“Bien,” De La Vega sighed, reaching into his pocket. He punched a number into his phone. “Alana?

This helicopter from Panama.…” He spoke in English so we all could understand. “Tell Jose to put the pilot under arrest and impound the craft. There might be drugs on board.” Bev took a deep breath. The chief called someone else. “Jaco, there are some guys with cameras in front of the bar. Lock ’em up. Could be narcos. I’ll take care of their boss here, in the bar.” He turned back to Bev. “There, I tried to be nice to you, but you have all the permits from Panama.…” Bev lost all her confidence. “You can’t do that! You know we are on legitimate business here!” Her hands started to shake. “Tell you what I do, Señorita.” The chief was grave. “I’ll search your helicopter, crew, and you. If we find any drugs, I’ll send you to Panama City in handcuffs. You will see for yourself how serious we are about drugs. You will be an old woman when you see your hometown again.” Bev started hyperventilating. “You know you won’t find anything.” “No, I don’t. People do all kind of stupid things, like bringing drugs from the States into Darien!” His belly started shaking at his own joke. “Even if we don’t find anything, but my dog’s nose twitches, telling me that one of you have touched marijuana recently, you are all busted, pending further investigations.” Clear drops of sweat were forming on Bev’s forehead. She had a very good reason to be alarmed; her cameraman smelled of marijuana even to me, never mind a police hound. Maxwell turned to De La Vega with a calming touch on the chief’s forearm. “Perhaps it is not necessary to throw the book at this young woman, Raul. All she wants is information on a subject which, you must admit, looks very sensational on its surface. Why not let her see for herself?” He turned to me. “Would you volunteer to be her guide, Doctor? We can take her to the village and show. Nothing to hide.”

Bev was recovering quickly. She concluded, probably rightly, that the chief wanted to intimidate her, but she was not going to end up in a Panamanian jail. “Doctor, would you be so good?” she intoned sweetly. “Perhaps we could also find out who can pay twenty thousand dollars for a sex slave; this town does not seem to be rolling in money. Maybe we could do a piece on a connection between drug trafficking and women’s slavery in Darien?” I thought Bev was very imprudent, perhaps a function of youth, in unnecessarily provoking the chief. I was pretty sure that, all her Panama City permits notwithstanding, he had the last word on putting someone in the slammer or not. Raul lost all his joviality, fixing her with cold, threatening eyes. “Now you have an interest in the drug trade. Very well, let’s talk about it. It’s a big problem in your country and mine.” We heard some loud voices protesting in English outside, but a moment later they stopped. De La Vega smiled at Bev sarcastically. “Now we can have our discussion one-on-one, off-camera so to say. “So, what do you think is the problem with drugs and how could it be solved?” he invited her politely. “The problem is,” she started confidently, “that drugs made in your country, or Colombia, Bolivia, or anywhere else, flood the United Sates, causing untold numbers of people to become sick and die, destroying families and sending millions of people, usually young men, to prisons.” “I think it’s a fair statement,” the chief agreed. “So what do you think should be done about it?” “What should be done is that people like you should do their bloody job and stop the drugs from coming onto our streets!” The chief’s hands tightened their grip on the edge of the table but his facial expression did not change. “Señorita, have you ever tried to stop the

flow of water by beating at it with a stick? Probably not, you don’t have open sewers in America, but when I was a boy, we played with the water streaming along the streets after a rain. “You just can’t make the water stop or go uphill, no matter how big is your stick. Because you did not have the benefit of such an upbringing, you don’t get it; there is only one way to stop the water, money or drugs: grade the slope. Those dumb substances have no power to move on their own; they have to be pulled by gravity or sucked by millions of noses up north.” “Still you should stop them. You could put a dam on a sewer, you know?” Bev was not giving up easily. “No, you can’t!” Now the chief slammed the table in frustration. “You make us buy bigger and bigger sticks, as though we had too much money. Why don’t you go and see our hospital? I might release your crew for an afternoon to do some filming. They have no functioning equipment and there are hardly any medications on the shelves. No funds! You would have to be dying to ask them for help. What we need here is an x-ray machine, not a new speedboat to chase drug smugglers!” Bev wisely refrained from her smart-ass statements. “The Amazon River of profit money that flows from your country is so huge that the narcos could buy this whole country and still have change left for cigarettes. What do you want us to do, drop napalm on all those villages where they grow coke?” “Could be a good start.…” Bev muttered belligerently, and I thought it was one of the stupidest things anyone ever said in my presence. De La Vega let the air out with a loud huff. “Then let me tell you another experience from my life. As a young man I was in the army. That was before this big trafficking with the States had begun, but of course, there were some people growing plants in the jungle, others doing extraction, exporting

raw coke and so on. We’d been ordered to liquidate a coke plantation deep in the selva.” The chief started mixing Spanish words into his very good English and his accent became more apparent. He was clearly upset. “We thrashed through the jungle for two hours until we came upon a clearing; some people were moving there. That was our objective. We formed a long line, like a crescent, as much as you can do such a thing in thick growth where you can’t see your buddy on the left or right. We started to advance. “We were perhaps fifty meters away when a shot was fired. Do you know what you do when you are being shot at?” He looked at Bev fiercely then waved his hand dismissively. “You drop on your belly and start shooting back. Without any orders, that’s what your body wants to do on its own. The fire rattled on my left and right until the lieutenant started yelling, ‘Stop fire, stop fire!’ Bang, bang, last shots and quiet … nothing moves. “We got back on our feet and started slowly moving in, carefully, hearts pounding. Some guerilleros might still be alive and open fire again. It doesn’t take much, you know? Someone’s finger twitches on a trigger and you are dead. “We came into the clearing … Jesús! All we see is bodies in skirts … blue, green, twisted on the ground. Women … facedown, bare feet sticking out. And one has a bundle on the back … blood seeping through the bundle.… We killed five women and a baby that day.” “Who fired the first shot?” I asked with my mouth numb. “Someone stepped on a trip wire; you know, some peasants get their meat this way; they rig a wire to a shotgun, a pecari trips it, and they have a fiesta, puerco de monte as the main dish. “So let me ask you.…” The chief turned back to Bev, who shrank in her chair. “Since you’re telling me to go and kill some poor people, who can

barely survive anyway, why don’t you go and kill all those folks who actually create the problem? They send their money to bribe our judges, kill our policemen, and have those peasants grow the coke instead of something they might eat. Your snorting creates the flood that destroys our lives. You know the culprits.…” De La Vega stopped his harangue for a moment, breathing hard, glaring at Bev with hate. “You’ve said you have a few millions of them in your prisons. Go ahead and drop some napalm on them! You like strong solutions. It will work, for sure. You kill your addicts and my peasants stop growing coke. Problem solved! Solucionado! You’ve stopped the flood!” He shot one more heated look at her. “Get your ass off La Palma today. If I smell your cologne tomorrow morning, you will experience firsthand how hard life can be here.”

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