By Peter Walsh for Gangsters Inc.
In the early 1990s, British law enforcement launched a new method of infiltrating the criminal underworld. The Investigation Division of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise – the UK’s equivalent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration – began to train a small, elite squad of officers to work undercover.
Removed from all contact with their colleagues, they were evaluated by psychologists, equipped with false identities and taught the latest techniques. Crucially, they would be expected to work incognito for the long term, indeed for years if necessary, to provide a steady stream of intelligence for their colleagues to use in targeted operations.
The unit, called Beta Projects, has been wrapped in secrecy for more than thirty years.
At its heart was a courageous officer who went by the pseudonym ‘Guy Stanton’. A working-class lad from West London, Stanton was tough, streetwise and could handle himself in tight situations. He was also quick-thinking and smart. He created the character of a gruff, short-tempered gangster offering services such as maritime shipping, road transportation and money laundering to drug trafficking organizations. Eventually he won the confidence of some of the biggest narcos in the world.
My introduction to the target was to be made via a female Colombian informant called Imogen. Her husband, known as ‘C’, was serving a long spell in a German prison and there was talk of reciprocal aid for him if she helped the authorities. I was to meet her in Miami, where we would spend time getting our story straight. Her husband would meanwhile reference me to the cartel boss from his prison cell.
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We met on a sultry Florida night in high summer. I answered a knock at my hotel-room door to see a lady of about forty years and no more than five feet tall, wearing the tightest, most revealing, most vivid tiger-print hot-pants and bra. Imogen was, to put it politely, well-proportioned, and a lot of her was not constrained by the tiger-print.
‘Que pasa, caballero?’ she purred. ‘Am I hot or what?’
With that, she licked her finger, placed it on the outside of a well-rounded thigh and made a sizzling sound through blood-red lips.
‘You’re not,’ I said sharply, doing my best not to laugh. ‘Now go back and put on some decent clothes!’
Fifteen minutes later Imogen was back in jeans and a shirt. ‘Spoilsport,’ she pouted. We hit the town. Imogen fizzed with Latin sass – and she was good. She introduced me to the main man in Florida, who would lead me, hopefully, to the next level, a genuine boss. She described our target, a man called Vittorio, as a main player, high up and trusted in the cartel. She warned that he was very sharp and would check out my background. I was confident that my legend would hold up.
Interestingly, Vittorio was said to be related to Pablo Escobar, the ultimate narco, who had been hunted by multiple agencies until his death in a rooftop gunfight on the outskirts of Medellin. It marked the passing of a crucial stage in the growth of the cocaine trade, which was now powered by massive financial interests and protected by corrupt state institutions. Even Pablo’s legendary savagery could not fend off the forces he had helped to create. Whether Vittorio really was his relative we did not know for sure; some people saw advantage in claiming to be linked to the infamous godfather, who was by then very dead and so unlikely to contradict them. But before we went, we ran it past senior management because of the implications for safety and cost. We would be unarmed. Customs officers never carried weapons; we were taught familiarity with them but only to be able to make a buy or to disarm one and make it safe. In Latin America you were actually better off not carrying a gun, as then you did not present an immediate threat if things went pear-shaped. Our deployment was approved.
Brazil was proposed as the location for our meet. [We] spoke to the Foreign Office and SIS (otherwise known as MI6) about the do’s and don’ts of operating there and were explicitly told, ‘Don’t go to Rio, it’s gun city. Kidnap and extreme violence are the norm.’ We were advised to meet our man instead in the city of Sao Paulo, which was, we were assured, bright, vibrant and, above all, safe.
My handler and I took a circuitous route from London to Sao Paulo and booked into the Crowne Plaza hotel. The idea was to win Vittorio’s trust and see where it led. On the morning of our arranged meet, I sat drinking a strong coffee and trying to read the local paper in our hotel lobby. It was thronged with a mix of businessmen, sales reps and tourists, all mingling in the reception area. My handler was at the bar pretending to scan a financial report.
From my seat I saw a blacked-out stretch limousine, complete with boomerang aerial, pull up outside. Two blacked-out Range Rovers fell in behind it. Four purposeful men jumped out – all carrying automatic weapons. Each wore black Kevlar body armor under a long black coat. They strode into the foyer like extras from The Matrix, sending guests, staff and even the hotel security scurrying away. The Crowne Plaza wasn’t exactly a fleapit, and seeing them walk in openly tooled-up was impressive. This was going to be an interesting meet.
A small, bony guy, his eyes hidden by Ray-Ban aviators, emerged last from the limo. The only man not in Kevlar, he wore a beautiful suit and shoes sharp enough to cut glass. As I counted the heavies crowding into the foyer and scanning every corner, the skinny dude sauntered to my table and removed his shades.
‘You must be Guy. I am Vittorio.’
I indicated a chair. ‘Sit down, Vittorio. Fancy a coffee?’
He sat in silence, examining me, while his coffee was brought over by a trembling waiter. Then he zeroed in. ‘So, how do you know “C” and Imogen? Where did you and “C” first meet? What trades have you done? Who else do you know?’
I sat and let his questions bounce off me. He fell silent.
‘Vittorio,’ I said finally. ‘What’s with your men’s get-up?’
‘Protection,’ he said. ‘When you are as important as me, you need men and guns to tell people to stay clear.’
I beckoned him to lean forward. ‘Vittorio,’ I whispered, ‘if it all cracks off and there’s a shootout, only two people are going to die – you and me. We are the only ones without body armor.’
Vittorio sat back with a half-frown. Then he nodded slowly and recovered his poise. With the obligatory amateur dramatics out of the way, we settled down to talk broadly about what I could offer. As ever, it was transport: he was desperate for shipping. He also offered a word of praise. ‘You a very brave man.’
‘No one comes to Sao Paulo, it’s gun city. Very, very dangerous. I only came to save face. I said to myself, “If the gringo can come here with no fear, so can I.”’
So much for the Foreign Office advice: the one place they claimed was safe, even the baddies were scared to visit!
‘Where would you have chosen?’ I asked.
‘We’d go up to Rio or a holiday town. Have some fun. For us, this is a bad place. We have lost men here. Next time, we’ll go up the river to Manaus. You’ll like it. Very cultured. It has an opera house.’
Vittorio snapped his fingers. The Kevlar boys re-grouped around him. ‘Nice to meet you, Guy. We will meet again at a café tomorrow. The location will be phoned through to you tonight.’ With that, he was gone.
The call duly came through, and the next day found me waiting in the sunshine outside the appointed café. A battered yellow Datsun pulled up. The door creaked open and out stepped Vittorio, wearing jeans and a sports jacket and not a gunman in sight.
‘No bodyguards?’ I said, grinning.
‘No,’ he said, a little sheepishly. ‘You know how we are portrayed on television, like killers? We like to live up to that. It impresses people, and scares them. But it’s nothing.’
Over the next few days we got to know one another. It turned out he really was a cousin of Escobar (right). He complained bitterly about how much it had cost to keep Pablo on the lam. ‘He kept borrowing money off me. Every month, he needed half a million, a million, and he never paid it back.’ He was still wondering how he would recoup it.
The fall of Pablo didn’t slow Vittorio. He let me know that he was still a big mover in the coke trade, and I pondered how much money he and his associates really had. I was soon to find out. A few days later, I was collected outside my hotel by Vittorio and an associate. ‘I need your help,’ he said. ‘But first, please, you must put on this blindfold.’ I was concerned, but there was no edge to his manner. My gut told me it was safe, so I put on the blindfold and off we set.
I tried the usual trick of remembering twists and turns and listening out for sounds that might signal our location, but in truth I had no clue where we heading. We drove for some half an hour before stopping. Vittorio took off my blindfold and apologized. ‘Sorry, but it is for security. You do not need to know where we are.’ We were outside a large, prefabricated warehouse on a small industrial estate on the city outskirts.
We went in through a small wicket door within a main door and Vittorio flicked on the lights. For as far as I could see were pallets of shrink-wrapped paper. Closer inspection revealed the paper to be stacks of US dollars. The pallets filled the warehouse, except for narrow pathways down which a small forklift rattled. Through the wrapping I could see denominations of twenties, fifties and hundreds in used bills.
‘How much is here?’ I asked, struggling to keep the awe out of my voice.
‘That is the problem, we don’t know.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Get it into the system for us,’ said Vittorio. ‘We have just got too much, it is a real security problem.’
I wandered down the middle aisle and noticed that a corner of the roof was damaged. Water had come in, probably during a storm, and seeped into a pile of unwrapped notes. They had turned into a greenish mulch, probably the world’s most expensive papier-mâché. It was, I thought, criminal in more ways than one.
I promised to try to help and was driven away blindfolded. Again I memorized turns, timings and traffic light stops, but no matter how often I tried later, I could never relocate that warehouse. For all I know it is still there.
It all seemed so outlandish that I did wonder if the dollars were counterfeit. But a few years later a money stash inside a Bogotá apartment building was found to total $35 million in genuine currency. So I guess it was real.
I did not in the end do anything with Vittorio’s money but that meeting cemented our friendship, and I flew back to the UK promising to keep in touch. He turned out to be a likeable guy. It is a fallacy that all criminals are mindless thugs. Some are highly intelligent but have chosen to use their brains in unlawful ways. Vittorio was one. We soon felt we had known each other for years.
After several months, he even accepted my gift of a satellite phone so we could keep in touch. That phone became priceless. For months afterwards, he would call me on it and tell me what he was up to. Often he would be phoning from a coca-processing farm deep in the jungle. These random and impromptu buddy calls were an intelligence goldmine for HMCE and the DEA. On one occasion he called me at 3 a.m. when I was in Dubai, to discuss a coke shipment he was preparing from Belem, hidden in an export of fruit pulp. The Dutch police were leading the investigation into it and I fed my intel to their operation. It led them to make a sizeable seizure. Crucially I made sure it could not be traced to me, which kept my relationship with Vittorio intact.
I continued to speak with Vittorio over the next couple of years and all the time passed info back to the Dutch. His manner never changed but I noticed that he looked thinner and paler each time we met.
He was preparing for another big shipment when I heard he had been taken to hospital in great pain, suffering stomach cancer. Then one day, while I was working again in the Middle East, I took a call from one of his team. Vittorio had died on the operating table. I admit I felt sad, and that night I sat alone in my hotel room and raised a glass to him. He had been an interesting man, and in other circumstances we might have been friends.
My bosses were less sentimental. I was later chastised at my annual appraisal for losing the sat phone, which was never recovered.
Extracted from THE BETRAYER: How An Undercover Unit Infiltrated The Global Drug Trade, by Guy Stanton with Peter Walsh (published by Milo Books).
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