Born an Orthodox Jew, Canadian Hank Cooper never believed his seemingly “normal” life would become anything else… until the lure of the 1970’s and 1980’s drug scene led him in a dangerous direction.
Soon, he found himself – either intentionally or naively – colluding with Jesus, but not the one Judaeo Christians would recognize. This Jesus was a known drug lord with a long history of living life on the edge and destroying any notion of law-abiding citizenship in the process.
Hank’s story could have ended badly, but even amid despair and deliberate bad choices, he found a savior in Bernie, a man who saved him from himself and from the life he was living.
Follow Hank’s journey as he deviates from his life’s plan and miraculously finds his way to a better, brighter future. His life story proves that sometimes a dead end isn’t necessarily the end of the road.
Hank reflects on why he made it out alive after fifteen years of drug smuggling, especially since “Most people who started smuggling when I did were long dead or rotting in prison.” After recalling several almost eerie events in his life, Hank realizes that something supernatural has been guiding him all along.
Enjoying our sudden freedom from the intestinal torments of the Bolivian flu, we set out from the hotel to find Bernie’s connection, a guy named Edgar, so we can buy his cocaine, then package it and mail it back to Toronto.
We find Edgar in the bazaar where he works. He’s a young guitar-loving Bolivian, maybe in his early 20s like us. We covertly arrange to meet him that night at a bar, and he gives us the address on a piece of paper for a taxi driver to make sure we can get to the right place.
We have time to kill, so we stop in for some Bolivian barbecue chicken, in what looks like a big German beer hall.
A big German beer hall in Bolivia? How weird is that? Not as weird as it seems. The Nazis who escaped the war went down to obscure countries in South America, like Uruguay, Paraguay and landlocked Bolivia. Unlike many foreign countries that might have a British, French, Spanish or Portuguese connection, this place is definitely Nazi influenced. Being Jewish, Bernie and I feel a wee bit uncomfortable. But the food at this restaurant is delicious, so we swallow our discomfort along with our barbecue chicken.
Stuffed to the gills, we head back to the hotel to rest before the cocaine pickup that evening.
In the lobby, we meet a couple of hotel guests from Argentina who had checked in while we were out – a young, handsome, very tall man named Fernando and his charming mother. The four of us become instant friends.
At one point, I ask, “What brings you two from Argentina to La Paz (more than 1000 miles distance)?”
Fernando says, “My mother and I are looking for a 10,000 hectare piece of land to raise cattle on.” Thank God, I don’t have a mouthful of water, or I’d have spewed a shower across the lobby that would have rivaled a tropical downpour.
When I recover, my first thought is, “Oh, great – the same story as ours.” The only difference is 9500 hectares, and they look as if they might actually do it.
My second thought is, “Maybe this budding friendship isn’t such a good idea. How long before these two figure out that a couple of Canadians travelling in cocaine lab infested Bolivia can only be there for cocaine. Let’s just get the coke, package it, send it back home, and get the hell out of here.”
Then Fernando tells us he’s a police officer in Argentina. Naturally, my reaction is, “Oh, fuck!” Fortunately, I only think this, barely keeping myself from shrieking it out.
I’m sure a sickly smile is frozen on my face, but after a moment, a long moment, I start getting the feeling that perhaps Fernando and his mother had to move away from Argentina, fast, for some reason, because the idea of a cop and his mother running off to Bolivia to start a new life raising cattle doesn’t quite add up for me. Not quite as bad as two white Canadian Jews, but close. Maybe it’s that sixth sense starting to kick in.
But it’s too late to back off. Bernie’s invited them to spend the day with us. So we take a long walk together, talking about the politics of our countries. We go to the La Paz markets and visit the local sights together. Actually, it’s a really pleasant afternoon, even allowing for the fact that it involves a cop and his mom.
Before long, it’s time to excuse ourselves so we can meet Edgar and get the cocaine. We say goodbye to Fernando and his mother, agreeing to meet them the next morning in the hotel restaurant for breakfast.
We never find out the real reason why they had to make such a big move from Argentina to Bolivia. But by the end of the day, Fernando and his mother seem like genuine friends to us, and we feel no reason to worry about them. Especially since any future contact with them will be limited to a final breakfast.
Back in our room, Bernie takes out $10,000 US, all in paper-sealed packs, all in nice crispy $100 bills and all with Benjamin Franklin’s face beaming up at us. Then Bernie gives the money to me to keep safe. Gulp.
We go downstairs, get in a cab, hand the cabbie our address slip and go to the bar or coffee house where Edgar’s supposed to be waiting.
I’m incredibly nervous. I’ve never been in a situation like this, namely, carrying $10,000 and on my way to pick up two kilos of cocaine in a primitive, probably unstable, South American country.
On the way, Bernie tells me he had been here in La Paz six months earlier, and that he was walking down the street one day, when Military Police asked for his ID. Unfortunately, he’d left his passport at the hotel. He was immediately taken to jail.
The Military Police kept him for five days. Five days! For walking around without his passport in his pocket!
Bernie describes the chilling sounds of people being tortured around-the-clock, but he says they never tortured him, and even gave him food. I think, “Why the hell did you come back? Are you brave as hell? Or fucking nuts?”
As we arrive and step out of the cab, we can hear wild salsa music playing, like fast cocaine music, and we enter the packed bar.
Edgar is waiting at a table and waves us over. Thank God, its dark inside, because we have ten grand to hand over in exchange for a bag of cocaine. Actually, pitch black would have been okay with me.
We talk with Edgar for a bit. Actually, Bernie talks for a bit, since he can speak perfect Spanish. Where he learned Spanish, I have no idea. He never took it in school, and he had only spent a few weeks in South America. Another one of those enigmatic things about him.
Then Bernie tells me to pass the ten grand under the table to Edgar. When I do, Edgar slowly slips an airline carry-on bag with an Air Canada logo on it to me. I think, “An Air Canada logo – nice touch.”
With the transaction complete, Edgar doesn’t want to hang around us anymore. The last thing he needs is to be associated with two gringos holding two kilos of cocaine, and him coincidentally carrying $10,000. Some people, like cops, could get the wrong idea. So we each leave and go our separate ways.
Back at the hotel, Bernie and I spend the rest of the night and into the morning snorting pure 1973 untouched Bolivian cocaine and packaging up the two kilos for mailing back to Toronto in the morning. What can I say? – Busy hands are happy hands.
More of Bernie’s idiosyncrasies begin to emerge. Most people, who snort huge amounts of coke, get paranoid. They think people are creeping up on them and that something horrible is about to happen. Not Bernie. His eccentricity comes out in an entirely different way.
At one point, he grabs a glass and holds it against the wall with the bottom to his ear and the open end to the wall, listening. He thinks he hears the sounds of people making love in the next room. Not only that, he keeps trying different spots in the room to zero in on the best audio quality. At one point, he’s in the closet, encouraging me to get my own glass and listen.
We finally bed down, but only get a couple hours of sleep before the alarm clock rings. Bernie tells me to stay in the room, while he goes to the Post Office, which is just a few blocks down the street. He decides to go by himself, probably because he speaks Spanish I surmise.
I’m relieved it’s not me going, but still a little worried for him. He’s walking into a Bolivian government building with two kilos of cocaine, probably amounting to a long prison sentence if he’s caught. But I keep telling myself that, with any luck, it’ll soon be over, the coke will be on its way to Canada, and, if we’re caught after that, we’ll only have small personal amounts of cocaine with us.
He’s not gone long before I’m beginning to feel more at ease and looking forward to an enjoyable vacation in this landlocked country that is a little less than three times the size of Montana.
That’s when Bernie charges back into the room, trembling and white-faced. It seems that last night, while we were nice and cozy in our hotel room, snorting cocaine fit for rock stars, and getting the shipment ready for the Post Office, a military coup attempt was going on against the President.
Today the streets are filled with troops. Bernie had gone all the way to the Post Office, entered the building and was even standing in line. The interior was swarming with military, opening every parcel being sent out that day. Not good.
As quietly and inconspicuously as possible, he turned around and walked out, heading back to the hotel. Fortunately, the army is on the lookout for indigenous rebels, not Canadian coke smugglers, and he was able to make it back. With the coke.
Suddenly 40 years of Lever Brothers isn’t sounding so bad after all. But that quickly passes, and after a few sighs of relief, we order some breakfast and begin talking about Plan B.
Of course, there is no Plan B. We were fortunate to have a Plan A. After all, we’re just two young wet-behind-the-ears business entrepreneurs. Why would we ever expect a military coup to happen the very day we attempt to ship a parcel of cocaine?
Of course, Bernie’s the boss and will make the final decision on what we do. But he’s very good about asking my opinion and then considering all options to try and come up with a solution to our predicament.
After many hours of talking about an alternate method of getting the cocaine back to Canada (all while snorting some out of sheer nervousness), we don’t seem to come up with anything feasible.
Then, Bernie delivers his bombshell, “Hank, what about Fernando? What do you think about asking him for help?” This elicits my “Are you fucking crazy?” response.
“Bernie,” I continue, my voice probably raising an octave, “we’ve only known this guy for a couple days. And besides, he’s a fucking cop from Argentina. How do we know he won’t turn us over to the local authorities?”
I go on and on about it being too risky to involve anyone, let alone a cop travelling with his proper little mother. We actually argue fiercely about this for almost an hour.
But Bernie doesn’t yield. He says he wants to ask Fernando to somehow help us.
“How’s he going to help us?” I ask. “And why would he want to get involved with a couple of Canadian drug dealers when he’s here with his mommy?”
It’s just sounds too outlandish to me, but I’m no longer scared about the idea. I’m now terrified. It seems like a recipe for disaster.
Probably realizing I’m starting to freak out about it, Bernie finally says, “Let’s go eat dinner and think about it over a nice meal.”
We go upstairs to the rooftop restaurant, where we’re the only customers, and order rainbow trout that comes from Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia, which is at an altitude of 12,500 feet. I’m still nervous as hell, but I have to admit – dinner was a great idea. The trout is incredibly fresh and amazingly delicious.
Bernie is still completely stuck on Fernando being our way out of this mess. He says he has a good feeling about him, and he’s going to go with that feeling. And he’d like me to be more or less comfortable about the decision as well. Good luck with that.
After our dinner, we go back to our room where I argue my case one last time. After Bernie lets me have my say, he announces that he’s going up to Fernando’s room before it gets too late and ask him to come down to our room for a chat. And off he goes. What can I say? He’s the boss.
Within moments, Bernie is back in our room with Fernando. The three of us sit down, light up smokes and have some Bolivian coffee.
Bernie and I glance at each other, uncertain about how to broach the subject. After a few moments of silence, Bernie speaks up, “Fernando, Hank and I have a big problem.”
Fernando says, “Go ahead and tell me. I will listen.”
Bernie replies, “We’re really not in La Paz to buy a farm and cattle. We’re actually smuggling cocaine to Canada by mail. Because of the attempted coup last night, the Post Office has too much security, and now we don’t know how to get the stuff out of the country. We were hoping you could think of something to help us.”
When Bernie stops talking, you could hear a pin drop. We both wait for Fernando’s response, eager to see if Bernie’s hunch is right or wrong.
Fernando looks at us in disbelief and says, “We are friends, and, in this part of the world, friends help each other. No matter what.”
We’re both stunned, especially me. Actually “stunned” doesn’t quite describe how I feel. “Gob smacked” might be more like it. Followed by about a dozen exclamation points.
Fernando even has a Plan B for us. He says he’ll rent a vehicle and drive the cocaine to Lima, Peru, which is 660 miles (1063 kilometers) away. At the same time, we’re to hire a taxi to take us to Lima.
Then, Bernie and I are to go to the mountain border crossing between Bolivia and Peru, clear customs and then wait for Fernando on the Peruvian side at the local bazaar.
This is considerably better than our Plan B, which was to dump the cocaine, take a $10,000 loss and go home with our tails tucked between our legs, total failures as cocaine smugglers. But, then, I’m quick to remind myself that it’s only a better plan if it works.
We conclude the meeting with an agreement to meet the next day to arrange our transportation out of the country.
When Fernando leaves, Bernie and I immediately pull out the coke and snort our way back to quasi-normalcy.
Around two in the morning, Bernie announces that he wants to find a hooker.
We go down to the lobby and rent a car till morning. Bernie drives, and is even more reckless and dangerous than the locals, which is saying something.
He locates a seedy area where hookers line up on the sidewalk, showing off their wares. They’re amazingly ugly, pretty dirty and mostly old, not qualifications that spring to mind when you’re shopping for an evening bunkmate.
Bernie keeps telling me to pick one, but I tell him, “No. You find one, and I’ll wait for you.”
He cruises slowly, sizing up all the whores along La Paz’s red-light district. As he edges along, one prostitute after another bends down into our car window, unattractive boobs protruding, trying to make a sale. I’m on the lookout for a passable one for him, but it turns out he doesn’t have the same taste as me.
After driving the full length of the street and carefully scrutinizing all the prostitutes, he turns the car around for a second look. Finally, he chooses one – in my opinion, the worst looking one of all, the kind of woman who would drive a man to a life of celibacy.
She – and I use the term loosely – gets in the backseat and directs Bernie to a hotel or whorehouse or whatever they call them here. All I know is that it’s on the top of a hill, only accessible by a narrow winding road, and reminds me of an old grungy prison. It looks like a place where you may not come out alive. For some reason, I think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Bernie gives me the keys to the rental car. With time to kill, I decide to drive around the city, since I’ve never seen it before. Naturally, within ten minutes, I’m completely lost.
I begin to sweat profusely because I don’t have a clue where I am or how to get back to Bernie and the Prison of Prostitution.
I suppose I’m a little straight-laced. I’ve never been interested in hookers, finding it odd that people can get intimate with a complete stranger. So I assume that a guy would want at least an hour to take care of such intensely personal business.
Driving around with an increasing sense of desperation, I finally spot the decrepit Prison of Prostitution in the distance. But it’s only been an hour, so I figure my timing’s just about right.
Bernie’s even standing outside waiting for me. How thoughtful. But as I get closer, I realize – he’s furious.
He climbs in the car, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Where the fuck did you go?”
“I thought you’d want an hour with her,” I reply.
He stares at me dumbfounded. “An hour? You fucking idiot! I jumped on her, and in seven minutes it was over. An hour?”
I apologize profusely. Thank God, his sexual liaison must have been a good stress reliever, because he’s calm after a few minutes and ready to tackle the next part of our plan, which begins tomorrow morning at dawn. We head back to the hotel and snort ourselves to sleep.
The morning doesn’t start off well. Fernando has trouble renting a vehicle. The rental car company won’t allow a Bolivian car to be driven out of the country by a foreigner, so Fernando has to give them his passport as security to ensure that he won’t leave the country.
We wonder how he’s going to cross the border and meet us in Peru. Obviously not by car. This isn’t looking too good to me. We haven’t even started and already there’s a hitch. I think I’d rather go back to Canada as a failure than rot in a Bolivian or Peruvian jail. In fact, I’m certain I’d prefer that.
But Fernando calmly tells us not to worry and that we should continue with the plan, namely, that Bernie and I should leave right away and wait for him on the Peruvian side of the border, at the bazaar just on the other side of the gates of Peru.
At this point, I think even Bernie’s starting to question Fernando’s “plan.” How’s Fernando going to be able to cross the border safely without a passport? The first sentence in Drug Smuggling for Dummies is, “Have a passport.” It’s beginning to sound as if there’s a good possibility that, after all the money, time and energy we’ve expended, we could lose our entire shipment of coke. And maybe still end up in a prison.
But if smuggling were easy, everybody’d be doing it. We decide to give it a shot. Bernie finds a taxi driver in town with a huge 1962 Chevrolet Impala, with eight shock absorbers, two on each corner, so it can handle the treacherous, and sometimes unpaved, potholed roads.
Bernie asks the driver if he can take us to Lima, Peru. The cabbies face lights up in a huge smile, and he enthusiastically says, “Yes. For $125 USD yet.”
We’re astonished the fare is so cheap. He’s going to drive us over 650 miles for $125. Before he can change his mind, we quickly load our luggage in the trunk, ready to begin our journey through some of the most demanding mountain roads in the world.
Just as we’re about to close the trunk, a man comes running out of our hotel, demanding that we return the towels we stole from our room.
Bernie says to him, “What the hell are you talking about?”
But my face turns beet-red. Realizing what’s happened, Bernie stares at me in disbelief, finally shaking his head as I rummage through my suitcase. Retrieving the towels I filched, I hand them over to the man, who glares at me accusingly, then returns to the hotel with them.
Bernie says to me, “What were you thinking? We’re here to smuggle coke, and you’re stealing towels?”
I feebly try to explain, “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. How often do you find yourself in a Bolivian hotel? I couldn’t resist taking a souvenir.” But I assure him that I’ll control my towel coveting and pilfering till I’m in a more acceptable setting.
The roads in Bolivia, the poorest part of the continent, are like death traps which they are famous for. The locals call one major section of the road to Peru, Death Road. It consists of 10,000 foot sheer cliffs, with no guardrails, and with potholes so deep they could flip you into oblivion if you hit one the wrong way. It’s no wonder Bolivians use double shock absorbers on their vehicles.
Halfway to the Peruvian border, we gaze out to the left and see the archaeological site, Tiahuanaco, made famous during the early 70s in a book by Erich von Daniken – Chariots of The Gods. In his book, von Daniken depicted this ancient civilization, whose time had long ago come and gone, leaving behind only strange megalithic monuments that yield few clues as to their design, construction or purpose.
Tiahuanaco, once a city-state near the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca, is considered by some to be the oldest city in the world. It’s certainly one of the most mysterious. Many of these remaining monuments defy the laws of physics and mathematics, even by today’s standards. In fact, many of them bear a close resemblance to structures created by other ancient cultures across the planet.
As a result, Tiahuanaco is an important Pre-Columbian archaeological site in western Bolivia, recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most significant precursors to the Inca Empire, flourishing as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately five hundred years.
Being fascinated with history and archeology, I can’t pass up a chance to visit this unique site.
We have the driver pull over, and then hurry out to examine these ancient stone monuments. The place is deserted, not a soul in sight, and, as a result, extremely eerie. Ducking behind one of the huge rock formations, we snort some cocaine, which even heightens the mystical feel of the place.
But we don’t want Fernando to get ahead of us, so we soon take off again toward Peru. Off to the right, we can see Lake Titicaca, looking like the biblical Garden of Eden. Located on the border of Bolivia and Peru, the lake is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. By volume of water, it’s also the largest lake in South America. It’s a wonderfully serene site, perhaps our last shot at serenity for a while, like maybe forever.
Shortly after, the taxi driver reaches the border crossing from Bolivia into Peru. It’s just a little wooden shack with a customs guard in it, who smiles and cheerfully lets us into Peru without a question.
Just as Fernando said, there’s a bazaar just over the border, so we stop there as instructed, sitting down to have coffee and wait for Fernando to arrive, if he ever does. That’s when the taxi driver informs us that he won’t actually be able to take us all the way to Lima. In fact, he tells us that he can’t go any further into Peru, or his wife will kill him.
Before we can go ballistic, he adds that he’s found a Peruvian taxi driver and already paid him from the $125 original fare we’d coughed up in La Paz. The new driver will take us the rest of the way to Lima.
Amazed that we don’t have to ante up any more cash, we say goodbye to our driver and thank him. Then, with our new cabbie on standby, we settle back down at our table with a fresh round of Peruvian coffee and wait to see if Bernie’s intuition about Fernando is correct or not.
I can’t help but wonder – Even if Bernie’s right about Fernando, if our Argentinean cop can’t cross the border without his passport, what then? Will he try to throw the cocaine over the fence to us? Or will he give up and take the coke back to La Paz with him? It would probably finance a nice down payment on a 10,000 hectare cattle farm.
Or, if Bernie isn’t right, will Fernando easily cross the border, but as a narcotics officer capturing his criminals? Which, unfortunately, would be us?
Halfway through our coffee, we glance up in the direction of the border crossing and spot Fernando and the Peruvian customs guard, who just let us through twenty minutes earlier, heading toward us. This appears ominous enough. But what we notice next seems worse. Much worse.
The Peruvian customs guard is holding the airline bag with the two kilos of top quality Bolivian cocaine, and Fernando is right beside him, a huge grin on his face.
Bernie and I both stand to face them, with the same posture and expression we’d have before a firing squad. They’re less than a minute away and closing fast. My heart is beating like a timpani drum, aided, I’m sure, by the cocaine we snorted back at Tiahuanaco still in my system.
I state the obvious to Bernie, “This doesn’t look good. Seems like a setup.”
Bernie is standing tall and motionless. I wonder what’s going through his mind. I sure as hell know what’s going through mine – absolute, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching panic.
In a fit of desperation, I suggest, “Maybe we should make a run for it and live in the Peruvian forest until it’s safe to come out.” That’s how wigged out I am – I actually think this is a viable option.
But it’s all happening quickly, too fast for us to react. All we can do is stand rooted to the ground, anticipating the worst, bracing for what’s about to happen, hoping we can think on our feet enough to stave off disaster.
Out of the corner of his mouth, Bernie says, “Just relax, stay calm, and don’t move a muscle”. Sure. No problem.
I imagine this is the way you feel on a plane that’s about to crash – a sense of helpless doom. Fernando and the customs guy are only seconds away now.
Questions fly though my head. How’d Fernando get into this country without a passport? What’s the customs guard doing with our cocaine? Is Fernando an undercover drug cop taking advantage of our naivety to make an international drug bust in the Andes Mountains? And most of all – how in the hell can Bernie expect me to relax and stay calm?
Fernando and the customs guard stride right up to us, and the customs guard immediately thrusts the bag at my chest and says, “Now you know what kind of people live here in South America. You two men forgot your bag in the hotel, and your friend here, Fernando, drove all this way to make sure you got it back!”
It turns out that Fernando had shown the customs guard his police ID card from Argentina and explained the situation – which these two nice Canadians tourists had accidentally driven off leaving behind one bag.
The customs man actually closed the border-crossing gate so he could escort Fernando over the border into Peru to deliver the bag of cocaine to us.
That’s right – an Argentinean Police Officer and a Peruvian Customs Agent deliver a bag of cocaine to two Canadian smugglers on a mountaintop in the Andes. You can’t make this kind of shit up.
Bernie and I are speechless. Totally in shock speechless. I’d almost be tempted to think it’s some kind of cruel joke, if I didn’t see Fernando discreetly winking at us to assure us that this is really happening.
We only have a few minutes together. Fernando has to get back down to La Paz since his mother is all alone in the hotel. And the Peruvian customs guard has to go and reopen the crossing because the traffic is beginning to build up at the gate.
As we say our goodbyes, I’m thinking, “Oh, man, this can’t get any weirder.” This is another one of those thoughts that you should never have, because, at that moment, Fernando and the customs guard both grab us and hug us tightly, accompanied by the customary kisses on both cheeks, and wishes for a safe journey.
The customs man then makes a point of telling us how important friends are, and that we should always remember the true friendships we developed while in South America. He is proud of that. And, suddenly, so am I.
We end our group hug, and the two of them head back toward the border crossing. The customs agent reopens the gate and goes back to work in his booth. Once Fernando is back on the Bolivian side of the border, he gets in his car and starts back down the treacherous road to the La Paz valley below. We never see him again.
We get into our Peruvian taxi, this time an old Buick from the late 50s, to continue on to Lima, where we will repackage and mail the cocaine.
I’m still stunned and bewildered. “What the fuck just happened back there?” I ask, not really expecting a coherent answer.
Bernie looks amazed as well. But there’s a strange twinkle in his eyes.
He never says, “See? I was right!” or “Man, do I know how to make decisions!” Nor does he brag or take credit. The thing that’s impressive about Bernie is that he always has an aura about him, as if nothing bad can happen, no matter what the situation is or how potentially terrifying it might be.
We sit silently in the back of the car for a long time, like two people who just saw a flying saucer land, a couple aliens get out, hand us a bag with two kilos of cocaine, and then fly back off into outer space. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that’s any more outlandish than what really happened.