To the factory

| February 25, 2008

Pablo motions for me to have a seat behind the counter of the money exchange booth and starts making calls on his cell phone.

The director of the factory turns out to be in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, and my new friend seems to be trying to track down somebody who can authorize my visit in his place.

When he’s done calling, Pablo appears disappointed. But after more heated exchanges with his fellow money changers, he gets up and starts toward the exit. “Let’s go,” he says.

My mind is racing a hundred miles a minute as I follow him into a dingy parking garage.

With no English speakers around, I can probably sustain a sufficient level of confusion to avoid more pointed questioning. But what if I am introduced to a higher-level, multilingual factory official and have to explain the nature of my “negocios”?

And even if a company representative agrees to an interview, what would I ask him—which Brazilian custom officials are easiest to buy off? Are printed tear tapes really the deterrent their manufacturers make them out to be?

Pablo presses the remote entry button on his keys and the lights blink on a high-end Mercedes that seems strangely out of place in its surroundings.

I hesitate for a moment, questioning the wisdom of getting into the car with a stranger who could very well be connected to one of Latin America’s nastiest crime syndicates.

Tobacco Reporter’s parent company offers a modest life insurance, but no policies covering ransom payments, such as those held by senior officials in the mineral extraction industries.

If I got kidnapped, management would probably be better off hiring a new editor than paying the ransom anyway. It would certainly be cheaper.

Are you coming, or what?

As we climb into the car, I decide to approach the interview—if I ever get one—as if I were talking with a legitimate manufacturer: What is your market share? What’s your annual turnover? And, importantly, who are your suppliers?

After all, it is theoretically possible that the manufacturer we are about to visit is a model corporate citizen, playing by the rules, paying all taxes and investing in social responsibility.

On the other hand, if he is not, the answers to these standard questions should be revealing too.

Pointing to his watch and holding up two fingers, Pablo seems to indicate the factory is about 20 minutes away. He’s eager to make small talk but conversation doesn’t come easy. “Hillary or Obama?” he asks. My attempt to explain that noncitizens are not entitled to vote in the United States goes nowhere, so I ask him about Paraguay’s presidente.

“Idiota” is the reply.

We leave the city limits and the roads turn quiet but bumpy. Pablo is on his cell phone again. “My partner,” he says, handing the phone to me. The voice on the other end has a good command of English but there is so much static that it’s still difficult to make out what’s being said.

I gather that Pablo and his partner are some sort of contractors who do the occasional job for the cigarette factory. They have not been able to reach any of their contacts in the factory, but Pablo will drive there anyway and try his luck at the gate.

As we pull up to the factory, I snap a picture of what looks like a prison watch tower. But Pablo motions to put the camera away. “Police,” he says, sliding his index finger along his throat.

Category: Breaking News

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