I was in Tel Aviv with Jayce, killing time. He was supposed to be waiting for his contact, coming in off the boat from Athens. With no phone number
or email, all we could do was wait. So every day, Jayce went down to the Dizengoff fountain, to a little café nearby. And waited all evening long,
playing chess with the locals.
I was still nervous about being abroad with no passport. So I stayed indoors until I could get some legit-looking papers. We were staying at the
apartment of one of Jayce’s countless contacts in the Middle East. This one was an American, Chris, and his girlfriend, Bilha.
The couple rented a third floor walk-up in a neighborhood that looked like it could have been in Paris or New York. Shops and Haute Couture on the
street level, offices on the next two floors, with overpriced apartments higher up. Tree-lined avenues with cafes and bistros fighting for space on
the sidewalks, while boutiques elbowed in on the busier roads. A few bars and pubs were tucked amid basement warehouses in alleys and side
We were enduring what passes for the rainy season in Israel. It had stormed in the pre-dawn hours, then switched to a light muggy drizzle, with
perfectly still air, in the mid seventies.
I was sleeping on an ancient felt-covered air mattress which bore the duck-tape bandages from an unceasing parades of sleepover guests, or
“floppers.” Jayce woke me up with the stub of a toe, saying that he needed to go someplace special this morning. Bilha, Chris’s knockout of a
girlfriend, made omelets for us in the kitchen, while Jayce and Chris talked about the currency market.
On his way out the door, Jayce said to Chris, “He’s the one I told you about, the one who wrote the ‘Interview with the Alchemist’ article on
that paranoia website.” Turning to me, Jayce explained, “Chris is a gun-runner. He thought you could interview him like you did for the
alchemist . . . you know, twenty questions and all that. . .”
With a kiss on the cheek for Bilha, and a wave to the room, Jayce left without another word.
Let’s go out on the balcony, we can talk there.” Chris intoned as he ushered me out through the sliding glass door and onto a covered porch with
two chaise-lounges and a low table. He hollered for Bilha to bring us two espressos as I rummaged in my rucksack for pen and paper.
Outside, I flopped onto the empty chaise and began, “Chris, maybe you could tell me about the arms trade . . .” But Chris sat up as he waved me
off with his hand.
“No, we do it like in your story. Twenty questions, and no more.”
I paused for a moment, biting the cap of my pen as I looked at the blank paper. “Fine. How did you get started in the arms trade?”
The chaise lounge creaked as Chris leaned back, studying the balcony’s view of a side street lined with cafes and bookstores.
“I started in college. I was broke, and most of my friends were rich kids. They were all going to Padre Island for Spring break. This was at UT
Austin. Practically the whole town goes down to the Gulf every Spring. But I had no money. There was this guy in my Anthropology class, a Hispanic
kid named Enrique. About a week before Break, he asked me what I was doing for the week while we were out of class. I told him I was broke. He said
he was going to Mexico. I asked him if it was to visit family; he told me no, it was to run guns . . . basically, he offered me a job on the
He fell silent as I jotted down quick notes. The morning sun was desperately trying to peak through clouds, as a breeze began tearing apart the tufts
of low fog, the greasy exhaust of Israeli factories that hovered just above the tops of the skyscrapers.
Trying to draw him out, I began again. “Is there any market for weapons in Mexico? There aren’t any revolutionary movements or anything.
“No,” Chris responded with gathering interest. “We were small-timers. Most of the world’s arms-dealing is actually in handguns. Mexico is
much stricter with guns that the U.S. Basically, pistols over 10 millimeters are totally illegal there. And the locals cannot import guns legally
from the states. So we would buy Browning 40 caliber pistols, which is 10 milimeters, and bring them over the border at McAllen. I’d put them in a
toolbox, lock it, and throw it in the trunk of Enrique’s old Caprice. He and his brother would follow in a second car. Back then, they didn’t
stop gringos going into Mexico for any reason. I made enough money on that first trip to pay for my Spring tuition.”
“Yes, but you’ve come a long way from carting pistolas over the border. That isn’t your primary business now. How did it change?” I
didn’t want to lead him too much.
“Well. It wasn’t too long before we found a buyer in Mexico who asked us about rifles. And not deer rifles, either. I didn’t know the
difference, but Enrique’s brother had instantly noticed at our first meeting, that this fellow was not actually Hispanic. Turned out to be a
Maronite; a Lebanese Christian, from Beirut. Back in the 80’s, Lebanon was being over-run by the Syrian-backed Hizbo’llah, and so all the
Christian neighborhoods were forming into militias. Their main need turned out to be for mortar shells. That’s where we made the really BIG money.
“What about land mines?” I wondered
“Naw. That’s a bunch of hype. Governments like to blame landmines on insurgents; but mines are a statist tool. Governments work by controlling
land, so they deny access of geography to their enemies. Insurgents, by definition, cannot control the land, so they try to gain control of fear.
Making the enemy fear them, and providing a sense of power to their civilian supporters; that is how insurgents operate.”
Bilha made her way out on to the balcony carrying a tray with three tiny cups and a small pitcher on the end of a foot-long, wooden handle. Beaming
with pride of her prowess as a hostess, she bent over the low table and ladled coffee into each of the three cups from the diminutive pitcher.
Genuine Turkish coffee, it contained as much sugar as liquid, and oozed like thin syrup into each demi-tasse in its turn. Bilha glanced up at me and
smiled, flashing impossibly green eyes that looked even more striking in her olive-toned face. Her yellow tank top was a size too large, and showed
the most amazing cleavage. Her tight figure struggled to contain itself within the tank top and a pair of tight shorts. I felt a momentary rush
surge over me, followed seconds later by the crimson flush of shame, as I realized that I was obviously ogling my host’s girlfriend. Chris simply
lay back on his chaise lounge and laughed at me.
I wanted more details about his business. Turning back to him: “Where did you buy the mortars? The states?”
“Most of them came from South Africa. The Apartheid government in Pretoria was facing blockades and embargoes for most of its domestic production.
So they turned to exporting military know-how. And the Lebanese, on both sides, turned out to by ready buyers. All sides in that conflict had
out-of-country financing. Hizbollah from Syria; the Druze from Israel. The Greek Orthodox got money from Orthodox churches world-wide. The
Maronites got it from their expat communities in San Diego and Chicago. And everybody sold hash and opium. We basically had to force our customers
to pay in cash, because the price of drugs bottomed out with all the drugs floating around. We also ran into some trouble with the US Navy, checking
our boats on the high seas. Then we set up a factory in East Beirut, and only shipped in the precursor components, which is legal. We had the
locals finishing the assembly, until the Syrians bombed out our factory with a jet. Typical.”
The two of us drifted into silence, momentarily overpowered by an ambulance passing in the street below. After the sing-song wail descended a note,
indicating the ambulance had passed on, I tried to start up the conversation again. “Is gun running dangerous?”
“Hell yes. Your customers are all armed! And every government sees you as the most dangerous enemy they can think of.”
“Then how do you stay alive?” I asked.
“Well, everybody despises you, until you need your services. The trick is to be useful—that’s how to stay alive. Even so, the word goes
around. My associates and I are officially unwelcome in the United States. Interpol classifies us as “persons of interest,” while we are
actively being sought by the British Commonwealth.”
“What did you do to upset so many people?”
“Well, we had been selling rocket propelled grenades in Somolia, and the former Yugoslavia. Of course, we ceased when the major powers become
involved. But every government needs its scapegoats.”
He seemed nonchalant as he spoke. “Does that bother you, Chris?”
“Not at all. Everyone is unwelcome somewhere, even if it’s merely North Korea. And look at yourself. There’s a reason why you never leave my
house during daylight, isn’t there?”
As I sipped my coffee, I laughed nervously, and tried to get back on topic.
“Yes, but you are a lot more important, aren’t you?” I suggested.
“Sure. The trick is to flirt with every side, but to make no permanent commitments. South Africa is an example. Pretoria and Israel used to have
an extremely close relationship. At one time, we had been offered permanent jobs with “Executive Outcomes,” the South African mercenary company
that the CIA used in the early and mid-nineties. But they got embroiled in the collapse of Mbuto Sese Seko’s regime in Zaire, and they were taken
out when the whole “blood for diamonds” thing hit the TV networks. That’s why we’re strictly independent. Honestly, OE’s days were
numbered, because Mandela was obviously going to overthrow the white government in the R-S-A.”
“What are you doing these days, Chris?” I asked.
“Well, we are currently on sabbatical. We most recently armed some ‘independent elements’ in the Cote-d’Ivior, where the French were trying
to assert their “African Plan.” They had hoped that the US was too tied down in Iraq to stop them. We made a lot of money, until about October,
when the French press branded us as ‘agents of Israel, working at the behest of the imperialist Neo-con Americans.’ That’s when we had to clear
out. Fast. Say, how many questions is that, anyway?”
Counting down the page, I totaled them up: “Eleven so far. Here’s one: why are you based in Israel?”
“We’re not; our headquarters was in the Bahamas until they judased themselves into the international banking agreements in 2000. Now the company
office is in Cyprus. It’s just that, due to recent developments, I’m not welcome there. Yet Nicosia is only a couple of hours by boat, and so I
can work for the company via fax and email, and even meet clients here.”
“I’ve noticed that you mentioned boats again. It seems that you and Jayce always travel by boat, and never by plane. Why is that?”
“Jayce is his own man, you’ll have to ask him about his reasons. Personally, I only use boats because they are subject to much less scrutiny than
aircraft. Once a plane leaves the runway, no one can get on or off until it lands. Smuggling by plane is practically impossible, as a going concern.
Boats on the other hand: boats are slow. A boat can sail within a mile or two of a foreign shoreline; who knows who gets aboard, or who gets off.
Ships meet in the middle of the ocean everyday, with no witnesses. Anything can happen.” His eyes twinkled as he said this.
“What about spy satellites and the coast guard, the navies?”
“In the middle of the ocean, it is obvious when two ships meet. But you ought to see the western med from the air—the sea off the coast of France
is like a parking lot. Government radar cannot begin to track a fleet of freighters as they pass by sailboat races and day cruisers. The Caribbean
is even better. In good weather, there’s probably more ‘business’ going on 12 miles from the coast of Coco Beach than there is within the port
of Miami itself!”
“Gee.” I wondered. “Who makes the best equipment, the best weapons?”
“Depends on what you want. A colt 45 is the most popular gun in the US. It’s a great consumer or police gun. But it sucks for combat and
‘field’ work. Too many delicate, moving parts. Too heavy, and too expensive. The Glock 9mm is the standard in my biz. In combat rifles, the AK
47 is the standard. Again, not as well made as the American M-16, but the ammo is ubiquitous, and there are multiple manufacturers world-wide. It
even has a patriotic symbolism in Arab states, a sort of refusal to use American weapons. In mortars, the heavier sizes are better. Again, made
world-wide, and so I have a choice of sources.”
“What about those Anti-tank shoulder rocket things?”
“The older ones are still good, against everything but a new American-made tank. Of course, the US sets the standard. So there’s less and less
of a market for the old AT-4’s and LAW’s. The Russians have come up with some pretty good variations lately; computer controlled. They are
programmed to fly high, and then come straight down on the tank. Those tanks don’t have as much armor on top as they do in front. The ones I’ve
seen are called “asp” here in the Middle East, meaning that there’s no antidote. A few appeared in Iraq last Summer, but none since about
August. Whoever made them couldn’t sustain production, or was removed as a market player.”
“You mean the US killed them off????”
Killed off, paid off, whatever. Same result. Actually, I’ve quit selling anti-tank weapons since the invasion of Iraq.”
“Still some latent patriotism left in your blackened soul, Chris?” I laughed as I drank more coffee.
“Of course not. It’s just that anyone selling weapons to the enemies of Uncle Sam attracts a lot of attention. And if you live in outside of
North America, Oz, New Z, or Europe, it’s kind of like Dodge City out here. Anything can happen. People have accidents. They disappear.”
I thought about that for a while. Looking at him as he gazed out on the cityscape of Tel Aviv, he seemed like a tourist on vacation, rather than a
cut-throat entrepreneur in the shady underworld of arms deals.
I tried a different tack. “What’s your typical day like?” I wondered out loud.
Hmm. Most mornings I get up and have check the currency markets over breakfast. Then I check my emails and faxes. On any given day, I’m looking
at 4 or 5 possible deals. Most of which never pan out. A lot of my business is simply legal freight that has a secondary military use. Bulk sulfur
from Texas. Petroleum distillates from the Port of New Orleans. Wood pulp from Brazil. Slag copperides from an Australian gold mine. Maybe some
bulk “uninspected” computer chips I brought by racing yacht from Macau to Marseilles. Stuff that a government flunky in a patrol boat won’t
even recognize as war materiel. I spend a lot of my mornings looking at the cost of bulk freight across the Atlantic. Ya see, most of my work is
camouflaged as simply container transshipments.
In the afternoons, I go sightseeing, maybe golf, or to a museum. Then a quick check of the markets before we go out for dinner. The actual deals
almost always take place at night. Usually in bars, with a lot of ambient noise, to defeat wires and hidden microphones. Indoor places with multiple
exits are best. Tourist attractions are nice, too; places where a foreigner actually belongs.”
I stopped writing for a moment, taking all of this in. “Chris, I noticed that you mentioned the currency markets a couple of times. What’s up
“Well, international currencies used to be totally stable. Back in my college days, when I was running guns through Juarez and Reynosa, the value
of currencies were controlled by the governments. You didn’t even consider exchange rates. And laundering money was a nightmare. But now, there
is a “free market” in just about every currency, and you can trade currency, off-the-record, on the internet. So it has become a whole second
frontier in the arms trade. For instance, there is no point in selling French-made mortars in Afghanistan, since the Euro is skyrocketing against the
Ruble and Ruppee. Your profits get eaten up by the exchange rate. On the other hand, I sold some antique Katyushka rockets to syndicate of
Phillipino pirates, and they paid in Yen. We made so much money that when our supplier ran out of rockets, we actually paid him to counterfeit
several ‘newly discovered’ caches.”
“Do you ever worry about world peace breaking out?”
Chris guffawed at this suggestion. “Hell, no. Ha. That’s a scream. At any given moment, there’s over a hundred insurgencies involving
gunfire around the world. No, the more control that governments try to exert, the more they create business opportunities. The future of world
government is de-centralization. Just like the breakup of Ma Bell in the US telephone market. Just look at Russia. Yugoslavia. Hell, I’m
thinking China might be next. Everyone of those is like discovering oil or finding a gold mine. Nope. My business is definitely turning up,
baby!” He cackled as he pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. “And you’ve got one question left.”
I sat for a minute, smelling the cigarette he dragged on and then held. “O.K. Here goes: If you had to compare your business to a legitimate
industry what would it be?”
“Hmmm.” He exhaled clouds grandiosely through his nose. “Armaments people always say that this biz is like working for one of the American news
networks. It’s always about scooping the other guy. It’s all about connections and sources of anonymous information. The guy who breaks the
story gets the glory. You don’t have to make the most money, you just have to get there first. Speed over accuracy. Oh yeah. And no one
remembers your name 5 minutes after you’re gone.”
“Lovely business, Chris. You merchant of death.” I intoned with mock seriousness.
He produced a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and lay back on his lounge. He giggled and corrected me. “NO! I am a merchant of victory,
an ambassador of free enterprise to the dark corners of the globe!”
I snickered at his posturing as Bilha returned with lunch: steaming plates of schwarma and mugs of beer. Chris raised his mug in a mocking salute.
“To Victory!” He roared, and I knew the interview was over.