A Dark Prince of Colombia
In 1981 I accepted employment with a flour milling company headquartered in Cali, Colombia. Alberto Hernán Guerra, a young man learning the family business from his father suddenly found himself in charge of a substantial family business when his father, Don Saturno Guerra was hospitalized in Houston, Texas and diagnosed with a terminal illness. The milling business in Colombia was emerging from almost total control of the government and Alberto Hernán wanted to draw on my experience in the free-wheeling milling business in Venezuela. After I arrived in Cali, Don Saturno miraculously recovered and returned to Colombia to find me seated at the right hand of his son and in charge of his mills, making drastic changes in their operations and management!
While I remained the general manager of milling operations, Don Saturno and I immediately came into conflict. He inserted himself into day-to-day operations. I moved my office twenty miles from Cali to our largest mill in the city of Palmira. One time I ordered payment of overtime to a man I had asked to come in and perform a task for me on Sunday. Don Saturno, cancelled the payment, and told the worker that he should be grateful he had a job!
In Venezuela, I found the workers touchy, proud and volatile. They could not be driven, but they could be led. They were the definition of macho and you had to be macho to lead them. I knew them all by name, and to this day remember the names of many of them. I lifted fifty kilo sacks, climbed down into the swirling dust of ship-holds when we unloaded wheat. They knew that I knew what their work was like and respected that, but I was always ‘Don Roberto.’
In Colombia the workers were submissive, and furtive. They sought to remain un-noticed! They refused to meet my eyes when I talked to them. I got to know few of them by name or personality. They had a boot on their neck! The experience of Colombia led me to truly appreciate the Venezuelan worker!
Don Saturno was a small, wiry man, about 130 pounds, but he had enormous presence. His hair was thick and white. It thrust upward like an eagle’s crest! His eyes were brooding in a narrow, scowling face with harshly etched lines. He patrolled his domain; mills, pasta plant, and sugar cane fields, finding fault with everything. His eyes flashed, almost shooting sparks, shouting in a shrill, grating voice. He didn’t spit flames, but barely fell short of personifying the Devil in his paroxysms of rage! When he stalked through the plants, the workers stopped their work, taking off their hats, eyes downcast! He was the living image of a Spanish Grandee. He was ‘El Padron!’
But Don Saturno was not a Spanish Grandee! In a land where the poor man never rises from the bottom, Don Saturno Guerra did! His story comes from various sources, some his personal narratives and some accounts by his enemies.
Don Saturno began as a small trucker in the southern city of Pasto, capital of Nariño state bordering Ecuador. Running freight and produce to Cali, several hundred miles away, Saturno Guerra obtained a contract to transport gold from the Nariño mines to the Bank of Colombia in Cali. The road between the two cities is a narrow cut into soaring forested mountains and magnificent views overlooking deep ravines. It is a wilderness region much favored by bandits and guerrillas. As the story goes, one day Saturno staggered into the Bank of Colombia in Cali and informed the officials that he had been assaulted by bandits. The gold bars had been taken and his truck driven into a ravine and burned.
Within a year Don Saturno had purchased an interest in a flour mill in Pasto, and a year later had purchased machinery for a second mill that he erected in Cali! Most of the preceding part of the story comes from his enemies! A hard businessman, he had plenty of bitter enemies. He did it the "old fashioned way, he earned them!" The whole truth is probably far more complex, but I am sure that his start did not come from saving his earnings as a truck driver!
On two different occasions Don Saturno recounted to me how he had obtained a third mill in Palmira. At that time the most modern in South America, it employed the most advanced technology available from world leading Swiss milling engineers. It also was too sophisticated and expensive technology for a still primitive industry. The owner, a poor businessman found himself unable to service the debt he had acquired. He tried to sell the mill, but the only person willing to purchase it was Don Saturno, who chortled that he offered the man so little for it that the man would be totally ruined. Saturno said that the man begged him, and Saturno would not budge from his offer. The man resisted, falling further into debt. Finally, he was forced to sell the mill to Don Saturno for an even lower price! Now this is hard-headed business, but the object of the story as Don Saturno savored it, was that the man took his own life immediately afterward.
In that deal Don Saturno also acquired extensive sugar plantations and an ingenio. An ingenio is essentially a sugar refinery, but not such as we might imagine. They made a cone shaped brown sugar loaf called panela. Raw sugar is also exported to be refined elsewhere. Molasses, a by-product, is used primarily in animal feeds, and of course rum. It is such an antique process that that years later when I visited the ruins of a sugar factory on the island of Cyprus that had been operated in the 13th Century by Venetian merchants, the process and products were identical to those of the ingenios in Colombia and Venezuela today.
Shortly after I moved my office to Palmira, I found a peculiar object lying in my desk drawer: a pewter model of a penis with wings on it! I didn’t think much of it, and threw it in the trash. A few days later, another one appeared on my desk! I casually mentioned it to Mario, my plant manager in Palmira. Mario showed me an identical one that had been placed in his desk. He said that it was satanic curse that had been deliberately placed in our desks. I had fired Mario’s predecessor and placed him in that position before Don Saturno had miraculously returned from Houston. Mario went on to explain that he had heard of a circle of satanists in the company that was led by Don Victor, the company’s chief accountant and close confidante of Don Saturno. When Don Saturno was at death’s door in Houston, this satanic circle had prayed to their master for his recovery. They were certain that it was their doing. Don Saturno’s friends were ‘encouraging’ our departure.
In South America heresies, satanic cults and other primitive practices derived from the cultures of African slaves and indigenous inhabitants are common, especially in a social environment where the Roman Catholic Church itself exercises a very powerful, cult-like influence on the population. They flourish particularly in rural areas, but as it happened, find their place in urban populations and educated people as well. The amulets continued to appear sporadically in my desk, in my pickup, and among other personal effects until I left Colombia. Arguably, they worked!
I had returned my family to the United States within five months of our arrival there. My teen-age daughter had been threatened with a pistol. On another occasion, she was out late with her friends at the international high school graduation party. It was almost dawn when I awakened and found that my wife was awake and our daughter not yet home. I called the home of her friends and was informed that she was out with the son and daughter of that household, had been there and gone out again. I am about as psychic as a fireplug, but that morning I was moved to go out looking for them . . . in a city of over two million inhabitants! There were three ways to get down to the central part of the town, and then out to the area around the school. Without conscious thought, I drove straight to them! I will never believe that it was pure luck! They had been stopped by two policemen! That may seem a minor concern in the American experience. In Colombia (or Venezuela for that matter) the police are among the most corrupt; guilty, particularly at night, of murdering and robbing people on the streets, and even uglier crimes committed on women. When I found them, they had just been stopped. I identified myself to the policemen, and told them that I was an employee of Don Saturno. One policeman told the other that he had once worked for Don Saturno. They left without further discussion. Every father wants to be a knight in shining armor for his daughter! I do not know that even today my daughter appreciates the danger I felt she had faced that morning. I still shudder at the thought. In those days Colombia was a dangerous place. I sent my wife and daughter back to the US as soon as school ended in June.
Six months later, I felt I had completed what I set out to do and I informed Alberto Hernán that in December of 1982 I would leave the company. He was very unhappy with me. We had agreed on a two- year arrangement. I insisted that his father had made it clear that I was not wanted there. To leave Colombia a foreign resident must obtain a document called a solvencia. It is a document that proves that you have paid all of your taxes. It must be presented to the immigration authorities in order to obtain an exit visa. At Christmas time all officialdom slows down. I was given to understand that I could expect to receive my solvencia sometime in January. I determined that I would leave either by suborning an exit visa, or by crossing the border into Panamá. My satanic adversary came to my assistance. Don Victor arranged contact with some very evil looking characters that I had to meet in a back street of the old part of Cali. They told me it would cost me 300 US dollars. They would call me when everything was prepared.
When they called I returned to the meeting place carrying only the exact amount in cash. The four of them crowded with me into a VW van. A very large man, probably weighing about 250 pounds, sat beside me. Wondering if I was going to end up floating face-down in the river, I rode with them to the immigration office in Cali. They folded fifty dollars inside my passport, and instructed me to give it to a specific clerk when I entered alone. The official took the passport and expertly slipped the fifty dollars into his pocket and stamping my passport without once looking at my face. Without further incident, I was given a ride back to my pickup. I arrived home a week before Christmas.
Don Victor was murdered two years later. A sicario (assassin) rode up to him on a moped and shot him in the head as he walked down the street Cali! Later, Alberto Hernán insisted to me that it was a case of mistaken identity. Since I left Colombia, I have returned on business many times. Alberto Hernán and I after some awkward years have remained friends. He has built his father’s original business into a large multimillion dollar operation today; the milling business alone is ten times the size it was in 1982. After I departed, Don Saturno left the operation of the company to his son.
Strangely, he became very friendly, and welcomed me whenever I visited Cali. Occasionally he wrote to me, soliciting my views on various business schemes that he was cooking up.
I was giving a seminar on wheat purchasing to South American millers at Kansas State University in June of 2001. One of Alberto Hernán’s managers attended. We received news that day that Don Saturno had died at age 89. The young manager cried.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Bruce Drynan
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