I grew up in a pretty straight-laced household on a farm and went to high school in a small town, and though my mom and dad helped me get a great education, they didn’t really prepare me for this. Something else did.
“When it rains, everyone gets wet”—cuando cae la lluvia se mojan todos. That was the not-so-subtle message our agent gave the engineering director with the power to disqualify bidders competing in a multimillion-dollar tender in Peru’s newly deregulated telecommunications market. Basically, he’d just told the guy over lunch and beer in my hotel suite in Lima to swing the technical scoring of proposals our way and he’d get rich. I’d just witnessed a direct violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) by an agent of my company, something that happened all the time in international sales, I was learning.
Back in company headquarters in Atlanta a week before, as we finalized the pricing of the five-million-dollar bid, the parting words to me from the VP of Sales had been, “Make sure the agent arranges a nice retirement package for the technical decision maker.” Expressed out loud in a formal meeting of the division president and department vice presidents. New to the commercial side of the tech world, I was a bit taken aback, but as it turned out the agent in Lima hadn’t needed any prodding.
Having just moved from engineering to sales and from Silicon Valley to Atlanta, I was catching on to how the international telecom business worked in Latin America in 1991. A good agent was key, and the one we’d hired in Peru was really good. He’d already won major deals with the Peruvian telephone company, which is why we picked him in the first place. Our company would pay him a hefty commission to do the dirty work, if and when we got the contract. Of course, the commission came out of the sales proceeds, so in the end the customer was paying to bribe its own employees, less a fat portion skimmed off the top by the hyper-connected agent.
The FCPA had been passed by Congress in response to the Lockheed bribery scandal in the 1970s where the company had been caught paying millions of dollars in bribes to government officials and airline executives around the world to purchase their aircraft. I didn’t worry too much about it because the company’s upper management, my bosses, seemed to pay no attention at all to the law’s intent or provisions. So you can imagine my displeasure when we were told to sign a document saying we knew nothing about any practices by ourselves or our agents which violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Leave it to corporate executives and lawyers to cover their own asses and pass the blame on down the totem pole. They all knew exactly what was going on.
The contract I was chasing in Lima was for a big international gateway to be built by CPT, Compañía Peruana de Teléfonos, the telephone company of Lima. A semi-private enterprise, CPT had issued an RFP (“Request for Proposals”) for a large satellite earth station outside the city and a fiber optic link to their downtown switching center. With Lima being by far the largest population and business center in the country, the company was anxious to take advantage of the lucrative opportunity to carry its own international traffic. The monopoly of Entel Peru, the government’s own international telecommunications carrier, had just been declared null and void by free market president Alberto Fujimori as part of the wave of deregulation and privatization sweeping across Latin America in the early 1990s.
This was my first job in sales. I liked the people around me all right, and they were fine with me. The engineers respected a sales guy who’d been one of them, and as a fluent Spanish speaker, I got along great with the Latinos who were in key management positions. We’d been out drinking and being stupid already which, it seemed, was the best way to get to know somebody in a business environment, whether it be customer or colleague. Just make sure you show up to the meeting the next morning.
After the Peruvian tender documents were issued, I spent the next month and a half coordinating a five-person team that prepared our offer, which consisted of four identical copies of three separate large spiral-bound notebooks: the technical, legal, and commercial proposals. The agent and I delivered them on a Wednesday morning in September 1991 in response to the complex requirements laid out in detail in the documents issued by the Lima telephone company.
The bid opening was a formal affair where representatives of the principal foreign bidders, who all knew each other or about each other at least, watched carefully to see if there weren’t some legal technicality that could be used to eliminate one or another of their competitors. Sometimes this could be done if a bidder made a mistake and the buyer’s (the telephone company’s) legal team had gotten the word from on high (like from the company president or chief engineer our agent had introduced to us) about who to try to eliminate, but usually the dirty tricks were saved for the technical evaluation, which took several weeks and was much more subjective.
Which is how I came to have the principal technical decision maker in my hotel suite drinking beer at lunch time with me and the agent—we had a good agent on this deal. That and a good price would be the winning combination, but the prices would not be opened until the proposals were approved or rejected on technical grounds. We wanted badly to have eliminated one low-priced competitor from Melbourne, Florida, that always gave us trouble. Then the pricing proposals would be opened, we’d be low bidder, and, as the agent put it so poetically, the rain would fall and we’d all get wet. Actually, we preferred that dollars rained down and we all got rich.
I’d been around South America quite a bit in my pre-responsibility hippie days, by which I mean before I had a wife and kids to take care of, and, truthfully, I wasn’t all that surprised with what I was finding out about international business.
I was in fact married to a woman from Peru and had spent some time in Lima before, albeit in a very different part of the city than San Isidro, the wealthy neighborhood where my hotel was located right next to the grounds of a golf course. My wife, Marta, was from Cuzco, not Lima, a much smaller city principally known as the jumping off point for the most popular tourist destination in the country, Machu Picchu.
After our marriage in Cuzco in February of 1978, we had spent the entire month of July that year in Lima, hassling with consular officials in the American Embassy, trying to get them to accept the validity of our marriage and issue Marta a visa that would allow her to come back to the U.S. with me. The State Department officials who interact with foreigners abroad pretty much assume that everyone without an advanced degree, a prosperous business, or a nice piece of real estate is a liar and produces fake documents. It’s just standard operating procedure to humiliate all locals of modest means along with any American low enough to consort with them, let alone marry one.
They can block entirely your future plans by denying a visa. Some get off on the feeling of power they hold over you and some don’t, but they all know they have it. Unlike the rich locals they meet at embassy cocktail parties, my new wife’s family was from the lower middle class in a smaller city in the interior of the country, so we qualified automatically for bad treatment. And while dealing with the assholes from the Consulate, I’d gotten caught in a nasty eddy and almost seen my future sucked down a rat hole.
Pasta they call it in Peru. It's cheaper and dirtier than the more refined cocaine crystals, has to be smoked, and will get you high as hell for five minutes at most before you’re dying for more.
I hardly ever did cocaine in the States during my hippie heyday. I was too cheap. It was $100 for a gram of product that had often been stepped on so much as to be barely recognizable. They call it powder in the U.S. because with all the cut they put in it you hardly see the tiny crystals anymore. One night's fun was all you generally got out of a gram.
Things were different in Peru and Bolivia. I was constantly sampling the local wares, and Marta didn't seem to mind the buzz either. It's kinda like drinking several cups of strong coffee and just feeling happy as shit about it. For $6 a gram, you could get crystal cocaine that was pure as the driven snow. Pasta was even cheaper than crystal cocaine, so of course I also had that. I don't remember the price, but I do remember the feeling. Sends a cold chill up my spine.
Like a fellow pastelero once said, "Es lo peor—It's the worst, it ruins your life, it fucks up your head, it's pure evil. Bad, bad, bad,” and he emphasized the evil with a scathing scowl, pausing for effect, then transforming his face into a beatific smile of pure radiant joy and delivered the punchline, "PERO RICO—BUT SO GOOD!”
That insanely addictive thought, “Malo pero rico—Bad, but oh so good,” was the unadulterated description of the effects of smoking pasta, and it was the most salient memory I saw as I looked surreptitiously from time to time through the rear view mirror at that long, gray month of July 1978 in Lima.
I was concerned when the Peruvian immigration agent entered my passport data into the computer upon my arrival in Lima in 1991. With two boxes of documents that had to be delivered before 9:00 a.m. the next day at the formal bid opening, I hoped their computer system didn’t have a record of what happened during the month of July 1978. There was certainly a record stored in my cerebral data base of what happened when Bobby, Christophe, and I got picked up by local police in La Victoria, one of Lima’s toughest neighborhoods.
Though I never shared the experience with the engineers, executives, and telecommunications ministry officials I was doing business with in ’91, nor did they suspect it, I couldn’t quite forget the night plain clothes cops followed us back to the hotel after scoring the pasta. Bobby and I had become regulars at the neighborhood huecos. Bobby had been in the zero-star Hotel Mango Capac for over a month, and, by unfortunate happenstance, my new wife and I had gotten a room there upon our arrival in Lima. Not knowing how long it would take to get the visa situation straightened out with the American Consulate, we parked ourselves there because it was cheap. As an added benefit, nobody bothered you if you were smoking something pungent in your room.
Christophe was a nice Danish kid, tall and skinny, who made the fateful mistake of going out to score that low-rent pasta with us when he had 60 grams of crystal cocaine in his backpack that he was planning to smuggle into Denmark. Since his little load would be worth over six grand when he got home, he wanted to cop a cheap buzz without eating into his profits on the crystal, so he accompanied us on the evening tour of the huecos organized by professor Bobby.
Bobby had a basketball scholarship to the University of Colorado before becoming a total scumbag. He stood 6'6" tall, Chris was 6'4" at least, and besides those two, I was the tallest man in Lima at 6'3”. In retrospect, we were whack-a-mole dolls waiting to get whacked by the Peruvian system of justice, except there were no holes for us to sink into before the hammer came down. Bobby had been doing this for months now, and I'd begun my own anthropological study of pastelero culture under his tutelage. If nice Christophe had stuck with his crystal cocaine, he wouldn’t have been out on the streets of La Victoria scoring pasta, and the next few years of his life would have been much better.
That night two plain clothes cops had decided to come down to our end of La Victoria to see if anything amusing were happening outside the huecos. We were nothing if not amusing. I later learned they were on the corner observing the whole comedy: the three of us giraffes coming out of the one-room hole-in-the-wall apartment.
As we crept out of the half-height door built into the metallic pull-down front wall of the one-room hueco, stuffed somewhere in one of Bobby’s inner garments were our goods, fifteen ketes: carefully-folded, postage-stamp-sized packages, single-loads of mind-bending pasta, “malo pero rico.”
It must not have been easy for the two cops to contain themselves as the three of us contorted our bodies to get out of the half-height door, but they didn’t bust us there. Looking left and right, we acted smooth as usual, but of course we were nervous. You always are when you’re on the street holding drugs in a foreign country.
It’s hard for three beanpole gringos to fit in on the streets of La Victoria, and unfortunately we didn't see the undercover PIPs ("Policía de Investigación Peruana," basically the FBI of Peru) amongst the sea of humanity on the sidewalk outside. It wasn’t much different from what you find on the sidewalk in the poorer neighborhoods of any city: a mixture of hard-working people, some law-abiding but lazy people, derelict druggies like us, and everything in between.
In the lead, Bobby, as was his custom, pranced around like he owned the place. I was a little more cautious as people stared at us, knowing we were up to no good, but it was natural that they stared at us. And we were feeling fine, we were gonna get high, like we hadn't since the wee hours of the night before. The anticipation of the drug is almost as pleasurable as the drug itself, but that's true of any pleasurable activity. Think sex. Think winning a big hand of poker.
Somewhere in his sophomore year at Colorado, Bobby had lost his scholarship when his appetite for partying overcame his basketball ability. Eventually, he made it to Chicago where before long he attained street junkie status, running with some of the city's finest before a possession bust put him in his first rehab clinic. It wasn't his last, but during one prolonged rehab period, he was able to get a job as a drug counselor to others who hadn’t seen the way. Then he rehabbed the rehab and was back on the junk but still employed as a drug counselor, and his dealer left his daily dose of heroin in the mailbox every morning. His cynicism surprised even me when he told me that story, counseling people on how to get off drugs while cruising on heroin himself.
Bobby’s back story gets better, which is worse, but so does this one, as our PIP detective friends follow us back to our flophouse hotel, knowing they've got an easy gringo bust. While they're at the front desk flashing their badges to find out what rooms we’re in, Christophe is in his own room mixing in little snorts of the crystal that we'd love to do but he’s not sharing with us, and Bobby’s with Marta and me in ours, smoking it up—this stuff is so good you just can't wait to get into the pleasure cloud. When Bang, bang, bang! Pleasure cloud bursts. The cops are hammering on the door, about to break it down, so we throw everything out the window.
Opening reluctantly and letting them into a cloud of smoke, we couldn't even try to look innocent. I’m not sure what Chris was doing when they entered his room, but pretty soon they'd hauled the three of us out to the tiny reception area of the hotel. Informing the night guard that they’d be going through our rooms, one guy stayed to conduct the search and the other hauled us off in cuffs. They looked at Marta and decided to leave her alone, for which I'm forever grateful. I'd done enough to corrupt the poor girl already.
No fancy cop cars for these narcotics dicks who may have been out for an evening of drinking and drugging themselves, we’ll never know, but our guy just flagged down a taxi to take us on the twenty-minute ride to the Pantera Rosa (literally, the Pink Panther), the holding facility for drug offenders from central and southern Lima. Once there, we were handed over to a more official-looking guy behind a desk with a uniform and a badge. It was like being brought into the principal’s office in high school. They didn’t beat us or anything. The guy just looked us over like, “What have we got here?”
But he was prepared. Pulling out a little box with a chemical test kit, he dipped three Q-tips in a little vial of liquid, then rubbed them around our respective lips and nasal cavities. The next part of this high-tech operation was to spray the Q-tips with whatever-the-hell it was, something to detect the residue of cocaine. Chris’s turned blue, mine turned blue, and Bobby’s didn’t. Chris, who I'd known down in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, had previously invited lucky me to his room to share a little snort of crystal before we’d gone out that evening, but Bobby had only smoked it. Chris and I scored 100 on the test and were escorted into a large concrete-floored room with thirty or forty other unlucky lawbreakers from the streets of Lima.
Bobby had gotten lucky and, after showing them the police report saying his New Zealand passport had been stolen on the beach, walked out free. He’d left Chicago in a haste, jumping bail on burglary and grand larceny charges after the police found a room full of stolen stereo equipment jammed into his humble abode, which also served as a makeshift sound system showroom. Someone had figured out that drug counselor Bobby was not heeding his own advice, and, losing his paycheck, he’d had to resort to basic burglary to finance his heroin habit. Leaving the U.S. in a hurry after the grand larceny bust, he was sure Interpol would have his name, so he became a member of the English-speaking population of New Zealand.
Every month or so, he'd go into a different Lima police station and swear out a statement describing how his New Zealand passport had been stolen. New Zealand didn’t have an embassy in Lima, and it would take a long time to get new documents, he lamented in broken Spanish. Lima was a bustling metropolis with more than five-million people and a helluva lot of police stations, so Bobby could redo his report every month or so in a different one. As an unfortunate New Zealand tourist, he existed by larceny and drug peddling to visiting gringos. In awe of his ingenuity, I admired his nose for making drug connections in a language he could barely speak, though his moral compass did seem a bit askew.
Back at the Pantera Rosa, Chris and I definitely stood out in the one big room where we all slept on the floor, ate whatever they gave us, and did our business in the two holes in the corner. Jail's not a nice place anywhere, but nobody tried to stab me, nobody tried to fuck me, and I didn't have to fight once. All in all, it was a positive encounter with Peruvian incarceration, a tour stop not available on most trips to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
That's the smartass coming out in me, and that’s what I sometimes felt like saying to the cocky businessmen who picked me up thirteen years later in their SUVs to go to meetings with telephone company lawyers, accountants, and engineers: “I know a side of this city you’ve never seen.” But even when we got drunk in the more relaxing atmosphere of a local bordello, I never broke down the façade of engineer and Missouri gringo who somehow spoke Spanish.
By the end of the week in the “Pink Panther,” I had gotten lucky on two counts. Number one, they’d found no drugs in our hotel room, and number two, I didn’t get hit when a drunken guard sprayed our room with bullets at a height of about four feet in the middle of the night. As a result of number one, and a lot of begging and pleading from Marta, I was released from the Pantera Rosa five days after checking in.
You might think I learned something after my stay in the holding cell for druggies, but two nights later, Bobby and I were back in the huecos of La Victoria. I was headed down a rat hole, not Alice's wondrous rabbit hole but a rat hole with the nasty taste you get in your mouth from compulsively smoking pasta mixed with tobacco all night long. That shit had a hold on me, and I still had some cash left that Bobby was glad to share.
Christophe was less fortunate. The search had uncovered the sixty grams of crystal cocaine in his backpack, and he was transferred to a larger prison a few days after I was released. He was lucky to have two friends from Copenhagen, Holger and Sofie, who spent time between Lima and Trujillo doing whatever they were doing in their small time Danish coke smuggling operation. Since they spoke hardly any Spanish at all, Marta and I were their liaisons to local resources, like lawyers and cops that we tried to bribe. Unfortunately, Chris’s case had gotten too far into the Peruvian judicial system for a few simple payments of several hundred dollars each to spring him.
We uncovered a lawyer who said he could bribe the judge overseeing the case for $5,000. With me translating, they got him down to $1500, and the following week, cash in hand, he took us over to the main courthouse in downtown Lima and did a song and dance of going in and out of a judge's chambers, maybe just to impress us. We’ll never know if he actually spoke with the judge and delivered Holger's cash contribution to the Peruvian judicial system, split it with the judge, or pocketed it all for himself after saying hi to a friendly secretary.
The lawyer claimed he got Christophe's sentence reduced from twenty to two years, and that's what the kid did. In the larger prison, things were a lot more difficult than what we'd gone through at the Pantera Rosa, but the key was to have somebody on the outside willing to finance your bad habits and those of a few tough friends. Chris was lucky to have Holger.
With Christophe in jail and me just changing the neighborhood of the huecos I frequented to score pasta, I needed badly to get out of Lima, to break loose from Bobby and that "malo pero rico" shit, but the Consulate kept me and Marta jumping through hoops for the better part of a month trying to convince them that we were married for real. Sometimes I couldn't believe I was going back to the huecos again after waking up with that gross taste in my mouth. When you’re doing every day what you know you shouldn’t because it’s dangerous and unhealthy, that's when you're addicted, whether you’ll admit it or not.
Then one happy afternoon, the consular officer surprised us and put a stamp in Marta's passport, letting us leave the country and releasing me from perdition. Without even saying goodbye to Bobby, she and I got on a bus that very night and escaped up the desert coast toward Ecuador. I hadn't quite flushed my soul down the rat hole, and my course of study in Peruvian pastelero culture was finished.
I don't know how long Bobby stayed in Lima, or how the hell he ever got out without a passport, but years later I ran into another American dude we’d known in Lima that summer of 1978, and he’d encountered Bobby in Bangkok in the 1980s where he was smack dab in the middle of Thai heroin hell, or maybe it was heaven—I personally don’t know—and I’m glad of it.
In the fall of 1991, after spending three months on the big international gateway project in Lima, the Fujimori government decided to take over the Lima telephone company and sell it in a massive tender that even our company could not compete in. They unceremoniously canceled the project we were working on, leaving my first big, crooked deal unsigned. The bribery and blackmail scandals that later engulfed the Fujimori administration would make Bobby look like a saint in comparison and led to Fujimori’s first-ever presidential resignation by fax. Okay, maybe not a saint.
I suppose you can see how I wasn’t completed blindsided by the brazen attempt at bribery in my hotel suite when our agent told the customer’s chief engineer, “When it rains, everybody gets wet.” Actually, I was more surprised by how openly this activity had been discussed in the conference room in Atlanta, and later how I was supposed to take the fall by signing a document expressing complete ignorance of the subject. I was a bit uneasy with the brazen disrespect for the law on the North American side of the deal.
I had cleaned up my act when my wife got pregnant with our first son not long after that crazy summer of 1978 in Lima. Having come to the rather obvious conclusion that I couldn’t support a family if I landed in prison, I’d quit using and dealing illegal drugs and learned how to make a decent living on the safe side of the law. Switching academic pursuits from Latin American Studies to a more utilitarian career in electrical engineering and gaining experience and credibility in Silicon Valley, I’d recently moved into the commercial side of the tech world to give myself and my growing family a better life.
All good. All according to plan. But somehow in 1991, I’d stumbled across the line of legality once again. This time at least I was straight, and I sure wouldn’t go near the huecos of Lima or touch that goddamn pasta, no matter how good I knew it was. The next time I went back to Peru, I wouldn’t be nervous when the immigration agent punched my name into his computer.
I left Lima without money raining down on anybody, but I’d been baptized into a culture of corporate corruption that I’d suspected existed but had never witnessed first-hand. While Bobby knew he was breaking the law and laughed at it, the white-collar criminals I worked for considered it business as usual.
Finn Briscoe received an MA in Latin American Studies from UT-Austin and an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in Calliope in English and Nagari Magazine in Spanish, and his punk sci-fi novel God Is A Mortician was published in 2020. An engineer with a passion for Latin American fiction, he resides in Durham, NC, and volunteers with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).