Ten days after falling into captivity, twenty-four hours after my doctors pronounced me sufficiently recovered to endure the trip from Guantanamo to Havana, a team of stretcher bearers arrived to move me, under guard, the hundred yards or so out into an open soccer field near the hospital where a small helicopter was brought in to pick me up and transport me to Santiago de Cuba. The irony of the circle closing was not lost on me. As I was being transferred from the chopper to a prop driven YAK aircraft at Antonio Maceo military airport I found myself wondering if the man I had come so far to rescue had ended up being killed on the beach at Baracoa. But it was just as likely that he was even at that moment standing nearby, observing my passage and preparing in his mind the message he would send to Captain Danio regarding my progress.
Arriving at the José Martí military airport just southwest of Havana about noon, I was driven directly to a colonial mansion on Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue) in Miramar where I was confined to a cell in the basement. This was the headquarters of the dreaded DGI (Direccion General de Inteligencia), Cuba’s KGB trained equivalent of the CIA. Immediately I made the mistake of smiling at one of my new keepers, for which I was rewarded by a powerful punch full in the face. Being manacled at the time I could not break my fall and ended up doing even further damage in spinning around and landing full face at the bottom of a dark staircase. After that, there was not another violent act committed against me, through fear of it remained my constant companion throughout my entire ordeal in the hands of the DGI.
Immediately I was stripped naked and thrown into a small, filthy, windowless isolation cell with nothing but a plastic bucket. Embedded in centre most point of the sweating ceiling there was an incredibly bright, and hot, light bulb hanging from raw wires that crackled and spit from the humidity in the air. With that my bravado and any fraternal feelings I might have had for my captors flew right out the nonexistent window and I cursed myself for sparing the life of some innocent boy to make good an escape when I still had the chance.
The worst thing about my condition was that there was absolutely no way to get comfortable or sleep within my tight, hot and damp confinement. Every time I lay down for more than a moment a guard would magically appear and bang on the steel door with a club, shocking my nerves and stirring my adrenaline to a point where I would have to pace the wet floor in a close circle for half an hour or so before I could settle down and once again try to get rest I would need to prepare myself for the ordeal that certainly lay ahead.
In time I noticed an incessant whine. I never found out what it was, but it sounded like the whir of a distant electric motor, the cry of a failing air conditioner perhaps, or deliberate "white noise" piped in to enhance my misery, confuse my mind, or further prevent me from falling asleep. Whatever it was it worked wonderfully well, for them. By stealth, it distracted me and denied me the concentration needed to get my shit together.
The following morning I was taken into an adjacent cell, one markedly different than mine if only in that it contained a dull stainless steel mirror mounted on a wall, a toilet and a sink with running water; a paradise by caparison. On approaching my reflection I was shocked to find several of my teeth were chipped and one broken to the gum. I couldn’t understand how they had gone unnoticed throughout the night, except for the fact of my total disorientation.
These bastards knew what they were doing. My badly swollen lips and the general black, red, green and purple colour of my face were alarming, but the overall effect was far more frightening than painful and made me aware that my captors had read me well enough to assault my vanity to get my attention. Now there was no question of who was in charge or how far they were willing to go. I homed they quickly realized that the lesson was learned and in the future would use more subtle means to extract whatever it was they wanted of me.
Two uniformed guards eventually arrived, handcuffed me and escorted me up the flight of steel stairs I had fallen down the day before. At the third door to the left, down a right turn hallway, I was left standing alone outside. There I stood waiting, naked and alone, for half an hour. Finally a different uniformed man came and took me inside, where I remained standing before a table where two plain-clothed men about my own age were having their breakfast while discussing my case in English, as though I was not there. The guard remained behind me all the while, so close I could feel and smell his rancid breath on the back of my neck. When the two men were through eating their meal, they closed their files and walked out without ever having said a word or even acknowledging my presence in any way.
The next few days were much the same, but less stressful than the first. The unknown is always the most frightening of situations. It only got easier, if not better, as time went by. For one thing, by the third day I was allowed to wear unkempt, loose-fitting clothing and my cuffs were now in front of me rather behind my back. You quickly learn to recognize and appreciate such small differences. Before, if I fell forward, I could not protect my face. But even then my oversized pants occupied my hands, as they were constantly falling to the floor. This made me feel so uncomfortable, and ridiculous, that I almost found myself wishing for a return to the way things were. Naked is naked and there is nothing you can do about it.
On the fifth day it occurred to me that I might initiate a conversation and that was apparently part of the game and immediately opened the floodgates of conversation which for a time were pointedly intent on getting me to identify with my interrogators. The following day, have satisfied some need in them, I was moved to a better cell and allowed to take a shower and put on decent, better fitting clothes.
Before being captured I had heard rumors that the KGB had instructed their DGI counterparts in their own brutal methods of extracting information, but I saw no evidence of that Russian presence or any systemic brutality while I was being held in captivity in Havana. On a personal level I always knew it was there, hiding in the shadows, but I also knew that short of kicking one of my guards in the nuts that was not to be part of my program. At the worst I was only hungry and bored. All in all the treatment I received was what I might have expected of some small town American police department than a foreign cadre trained by the like of the KGB, FBI, CIA, or at the School of the Americas in Panama. I knew that domestic political enemies of Cuba were dealt with far more harshly and directly than I, at least thus far. In fact I came early to believe that I was being handled somewhat carefully for some purpose or purposes, only one of which was to be bartered or bought out of captivity.
After a week, I began to recognize a sort of carefully contrived choreography. These guys were not after information. They obviously knew everything about me, which because of my insignificance was valueless to them. That meant that there was some other purpose in our interaction. Unfortunately I was not trained in this mindset and would have to figure things out on my own. My most immediate suspicion was that they were trying to either determine if I knew something I did not know or they were trying to instill in me some belief, probably false, that they wanted me to take back with me when I was finally released.
After that my greatest fear was of accidents. Any injury at all might prove fatal, directly or in the absence of adequate medical treatment. Even minor damage which might suggest or even serve as proof of abuse would place me at risk, because such treatment of a US citizen who was not demonstrably a member of any military unit or intelligence service might prove embarrassing, or even as a pretext for other actions against Cuba. In those scenarios, it might become easier and far more convenient to simply make me disappear. Fortunately, considerable care was taken thereafter, on my part and theirs, not to allow anything untoward to happen to me, a turn of events that further elevated my spirits.
Looking back now I don’t believe there was any particular DGI success or failure on my part, but something beyond my knowing had certainly taken place. I was better fed, allowed to bathe and shave, and presented with properly fitting clothing on a regular basis. With rest, exercise and proper nourishment my mind cleared and I began to think backward, trying to recall something, anything I might have heard or seen that might account for my strange confinement and handling.
My interrogators gradually became more relaxed and spoke openly with me, presenting questions that were no longer intended to solicit answers, but to determine what I thought about this or that and specifically about what I had seen and heard at Baracoa. That seemed strange. I was only there for a matter of minutes and had never been there before. What could I possibly have seen or heard of interest to my captors. Obviously they were not going to let me go until they were convinced that I did or did not see or hear something. And when I remembered or learned what it was I would have to be certain which side I came down on, because freedom and death lay in the balance. Over the course of the next few weeks I was repeatedly led back to that final landing. In the solitude of my cell I did the same. But the unknown question was not about the Edelweiss or anyone on board, or about the randomness of the young militia men and women who found us. But what else was there?
Finally my DGI interrogators made a mistake. Granted, it was a small one, but a mistake all the same. Late one afternoon, toward the end of one of many seemingly random gab fests, one of my interrogators offered me a drink. The two guys working on me at the time had been drinking all the while and were on their second bottle of Havana Club rum. There were a couple of ounces at the bottom of the last bottle when one of them poured what remained in his glass, raised it toward his lips, but suddenly stopped and stared me straight in the eyes. He was reading me and realized how much I would love to have that drink, so he leaned over and with a broad and knowing smile playing across his face he handed it to me. And as I drank it down the man sitting beside him said something revealing. “This college boy does love his Havana Club neat.”
The accent on the “does,” gave the whole game away.
Several Hours after being kidnapped in Corumbá, Brazil, the car transporting me cross country bounced back onto a paved road near Puerto Quijarro in Bolivia. We drove for awhile then suddenly left the road with a sharp jolt and began to climb a steep, graveled incline. Minutes later we came to a crunching halt on the windy top of a hill, within ear shot of a heavily traveled road or highway somewhere below.
At once I was hustled out of the car with the blanket that had served as my blindfold, and potential shroud, slid over my head and slowly settled around my shoulders. Before me stood a strange looking two storied, fortress-like structure with a windowless first floor. For some reason it reminded me of “Babylon,” my Mandeville, Jamaica billet, but on a minor scale. To one side of the wooden building and at some distance was the moonlit panorama of Puerto Suárez. The other side of the hill dropped away precipitously into the noisy creaking darkness of the Pantanal, one the world’s greatest of swamps, where almost anything can be made to disappear.
From ground level, starting at one corner, a narrow stairway rose to a broad balcony, front and center outside the second floor entrance, where a single, narrow door led inside. On entering the solidly built wooden structure all the lights were ablaze and the loud blare of several televisions sets from different rooms where each was tuned to the same Spanish language station. It was a common scene, on either side of the border, because of inexpensive and virtually unlimited electric power made available by the great hydroelectric generators at Foz Iguasu (waterfalls at Iguasu on the Brazilian border with Paraguay) far to the south.
The sudden brightness of the room startled me and hurt my eyes. I closed them for a few seconds to allow them time to adjust. The next thing I knew I tripped over a rolled up rug in the middle of the floor. As my vision cleared I observed a trap door being opened in front of me, revealing a straight drop into an unknown depth of darkness, hopefully no greater than ground level, about 10 or fifteen feet if I guessed correctly about the dimensions of the house from the outside. Immediately I became alarmed and terrified. For all I knew there might be a well, alligators or worse below and I might even be shot before being consigned to the abyss.
Mercifully, there was no sharp report, just a shove much like the one I received while aboard a Curtiss Commando a few hundred feet above the San Blas crossroad, in Cuba. The next thing I knew I was waking up with a terrible headache in total darkness on a dirt floor. The drop had been exactly ten feet, knocking the wind out of me and rendered me unconscious. I don't know how long I lay there, but when I woke it was to a foul smell that permeated the single large space that comprised my new prison.
As the sun came up the next morning light began to filter through cracks and knot holes in the raw boarding that framed the basement walls. More rested now, and with my head finally clear of the fog of my fall and excessive drinking the evening before. In time my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I jump-roped my cuffs from back to front then began to investigate my surroundings and options. In the shadows at one corner of a cavernous room, I could see the outline of two bundles, covered over by stained sheets. Standing unsteadily, I stumbled over to the putrid objects and removed their coverings, discovering, to my horror, the corpses of two young men. Reflexively I tried to move away, but tripped and fell when my feet got tangled in one of their shrouds.
Quickly getting to my knees between the two bodies I discovered that both had been bound and gagged before being shot, once each, in the back of the head center mass in the medulla oblongata. The weapon used was of small caliber, probably a .22 or .25 hollow point fired at close range. All this I ascertained from the entrance wounds, the absence of exit wounds, and the fact that there was massive blood and matter loss from the ears nose and mouths of both victims that left the eye of one blown out of its socket without visible damage to the orb. Death had apparently been instantaneous and there didn’t seem to have been any other sign of abuse. Surprisingly this gave me some sense of comfort. I did not have, in fact had never had a fear of death, but I do have a common and sensible concern about the possibility of torture. I have always had a low tolerance for pain and have always been “embarrassed” when I suffered it badly.
Eventually I was able to identify the two young men from the flurry of pocket litter scattered about them on the ground. Judging from the amount of blood on the contents of the two boy’s wallets, which had been rifled through for cash and credit cards, they had been searched shortly before being shot. My guess was that the two killers upstairs had become enraged at not finding whatever they were looking for, or not enough, and lost it, executing the two boys on the spot. I became somewhat sick at the thought of how frightened the two kids must have been in their last moments, defenseless and isolated in the face of an inescapable fate. Such thoughts had never entered or troubled my own mind and I found myself actually using all the available information to analyze the mind-set of my captors and I now realized the full extent of the danger I was in, but also that I had some chance of outwitting them. These were amateurs working for a much brighter and more sinister mind.
Holding two student ID cards in a shaft of light I discovered that both boys were nineteen years old and sophomores at CCNY, living within walking distance of their campus and my own Manhattan home. Sadly, neither young man would graduate now or live out whatever bright dreams had brought them to such a gruesome end. “Oh, David," I said aloud, looking into the hopeful eyes of one of the boys staring blindly back at me from a recent photo, "did you really think a couple of kids from Brooklyn were a match for all of this?"
“What was it they were looking for?” I wondered: “Tuition? Did they think that putting themselves in such danger would solve all of their problems?” In a sad sense it had, but not in the way either of them could possibly have imagined. Their books were closed now and others would be left behind to bear their burdens. At that I found myself weeping, surprisingly not so much for myself as for the two lost and incredibly stupid boys. My situation was far different. I was far better trained and utterly ruthless.
When my captors came for me later that morning, they simply put down a wooden ladder and laughed as I clumsily struggled up its many rungs. After relocating my cuffs back behind my back and securing them with a waist chain, they force-fed me a surprisingly delightful fresh Pão de Queijo (Brazilian Cheese Bread) which they made me wash down with scalding black coffee that dribbled painfully down my chin and onto my bare chest.
Afterward I was taken outside and placed in a newer, unmarked, vehicle than the one I had been picked up in the evening before. My cuffs were removed at this point and I was placed in the front passenger seat with the calmer, more avaricious of my two kidnapers sitting behind the wheel. The great threat sat at behind with a pistol on his lap, a long barreled Taurus .357 magnum revolver he occasionally used to tap me on the back of my head to punctuate some asinine point or comment or just to remind me that he was there.
As we drove through the noisy streets of Puerto Suarez the driver again repeatedly missed gears and I began to suspect that the, which was not the one I was originally kidnapped in, was new, probably purchased with money taken from me the night before. To add to my stress and discomfort the man in the back seat began to cock and un-cock his revolver, an unsafe practice at any time, under any circumstance, but with life threatening possibilities on a poorly paved road while in the hands of a fool. At any moment I expected a shot I would never hear and hot lead ripping through my brain I would never feel. But it was the stupidity of the whole situation that bothered me most.
The guy in back finally started demanding that I tell them where his “hundred thousand dollars” were.
“What the hell makes you think I have that kind of money lying around,” I asked, “and if I did, why would I be walking around the street with it? Like everyone else, I live on plastic.”
The driver laughed at that as he turned into a busy gas station in the central shopping district of the town; but instead of pulling up to a pump, he parked in a corner of the lot near a pay telephone. Tucking his pistol into his belt the guy in back got out of vehicle and walked over to the station office. A couple of minutes later he returned with three cold bottles of beer.
As we sat drinking in the high heat of the early afternoon my captors intermittently pointed to the telephone booth and suggested that I get my ass out of the car and call someone and tell them to bring the money.
“I have nowhere near that amount of money with me,” I continued to insist, “and if there was, there is no one to call to bring it here.”
“Somehow I don’ think you trying’ to solve my fuckin’ problem,” the back seat guy said. “You need to call somebody right now an’ get it here.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” I replied and dejectedly slumped down in my seat.
“I’m getting’ pretty damn tire a messin’ with you, puto,” the back seat guy said.
“You better come up with a solution pretty quick or we’re not going to have any further use for your company,” the driver said, ominously, but with a wan smile.
“Look,” I said, “obviously I’d do anything I could to get out of this situation, but the only cash I have, that anyone has access to, is about $50,000 in a safe deposit box at the Hotel Santa Monica, in Corumbá and I must be there to sign for it, to get it out. If you won’t take me there, you might as well just shoot me right here and now and dump my body in a ditch somewhere.”
Finally the man in the back seat finished his beer and got out of the car, to take a pee I thought, or to buy another round, but as I watched him he went to a pump and filled his empty bottle with gasoline. By the time he returned I had just finished my own drink and was leaning back in my seat so that my face was fully exposed to the warmth of the sun. I was tired from my restless night in captivity and a bone numbing exhaustion, released by the cold beer, began to settle in over me and cloud my mind. I was no longer in doubt that I would be safe until these two guys were able to get some substantial amount of money from me. I knew that if they had been on their own, I would already be dead but that they were on a long leash and until their master was satisfied they would not act alone.
All at once a shadow fell across my face and I opened my eyes to find the man who had been sitting behind me was now standing beside the car. The next thing I knew he had hold of my right hand and was dousing my arm from wrist to elbow with gasoline. Then, without a word of warning, he flicked the sparking wheel of his lighter and set me ablaze.
Though there was no immediate pain, my mouth dropped open from the shock and horror of my predicament. The experience was so surreal that my brain momentarily refused to acknowledge what was happening. Even as the warming acidity of the fuel began to bite into my flesh I could not seem to kick my body into action. I was wedged between two armed men, one leaning against the right, passenger door keeping it closed and the other seated to my left, making it impossible to pass. Signals between my endangered arm and my brain were being scrambled and I slipped into some sort of primordial neutral waiting for the pain to set in. For a full half a minute, neither fight nor flight seemed remotely possible.
Moments later, when the smoke and odor of burning flesh began to assail my eyes and nostrils it finally occurred to me that I had to do something, anything at all to extinguish the flames and take command of the situation. Pulling my entire shirt over my head, I used it to smother the flames. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, damage had already been done. While the wicking effect of the shirt had protected my arm, I now discovered a ring of flambéed flesh encircling my right wrist. Obviously adrenaline had anesthetized my reptilian complex while my flesh was burned to the bone, but in destroying nerve tissue along the way I was left without pain. The end result was that while my wrist was dripping fluids and melted skin there was absolutely no sensation. My two captors looked on in wonder and amazement as I calmly stared first at one, then at the other with no more than a somewhat disapproving expression on my face.
Now that my kidnappers had my full and undivided attention, and the immediacy of my situation finally settled in on me, I informed them that I had experienced an epiphany and would, of course, go along with their carefully laid plans in every detail. “But,” I informed them, half laughing, “in all the excitement I've forgotten my own home phone number."
At that the driver reached into his torn denim jacket breast pocket and produced the number, written in my own hand on the back of one of my own business cards. That was revealing and a huge mistake, if I should survive, but I was careful not to react, because to do so might have cost me my life.
The number was not to my house, which they could not possibly have had, but to the US Customs undercover number I had been using for the bifurcated gun case years earlier; a business card I had handed to Joa Machado at O’Henry's Steak House in Greenwich Village, the night I first met Raphael Molinari.