For All Nails #67: Even Paranoids Have Enemies
by Noel Maurer
Robert Contreras was NOT a happy man. Oh, yeah, you could gussy that up with adjectives, say the same thing using fancy metaphors. It would make no difference. Robert Contreras was as unhappy as a rich man in good health could be. Which was pretty freaking unhappy. He rubbed his bare scalp and took another long swig at his beer and watched the city swing by as the rooftop restaurant rolled through another rotation. The lights of the slummier parts of the city of Chapultapec spread out on the south side of Chapultepec Park. FN1 The even slummier town of Tacubaya spread out beyond that.
A year ago things had been different. Sure, he had business troubles, his second-youngest daughter was a spoiled brat, and his latest wife spent more time shopping in Europe than with him. But none of that was really a problem. Business had been turning around. Sure, the cost imported inputs had gone up and Pemex dragged out payments, but his firm's exports to the Manitoba oil companies were booming. He loved his daughter, and if he ever worried about her girlishness, well, young Bobby's accomplishments were more than any father could hope for, and his other children weren't turning out that badly either. Plus he could always hope for the best from the baby. As for the wife -- well, the more time she spent in Switzerland, the more time he had to fuck Susanna Ek's brains out on the living room sofa.
But that was a year ago. In retrospect, all the lío started when he'd decided to run for president of the Chamber of Manufacturers. Oh, in reality they'd started after that, when Contreras had opened his big mouth and started soliciting funds for the Moctezuma campaign. All he could say was that it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
The first sign of something going wrong had been the troubles with the Customs inspectors in Monticello. Contreras hadn't thought twice about that. Sure, the fishing had been a little more blatant than Contreras had come to expect -- kind of like using filet mignon to bait catfish -- but Customs was part of the War Department, and Mercator often used positions in the War Department to reward cronies or co-opt potential enemies. Not business-as-usual, but not insane either. Contreras made the usual phone calls, and the hassles stopped.
Until he met Moctezuma in that hotel room, but a block or two from this very building.
Ten days later federal police, acting under a presidential order, picked up his brother Charlie Contreras in Henrytown and held him for two days of interrogation about alleged attempts to bribe Pemex officials. Charlie had indeed hired an agent to try to collect on the money Pemex owed, but neither of them had authorized any bribes. Not that bribery didn't run rampant at Petroleum of Mexico, just that no one would be so foolish as to hire an agent to pass one along. An agent, after all, could just as easily threaten to go to the judiciary as pass the bribe along, keeping the mordida for himself, and would become an endless source of potential blackmail. The accusation just didn't make any sense.
A few days later a story broke in the Guadalajara Sol that Contreras's company was involved in customs fraud and Bob had fled the country. Considering as Bob was in San Francisco negotiating with suppliers at that very moment, it wasn't hard to counteract the stories, but they were strange. A few days later the attorney general, a Dominguez appointee named Sergio Ramírez, announced that he had no evidence of fraud by either of the Contreras brothers or anyone connected to them, and that was that. Sort of. His negotiations with Pemex over its debts came to a complete halt, and his company was forced to eat the loss.
Right after Moctezuma's election, Contreras got a mysterious phone call from Fred Buchanan. Buchanan wasn't a full member of the Chamber of Manufacturers, but his company was a huge customer and he was a more than slightly influential businessman. He wanted to talk about the campaign donations. "Bob, I gave at the office," he had said. "So did you." When pressed, Fred had refused to say any more.
Three months after Moctezuma's inauguration, the first stories about Susanna appeared in the tabloids. The affair wasn't exactly a surprise to his wife, but the public humiliation was too much. After a tearful night, she had announced that she was divorcing him and moving back to Manitoba. Worse yet, she was taking his youngest daughter with her. FN2 Worse still, the Affaire Ek embarrassed President Moctezuma, who was asked in a press conference by an IPN reporter: "What kind of message does such behavior from one of your most prominent supporters say to the youth of Mexico?"
Moctezuma fended the attack off easily. This was Mexico -- adulterous conduct offended precisely three members of the Catholic Decency League of Guadalajara, and perhaps a fourth repressed homosexual evangelical from Jefferson. But the President stopped visiting Chamber offices. Soon after, El Popo stopped returning Bob's phone calls.
Not good. Major not good. But it got worse. In late 1972 Contreras got a surprise visit from a greasy little Customs Service blanco from Alaska named Rupert Gomberg. Oh, Gomberg didn't look greasy -- it was hard to look greasy with a shaved head -- but he acted greasy. He oozed into Contreras's Mexico City office attempting a "business casual" look that just didn't work. The shirt was too starched, the pants were too creased. He looked just like the active-reserve military officer that he probably was.
"Why did you want to talk to me, Señor Gomberg?" asked Contreras.
With good Mexican directness, Gomberg replied, "You are aware that we haven't discontinued our investigation of your company, Señor Contreras." The "our" was telling.
Contreras leaned back in his chair. Standard strategy: the more stressed he was, the more relaxed he tried to look. "Sí," he lied.
"Good, good. How's the family?" asked the little aristo with the pole up his butt. Gomberg's expression could only be described as confidently bored.
"Fine," lied Contreras again. "I'll repeat: why are you here?"
"How are your friends, Señor Contreras?" Contreras just glared across the hardwood desk. "We have many friends in common, you know. In the War Department, in Pemex, in the federal prosecutor's office."
"Why ... are ... you ... here?" repeated Contreras.
"Direct, eh? That's fine with me, Señor Contreras. I'm here to tell you that we haven't been able to find any proof of smuggling or other illegality in Monticello."
"Good. Leave." Contreras was in no mood for this.
"The problem is, Señor Contreras," Gomberg actually stifled a yawn, "we've found so many clerical errors in your paperwork that it wouldn't be hard for someone, uh, less enlightened than myself to find evidence of criminality."
Contreras grit his teeth. "Y?"
"Y you've got a problem. Which we could make go away for a mere ... one million dólares." Gomberg rubbed his nostril with his pinky.
One million dólares! Sure, one million dólares wasn't what it used to be, but inflation was coming down fast and it was still a substantial sum of money. FN3 "For a mitad of that amount, I could hire someone to kill you," lied Contreras for the third time in two minutes.
The lie did, however, have the desired effect on Gomberg, who suddenly seemed very alert about what Contreras was saying. The pinky left the nose and stayed away. "Listen, Gomberg," continued Contreras, "I don't know who you think you are, but I know this game. I invented this game. So escúchame very carefully." He leaned forward, his hands on his desk. "You're in a non-combat branch of the War Department. Moonlighting is standard in non-combat branches of the War Department. You say you have friends in Pemex. Put it together. I will hire you as a consultant y give you a commission for two million dólares if you can get Pemex to release the 400 million dólares they owe me. Me explico?"
"I don't know ..."
"Wrong answer! You have five seconds. Take it or leave it."
Gomberg stared. The pinky returned to the nose. "Fine. Fine. I can do that."
"Good. Now leave." Gomberg left, and Contreras fumed. What did that little shit think he was trying to accomplish? Contreras had offered the counter-bribe not because he was afraid of Rupert Gomberg, but because any chance at recovering his 400 million dólares was worth it.
A month passed. His legal problems multiplied. Nothing serious, nothing real, mostly stuff that any solvent businessman in Mexico had done, and most of which would no longer be necessary once the 69th Congress finished its legislative session. FN4 Then Gomberg returned, far less arrogant. "I can't help you," he said.
"Why no?" FN5
"You have powerful enemies in Pemex. The senior managers are convinced that you were are the source of the information that got Director Olson arrested by the California state authorities for fraud in 1971." Gomberg rubbed his nose. The pinky was no longer involved. "I want to help you, but I just can't."
What you mean, thought Contreras, is that you want my money but can't get it. He dismissed Gomberg like the pawn he was and then made the call he should have made a long time ago.
"Could you please put me through to Colonel Malvaez, please? Tell him Bob Contreras is on the line." He was on the line, in more ways than one. "Yes, I'll wait."
"Bob!" Franklin Malvaez was currently Subsecretary of Commerce in Moctezuma's administration. That put him as far up on the food chain as you could get without needing Congressional confirmation, not including the Secretary of State. He also retained all of his old contacts over in the parallel bureaucracy in the War Department. No man was more connected. "I haven't heard from you for a while, amigo."
"Things have been busy."
"So I've heard. I'm sorry about Marie, for what it's worth. I never did see what you saw in her, anyway."
"Burnt ships, Coronel, burnt ships. Ni modo."
You could practically hear Malvaez nod. "Ni modo. Well, what brings this call?"
Contreras made a brief smacking noise with his mouth. "Do I really have to say? You read the papers."
"Yeah, I do. Customs again?"
"That's the worst part, yes, but they're also hauling me over the coals for tax evasion and hiding unregistered assets. Someone doesn't like me, y I've been having trouble getting people in the Administration to listen. Which has me very encabronado, considering how much money I put into El Popo's campaign."
Malvaez did that magic thing again, nodding over the phone. "I can understand that. You should be encabronado. I'll see what I can find out." The two had become friends of a sort over the decades, but their relationship remained fundamentally businesslike. That was the way both of them liked it.
Two weeks went by. The legal problems piled up. Then Contreras got a call from Malvaez telling him that he didn't want to talk over the phone, and they should meet at the rotating restaurant on top of the Mexico Center building the following evening. So here he was, ordering martinis and waiting for the Coronel to show up.
By the time Malvaez showed, looking almost the same as he had when they first met sixteen years ago, the view from the bar showed the wealthy suburbs of Chapultapec Hills and Huixquilucan, with the lights of offices and condos of even more distant Santa Fé a vague glowing blur through the smog. Colonel Malvaez was tall, lean, and impeccably dressed. He looked almost Italian. It was a Hispano sense of style that was ever more rare. He sidled up to Contreras at the bar.
"Vodka. Straight," he said to the bartender. "Hello, Bob."
"Hey, Frank. Why the cloak and dagger routine?"
"No cloak and dagger routine. I just wanted to tell you this in person." His vodka arrived, Malvaez took a huge gulp. "You're on your own."
"Cómo?" asked Contreras.
"You're on your own. No one in the Administration will help you. They're not after you, but they won't help you." He took another swig of his vodka.
"Why not?" asked Contreras.
"No one in the Administration is after you," replied Malvaez. "Someone in the War Department is after you."
"The War Department?" Contreras felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.
"Yeah. Look, I talked to the federal chief prosecutor. He pulled out a three-inch thick file on you," Malvaez gestured with his thumb and forefinger to show just how thick it was, "and poosed it down on the desk." FN6 Malvaez's palm struck the counter for emphasis. "He then said that some people in the War Department considered you an 'enemy of the system' and that you should get out of the oil business and go retire to Cuba, or some such."
"Are you serious?" Contreras was shocked.
Malvaez took a third swig of vodka and motioned for the bartender to bring another glass, although his first wasn't quite finished. "I exaggerate for dramatic effect, but that was the gist of it. The point is that the chief prosecutor told me that the War Department had a hard-on for you. He then told me that the word had come down from the Castle not to waste time or political capital in trying to defend you from the people at War." FN7
"I'm on my own against Mercator?"
Malvaez polished off his first vodka just as the second arrived. "Not completely. The prosecutor did tell me that they would protect you against anything blatantly illegal. I got the impression, in fact, that he was hoping the War Department would try to make you disappear or break your legs or some such, give them some leverage to use against the boys in beige. But I also got the impression that as long as Mercator's people were staying within the letter of the law they wouldn't do a damn thing to help you."
"Why not, though? I mean, why?" Contreras was being less than eloquent, but Malvaez understood what he was trying to say. Malvaez motioned for a third vodka, for Contreras.
"Have a drink. You really don't get it, do you?" Contreras shook his head. "C'mon, Bob, you can't be that naïve! You know what's going on, don't you?"
Contreras shrugged. "Well, I know that Moctezuma's been fairly aggressive, but he hasn't done anything that he didn't say he would during the campaign, and I figured ..."
Malvaez cut him off. "That if Mercator didn't want it to happen he wouldn't let it. You thought wrong, Bob. Moctezuma has been heading off on his own practically since the day Mercator gave him the dedazo. He suckered you and a bunch of other businessmen who thought they were more sophisticated than they were to give a him financial independence from the Progressive Party machine. Now Mercator is trying to undercut that independence, and he's picked you as an example."
"Why me in particular?" Malvaez just raised an eyebrow. Contreras got it. "Right. The Chamber presidency, the privatization speeches. I'm public. I'm naïve, but not stupid."
Malvaez shrugged. "You're not even really naïve. Or you were, but in a strange sort of way: You failed to realize that the Constitution does mean something. Enough to give Moctezuma power against Mercator, but not enough to protect you against the Secretary."
Contreras thought to himself. "Are you sure about that?"
"Oh, Jesus, Bob, are you going to fight this? Go to Cuba. Keep your money and your mistress."
"Why?" Contreras gulped his vodka. "You said I'm protected against a hit squad or anything like that. I can afford good lawyers. Why not fight it? I'm not just going to roll over and die, Frank."
"No, no you wouldn't, would you." Frank thought for a second. "Okay, listen to me. I won't argue with you, I know you too well. But be careful. If you want to fight this in the courts, go ahead, but be aware that most of the Administration is going to be passive. The Customs Service and big chunks of the parallel bureaucracy are going to come after you. And while the courts are mostly neutral, the lawyers are not, and mostly does not mean all. So be careful about your venue. I'd suggest California or Chiapas, maybe Guadalajara. NOT the Capital District, and preferably not Jefferson, Arizona, or México Central. And be very careful about who runs your defense: no lawyer wants to be blacklisted by the War Department. Avoid our pet firm like the plague."
Strangely, Contreras was beginning to feel relieved. Malvaez's advice registered, but his first response was a non sequitur: "Thank you, Frank. Thanks. I mean that."
"For putting my mind at ease."
Malvaez looked confused. "How did I do that?"
Contreras laughed. "I now know I'm not paranoid. Well, I am, but someone really is out to get me." He laughed again. "Now all I need is a lawyer I can trust."
Forward to FAN #68 (USM politics): She's Got Legs.
Forward to 19 July 1973: Triestine Livers.
Forward to Contreras family: "Call Me Judge Lancito".
Return to For All Nails.