Reap the Whirlwind
Los Robles La Paz, Departamento del Cesar, Colombia
06:27 COT, 17 March
This would be a textbook annihilation operation—swift and complete. Teniente Coronel Óscar González, Ejército Nacional de Colombia, bent over a map table, making notes in various locations as the updates came in via encrypted radio. His short battalion of Brigada Especial Contra el Narcotráfico, or BRCNA, was deploying into launch position for a full-on armed assault on a large supply depot for the cocaine cartel known as La Cantaña. He had every enemy strong point zeroed-in for mortar fire and every route in and out covered by anti-tank and heavy machine guns. Half a dozen snipers occupied elevated positions in the area. González was confident of success. His troops were the elite of one of the finest armies in South America and, at least in terms of counterinsurgency operations like this one, among the world’s best.
This operation and the circumstances were very unusual these days. Large, heavily armed quasi-armies that characterized the cartels running the Colombian drug trade had mostly disappeared. The army pivoted and broke up the larger gangs after defeating the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC rebels. What remained usually followed such a low profile they were known as “the Invisibles.” Not that the trade itself subsided, quite the contrary. But these organizations had abandoned trafficking cocaine to the United States in favor of the more lucrative and less risky and violent markets of Europe, China, and Australia. Plata no Plomo: Silver, not Lead, was the new business model. As long as these groups kept the violence among themselves and at a low level, the government was content to leave them alone.
La Cantaña was an exception. They had established a tightly coupled relationship with one of the European syndicates, whose increasing demand for product pushed the organization into a larger logistical frame. The more massive stockpiles and shipments and concomitant security resulted in escalating violence that moved beyond their competitors. After the ambush and murder of two police patrols that stumbled onto active operations, La Cantaña was no longer an “Invisible.” They broke the rules and would now pay the price.
Man-for-man, there was no comparison between his troops’ quality and their opposition this morning, but González took nothing for granted. These were his boys, and he wouldn’t waste a single one of them because of miserly allocation of force or shoddy preparation. His troops knew this and reciprocated confidence in the man whose martial skill and coolness under fire garnered the nickname Coronel Relajado. Most of the gunmen in these cartels were former FARC members, at liberty because of the Colombian government's peace deal. González understood, in principle, the need to break the cycle of violence after fifty years of civil war. Still, he hated the idea that some of the most sadistic murderers in history had escaped justice. He smiled to himself. In about fifteen minutes, at least these three dozen La Cantaña murderers would meet God for judgment, and his men would conduct the introductions.
González looked over at the American intelligence agent following the operation. Usually, he would not have had any Nord Americano anywhere near his headquarters. The duplicity and arrogance of the American Drug Enforcement Agency and Central Intelligence Agency men displayed in joint operations with the Colombian Army during the 1990s and 2000s had firmly cemented his resentment and contempt for those organizations.
This Defense Intelligence Agency man was different. He brought the first intelligence that contributed to their localization of this drug cache and much more about La Cantaña’s activities. Despite himself, González had become personally fond of the younger man in their two weeks together. Besides his “How can I help?” attitude, his Castilian Spanish was impeccable, and his knowledge of Cervantes and Unamuno, González’s favorite authors, led to several spirited and enjoyable discussions. The American would return to Washington this evening—González would be sorry to see him go.
“Any thoughts, professor?” González asked.
Peter Simmons smiled at the Colonel’s use of the nickname. It was not far off—Simmons held a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Princeton—but he had done nothing professorial in the six years he had been with the DIA. “Ah, señor, this is one area I would not dare to offer critique. I just create messes—it’s up to you professionals to clean them up.”
González chuckled. “Very well, my friend. Watch and learn.”
Two minutes later, the last reports came in: all units were in position and ready. González took one last, long look at the map and dispositions, then turned and picked up his rifle and helmet. “OK, let’s go,” he said as he climbed into his command vehicle with his radioman and Simmons in trail. A short, five-minute drive later, they pulled up on one of the follow-on units. González wanted to lead the first assault troops into the compound personally, but accepted that it was no longer his place as a senior officer and commander. His men understood.
He stepped out of the vehicle and walked up to his second in command, Major Enrique Moreno, who turned and said, “All ready and awaiting your order, Coronel.” There were no salutes, standing at attention, or any other parade ground crap in the field. Not that BRCNA was an egalitarian unit, it was that such displays just made it easier for enemy snipers to pick who to shoot first.
“Thank you, Mayor,” González replied. He looked up at the clear, early morning sky. In a few minutes, the sun would clear the Serranía del Perijá mountains to the east, and soon after, it would become a typical, scorching hot lowland Colombia day. “Let’s get on with it. Wake up the bastards.”
“Si, señor.” Moreno held the handset to his ear and pressed the transmit button. “Mortar teams, on designated target, five rounds high explosive, commence, commence, commence!”
Six soldiers each dropped a twenty-seven-pound, 4.2-inch round down the barrel of an M30 mortar at virtually the same time. In the twenty seconds it took this first salvo to reach their targets, a second had been fired, and a third was in mid-launch. After the fifth distinct set of “crumpf” sounds from mortar explosions, Moreno turned to González and, after receiving a nod, pressed the transmit switch again. “Mortar teams, check, check, check! Assault teams, advance!”
Within half a minute, the sounds of distant automatic gunfire filled the air. After about two minutes, this tapered off to sporadic single shots. Moreno’s handset buzzed, and he put it to his ear, “Commandante. Si, stand by.” He looked up at González. “All objectives secure, señor.”
“Excellent! Pass on to all commanders well done and to remind their rookies to watch out for booby traps.” Turning to Simmons and the radioman, he continued, “Let’s roll.” The three mounted the Colonel’s vehicle and headed for the La Cantaña facility half a kilometer distant.
By the time the vehicle arrived at the target, the shooting had stopped, and soldiers were collecting the bodies at a central location. After the three had dismounted, a junior captain ran up and, in his excitement, barely stopped himself from saluting. “Coronel! We’ve just done a preliminary assessment of the amount of product in storage, and it’s three thousand, not one thousand tons!”
“Maravilloso!” González smiled. “This might break the back of La Cantaña—they’ll have the devil’s own time trying to recover. Well done, Capitán!” The smile then disappeared. “What are our casualties?”
“Three wounded, señor, none seriously. Our mortars really pasted them. The survivors were still stumbling around in shock, looking for their weapons, when our assault troops hit them. Only a few got shots off before being cut down.”
“Thank God for that!” The smile returned as he turned to Simmons. “An outcome far better than even I had hoped, my friend!”
“Indeed. Congratulations, señor!” Simmons nodded. “What will you do with all this product?”
“We were going to burn it in situ. Capturing three times the amount in the intelligence brief was not a situation I expected. I must arrange for transport and disposal now, dammit!”
“I’m sure your men will figure it out. There seems to be nothing they can’t do. With your permission, señor, I would like to go over and collect biometrics from the corpses.”
“Granted, with pleasure, but I caution you like my rookies—don’t go poking around the camp and take extreme care rifling the pockets of the dead. These bastards love leaving behind surprises.”
“I’ll be on my guard. Gracias, Coronel.”
As the American turned and walked toward the lengthening row of bodies, González motioned over Moreno and the young captain. “Gentlemen, let’s get the wounded evacuated and bring up the trucks for the dead. I want the Sargento Mayor and one officer supervising the contraband until we can get it transported away. In the meantime, set up a perimeter; I don’t want any survivors of La Cantaña or their competitors getting any bright ideas.”
“Si, señor,” both men replied, then turned to their duties.
González removed his cap and wiped his forehead. It was already getting uncomfortably hot, and, with the sun almost directly overhead this time of year, it was going to be miserable by noon. He watched as Simmons moved from corpse to corpse, taking electronic fingerprints and cellphone photos of faces, for those that still had hands and faces, that is. He envied that the young man would be on his way back home to the United States by nightfall while he would be here, guarding this poison. Still, the unexpected need to safeguard and transport the cocaine was a minor annoyance compared to the brilliant victory they had achieved. González was looking forward to getting home and telling his wife and children that, thanks to his men, the world was a safer place today than yesterday.
He could not have been more wrong.
OSUV Carlos Rojas, Moored, Berth 142, Port of Maracaibo, Venezuela
11:32 VET, 18 March
Anton Holtz was a very unhappy man, but not as unhappy as the man sitting before him. It was bad enough to be cooped up in this stinking tub with lousy food, cramped quarters, and no entertainment of any kind. Dealing with this sniveling brown wretch was just too much. Holtz slammed a fist on the table. “I don’t want to hear excuses. You promised us this product today! Where the hell is it?”
“It, it’s still in Colombia.” The man looked down and shifted in his seat. “The BRCNA raided our depot.”
“That’s unfortunate for you. When can you reroute the replacement product?”
The man shifted again and looked at Holtz with a pained expression. “There is no replacement. They got everything.”
Holtz could not believe his ears. “Everything? Did they raid your entire export network? How did they track all your locations? Your security must be shit!”
“We had it gathered in a single depot just over the border. It was too difficult to disperse and secure that much product. We didn’t have enough men. We had a secure place—it was one of our bases during the war. No one knew about it.”
“Stop!” Holtz interrupted. “I told you I wasn’t interested in excuses. What is your plan to fix this?”
“Um. We know most of the product is still there. With your help, we can launch a raid…”
“WHAT? You want us to invade Colombia and attack the best combat unit they have to fix your fuck-up? Are you insane? What else do you have?”
The man looked down and shook his head.
“Alright, here’s the deal. The only reason you are still alive right now is I need you to carry a message to your bosses. Within two weeks, they will return every euro of our down payment, plus twenty percent. Fifteen days from now, if we don’t have every bit of that sum, we will issue irrevocable hit contracts on every member of La Cantaña and their families. Questions?”
The man looked up in horror. “I don’t know if we can gather that amount. We have obligations…”
“I’m not interested in excuses. If you don’t have the cash handy, get it. Hit your competitors, rob banks, whatever. This is not negotiable. Pay us or die, you and your families.”
The man said nothing, just blinked and nodded.
Holtz turned to one of his men. “Show this piece of shit out.” After they had left, Holtz turned to his assistant, who was knowledgeable in the local drug trade. “Start a sweep. We need to get what we can together for the next rendezvous. Then I need options for future deliveries. We’ll be paying through the nose for this one, and that will lessen any negotiating power we have in Venezuela, at least for now. Is there anything we can work in the north?”
“There are the Mexicans. They have the product and complete control of the supply chain.”
“No, not the damn Mexicans! We can’t go cap-in-hand to them—they’re too powerful already. What about Guatemala or Honduras, anyone young and hungry there?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve heard of a few, but they’re not the sort of people we normally deal with.”
“These are not normal times. Look into it.”
“Yes, Boss.” He got up and left.
Holtz tapped his fingers on the table, gathering himself together to deliver the news to their passengers. Despite the immense profit they had brought to the organization and the personal benefit they brought to him in terms of advancement, he hated to be in the same room with them. It wasn’t because they looked different from humans—they appeared to be two ordinary European business executives in any meaningful way. But they admitted that this was a projection in the first meeting, and they could not reveal their actual appearance. This sent Holtz’s brain racing to all manner of horrors. Giant bugs? Intelligent bipedal lizards? He leaned toward the latter since some defect in the leader’s speech synthesizer made him pronounce his name Holtssss.
Holtz’s relationship with the aliens began a month and a half before, when he received a call in his office in Tirana, Albania, from one of his “scouts.” These were infiltrators who looked for opportunities within corporations, public utilities, and governments for graft, extortion, or outright theft. This scout had been contacted by a man claiming to represent an extraterrestrial power interested in purchasing narcotic precursors. Holtz’s first instinct was to order the scout to put a bullet in the back of the man’s head and dump the body in the Drin River. However, the story intrigued him—no law enforcement agent would concoct something so outlandish as being a representative of aliens. He agreed to a meeting. If the man was a flamboyant Interpol agent, or the lunatic Holtz expected, the Drin would still be there.
The man came alone to the meeting. Whether that showed bravery or lunacy was of no matter to Holtz. He seemed lucid as he explained his people had been observing Earth development for thousands of years with a strict no-contact policy. But the government entities administering that policy had been forced off-station temporarily, and his employers had seized the opportunity for some private enterprise. In exchange for rather large quantities of raw opium and cocaine, they would pay double the usual rate, using diamonds as currency. Holtz countered that a society capable of interstellar travel must have advanced technology worth far more than mere monetary transactions, and that is what would interest the 252 Syndicate. The man was adamant that neither his employers nor anyone else in the society would ever agree to hand over any technology. It was diamonds or nothing. Holtz pointed out to the man that he was hardly in a position to refuse and conveyed the usual threat that he would do what the syndicate wanted, or he and his family would suffer a hideous death. The man reacted with infuriating indifference.
“You don’t want to do that,” he said.
“Really? Why not?” Holtz asked.
“I am an embedded planetary monitor. I have no relations or close ties to any other humans on Earth. You could torture and kill me, but it would not benefit you. In fact, it could hurt you.”
“And how is that?” Holtz asked with supreme menace.
“Because we will pay a premium for your cooperation and will be grateful for your services. This will be remembered if contact between our peoples and business relations are established in the future. Whereas if I meet an untimely end or you do a deal and fail us, we will do business with one of your competitors.” The man leaned forward. “And then, we will be grateful to them.”
Holtz had never been on the receiving end of threats during a negotiation—the 252 Syndicate was that powerful—but he made the best deal possible at three times going rate for the raw narcotics. To prove his bona fides, the man left a deposit of diamonds worth at least one hundred thousand euros with Holtz, who took them to his superior. Much to Holtz’s surprise, his boss agreed to the aliens’ terms and cleared him to act for the syndicate.
The details proved less complicated than Holtz had feared. There was no need to smuggle the drugs away from the source—the aliens would bring a device that could transport them directly to their ship in orbit. Holtz simply had to smuggle them in-country and provide a power source. The expedition to procure the opium had been a complete success. They infiltrated Afghanistan, shipped out several thousand tons of opium, then the aliens destroyed their transport devices and exfiltrated.
The cocaine expedition was considerably more challenging. Unlike Afghanistan, Colombia was not a geographic free-for-all with no effective government. There was no way to infiltrate the aliens and their transport device with acceptable risk. Fortunately, Colombia’s neighbor Venezuela was an economic basket-case approaching Afghan levels of anarchy. The 252s had a preferred contractor for cocaine within Colombia, the La Cantaña organization, who could arrange for the short cross-border shipments required. Quantities needed were an order of magnitude higher than any set before, but the organization was confident they could meet the demand. The first shipment went as planned, but even with heightened security precautions, the movement of so much product drew the Colombian government’s attention, with the inevitable result.
Holtz stood and walked to the cabin where the two alien beings stayed out of sight. He knocked on the door and announced, “It’s Holtz.”
Holtz opened the door and found the two aliens sitting at the table between the bunks like they were playing cards. Except, of course, they were not playing cards or doing anything else that he could discern. The thought of what might go on disgusted him.
“What is it, Holtssss?” asked the leader.
Holtz cringed inwardly, then replied, “There has been a problem with the local supplier. We will be delayed while we make up the deficit using other sources.”
“That isss unfortunate. You realize that we have a limited window in which to complete the transssfer to our ship. If the delay isss longer than you sssay or the quantity or quality isss lessss than agreed, it will affect your payment.”
“I understand, but as I told you in our first meeting, these things happen. We will take what we can for this shipment, which will end this port’s usefulness. I have taken steps to find another source of supply we can use for the next cycle, one that is more secure than this one has been.”
The alien waved his hand dismissively. “The detailsss of your logisticsss are irrelevant to usss. We are only interesssted in procuring the product. If thisss becomesss a problem for you, we can take our trade elsssewhere.”
If only you would! “You will not find another organization as powerful and reliable as we are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to attend to our mutual business.”
“Fine. We look forward to your progressss, Holtssss.”
Holtz nodded and departed, closing the door behind him. Once out of sight in the hallway, he shivered and shook his head. At least it’s only for a few more weeks. Then out of this tropical hell for good! He was worried. That La Cantaña was his boss’s choice, not his, would not count for much if they lost this contract. He had to find another source and get things up and running again before the boss found out. He grimly shook his head again when he considered what the alternative would mean for him: it would be a quick and relatively painless bullet in the back of his head.
If he was lucky.