MONEY ISN"T EVERYTHING!'
'Bloody nice when it just falls out of the sky, though.'
'You're still doing alright.'
'I won't starve. Only one thing, mate. I never appreciated how bloody good I had it.'
'People never do.'
'I will next time.'
The weather in Amsterdam in 2006 was unseasonably warm. When I left the bar, stumbling on the uneven brick road running beside the brackish canal, prostitutes stood outside their doorways. It was rare that I noticed them anymore, but the heat and the intimacy of being able to reach out and touch them if I dared encouraged me to stare, appreciating their different-coloured underwear, the way some wore items of clothing to cover rolls of fat, emphasise a curve, a crevice.
I wove my way through groups of vulnerable, mesmerised tourists herded along by their guides like sheep on a feed run, skirted the mobs of drunken Brits who were intent on nothing else but reaching the next bar, ignored the offers of pot, cocaine and heroin from emaciated, frenetic junkies, caught the skilled patter of the live sex spruikers, and after fifty metres the noise eased. After another fifty metres it became altogether something else, more mundane ... humane.
I walked beside a wide canal towards my apartment, choosing the side of the road shaded by the thick summer foliage of tall alder trees. Houseboats were anchored along both sides of the water as if awaiting word to lift anchor, loose ropes, and motor powerfully out into midstream to begin again their duties as the cargo transporters of Europe.
Amsterdam was a puzzle made up of remarkable pieces, each piece a work of art, a masterpiece when fitted together. It had been my home since leaving Costa Rica twenty years before. It was there in 1983 that I had first heard about the Brothers in the port city of Golfito on the Pacific Coast not far from the border of Panama.
THREE PER CENT a month, that's 36 per cent a year,' Pat answered indifferently, shifting uncomfortably on his barstool
'More than forty if you let the interest add up,' Whitey answered.
'No one can pay that.'
'The Villalobos do.'
'Get another beer,' Pat said turning to me. 'I've got to piss.'
I watched him weave through the tables and chairs scattered throughout the bar as if he were an out-of-control train, and then turned towards Whitey standing ready. 'Two beers, thanks, mate.'
The Miramar had been constructed on the water's edge and looked out over Golfito's inner bay. Under the late afternoon sun, the bay appeared crimson. On the other side of the water was an island, but it was too far to make out details, only that it shimmered like a field of crushed green glass.
Whitey placed two Imperials on the bar and scratched at his snowy beard before folding his arms across his bare chest. It made them appear larger, his tattoos of faded, naked women fatter, less bewitching.
'How do you know about these Brothers?' I asked Whitey.
'All the gringos know about them.'
'But who are they?'
'Christians! They've got a helicopter business. That's what they say. All I know is they've convinced a lot of people.' Whitey coughed wetly, reached into his shorts and pulled out a crumpled packet of smokes. He continued again only when a lit cigarette hung loosely from his mouth, its smoke drifting thickly upwards past his eyes. 'I'd put some cash with them if I had any, but I ain't got it. It's all in the bar,' he mumbled again after a small hesitation.
Whitey's wife Barbara kept her hair pulled tightly in a ponytail. She smiled infrequently. Barbara watched us closely as if she suspected Whitey of planning to squander their last wealth. She frightened me.
I twisted my head to watch four girls shuffle slowly in. They were dressed in shorts and small, flimsy tops. Two were so heavy that their bellies, swollen like chocolate-coloured balloons, protruded farther than their breasts. All four were gaudy ... desirable.
'Helicopter company ... got to be drugs or some sort of pyramid scheme,' Pat said, springing on to his stool and spinning around to look at the girls who sat at one of the tables staring sweetly, almost romantically towards us.
'They're Christians,' Whitey repeated to the back of Pat's head.
'Christians are the fucking worst,' I mumbled.
But I didn't really care one way or the other about the Brothers: I was barely making a living panning gold on the Penninsula de Osa, a two-hour boat ride, forty-minute truck ride and five-hour walk through jungle from Whitey's bar. My biggest money concern was whether I could afford the dear rooms that Whitey charged $3.50 a night for or settle for one of the two dollar rooms that were preferred by men with girls. The walls of the cheap rooms were full of finger-sized holes that permitted panoramas of the copulation and accompanying squeals and moans.
'Then you're not interested, Pat?' Whitey asked as if he were selling insurance.
'That's how people who wear suits earn their money. I work for mine,' Pat answered, still staring at the girls.
Pat was living on the same peninsula as me – only further out. He supported a wife and raised three children by buying and selling gold, and supplemented his gold earnings with a small shop that supplied the miners with rice, tobacco, rum and other essentials. Men sometimes fought with machetes outside his shop. Some were shot. Once a man was killed.
It was Saturday, payday, and groups of local men started crowding into the bar and attracting more women. Salsa music blared from the jukebox: it was so loud our discussion became useless. Couples began to writhe together between the tables, clinging as if their bodies were fused. The hot, wet air had suddenly become an elixir of passion and dash.
The hotel, built of rusting tin nailed to rotting wood, suddenly rocked back and forth. I looked at my watch: the last banana train of the week had just steamed past, right on time.
'One day the whole hotel will just fall down,' Pat said to no one in particular.
It was getting late when two girls left their table and walked towards us. I watched them come, unable to move. It sometimes happens the same way when you are in danger. Imagine how many of them we could afford if I had money with the Brothers, I ruminated before they reached us.
IT HAD TO have been A mid-life crisis that made me sell a perfectly good silk business in Amsterdam a decade later. I had no other explanation. I had started the shop, 'McLennan's Pure Silk', after moving to the Netherlands nine years earlier to marry a Dutch girl I had met on the Costa Rican goldfields. The day we met she had been wearing a blue shirt, the same colour blue that Dutch Airlines had appropriated for their image, and was covered by pale dust thrown up by the heavy mining machinery that tore up the earth around her. I had just come out of the mountains where I had been panning for gold and had not washed in three days. It was only years later that she told me I had smelled like rancid butter.
I went back to Golfito in 1994. Like the Miramar, Pat's house was built on the edge of the bay. I joined him and we watched the water hop erratically about in the fresh afternoon wind. Pat stood quietly with his arms folded over a belly that had fattened since he had moved out of the bush. In the distance was the same island I had been gazing at from the Miramar Hotel all those years ago. Sailboats guarded from the wind floated calmly in a small gash. On other parts of the island, pieces had been hacked out of the jungle and showed up as raw blemishes.
'Whitey and Barbara have started a yacht club over there,' Pat said, startling me. They've got a radio they use to call in the boats. They cook pizzas for them, provide water, beer, fresh supplies. Some of them boats have sailed from Australia,' he continued in a voice betraying how splendid he thought that.
'Are they doing alright?'
'I think so! At least it's a lot easier than running the Miramar.'
I cupped my hands around my eyes, trying to see the new buildings, but the sun reflected off the water creating a blinding drape of light.
'And the Miramar?' I asked, rubbing my eyes violently before trying unsuccess-fully again.
'They sold it before it fell down. Not long after that it was condemned and pulled down.'
A man turned up mid-morning. Tall, the colour of aged copper, his arms were flooded with veins and his eyes black, sunken and alert. Pat and the man touched each other warmly as only old friends can and then they began a conversation in Spanish.
The man removed his soiled campesino hat, nodded at me and then looked at Pat, not opening his satchel until Pat nodded back, indicating it was safe to do so. Gold figurines and a bag full of nuggets spilled on to Pat's table. Columbus's seductress, mine since the very first time I had fingered gold flakes that lay in the bottom of my pan.
Pat placed a large, ancient pair of glasses on to his nose before adding and subtracting small weights to the plates of his gold balance with a pair of tweezers, weighing each figurine, each nugget carefully. Thecampesino watched carelessly. 'He's a gravedigger,' Pat said to me nodding towards his friend. 'These are pre-Columbian,' he added, pointing to the figurines.
When the campesino left, I stroked the figurines, unable to resist their witchcraft. I chose one that represented a king. It was so finely shaped that his penis and testicles were clearly discernable.
Soon after, we left to drink in a downtown bar. Its owner, a Vietnam veteran with a prosthetic leg, seemed drunk, but he threw himself on to a bar stool next to me with grace and balance. He fidgeted, and I understood that he was irritated by his ill-fitting leg.
'Dave,' he said, and gave me a strong, friendly handshake.
From the bar we could watch the street: the slow meanderings of the afternoon drunks, the prostitutes who were also mothers and housewives in their tight dresses and clinging shorts. Hear the yelps and howls from drinkers at the vortex of their alcoholic intake. Catch sight of any gringo who scurried past, soaked with sweat and wilting from the heat. Note that the only other commerce in the area was more bars.
'The banana plantations are closed, the government and unions got too greedy and the company up and left,' Pat said. 'The goldfields have been turned into a national park.' I already knew. 'Except for the free zone, this is a dead town.'
'The free zone?'
'Out-of-towners have the right to buy tax-free electrical goods. The government built a shopping complex near the old American zone. They think these shoppers will spread enough money about when they come to buy their stoves and toasters to keep Golfito ticking over. That's the Ticos for you: run a company out of town that's been here for a hundred years and replace it with weekend shoppers.'
When Pat told me this, an uncommon melancholy came over me. I thought about the smallish, solid banana-boats flying American flags that would tie up at docks as regular as tides, and sail away to distant shores loaded down with the wealth and pride of the town. And the old steam train towing its tail of fruit cars towards the harbour, shaking the Miramar each time it passed like a terrier worrying a rat. And now it had become a town of shopkeepers, and even the shopkeepers were out-of-towners.
'Where does Pedro get his figurines?' I asked, still thinking about the changes forced on Golfito.
'I don't know.' Pat answered. 'Could be in the park.'
I nodded and turned to Dave, 'How did you lose your leg?'
'Danang,' he answered, shaking his head as if that were enough to express the tragedy and horror of it.
GOLFITO IS PICTURESQUE but rowdy, and with only a tarnish of what most people think of as civilisation. Dog packs can be found at any time day or night rifling through garbage. It is brutally hot most of the year, and its local cantinas – always shut off from the prying eyes of the street – are dank and noisy, sometimes dangerous. The food is only sustainable, and at times inedible. Its saving grace, I have been told, is its women: plentiful, and for a small price always willing.
Gringos living in Golfito in 1994 were as unpredictable, sometimes as colourful, often as dishonest and just as hard drinking as they were when I worked in the area ten years earlier. And, like the patrons of the local cantinas, they did not like prying eyes.
To make a living, some had opened their own bars. Ones that were not closed off to the world, but rather looked out on it in case an opportunity happened to pass by. Others had started restaurants that specialised in gringo food. Some of the men who had dealt in gold during the heyday of the gold rush had now turned their attention to property deals. There was not a lot of difference; both left room for underhandedness. Others eked out a living on their savings or pensions. Rich men were not to be found in Golfito.
'You can survive off the gold figurines and nuggets?' I asked Pat.
'Those and the Brothers,' he answered, before swinging off his barstool and walking towards a man wearing a black Stetson hat.
We had been drinking rum and ice steadily all afternoon. It took a while before I remembered the conversation I had with Whitey and Pat all those years ago. 'They're still going?' I asked Dave.
'So it wasn't a con. I'll be buggered.'
'The Brothers have saved the bacon of a few people around here, I'll tell you that.'
'How does it work?' I asked, still only mildly interested.
'You've got to be introduced and it's a minimum ten thousand dollar investment. If you leave that two and a half years, you've doubled your money. Two and a half years,' he repeated, throwing up his hands, almost losing his balance, spilling some of his drink across his bare, hairless chest. 'I know gringos around here who have given them everything they've got and are just living off the interest.'
'Pat's got money with them?'
'No, he just takes the bus up to San Jose once a month and picks up the interest payments. The boys pay him to do it. He's the only one in town honest enough to do the job.'
'What about you? Have you got money with them?'
'No, I didn't trust it when I first came down here. I put all my money in the bar. Too late now. Whitey and Barbara do though. And they say the Dutchman's already a multi-millionaire.'
'He lives up the coast. Gave the Brothers all his money at the beginning and now he's super rich. Everybody knows the Dutchman, he just about owns a whole town.'
'Umm,' I murmured, 'Does anybody know how the Brothers make their money?'
'Nobody I know does, not really.'
Dave's Swedish wife came toward us. She seemed to be having trouble walking. One leg buckled erratically, tripping her every few steps. Alcohol had destroyed her face and her body was ragged and thin. A cigarette hung from the edge of her mouth as if there was no strength left in her jaw muscles to keep it horizontal. When she reached us she screamed savagely and threw the last of her drink in Dave's face. Pat motioned me with a jerk of his head and we walked into the blazing light.
'Happens every day,' he said and we headed to the next bar.
IT WASN'T UNTIL much later, after I had headed north to Nicaragua, after I had a fishing boat built, when the low prices paid by the fish factories, and the rising costs of repairs to the boat and motor started wearing me down, when the thieving and sheer burden of living in a community stricken by the direst poverty became too much for a gullible heart, after the Sandy Bay Indians raced around my boat in a skiff waving their AK47s into the air, warning us to stay out of their fishing grounds, when the weather began to cower us with more regularity, that I considered the Brothers.
In the middle of the rainy season, when the hurricanes whirled around the Caribbean like a bully gang of spinning tops churning the sea into a frenzied brouhaha, my wife and I decided to head back to Amsterdam for a break.
It was on one of those grey European summer days when a biting easterly forces the serene pleasure of wearing wool that I decided two years later in 1996 that I would invest with the Brothers.
The problem was I didn't have any savings, and the income from the rent of my silk shop was just enough to keep my boat and me going, but I had a plan. I intended to apply for a bank loan to rebuild our kitchen and bathroom, and use the money to invest with the Brothers. The snag was our house was in my wife's name, and I needed to use it as collateral for the loan.
Since the beginning of our marriage, our finances had been kept separate. My wife was already a successful writer when we met, and I came to our union without formal education and only eight hundred dollars. It had been a matter of pride for me, and what she thought was expedience for her, to remain independent. Not that my wife distrusted me, but she understood the rashness of my character. I approached the subject with apprehension.
'You're as mad as a cut snake if you think I'm going to sign for that money,' she answered, using a phrase she had learned from me and I had learned from my father. 'We could lose the apartment.'
'Look,' I pleaded, 'Pat told me they've never missed an interest payment in twelve years. If people want their money back, all they have got to do is give them a month's notice in writing. And they're Christians.'
'You hate Christians.'
'Not these ones.'
'And what if it goes wrong?' she was not screaming yet, but her voice had begun to falter, a sign that her panic was rising, an indication that hell could descend.
'If it goes wrong, and it won't, I'll sell the shop.'
'Why can't we use the shop as collateral?' my wife argued.
'Because the bank won't give a mortgage on a business premise. Look, we pay the bank 3.7 per cent a year and then Brothers will pay us 42 per cent. You can't beat that.' That was my last argument, and then I left it.
Many people believe that logic and reasonableness are the weapons needed to solve disagreements in marriage. Emotion should be kept in check.
We solved ours by metaphorical bloodletting. Skirmish, retreat, tend to the enemy's wounds with unrelenting affection.
It took two weeks of careful nagging, of suffering under harsh words, of pride forsaken, before she gave in. In the end, she did it because she knew she couldn't turn me, and because she came to trust the idea – although she would never do it herself. Never.
In an office of grey slate, with strong dispassionate lighting, we asked for seventy thousand guilders. The banker, soft voiced and fidgety, asked the required questions and advised us how to fill in the forms. I despised this small, unobtrusive and seemingly gentle man because he could deny me my fortune and because by the nature of his questions he seemed to be suggesting untruths were being told. My wife remained calm, efficient and not offended by the man's correct instincts. Three weeks later we learned that our loan had been approved.
Because guilders had no value in Costa Rica, I was forced to exchange them for dollars. Any transaction above ten thousand, however, had to be reported to the tax office, and that meant running the gauntlet of privately run Amsterdam change offices that offered radically differing exchange rates, and charged gluttonous, disguised commissions. At the end of a long day, I had thirty-seven thousand American dollars.
I travelled to Costa Rica alone. My only special preparation was to have two deep pockets sewn into my shirt to conceal the money from thieves, and from the Americans who forbade travelling with more than ten thousand dollars cash, since I was forced to connect through the US.
MONEY-CHANGERS HOVERED outside the building in downtown San Jose, where Villalobos Brothers Enterprises kept its offices in 1996. An armed guard protected the front entrance, but he let me through without formality. I waited only a few moments before being allowed into the small, windowless, unadorned office, save for an inscribed pennant hanging on the wall. It read: 'Give, and it shall be given unto you. Luke 6:38.' Enrique Villalobos was sitting quietly behind his desk, hands clasped, watching me.
He was shorter than I imagined, all shoulders and chest, not unlike a bulldog. He wore the white Guayabera shirt favoured by many Latinos, and a cropped, pepper-grey moustache that matched his hair perfectly. His heavy, dark-framed glasses made him appear fatherly.
I felt that Luis Enrique Villalobos, although knowing I was a non-believer and therefore going to hell, did not hold it against me. I sensed that I could trust this man with details of my indiscretions.
I handed him a fax that Pat had sent me by way of introduction, and asked him to explain what he intended to do with my money.
'All I can tell you,' he answered politely, 'is we don't invest on the stock market.'
After he had carefully counted the thirty-five thousand dollars cash he gave me a signed, undated cheque drawn on the Banco National De Costa Rica for the same amount, and explained that I could collect the interest on the last or first three days of each month, or I could let it compound.
'It's a loan, not an investment,' he corrected me, when I asked about statements. 'Yes, we can send you a statement by fax, no problem, but we never give information out over the telephone. Oh,' he continued, as if he had almost forgotten, 'to withdraw the principal, I need a month's notice, and our dealings are in cash.'
'I'll let it compound. I'm working in Nicaragua, so I can't get back to pick up the interest.'
His face seemed to change colour when I mentioned Nicaragua.
'I had a helicopter business in Managua until the war started. The Sandinistas threw me into jail for three days. They said I was spying for America.' He was smiling sadly when he told me this, forcing his moustache downwards, covering his top lip. 'I loved Nicaragua very much,' he continued, singing his words like many Latinos do when speaking English. 'How sad how it's all turned out.' He stood to shake my hand, and walked me to the door. 'My brother runs the currency exchange side of the business. He's got an office at the end of the corridor. Don't ever change money on the street: they're all thieves. The gringos are being cheated.' It was true, I discovered.
After my business with Enrique I visited Pat in Golfito. The centre remained a shameless oasis of bars and rice-and-bean joints: a place to meet a girl who cost hard cash, but there were new hotels along the water and out towards the old banana company concession where the free port had been built. A small yacht club and a couple of sport fishing operations had started up. A newer type of gringo had come to town: urban, duller, more moneyed. Pat's brother's business was growing.
After a few drinks in town we returned to Pat's house where he showed me a folder containing authorisations. Some were handwritten, two almost illegible. On another sheet of paper were neatly written names, and next to the names, figures: $1,020; $900; $300; $5,000. The list went on.
'It's the monthly interest I pick up,' Pat said. 'Every month I take the bus to San Jose and the next day I catch one back.'
Pat fiddled with a pre-Columbian gold figurine, holding it to the light, polishing it between his fingers. It was a hollow pipe straddled by an iguana. He laid it next to a nugget flecked with rose quartz and shaped like a cat's paw. I bought both pieces.
I picked up a letter. It was addressed to Luis E. Villalobos. 'I, Clifford F Davis hereby give Mr Pat O'Connel authorisation to draw my capital plus any accumulated interest from my investment account.'
'They don't even pick up their own capital?'
'It's a long trip up to San Jose by bus, and the plane is expensive,' Pat answered in a level voice, lifting his shoulders in finality.
'How much was the capital?'
'One hundred and thirty-eight thousand dollars!'
It was the rainy season, and a sudden torrent pounding on Pat's tin roof kept me loitering between sleep and reflection. Pat had told me the Villalobos had over four thousand investors nationwide. If the average interest payment was a thousand a month, that was a monthly payout of four million, and I knew they were paying the Dutchman over eighty thousand dollars a month. The Brothers knew where to find money.
I FAILED AS a fisherman in Nicaragua in 1997. My last idea was to build traps to hunt lobster, but they came up empty. And again there was a territory dispute with the Sandy Bay boys. To pay for the traps and to cover the mounting costs, I had made a trip to Costa Rica. It had been more than seven months since I had deposited the money.
Enrique welcomed me like an old friend and handed me eight thousand dollars in crisp hundred dollar bills. He then wrote out a new, signed, undated cheque. I asked for a printout of my interest payments. I didn't understand it completely, but that didn't matter because I had complete trust in my bankers. I now had $35,088.64 in my Villalobos account. I noticed Enrique wore the same style Guayabera shirt, that he needed a haircut, and that he didn't act at all like an enormously wealthy man.
The following year I was in Estonia when we all got a letter. It began: 'Thanks to our Lord Jesus, we have been offering you an investment program that has been mutually beneficial.' Amen, I thought. They wanted to change some rules. No more compound interest. Only 36 per cent a year. Hell, that was enough. If we lost our guarantee cheques, it would cost a thousand dollars for a new one. We could afford it. Regulations governing minimum terms, withdrawal of interest and capital were changed. Who the hell cared? The letter ended: 'Withdrawals of capital before term on an emergency basis will be evaluated case by case.' He was still going to take care of mates in trouble.
The old country schoolhouse my wife had bought was draughty, but the summer of 1998 in Estonia was warm and dry. We settled in, adding a wood-burning sauna, repairing the windows and insulating the walls. For me, they were endless days of rising late, splitting and packing a mountain of wood that would be needed for the long, dark winter fires, trying to learn a few words of an impossible language, supping on fatty pork sausage, pork chops, hills of potatoes smothered in sour cream, white cabbage, and at times the flat leathery fish that thrived in the cold Baltic sea, and looking forward to the afternoons that would start early with Saku beer and end with Moldavian brandy.
The stability and dependability, honesty and familiarity, and the rule of the still-fractured Estonian law came as a relief after the chaos of Nicaragua. I was at peace, but that never lasts.
Between the gathering of the custard yellow mushroom from the forest in June and the cranberries and blueberries in September we began our hunt for a city apartment. I had finally sold my shop premises in Amsterdam. The money was burning a hole in my pocket and I thought about the Brothers, but only the biggest fool puts all his money on a sure thing. Somehow, even I knew that.
We found an apartment we liked just off the Raekojaplats, Tallinn's medieval town centre. From the outside it looked fine – at least nothing a little paint and putty wouldn't fix. It was the inside that made me pause. We had to gut the whole place.
In the spring of 1999, seven months after beginning the rebuilding I ran out of money. The cold that had been boring voraciously into my bones for six months was at its worst on the day I boarded the plane.
There were no money changers to cheat you outside the Villalobos office. No guard. The doors were locked, the sign gone. I stood staring. I could move, but I had no idea to where. When I finally turned away from the door, I found myself staring at a bent and creased old woman selling flowers.
'Esta Buscando los Hermanos?' she asked, smiling without teeth. 'Estan in San Pedro Mall.'
Her hand felt like leather that had dried to an irretrievable brittleness when I shook it with gratitude.
San Pedro Mall was a clone of any mid-sized North American mall, save that the entire third floor was devoted to a food court that included McDonald's, KFC, Subway, a Burger King, and some local rice-and-bean joints. The building reeked from their stink, but it was air conditioned, clean, easy to protect and you did not have to run the gauntlet of money-changers that fed off the Villalobos like suckers on a shark.
There were two guards standing duty, but again it was not difficult to pass. Inside there was no resemblance to the old offices. I was asked to sit down by a young, neatly dressed Costa Rican woman who spoke impeccable English, and then given a form to fill out. Around me sat other gringos, mostly older men, some women, all tanned, many concentrating uncomfortably on the questionnaire. It was the usual sort of thing: passport number, birthplace, birthdate, withdrawal amount. But not usual for the Villalobos Brothers.
In the middle of the room was an enormous white cardboard cutout of a church with the dimensions of a citadel. The Villalobos congregation was building it to save more souls, I expected. I waited to be asked for a donation, but never was.
I was finally shown into an empty office, one that made up a warren. As I was being led there, I glanced into another office cubicle and saw Osvaldo Villalobos, sitting not unlike his brother Enrique sat, with his hands folded in front of him. They were like peas in a pod: same build, same genial smile and unthreatening presence. I wondered how much influence Osvaldo had in the Brothers' business.
'David Matheson,' said the tall young man as he walked into the office, hand extended.
'You're Canadian,' I asked, recognising his accent. 'Where's Enrique?'
'In Spain, buying helicopters.'
'Why didn't you let everybody know you moved?'
'Ah,' I mumbled, 'the fax must have gone to my Amsterdam address.' He didn't answer. Men who think they never make mistakes often don't.
'So you're working with Enrique?'
He picked up a wedding photograph from the desk: it was David and a beautiful dark-haired woman. Too good for him was my first thought.
'She's Osvaldo's daughter.'
'I need sixty thousand,' I said after mumbling some sort of congratulations.
'I know, we got your fax. I have a cheque for you.'
'I asked for cash.'
'Things have changed. We're too big now. We have an account in the States. We write cheques drawn on our Costa Rican or American bank. Which would you like?
'I would like cash,' I repeated. 'I need it in Estonia, and I don't want to deposit it in an Estonian Bank and wait for it to clear. Four Estonian banks have gone bankrupt in the last year. Look,' I continued, fighting to stay polite, aware that David glanced continually at his watch, and that he couldn't care less about Estonian banks. 'I have to go to Golfito. I'll be gone for two weeks. Can you please see what you can do?'
'I'll fax Enrique,' he promised, and then he gave me one of his cards. I glanced abstractly at the text below his name. 'May God bless you as He has done for me,' – Corinthians 2:9. 'I have faith because the almighty God is with me.'
I left not expecting any help. David Matheson was not one of us.
PAT AND I met at another marina, one filled with yachts whose masts were the height of tall buildings and glossy motor cruisers, some with eight-man crews. People drank margaritas and pina coladas at the bar, and ate lobster and New York steak off white tablecloths. Other hotels and bars had sprouted. Three more fishing camps had been built.
The town centre hadn't changed. Its rawness and behaviour had become for me the glitter of a rare diamond that piecemeal was being cut and polished to flog to a more pampered, less creative, decidedly more nervous human being. Dog packs still roamed at will.
I had become a rich man, but it never occurred to me. I could fly anywhere on a whim, build apartments in cold northern lands, buy anything within reason, sleep until midday, not do a lick of work, and money would magically appear in my Brothers account at the end of each month.
But I was born working class, and we were careful, suspicious, discontent by nature. The money was never enough to allow me the freedom to think of myself as rich, or even lucky. If only it were more, I often thought.
Only when Pat pushed a pile of gold nuggets and two pre-Columbian gold artifacts in front of me for perusal, I found myself buying with only a moment's consideration.
In the evening, sitting outside Pat's house on plastic chairs smoking cigars Pat admitted that he also had more than twenty thousand with the Brothers. He said it softly, his words barely overriding the lap of the bay water on the sea wall.
'Who owns the fancy marina?' I asked, nodding, smiling into the wind, elated that these secretive Brothers had made Pat wealthy at least.
'Nobody's supposed to know,' he answered. 'Don't let it get around, but the Finn does.'
'The big fellow, the one who roars like a buffalo when he wants something.'
'It's just his way,' Pat answered.
Pat stared into the darkness, towards where I figured Whitey and Barbara would be having evening drinks on the island across the water. 'How do you know he's the owner?'
'I do some driving and guiding for him, and I pick up his interest from the Brothers.' After a long pause Pat said, 'There's not a gringo in Golfito who doesn't have money with the Brothers ... not one.' He shook his head, red from the day's sun and so round it resembled an apple.
'Christ, be a bastard if they ever go under,' I said to Pat, not believing they could for a moment.
'Let's get a drink,' he answered, smiling at my remark as if it was an absurdity only a heretic could utter, and then we stood awkwardly and walked towards his new car .
'Is Enrique married?' I asked before sliding onto the passenger seat. It was something I had always wanted to know.
'I think he was married before. I'd have to ask, but he married a Romanian a few years ago.'
'What's she like?'
'Twenty-two now,' he answered.
'Thank God he's doing something nice with his money.'
'His. You know I don't have one.'
We drove through the dark pot-holed streets towards the light and life in the centre of town, a stray dog catching our light beam forcing us to slow violently, and then another.
David Matheson had the cash in his drawer. Sixty thousand American dollars. 'Enrique said it was okay.' He then wrote out a new, signed, undated cheque for the amount that was left in my account, and we shook hands. The front of my pants bulged as I walked through San Pedro mall to the taxis outside.
They caught me in the airport. Gold, like cash, doesn't show up on the metal detectors but they noticed the bulge. I didn't let them look. Sometimes a bluff works.
The customs official checking the outgoing passengers was young, and when I showed him only the corner of some of the money and insisted mi plata, blocking his outstretched hand before it reached my pants and then tucking the cash back inside, he gave up and wished me a pleasant flight. Besides, a good part of the dollars and all the gold was shoved down the side of my cowboy boots.
WHEN I ARRIVED back in Estonia in 1999, a fresh blanket of snow covered the country, sanitising and festooning it. Sun, the colour of new butter, shone timidly, and gave off so little warmth that it was no more effective than a bauble decorating the pallid sky. A gusting wind skated over the sea ice. It was the end of March and minus fourteen degrees.
When I walked into my apartment I discovered that my four workers had only succeeded in hacking a single doorway through one wall. Good thing I was only paying them four bucks each an hour, I thought.
In the summer of 2000 the Brothers made the news – one of their investors, a North American man, suspicious of his own son's greed, made his benefactor upon death a young local woman. He also authorised Enrique Villalobos to administer his estate, which entailed paying his doctor's bills in case of an incapacitating illness. The man suffered an attack of meningitis that brought on a coma and a resulting loss of mental faculties. The son went after the money. When it went to court, Enrique sent us all a letter.
I mentioned this only to impress on people the nature of this business with the Brothers. It was intimate, almost family, and trust was essential. The Brothers wanted us to know the circumstances so that we could judge for ourselves. They didn't like innuendo or gossip because good men don't. It was the first time in all their years of doing business that anybody had ever had a complaint.
Also, my wife decided to invest with the Brothers and gave them a cheque. She had been worn down by my success.
In February 2001, I flew to San Jose to make a major withdrawal to pay for another apartment we had bought in Estonia. David gave me a cheque for the forty thousand dollars; cash was now completely out of the question. It didn't matter: the plundering of the financial institutions had reached its zenith in Estonia a couple of years before. Now it was safe – at least as safe as anywhere – to deposit money in an Estonian bank.
We spent the summer that year in Estonia. My wife had wanted to travel to Costa Rica and withdraw the bulk of her money from the Brothers, but I pressured her into remaining with me to help rebuild the new apartment.
THE FIRST TIME Pat telephoned to tell me that the Brothers had problems was in July 2002. The Tico Times, a Costa Rican English-language newspaper had run an article on them. He read out the first paragraph: 'Prominent San Jose based money-exchange company Ofinter S.A, founded by the Tico brothers, Luis Enrique and Osvaldo Villalobos, avoided a mass panic in the foreign community here by quickly reopening for business July 8, following police raids for suspected laundering of Canadian drug money at its two downtown-area offices.'
Pat summarised the rest of the story: 'The Royal Canadian police arrested six Quebec residents for drug trafficking and drug laundering in connection with 590 kilos of cocaine discovered in Canada. The suspected ringleader, Bertrand Henri St Onge, had used some of his profits to buy a house on a beach in Costa Rica, and he was also thought to have invested $300,000 with the Brothers.
'The investigators further told The Tico Times that the Brothers' biggest hurdle would not be in proving they didn't intentionally launder drug money, but rather to defend the legality of their personal loan business.'
'What do you mean?' I was anxious. 'I don't understand.'
'The Brothers were legally registered as a money exchange house, not registered as financial mediators.'
'They were not supposed to be receiving funds from individuals in exchange for interest payments. Anyway, they froze their accounts.'
'I still don't understand,' I repeated.
I could hear Pat taking a deep breath before beginning again. 'Look, this is what it says in The Tico Times. There's a bank law which allows friends and family members to loan each other money and charge interest without reporting the transaction to fiscal authorities, but to be legal – and this is what it says word for word in the article – "a close bond must exist between lender and creditor and the transactions must be infrequent".'
'Dear friends,' they always called us. That's why their communications never had a letterhead and were never signed. The Brothers were operating through a loophole, one that had been open for more than twenty years. Clever bastards.
But you had to be clever in that part of the world; Central America was stunning, graceful and blessed with genial people, but a place where politics and business of any magnitude were kept in the grasp of a few families, and the profits hoarded, or dispersed amongst them.
I first came to Costa Rica in 1981. 'A diminutive giant, the personification of Costa Rica's ideals.' That's how aNational Geographic article described Jose Maria Figueres, or 'Don Pepe' as his people tenderly called him. Indeed, he was the moral and ethical totem of his people. And rightly so.
In 1949, with a six hundred-man army, outnumbered ten to one, he defeated a communist-supported governing party which refused to give up power after losing an election. He then disbanded the army, established social welfare programs and female suffrage and, eighteen months after taking power, handed back the government to the winner of the usurped elections. Later he was elected president three times.
Was it surprising that he became the business partner and protector of the American criminal Robert Vesco, who the US Securities and Exchange Commission accused of diverting $224 million from investors? 'As long as he breaks no laws here – I'm strictly business.' Or that his personal bank account in New York grew by almost half a million dollars at that time. Or that his son Jose Maria Figueres, president of Costa Rica between 1994 and 1998, resigned from his position in 2004 as director of the World Economic Forum after information surfaced that he received nine hundred thousand dollars in bribes from Alcatel, a French communications company?
Yes it was surprising. Jose 'Don Pepe' Figueres was a moral and ethical totem; he and his family should be above that.
I might add that two other presidents, Rafael Angel Calderon (1990-94) and Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998-2002) were also charged with corruption. Sadly for the Costa Rican people, they are the tip of the iceberg. Using a loophole – hell, small stuff I'd say.
It was the start of a time of speculation, but no accusations and no panic. I understood because the Brothers had been paying us without default for twenty years. We had given them our trust and they had honoured it. The Christian investors needed only one argument to vindicate the Brothers. They're Baptists.
In late July, Pat emailed me with more information. The Brothers were back in business. 'Sort of,' he made clear. They were paying interest, but since the accounts had been frozen, you could not retrieve your principal. And Enrique had disappeared.
At the beginning of August I travelled to Costa Rica. I wanted to pick up our interest and to get a feel for what was going on. We had authorised Pat to pick up the money, so it was not necessary for me to visit the Brothers' offices, and I took an internal flight to Golfito the day I arrived.
As the plane landed I saw a ship at the dock and at first I thought that the banana boats had returned, but as the plane banked I could see it was a US Coast Guard cutter: drug hunters. Pat picked me up in the Finn's car, and we drove to the Finn's marina.
I couldn't discern any changes. It was as if Golfito had reached its opulence level, a sure sign that the cash had dried up.
'Why aren't we in your car?' I asked.
'Sold it,' Pat answered in a disinterested voice.
At the marina, I sat around with men and women I didn't know: the newcomers. Later, other people joined us. There were faces I vaguely recognised, but only Hunky Mike, the Hungarian restaurant owner, and Pat were old friends.
People didn't speak immediately about the Brothers, but it was on everybody's lips as if the subject were a virus that terrorised any normal conversation.
They were worried. Everybody seemed to think that the Brothers would be vindicated, but they were concerned about something else. Many Canadians and Americans in our group had not reported their interest earnings to the fiscal authorities in their home countries. And citizens of both countries are taxed on world incomes from investments exceeding ten thousand dollars. They did not like the publicity.
'I lived in the States most of my life and paid Uncle Sam all the mother-fucking, goddamned taxes he asked for. I don't use any of his services now, and I don't intend to in the future. Hell, I've lived in Costa Rica for fifteen years. They can kiss my ass. Chasing you all over the world like a chicken thief.'
I felt sorry for these people. For many, these were the last decades of their lives – all they were doing was looking for a little cream at the end.
Other questions arose that day. The government had only confiscated eight million dollars of the Brothers' money, so where was the rest? Where was Enrique? Why couldn't he just pay us back with the rest? Doubts were creeping in, but only from a minority.
Then Pat spoke up. 'If everybody knew, he'd be hounded, and we have to give him time to work it all out. He'll be back.'
Everybody nodded their assent, some murmured agreement, and then we let more alcohol crush whatever small doubts may have existed.
Before I left Costa Rica, I took out a subscription to The Tico Times. It was Pat who suggested it.
'Save me some typing,' he told me.
I NEVER LOST faith, but by 2002 I was running out of money. The apartments in Estonia were both unrented, and I had borrowed living cash from my wife just before the fall of the Brothers. My wife had no immediate financial problems, but she worked hard for her money, coveted her savings, and the thought that they were in jeopardy weighed on her heart and mind, causing in her outbursts of anger and periods of melancholy. She constantly pressed me for information and encouraged me to call Pat more often than I liked. She also blamed me for everything that had happened.
I sighed and picked up The Tico Times dated July 26, reading it again: 'Villalobos creditors claimed the company participated in various international businesses. They gave us the capital to work with since 1980.' The Brothers, however, denied providing loans to the commercial sector – which are often short term, high interest and high profit – but admitted to real estate dealings, and something called 'factoring', or buying the accounts receivable at discount prices in exchange for the right to collect on the receivable's full value. They also denied dealing in currency exchange. I wish they would just get on with it, I thought.
On August 16, the freeze on the accounts was extended for four months, but interest payments were continued. In the October 18 issue of the Times, three notable details became public. The American government was asked whether it was involved in the Villalobos case, and its reply was: 'We are not allowed to comment on any investigation.' A sure sign, according to many investors, that the FBI or Internal Revenue Service was now involved. We were informed that the San Pedro office was closed until further notice, and interest payments were suspended.
Luis Enrique Villalobos published an open letter. It was a letter of defence, defiance and accusation. He reminded us that the Canadian drug runners had also invested in Costa Rican state banks. And that guilt by association was very unfair. Also that a freeze on the business was illegal and immoral, since he had been convicted of nothing. We all agreed.
One paragraph of the letter stands out: 'It is respectfully requested to all my creditors to maintain the understanding, prudence and confidence in the sense that all which might be necessary will be done to normalise the payment of debts, once the situation is surmounted. I keep every one of you in my heart, and I will communicate with all of you. I beg the Almighty Lord to grant to all of us the necessary strength for this economic strangling does not have the implications which may damage the physical integrity of anybody.' This badly translated piece was meant to reassure us, and at the same time warn us against physical reprisals. Enrique was aware that some of his investors had lost faith, and he knew that some were capable of great violence.
In October, the sale of one of my Estonian apartments was finalised. It was my solution to my mounting debts. My other apartment brought in only very irregular income, and its roof had started to collapse and would cost a lot of money to fix. Slowly I had started to realise how comfortable my life had been with the Brothers' income. I had indeed been rich.
In a November 1 article, it was suggested that the freeze would be lifted by November 26. And that Osvaldo's house had been raided, as were the offices of the Brothers, but not Enrique's house. The authorities said they were not sure where he lived. It further informed readers that several hundred investors attended a town hall meeting and intended to take legal action against the Costa Rican government if this were not the case. Lawyers, like maggots on a carcass, had finally started feeding on investor anxieties.
The locals took out an advertisement to inform the authorities how much the Brothers and their investors meant to the local economy. It was true; I called a pal in Costa Rica, a Dutchman who had emigrated to paradise and earned his living as a real estate broker. From him, I heard nothing but a tirade of vitriolic complaints about business. It was as if the wrath of the Brothers' Almighty had swallowed up the renters and buyers in a great and holy feast of capitalists.
'Many businesses are closing, shopkeepers are complaining, hotels have lower occupation, bars are selling less liquor, bar girls are distraught.' He rambled on and on. 'Maids and gardeners are out of work, and they had nothing to start with. Six thousand two hundred and eighty-nine investors have suddenly stopped spending.'
I made a rough calculation. 'That's probably between six and ten million a month.'
'Sounds about right,' he answered, 'stupid fucking Ticos.'
On November 29, Osvaldo was charged with money laundering, fraud and illegal financial intermediation. The judge ordered six months' preventative prison. Prosecutors ordered the arrest of Enrique, but it had not yet been approved by the judge.
The judge also ordered the freeze on the assets be extended for another six months. There were protests by many desperate gringos, but also many by Costa Ricans. This surprised me, because I thought the Brothers' investors were principally gringos. I was even more surprised to learn that the ethnic makeup of investors was two-thirds gringos, one third Ticos.
Also, according to records made public at this time, two family members of a powerful Costa Rican politician appeared on the Brothers' list of investors, namely Karen Christiana Figueres and Kirsten Figueres, sisters of ex-president Jose Maria Figueres, and daughters of Don Pepe Figueres, the father of Costa Rica's modern democratic state. Rolando Araya Polonio, son of ex-presidential candidate Rolando Araya and nephew of San Jose mayor Johnny Araya, was also named as an investor.
Around this date, some investors received an encrypted email from Enrique pleading for a little more patience, but loyalty to the Brothers was reaching an all-time low, and the great exodus had begun. People were selling up and scuttling home; it was time for many to go back to work. Soon one investor, out of desperation, would shoot himself in the head.
I called Pat again, interested in what was happening to my money. He couldn't tell me much, but he had unnatural patience and an intuitive knack for comforting people, and he would always leave me thinking the glass was half full. I realised with shame after I had hung up that I didn't even ask how he was doing – and Pat didn't own property in Estonia.
On December 6, the judge ordered the arrest of Enrique, but he had disappeared.
On January 10, Enrique Villalobos published another advertisement desperately claiming innocence. He added: 'If I die or go to jail, no one will receive anything.' He finished his letter with the words 'Who is behind this confabulation?'
Pat's telephone stopped working, and his emails ceased. I called every gringo I could reach in Golfito, searching him out. They were forlorn conversations with desperate people. One woman had invested her entire inheritance three weeks before the Brothers fell. She now had colon cancer and was fighting for her life. Others were living like paupers, getting by month by month on pensions that were meagre, too poor even to contemplate a return home.
'I've got a little more than two thousand dollars left, Wayne, when that's finished I'm finished.' The man I had called was clearly drunk. I knew he had been a millionaire, and that he was considered ungenerous. I had only met him twice, but I clearly remembered his narrow disinterested face and pencil-thin moustache, his hair that he dyed tar black and plastered to his scalp.
'Get a job,' I said, almost yelling through the phone, but he seemed not hear me, and I thought I heard sobbing.
'I was a fool to trust all my money with the Brothers,' he said bitterly before hanging up. He must have somebody to take care of him, I hoped before the line went dead, but I knew he didn't. A broke and mean man has no friends.
Pat, I discovered, was working on sport fishing boats as a deckhand, gone for weeks at a time. I never found out why his telephone didn't work, but I suspect the bills were unaffordable – or maybe he was tired of everybody wanting information and comfort about the Brothers from every corner of the world.
Over the years, I would receive information from Pat or other Costa Rican friends about our predicament. Those who had remained loyal to the Brothers. The people who had parried the urge to join action groups railing against the Brothers. The ones not taken in by lawyers, or by former Costa Rican justice ministers and circuit judges who promised to return their riches for only a little of the money they had left. Somebody (always a Christian) would receive an email from Enrique, or there would be a paid advertisement in a newspaper. Or we would hear of new developments in the legal case that was never really resolved.
I always wondered about Enrique's whereabouts. I knew the most popular thought amongst us was that he was in Romania, waiting it out with his pretty young wife. But who really knew? Enrique was an enigma.
WHAT I HAD learned, was that he had had a helicopter business in Nicaragua, and worked exclusively for the dictator Anastasio Somoza. I knew he had been jailed as a spy by the Marxist Sandinistajunta when it came to power, and finally repatriated to Costa Rica. I also knew that he had a wife to kill for. I have, since the fall of our empire, learned other details: Luis Enrique de Jesus Villalobos was born Catholic, the third of six children to campesino parents in rural Costa Rica in 1940. He had indeed been married and had fathered three children before divorcing his first wife to marry his Romanian one in 1997.
Enrique studied in military academies in Guatemala and Nicaragua, although who paid for this I never learned. Later he studied aviation and mechanics in the United States.
Enrique once made a statement claiming that the US Embassy was instrumental in helping him get back his helicopters that had been confiscated by the Sandinistas.
Reliable sources working within the Contras, an anti-Sandinista organisation operating out of Honduras that blossomed after the Marxist takeover, have insisted he was aiding the CIA by using a currency exchange business he had set up, to funnel money donated illegally by Americans to the Contras. When the US press attaché Marcia Bosshardt was asked about this, she answered, 'There does not appear to be a connection.'
The same source also said that when Eden Pastora, better known as Commandante Zero, a disillusioned Sandinista junta member and principled man, started his own Contra group in southern Nicaragua, Enrique became his dollar exchange man. It is known that Enrique mortgaged his house to facilitate a personal loan to aid Pastora when the US Congress cut funding to the Contras in 1984. And that he sought continued finance for the group.
Pastora recorded his gratitude in a 2002 interview with The Tico Times: 'He gave us a good exchange rate – profiting practically nothing from the commission. When we couldn't pay him back the eighty thousand dollars (house mortgage) he was practically left out on the street.'
Enrique was present when Eden Pastora's fellow commanders tried to blow him up at a secret meeting at La Penca, Costa Rica in 1985, because he refused to work under American leadership in Honduras. Pastora survived, but others were killed and injured. In May 1995, there was an attempt on Enrique's life by an unknown armed group. A bystander was killed. It was not a robbery attempt.
So, this was my banker.
PAT AND I spoke less and less about the Brothers over the years, but anybody who has ever taken a drink with an old mate knows that at some point a discussion will arise over the climactic periods of their friendship. And who was behind the Brothers' demise always came up, because somebody was.
According to Pat when we met up in Costa Rica in 2006, there were differing opinions amongst the investors. Some believed that the Banco Central de Costa Rica was behind it, because Enrique was just too much competition. And Costa Rican banks have a dubious ethical reputation: in 1994, the Banco Anglo Costarricense, formerly the country's oldest state bank, was closed by presidential decree after accumulating fifty-four million dollars worth of debt. Just last year, seven former executives were found guilty of embezzlement.
Others thought it was Abel Pacheco, the serving president, or some of his cabinet. After all, we are talking about a lot of money here. Still others thought it was as simple as the Americans wanting to close down any unregulated financial institutions after September 11. These days, the Americans see opportunities for malice in toothpaste tubes and aftershave lotion. Strange though – as the CIA bankrolled Enrique in the first place. Still, they'd bankrolled Saddam Hussein, hadn't they? The IRS theory also had its supporters. 'The sons of bitches want their pound of flesh. Kiss my ass.' Did anyone have proof? No, just imagination and grievance.
The money's gone. Some will say that the interest offered was so extraordinary that only fools or the unprincipled would throw their lot in with such people – that we deserved our fate.
I could defend that by reminding people that Villalobos paid twenty years of interest, never missed a payment, never disappointing a single investor. That, although we never knew his methods – and Villalobos himself denied it – we more than suspected he worked with foreign currency, participated in various international businesses, provided loans to the personal sector. Not licensed to do so? Well, somebody overlooked that point for twenty years – how important was that?
Enrique himself said in an interview: 'It is possible to pay significantly higher than market interest rates. Many Costa Rican banks charge 3.4 per cent monthly interest rates on credit card accounts in US dollars. With these charges it would be possible to pay dollar investors the 2.8 per cent monthly interest with money left over.'
Perhaps. All we are certain of as investors is that he allowed us to live like kings. And that there was nothing evil about the business. All I am certain of is that I liked and trusted Luis Enrique de Jesus Villalobos, and that he never let me down. The legal case is still unresolved.
ONE AUGUST MORNING in 2006, an old friend – a Villalobos investor fallen on hard times – forwarded me an email. I read it quickly, almost abstractly, as if it were for somebody else, glancing at the same time towards a framed photo that stood on my work desk, beside my computer in Amsterdam, like an award of success. It had been taken years earlier, after my return to Estonia with sixty thousand dollars in cash. I was leaning against the floor-to-ceiling wood stove that heated our house, puffing on a large cigar, cheeks red from the brandy I had just drunk, holding wads and wads of money in each hand. My lips were stretched around the cigar in a victorious smile.
It had been tough finding enough cash to live on after the fall of the Brothers. Although, as I have said, I never thought of myself as rich, their money had spoiled me. Any talents I might have possessed had been diluted by the comfort the Brothers lavished on me. But necessity brings out your best and, like Pat, I was a worker. I did alright. I was now comfortable, my wife had forgiven me. That was a big loss.
I turned towards the email once again, this time reading it more slowly, taking it in word for word: 'Maybe our luck is changing for the better ... There was an article in La Nacion from the Villalobos, saying he is going to pay back ... with interest until 2002, after that just capital. In February there is going to be a trial, so let's see how it will go.'
How odd: there were also new presidential elections. And so it continues.
In May 2007 Oswaldo Villalobos was convicted of fraud and illegal financial intermediation and was sentenced to eighteen years' prison. He is appealing. The whereabouts of Luis Enrique de Jesus Villalobos is still unknown.