Love and Loot in the Andes
Roy Petersen pops the cap off a Leo, one of Thailand’s cheapest beers. It’s getting dark out, and the lizards are laughing, a sort of rhythmic chuckle emanating from the jungle that surrounds his single-story concrete house near the Burmese border. Maps with elaborate notations line the walls inside and a table is covered with weapons: a ten-inch bowie knife, an OSS stiletto, and a combat tomahawk. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roy was a member of Third Force Reconnaissance Company in Vietnam, an elite precursor of the Marine Special Forces. Now, at age sixty-two, he’s tracking Al Qaeda through Southeast Asia, even though no one has asked him to. “I’m like a moth attracted to war,” he says.
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Tonight he’s planning his own private mission into Cambodia, and says it might be his last expedition. Fact is, Roy’s not expecting to make it back, so he sits down with a stack of photos to reminisce. There’s one of him in Vietnam as a cocky seventeen-year-old holding an M16. As a recon patrol leader, he spent months in the jungle spying on the North Vietnamese forces with a six-man squad. He ate larvae. He slept in the jungle. He survived. When he came out, they cleaned him up and the Secretary of the Navy awarded him the Navy Achievement Medal for heroism.
But that was a long time ago. Roy left active duty in 1972 when he was twenty-one. He is an old man now: He’s blind in one eye and both his hips have been replaced. His red hair went white, as did his unkempt beard, and wrinkles stream back from his eyes like water off a fast-moving car. As for many former members of the Special Forces, civilian life had never felt like enough to him, so he saved up the checks the Veterans Administration sent him for PTSD and started buying tickets to war zones around the world. Between 1985 and 2005, he travelled to the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. He’d land, go to the U.S. or British Embassy, and offer his services as a one-man intelligence agency. Usually, he was turned away. But sometimes his mix of boyish enthusiasm, marine training, and American can-do attitude got him work in the mercenary minor leagues: a body-guarding gig here, an insurance investigation there. For decades, he’d strung together a living.
“I’m circling the drain now,” he says. “But I’m not going down quietly. It’s gonna be suicide by Al Qaeda. There’ll be a hail of bullets.”
In the fading light, Roy flips through pictures from better days. There aren’t many: a marine buddy drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette with a good-looking woman (“He’s dead now”), another of a marine in dress blues (“Dead too”), and then a photo of a woman: dark lipstick, silver earrings, skin the color of mahogany. She’s wearing a suit with a blue turtleneck and her fists are balled. She looks like she could do some damage in a fight.
“Maria,” he says.
He’s quiet for a moment.
“Everything would have been different if Peru had worked out,” he says finally, staring at the photo. “I would have been in high clover.”
The killing started at a quarter past midnight on July 21, 2005. It was a cold night on the perimeter of Tucari, a high-altitude gold mine in the Peruvian Andes. Two guards—Jacinto Perez and Narciso Fuentes, both in their mid-twenties—eyed the frozen, midwinter moonlike landscape outside Security Post No. 1. They were at 16,079 feet, isolated from the world by wave after wave of jagged mountains. Not much survived out here: just wind-blasted gray talus and small clumps of battered, brown moss. Behind them, dump trucks worked Tucari’s giant open pit.
Perez and Fuentes saw headlights approach on the access road, Tucari’s main connection to the outside world. The armored transport was due: The mine’s vault contained a week’s haul of about seventy-four bars of doré, a mix of gold and silver, worth almost $3 million. The guards watched as an unfamiliar green double-cab pickup truck materialized out of the darkness. It came to a halt and Perez walked to the gate that blocked the mine entrance. There were six men inside. Two got out. One leveled a .38 revolver and shot Perez, killing him instantly. The other pushed through the gate. Fuentes had a 12-gauge inside the guardhouse, but a 9mm round put him down before he could get off a shot.
Minutes later, masked men surrounded Cesar Urrutia, Tucari’s security chief, in his sleeping quarters. After hearing pounding on his door, he’d reached for his gun but was tackled to the ground by someone who’d apparently crawled in through the window. Still in his pajamas, Urrutia was prodded into the frigid night along with a group of hostages, including Delia Escobedo, the forty-four-year-old production supervisor who carried the keys to the refinery.
The men loaded the employees into a mine ambulance and drove to the refinery, where the gold was stored. At this time of night, the building was empty, its iron door secured with an electronic lock that required a combination and a key. Forced entry would trigger a siren, alerting the miners, who lumbered through the night shift a half-mile away. One of the intruders shot out the security cameras and the alarm. With a gun to her head, Escobedo opened the electronic lock.
Inside the refinery, they filed down a hallway, passing a bathroom, a dressing room, an administrative office, and a security room. One of the thieves walked into the security room and pulled a VHS tape out of the CCTV system. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing and where they were going.
When they reached the vault’s padlocked door, the men made the hostages lie facedown on the floor with their hands on their heads. They demanded the keys, and when Escobedo said she didn’t have them, they fired a bullet past Urrutia’s head.“No puedo abrirla!”—I can’t open it—Escobedo screamed in tears.
Urrutia told the gunmen to use a long iron bar he’d spotted in a construction area nearby. The thieves used it to force the lock and walked into the vault room. Inside, dozens of golden bricks were stacked in a pile on the floor. With the hostages still lying on the ground, the men began ferrying the bars from the vault.
By dawn, they were gone—with 429 pounds of gold.
Two years later, Roy Petersen stepped out of a battered taxi in front of the Swissôtel, an eighteen-story luxury hotel in Lima, Peru. It was night and the parking lot was filled with Mercedes. A doorman in a black top hat and a silver tie held the door for him.
“Buenas noches, señor,” the doorman said, taking in the odd look of the five-foot-ten, two-hundred-pound American. Roy, fifty-six, had a bushy, reddish head of hair, a graying goatee, and a nose smashed sideways in a fight. Among other things, he’d picked up some mongrel philosophy on his travels, and he had come to believe he was the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Japanese ninja. He wore a piece of jade hanging from a silver chain around his neck and a Browning 9-millimeter in a fast-draw Milt Sparks holster under his jacket.
The jade, he thought, had magical powers. It was there to protect him from evil spirits. The gun was for everyone else.
The Swissôtel was popular with Peru’s elite: generals, politicians, businessmen. The place had a sweeping marble staircase in the lobby and was filled with massive flower arrangements, giving it a rarefied air. The whole scene made Roy uncomfortable. He’d rather be dusting it up in a combat zone than hobnobbing with Peruvian socialites over cocktails.
In La Locanda, the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant, he spotted Len Harris, the Australian mining consultant who had invited him there. Roy had spent the mid-1990s in Peru protecting mining operations against the Shining Path, the Maoist insurgency. At the time, Harris was the general manager at Yanacocha, the world’s second-largest gold mine, and he had tried to hire Roy to lead the mine’s security force. The company objected, judging Roy too coarse and unpolished to run the show.
Harris didn’t care about Roy’s refinement. What mattered was that Roy knew how to fight. He could handle everything from a .50 caliber Browning M2 machine gun to a garrote wire and had mastered the Filipino knife-fighting technique of stabbing an opponent thirty times in a matter of seconds. He also lived by a code that derived, in part, from his belief in his ninja heritage: He was loyal to the person who hired him. That’s why he’d been invited here tonight.
Harris was sitting with a silver-haired seventy-two-year-old man named Guido del Castillo, a Peruvian mining legend. Del Castillo’s companies reportedly produced about $140 million in gold per year—in 2006, he bought the former U.S. Embassy in Lima to house his collection of fluorescent crystals and sent the pope a gold nugget. Tonight, the tycoon had brought along a blond bombshell. She looked about half his age and turned out to be his wife. Roy tried to ignore the knockout while Del Castillo sized him up from under his bushy gray eyebrows.
“Roy started out as a machine-gun squad leader in Vietnam,” he began. Roy downed his drink; it was strong. Vietnam was thirty-five years ago, but even now it wasn’t completely over for him. He sometimes still remembered the corpses; friends, dismembered, their faces ripped away. He tried to concentrate on the conversation. Elegant diners nearby tipped their drinks and laughed at private jokes. Roy ordered another Pisco and drained that too.
“Did Shining Path work in the ’90s,” Harris added, oblivious.
The wife excused herself, saying she was going shopping. Once she was gone, Del Castillo looked back at Roy.
“Several years ago, we had a robbery at one of our mines,” he said in richly accented English. Del Castillo’s grandfatherly features darkened. “They got $3 million worth and killed two of the guards. We will never forget that.”
Just two months after the robbery, Peruvian police raided a gold dealer’s shop in Juliaca, a town seventy-five miles to the north of the mine. There was a firefight—a cop was shot—but they managed to arrest eight people in connection with the robbery and recover a small portion of the gold. Four confessed and gave detailed accounts of the heist but refused to divulge the location of the rest of the spoils. Then, about six months ago, two of the criminals bribed their guards to let them out of jail, and they hadn’t been found since. Del Castillo wanted those men brought in. He also wanted his gold back. Del Castillo’s own security team refused to investigate further; they thought they’d be killed if they probed too far. He needed an outsider, somebody crazy enough to take on killers and corrupt cops when no one else would.
“If you’d be interested, maybe you could review the case,” Del Castillo said to Roy.
“Sure,” Roy replied, playing it cool. “I charge expat rates, though.”
“Thousand a day,” he said casually. His usual per diem was $500.
Del Castillo handed Roy his business card and told him to come by the office to begin work.
Roy arrived in Lima trailing the wreckage of his life. He had planned to start an insurance-claim-investigation business with Clive Talbot, a friend who was a Lloyd’s of London broker in Lima. It seemed like a great idea when they had discussed it on the phone, but when Roy arrived, Talbot decided he didn’t want to leave his job after all. He offered to make some introductions, but he said that was the best he could do.
Roy ended up in a two-bedroom apartment in Lima, trying to cover the $650-a-month rent. All the money he’d made during a contracting gig in Iraq was funneled to overdue child support, so he was barely getting by on his disability checks from the VA. His career options had petered out long ago as he went from Marine Corps hero to failed bounty hunter to CIA reject on the fringes of the mercenary circuit. A marriage long since ended had given him three children, and he’d gone long stretches without seeing or hearing from them.
He’d never known his own parents: He was abandoned as a baby in Miami and always suspected that his birth mother was a prostitute. He was adopted by a couple from Illinois and raised in a quiet, working-class neighborhood in Northwest Chicago. An early memory: playing with green and red plastic toy soldiers on the carpet while his adoptive father—who had fought in World War Two—explained what a grenade was. From a young age, Roy knew he wanted to be a warrior.
The family already had another adopted son, Gordon, who was two years older than Roy. Roy felt that they treated his brother better than him. When he was nine, he saw Gordon rifling through their mother’s purse. Caught red-handed, Gordon shouted for their mom and told her that it was Roy who had stolen from her. Roy was whipped with a belt despite insisting he was innocent.
From a young age, Roy believed that if he had a chance to prove himself, his mother would see that he was at least as good as Gordon. But he felt like he never had the chance. “I just wanted her to love me like she loved my brother,” Roy says.
As teens, the boys quarreled, often violently. Their dad was away for months at a time—he worked as a yacht captain in the Caribbean—and their mother could do little to separate them. Once, she tried to break them apart and Roy shoved her forcefully. “Just let me defend myself, Ma!” he shouted. She called the police on him regularly after that, and eventually he had to appear in juvenile court. He remembers the judge calling him “incorrigible.”
The military seemed like the best place for him. His violent streak, coupled with his desire to distinguish himself, would be an asset. But his father told Roy it was a bad idea to join. It was 1968, and soldiers in Vietnam had a short life expectancy. Roy’s dad knew his son would be in harm’s way, particularly in the Marine Corps. He called the marines “bullet stoppers.” Still, at Roy’s insistence, his parents signed the release that allowed him to enlist before he turned eighteen.
Vietnam gave him what he was looking for. Whenever the bullets started flying and other men instinctively took cover, he was the guy who ran toward the shooting. He was the boy hell-bent on proving himself.
“Roy’s not afraid, period,” says Colonel Wayne Morris, now retired, one of Roy’s superiors in Vietnam. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing, because it can throw the enemy off and save the day. But it can also get everybody in a world of shit, because he would not back down. He turned into a goddamn bullet magnet.”
His oorah spirit got him reassigned to a newly formed elite unit: the Third Force Reconnaissance Company, a forebearer of today’s Marine Special Operations units. He was promoted to sergeant and sent into the jungle with a six-man squad to spy on the enemy. They were often twenty miles from the nearest friendlies—“twenty miles in Vietnam was like the other side of the world,” Colonel Morris says—and they were on their own for long stretches. “It takes a very special person with a special outlook, almost an invincibility.”
On one occasion, Roy’s team was spotted by the North Vietnamese and came under heavy fire. Roy called in an air strike almost directly on his location. The squad survived, and Roy was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal by the Secretary of the Navy, who noted that Roy’s actions “reflect great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Colonel Morris puts it more simply. “He was a wild child,” he says.
Roy was honorably discharged in 1972. A year later he met an emergency-room nurse named Jan at a self-improvement conference. They got married and settled down in Cook County, Illinois, where Roy took a job as a sheriff’s deputy and readied for life as a family man. It was a hard fit. He served as the alternate chauffeur for the police commissioner, a far cry from the intensity of jungle combat. When his first and only son was born, Roy named him after Smedley Butler, a highly decorated marine major general.
In 1976, he decided to reenlist in the military, this time in the Army, and ended up in a Special Forces reserve unit. By that time, the war in Vietnam was over, but Roy kept himself in shape, running ten miles a day and taking kung fu lessons while he waited for the next conflict to flare up. He served four years without a deployment and again was honorably discharged.
Nissa Hinks, his eldest daughter, recalls her dad as an affectionate man who was also capable of mood swings that could lead to irrational rages. One night, Hinks had trouble spelling the word father. Roy flew into a fury and forced her to hold a push-up while he spanked her. She was six.
“He was extremely passionate, for better and for worse,” Nissa says. “There were lots of hugs and kisses, and he would tell us he loved us…but then he’d snap about the smallest thing. My mom said he just wasn’t right in the head since he came back from the war.”
In 1983, Jan and Roy divorced, and Jan tried to cut Roy off from the kids. Roy didn’t help his case. When the children were seven, five, and four years old, he used a court-ordered visit to take them to see Rambo: First Blood Part II, a bloody cinematic vision of a misunderstood Vietnam veteran trying to free POWs in Southeast Asia. “That’s what your daddy is going to be doing,” he told them.
The judge was not amused and severely limited his visitation rights. After that, he rarely saw the kids, and then not at all. For years, Roy sent letters and birthday cards but Jan never passed them along to the children.
When Hinks was an adult, she found the cards in a bag in her mother’s room. “We just thought he wasn’t trying,” Hinks says. “We only knew the negative.”
With no family life to hold him back, Roy applied for his dream job as a field agent for the CIA. He says he even got an interview at the agency in 1985, but felt out of place. He was thirty-five and wearing an old sports jacket over a sizeable paunch. “That belly was out there,” he says. “I looked like an ex-cop, which is what I was.” It didn’t help that he charged the agency $40 as an expense reimbursement for a taxi when he actually rode the subway from the airport to his hotel. “I’m a Chicago boy,” he says by way of explanation. He wasn’t hired.
“I pulled the rug out from under myself,” he says, the pain of failure still fresh nearly thirty years later. “It was traumatic.”
In the mid-1980s, he drove to Los Angeles to take a stab at becoming a bounty hunter. He ran out of money and, after a week in a homeless shelter downtown, got a bed at the Veteran’s Medical Center near UCLA. He spent the next two years there, though most often he would pass his nights sleeping on the grass at the veteran’s cemetery across the street, curled up beside the headstones of wartime casualties. “I was destitute,” he says.
“The only skill set I had was that I was a Marine Corps special operator.”
Rather than admit defeat, Roy enrolled in terrorism-studies classes at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in the early 1990s and fell under the tutelage of Richard Ward, another former marine and a retired NYPD cop. Ward taught criminal investigation and was impressed by Roy’s intensity. In one class, they simulated a hostage crisis and Roy climbed through the school’s heating vents to corner the “captors.” “He was not a normal student,” Ward says. “Several teachers thought he was crazy.”
But Ward saw a guy with good intentions who got messed up in the war and now saw himself as a great American hero, whether or not America wanted him for the role. “He always had this desire to be a CIA guy, but he just wasn’t going to make it,” Ward says. Still, Ward admired the fact that Roy refused to give up. “He’s got an innate belief that he can do anything,” Ward says. “So he tends to oversell himself.”
Getting work was never easy for Roy, but it was even harder as an aging mercenary. In 2003, he had a hip replacement and shortly after accepted an assignment guarding interpreters in Iraq. During the pre-deployment physical, he bribed the doctor $200 to “overlook” the fresh scar from the surgery. He managed to fly under the radar, but was sent back to the U.S. after thirty-five days for, he says, sticking up for Nepalese colleagues who were owed six months of back pay. He returned to Iraq in 2004 to guard ordnance-disposal teams but says he was sent back home after six months following another dispute with his superiors.
His health wasn’t helping him: He had a long list of problems. During a parachute drop, a tree branch had pierced his cornea—he still couldn’t see well through his left eye. He’d had his rotator cuff replaced in 1988, and in 2002, a gallbladder removal had gone awry, landing him in a coma for ten days. To his friends, it seemed as though he wouldn’t last much longer.
“I assumed he was dead,” Ward says. “But the next thing I hear, he’s going to Peru.”
Lima is a beachfront city of about eight million people with a shortage of traffic lights. Cars honk their way through intersections while barkers hang out of buses shouting destinations over the roar of traffic. The sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians, jugglers, roadside shoe polishers, and vendors offering fried guinea pig. For long stretches of the year, the city is filled with a cold, white fog that the locals call la garúa. It blots out the sun and turns diesel exhaust into a sticky grime that coats everything from trees to high-rises. Herman Melville was stationed there from 1843 to 1844 and dubbed it the “strangest, saddest city thou canst see.”
For Maria Cruz*, it was the setting for a long series of disappointments. The forty-five-year-old policewoman had grown up in Pueblo Libre, a middle-class district on the eastern side of Lima. Her father was a mechanical engineer who ran a strict house: As a teen, she couldn’t go out by herself and her mother walked her to church on Sundays. In her room at night, she would listen to the sound track for Grease—she loved Travolta as the bad-boy rebel—and dance by herself. She dreamed of a storybook romance but was still single and living in her childhood room into her thirties.
She had joined the Peruvian National Police a few years out of college. The training had been full of excitement and promise: She had learned to interrogate suspects and fire a gun but was assigned an administrative job. For the next twenty-two years she shuffled from desk to desk: a secretary with a badge, never issued a weapon. She spent her days typing memos and answering the phone for senior police officials. It was far from exciting.
When she was thirty-six, she married a computer engineer who worked for a bank, and she finally moved out of her childhood room. It was a shot at happiness, but it didn’t work out; two years later, she moved back home with her parents.
After the divorce, she rarely went out. One night in 2006, a coworker and friend insisted she come to a dinner party at a luxurious penthouse overlooking the ocean. There’d be some interesting people there, the friend said. It would do her good to get out. Maria decided to give it a try.
She didn’t go overboard: a little eye shadow, some lipstick. There was no need to get overly ambitious. She looked at herself in the mirror. At forty-five, she was no longer the young girl who dreamed of driving off in a hot rod with a greaser. Still, she looked pretty good.
She arrived at the party with her friend. It was an amazing place: a triplex penthouse on a cliff over the ocean. There were balconies on each floor, with the smell of ocean spray coming off the sea below. Her friend introduced her to the host, an American gold prospector who was renting the place.
That’s when she saw Roy. He was sitting on a couch, staring at her. He stood and walked right over to her. Roy had met the gold prospector through Lima’s expat community and now the guy introduced him to Maria.
“Soy uno assessor de seguirdad,” Roy said in his flat American accent. He employed the shotgun approach to the language: His Spanish was a reckless mishmash of English and something else nobody could quite decipher. It made her laugh. She told him that she also worked in security, but only as an administrator for the National Police.
To her, he looked like an American cowboy: Battle-scarred, solitary, and mysterious.
They sat next to each other at dinner. All through the evening, Roy couldn’t keep his eyes off her. She had a wide, attractive face, a strong jaw, nice curves, and deep dimples when she smiled. She reminded him of Marilyn Monroe.
He told her he’d traveled the world as a security consultant. In reality, his insurance-claim-investigation business had fallen through and he hadn’t gotten the Del Castillo job yet, so he was running low on cash. But he kept his shortcomings to himself and wowed her with globe-trotting stories of adventure. She didn’t see a guy running out of time; she saw a handsome foreigner with the flinty air of a man who had seen a lot of violence.
After the party, Roy made various excuses to call her. One time, he asked for advice on getting a weapons license—an unusual cover for a romantic call. Another time, they talked about his work-permit application. Then he landed the Del Castillo job and realized he had a serious problem: He didn’t speak Spanish well enough to conduct the investigation. He needed a native speaker by his side. Maria, who didn’t speak English, wasn’t the best fit for the job. But when Roy dialed her number, he wasn’t calling her for just her language skills or police background.
On the phone, he explained that he was starting a new case and wanted to know if she would be interested in assisting him. It would be a complicated and difficult job, and he couldn’t do it alone. He couldn’t see her, but she was smiling. She tried not to sound too excited and said she was due some vacation time so she’d ask for some time off. They agreed to meet the following day.
Del Castillo operated out of a low-rise in San Isidro, Lima’s business district. The area was home to skyscrapers, banks, and the Ministry of the Interior. Del Castillo’s place was a beige-and-white four-story building surrounded by a spiked iron gate topped with an electric fence. There was no signage. A bunch of guards monitored the perimeter.
A guard directed Roy and Maria to the third floor. Inside, the place looked like it was stuck in the ’70s: wood-paneled walls, cheap brown carpet, no elevator, just no-slip rubber on the stairs and a framed underground-rescue certification that Del Castillo had received in 1961. While foreign mining companies built flashy headquarters in the area, Del Castillo preferred to keep a low profile. He’d started as a mine engineer and spent his early years underground. This was the office of someone more accustomed to working in a mineshaft.
Rolando Alva, Del Castillo’s executive assistant, met them on the third floor in a perfectly tailored suit and led them into a room with leather chairs. Del Castillo came in and shook hands with Roy.
“This is Maria,” Roy said, a touch awkwardly. “She’ll be assisting me.”
“I am the senior executive assistant to the Office of Criminal Investigations,” Maria said in crisp Spanish. “I’ve been with the force for over twenty years, but I’m on leave to assist Mr. Petersen.”
Roy smiled. She made him look good and he could tell Del Castillo was impressed. He shook her hand and noted that it would be good to have someone from the National Police helping out.
They ran over the terms of the engagement: Roy was to report to the executive assistant; Del Castillo would authorize Roy to speak to anyone in the company. Roy watched him closely but also kept an eye on Maria. She was accustomed to dealing with senior officials in the police department and helped set a cordial but relaxed tone. Plus, she looked damn good in her navy blue suit.
Del Castillo explained that justice needed to be served: Men had been killed, property destroyed, and millions of dollars worth of gold still was missing. He wanted to know who was behind the heist.
“We’ll get to it,” Roy said.
“Okay,” Del Castillo said, standing. “Go get them.”
Outside, Roy watched Maria wave down a taxi. It was late afternoon and Roy didn’t want her to go. He had not felt this good in a long time. “Tienes hambre?” he asked in his strange-sounding Spanish. “How about dinner? I’ll take you somewhere nice.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling.
Roy took her to Larcomar, an outdoor mall perched on a cliff above the ocean. They found a table at Pardos, a nice but simple place famous for its rotisserie chicken seasoned with a secret blend of fourteen ingredients. He was a regular, though most of the time he ate by himself. Tonight, they sat by a window overlooking the beach and Roy ordered a carafe of sangria. “They do it nice here,” he said.
Maria had not been on a date for two years, ever since her divorce. She felt like a teenager again, with a giddy sense of stepping into the unknown. Over dinner, Roy peppered her with questions about her life. After the divorce, she moved back home. Her mother had passed away, so she ran the household, cooking for her nieces and nephews and caring for her dad. When she was younger, she had traveled all over South America. She went to university. But then things settled down. There had not been a lot of excitement in her life for a while.
And Roy was exciting, like Danny Zuko in Grease. When the sangria arrived, he poured her a glass and talked about how it was so cold at five in the morning in Iraq that the puddles would freeze, but by noon there it would be 140 degrees. He told her about the time a friend sat on what he thought was a log in Vietnam only to discover it was a giant python. “It was a mind fuck,” he told her. “Everything in Vietnam was dangerous.”
He was unlike anyone she had ever met before. She respected the fact that he took on difficult jobs, though she didn’t know enough about his past to realize that those were the only ones available to him now.
He threw back a slug of wine. “We gotta get geared up for this,” he said. His enthusiasm made her laugh. He started talking too quickly for her to understand, but she saw the sudden optimism. He was like a kid again.
“We’ll get the police files, the insurance report,” he rattled off.
“It’s a closed case,” Maria said in slow Spanish, so Roy could understand her. “It won’t be easy to get information from the police.”
Roy smiled at her. “That’s what I have you for,” he said.
The next day, March 21, 2007, they started work on the second floor of Del Castillo’s building. Rolando showed them to a small office with a single desk. There was a small stack of paperwork on it. “Let me know if you need anything else,” he said politely and left.
Maria pulled up a chair and started going through the papers. They had to sit side-by-side, close enough for her to smell Roy’s Givenchy cologne and see the muscles in his arms working as he rifled through documents. She tried to focus and explained the words Roy didn’t understand.
With Maria’s help, Roy deciphered the police report and noticed a number of suspicious things. For one, the heist had occurred just before the gold was due to be transported. It appeared that the criminals knew when the vault would be full. They could have gotten that information from the transport company, but if they knew the armored truck’s route and patterns, why hadn’t they attacked it on the road? The fact that they felt more comfortable going into the mine suggested that they had someone—or perhaps a group—on the inside. Eight people had been arrested and sent to jail for the crime, but maybe they were just fall guys, set up by corrupt cops to help protect more powerful people higher up the chain.
For two days, Roy and Maria pored over the paperwork and started to notice that it wasn’t all there. There were gaps in the police report. Each time they came to a missing section, Roy called Rolando to ask for the omitted papers. Rolando was able to produce some of the documents, but key pages were often missing even then. It was as if someone was deliberately trying to frustrate the investigation.
At three in the afternoon on the third day of the investigation, Cesar Urrutia arrived for questioning. He was fifty years old, bald and barrel-chested at five foot eight, and had a round face with a double chin. His thick, black mustache angled steeply down like the silhouette of a bird in flight. It gave him a belligerent, menacing look.
Roy took a seat and motioned for Urrutia to sit across the desk from him. On the wall, Roy had tacked photos of the guards killed during the heist. He wanted them looming over the conversation.
“You were an army captain,” Roy said. He purposefully tried to sound impressed.
Urrutia appeared relaxed, as if this interloping American could never rattle him. He recounted his experiences fighting the Shining Path in the late ’70s and the Ecuadorians in the ’80s. Roy just nodded and made sure Maria wrote it all down. He asked Urrutia about the robbery, and the former security chief described how the men had suddenly appeared in his room. It seemed suspicious to Roy that the thieves gained entry by climbing through an open window, particularly since Urrutia had said he was already awakened by the knocking at his door. Wouldn’t he have seen someone clambering through the window? Urrutia said simply that the thieves had surprised and overwhelmed him.
He did imply that he knew a lot more about who was involved, going so far as to say that he recognized one of the thieves. He gave the impression that this case was about more than just a robbery; that there were unseen, corrupt forces at play even within Del Castillo’s company. But he also said that he’d received threats and that “he and his family would be killed if he returned to the mine.”
Maria was impressed by the way Roy ran the meeting. Even when Urrutia said something suspicious, Roy kept the conversation breezy and conversational. It was a good tactic and kept Urrutia talking. It was fun to watch Roy work.
The interview lasted an hour and a half and after Urrutia left, Roy was brimming with confidence. He felt like Urrutia had made a lot of “questionable statements,” as he put it, and Maria agreed with him. After years of disappointments, Roy felt like he actually had a shot at cracking a multimillion-dollar case. It was an opportunity at last to prove himself.
In late March, a former subordinate of Urrutia, Jair Yaro, came in for an interview. After Urrutia’s departure, Yaro had been promoted to be Del Castillo’s supervisor of operations and managed the company’s security teams. He hadn’t been at the mine during the heist, and Roy thought he’d be cooperative with the new investigation. But when Yaro sat down, he seemed unwilling to talk. He stared at Roy darkly and answered in short, clipped sentences.
Yaro warned Roy that seeking information about this case was a dangerous pursuit. The region around the mine was an epicenter of smuggling, narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, and arms dealing. When Yaro had looked into the theft, he received a call telling him to drop the investigation or his mother would be hurt. He implied that Roy should also leave the case alone.
He added that he heard the gold was in a town called Sandia, in the mountains of southern Peru, but that it would be a death sentence to go there.
“These people are very dangerous,” he said.
Roy and Maria briefly made eye contact. Maria came to call it la mirada—“the look,” an acknowledgment that they had hit on something. It was the first mention that the gold might be recoverable. The quick, electric glance between them was enough to communicate their mutual excitement.
After the Yaro interview, Roy asked to meet with Del Castillo, explaining that he might have a shot at finding the stolen gold. It’d be dangerous, but he’d be willing to take on a lot of risk if there was some upside to it for him. Roy’s terms: If he found the loot, he would get 5 percent of what was recovered. Del Castillo smiled and agreed.
Roy was feeling buoyant, as though nothing could stop him. One afternoon, Maria stopped by his apartment to talk about the case for a few minutes, but minutes turned to hours, and day turned to dusk as they went over the details. Roy called a local restaurant and had them deliver a dinner of spareribs with anticuchos de corazón—skewered beef hearts, a popular local dish. His apartment had a patio overlooking the neighborhood and he put on a Frank Sinatra album. “You know, I’m a pretty good singer,” Roy said. As proof, he stood and sang along to “It Was a Very Good Year.”
“When I was seventeen, it was a very good year for small-town girls and soft summer nights,” he crooned. Maria laughed. Roy loved the way she looked at that moment.
The song ended. Roy knew things were going to get dangerous. He had to head into the Andes, despite all the warnings. But she didn’t have to go. He told her she could stay behind.
“And how are you going to understand anything?” she said, offended that he thought he could do without her.
He chuckled and agreed: He did need her. “Then, if we come under fire, I want you to run,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I die. You escape.”
She laughed. It sounded crazy to her. Her life had certainly gotten more colorful. She leaned in close and kissed him.
On Wednesday, May 2, 2007, Roy and Maria landed in Juliaca, a windswept city in southern Peru on a plateau over 12,000 feet above sea level. It’s a high-altitude town of slightly more than 225,000 people living in brick buildings with metal roofs, and it is the closest major city to the Tucari mine. Three-wheeled taxis swarmed over the bumpy, partially paved roads. Even the paved parts were covered in a slick black sheen as vehicles rolled through sodden potholes and spread mud everywhere. Roy, as usual, was outfitted for combat: He’d equipped himself with two pistols, ammo, handcuffs, “knives x3,” a garrote, for impromptu strangling — and “skivvies.” He topped off his look with a brown fedora, which he liked to think of as his battle hat.
Roy and Maria checked into the Royal Inn, the nicest hotel in town, which wasn’t saying much. It was a three-story red and gray art deco place that looked like a battered Mondrian painting and featured a crackling cast-iron stove in the lobby. It felt like an outpost on the far side of the moon.
The altitude started to creep up on Maria. It was hard to breathe and she got a headache. Roy handed her some soroche pills, an Andean mountain medicine that lessened the impact of the high elevation. The pills contained acetazolamide, a drug that could produce dizziness, light-headedness, and a sense of heightened awareness as side effects. Roy had been taking it for years to prevent altitude sickness.
In their room that night, Roy kept his 9-millimeter close and Maria closer. It was exciting to be on a mission with her, to have her sleeping beside him. He loved the shape of her body, the rise and fall of her breathing. He had finally met a woman who was ready to go anywhere with him.
In the morning, she was feeling better. At nine, they headed down to the hotel’s dining room to talk to Marcellino Chuchuyo, a Del Castillo employee who had helped in the original investigation of the crime. While Maria took notes, Roy asked Chuchuyo to describe any leads from the earlier inquiry that hadn’t been followed thoroughly. Chuchuyo said that a local cop named Victor Terrazas had come forward at one point. Terrazas had interviewed an inmate at Yanamayo Prison who claimed to know the location of the gold. At the time, Urrutia had said it was too dangerous to adequately investigate that lead and never pursued it.
At half past eight that night, under a full moon, they pulled into Del Castillo’s regional outpost in Juliaca. The compound was encircled by a mottled white twenty-foot-high concrete wall and felt like a fortress. The guards opened the gargantuan iron gate and they rolled inside to meet Terrazas, who had agreed to talk.
They met him inside and sat down in an office with a battered metal desk. Terrazas explained that a group of local thieves had been arrested and blamed for the heist but that that was only part of the story. Terrazas believed that Del Castillo’s employees never fully investigated the crime. He didn’t offer any explanation as to why that might be, but the implication was that someone within the organization didn’t want too much revealed.
Two months after the heist, Terrazas said, the police had staged the raid on a gold dealer’s shop that resulted in the return of a small amount of the stolen gold and the arrest of the thieves. The bust was tidy PR: The criminals confessed, some of the gold was recovered, and the case was essentially shelved. In reality, Terrazas said, it cloaked something much more insidious: The police had made a deal with the criminals. According to Terrazas, almost all of the gold was at the dealer’s shop but the police split what they seized among themselves and the criminals. Terrazas had been left out of the deal, which was probably why he was talking now.
Terrazas also suggested that they might want to track down a woman named Jessica. She was the lover of a high-ranking cop in the area and she might be able to shed some light on the fate of the gold.
Roy looked at Maria, and she felt the tingle of a mirada pass between them.
On Friday, May 4, Roy woke with a crushing headache. It was unusual for him; he’d handled the altitude in the past. At breakfast, he wasn’t hungry. Maria was worried, but Roy said he was fine. They had surveillance to do. Maria had used her police contacts to cull the addresses of the men charged with the robbery, and Roy wanted to visit them to get a sense for how they and their families were living now, two years after the heist. If any had gotten a cut of the gold, there might be some signs of wealth.
They hired a driver and headed forty-six miles across the high-altitude plains to Puno, a town on the edge of a giant lake. The landscape became mountainous and kicked up into the sky. Roy felt a wave of nausea and popped a soroche pill. He didn’t have time to be sick.
The driver steered them into Barrio Dos de Mayo, the neighborhood where many of the thieves lived. As they bounced down the rutted roads, they snapped pictures of the robbers’ houses. One was newly remodeled—an unusual sight in the poor neighborhood—and had a new truck parked alongside it. Roy circled the address on his list. “That’s a red flag,” he said to Maria.
As they pulled away, Maria noticed that Roy was breathing rapidly.
“Roy, te sientes bien?” she asked him.
“Just a little altitude,” he said. He was more interested in pulling the home’s property records and tracking the occupants than discussing his health. Roy looked okay, but his breathing worried Maria.
Back at the hotel, Roy downed an energy drink and rifled through the records he’d compiled, looking for clues. There was a strange description of a bribe Urrutia had requested for the chief of police in Juliaca. The explanation, written by Urrutia, claimed that the police had refused to investigate the crime unless they received some compensation. “They asked us for fifty bags of cement in order to finish the roof of the general hospital they were building,” Urrutia noted. “We agreed to give them the cement.” But after the cement was delivered, the investigation still went nowhere.
Roy started to form a theory: The heist had been organized by a high-level Del Castillo employee, with the cooperation of the police in Juliaca and Puno. Because Terrazas was left out of the proceeds, he might be angry enough to help Roy find the gold.
That night, Maria noticed a rattle in Roy’s breathing. He was having trouble standing and his thinking had started to cloud. He insisted to her that he’d be better in the morning. “I just need a good night’s sleep,” he said.
But in the morning, Roy was worse. As they walked down the hotel hallway, he leaned on her and she could barely support him.
“We need to go to talk to a doctor,” she said.
“I’ll be fine,” he snapped. He sent a messenger to the ministry of public records to pull the deed of the house with the new truck. He was expecting it back quickly and wanted to comb through it.
They went back to the room and Roy lay down. He said they should go ahead with the next interview, and then he’d check in with a doctor. Maria ignored him. His breathing was getting worse. She went down to ask the clerk for the address of the nearest hospital and told him to call a cab.
When she got back to the room, Roy’s face and hands were white. To Maria, it looked like his blood wasn’t flowing. He could barely breathe.
“Let’s do the interview,” he managed to say.
“No,” she said emphatically and started giving orders with the authority of a high-ranking general. She hoisted him up and dragged him to the lobby. As she helped him into the taxi, he passed out.
“Vamos, vamos!” Maria shouted at the driver, and they tore away. For all of Roy’s talk about protecting her, Maria was now doing the protecting.
At the hospital, the doctors took an X-ray of his chest. One of his lungs had collapsed and both were filled with fluid. It was a pulmonary edema—a common problem at high altitudes—and there appeared to be a problem with his heart as well. “You’re lucky she brought you in,” a doctor told Roy. Then he took Maria aside and explained that Roy’s condition was critical. He needed to get to a lower elevation. “If you don’t get him back to Lima, he’ll die,” the doctor said.
The following day, she strapped an oxygen mask on Roy and got him on a flight to Lima.
For the next five days, Maria refused to leave Roy’s side at Clínica Vesalio, one of Peru’s top hospitals. She questioned the nurses and doctors and tried to help Roy understand what was going on. One doctor told him that he had a hole in his heart, as if it had “exploded.” His health had failed him again, but this time, he had a woman committed to keeping him alive. Maria sat beside his bed at night, reciting Our Father over and over and begging God to save Roy. “He is a good person,” she prayed.
Their relationship had taken a turn. Roy now depended on her to bring him water, help him stand, for almost everything. Most of the women in Roy’s life had left when he got sick; his last serious relationship ended when the lady refused to visit him in the hospital after a hip surgery. Maria was different. She was still there.
“Thank God I have you,” he rasped.
But as grateful as he was to have her with him, he started to feel something else. For years, he’d lived alone and prided himself on his toughness. Now, when she tried to help him up, he found himself snapping at her. He liked playing the hero, not having her see him weak and wounded. Even if he needed it, he didn’t want to be cared for. What he wanted to do was regain his strength, right in front of her eyes, and return to the case.
Maria didn’t care if Roy wasn’t the fearsome warrior he continued to imagine himself to be. “You should rest,” she said time and again. The gold didn’t matter. The case didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was alive and they were together.
Roy wasn’t convinced. He wanted to believe that he had done something to save himself and argued that Maria’s fast thinking and constant attention weren’t the only things that had kept him alive in Juliaca. His jade talisman had played a part too. It was missing, most likely lost or left behind in the chaos of their departure, and he believed that it had sacrificed itself to save him.
He quickly found another piece of jade, strung it around his neck, and called Del Castillo. He insisted he was ready to get back to work. “We’ve developed enough from Puno, even though we didn’t finish what my goals were, to carry on the investigation,” Roy told him.
Del Castillo was sympathetic. His faith in Roy appeared to stem in part from the fact that Roy was a complete outsider, especially useful when there was the possibility that people within his own organization were involved in a cover-up. He agreed to let him continue.
Roy started working from the hospital. Maria wasn’t happy about it, but his tenacity was one of the things she admired about him. She also wanted him to be happy, and realized she couldn’t stop him anyway.
From his hospital bed, Roy called Terrazas and asked if he was willing to help find the gold. Terrazas said he was on board—Roy dubbed him El Resentido, the Resentful One, because of Terrazas’s feeling toward his superiors. Terrazas said he’d talk to Jessica, the girlfriend of the area’s commanding officer. He said she knew a lot and, for a price, would be willing to talk. On Tuesday, May 8, Terrazas was set to meet her in Juliaca but she never showed.
That Thursday, the doctors released Roy and told him to take it easy. He did the opposite. When Maria got him back to his apartment, he paid a military intelligence officer to pull Jessica’s national identity card, which had a photo and an address. That’s when Roy got a dumbfounding message from Yaro, the Arruntani security officer who had warned Roy to be careful in the Andes. Yaro wanted Roy to know that he already had talked to Jessica about the missing gold and that she was willing to meet with Roy.
“How the hell does Yaro know Jessica?” Roy asked Maria. She had no idea. It was doubly suspicious because it was the first time anybody in the company voluntarily had called to offer information. Yaro was clearly trying to get between Jessica and Roy. It also suggested that Yaro was making moves at the same time they were.
The next day, Yaro called and asked to have a private conversation with Roy. Maria said she’d have Roy call him back. Roy sensed a trap. He had Maria return Yaro’s call and say that Roy was off the case. He’d rather keep the guy confused and work his other channels to find out what Jessica had to say.
Roy decided to call a meeting with Del Castillo. It was time to explain that people within Del Castillo’s company might be involved in the crime. He was going to have to go after company employees, and for that he needed a green light.
To set a positive tone, Roy bought a massive spread of food. There were mini croissants from a French bakery, sliced Peruvian cheeses, roast beef, turkey, wine, and champagne. He wasn’t entirely sure what a millionaire mining-tycoon expected. “I went whole hog,” he told Maria when he got back from shopping. She laughed at his earnestness; his enthusiasm was endearing, but she was conflicted. She didn’t want him to kill himself for the job, but she also didn’t want him to be crushed if it fell apart.
On the morning of Saturday, May 26, Del Castillo and his assistant Rolando arrived at Roy’s apartment. The assistant took the elevator to Roy’s sixth-floor apartment but Del Castillo hoofed it up the stairs, preferring the exercise even at age seventy-two. Roy was nervous. He still had a rattle in his lungs and worried that Del Castillo wouldn’t want to keep working with someone so beat-up and broken.
Now, with Del Castillo taking a seat, Maria poured tea for everybody and made small talk, something that Roy was never good at in Spanish. Del Castillo seemed at ease and Roy was thankful Maria was there. “She could charm the teeth out of a tiger,” he thought.
Roy gripped a pointer and used it to tap the wall, which he had covered with maps of Juliaca and Puno, as well as photos of the criminals and some of Del Castillo’s employees. “Puno was a win, despite my health,” he said. “I developed informants. I put more pieces in the puzzle; the puzzle is getting clearer.” Roy declared that his investigation had a 90 percent probability of success.
Maria watched him with smile. He was no longer the frail man who she had nursed back to health. He seemed larger-than-life now, an avenging crusader who was going to right every wrong. She didn’t know what Del Castillo was thinking, but she was sold.
Roy explained that his research indicated that someone within Del Castillo’s company had orchestrated the heist. The turncoat had likely coordinated the robbery with the police, who then jailed a bunch of low-level criminals and blamed the theft on them. The gold was still missing because the gang fingered for the crime wasn’t actually running the operation. Roy believed that somebody close to Del Castillo was responsible for the whole thing.
The room was quiet for a second. Del Castillo glanced at Rolando and then got up to look at the connections Roy had drawn between the thieves and Del Castillo’s security team. There were lines connecting photos of Urrutia and Yaro with Jessica and a variety of cops in Juliaca and Puno. There were symbols next to Urrutia and Yaro indicating that they had suspicious backgrounds and a notation indicating that Roy planned to conduct a financial-asset investigation on Urrutia.“I’m ready to go to hell for you,” Roy said, desperate to keep going. “I just need some more running room.”
“Okay, let’s get them,” Del Castillo said.
He seemed to be on board, but it wasn’t especially encouraging that he drank only half a glass of wine before leaving. An enormous amount of food remained on the table. The guy had barely touched it. Roy decided to count it as a win anyway, tossed back a glass of champagne and hugged Maria. He was still in it.
He again picked up the threads of the investigation, but now, in the wake of the meeting, he began to discover how fragile they were. People stopped returning his calls. He couldn’t get a hold of Terrazas, Chuchuyo, or a number of others within Del Castillo’s company. Finally, on Saturday, June 23, he e-mailed Del Castillo to point out that his efforts were being frustrated. “We sincerely believe that there are in your company employees who wish us to fail for various motives,” he wrote.
That weekend, Jessica was arrested. The authorities in Juliaca alleged that she was transporting $120,000 worth of contraband across the Bolivian border and was “the ringleader of one of the principal smuggling rings in Puno,” according to a story published in El Comercio, a national paper. As she was hauled from court, she shouted to a reporter. “Ask the chief of police why he protects his friends,” she demanded.
Maria had been trying for weeks to get permission for Roy to enter Peru’s prisons, but his application had been rejected repeatedly, each time for obscure technical reasons. If Jessica was about to talk, she was now in a place Roy couldn’t reach.
Del Castillo never responded to Roy’s message. Roy believed that he had helped Del Castillo to grasp the corruption around him—from the police to his employees—but Del Castillo cut him off abruptly. From Roy’s point of view, someone inside had gotten nervous and probably worked behind the scenes to shut Roy’s investigation down. The way he saw it, he had become too much of a threat.
Del Castillo offers another explanation. “We never got any results with him,” he now says.
Either way, the checks stopped coming. The job was over.
Roy quickly spiraled into a depression. He couldn’t stop thinking about the gold and remained convinced that he could solve the case if he just had Del Castillo’s support. It was driving him crazy.
But for Maria, none of it mattered. Hunting for the gold was exciting, but finding Roy was much more than that. “The most important thing was the relationship, the friendship, what happened, everything with Roy,” she says. “That was the most powerful thing.”
Roy wavered. He felt like he needed Maria, but he also was determined to prove himself on his own. “Maria was like an angel, because she accepted people for what they are,” Roy says. The problem was that Roy wanted to be more than what he was.
On July 10, he glanced outside his window. Lima was in the grip of an endless gray fog: The garúa mist had filled the city with its drizzle. It was his birthday. He was fifty-seven and the burst of energy he’d felt for the past few months was gone. At first, with Maria he had been able to play the part of the guy he’d always wanted to be. Her belief in him made him feel like a winner, but now the truth was there for anyone to see: He was a sick, aging man and Maria’s doting attention only reinforced that reality.
He started popping pain pills to manage the pain he felt in his hip. Initially, he took just one or two a day, but eventually, he was downing handfuls at a time and soon developed an ulcer. Maria came over to cook and keep him company. She tried to convince him that he could settle down, find easier work, and enjoy life.
But by November, he announced that he had to go to the U.S. to treat the ulcer. It was just going to be for a little while, three to six months, long enough to get the ulcer under control. He said he’d figure out a way to get her up to the U.S. to visit him.
The day before his flight, he cooked Maria a big breakfast. He made pork chops, sausage, hash browns with onions, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes. He was giving up his apartment and leaving most of his stuff with her. He told her he’d be back as soon as he was well.
The next day, she took him to the airport and helped him into a wheelchair. Her brother came with them and took a picture of them. Roy avoided looking at the camera. Maria smiled hopefully.
She kissed him gently. “I’ll see you soon,” she said.
He waved good-bye and disappeared into the terminal.
It’s late now in Thailand. Roy closes the photo file. The picture of Maria disappears from his screen. He didn’t bring her to the U.S.; they never saw each other again. In 2012, she married another man. She had her own dreams to look after, and when she met a charming travel agent, she moved to the Canary Islands with him.
Roy has tried to stay focused. Recently, one of his college professors hired him as part of a Department of Defense research program to study how terrorists in Thailand use social media. But it was a desk job; Roy wanted fieldwork. He came here in 2011 to hunt terrorists, not to sit at a computer.
Now he has zeroed in on what he believes to be Al Qaeda’s local base of operations and is planning his approach. He may not have made it to the big time—the CIA, DEA, FBI, or any other respectable investigative body—but he’s never given up. In the morning, he’ll walk into the jungle, where Al Qaeda is waiting.