Investigative Issues: 'Confidential Source Ninety-Six' (Exclusive Excerpt)
Drug lords knew him by dozen of names; to law enforcement he was CS 96. For more than two decades he worked with the former while serving the letter, becoming one of the most successful undercover agents in U.S. history.
Like Joseph Valachi (“The Valachi Papers”) and Henry Hill (“Wiseguy”), the man who calls himself Roman Caribe has joined with a writer (Robert Cea), to publish a gritty account of his life in organized crime, “Confidential Source Ninety-Six.” The book focuses on his decision to “switch flags” and turn against his immediate boss in America, a “ruthless, hard-hitting Cuban thug” named Tony, as well as the Mexican drug cartel, the Beltrán brothers, whom he describes as “a combo of Pablo Escobar, Pol Pot, and Attila the Hun all rolled into one … responsible for thousands of murders in Mexico and the United States.”
This excerpt recounts an early attempt to prove his worth to law enforcement by helping them find drugs hidden in an impounded vehicle.
It was late, after eleven at night, when we were escorted by two customs agents through their base of operations at the San Diego border crossing. They seemed annoyed to be pulled off their cushy jobs watching video feeds from the dozens of cameras on the causeway. I’d never been inside the gigantic facility before, though had passed by it many times wondering what went on inside. The irony of my actually being invited into this building without first being shackled in handcuffs was not lost on me.
We moved through a large enclosed walkway similar in fashion to the Jetway tunnel between the airport gate and the actual plane.
All the while walking through this sarcophagus‑like passage, I was starting to sweat, concerned with where they were leading me. What if it was all bullshit? What if there was a double‑cross at play? Was Tony trying to get me jacked by the feds on a false tip the Beltráns planted to try to get him jacked by the feds? If so, there could be nothing inside those tires but air. I was nervous, and the embarrassment I’d feel was insurmountable. However, I looked back upon my early days in Tony’s operation when I was a smuggler, and channeled that demeanor. Always look in control; you’re meant to be there.
I pushed the potential clusterfuck this might turn into out of my mind and moved with purpose and determination.
We reached a door at the far end of the tunnel and one of the agents entered the code into its keypad. A small indicator light went from blinking red to steady green. The customs agent twisted its wide metal handle and the door opened with a whoosh, like an airlock being released. We were on the outside.
Facing the five of us was a garage the size of two football stadiums, filled with a massive display of every moving vehicle known to man. From waterborne vehicles to airborne, there was an array of helicopters, boats of all sizes, yachts to Jet Skis. There was, from my quick estimation, about ten what appeared to be submarines—yes, as in underwater submarines! Beyond that there were thousands of cars of every shape and model. And all I had to go on was that the car was a black Nissan Sentra, a little beat up.
All four men turned to look at me as if I’d suddenly received a battlefield promotion from lowly private to general. I was definitely in way over my head, but what I did have that could potentially narrow down this hunt was the alleged date that this particular car was jacked on, carrying alleged cocaine in its tires—something, by the way, I’d never heard of before, and I’d been doing this a long time. How do you get kilos or bricks of cocaine, twenty in total, into tires filled with combustible air? I pulled out my little notebook and gave the customs agent the date Tony had given me. The agent checked it against a manifest, a crease deepening on his forehead. There was no black Nissan Sentra on the list of impounded vehicles.
I said in as assertive a voice as I could muster, not easy under the present circumstances, that it was a midsize car that looks like a Nissan Sentra. “Remember, this one will have damage.”
The customs agent looked at the manifest one last time and pointed toward the area that corresponded with the date in question.
We split up and began our search, shining our flashlights from car to car. There were rows and rows of them, each of us checking a section. After every half hour that passed with no hits on the car, my nerves frayed a little more. It wasn’t the pure embarrassment of failing to come through for my new colleagues that worried me most but what Al Harding had said during our first meet at the base in Ramona: I had to prove to these guys that I was worthy or else they’d leave me like the agents who had dropped Raul. And where would I retreat to if I couldn’t work off my case? Where would that leave my family?
I was thinking of all of this, my last nerve just about fried, when I heard one of the customs agents call out with a touch of pessimism, “Guys, I think I might’ve found something!”
My heart started racing, please God, please let this be the car. We pounced on the vehicle simultaneously, and sure enough it wasn’t a black Nissan Sentra, but a black Nissan Altima.
One of the customs agents radioed for a tow truck to meet us at the location. That was the longest five minutes of my life. I could see that Harding and Dowling were sweaty, dirty, exhausted, and embarrassed for bringing these two guys out into this potential nest of nothingness. What was even worse, not once did either of my teammates look at me, I’m sure for fear of revealing how they really felt: twenty kilos in car tires of all places? Why did we ever listen to this extremely imaginative bonehead?
The largest tow truck I’ve ever seen pulled up. I was feeling unsteady on my feet, my nerves all but beaten down, my body dehydrated and fatigued. A short, heavy civilian driver, about thirty‑five, wearing dirty coveralls and a San Diego Chargers ski cap despite the humid ninety‑degree air, jumped out of the cab like Field Marshal Rommel alighting from a Panzer tank and teeming with excitement. He pulled a pair of dirty beige leather gloves off his belt with an imperious tug that bordered on comical. “All righty, fellas,” he said, “whatta we got tonight? Guns, drugs? A body welded into the undercarriage? I did bring my blowtorches this time.”
Again the four men looked to me for direction. I moved to the driver who was now also focused on me through hyper‑ intense eyes as if I were sending him on a secret mission that would potentially end the war or his life. I pointed to the rear tires. “We need to remove both of them, then release the air and pull them from their rims.” The driver did as told with‑ out any further questions or attempts at humor. The two customs guys, assuming their work was complete, found a nearby pickup truck, released its rear hatch, lit up cigarettes, and chat‑ ted like they were at a tailgate party.
Tim and Al stood rigidly, arms folded, watching the driver move between an industrial jack and a hydraulic lug remover at breakneck speed. He had both tires flattened and the wheels off the car in less than three minutes. He impressively carried both of them to his truck, which was equipped with a tire remover. As he placed the first one on the machine’s pedestal I slowly slunk backward, leaning on a car. I pulled my handkerchief out, swabbing the sweat off my face and neck. The driver jammed a jack in between the rubber and the rim, turning the mechanism on, and within ten seconds I heard him pop the tire off the rim.
Tim Dowling snapped rather loudly at the poor unsuspecting driver, “Back away.” He and Al both aimed their flashlights into the interior of the tire, then Al frantically ran his hands around the inside. He looked at Tim as if he were delivering a death notice, and they then both turned to me stone‑faced, a look I never wanted to see from them again.
I was almost ready to leave, but out of desperation I asked the driver to look at the other rear tire. When the next didn’t work, Al’s and Tim’s shoulders drooped in defeat. I felt the pit widen in my stomach. There was a moment of complete silence; even the chatty customs guys now just sat on the back of the nearby pickup, staring. “Okay, okay!” I said. “He must’ve gotten the wrong info on the tires, must be the front two, pull those off.” I knew at that point that I’d been screwed— Tony had caught on to me; what made me think I could fool him?—but I needed to buy some time and figure out my next move.
The driver moved to the front of the car with a little less Rommel in his step. This time when he’d rested the tires on the tire pedestal, I moved in close. I wrapped my arms around myself tightly, watching the man jam the tire iron between the rubber of the tire and its steel rim. He clicked the mechanism on and it wobbled to life. After what seemed like an eternity I finally heard that familiar pop. The tire was loose. Nothing came free from within! SHIT! I thought to myself, NO! Neither Tim nor Al even expressed interest in looking at it.
I ran forward, flashlight aimed on that damnable tire’s innards. I looked inside while furiously banging the outside of the tire hoping, actually pleading with the gods for the pack ages to miraculously appear, shooting out from within the black hole like a slot machine paying out—DING! DING! DING! TRIP GOLD BARS—your payout sir, twenty kilos!
Nothing! And worse, no familiar packaging on its interior, just more of the same—black rubber.
I froze, caught up in a swirling typhoon of embarrassment and dejection. I wasn’t giving up, because this was just too inconceivable. I ran my hand inside the tire just as Al Harding had done, and to my surprise it didn’t feel like the smooth innards of a tire, it was rough.
Odd, I thought.
As I ran my hand along circumference inside, the whole interior of the tire felt rough with gaps in between.
Okay, okay, promising!
No one came near that tire, all expecting the same results. A symphony of silence ensued as they all watched the schmuck who had been taken by the bigger kids on the block, the schmuck who wouldn’t admit defeat under any circumstances, who would actually try and will those kilos to be inside that black hole.
The agents and customs guys looked away like embarrassed parents.
And then—suddenly—I came across the tiniest of clues; it felt like a thin rubber flap about an inch in width and diameter.
Please tell me this IS NOT an irregular Taiwanese tire, PLEASE!
I started breathing harder, faster, could this be something, anything?
I pulled on it as hard as I could and whatever it was gave a bit, then one more tug freed something lose in my grip. I couldn’t believe it!
Holy shit; I turned to Harding and Dowling, my face must’ve read—JACKPOT!
I pulled and continued pulling, feeling an epoxy‑like bond snapping this thing in my hand away from the inside of the tire. There it was, a long thin black rubber package, sticky on one side to hold it in place.
This was something I’d never seen before, but it was ingenious. The sudden realization hit me that the customs people were about to encounter a lot more trouble than they had the hour before.
The package resembled a money belt, though there were no zippers or straps, and inside it was stuffed with pure cocaine.
Al and Tim stood in stunned silence.
We pulled out thirty‑nine more “money belts,” a perfect way to describe them because those odd‑looking pieces of rubber were worth a hell of a lot of money once they were unloaded and processed, twenty kilos in all.
The two customs agents were suddenly our best friends, whipping out a camera to take photos of the unusual booty, the six of us holding onto all forty packages in every pose imaginable.
Excerpted from the book Confidential Source Ninety-Six by Roman Caribe and Robert Cea, to be published on August 22, 2017 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2017 Roman Caribe and Robert Cea.