The Story of Luke Estrella/Gary Betancourt as Told by Dick
(Just as Héctor Belascoarán Shayne would later remember it)
You always find the people who will interest you later when you’re looking for others. That’s a kind of unwritten rule. The best stories will appear like tatters hanging off other stories that in the end will be eclipsed. I believe in accidents, and then I believe that instinct adds up the accidents and tells you there’s something there. Lastly, I believe in the stubbornness that allows you to find it.
If that is rule number one, rule number two also applies. It says, as far as I recall, that the guy who interests you is the one who is not where he should be, the one who stands out in the photo: the black man on a South African tennis team, the shoeshiner having a champagne cocktail in the palace, the New Zealander general getting a pedicure in a brothel in Madrid, the Mexican minister digging ditches with a community work brigade in Managua, the Broadway actress standing in line at a little restaurant where they sell empanadas in Lima.
There’s still a third rule. The interesting one is the one whose name is not mentioned, the one they tell you isn’t important, the one your usual sources seem to ignore.
Gary Betancourt fit the three rules, one after another. He appeared casually as a second reference while I was investigating the assassination of Olof Palme. No big deal, a very secondary mention in a newsletter of the Swedish groups in solidarity with Central America, mentioning that the Cuban had attempted to infiltrate them. They used that name, Gary Betancourt. I didn’t give a shit about the story, I was trying to establish connections between the assassins of Orlando Letelier and those of Palme, chasing a rumor that had come slowly trickling down from a West German magazine that placed Townley in the affair—reviewing the papers, this story popped up. I didn’t pay him the slightest attention, but my secretary filed the paper. The name reappeared as the investigation advanced, again it seemed unimportant, one of the Cuban gusanos who collaborated with the DINA, the Chilean Secret Service’s envoy in the assassination of Letelier, but nothing important, his name was mentioned in reference to the rental of a couple of cars and a go-between job. At that time, a friend of mine had published a mention of Betancourt, the talkative type who in a conversation had commented that he hadn’t been mixed up in the Letelier story because he was playing in the major leagues with the CIA. With statements like that you could fill a volume as big as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. At any rate, he was the only nexus between the assassinations of Letelier and Palme. Or rather, he was the nonexistent nexus. It wasn’t enough for even an item of three hundred fifty words. I reviewed the little Swedish newsletter again. The precise words were that the guy had been roaming the country trying to get into the committees, and that by the time he was denounced, he had disappeared. The dates coincided with the murder of Palme. I followed other leads.
Two weeks later, I passed a little card with his name to the magazine’s department of documentation and they returned it to me with a couple of stapled press clips. In ’76, he had been the proprietor of a couple of pornographic magazine shops in Miami, the ones said to launder the Cuban mafia’s dirty money. The other clip was in connection to an act of Brigade 2506 that said he had been one of the speakers at the Bay of Pigs anniversary event. I liked the character, but I had nothing, not even one reason to investigate him. That’s why I asked a friend of mine who worked as a fortune-teller outside Disneyland about Gary Betancourt and she told me to go to hell. Her business was an imprecise science, not the Washington Post data bank.
In this business, the only truly trustworthy thing is the memory. So when, six months later, I sent an information request to the Department of Immigration about the number of Vietnamese living in Los Angeles County, I added an appendix requesting data on Gary Betancourt. They sent me a sheet full of bureaucratic verbiage stating that Lutgardo Betancourt Estrella had been naturalized as an American in ’65, becoming Gary Betancourt. He offered a pharmacy in Miami as a reference. The interesting part is that they had sent me the wrong copy, one on which after the final references, the sending of the copy with the answer to an office of uninterpretable abbreviations in Fort Lauderdale had been jotted down. Later, I discovered, of course, that the office, according to the highly reliable Bell Company, did not exist.
I’ve got a friend in a corner of the Reagan administration who occasionally whispers something my way, “things going around out there.” When I mentioned Gary Betancourt to him, he said he’d never heard of him in his life, was he a new hire for the Baltimore Orioles to improve their outfield? But he smiled three seconds longer than he should have.
Then I started studying the matter in earnest.
I could start by looking for connections between Betancourt and the CIA or by trying to enter his territory. I caught a flight to Florida.
I’ve gone swimming in Miami three times and it is like sinking in a pool of water while others watch you drown. Nobody knows anything, the rules are different, the borders between law and order are flimsier than the ones in Dodge City in the middle of the last century. There is a marginal world that runs several cities superimposed on the visible city, cities more real than the ones in the tourism brochures the mayor hands out when he’s running for re-election. I could have gone either alone or with the people from the Miami Herald, a paper that has grown in national importance based on throwing a few blind blows, often with noteworthy results. If I shared what I had on Betancourt with them, one of two things would have happened: they would have thought the whole thing was crap and that it wasn’t worth getting involved in, or they would have thought there was something there and they would’ve started swimming at my side like sharks; later they would have thrown me the bones left over from the cadaver of the story. It was quite evident that I had to walk alone.
I started with the obvious. Betancourt wasn’t listed in the phone book. The pharmacy where he worked in 1965 didn’t exist; it was possible it never existed. In the Association of Ex-Soldiers of the Bay of Pigs he was not registered; someone remembered that yes, he had spoken at a meeting, but he was not a member of the brigade. In the Cuban exiles’ files, only the known facts appeared. A secretary smiled at me and made the sign of someone who sniffs cocaine when I mentioned Betancourt to her. When I asked about him explicitly, she said she didn’t know him. If anything turns me on, it’s ghosts. I was going up a level. The FBI in Florida: Betancourt? Unofficially, they had a few things pending with him, but he didn’t belong to them, he hadn’t been around Miami for two years. What things? Drug trafficking, no big deal, maybe the DEA would give me some of his booty. A car stolen on a drunken binge, does anybody care? No, no one, we all have a couple of kids (in my case it’s my father and an uncle), who’ve done that once. The arms trafficking thing bothered them. What traffic? What arms? For whom? Arms? We didn’t say that, or did we?
As I discovered, the Cuban ghost and I had a mutual friend, an art gallery owner. He knew Betancourt slightly. He occasionally accompanied a general friend of his to buy paintings. A general from where? From those countries down below. Colombian, Bolivian, Salvadoran? Mexican. Mexican? Or Peruvian, from those countries. Were the paintings worth much? No, nothing, nah.
A woman who lived with him. Nothing. Nothing? He owned a few porn stores. They weren’t around anymore, one was now an ice cream store. The American dream, all porn stores can be transformed into ice cream stores. He hadn’t seen him around the city for a couple of months. Months, not years? Months. If only it were years; he wasn’t worth the dirt he walked on.
I bumped into a friend of a friend of mine who, according to my original friend, knew everything, but it would cost to make him talk. He was a very young Chinese guy. What had he lost in Miami? Him or Betancourt? Both. Betancourt. The rest was business. Betancourt was with the CIA. Everybody knew it. He was one of the recruits of ’62. Didn’t he come to the States in ’65? No, ’62, when they created the base, the J.M. Wave. Later, it hit the same luck most of the bases did, when they were busted because in ’62 the Cuban government had filled the Agency with moles. Some paid for others, Cuba ended up costing them dearly. They were dismantled, even though he kept talking. There are no borders. You start an arms deal for the CIA and finish it for a group of Puerto Rican gangsters in New Jersey. You sell a little shit to the DEA guys, then you resell it to the Colombians, and you end up building a company to sell illegal crocodile leather because the business popped up along the way and you end up laundering the money of some people, informing others, and conducting commerce with the remaining easily duped mortals. Who are you? Who do you work for? There comes a time when only you know. Not even those who pay you are sure anymore. The business dealings of the Company are obscure, like the designs of Confucius. Was I from the CIA? Are you from the CIA? Are we both from the CIA? Shit, if so our ops should have already reached an agreement at Langley and we wouldn’t be wasting our time. Speaking of time, that’s fifty dollars.
I went back to Los Angeles with the conviction that I’d been running around futilely. I continued the investigation over the phone for a week without getting anything. Suddenly, an assistant to one of the members of the Senate Agency Oversight Subcommittee called me, we arranged to meet, he was in California looking for the woman of his dreams. Did he find her? No, deep down, he was gay. So? He told me I was wasting time, that Betancourt was a little rat and that he hadn’t been active for years. If I wanted an interesting story, why didn’t I delve into the world of retirees? There were a lot of loose rats. They had recruited them, they had used them in covert operations, in dirty work all over the planet, and now they didn’t know what to do with them, they made the worst office workers. Not even close to the traditional loyalty of the natives, not even close to Gunga Din or the Apache scouts that Charlton Heston used. A couple of hours after we left each other, he called me at the magazine, requested maximum confidentiality, and suggested I tell Betancourt to go to hell and start investigating Sid Valdés-Vasco, that that guy was pure Texas hamburger meat. I didn’t understand the metaphor. I didn’t pay him any attention. I didn’t have any money. I started working on a report on the water problems between northern and southern California, then another about drugs in Los Angeles high schools, then, with an investigative team, on the Catholic Church’s business dealings in Texas and New Mexico. Finally, on the way home, in a lousy mood on a day when my cigarettes tasted just plain bad, it occurred to me to send a little paper to Documentation with the name Sid Valdés-Vasco. They sent back a photo of Betancourt. Divine, all roads lead to Rome. Even the ones going to Rome. Papers started coming to my hands. A mention in the book by Robbins on Air America, the CIA’s airline. Valdés-Vasco, Vevé, had organized the arms shipments to guys who worked for Savimbi, the pro-South African guerrilla from Angola, and his organization, UNITA. More papers, a mention of his intervention in the relations between the DEA and the CIA in the matter of the war between the true Mafia and the Colombian mafia and, therefore, all the political connections of the affair. He was the man who had negotiated in the name of the CIA with the Bolivian coke-dollar generals, to break with Colombia.
My friend from the Senate called me again a week ago and said: “Mexico City, hotel Presidente Chapultepec, December seventh.”
And so it was. I arrived, I knocked on the door, I asked him for an interview. I was interested in the Gunga Din story, Apache scouts, those who’d run dirty operations, the Cold War artisans who’d gone into early retirement. He smiled and hit me right in the eye. I didn’t even have a chance to take out my tape recorder.