Under A Waning Smuggler's Moon

Two things keep the residents of Maicao alive: water and contraband. Although cocaine is the latest in a long line of smuggled products Colombia has handled over five centuries, here drugs are only a sideline. Maicao (my-COW) earns its keep the old-fashioned way: smuggling booze, cigarettes, and other legitimate goods. In this desert crossroads of 80,000 souls, nobody--from the water seller to the parish priest--receives one peso that does not come from the sale or purchase of contraband.

But as Colombia becomes the final country in Latin America to eliminate tariffs, Maicao's only industry is in great jeopardy. So Samuel Santander Lopesierra spends hours on the phone lobbying politicians in Bogota. If they must make Colombia duty-free, he pleads, at least allow Maicao to keep its edge by exempting it from sales taxes. "We're talking about saving an entire way of life," he tells me in adequate chamber-of-commerce-ese, his feet propped up on his money-counting machine.

The 74-year-old smuggler started out as a mule skinner, threading pack trains through the cacti at night to sneak in used tires and even empty bottles so the local distillery could refill them with rum. Lopesierra, who now claims to buy 2.4 million bottles of Scotch whiskey a year, recalls when Maicao was nothing more than a meeting place in the desert: "If somebody had a load of contraband, he just parked it in front of a roadhouse called El Cacaito where he drank cane liquor and waited for a buyer."

Still unpaved, Maicao's streets are now lined with shops hawking everything from power tools to French perfumes. The town fathers estimate $10 million changes hands daily.

Not that many of the older generation, such as Lopesierra, keep records. But his son, Santa, does. He has a degree in finance from Southern Illinois University. A burly man in his early 30s with long hair and gold chains, Santa is at his desk on a Friday night behind a hill of bank statements and stacks of $100 bills. He keeps his 9 mm pistol handy by using it as a paperweight.

A tramp freighter bearing whiskey and cigarettes from Aruba is scheduled to dock at midnight at a desert cove two hours north. Once his paperwork is done, Santa tucks his pants into his boots, straps on a bandolier of shells, slings his shotgun over his shoulder, and says: "Let's ride."

END RUN. The three air-conditioned Toyota jeeps are loaded with water and hammocks. We set off under a sky softly lit by what can only be called a smuggler's moon. The police stop us at a roadblock, but they don't ask us what we are doing, or about the shotgun on the floor, the pistol on the seat, the Uzi machine gun on the bodyguard's lap, or even about the open bottle of Old Parr with the shot glass next to it. Instead, they shake hands and greet Santa by name. "They are looking for people in bad businesses," Santa explains later, "like trafficking in drugs or arms."

The desert road is so rough that Santa has difficulty keeping the scotch in his glass. We arrive at "the Hilton," a cluster of bamboo lean-tos that Wayuu Indians rent out as a layover for smugglers. Their guests over the years have included marijuana runners coming into the nearby coves and cocaine pilots who find the desert an acceptable landing field.

Lights from the moored freighter mark the horizon, and Santa drives toward them to oversee the unloading. All the boxes are marked: "For export only. Use prohibited within Venezuela." These cigarettes were shipped to Curacao, then to Aruba, and are now in Colombia. Santa will smuggle them back to Caracas untaxed. "Venezuela doesn't care. The Venezuelan army comes to Maicao to buy boot polish," he says, beaming.

At the water's edge, dozens of trucks are parked in a semicircle, and hundreds of Wayuu men heave cases of Johnnie Walker up from the hold and down the gangplank, then stack them on the desert floor. They walk in single file, one line coming, another going, like ants. "No containers, no cranes," notes Santa, barely visible in the glare of the lights. "Everything on the backs of the Indians--and they work for only 2,000 pesos a day!"

That's about $3.60, and it's the only money to be made here. Smuggling, too, is the only source of water. "If I stop coming, what would happen to them?" asks Edgar Santos, the captain of the ship, the Cherokee Arrow, who says he has brought 10,000 liters of water tonight for the Wayuu.

After a few hours' sleep in our hammocks at the Hilton, we breakfast on a goat slaughtered in full view of the dining table and head back to Maicao. There, Colombian shoppers mingle with busloads of Venezuelans whose customs officials will turn a blind eye to their booty. Vendors name their prices in Colombian pesos, Venezuelan bolivars, and U. S. dollars. Money changers hang around the park in view of the police station although such exchanges are illegal. "I'd say that nothing in Maicao is legal. It's just tolerated," says one of Santa's assistants, Horacio Robles.

Hussein David, one of the town's 5,000 Lebanese emigres, elaborates on what is simply called "the business," since there is no other: "It's contraband, and it isn't contraband. The government knows exactly what's going on. The government permits this because there was simply no other industry here--just sand."

Furthermore, in all of Colombia's major cities, street vendors of Marlboros, chewing gum, and candy depend on Maicao to provide cheap merchandise.

SLY FOOTWORK. Colombia, with ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific, has hosted smugglers since the days of the Spanish Main. Every school child here knows the story of J. B. Londono, who made his fortune smuggling shoes. Customs laws allowed an importer to bring in all the tax-free samples he wished, so long as all were either for the left or the right foot. J. B. imported the left shoes through an Atlantic port, the right shoes through a Pacific port, and paired them up in his Medellin warehouse.

Now, the prospect of no tariffs--and, therefore, no contraband--has made Maicao an edgy town. Tempers already shortened by 110-degree heat and limited water are backed up by sidearms worn as casually on the waist as a belt buckle. AK-47s are said to be stockpiled in many warehouses, and shop owners openly discuss plans for violence should Bogota go ahead with its free-trade plan. Said one: "If we have to have a revolution for independence, we'll have one."

This, of course, would be a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. But then, Maicao has never prided itself on being a center of reason. It's just a place near the border.