Read The Cartel Online

Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Cartel (2 page)

In a few moments the men will lower themselves down fast ropes into the village near their target. Even with the element of surprise, there’ll be a firefight. The narco gunmen are protecting their boss and for him they’ll give up their lives. And the
sicarios
are well armed with AK-47s, rocket launchers, and grenades, and know how to use them. These
sicarios
aren’t just thugs, but special forces veterans themselves—trained at Fort Benning and elsewhere. It’s possible that some of the men in the chopper trained some of the men on the ground.

People will be killed.

Appropriate, Keller thinks.

It’s the Day of the Dead.

Now the men hear another sound—the pop of small-arms fire. Looking down, they see muzzle flashes cut through the darkness. A firefight has broken out in the village prematurely—they hear shouted orders and small explosions.

It’s bad—this wasn’t supposed to happen. The mission is compromised, the element of surprise gone, the chance of completing the job without taking casualties probably gone with it.

Then a red streak comes up out of the night.

A loud bang, a flash of yellow light, and the helicopter jolts sideways like a toy that’s been hit by a bat.

Shrapnel sprays, exposed wires spark, the ship is on fire.

Red flame and thick black smoke fill the cabin.

The stench of scorched metal and burned flesh.

One man’s carotid artery spurts in rhythm with his racing heartbeat. Another keels over, shrapnel obscenely jutting from his crotch, just below his protective vest, and the team medic crawls across the deck to help.

Now the voices come from grown men—howls of pain, fear, and rage as tracers fly up and rounds smack the fuselage like a sudden rainstorm.

The chopper spins crazily as it falls toward the earth.

To Arise from Sleep

It is high time for us to arise from sleep.
—Romans 13:11

1

The Beekeepers

We think we can make honey without sharing in the fate of bees.
—Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Abiquiú, New Mexico

2004

The bell rings an hour before dawn.

The beekeeper, released from a nightmare, gets up.

His small cell has a bed, a chair, and a desk. A single small window in the thick adobe wall looks out onto the gravel path, silver in the moonlight, which leads up toward the chapel.

The desert morning is cold. The beekeeper pulls on a brown woolen shirt, khaki trousers, wool socks, and work shoes. Walking down the hall to the communal bathroom, he brushes his teeth, shaves with cold water, and then falls in with the line of monks walking to the chapel.

No one speaks.

Except for chanting, prayers, meetings, and necessary conversation at work, silence is the norm at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

They live by Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.”

The beekeeper likes it that way. He’s heard enough words.

Most of them were lies.

Everyone in his former world, himself included, lied as a matter of course. If nothing else, you had to lie to yourself just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You lied to other people to survive.

Now he seeks truth in silence.

He seeks God in the same, although he has come to believe that truth and God are the same.

Truth, stillness, and God.

When he first arrived, the monks didn’t ask him who he was or where he came from. They saw a man with saddened eyes, his hair still black but streaked with silver, his boxer’s shoulders a little stooped but still strong. He said that he was looking for quiet, and Brother Gregory, the abbot, responded that quietude was the one thing they had in abundance.

The man paid for his small room in cash, and at first spent his days wandering the desert grounds, through the ocotillo and the sage, walking down to the Chama River or up onto the mountain slope. Eventually he found his way into the chapel and knelt in the back as the monks chanted their prayers.

One day his route took him down to the apiary—close to the river because bees need water—and he watched Brother David work the hives. When Brother David needed help moving some frames, as a man approaching eighty did, the man pitched in. After that he went to work at the apiary every day, helping out and learning the craft, and when, months later, Brother David said it was finally time to retire, he suggested that Gregory give the job to the newcomer.

“A layman?” Gregory asked.

“He has a way with the bees,” David answered.

The newcomer did his work quietly and well. He obeyed the rules, came to prayer, and was the best man with the bees they’d ever had. Under his care the hives produced excellent Grade A honey, which the monastery uses in its own brand of ale, or sells to tourists in eight-ounce jars, or peddles on the Internet.

The beekeeper wanted nothing to do with the business aspects. Nor did he want to serve at table for the paying guests who came on retreats, or work in the kitchen or the gift shop. He just wanted to tend his hives.

They left him alone to do that, and he’s been here for over four years. They don’t even know his name. He’s just “the beekeeper.” The Latino monks call him “El Colmenero.” They were surprised that on the first occasion when he spoke to them, it was in fluent Spanish.

The monks talked about him, of course, in the brief times when they were allowed casual conversation. The beekeeper was a wanted man, a gangster, a bank robber. No, he’d fled an unhappy marriage, a scandal, a tragic affair. No, he was a spy.

The last theory gained particular credence after the incident with the rabbit.

The monastery had a large vegetable garden that the monks depended upon for their produce. Like most gardens, it was a lure for pests, but there was one particular rabbit that was wreaking absolute havoc. After a contentious meeting, Brother Gregory gave permission for—in fact, insisted upon—the rabbit’s execution.

Brother Carlos was assigned the task and was standing outside the garden trying to handle both the CO
2
pistol and his conscience—neither very successfully—as the other monks looked on. Carlos’s hand shook and his eyes filled with tears as he lifted the pistol and tried to pull the trigger.

Just then El Colmenero walked by on his way up from the apiary. Without breaking stride, he took the pistol from Brother Carlos’s hand and, without seeming to aim or even look, fired. The pellet hit the rabbit in the brain, killing it instantly, and the beekeeper handed the pistol back and kept walking.

After that, the speculation was that he had been a special agent, an 007. Brother Gregory put a stop to the gossip, which is, after all, a sin.

“He’s a man seeking God,” the abbot said. “That’s all.”

Now the beekeeper walks to the chapel for Vigils, which begin at 4:00 a.m. sharp.

The chapel is simple adobe, its stone foundations hewn from the red rock cliffs that flank the southern edge of the monastery. The cross is wooden and sun-worn; inside, a single crucifix hangs over the altar.

The beekeeper goes in and kneels.

Catholicism was the religion of his youth. He was a daily communicant until he fell away. There seemed little point, he felt so far from God. Now he chants the Fifty-first Psalm along with the monks, in Latin: “O Lord, open up my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

The chanting lulls him into a near trance, and he’s surprised, as always, when the hour is over and it’s time to go to the dining hall for break-fast, invariably oatmeal with dry wheat toast and tea. Then it’s back to prayer, Lauds, just as the sun is coming up over the mountains.

He’s come to love this place, especially in the early morning, when the delicate light hits the adobe buildings and the sun sets the Chama River shimmering gold. He revels in those first rays of warmth, on the cactus taking shape out of the darkness, on the crunch of his feet on the gravel.

There is simplicity here, and peace, and that’s all he really wants.

Or needs.

The days are the same in their routine: Vigils from 4:00 to 5:15, followed by breakfast. Then Lauds from 6:00 to 9:00, work from 9:00 to 12:40, then a quick, simple lunch. The monks work until Vespers at 5:50, have a light supper at 6:20, then Compline at 7:30. Then they go to bed.

The beekeeper likes the discipline and the regimentation, the long hours of quiet work and the longer hours of prayer. Especially Vigils, because he loves the recitation of the Psalms.

After Lauds, he walks down into the valley to the apiary.

His bees—western honeybees,
Apis mellifera
—are coming out now in the early morning warmth. They’re immigrants—the species originated in North Africa and was transported to America via Spanish colonists back in the 1600s. Their lives are short—a worker bee might survive from a few weeks to a few months; a queen might reign for three to four years, although some have been known to live for as long as eight. The beekeeper has grown used to the attrition—a full 1 percent of his bees die every day, meaning that an entirely new population inhabits a colony every four months.

It doesn’t matter.

The colony is a superorganism, that is, an organism consisting of many organisms.

The individual doesn’t matter.

All that matters is the survival of the colony and the production of honey.

The twenty Langstroth hives are built of red cedar with rectangular movable frames, as convenience dictates and the law demands. The beekeeper takes the outer cover from the honey-super of one of the hives and sees that it’s thick with wax, then carefully replaces it so as not to disturb the bees.

He checks the water trough to make sure it’s fresh.

Then he removes the lowest tray from one of the hives, takes out the Sig Sauer 9mm pistol, and checks the load.

Metropolitan Correctional Center

San Diego, California

2004

The prisoner’s day starts early.

An automated horn wakes Adán Barrera at 6:00 a.m., and if he were in the general population instead of protective custody, he would go to the dining quad for breakfast at 6:15. Instead, the guards slip a tray with cold cereal and a plastic cup of weak orange juice through a slot in his door of his cell, a twelve-by-six-foot cage in the special housing unit on the top floor of the federal facility in downtown San Diego where for over a year Adán Barrera has spent twenty-three hours a day.

The cell doesn’t have a window, but if it did he could see the brown hills of Tijuana, the city he once ruled like a prince. It’s that close, just across the border, a few miles by land, even closer across the water, and yet a universe away.

Adán doesn’t mind not eating with the other prisoners—their conversation is idiotic and the threat is real. There are many people who want him dead—in Tijuana, all across Mexico, even in the States.

Some for revenge, others from fear.

Adán Barrera doesn’t look fearsome. Diminutive at five foot six, and slender, he still has a boyish face that matches his soft brown eyes. Far from a threat, he resembles more a victim who would be raped in ten seconds in the general population. Looking at him, it’s hard to credit that he has ordered hundreds of killings over his life, that he was a multibillionaire, more powerful than the presidents of many countries.

Before his fall, Adán Barrera was “El Señor de los Cielos,” “the Lord of the Skies,” the most powerful drug
patrón
in the world, the man who had unified the Mexican cartels under his leadership, gave orders to thousands of men and women, influenced governments and economies.

He owned mansions, ranches, private airplanes.

Now he has the maximum-allowed $290 in a prison account from which he can draw to buy shaving cream, Coca-Cola, and ramen noodles. He has a blanket, two sheets, and a towel. Instead of his custom-tailored black suits, he wears an orange jumpsuit, a white T-shirt, and a ridiculous pair of black Crocs. He owns two pairs of white socks and two pairs of Jockey undershorts. He sits alone in a cage, eats garbage brought in on a tray, and waits for the show trial that will send him to another living hell for the rest of his life.

Actually
several
lives, to be accurate, as he faces multiple life sentences under the “kingpin statutes.” The American prosecutors have tried to get him to “flip,” to become an informer, but he’s refused. An informer—a
dedo,
a
soplón—
is the lowest form of human life, a creature that does not deserve to live. Adán has his own code—he would rather die, or endure this living death, than become such an animal.

He’s fifty—the best-case scenario, extremely doubtful, is that he gets thirty years. Even with “time served” he’ll be in his seventies before he walks out the door.

More probably he’ll be carried out in a box.

The slow trudge to trial drags on.

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