The Cartel (83 page)

This transaction is being repeated all along the border until Morales collects the fifty assault rifles he’s putting in the package for delivery to the “jihadists.”

To cross the border, a similar process is used for guns going south as for drugs coming north. The weapons are loaded into compartments in cars and trucks and driven across the border. Keller’s people follow the shipments to Veracruz, where the guns and cocaine are put in containers and loaded onto a freighter bound for Barcelona.

Rolando buys a first-class air ticket.


Keller looks at the video feed—coming from inside the warehouse on the industrial dock at Barcelona’s Free Harbor—and profoundly wishes that he could be there instead of in the situation room at Quantico.

But Rafael Imaz is in the warehouse with twenty heavily armed CNP troopers. More troops wait several blocks away in unmarked vehicles. Looking into the surveillance monitor, Keller watches the man they know as “Ali” and three of his jihadist comrades wait for Rolando.

It’s tense.

Keller believes that they’ve tracked the drug and weapon shipment and that Rolando will make his rendezvous with Ali. But if they’re wrong, if there’s been a leak, if the Zetas’ own impressive intelligence network has sniffed out the trap, then Rolando doesn’t show up, and the drugs—and more important, the weapons—are headed somewhere else.

Fast and Furious—the European version.

Rolando has been in Barcelona for two days, enjoying the sun, the food, the pretty women on La Rambla. He treated the two port officials to another night at Top Damas, another reason that Keller believes the arrangement with Ali is still on. But it could all be misdirection—Ochoa is well versed in military intelligence, and Keller wouldn’t put it past him.

The freighter arrived early yesterday morning and started offloading right away, but so far, Rolando hasn’t gone close to the port. And Ali had made it very clear that he would only deal with Morales personally—no cut-outs, no wire transfers. Now Rolando is thirty minutes late. It’s worrisome. The delivery could be going somewhere else while we’re chasing Rolando around Barcelona.

Ali is wearing an earpiece.

“Anything?”
Keller hears Imaz ask.

“Not yet.”

Then a call comes through from the tail that Imaz has on Rolando. He and two other men left the hotel in a car headed in the direction of the harbor.

They wait.

An hour later, a loader pulls into the warehouse with two shipping containers. Rolando and his two guys come in right after it.

Rolando is in a jovial mood. “Allahu akbar!”

Ali plays his role.
“You’re late.”

“We just wanted to make sure there were no other guests at the party,”
Rolando says.

“Next time,”
Ali says,
“if there
is
a next time,
be
on time.”

“Next time, don’t make me come personally.”

“You don’t like Barcelona?”
Ali asks.
“My people seemed to think that you’re having a nice time for yourself.”

“We have whores in Oklahoma,”
Rolando says.

“Let me see the merchandise.”

Rolando’s guys open one of the containers. He takes a package of cocaine and holds it up.

Keller watches through the monitor. The whole thing is on tape, with audio.

“You want to sample?”
Rolando asks.

“You’re too smart to cheat me on the dope,”
Ali says.
“I want to see the weapons.”

They open the other container.

Ali steps over and looks in.

“Be my guest,”
Rolando says.

Ali picks up one of the rifles and hefts it in his hand.
“Ammunition?”

“Gun isn’t worth much without ammo,”
Rolando says.
“It’s all there.”

Sticking with the script, Ali asks,
“Can you get me grenade launchers?”

“Grenade launchers,”
Rolando says.
“Wow.”

“Can you?”

“For a price,”
Rolando says.
“We can get them out of Guatemala, El Salvador. And speaking of a price…”

Ali gives a curt nod and his guys bring up four attaché cases. They open them and Ali shows Rolando the U.S. dollars wrapped in neat packages inside.
“Do you want to count it?”

“No, I trust you.”

Ali’s guys shut the cases and then hand them to Rolando’s men.

“Go!” Imaz says into his mike.

His CNP troopers burst out of the back room into the warehouse. At the same time, the men outside rush to shut off the exit. They’re very fast and very good, and Morales has no choice except to throw his hands in the air.

Keller watches Imaz walk up to him.
“Sorpresa, hijo de puta.”

Surprise, motherfucker.


“Can you get me grenade launchers?”

“Grenade launchers. Wow.”

“Can you?”

“For a price. We can get them out of Guatemala, El Salvador…”

The State Department NAS rep turns off the tape player and looks across the table at Keller.

Keller looks back at the NAS rep as if to say,
Well?

“I get it,” the rep says. “But you stopped the purchase and busted the network. Case closed. Well done.”

“You don’t think they’ll try again?” Keller asks. “I’ve just given you proof positive that the Zetas supplied weapons to Islamic terrorists and therefore—”

“No, I get it.”

All the usual players are there—Keller, Taylor, the head of DEA, CIA, Homeland Security, Justice, State, and the White House.

In short, Keller thinks, a clusterfuck.

With a lot more cluster than fuck.

“I still don’t see,” the White House guy says, “why we can’t hand this over to the Guatemalans and provide an assist from the marines already there.”

“Same reason,” Taylor says, “that you guys couldn’t inform the Pakistanis about the bin Laden mission. You don’t know who in their government the Zetas have compromised.”

“The Guatemalans aren’t up to it yet,” the Guatemalan CIA station chief adds. “Every time they go up against the Zetas they get their asses kicked. They won’t go near them.”

The CIA rep suggests a drone strike.

“In Central America?” the Homeland Security rep asks.

“We have the assets there,” the CIA rep says. “We have the drones. It’s only a matter of sticking on a missile.”

“Collateral casualties would touch off an incident,” the State rep says.

“One thing that cannot happen,” the Homeland Security rep said, “is that the Zetas go back in business selling drugs and weapons to the jihadists. That’s not on the table.”

“So we have to go in with boots on the ground,” Keller said.

“Boots on the ground,” the White House guy says, “are exactly what we
don’t
want. For Chrissakes, we’ve been trying to get boots
off
the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“You did it for the bin Laden mission,” Taylor says.

“The American public would accept casualties to get bin Laden,” the White House rep says, “not a couple of drug dealers they’ve never heard of. We get guys shot up on some covert mission in Central America, the Republicans will be screaming for impeachment.”

“We have men there now,” Keller repeats.

“As advisers,” the NAS rep repeats.

Keller sits back and throws his hands in the air.

“At the end of the day,” the White House guy says, “the only person here whose opinion matters is mine. Strictly speaking, DEA has no fucking business even sitting in on a discussion like this. The answer is no—if the two subjects show up in Mexico and your Mexican FES boys can pop them, hey, great.
Salud!
But there is no way we are going to okay some Rambo-style mission in the jungles of Guatemala. Subject closed. This meeting never happened.”

He gets up and walks out.


Keller broods in his hotel room that night.

Ochoa and Forty will sit safely in Guatemala, and no one will touch them. From their safe haven, they’ll kill more people, launch more terror and suffering. And we’ll sit safely on this side of the border, fat and happy, and buy their dope and fund more killing.

His phone rings.

Tim Taylor calling to commiserate, an unusual harmony between them, Keller thinks as Taylor bitches about gutless politicians and castrated bureaucrats. Taylor fought the losing battle hard, and has to be feeling it, too.

“You want to have a beer?” Taylor asks.

“Yeah, okay.”

“I’ll come to your room,” Taylor says. “Oh, and I’m bringing a couple of people.”

Five minutes later Taylor shows up with the CIA rep from the meeting and a guy that Keller’s never met. The guy looks to be in his early sixties, wears an expensive gray suit with no tie and cowboy boots, and doesn’t introduce himself.

They all sit down and Keller gets four beers out of the refrigerator.

The CIA rep starts. “My colleague is from the energy sector. We agree that we want this Guatemalan mission to happen.”

His colleague says, “The Zetas are interfering with oil and gas exploration in Tamaulipas, putting potentially billions of dollars at stake. And, of course, there are the humanitarian aspects.”

“Of course,” Keller says.

He doesn’t give a shit
why,
only
that.

“We can’t use our own people,” the CIA guy says, “so we’ll have to hire this out to a private security firm. Most of those guys are retired U.S. special forces—SEALs, DEVGRU, Delta Force. It’s what they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, isn’t it? Drop in, get the bad guy, get out.”

“What about funding?” Taylor asks. “There’s no way to run this through DEA.”

“I can arrange the money,” the colleague says. “In exchange for certain assurances.”

“What are they?” Keller asks.

“Well,” the colleague says, “we don’t want to clear one group of narcos from the oil and gas fields just to let another in.”

“So you want assurances from Adán Barrera,” Keller says, “that he’ll keep his hands off the oil and gas fields.”

“That’s about right. Can you give us those assurances? Can you speak for Barrera?”

It’s a strange goddamn world, Keller thinks. “Actually, I can.”

“You and him are tight, huh?”

“We’re the same guy,” Keller says.

“Then money is no problem.”

So it’s decided. The oil people will hire a firm out of Virginia. A private force of elite counterinsurgency troops will drop into the Petén and take out Heriberto Ochoa and Forty.

“How are we going to be sure they’re there?” the CIA guy asks. “We’ll have to have a date certain when they’re locked in place.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Keller says. “Of course, I’m going on the mission.”

“No way,” Taylor says.

“What if you get killed?” the CIA guy asks. “How do we explain that?”

“I won’t care, will I?” Keller asks.

“You’re too personally involved,” Taylor says.

You’re goddamn right I am, Keller thinks. Ochoa gave the order to attack Marisol. He gave the order to kill Erika.

You’re goddamn right it’s personal.

“I go or there’s no deal,” he says.

“It’s your funeral,” Taylor says. “But first you hand in your resignation. Then we’ll see that the firm hires you. In no way do I want you traceable to the agency if this goes sick and wrong.”

“I’ve been trying to resign for seven years, Tim.”

“This time it’s permanent.”

This time it will be, Keller thinks.

“One other question,” Taylor says. “What about the White House?”

The oilman scuffs the toe of his boot across the floor and smiles. “Jesus shit, who do you think sent us over here?”


Keller pulled his papers, and a rumor was sent around that Art Keller had been forced out for an overly close relationship to the former Tapia organization, but that DEA had quietly arranged a soft landing for him at a security firm in Virginia to avoid another scandal.

After Fast and Furious, no one wanted another scandal.

To Marisol, Keller tells the truth.

As much as he can, anyway.

“A private security firm?” Marisol asks, raising an eyebrow. She’s no fool, she can read between the lines.

“Just for one mission,” he says.

“Famous last words.”

“Did I hear glass breaking when you threw that stone?” Keller asks. “
I’m
pulling the pin after this.”

They’ve seen so little of each other over the past few months. He’s been out with FES tracking down Zetas or in Washington. Even his time at EPIC has been jammed, and more and more often he’s stayed in his condo in El Paso rather than make the drive out to Valverde.

Marisol has been busy as well, still running what’s left of the town government, trying to maintain some order without a single cop, applying to the state and federal government for renewal funds, running her clinic. The violence in the valley has subsided somewhat, and she knows that the army is protecting her at Keller’s behest, and he’s assured her that this won’t change.

Slipping his punch about retiring, she says, “So your ‘retirement’ is a bit of a farce. You’re still a power in the antidrug world. What’s this mission?”

He’s chopping vegetables for dinner, keeps chopping, and doesn’t answer.

“You’re going to kill more people, aren’t you?” Marisol presses. He doesn’t answer, but she won’t let it go. “Haven’t you had enough of that? Haven’t we all had enough of that?”

“It’s Ochoa,” he says, without looking at her. “Happy now?”

“Do you think that will make me happy?” she asks.

“He killed Erika!”

“I know that!” Marisol leans back and stares at him. “But you don’t know me at all.”

“Good—let’s just spout clichés.”

“Fine—go fuck yourself.”

Marisol grabs her cane and limps out of the kitchen. Keller hears the bedroom door slam. He takes a deep breath, sets the knife down, and goes after her. When he walks into the bedroom, she’s changing out of her office clothes and he can see the scars on her body, the colostomy bag, and he recalls her bitter jibe about how symbolic it is that she carries a bag of her own shit around with her.

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