Activity Adventure Trips 2011
The subtitle of Australian Keith Bulfin’s “UNDERCOVER: A novel of life,” hintst that this autobiographical thriller is a blend of fact and fiction. The book’s cover art—a fan of raw cocaine spread beneath the silver eagle of the U.S. Department of Justice—suggests one more excursion inside the Western hemisphere’s murderous drug wars.
What these symbols can’t do is capture the brutal full ferocity of the Mexican drug lords who operate in the story’s shadows on both sides of the U.S. southern border, the shifting loyalties and perfidies of drug enforcement agents, and the fear and loathing of a once respectable banker (Bulfin), caught in the crossfire as a money launderer, double-agent and witness to terror.
While lyricism is largely absent from Bulfin’s prose, his writing style has a blunt effectiveness. His American readers must learn to deal with Australian spellings and punctuation (single quotation marks, for example, rather than double). Short, declarative sentences reflect the heightened heartbeat and staccato nervousness of a man whose venture outside the law lands him in a nightmarish sojourn in prison, eventual recruitment by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a narc, and rapid descent into a cesspool of corporate crime and near-madness.
The first-person account names important drug kingpins and narcotics organizations (with the names undoubtedly changed), tracks the movements of major drug traffickers, and Mexican and U.S. Government officials, and spells out lies and broken promises of authorities. How much of it can we count on as the real deal?
As a convincing storyteller, Bulfin supplies the human detail and telling eccentricities of the drug trade, supporting his narrative. Yet, the action places the narrator in so many life-threatening and compromising positions (from which he ingeniously or accidentally extricates himself), it raises questions about how much he may have embroidered facts to protect himself and others, or to facilitate a good yarn.
Having moved in his 20s from his native New Zealand to Australia for a job as an athletic trainer, Part One of the book opens on his buttoned-down, middle-aged life as a Melbourne businessman. In a banking deal to help finance a theme park and casino, he runs afoul of the law. Stripped of his assets and bankrupted by a police investigation, he stands by as the courts judge the deal as fraudulent. To avoid a trial that might lead to a longer sentence, Bulfin pleads guilty to charges he considers unjust, and goes to prison.
Dazed and panicked, briefly under a suicide watch, he is beaten and abused, receives death threats from an investor in the financial scheme, and is presented with the news that his wife and children have been treated to the sight of two family cars incinerated in the driveway of their home. In addition, Bulfin is then stabbed in his cell.
As a chilling prelude to what awaits him after incarceration, the prison experience toughens the author’s hide and hardens his perspective and cynicism. Ironically, his contact behind bars with a man he calls Daniel Gomez, previously a banker for the Mexican and Colombian drug cartel families, proves key to employment on the outside.
A felon without job prospects, Bulfin warily approaches an offer extended through his attorney in January 2001 from American DEA agents to work for the agency in tracking movement of drug funds from Mexico into the U.S.
Catching on quickly in a meeting with them, he asks, “what you mean is you want me to play Judas” [to Gomez—a man he respected in prison—and his associates].
“Not exactly,” one of the agents replies. “I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“I would!” Bulfin says. “What is more, you’re expecting me to construct a life of deception, to deal with people whose language I neither speak nor understand, and at the same time maintain a detailed, albeit fabricated business life?”
“That is correct. Yes.”
Nonetheless, he accepts the offer, is assigned the code name “Greece,” provided a fake background and identity, and within months has organized a banking facility called Essex Finance to launder cash “stained with the blood of thousands of victims of ruthless drug wars,” as Bulfin describes it. The operation is intended to provide records of cartel assets, bonds, stocks, property, art and offshore trusts, as well as a list of contacts in the U.S. drug trade.
Sequestered at a Holiday Inn in El Cajon California, near DEA headquarters, Bulfin heads for the pool. There, he meets Claudia, a blond woman in her thirties, as she towels off her three children. He helps them locate a home they will buy (loaning her $4,000), and is invited to move in. He confesses he is married and has a family in Australia, but almost immediately finds himself sleeping with the woman.
At his first meeting with drug clients at a hotel in Mexico city, Bulfin is accompanied by a Colombian bodyguard supplied by the DEA, a move that backfires with the surprise presence of Colombian thugs at the rendezvous, who recognize the ringer. The ensuing shootout leaves everyone in the hotel suite (except Bulfin) dead or severely wounded. After cell-phoning his DEA bosses, he is instructed to pinch a briefcase packed with millions in cash on his way out the door, and to drag a wounded Colombian henchman along with him. Their exit precedes a long, complex chase by multiple automobiles and a small plane, with cartel operatives and DEA agents in hot pursuit.
Much more excitement is still to come, also involving planes, trains and automobiles. As “Greece” (Bulfin) plunges to ever more perilous depths of drug world depravity to gather information for his government employer, he is forced to witness executions, beheadings by chainsaw and a variety of other atrocities His involvement with Claudia and her family, constantly places them in danger (something he lies about), and must eventually arrange to ship them to Norway, persuading her ex-husband to come to their aid. In Australia, his own family takes a backseat to these proceedings and is kept in the dark about his actions.
Finally, escaping with his life to return to Melbourne, he confesses to drinking more than one glass of red wine most nights in order to try to sleep. “During the day my stupor sometimes lasts for hours…I am sixty-three years old and walk the streets like a ghost.”
He calls himself “expendable,” a pawn of the DEA. Despite the fact that many of the vicious drug lords who put a price on Bulfin’s head during the last decade are now dead, readers will worry that publication of this memoir may still place him in jeopardy.
What we learn about the drug cartels from his book is that the more kingpins are arrested or killed, the more young, ambitious successors emerge from the wings to take their place.
Paul Swenson is a journalist and poet in Salt Lake City. His second book of poetry will be published this year by Dream Garden Press.