The Cartel (80 page)

“It’s a military camp,” Orduña says. “A bivouac.”

“Like special forces might build?” Keller asks.

They do another satellite run for closer images and get them. Perusing the new photos, Keller can clearly see men dressed in military-style uniforms around the tent sites, jeeps with mounted machine guns, “bush kitchens,” and latrines.

The village itself seems oddly deserted.

No kids in the schoolyard.

Few people around the church.

There are some civilians, most of them seem to be women, but not as many as you would expect from the number of houses.

“The Zetas have taken over,” Orduña says, “moved most of the people out and kept only enough to service their basic needs.”

Cooking, Keller thinks.

Cleaning.

Sleeping with the men.

“Look at this,” Keller says, pointing to images of the church and the school. Both buildings have men in the front and rear.

“Sentries?” Orduña asks. “Guards? Are Forty and Ochoa living in the church and the school?”

The old military saying, Keller thinks—“Rank hath its privileges.” The two top-ranking officers don’t live under canvas but in the two biggest buildings in the village. It’s SOP.

The next satellite run yields gold.

Keller stares at the photo.

Then he flies to El Paso.


Fort Bliss is the living definition of a misnomer, Keller thinks as he drives onto the base on the semidesert flats east of El Paso.

He’s seen little of Crazy Eddie since he lifted him out of Acapulco. Literally. One of those black-helicopter jobs that the right-wing crazies are always muttering about. Two minutes after getting Eddie’s call, Keller was on a secure SAT line, exchanging coded messages with Washington that even his Mexican colleagues couldn’t access. There was no telling how even Orduña would react to the U.S. snatching one of the most wanted men in Mexico.

An hour later, Keller was on a helicopter owned by a CIA shell corporation, which landed him on the roof of the Hotel Continental. He met a very nervous consular agent who took him into a small conference room where Eddie Ruiz sat.

Narco Polo, Keller thought. Eddie had on a sky-blue polo shirt with white chinos and a pair of sandals.

He looked tired but calm.

“We’re going to get on a helicopter that will fly us to Ciudad Juárez,” Keller said. “From there another helicopter will take us to Fort Bliss army base in Texas. If at any time during that process you try to run, I will put a bullet in the back of your head. Do you understand?”

“This
is
running,” Eddie answered.

The flights went smoothly.

During the entire time, Eddie didn’t say a word.

The suits were waiting when they got to Fort Bliss. A State Department attorney read him his rights, so to speak. “You are here as an American citizen, under protective custody based on prior, present, and future cooperation in ongoing investigations. Do you understand?”

“Sure.”

It was a tag-team match. A federal deputy AG took over. “You have been indicted under the so-called Kingpin statutes for drug trafficking. But we are not arresting you at this moment. If you try to leave, or cease cooperating, you will be arrested and placed in the custody of the federal corrections system and be taken to trial. That being said, you do have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney—”

Eddie chuckled. He had attorneys who owed
him
money.

“—one will be afforded to you. Do you wish an attorney?”

“No.”

“In all probability,” the prosecutor continued, “you will face trial on the trafficking charges. However, your past and future cooperation will be noted in your file for those prosecutors with a view toward charges and to the presiding judge with a view toward sentencing. Do you have any questions?”

“Can I get a Coke?”

“I think that could be worked out.”

“One other thing,” Eddie said. “I want to see my family.”

“Which one?” Keller asked.

“Both of them. Asshole.”

It was complicated, bringing first one and then the other of Eddie’s family in to see him.

The Mexican narco-world was buzzing about the disappearance of Crazy Eddie Ruiz. Phone and Internet traffic exploded, and both the narcos and law enforcement were busy trying to chase it down.

Some said that he’d been killed in retaliation for kidnapping Martín Tapia’s wife; others said that was bullshit because he’d released her. Still others responded that he was killed exactly because he
did
release her, by his own people, because they were afraid that he was weak.

They all agreed on one thing—Eddie was spotted in Acapulco the day of his disappearance, on the boardwalk eating an ice-cream cone.

But they were all out looking for him, or his body. They might also be watching his families.

His second wife, an American citizen, had crossed the border and was said to be with family in the area, but then again, she was nine months’ pregnant and would have come into the States to have the baby anyway.

Keller made both contacts personally.

It was tricky.

Ex-wives—or in this case not exactly an
ex
-wife—are renowned snitches, but Eddie faithfully sent Teresa more than enough money to live well, and her parents were, until they got busted, involved in laundering his coke money, so Keller doubted that she’d be a problem.

Teresa was living in Atlanta, and when she came to the door and saw Keller she turned pale.

“Oh my God.”

“Your husband is all right, Mrs. Ruiz.”

She packed up the kids, nine and twelve years old, and they flew not to El Paso, where the airport might be under watch, but to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and drove down from there. Keller brought them to Eddie’s quarters on the fort and then left them to have some privacy, picking them back up and taking them back to Las Cruces in the morning.

It was more complicated with Priscilla.

Their daughter, Brittany, was two and Priscilla was expecting any day. Keller was loath to drive her to El Paso, where there were about as many
halcones
as there were in Juárez. Instead, they dressed Eddie up in an army uniform and drove him to Alamogordo, where Priscilla, Brittany, and Priscilla’s mother met them at a motel. Keller had their car followed from El Paso to make sure they didn’t have a tail.

He gave Eddie the afternoon with his second family and then drove him back to Bliss, where he was comfortably ensconced in a bachelor officer’s apartment on base, with a twenty-four/seven guard of U.S. marshals.

Eddie had other demands—he wanted an iPod, loaded with the Eagles, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, and some Carrie Underwood. He wanted more visits with his families. And he wanted to watch the Super Bowl on a flat-screen HDTV, preferably with some decent chili and some cold beer.

“Shiner Bock,” Eddie specified.

He watched the Packers beat the Steelers on a sixty-inch LED with two federal marshals, chili, and beer.

Keller turned down Eddie’s invitation to join them.

Now he spreads the Dos Erres photos out on the coffee table in front of the sofa. “Is that them? Forty and Ochoa?”

“Yup.”

Keller looks down at the photos that show two men standing outside the school in Dos Erres. Both are wearing black ball caps, but their faces are still visible. One is full-fleshed with a thick black mustache. The other is thin and hawklike. Handsome.

“You’re sure,” Keller says.

“They burned Chacho García to death in front of me,” Eddie says. “You think I’m going to forget those faces? I promised myself I’d kill both those motherfuckers.”

Well, we have that in common, Keller thinks.

He leaves Eddie at Fort Bliss and flies to Washington.


Keller slams his fist on the table. “We goddamn know where they are! We have positive IDs and we know exactly where they are!”

He points to the photos spread on the table.

The State Department rep from its Narcotics Affairs Section yells back, “And that’s exactly the problem! They’re in a foreign country!”

Keller had flown straight from El Paso to Washington to make his case for a strike on the Zeta camp at Dos Erres. It isn’t going well—the administration, drone-happy as it is in South Asia, won’t authorize a strike of any kind, manned or unmanned, in Guatemala.

“We already have marines there,” Keller argues, “on an antitrafficking mission.”

Operation Mantillo Hammer has placed three hundred U.S. Marines and FAST teams in Guatemala to combat drug trafficking.

“They are there in a strictly advisory capacity,” the NAS guy says, “with authority to only use their weapons in self-defense. We can’t just go cross international borders to sanction anyone we want.”

“Tell that to bin Laden,” Keller says. “Oh, that’s right, you can’t—he’s dead.”

Like most other Americans, Keller had sat transfixed by the news of the bin Laden raid, and remembered 9/11, and quietly celebrated alone in his room with a single beer.

The president was one cool cat during all that, Keller remembered thinking. Cracking jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner like Al Pacino at the baptism in
The Godfather
while he knew he was ordering hits.

“That was bin Laden,” the NAS rep says now.

“Ochoa is as bad.”

“Get a grip.”

“You think Ochoa
isn’t
a terrorist?” Keller asks. “Define terrorist for me. Is it someone who kills innocent civilians? Commits mass murder? Plants bombs? What criteria are we missing here?”

“He has committed none of those acts in the United States,” the rep answers.

“Ochoa sells millions of dollars’ worth of drugs in the United States,” Keller says. “He traffics human beings into the United States. He has caches of arms and cells of armed men in the United States. He ordered the killing of a United States federal agent. How is he not a terrorist threat to the United States?”

“The Zetas have not been officially designated a terrorist organization,” the rep says. “And even if they were, it’s more complicated than you think. Even with the jihadists, authorizing a strike requires convening a ‘kill panel’ to evaluate the necessity, the legal ramifications, the ethical justification…”

“Convene it,” Keller says. “I’ll testify.”

I’ll give you ethical justification.

The horrors go on and on.

Just last week, the Zetas tried to tap into a pipeline to steal Pemex oil and caused an explosion that killed thirty-six innocent people. If it had happened inside the United States it would be all over the news for days, with Congress screaming for action. Because it’s Mexico, it doesn’t matter.

“It’s a nonstarter,” the rep says.

“We have spent months,” Keller says, “and millions of dollars finding these people, and now that we have, we’re not going to do a goddamn thing about it?!”

Yes.

Ochoa has found himself a sanctuary where the U.S. won’t touch him.

Because he’s a Mexican narco, not an Islamic jihadist.

That’s when Keller gets the idea.

But he needs a break to implement it.

He gets it from a horse ranch in Oklahoma.


Forty’s little brother raises horses at a ranch outside of Ada.

Rolando Morales has been very successful, and recently rocked the quarterhorse world by buying a colt at auction for close to a million dollars. It strikes a few people as odd, because prior to buying the multimillion-dollar ranch, stables, and the thoroughbred horses to put in them, Rolando was a bricklayer. The FBI shows his highest annual income was $90,000.

There are whispers in the quarter-horse world about where Rolando’s money comes from, but to the FBI they’re more than whispers. They know it comes from big brother down in Nuevo Laredo—the ranch near Ada is a money laundry on hooves.

The technique is simple.

The Zetas send cash north to Rolando, who buys a horse for well over market value and then sells the horse back to the Zetas for true market value.

Money laundered.

And you still have your horse.

And participation in an expensive hobby, the sport of kings. It’s almost pathetic, Keller thinks, how badly the narcos want social status—polo, horse racing. What’s next, America’s Cup yachts?

The crowd here is different from the polo set in Mexico City. Here there are a lot of cowboy hats, and thousand-dollar custom boots, and denim, and turquoise jewelry. This is western American aristocracy, people with the money and leisure to play with expensive quarter horses.

The particular horse in question today is a colt named, with an almost unbelievable sense of impunity, Cartel One, and the race is the All American Futurity, the Kentucky Derby of quarter-horse racing.

Keller watches the jockey take him into the gate.

“You have money down?” Miller asks him. Miller is the FBI agent assigned to Operation Fury, the bureau’s surveillance of the Morales quarter-horse scam. Miller had contacted Keller because there was a red flag, an interdepartmental alert that anything to do with “Forty” Morales was to be forwarded to Art Keller.

“I’m not a gambler,” Keller says.

“Put a few bucks on Cartel One.”

“He’s an eight-to-one shot.”

“He’s a lock,” Miller says.

The horses come out of the gate. Cartel One starts slowly and gets trapped along the inside rail. But then a gap miraculously opens, the jockey works the colt to the outside, and Cartel One is third as they go into the home stretch. The two lead horses fade, and Cartel One comes in by a nose.

Keller looks down into the paddock, where Rolando and his wife and friends are jumping up and down, yelling, screaming, and embracing. Quite a celebration for a race that was fixed, Keller thinks. Miller has established that tens of thousands were passed out to other jockeys and trainers.

The prize money for the All American Futurity is a flat million.

Not a bad day’s pay.

Still, chicken feed for the Zetas, who would have paid over a million to “win” the million. What they want is the bragging rights, the status. Rolando looks like his older brother, the same stocky build, the same curly black hair, even the thick mustache. Except he wears a white cowboy hat instead of a black ball cap.

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