Peeling an Onion


Dumb Luck

I flew to Caracas and we met with our attorneys. The attorney had little to say. He observed as my bosses informed me of their decision to renege on the commitment. I returned to Maracaibo and a week later the milling division VP flew out and we had dinner. I informed him of my decision to seek other employment. We agreed that I would faithfully execute my duties while they found a replacement for me, and I looked for a job. I was there another eight months!  A lot happened in that time!

Over the past year my inventory reports from the warehouse had been showing suspiciously high breakage losses. Broken bags were then dumped back into flour bins for repacking. If the materials re-cycled to the packing system were over-stated, the shortages would appear in the discrepancies between the mill-to-packer scales and the floor weight of the packers. Scale discrepancies are normal in any flow system, but I noticed that they had become excessively high. It was apparent to me that there was a pilferage ring operating within the mill and I determined to get to the bottom of it!

I talked over my dilemma with my immediate boss, and he arranged for me to interview a detective, whom I shall call Alberto, that had been used by the company in Caracas on another project. The recent elections in Venezuela brought Carlos Andrés Pérez to the presidency, and as his first act in office he nationalized the oil industry. Alberto had been trained as a covert agent in the United States by the FBI and leading up to and during the elections, Alberto was employed as a cuerda floja (a spy) inside Pérez’ political party, Acción Democática. His employer was one of the major US based oil companies operating in Venezuela. With the nationalization of the oil industry, Alberto was out of work and that was how I ended up with him. 

We decided to employ our cuerda floja to set up a ‘sting’. Alberto showed up in Maracaibo and arranged a deal to buy the pilfered products from the culprits. We met secretly and he gave me weekly reports. I made Xerox copies of his written reports and sent them to my boss, providing him with a précis by radio-telephone. Alberto quite rapidly identified the main players in the pilferage ring inside the mill, but he also got onto bigger fish.

He also discovered a major smuggling ring of which the pilferage ring was an insignificant part. The biggest part of the operation involved narcotics moving through Venezuela from Colombia and flour, arms and alcohol moving from Maracaibo into Colombia. Our mill’s flour sacks, camouflaged as common contraband, covered major smuggling operations.

Carlos Faria was allegedly involved as were most of our truckers who relied on him for their business. It also involved the honorary Costa Rican consul in Maracaibo. He had once been assistant manager of the mill until he had been fired for malfeasance. He had embezzled a half-million Bolivars from the company’s accounts.

He also had connections with Adolfo Pirela. But the most disturbing connection was that this individual had assisted the newly elected President Carlos Andrés Pérez to escape to Costa Rica where he received political asylum during the regime of the dictator, Pérez Jiménez. About this time one of the truckers, an Italian named Rossi whom I had befriended, asked to meet me privately. He informed me that Adolfo Pirela had been given money by Faria to purchase a pistol for the purpose of shooting me. Later Alberto reported to me that his own sources said that Pirela had been contracted to throw acid in my face. Take your pick! Neither was a very attractive prospect.

My cuerda floja quit! The word was out that I had a source, and he knew he would soon be identified. The stakes were getting high and the connections to management in Caracas did not augur for his long term health.

The matter that disturbed me was that although they couldn’t identify the cuerda floja, they knew he existed and had broken into their organization. How did they find out? Obviously, within company top management in Caracas someone who had access to my reports was involved in the smuggling operations. The culprit would not be my boss, since he initiated to project with me and from him they would have obtained our spy’s name. In the meantime, I flew to Caracas to present a report to management on that matter and a new lawsuit that threatened to become a problem. The truckers had initiated a claim on their own behalf similar to the truck loaders’ suit. To my way of thinking it was a warning shot to the company. Back off and leave their sinecure alone, or they would make problems. In Caracas I learned that General Sales Manager, Hans Noetzlin, had obtained access to my reports. At the meeting, senior executives deprecated my warnings and sent me back to Maracaibo with no action. The sting had already been shut down by Alberto’s departure.

The Minneapolis investment in Venezuela was a critical profit producer for the corporate balance sheet. For the top executives in Minneapolis down to the two former World War Two SS troopers, (my immediate boss and the Venezuelan general manager), the exposure of company employees involved in major contraband activities between Venezuela and Colombia carried with it with serious diplomatic implications, as well as the likelihood that they would soon be looking for other employment using tainted résumés. My expendability was a given.

Fortunately, I was by then nearing the end of my employment in the company. I had a new job beginning in January 1974 in Caracas, but for the last month of my tenure in Maracaibo, I varied my route to and from home, as well as the times I came and went from the mill.  I also made public my intention to leave the company. My death might have been more than a gratuitous inconvenience, drawing attention to the real issue, the smuggling operation.

In any case after I left, all of Alberto’s files related to the investigation disappeared from my files. Copies in Caracas also were no longer available. The man who replaced me lasted less than a year, but his successor came to me in Caracas and asked for a personal accounting of the incident. There was no record within the company that anything had ever happened!

This returns me to the discussion of layers in society. I have to this day, no idea who in top management, in Venezuela or in Minneapolis, might have been fully aware of what was taking place in Maracaibo. They had to harbor some sense of what it entailed and clearly decided to turn a blind eye. There is no doubt that their livelihoods and possibly more was at stake. I feel certain Hans Noetzlin was in deep and he may have been able to handle the problem in camera.  In any case chameleons that they were, I even believe that they would have attended my funeral with tears in their eyes.

Several years later Carlos Faria was apprehended in Colombia and imprisoned. The company fired him and shortly after his release (on undisclosed grounds) he showed up on the payroll of Cesar Hernandez.

Evil of Opportunism
Cesar Hernandez

I had established a very personal trust with the labor force at the mill. They didn’t even hold me personally responsible for the betrayal of our agreement. They threw me a big going away party when I left. However, they also shared in the pilferage of company products, and those who weren’t directly involved, were surely aware of it. I was El Padrón, Don Roberto, and they treated me with affection and respect. But, there were things best left alone. They even made efforts to shield me from my innocence. I’m sure my predecessor, Carlos the Peruvian, who did not receive that same treatment from the workers, was very aware of how things worked and as the saying goes, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ I fired one of my laborers for deep involvement in the pilferage ring. Apolinar Zambrano, went without comment and without protest by the union. He was its President! Another worker, Tulio Ballestreros, I fired because he came to work drunk. I had to, but he was one of my best workers. I found him a job with one of our competitors before he left my office. They respected that, too.

I made a lot of serious mistakes and I learned a lot. I also accomplished a lot there that doesn’t appear in this story. Withal, to this day I feel they were the best years of my life!

A footnote to this story: Cesar Hernandez went on to own two flour mills and became a wealthy man. He did it the Latin way! He is rumored to be worth more than 600 million US dollars. He didn’t accomplish that in the flour milling business! One might fault him for that, but he is a product of his time and place. And he accomplished it from nothing! In a meeting with him at a restaurant near his very large cattle ranch in 2004, I asked him about Carlos Faria.  Without elaboration, he commented, “Faria is dead.”

The other side of this story involves his donation of land for the construction of a Technical School to train flour milling managers and technicians from all over Latin America. I have been involved in this school from the very beginning and was a member of its advisory board from the outset until the Presidency of Hugo Chavez. My resignation from the school board of directors is another story.

It is doubtful that the school would have become a reality without Cesar’s contribution.

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Robert Bruce Drynan
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