These days he goes by Roman Caribe, one of the many aliases he has used undercover, but his handlers in the DEA and FBI know him as Confidential Source Ninety-Six. Collaborating with former New York City police officer Robert Cea, Caribe has told his story in Confidential Source Ninety Six: The Making of America’s Preeminent Confidential Informant, the tale of a mastermind drug dealer turned U.S. confidential informant who has helped take down some of the biggest operations of the Mexican drug cartels. In this excerpt he describes a meeting with one of the most dangerous drug lords he faced.
Tony did not disappoint anyone inside that restaurant; heads nearly snapped in his direction as he strolled in like a king meeting his court jesters. He was dressed like Robert Plant, 25 years in the past. He wore a floppy white cowboy hat with a colorful peacock band and matching feathers protruding from its side. In the center of the ridiculous hat he pinned two three-inch solid gold crossed .45-caliber pistols; beige leather pants flared at his ankles, which I knew was for easy access to his pistol. His gold belt buckle was the size of a turkey platter and loaded with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires replicating the Cuban national flag. Capping off his ensemble were a silk purple shirt with lavender stripes unbuttoned to the top of his rotund belly, mocha-brown velvet boots—which in all probability contained a “stinger,” what we called a .25-caliber five-shot pistol—and a boot knife. I remember the first time I watched him tool up, surprised at all the armaments he carried. “You never know, hermano, what happens when there’s just you against four pandejos? Always be prepared for that close wet work, daddy.”
Seeing Tony enter this quiet, family-friendly restaurant, the waitress approached the hostess and whispered something to her.
Tony stood at the table, arms wide open, grinning ear to ear. He wasn’t going to sit, not until he got that cursory hug to check for wires.
I stood, he hugged me, and in a not-so-veiled maneuver, those big calloused hands moved expertly up and down my back and sides, he then patted my chest, then began rubbing my belly up and down like a caring dad. “Poppy, you look skinnier. Food must’ve been for shit out there, eh?”
He’d covered my front, back, and sides in a matter of seconds. I was clean—this he was sure of. He dropped into the booth heavily, disregarding the family in the adjacent one. I saw them actually rise and fall in their seats, though they didn’t dare confront him with so much as a snooty look. In fact, everyone in the restaurant, after first glance at the colorfully coordinated drug lord billboard, made it his or her business to look away from him. Though I knew it wasn’t just his circus clown outfit that deterred looks; it was his demonstrative arrogance, his utter display of condescension toward the hardworking folks in the restaurant.
His demeanor goaded me. Something was bubbling up inside, overriding my preternatural survival instincts. I knew he’d kill me right there if he deemed me disrespectful or disloyal—he’d killed for much less, men and women he’d known a lot longer than he had known me. In fact, 17 years of his life had been spent behind bars because he was caught with his favorite gun, which was traced back to a string of those very murders. So I had to tread lightly to cover or placate the hatred I now felt toward him, though with enough moxie he’d fall for the frustration over the whole situation that I betrayed.
How had I allowed myself to be taken in so easily by this animal, this savage beast of a man? Yes, I’d needed the money the day I’d agreed to my first smuggling run, and then, as the money grew, I’d liked what it could do for me. But somewhere along the way I forgot to leave this life behind. Tony didn’t deserve to be in the company of these decent people, out for an afternoon with friends, colleagues, loved ones. Tony, without question, belonged behind bars. The irony of this situation was not lost on me. I began working for Tony all in an effort to make enough money with the hopes that one day I’d become just like these very people Tony had such contempt for. And now it was crystal clear that I had to put Tony down like the rabid dog he was. Because if I didn’t, my family might end up murdered any day in his destructive wake. He was cagey and clever, and his only loyalty was to his money and himself.
The waitress, now obliterated with fear, offered us two scary, oddball men a menu, one of us a stammering mess, the other a cross-dressing torpedo who looked like he’d just walked off the stage of a ’70s glam rock show.
I casually asked Tony, “You want something to eat?”
He was staring intensely into my eyes, same tight grin; after a long moment he shook his head no.
I tried to let this poor waitress off the hook. I caught her eye and shook my head, too. What I meant was, we’re OK, no menus, and as long as you stay as far away from this table as you can, you’ll be okay, too.
I sipped my tea, staring right back at Tony. Ever since we had come face-to-face, my fear had been slowly dissipating and excitement filled me all over again the way it had in Sevier County, the surge of electricity I’d felt when I was revealing all the secrets to Chris, the customs agent.
I’m going to burn down your house, I thought.
I could only hope I’d be there when Tony realized it was me all along, and he’d missed his chance on taking me out, the only man who could do so much damage, the young Sherpa who guided him up the icy crags of a sky-splitting mountaintop, and, just before reaching its summit, drop-kicked him the fuck off.
Tony held out his hands, very close to my face. I eased back in the booth, now totally in control of the situation. I said, “What, your manicure? Shiny, like always, very pretty Tony. Has sort of a French tip thing going—très cosmopolitan.”
Tony shook his head no and wiggled his fingers as if he were calling over a toddler.
“Tony, I’m not in the mood for games. What is it you want?”
“The paperwork, your wallet, and your phone,” he said quickly.
I was taken off guard when he asked about the phone; I had told him it was destroyed during the arrest. Why would he ask for it? I was sure Raul hadn’t seen me with it on the bus ride home, so under the harshest of tortures he couldn’t have given me up, unless he lied, which was not a huge stretch of the imagination.
I stalled, pulling the folder off the seat. I slid it over to him. He didn’t look at it, obviously waiting for the wallet and phone.
I tilted my head at Tony, feigning an are-you-fucking-kidding-me look. Then after a few very tense moments I simply shook my head, pulling out my wallet and sliding that over to him as well. I said, “Tony! I don’t have a phone, remember? I told you it’s gone. Broken during the arrest.”
His eyes opened wide “You think I ain’t been arrested before, Daddy? They have to give you your phone back, your property, regardless if it’s broke or not, there’s still the SIM card. Once you free you get it back, so why you so nervous to give me your phone, or what’s left of it?” He tilted his head at me, feigning a joke, though it was no joke. “You trying to hide something?” His smile was creepy, twisted, his blingy gold tooth glistening as always under the bright fluorescents above. I wanted to take a blowtorch to it.
I’d left the phone in one of the hidden compartments I had built into the floor of the Mercedes, an aftermarket, spring-loaded electric compartment, built and hidden into the undercarriage of the car with an opening hatch, nearly seamless, underneath the driver’s seat rug.
“Yeah, they tried to give it back to me, busted! And do you honestly think I’m that stupid, that I’d keep it whether it was broken or not, or that I’d keep that fucking SIM card of all things? How do I know they didn’t put a trap on it while I was in lockup, or a tracking device, or worse, some new kind of listening device?” I tried to suppress the smile blooming from inside of me.
I continued, needing to hammer this in so it stuck, “You see, that’s why, until this major fuckup, which by the way I said was a disaster waiting to happen from the very beginning, I have never done one day inside because I think not one step but three steps ahead of everyone else. So fuck that phone. And fuck you for the accusation. What do you think I’m working with the Dudley-Do-Right cops of Sevier County, Utah? Are you fucking kidding me?”
Tony tilted his head at me, that Hun-like smile gone, his thin sadistic lips twitching, hidden under that droopy mustache now involuntarily moving back and forth. I knew I had him. He was sold. I just prayed to God that the paperwork was as good as my lie.
Tony said, almost in a whisper, “Yeah, three steps ahead of everyone else, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
I shot back, “Oh, suddenly because I’m careful I’m the bad guy? My caution has made you a lot of money over the years. It’s also kept all of us out of prison, if you haven’t forgotten.” I paused for greater effect, pretending to still—not fully—understand his accusations. “And I really don’t understand what it is you’re trying to get at?”
Tony pulled out a small, stylish chrome case containing delicate reading glasses, he carefully unfolded them and slid them onto his nose.
The worn leather bench seat crackled with his every move. He began to examine the documents, checking to see if there was anything off. I knew this was do or die. He would not repudiate anything he read, or give me any indication he found discrepancies between the law as he knew it and what those documents revealed, not yet anyway.
Eerily calm, Tony looked up over his lavender glasses into my eyes. He asked, “What I don’t get is that you got caught with 30 keys of pure powder and they just let you and that fool waltz out of there without bail. That’s very interesting to me.”
“Well, let me help dispel any doubt you have or accusations you might be cooking up in that head of yours. First off, it wasn’t ‘they just let us waltz out.’ It took time. As you may have forgotten I was there for weeks on a federal hold. The cop that jumped us, Phil Barney, is apparently some loose cannon out there in the sticks, thinks he’s some super trooper and a true believer, just doesn’t go by the book very often, and there have been lawsuits brought up against the town by people who have been arrested by this particular superhero deputy. Regardless of what he found, it’s fruit of the poisonous tree. He had no reason to enter the RV, no threat to life, any imminent danger or circumstances, nothing. He just took it upon himself to search the RV, and then, without a warrant, busts up that incredible hiding spot you put together with, I’ll assume, Raul, because a five-year-old could’ve found it.”
WHAM! Tony, having reached his limit, had slammed his fist on the table sending silverware, my cup of tea, and sugar packets onto the floor. By this point diners had quietly asked for their checks, leaving half-eaten food, slinking their way out of the soon-to-be crime scene restaurant.
Tony pointed his finger in my face hissing at me like a cornered rat. “Blame me? Who told you to take a nap for a mothafuckin’ day? You were on that transport to watch over that maricone! You forget who the landlord is and the tenant is all a sudden? ME, I’m the mothafuckin’ landlord, ME!” He pointed his thick shaking finger so close to my face I could smell the nicotine on it. “Don’t blame me because you fuckin’ checked out. That was your job, staying on top a him. You were right that we should’ve sent him alone, because apparently for 15 fucking hours he was alone!”
The waitress didn’t even attempt to move to the table. I had to slow this down, calm the beast, or else we’d need to move this meeting to another venue, and I was afraid of what Tony might do to me if he got a moment alone. I casually scooped up the mess off the floor.
Excerpted from the book Confidential Source Ninety-Six by Roman Caribe and Robert Cea, published by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2017 Roman Caribe and Robert Cea.