From the Archives: Snowblind (1977)
Written by on January 8, 2023
By Robert Sabbag
Brown Gold Coffee, imported and packaged by the Andes Coffee Corporation of Palisades Park, New Jersey, is, as its label points out, “100% Colombian.” A unique blend of Medellin Excelso and the Armenia Excelso coffee beans, the label adds, it is “worth its taste in gold.” Cocaine, on the other hand, a blend of coca leaf alkaloids and neutral crystals, very often 100 percent Colombian, is worth approximately its exact weight in gold—and that is before it crosses the border. The mathematics of this coincidence appealed to Zachary Swan, who over his morning coffee was scanning the travel pages of The New York Times.
“Perfect,” he said.
“Find what you were looking for?” Alice asked.
“Avianca Airlines is offering a ten-day excursion. Santa Marta, Barranquilia and Cartagena. Leaves from New York. It even names the hotels.”
Alice, at this point, was the only person in whom Swan had confided. But to assure the success of this, his most Byzantine move.
Swan would need the help of at least two others. He would use Davis on the New York end and Canadian Jack in Cartagena. He would contact them later. What he needed now was an office. He needed an office, a telephone number, a few jars of coffee, a handful of printed material and a lot of luck. He moved fast.
The office was a small one near Lüchow’s restaurant on 14th Street. He rented it on a month-to-month basis. Into it he moved an old desk, a new filing cabinet, a swivel chair and a coffee percolator. While he waited for a telephone, he worked on getting the printed material he needed. This was not hard. As a former packaging executive (in essence a printing salesman) he had very little trouble coming by the necessary four-color work and stationery. Most of it he ordered from the Andes Coffee people himself—labels, poster ads and packaging paper, all stamped with the Andes logo and address: ANDES COFFEE CORK, S. A. Schonbrunn & Co., Inc., Palisades Park, N.J. 07650. What he did not get directly from Andes, he got from business associates who had access to the Andes printing buyer, and what he did not get from them, he had printed on his own. The most important piece of original printing was a miniature folded brochure stamped with his new office number.
He decorated the office in appropriate bad taste with all the trappings he had accumulated—posters on the wall, coffee cans adorning the desk, subway ads, supermarket art, labels glued to everything—bought the coffee and moved in to work. It was difficult work, but after a while and several containers of coffee, he finally managed to remove the vacuum seal from a four-ounce jar of freeze-dried instant without tearing it. He inserted his brochure, replaced the seal with rubber cement, capped the jar and drove to Queens to put the jar in a grocery store. Before he returned to his office, however, he experienced a head-on collision—running hard up against America’s free-market system. The coffee in Queens was cheaper than the coffee in Manhattan. Bohack was selling it for less than D’Agostino’s. The price tags were different. But Swan was undaunted. In the proud tradition of Yankee know-how and a typical consumer’s respect for our nation’s supermarkets, Swan switched the lids and moved his jar to the front of the shelf. It was as simple as that. He was leaving nothing to chance. He walked out, wondering who had shoplifted whom, returned to his office and waited. For days.
Mrs. Vagelatos called at about 4:30 in the afternoon.
“Brown Gold Company.”
“I am Mrs. Vagelatos.”
“Yes, Mrs. Vagelatos.”
“I am number 21-27-37-31-32.”
“Are you calling about the contest, Mrs. Vagelatos?”
“Yes. The contest. Yes, I am.”
“And what is your number again, Mrs. Vagelatos?”
“Did I hear you correctly, Mrs. Vagelatos? Will you repeat that number?”
She did. (Swan’s filing system was quite simple: there was only one number—it was printed into the brochure, it came with the order. There was only one number, and only one of the brochures was in circulation. If Mrs. Vagelatos had not called, Swan would have waited and tried again—he did not want too many copies of the brochure floating around.)
“Mrs. Vagelatos. Mrs. Vagelatos, you are a winner. You have won a prize. You have won first prize. You have won a free ten-day trip to Colombia.”
Mrs. Vagelatos said she was old and that her husband was retired. He was old too, she said. She spoke English poorly. Mrs. Vagelatos had, however, lived in America for some time.
“Can I have the money, instead?”
Swan explained the rules of the contest to her—essentially, “It doesn’t work that way, lady.” Mrs. Vagelatos said she would think it over. She called back the next day, having talked it over with her husband, and told Swan that she and Mr. Vagelatos would take the trip.
“You will enjoy it, Mrs. Vagelatos. Yes. What? Of course. And in addition to the vacation, there will be many gifts and souvenirs.”
Swan opened a checking account in the name of S. A. Schonbrunn & Co., Inc., and bought tickets for the Avianca tour in the Vagelatoses’ name. He enclosed the tickets in a Brown Gold envelope, added a letter of congratulations and an itinerary typewritten on Brown Gold stationery and mailed them to the couple in Queens.
The itinerary: Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena. Swan knew where the Vagelatoses would be, and when they would be there, all the time they were in Colombia. In his letter of congratulations he had informed them that a representative of the company would meet them in Cartagena to present them with their gifts. He called Armando from New York and told him he would be down in a week. He needed three bottles of Chanel.
“And no fucking around, Armando, I must have it. If you’ve got it there, hold it. I will definitely be down.”
Two weeks later he took $22,000 cash from a safe deposit box on the East Side and flew to Bogotá. (Whenever Swan carried large amounts of currency —and sometimes cocaine—he wore a special jacket, the lining of which had been designed specifically for that purpose by Alice. Essentially the jacket was lined with pockets. They were distributed evenly around the back and sides to prevent bulging, they were invisibly tufted so that the lining itself appeared smooth and they were hemmed with Velcro, that miracle of the Space Age, to facilitate access and obviate the necessity for zippers or buttons. At any time, but especially when Swan traveled South, the jacket was a very expensive piece of tailoring.)
Armando delivered. He charged Swan six thousand a kilo for the three keys, a five-dollar increase per gram, partly for holding the load and partly because at the time the price of cocaine was going up all around the world, Angel and Rudolpho made the fill. Swan tracked down Canadian Jack, give him $200, a few grams of coke and a ticket to Cartagena. The two flew north together, Swan with the souvenirs, and Canadian Jack carrying a brand new Polaroid camera.
El Caribe Hotel, where the Vagelatoses’ tour was booked, is located in Cartagena’s Bocagrande district, at the tip of a peninsula which separates Cartagena Bay from the Caribbean Sea. Remote from the Old Town, decidedly distant in statute and spiritual miles from any of those things which may distinguish Cartagena from the other cities of the world —out there, across the harbor—Bocagrande, on the ocean side, is devoted almost exclusively to tourists. The Caribbean front of the peninsula is covered with neo-Miami concrete-and-Formica firetraps which go by such names as Americar, Flamingo, El Dorado and Las Vegas, every room of which offers Inquisition-in-walnut furniture, a pastel, circular sink in bas relief and a view of the beach.
Under construction when Swan worked out of Cartagena, and now a second thought-provoking reality, these wonders of modern architecture are designed to make South Americans feel they have come a long way and make North Americans feel at home. The principle governing their birth is the same one as that which presumes the drinking of Coca-Cola in Bordeaux. Social historians call it progress.
Tucked away out here in the trees, a lush array and ample variety of trees, on a vast expanse of protected real estate, is the Hotel Caribe. A faithful rendition of Spanish architecture, old, stately, a kind of one-man Environmental Protection Agency, El Caribe supports its own arboretum and tropical gardens as well as an animal population of modest scope. Much of the fruit served here is grown on the grounds, and most of the grounds, obviously, are devoted to nothing more than the simple pleasure of being on them. A back gate opens onto the beach. A marina fronts on a bay to the southeast. The hotel itself, if not as large as some of its treeless and sunscorched upstart neighbors, affords its clientele a greater degree of comfort, and a variety of luxury that all but disappeared with the advent of terrazzo lawns and vertical expansion. Perhaps because it is impossible for a swimmer to drown in an upright position within sight of Cartagena—the Caribbean here is just too shallow for too great a distance out—or maybe because walking the beach at night, like walking anywhere in South America, is taking your life in your hands —the Hotel Caribe was blueprinted around space for an Olympic pool, shaded by palm trees on two sides, bordered by an enclosed restaurant on one and an open-air poolside dining area on the other. It was by the pool, amid these lavish surroundings, that Swan staged his awards ceremony.
Swan and Canadian Jack took a midweek, morning flight from Bogota to Cartagena and checked into the Hotel Caribe. Shortly after he arrived, Swan called the Vagelatoses’ room and asked the couple to meet him at the pool to receive their gifts. While Swan, sporting a full beard and dark glasses, awarded the Vagelatoses their prizes and made a big show of certifying with the waiter that the coffee they were drinking was 100 percent Colombian, laughing all the way, Canadian Jack dashed around with his camera. As usual, Swan and the Canadian were stoned, so it made no difference to either of them that the Polaroid was empty and showed no signs of developing and ejecting the pictures it was presumably takjng.
Swan loaded the Vagelatoses down with rolling pins, statues, wall hangings, hammocks, blankets, ruanas, straw hats, leather bags—about forty pounds of paraphernalia that cost him close to $150 and which would retail in the United States for over $500, all of it dragged out of two great, overflowing plastic bags. In his room, Swan had a duplicate of every one of the souvenirs. He asked the Vagelatoses to sign an agreement by which they were bound to be photographed again with their presents in the New York office. He made an offhand joke, unacknowledged, about Greeks bearing gifts, gave them a copy of the agreement to keep and wished them a safe trip home.
The Vagelatoses were due back in New York two days later. Swan left a day early and made a dry run with his duplicates. They were not examined. The Vagelatoses were supposed to call Swan’s office as soon as they returned. They did not. Swan waited. He worried. He had to call them. They were tired, it turned out—they had arrived on schedule. Swan groaned out loud over the phone. He dispatched a limousine, which he paid for in cash, to pick them up at their home in Queens.
Davis took the New York photos. And while Swan bought the Vagelatoses lunch at Lüchows, Davis made the switch. The Vagelatoses returned to the office, picked up their gifts, Swan wished them health, wealth and happiness, escorted them to the limousine and sent them home. He closed down the office the next day and never saw the couple from Queens again.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis …
The Customs man, obviously, had never read Virgil.
With the Brown Gold move, the supposed foundation upon which Swan had based his entry into smuggling was first called into question. His claim that he would never endanger a carrier or throw an innocent individual to the lions was challenged on the basis of his use of Mr. and Mrs. Vagelatos, a couple who had no idea of the trouble they might be walking into, two innocent Greek immigrants whose faith in America was reflected, for better or worse, by the faith they placed in its institutions, whether these be its supermarkets, its coffee companies or its Treasury Department, and the trust they placed in its citizens, whether they be honest Customs agents, as innocent of the facts as they, or alleged felons like Richard Nixon and Zachary Swan. The evidence in Swan’s favor, however, is significant.
In the first place the Vagelatoses were innocent, which in itself is anyone’s greatest asset to getting by a Customs check. In their favor also was the fact that they were traveling with a tour, a group of Americans who are predominantly middle-class and middle-aged and who are supervised almost every step of their way through a foreign country—their luggage is even handled differently. But it begs the question to say that the Vagelatoses had a better than average chance of making it through Customs without a search. After all, Swan’s idea was to get the coke through—it was what the scam was designed for. In the event of a search, then, and assuming the even more remote possibility that the cocaine was discovered (Customs did not break open Swan’s souvenirs, which were identical to those Mr. and Mrs. Vagelatos were carrying), one must ask how well the Vagelatoses were covered.
Swan claims they were covered well. He had insisted that they save the contest number; he could assume that they still had the coffee jar. In addition to these two items, the Vagelatoses were in possession of two Avianca tickets purchased by a check accounted to S. A. Schonbrunn & Co., Inc., whose office address was on 14th Street. On their persons at Customs they had a letter of congratulations and an itinerary typed on Brown Gold stationery. And in the same envelope they had a signed agreement to appear at the 14th Street office with their gifts upon arrival in the United States. In the absence of everything else, they had at least thirty witnesses poolside in Cartagena. The evidence of their innocence, then, was overwhelming, as Swan saw it. If the Vagelatoses suffered at all, he assumed, it would be principally by way of embarrassment and perhaps temporary detention at the airport while the evidence was examined; and he supposed that the free ten-day vacation and the unconfiscated souvenirs would be sufficient compensation for that. As it turned out, in fact, everyone but Uncle Sam made out on the deal.
Swan was moving fast now. The Brown Gold move was such an overwhelming success, and his confidence in the wake of it so buoyant, that his roiling imagination began to generate more blueprints than he could follow. He had to throw them away. One outline that was carried through to success without his knowledge was one that he threw away in the company of Canadian Jack and Black Dan on a rainy night in Bogotá, when the cocaine express was taking its curves on the high side.
Black Dan had been living at the Oriole for almost two years when Swan first met him. He loved it in Bogotá. He left only once every six weeks, and he was always back fast. His visits to San Francisco were brief. Although he did not open up to Swan until a year after their meeting, it was pretty obvious all along that he was a smuggler. It was what you were in Bogotá if you were not manifestly anything else. And Dan always had cocaine. It was Dan who told Swan about Mannite, the Italian laxative, the cocaine cutting agent of choice and that with which Dan always cut his own coke before snorting. He preferred it that way to pure, for reasons which were unclear to Swan, and he preferred it out of a spoon, a taste Swan attributed to hours in the back rooms of Mission District bars.
Dan’s closest friend in Bogotá was Canadian Jack, a friendship, in Swan’s mind, distinguished chiefly by its sharp contrasts. Beyond the obvious one (Canadian Jack was a blond) was the almost polar difference in their approaches to smuggling. Black Dan was thoroughly professional. He found no need to acknowledge that he was a smuggler, even to Swan, a smuggler himself, whose professionalism was exemplified, if in no other way, by the fact that he never questioned Dan. Black Dan was a pro, and he had been going for years. He moved in quantity, unlike Jack, whose moves were small, and he was consistent. Every six weeks he flew to Mexico City with the coke strapped to his legs. From there he would fly to Matamoros or Tijuana, or whatever border town was convenient to his needs, and walk the load across, reentering the States with the bullfight crowds on the weekends, intimidating every official in his path by his mere presence. He never wasted time, and the closest he ever came to trouble was the trouble out of which he was always bailing Jack.
It was an evening in the early summer of 1971, six months after he had helped load Swan’s press into Rudolpho’s car and still six months before he would open up and apprise Swan of the Mexican route, that Black Dan, Swan and Canadian Jack were doing samples in Dan’s suite at the Oriole, talking about the upcoming Summer Games in Cali.
“That’s going to be a smugglers’ convention,” said Swan.
“You think so?”
“Well, just think about it for a minute. Number one—the pickpockets. Every dipper in the country is going to pack up and leave home. The thieves will be coming out of the woodwork, and they’ll all converge on Cali when the games start. There’ll be a million tourists there and another million people connected with the games in one way or another. Don’t even count the Colombians, and that’s a hell of a lot of money floating around. This country is as famous for its pickpockets as it is for its fucking coffee, and every one of them will be in Cali next month. So a smuggler doubles his money before he starts.”
“I don’t get the connection,” said Jack.
“Can you picture the activity at the American Express office? Everybody and his mother is going to be there replacing stolen traveler’s checks—‘I just got to Cali and my traveler’s checks have been stolen’—and they’re not going to ask them any questions. ‘Of course they’ve been stolen, this is Colombia.’ So what do you do? You sign ’em, sell ’em … use ’em … and then you replace them. You can do it every day, and the banks aren’t going to pick up on it. Barclay’s, Bank of America, First National City, Cook’s, they’re all going to be giving money away. So you double your money … triple it … before you begin.”
“And with all the traffic in and out,” said Dan, “Customs will be that much easier.”
“Or tougher,” said Jack.
“So you hire a jock. Or get a crewcut. Steal a couple of warmup jackets with emblems on them and walk through Customs carrying your equipment. Soccer balls would be perfect. Or javelins, if they’re made of wood, though they might be making those out of metal now. You name it. You know what I’d do?”
“What’s that?” asked Dan.
“Starting blocks. You know, the wooden blocks they use for the dash. Perfect. Who would think of cracking a starting block? And you can get a couple of kilos in there easily. It’s perfect.”
“It is perfect,” Dan agreed.
“Let’s have another blow,” said Jack.
Canadian Jack told Swan that the Brown Gold move was the most beautiful piece of business he had ever witnessed. It inspired him to christen Swan with a nickname, one that stuck, and one which gained immediate currency among the borderline elite. From then on Swan, because Jack thought he was sly and because everyone thought he was old, was known as the Silver Fox.
“The feeling after putting one over is indescribable. In the beginning, they all laughed at me, at all my long, intricate plans, my maps, my charts—my overdevelopment, they called it—Vinnie, Mickey, all of them, they all thought I was dumb … but pretty soon they all ended up working for me… eventually they were all either investing in me or working for me. After that one I had so many ideas, I couldn’t use them all. I gave them away. [Some, like the flourish he worked on Adrian, he sold, but he did, in fact, give many of them away. One of these was the Duplicate Bag Switch, which he gave to Canadian Jack on his next trip to Bogotá.] I wanted to keep moving, and I wanted that boat move.”
Before leaving Colombia to await the Vagelatoses in New York, Swan bumped into two old friends. Somehow having drifted down from Santa Marta, at the whim of whatever currents prevailed, Jane and April had ended up on the beach in Cartagena, and they were as loose as ever—Swan was always reminded of Halloween when they were around. Assuming that they had eaten little but mushrooms since he had last seen them, he smuggled them past the guard at the back gate of the Caribe and bought them dinner. He tried to get as much protein into them as he could.
Jane was looking particularly unwell. April’s voice seemed to have dropped about an octave in the past six months, but Jane was strung out to the limit. Swan saw tombstones in her eyes. She had found a pair of old walking shoes and a broken conch shell on the beach and was carrying them around with her wherever she went. They were for her brother. For his birthday. He lived in Brooklyn, she said.
Swan offered to take her home.
“No,” she said. She wanted her brother to come down and get her.
“Tell him where I am and tell him to come down and get me.”
Swan said: “Please.”
She gave him a note and the old shoes and the shell. He carried them back to New York with the Vagelatoses’ souvenirs. He called her brother in Brooklyn, and when her brother came to pick up his birthday presents, Swan told him he had better go down soon.
“Well,” he said, “you know what kind of girl she is. She ran away when she was fifteen, doesn’t give a shit. And I don’t give a shit. Did you give her money?”
Swan just stared.
“She probably spent it on dope. That’s what kind of girl she is.”
“You’re not going?”
This is an excerpt from Robert Sabbag’s Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade (Bobbs-Merrill, 1976)
High Times Magazine, April 1977
Read the full issue here.