was her brother’s right-hand man. Raul Vasquez Lopez was one of the most powerful men in Colombia, despite the simple way they lived. Pablo had been with him for three years, working his way up through the ranks since he had come from Ecuador, and gaining Raul’s trust. They called Raul “El Lobo,” the Wolf. He was cunning, daring, and quick, like a wolf.
Pablo was the son of an Ecuadorian general who had been killed in a military coup, assassinated by rebels. Pablo had turned to the drug trade, and after three years of working on a smaller scale in Ecuador, he had found his way to Raul. And the three years he had spent working for him since had been a satisfying and productive alliance.
Pablo and Paloma weren’t married, and no one cared, he was planning to marry her soon, after the baby was born. For now, he and Raul had other things on their minds. Raul liked the idea of Pablo being with his younger sister. Pablo was not only smart, capable, and trustworthy, he was a good man. Paloma had had no medical care through the eight months of the pregnancy, but at nineteen she was fine. And she was planning to give birth at the camp. Pablo had been reading books about how to help her, and if things started to go wrong, he could drive her the two hours to Bogota. Her brother was twenty years older than she was, and Pablo was twenty-eight, young to have risen so high in Raul’s operation, but Raul knew pure talent when he saw it, and his inquiries about Pablo in Ecuador had proved him right. He prided himself on his infallible judgment about his men, and Pablo had never let him down. He executed Raul’s orders flawlessly, and handled their purchasing and transport operations brilliantly. There had been no problems, and no slips in the three years he’d been there.
Their simple life at the camp suited him. Pablo went to both Bogota and Cartagena for Raul regularly, but he was always happy to get back, meet with Raul, who was like a brother to him now, live with the other men, and come home to Paloma, waiting for him in their hut. He had built it for them himself. In his first year at the camp, he had lived in a military surplus tent with the other men, but once he was with Paloma, they wanted privacy and a space for themselves. She had grown up in Raul’s camps, after their parents died. Her three other brothers worked for Raul as well. And Pablo had rapidly caught her eye, as she had inevitably caught his. Raul had defended her virtue fiercely until then. It was a sign of his deep respect for Pablo that he had entrusted her to him, and given him his consent. To Pablo, she was the ultimate prize. He loved the sweet scent of her skin as he nestled with her at night, her gentleness in all things, and her full belly now, heavy with their child. Raul wanted it to be a boy. Pablo didn’t say it, but he didn’t care. He just wanted it to go easily for her, and the baby to be healthy when it was born. She was a brave girl, used to the primitive conditions in which they lived, and said she wasn’t afraid. Pablo could feel the baby kick him, when she slept behind him with an arm gently cast over him, in the cool night air of the jungle.
Pablo was wearing his old military jacket from Ecuador, with an undershirt, fatigue pants, and his old army boots, as he lit his first cigarette of the day, and took a long drag. He had slipped out, as he always did, without waking Paloma, and had his first cup of coffee with Raul every morning, while they discussed the missions of the day, and the state of their activities in process. They had dealings in Panama, Ecuador, Aruba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Mexico, and exported literally tons of cocaine to Mexico, Canada, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Raul ran the largest and most successful drug operation in South America. They exported it by land, air, and sea via ships and speedboats out of Cartagena. Pablo was in charge of coordinating their transport operation at the highest level. While Raul ran everything from their camp, Pablo slipped quietly into the two cities, checked on operations, conveyed Raul’s orders, and then came back to the camp to report to El Lobo, who ran his vast empire with military precision. Raul was a man worthy of respect and admiration, for the sheer efficiency with which he ran his business. And he had built it all himself, adding one piece of the giant operation to the next, until his arms encompassed much of South America. Pablo was his most trusted legman, but they all knew that Raul was the heart and soul and brains of their business, and ran it all on a grand scale.
Pablo finished the last of his cigarette as he walked into the clearing where Raul made camp. His tent was military and heavily camouflaged, but no one was ever sure where he slept at night. The location was always kept secret even from Pablo, although they met at his tent in the morning to discuss work. But the joke in the camp was that El Lobo slept with the other wolves. The women he slept with were temporary and of no consequence to him, he considered them more of a liability than an asset, and he teased Pablo that he didn’t have his romantic ideas. But it was a weakness he tolerated in him, since it benefited his sister, and Pablo treated her well. Raul was all about business, nothing else mattered to him, except the loyalty of his men. He considered their total dedication to him a sacred trust. And those who failed him in some way rapidly disappeared. Their families, attachments to women, and personal lives were of no interest to him.
He was smoking a Romeo y Julieta limited edition Havana cigar, as he did every morning, when Pablo arrived. He offered one to Pablo from the box on his desk every day, and Pablo always declined. He smoked a cigar with Raul sometimes before he went home at night, but didn’t have the stomach for it first thing in the morning. But he liked the familiar, pungent smell when he walked into the tent, and often brought the cigars for Raul from Bogotá. They were common here, for men like Raul. Despite the way he lived in order to run his business, he was a man of distinguished tastes. He had been educated in Europe, and had gone to Oxford for two years. It made for interesting conversations with Pablo, when they shared a brandy and a cigar late at night. Pablo had been well educated too, from a respectable family. It gave them something more in common than the business interests they shared.
The moment Raul saw Pablo, there was a brotherly light in his eyes. He clapped him on the shoulder, and they embraced. The two men even looked somewhat alike, although Pablo was younger and taller and in flawless shape. Their coloring was similar, as was their military style.
“How is my fat sister?” Raul said, teasing him, as Pablo helped himself to the strong dark brew of coffee that Raul made himself, and drank gallons of, every day. His coffee cup was never empty.
“Getting bigger,” Pablo said proudly. “I think it will be soon.” He was mildly worried about it, but knew better than to say it to Raul, who called him an old woman when he did. Raul knew that Pablo’s soft spot was Paloma, which he always considered a dangerous thing. It was why he never allied himself with any woman, he just used them. He thought women were too risky for that reason, and easily became an Achilles’ heel, but it was a flaw he forgave Pablo, only because Paloma was his sister.
Raul had been sitting, looking at a table full of maps and a list of transport ships, when Pablo walked in. He pushed the list toward Pablo as soon as he sat down, pointing the cigar in the direction of the maps.
“So what do you think? We ship to North Africa tomorrow? And Europe at the end of the week?” He liked to keep things moving and not let the shipments sit for too long after they came in. They had gotten a huge shipment in Cartagena from their supplier the day before, and he wanted to get it out quickly. Despite what they paid in bribes to government officials at all levels, El Lobo knew better than to let the goods sit in warehouses longer than they had to.
“That sounds right,” Pablo said, studying the maps. “I don’t see why we can’t ship to Europe tomorrow too. Why wait till the end of the week?” He pointed to the name of a ship that was smaller than the others but had served them well before. “And Miami, when the next shipment comes in.” Raul nodded. Pablo always planned ahead and was as careful as Raul was himself about moving and storing the goods. They wanted to ship it out as fast as they could on ships they knew were safe.
As they discussed the details and mechanics of it, four other men walked in. Two were in camouflage, the other two in garb similar to what Raul and Pablo wore. They were the silent army of the dark side. And a few minutes later, six more men arrived in the tent, awaiting instructions. Pablo dispatched five of the ten to Bogotá for operations there, and he was planning to take two of the men to Cartagena with him. He didn’t need more. He was an expert marksman, and he preferred traveling in smaller groups. Raul listened while Pablo gave the men instructions, nodded, and silently approved as he relit his cigar. He didn’t offer his cigars to the others, only to Pablo when they were alone, as a mark of the brotherhood they shared.
Half an hour later, five of the men were gone. Three were staying at the camp, with another dozen peppered through the jungle, part of the protection of the camp. Pablo and El Lobo exchanged a few last words then, and Raul nodded as Pablo left with the two men he wanted with him.
“See you tonight,” Pablo said over his shoulder. Pablo always reported in when he got back, to let Raul know how things had gone. They had a vast communication network that functioned efficiently, but Raul and Pablo communicated by phone and e-mail as little as possible, and both preferred it that way. They met in person before and after Pablo’s missions.
Pablo trudged silently through the fierce brush of the jungle for half an hour, until they reached a heavily concealed Jeep. Pablo got behind the wheel, as the two men took away its protective covering, and then they both got in. They drove along a barely serviceable dirt track for a while, and eventually joined a battered narrow road, and stayed on it for half an hour, until they reached a clearing with a narrow airstrip that was barely more than a dirt track but was just long enough for the small plane that landed ten minutes later. Pablo had radioed for it before he left the camp, and it would make it possible for them to cover the thousand miles to Cartagena and return by that night. None of the three men spoke on the flight, and Pablo didn’t say a word to them until they reached the landing strip they used regularly on the outskirts of Cartagena. Pablo was a man of few words.
He was thinking about their various operations being carried out that day, shipments coming in to several cities, others waiting to be moved. They picked up a car at the airstrip that was parked for them there, and drove to a warehouse just outside the city, and from there to a small battered building, which housed their office. It looked completely innocuous, and no one would have suspected the millions of dollars of business being conducted there. Pablo parked the car behind a neighboring house, with chickens wandering through the yard, and walked into the first building through a back door. One of Pablo’s men stayed at the back door, the other moved to the front door. All three of them were armed. And Pablo walked up the creaking stairs to meet three men waiting for him there. He met with them for just under an hour, delivered all of Raul’s instructions, and ascertained that the plan was clear and that they were ready to carry it out. The cocaine was being shipped, concealed in farm equipment, to North Africa, which worked well for them. And the shipment to Europe was being sent with textiles going into Marseilles. It had all been successfully done before without a problem.
Less than an hour later, Pablo was back on the road, to the airstrip, and in the air minutes after they arrived. The mission had gone well. When they reached the camp that night, they carefully concealed the Jeep where it had been before. Raul was waiting for him. Pablo assured him that all had gone according to plan. They handled all their shipping through Cartagena. Raul told him he needed him to go to Bogotá the next day, which was standard procedure for Pablo. He went to one of the cities where they did business almost every day.
“Did you eat?” El Lobo asked him with concern. One of the men had bought sandwiches on the way to the airstrip outside Cartagena. They had other things to occupy them than to worry about meals.
“We ate.” Pablo smiled at him, touched by the fraternal gesture. When they were alone, Raul treated him like a younger brother. And with that, he poured a glass of brandy, pushed it toward him, and offered him a cigar, which this time Pablo accepted. Raul was pleased with how things had gone. He knew he could always count on Pablo to execute his orders to perfection. He had earned the brandy and cigar and El Lobo’s praise.