A Dark Prince of Colombia

In Cali, Colombia, Alberto Hernán Guerra, a young man suddenly found himself as head of the substantial family business when his father, Don Saturno Guerra, was hospitalized in Houston, Texas, and diagnosed with a terminal illness. The milling business in Colombia was just emerging from almost total government control. Prices of inputs and products had been officially set. The state imported the wheat and oversaw the sale of flour, setting quotas to each baker. Industrial processors, such as cookie factories and pasta plants, were subjected to the same regimen.

Alberto Hernán wanted to draw on my eleven years of experience in the freewheeling milling business in Venezuela. In 1981, I accepted employment with the Guerra flour milling company. But soon after I arrived in Cali, Don Saturno miraculously recovered and returned to Colombia to find me seated at the right hand of his son and in charge of his mills, and making drastic changes in their operations and management!  

Don Saturno and I immediately clashed. He inserted himself into day-to-day operations. I moved my office twenty miles from Cali to our largest mill, in the city of Palmira. One time I ordered payment of overtime to a man I had asked to come in and perform a task for me on Sunday. Don Saturno cancelled the payment and told the worker that he should be grateful he had a job. 

Workers in Colombia were submissive and furtive, a boot on their necks. They sought to remain unnoticed. They refused to meet my eyes when I talked to them.  During my year and half there I got to know very few of them by name or personality. 

Don Saturno, a small, wiry man, about 130 pounds, had enormous presence. His thick, white hair thrust upward like an eagle’s crest. His brooding eyes were set in a narrow, scowling face with harshly etched lines. He patrolled his domain; mills, pasta plant, and sugarcane fields, finding fault with everything. His eyes flashed, almost shooting sparks. He shouted in a shrill, grating voice. He didn’t spit flames, but evoked the Devil in his paroxysms of rage. When he stalked through the plants, the workers stopped, taking off their hats, eyes downcast. The living image of a Spanish Grandee, he was El Patrón. 

But Don Saturno was not a Spanish Grandee. In a land where the poor man never rises from the bottom, Don Saturno Guerra did. His story comes from various sources, some his personal narratives and some accounts by his many enemies. He began as a poor trucker in the southern city of Pasto, capital of Nariño state bordering Ecuador. Running freight and produce to Cali, several hundred miles away, Guerra obtained a contract to transport gold from the Nariño mines to the Bank of Colombia in Cali. The narrow road between the two cities cuts through soaring, heavily forested mountains and magnificent views overlooking deep canyons, home to rushing streams and riverine lakes. It is to this day a wilderness region much favored by bandits and guerrillas. 

The story goes that one day Saturno staggered into the Bank of Colombia in Cali and informed the officials that he had been assaulted by bandits. The gold bars had been taken and his truck driven into a ravine and burned.

Within a year Don Saturno had purchased an interest in a flour mill in Pasto, and a year later he purchased machinery for a second mill that he built in Cali. Most of the preceding part of the story comes from his enemies. A hard businessman, he had plenty of bitter enemies. He did it the “Old fashioned way, he earned them!” The whole truth is probably far more complex, but I am sure that his start did not come from saving his earnings as a truck driver.

On two different occasions Don Saturno regaled me how he had come by the mill in Palmira. The most modern mill in South America, it employed the most advanced technology available from world leading Swiss milling engi neers, too sophisticated and expensive a technology for the still primitive industry in Colombia. The owner, a poor businessman, found himself unable to service the debt he had acquired. He tried to sell the mill, but the only person willing to purchase it, Don Saturno, chortled that he offered so little for it that the man would be ruined. He recounted that the man begged him, but Saturno would not budge from his offer. The man resisted, falling further into debt. Finally, forced to sell the mill to Don Saturno for an even lower price, the man took his own life. It was hard-headed business, but the point of the story is Don Saturno savored the telling of it.

Shortly after I moved my office to Palmira, I found a peculiar object lying in my desk drawer, a small pewter model of a penis with wings on it! I didn’t think much of it, and threw it in the trash. A few days later, another one appeared. I casually mentioned it to Mario, my plant manager in Palmira, who showed me an identical one that had been placed in his desk. He said that it was satanic curse that had been deliberately placed in our desks. That I fired Mario’s predecessor before Don Saturno’s miraculous return from Houston had incensed the old man. Mario went on to explain that he had heard of a circle of Satanists in the company, led by Don Victor, the company’s chief accountant and close confidante of Don Saturno. With Don Saturno at death’s door in Houston, this satanic circle had prayed to their master for his recovery. They were certain that his return was the doing of the Devil! It made sense to me. 

In South America satanic cults and other primitive practices derived from the cultures of African slaves and the beliefs and practices of indigenous inhabitants are common, especially in a social environment where the Roman Catholic Church itself exercises a very powerful, cult-like influence on the population. They flourish particularly in rural areas, but also find their place in urban populations and among educated people. The amulets continued to appear sporadically in my desk, in my pickup, and among other personal effects until I left Colombia. Arguably, they worked!

After a little over a year in Colombia, I informed Alberto Hernán that I was leaving the company in December of 1982. He was very unhappy with me. We had agreed on a two-year arrangement, but his father had made it clear that I was not wanted there. Meanwhile,  I had completed all of the projects that I had set out to accomplish.

To leave Colombia, a foreign worker must obtain a document called a solvencia  to prove that his tax obligations had been fully satisfied. It must be presented to the immigration authorities in order to obtain an exit visa. 

At Christmas time all officialdom slows to a standstill. I was given to understand that I could expect to receive my solvencia sometime in January. I had sent my family back to the United States six months earlier because of serious security problems. I was determined to be home with them for Christmas. I would leave either by suborning an exit visa or by crossing the border illegally into Panama. My satanic adversary came to my assistance. Don Victor arranged contact with some rough- looking characters that I had to meet in a back street of the old part of Cali. They told me the solvencia would cost me 300 US dollars. They would call me when everything was prepared. 

When they called me, carrying only the exact amount in cash, I met them. The four of them crowded with me into a VW van. A large man, probably weighing about 250 pounds, sat beside me. I rode with them to the immigration office in Cali, wondering if I was going to end up floating facedown in the river. They folded fifty dollars inside my passport, and instructed me to give it to a specific clerk when I entered alone. The official took the passport and expertly slipped the fifty dollars into his pocket and stamped my passport without once looking at my face. Without further incident, I was given a ride back to my pickup. I arrived home a week before Christmas. 

Following my departure, Don Saturno left the operation of the company to his son.

In later years, I  returned to Colombia on business many times. Alberto Hernán and I have remained friends. He built his father’s original business into a large multimillion dollar operation today, ten-times the size it was in 1982.

Two years after I left a sicario (assassin) rode up to Don Victor on a Moped and shot him in the head as he walked down the street Cali! Alberto Hernán insisted to me that it was a case of mistaken identity. 

Strangely, Don Saturno became very friendly and welcomed me warmly whenever I visited Cali. Occasionally, he wrote to me, soliciting my views on various business schemes that he was cooking up.

I was giving a seminar on wheat purchasing to South American millers at Kansas State University in June of 2001. One of Alberto Hernán’s managers attended. We received news that Don Saturno had died at age 89.  The young manager cried.

August 2022 Issue

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Robert Bruce Drynan
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