t was not hard for me to trace the life of Santiago Fisterra. Before I went to Melilla, I supplemented the Algeciras police report with another document, a very detailed Customs report that had dates and places, including Fisterra's birth in O Grove, a fishing village on a tidal inlet, the Ria de Arosa. Which is how I learned that when he met Teresa, Fisterra had just turned thirty-two. His was a classic case: He had shipped on fishing boats starting at age fourteen, and after military service in the navy had worked for the amos do fume, which in Galician is the "tobacco bosses," the capos of the smuggling rings that operated in the Galician rias-Charlines, Sito Minanco, the Pernas brothers. Three years before he met Teresa, the Customs report had him in Villagarcia as the owner of a speedboat working for the Pedrusquinos, a well-known clan of tobacco smugglers who were then expanding into Moroccan hashish.
At that point, Fisterra was a hired man, so much per run; his work consisted of piloting speedboats that offloaded tobacco and drugs from mother ships and fishing boats sitting just outside Spanish waters, taking advantage of the complicated geography of the Galician coastline. That led to dangerous duels with the coast guard, Customs, and the Guardia Civil. On one of those incursions, when he was eluding pursuit by a turbocraft by making tight zigzags through the mussel barges just off the island of Cortegada, Fisterra or his copilot-a young man from Ferrola named Lalo Veiga-turned a spotlight on their pursuers in the middle of a maneuver, and the Customs men crashed into a barge. Result: One dead.
The police reports gave only a rough outline of what happened, so I fruitlessly dialed several telephone numbers until Manuel Rivas, a writer friend of mine who happened to be Galician and happened to live in the area-he had a house on the Costa de la Muerte-made a couple more calls and confirmed the episode. What Rivas told me was that no one could actually prove that Fisterra had a hand in the incident, but the local Customs officers, who were as tough as the smugglers-they'd been raised in the same small towns and sailed on the same boats-swore to send him to the bottom at the first opportunity. An eye for an eye.
That had been enough to make Fisterra and Veiga leave the Rias Bajas in search of less insalubrious air: Algeciras, in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, with its Mediterranean sun and blue waters. And there, profiting from the permissive British laws, the two Galicians registered, through a third party, a powerful speedboat twenty-four feet long and packing a Yamaha PRO six-cylinder engine that put out 225 horsepower, tweaked to 250, on which they made runs between the colony, Morocco, and the Spanish coast.
"Back then," Manolo Cespedes explained to me in Melilla, after I'd seen Dris Larbi, "cocaine was still for the super-rich. Most of the illegal trafficking consisted of moving Gibraltar tobacco and Moroccan hashish: two harvests and twenty-five hundred tons of cannabis illegally exported to Europe every year… And all of it came through here, of course. Still does."
We were putting away a dinner remarkable for both quality and quantity as we sat at a table in La Amistad, a bar-restaurant better known by Melillans as Casa Manolo. It was across the street from the headquarters of the Guardia Civil, which Cespedes himself had had built during his time in power. The owner of the place was actually not named Manolo, but rather Muhammad, although he was also known as Juanito's brother-Juanito being the owner of the restaurant Casa Juanito, though his name was not Juanito, but rather Hassan. Labyrinths of names, all very much in keeping with a city, like Melilla, of multiple identities. As for La Amistad, it was a decidedly working-class place, with plastic chairs and tables and a tapas bar frequented by both Europeans and North Africans; people often ate standing up, even dinner. The quality of the food was memorable, as I said: a menu of fresh shellfish and crustaceans brought in from Morocco that Manolo/Muhammad himself bought every morning at the central market. That night, Cespedes and I were having clams, langostinos from Mar Chica, chunks of halibut, pollack kebabs, and a bottle of cold Barbadillo. And enjoying it, of course. With the Spanish trawlers that fishermen used nowadays, it was getting harder and harder to find anything like this in the waters off the Peninsula.
"When Santiago Fisterra came here," Cespedes continued, "almost all the major traffic was handled in speedboats. He came because that was his specialty, and because a lot of Galicians were setting up in Ceuta and Melilla and along the Andalucian coast… The contacts were made here or in Morocco. The busiest part of the whole Strait was the fourteen kilometers between Punta Carnero and Punta Cires-small-time drug runners in the Ceuta ferries, big consignments in yachts and fishing boats, speedboats… The traffic was so intense that that strip of water started being called Hashish Boulevard."
"What about Gibraltar?"
"Well, right over there, in the middle of everything." Cespedes pointed to the pack of Winstons in front of him on the table, and with a fork he drew a circle around it. "Like a spider in its web. Back then it was the main base for smuggling in the western Mediterranean… The Brits and the locals from the colony left the mafias' hands free. Invest here, sir, trust us with your dough, your financial contacts, and your port facilities… The shipment of tobacco would go directly from the warehouses on the docks to the beaches of La Linea, a thousand meters or so over there… The fact is, it's still going on." He pointed toward the cigarettes again. "These are from there. Tax-free."
"You're not ashamed to smoke them?… A former delegate to parliament defrauding Tabacalera, S.A., and the government?"
"Yeah, right. I'm on a pension, don't forget. Any idea how many packs I smoke a day?"
"So what about Santiago Fisterra?"
Cespedes chewed his halibut a moment, savoring it. Then he took a sip of his Barbadillo and looked at me.
"I don't know whether that particular individual smoked or not, but he never moved tobacco. One run with a cargo of hashish was worth a hundred bringing in Winstons or Marlboros. Hashish was a hell of a lot more profitable."
"And more dangerous, I imagine."
"Much more." After painstakingly sucking them, Cespedes was arranging the langostino heads along the rim of his plate, as though lining them up in formation for inspection. "If you didn't have the Moroccans well greased,
you were fucked. Look at poor Veiga. But with the English there was no
problem-they acted according to their usual double standard. As long as the drugs didn't touch British soil, they looked the other way… So the traffickers came and went with their consignments, and everybody knew who they were. And when they were surprised by the Guardia Civil or Spanish Customs, they hightailed it to Gibraltar for shelter. The only condition was that first they had to throw their cargo overboard."
"It was that easy?"
"That easy." He pointed to the pack of cigarettes with his fork again, this time tapping it. "Sometimes the drug runners would post accomplices up on top of the rock with night-vision binoculars and walkie-talkies-monkeys,
they called them-to keep track of the Customs boats Gibraltar was the
hub of an entire industry, and billions, billions were moved through it. Mo-
roccan, Gibraltar, Spanish cops, everybody was on the take They even
tried to buy me." He laughed out loud at the memory, the glass of wine in his hand. "But how could they? Back then it was me who bought off other people!"
After that, Cespedes sighed.
"Now," he said as he polished off the last langostino, "things are different. In Gibraltar, money moves in another way now. Take a walk down Main Street and look at the mailboxes, count the number of ghost corporations. You won't believe it. They've discovered that a financial paradise is more profitable than a pirates' den, even if it's the same thing, underneath. And customers, add it up: the Costa del Sol is a gold mine, so the foreign mafias move in and set themselves up in everything you can think of. Plus, from Almeria to Cadiz there's heavy surveillance of the Spanish waters because of illegal immigration. And although the hashish business is still good, coke is catching on, too, and the methods are different. Let's just say that the old days of independent operators-the heroic days-are over, and now there are suits instead of old sea wolves. Everything is decentralized. The smugglers' speedboats have changed hands, tactics, and bases. And the dough is different, too."
Having said all this, Cespedes leaned back in his chair, signaled Manolo/ Muhammad for a coffee, and lit up a tax-free cigarette. That old cardsharp's face of his smiled nostalgically; he raised his eyebrows. They can't take that away from me, he seemed to be saying. And I realized that the former parliamentary delegate missed not just the old days, but a certain kind of men as well.
"What happened," he concluded, "is that when Santiago Fisterra appeared in Melilla, the Strait, if not the world, was his oyster. It was a golden age, as the locals in Gibraltar would say. Whew… Round-trip runs, balls out. Every night was a game of cat and mouse between the drug runners on the one hand and the Customs guys, police, and Guardia Civil on the other… Sometimes you won and sometimes you lost." He took a long drag on his cigarette, and his sly eyes narrowed, remembering. "And out there- jumping out of the frying pan so she could land directly in the fire-is where Teresa Mendoza wound up."
People say it was Dris Larbi who ratted out Santiago Fisterra, and that he did it despite Colonel Abdelkader Chaib, or maybe even with Chaib's knowledge. That would have been easy in Morocco, where the weakest link was the small-time smugglers that weren't protected by money or politics: a name dropped here and there, a few bills changing hands, and the police would have some big new numbers to add to their statistics. At any rate, no one could ever prove that Dris Larbi dropped the dime. When I raised the subject-I had saved it for our last meeting-he clammed up like an oyster and there was no way to get another word out of him. It's been a pleasure. End of confidences, bye-bye, and never again.
But Manolo Cespedes, who was still a delegate to parliament in Melilla when the events took place, maintains that it was Dris Larbi who, intending to run the Gallego off so as to keep Teresa behind the bar, passed the word to his contacts on the other side. Generally, the motto was, Pay up and the Strait's yours, and go with God. Iallah bismillah. And that motto applied to a vast network of corruption that ran from the mountains where the cannabis was harvested to the border or the Moroccan coast. The payments rose according to rank: cops, soldiers, politicians, high-level officials, and members of the government. To justify themselves to public opinion-after all, the Moroccan minister of the interior had observer status at the antidrug meetings of the European Union-gendarmes and soldiers would carry out periodic antidrug operations; there would be dragnets, raids, arrests. But it would always be on a pretty small scale, and the guys arrested would never belong to the big official mafias, so nobody would care much one way or another if they got hauled in. People as often as not were ratted out, or pushed out, by the same contacts that got the hashish for them.
Commander Benamu of the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale's coast guard division had no hesitation in telling me about his role in the Cala Tramon-tana episode. He did so on the terrace of the Cafe Hafa, in Tangiers, after a mutual friend, police inspector Jose Bedmar-veteran of the Central Brigade and intelligence agent in the days of Cespedes-located him and made an appointment; all this came about after a great deal of fax- and phone-praise of my work, to soften the commander up.
Benamu was a nice fellow-elegant, with a small, neatly trimmed moustache that gave him the look of a Latin lover from the 1950s. He was wearing civilian clothes, a jacket and white shirt, no tie, and he spoke to me for easily half an hour in French, without the slightest hesitation, until, feeling more at ease, he switched to almost flawless Spanish. He was a born storyteller and had a certain dark sense of humor; once in a while he would gesture out toward the ocean that lay before our eyes, below the cliff, as though it had all happened right out there, just off the terrace where he was sipping his coffee and I my mint tea.
When the events took place, he was a captain, he said. Routine night patrol in an armed cutter-he spoke the words "routine night patrol" looking out at an indefinite spot on the horizon-with radar contact to the west, at Tres Forcas, all perfectly normal. By pure chance there was another patrol on land, connected via radio-he was still looking out at the horizon when he spoke the word "chance." Between them, within Cala Tramontana-like a little bird in its nest-a speedboat in Moroccan waters, very near the coast, loading a cargo of hashish off a skiff pulled up directly alongside.
They issued the warning to halt, a parachute-descending flare lighting the rocks off Charranes Island against the milky water, the standard shouts and warnings and a couple of shots in the air as a sign they were serious. As far as they could see, the speedboat-low, long, as thin as a needle, painted black, outboard motor-was having some problems with the engine, because it took some time to start moving. By the spotlight and the flare, Benamu saw two figures aboard the speedboat. One was in the pilot's seat, the other running toward the stern to release the line from the skiff, on which two more men were at that very second throwing overboard the bales of the drug that hadn't been loaded onto the speedboat. The starter ratcheted, but the engine wouldn't catch, and Benamu-following orders, he noted between sips of coffee-ordered his sailor on the bow to fire off a burst from his 12.7, shooting to kill. Noisy, of course. Scary, according to Benamu. Then another flare.
The men on the skiff raised their hands. Just then the bow of the speedboat reared up out of the water, the propeller kicked up a fountain of spray behind it, and the man that was standing in the stern toppled into the water. The patrol boat's machine gun was still firing-rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. The gendarmes on land followed its lead, timidly at first-bam, bam, bam- but then more enthusiastically. It sounded like war. There was a last flare, and the spotlight illuminated the ricochets and strikes in the water, and suddenly the sound of the speedboat deepened, and the boat took off, roaring, growling, in a straight line, so that by the time they looked off to the north it had disappeared in the darkness. They approached the skiff, detained its occupants-two Moroccans. They fished out of the water three bales of hashish and a Spaniard with a 12.7 round in his thigh; Benamu indicated the circumference of his coffee cup. "A hole that big."
Interrogated while being given the appropriate medical attention, the Spaniard told them that his name was Veiga and that he was the crew on a smuggling boat captained by one Santiago Fisterra; it was this Fisterra, he told them, who had slipped through their fingers at Cala Tramontana. "And left me in the water," Benamu recalled his prisoner complaining. The commander also thought he recalled that this Veiga, tried two years later in Al Hoceima, got fifteen years in the prison at Kenitra-his look told me not to consider this spot among the possibilities for a summer residence-and that he had served out half the sentence.
Had Fisterra and Veiga been ratted out? I asked.
Benamu repeated the phrase a couple of times, as if it were totally unknown to him. Then, looking out at the cobalt-blue expanse of ocean that separated us from the Spanish coastline, he shook his head. He recalled nothing along those lines. Nor had he ever heard of any Dris Larbi. The Gendarmerie Royale had a competent intelligence service of its own, and its coastal surveillance was very effective. Like your own Guardia Civil, he noted. Or more so. The Cala Tramontana operation had been completely routine, a brilliant catch like so many others. The war against crime, and all that.
It took him almost a month to come back, and the fact is, she had never expected to see him again. Her Sinaloan fatalism led her to think of him as gone forever-"He's not the type who'll stay around," Dris Larbi had said-and she had accepted his absence the same way she now accepted his reappearance.
In the last few years, Teresa had come to the conclusion that the world worked by its own incomprehensible laws, which played out through chance events such as coincidences, appearances and disappearances, presences and absences, lives and deaths. And the best she could do was accept those rules as her own, float along, allow herself to be part of a huge cosmic joke as she was swept downstream by the current-dog-paddle sometimes to stay afloat rather than exhaust herself by swimming upstream. To struggle for anything but the concrete moment, the act of inhaling and exhaling, the sixty-five heartbeats a minute-her heart had always beat slowly and regularly-that kept her alive was absurd. God was busy with other, more important matters.
As for her religious beliefs-those that had survived the routine of her new life-Teresa was still going to mass on Sunday, mechanically reciting her prayers before she went to sleep, Padre Nuestro, Ave Maria, and she sometimes surprised herself by asking Christ or the Virgin (a couple of times she also invoked St. Malverde) for this or that. For example, that Guero Davila be in heaven, amen. Although she knew very well that despite her good wishes, it was unlikely that Guero was in fucking heaven. He was almost surely burning in hell right now, the son of a bitch cabron, just like in the songs of Paquita la del Barrio-Are you burning, you worthless son of a gun? As with all her prayers, the prayer for Guero was spoken without conviction, more out of protocol than anything else. Or perhaps in the case of Guero, out of loyalty. Whatever, she did it the way you'd take a request to a powerful government minister-without much hope that the plea would be heard, much less that it would be granted.
But she didn't pray for Santiago Fisterra. Not once. Neither for his well-being nor for his return. She kept him at arm's length deliberately, refusing to see him as officially linked to the problem. No repetitions, no dependency- she'd been down that road once. Never again.
And yet the night he returned to her house and she found him sitting on the steps as though he'd left just hours earlier, she felt an incredible relief, and a happiness, almost a joy, that shook her between her thighs, in her womb, and in her eyes, and that made her open her mouth and breathe deep. It was a brief second, and then she found herself calculating exactly how many days it had been since that last time, figuring out how long it took to go there and back, miles and hours-enough time for telephone calls, enough time for a letter or a postcard to have gone from point A to point B, so she'd know he was all right. She thought about all that, although she uttered not a word of reproach, while he kissed her, and they went into the house together without a word, straight for the bedroom. And she was still thinking of the same thing when he lay quietly at last, relieved, atop her, and his labored breathing began to grow softer against her throat.
"They got Lalo," he said at last.
Teresa lay even more still. The light from the hall fell over the male shoulder in front of her mouth. She kissed it. "They nearly got me," he added.
He lay motionless, his face huddled into the hollow of her throat. He was speaking very softly, and his lips brushed her skin with every word. Slowly, she put her arms around him.
"Tell me about it, if you want to."
He shook his head a little, and Teresa didn't insist, because she knew she didn't need to. She knew that he'd talk when he felt calmer, if she maintained the same attitude and the same silence. And she was right. After a while, he began to talk. Not as though telling a story, but rather in short phrases, like images or memories. He was actually recalling it aloud, she realized. In all those days, this may have been the first time he had talked about it.
And so she learned, and so she imagined. And above all, she realized that life plays nasty tricks on people, and that those tricks mysteriously link up into chains with other nasty tricks that are played on other people, and that you might even be able to see yourself at the center of some absurd network of links, like a fly in a spider's web. And so she listened to a story that she knew beforehand, a story in which only the places and characters were different-and she decided that Sinaloa wasn't as far away as she had thought. She, too, saw the spotlight from the Moroccan patrol boat cutting through the night like cold sweat, the white flare in the air, Lalo Veiga's face with its mouth open, calling out in shock and fear-The Mows! The Mows! And there they were, with the stupid grinding of the starter, Lalo's silhouette in the spotlight as he ran back to the stern to free the mooring rope, the first shots, the muzzle flashes near the spotlight, the water kicked up by the gunfire, the zi-i-ing, zi-i-ing of the bullets flying past, and more muzzle flashes from the shore. And suddenly the engine roaring to life, the bow of the speedboat rising toward the stars, and more bullets, and Lalo's cry as he fell overboard-first one cry and then many-Santiago, wait, wait, Santiago, don't leave me, Santiago, Santiago, Santiago. And then the powerful rumble of the engine at full throttle, and the last glance over his shoulder to see Lalo falling behind in the water, framed in the cone of light from the patrol boat, one arm raised to grasp, futilely, at the speedboat as it ran, leapt, fled, its keel slapping the dark waters.
Teresa listened to all that while the lips of the naked, motionless man on top of her continued to brush the skin of her throat. He did not raise his face, did not look at her. And did not let her look at him.
The crowing of roosters. The chant of the muezzin. Once again, the dirty-gray hour, the undecided limbo between night and day. This time Santiago was not asleep, either; she could tell from his breathing that he was still awake. All that night she had felt him moving restlessly in the bed next to her, jerking when he managed to fall asleep for a few minutes. Teresa was lying on her back still, controlling her desire to get up or smoke a cigarette, her eyes open, looking first at the darkness of the ceiling and then at the gray stain that crept in from outside like some malignant slug. "I want you to come with me," he whispered, out of nowhere. She was absorbed in the beating of her own heart. Every morning, every dawn, it seemed slower and slower, like that of an animal hibernating. One day I'm going to die at this hour, she thought. That dirty light that always comes at this hour is going to kill me. "Yes," she said.
That same day, Teresa searched in her purse for the snapshot she had saved from Sinaloa: her with Guero Davila's protective arm around her, gazing out on the world in amazement, without a clue about what was lurking there. She contemplated the photo a good while, and then went to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror, still holding the snapshot. Comparing herself to herself. Then, carefully and very slowly, she tore it in two, kept the half that she was in, and lit a cigarette. With the same match she lit a corner of the other half of the photo and stood motionless, the cigarette between her fingers, watching the image sputter and burn away. Guero's smile was the last thing to disappear, and she told herself that was just like him-laughing at everything right up to the end, not giving jack shit. The same man in the flames of the fucking photo as in the flames of the Cessna.