Tuesday, April 03, 2018
Provocations and Creative Imagination
Obviously, the provocateurs are loathe to admit that their expensively designed provocations have become hackneyed and banal, and toss around for new ideas. Thus, the latest attack on the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was apparently cribbed from the US/British TV show “Strike Back” (because the provocateurs have no ideas of their own and don’t read books, but they do watch TV). Both featured a certain made-up weapon of mass destruction called “Novichok” (Russian for “newbie”). Apparently, it is not very effective; if Novichok were a flea powder, the instructions would read: “Catch a flea, flip it over on its back, tickle it until it laughs, sprinkle some powder in its mouth and then watch it to make sure it doesn’t spit it out.” A proper chemical WMD should be able to wipe out a whole city; this one just sickens a couple of people (one of whom—Yulia—is apparently on the mend). What will those terrible Russians (and Putin personally) come up with next? A WMD that makes enemy forces sneeze uncontrollably?
Provocations cribbed from TV shows are, obviously, prime targets for ridicule, but ridicule is really as far as it can go. It is not possible to extract something creative from something that is so essentially threadbare, trite, boilerplate and played out. But it is theoretically possible to use a provocation as inspiration for a truly exciting mystery novel or adventure film. For that, we have to look for a superior sort of provocation—a product of inspired, out-of-the-box thinking—of the sort that gets the provocateur fired, or at least not promoted, because in such circles any show of originality is the kiss of death. Such creative provocations are, as you might imagine, few and far between, but they do happen.
Here is one. It combines all the needed elements: international intrigue, high crimes and comedy/farce. And here is how I propose repurposing this provocation into a work of art. First, I will present just the facts. Next, I will indicate some huge, gaping holes in the plot which we must, perforce, fill using our imaginations (for lack of detailed factual information), but relying on real world knowledge as much as possible to build a plausible scenario (or two). In the end, the most plausible scenario wins.
On February 22, 2018, the Argentine newspaper El Clarin has reported that a major shipment of drugs from Buenos Aires to Moscow—389 kg of pure cocaine, valued at over 60 million USD, and bearing the markings of the Sinaloa drug cartel of Northern Mexico—was prevented from taking place thanks to the efforts of Russia’s FSB and the Argentine authorities. Several people, including a member of the Argentine police and someone involved in charity work, have been detained. Victor Coronelli, Russia’s ambassador to Argentina, related how all the way back in 2016 the embassy received information that possessions belonging to some third party had been found in a storage space at a children’s school operated by the embassy and located several blocks away from it. Suspicions arose and a thorough examination had uncovered 12 colorful suitcases filled with 389 “keys” (1-kilo blocks) of cocaine bearing the little star that is the symbol of the Sinaloa cartel of Northern Mexico.
Shortly after the cocaine was discovered, Russia’s FSB, working together with the Argentine police, hatched an ingenious plan for a sting operation, to find out who is behind this shipment. To this end, they carefully replaced the cocaine with flour and placed the 12 colorful suitcases back in storage. And there they sat for over a year. What has been done with the cocaine that was extracted isn’t known.
Apparently, it took a great deal of effort to get anyone to take possession of these suitcases. Eventually, two people were found who agreed to take delivery of them in Moscow: Vladimir Kalmykov and Ishtimir Hudzhamov. They are currently in pretrial detention in Russia. A third suspect, Andrei Kovalchuk, is under arrest in Germany, awaiting extradition to Russia, but his extradition is conditional on whether the Russian side can offer evidence of his complicity or guilt in organizing the shipment.
Kovalchuk used to work for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, but most recently he has used his old ministerial connections to arrange for some small-scale contraband to be shipped to Russia via diplomatic mail: cigars, coffee, cognac, etc. Such trade had been common during the 1990s, when Russian diplomats had fallen on hard times and did whatever they could to make ends meet, but it has become unnecessary in recent years, now that they are very well provided for once again. Still, cigars, coffee and cognac is what Kovalchuk—an apparent throwback to this earlier, meager era—maintains was in the suitcases he had stashed at the school in Buenos Aires: he has kept all of the receipts. He plans to travel to Russia of his own free will once he has gathered all the evidence he needs to exonerate himself.
The other two detainees—Kalmykov and Hudzhamov—seem entirely unconcerned about their fate. They maintain that they had cooperated with the investigation in trying to flush out the real perpetrators. Kalmykov said that he has always been a law-abiding citizen, that he has only seen cocaine in the movies, and that he had been hired to move some boxes. For his part, Hudzhamov said that he has no idea how he got involved in this case, that this is all part of some large-scale provocation, and that he is sure that he will be released soon. As the sharper legal minds among you may have spontaneously surmised, there may be a slight technical issue with charging these two with trafficking cocaine when what they “trafficked” was in fact flour.
Beyond the obvious legal conundrum of charging somebody with trafficking flour, there are some definite comedic possibilities here. Cue Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, asking probing questions: “What kind of fleueur was it?… Ah, white fleueur. I see… Zis is very interesting!”
Or imagine Kalmykov (or Hudzhamov) in jail, having a late night conversation with a cellmate:
“So, what did they get you on?”
“Importing 389 keys of cocaine.”
“Wow! Did you do it?”
“No, it wasn’t cocaine, it was flour.”
“Well, they said that they thought that I thought that it was cocaine, so they locked me up for that…”
Laughable though it is, this line of reasoning—that “we think that you thought that it was cocaine”—does seem to be the crux of the investigators’ argument. Another one of the accused, one Ali Abyanov (who claimed that Kovalchuk let on that he was a Russian government official working undercover) is being accused on the basis of recorded telephone conversations. But according to Abyanov’s lawyer the topics of conversation between Kovalchuk and his client ranged “from jeans to sausage, coffee, candy, and the fact that mom didn’t come.”
Still, the cocaine did exist at one point—all 389 kilos of it—as attested by the FSB and the Argentine police, although we don’t know what happened to it after it was replaced with flour. And so it is incumbent on us to build a business case: How was a profit to be made from diverting this shipment from its rightful destination—the eager, quivering nostrils of coke fiends of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami—to snowy Moscow? You see, those 389 keys didn’t start as keys, packaged in plastic and stamped with the brand of the Sinaloa cartel of Northern Mexico. That was just a final bit of branding applied prior to the final leap across the US border. In essence, the little star says: “If found, please return immediately to official representatives of the Sinaloa cartel, or prepare to die.” So, why would someone try to interfere with that shipment?
Keep in mind, Russia doesn’t have much of a cocaine market. The stuff is expensive and, except with some Moscow rich kids who might try snorting a little, just to be fashionable, when they go clubbing, it’s just not that popular. Unloading 389 kg of it in a hurry would be quite a trick. Once it’s been cut with baby laxative (standard procedure) that would make half a million one-gram doses, which, at around 100 USD each (price has been stable for years) comes to 50 million USD. Trying to unload it quickly would flood the market, crash the price, and draw lots of attention from law enforcement, while unloading it slowly would mean making old Guzman’s two sons, who now run Sinaloa, wait for their money—a poor choice if your longevity is important. But perhaps Kovalchuk got so wealthy from shipping contraband cigars, cognac and coffee that he had a few tens of mil just sitting around. Maybe he bought those keys from Sinaloa wholesale, and somehow thought that this was a good business plan. The combination of very wealthy and successful and very foolish is rare but not impossible.
Why would the Guzman boys who run Sinaloa sell 389 keys to Kovalchuk? After all, they run a very successful operation, shipping in hundreds of tons of drugs into the US, fentanyl especially, and operating a very large retail chain. Sure, there may be some wholesale transactions with trusted counterparties, but mostly they succeed by managing every aspect of the supply chain from the Colombian cocoa farmer to the user’s nostril. The Guzman boys must have really been charmed by Kovalchuk—I can think of no other explanation for it. Such gumption! Such pluck! Sure, Ivan and Alfredo are best known for leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them wherever they go, but really deep down they are just a couple of swell guys, hearts of gold, you know, and would only nail your head to a coffee table if they absolutely had to. They and Kovalchuk must have simply hit it off, and decided—Why the hell not?—to flood Moscow with cocaine.
But how did Kovalchuk get his 389 keys from Northern Mexico to Buenos Aires? Perhaps he chartered a small plane and had it flown all the way down the Americas, greasing palms at airports along the way to avoid detection, but that would have been very risky and rather expensive because everyone along the way would have asked for a cut of the total. And so perhaps he got himself a small sailboat, ferried aboard the 12 colorful suitcases he bought at a market in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, and set off into the Pacific. Small sailboats are virtually undetectable provided they keep the engine off, take down the radar reflectors and stay out of sight of land and away from sea lanes.
Our hero could have shaved off some sea miles by going through the Panama Canal, but that involves inviting a pilot and line handlers aboard, who might have inquired about all the colorful suitcases, and he would have decided against it. And so, some months later, having beat through steady headwinds and the opposing Humboldt current all the way down the coast of Chile, through the Straits of Magellan or around Cape Horn, up the Atlantic coast of Argentina and into Rio de la Plata, he anchored off Buenos Aires, ferried his 12 colorful suitcases ashore and smuggled them into the Russian embassy school. This would have been an adventure of a lifetime for Kovalchuk the cigar, coffee, cognac and candy smuggler. But then, rather uncharacteristically for such an adventurous character, for over a year he did absolutely nothing to claim his prize. Perhaps he was just really worn out after his epic sea adventure and decided to lay low for a while.
This concludes our little detour through the comedic, the fanciful and the outlandish implications of what passes for the official story. As far as what really happened, we can only conjecture. But I hope you will agree that at this point this conjecture has much more of a ring of truth to it than everything I have laid out above. I will present it as a series of questions and answers:
Q: Who put the cocaine there?
A: The CIA.
Q: What was their motive for this provocation?
A: To implicate Russian officials in drug trafficking, inflicting reputational damage.
Q: Did they succeed in this?
Q: Where did they get the cocaine?
A: It had been confiscated by the DEA, either in transit from Mexico or within the US, and requisitioned by the CIA.
Q: How did the CIA get the cocaine from the US to Argentina?
A: Aboard a US government plane.
Q: How did the CIA get the cocaine into the school?
A: Now that’s what’s really worth investigating!
Q: Why were there exactly 389 kilos of it?
A: That’s what it took to fill the suitcases once they were emptied of cigars, coffee and cognac.
Q: What happened to the cigars, coffee and cognac?
A: The CIA operatives smoked the cigars and drank the coffee and the cognac.
Q: Where did the cocaine go once it was replaced with flour?
A: Back to the DEA, so that it could be signed back into evidence, and to close out the CIA requisition.
Q: What made the CIA pick the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires as the target for this provocation?
A: Maxim Mironov, a Russian blogger living in Buenos Aires and a known malcontent, could be relied upon to serve as a “useful idiot” and make false accusations against Russian officials on social media (which he did).
Q: Why is Russia’s FSB pursuing this ridiculous investigation?
A: There was a large quantity of cocaine found on official Russian property, so somebody has to go to jail for that...