Snatched by Bruce Porter—author of the NYT bestseller Blow—is the true story of a woman caught between two worlds, as she goes from a drug queen to an informer to a hostage (Available April 19, 2016).
Raised an aristocrat in Colombia and educated in European schools, Pilar transfixes everyone with her charm and her guile. She also falls for dangerous men and finds herself drawn into the highest levels of the cocaine trade.
After two failed marriages and a harrowing escape from the drug life, she settles down to a quiet existence in Florida with her children—until her second husband tries to cut short his prison term by giving her name over to members of a new task force being formed by the DEA. They induce Pilar, now a middle-aged woman, to infiltrate the Cali cartel as the head of a vast money laundering sting.
Named “Operation Princess,” the scheme leads to the seizure of tens of millions of dollars, along with some $500 million worth of cocaine and the exposure of hundreds of high-level traffickers, becoming one of the most daring and successful stings in DEA history.
But Pilar plays her part too well. Her success as a money launderer gets her kidnapped and then ransomed by a band of guerrillas in South America—and the US government refuses to negotiate. It's left to her low-level handlers in the DEA to get her back, before it's too late and her kidnappers discover they have a federal agent in their clutches.
A Knock on the Door
Early one evening in mid-December 1991, Pilar pulled her ice silver Lexus GS 300 into the circular driveway of 10800 Lakeside Drive, in the wealthy Snapper Creek section of Coral Gables, just south of Miami. The house was an expansive Mediterranean job, yellow stucco, with a red tile roof that meandered over the property for some eight thousand square feet, an oval pool, and a lake out back. It stood fifty yards in from the road and was sheltered from prying eyes and the relentless sun by live oaks and towering queen palms, whose bright orange fruits hung amid the fronds like pieces of gaudy jewelry. As she pulled to a stop underneath a porte cochere and handed her keys over to the white-jacketed attendant, she could make out the strains of classical music providing background ambience for the gathering within.
The place belonged to Jerome Berlin, a rich lawyer and banker and a nationally prominent moneyman for the Democratic Party, who was close to Teddy Kennedy and Senator Tom Daschle, destined to become majority leader. Tonight’s affair was a fund-raiser for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who was making a run for the presidency. The primaries wouldn’t start for a couple of months, not until February of 1992, but the first one kicked off in Harkin’s home state, where he was very popular and projected to do very well, a fact that at this point in the game made him a serious contender. Among others in the race were Jerry Brown, in between his stints as governor of California, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and another politician, considered a long shot right then, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
She had shown up for the event at the invitation of her then boyfriend, Fred Blitstein, “Freddie” to his friends, recently divorced, also wealthy, who had made his money developing international ski resorts, residential marinas, and shopping centers. Tall and handsome, with thinning ginger hair and a long visage, he had an engaging personality and was a great storyteller. He, too, contributed regularly to the Democratic Party, and he was a special friend of the evening’s host.
Being a political player, Blitstein kept himself well up on national and international affairs, but he’d learned there was little point in sharing this interest with his current girlfriend, who didn’t know Tom Harkin from Tom Sawyer, and had never heard of any of the other primary contenders. Indeed, she had no political views to speak of, never read the paper, rarely watched the news, and knew next to nothing about current events. Shopping, traveling, partying on boats, having a good time with fancy friends—that’s what she liked. Nevertheless, Blitstein enjoyed squiring her around because she was funny and had a musical, infectious laugh, and she enchanted all his friends in the Miami area, who were largely lawyers and doctors and bankers and their wives. It didn’t exactly hurt that she was beautiful and always exquisitely dressed. With her liquid, doelike eyes and her narrowly drawn aristocratic face, she provided a glamorous presence at any party. And her smile—she possessed a wide and radiant Julia Roberts smile, which illuminated her immediate environment and caused men and women alike to gravitate to wherever she was standing in the room.
Pilar was forty years old, an American citizen, born and raised in Cali, Colombia, but she now made her home in Boca Raton, an hour’s drive north of Miami. In the telling of this story, her last name must be kept secret. This is to protect her life and the lives of her children and family members from the harm that could befall them at the hands of both men and women who have had their own lives altered for the worse as a result of having made Pilar’s acquaintance; and they are all people with long and bitter memories.
Most of what Blitstein knew about Pilar came from what she told him—not that it was all lies, just heavily selective. Her parents did, in fact, come from the upper strata of Colombian society; and, yes, a great-uncle had served as president of the country. There was also a Catholic cardinal in the family. As a teenager she’d been sent to private schools in Colombia and Europe; she had owned a seaside villa on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, along with a big boat and a brilliant red Ferrari Testarossa. From Blitstein’s direct knowledge, he was aware she had many society friends in South Florida, because he was acquainted with their names. He also knew she was a fixture at charity balls up and down the coast, from Palm Beach to Miami.
He had met Pilar early in 1991. Per an agreement with his former wife, he was picking up his nine-year-old son at St. Andrew’s School up in Boca and taking him to his mother’s house nearby. That day, he was also driving home his son’s little friend Joseph, who happened to be the son of Pilar.
“She was standing there, waiting for him in the driveway, this beautiful Latin woman,” recalls Blitstein, who lived in a penthouse at the southern tip of Key Biscayne, with nothing that impeded his unending view out over the treetops of Cape Florida State Park and, beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean, until it disappeared below the horizon. “I said, Wow! I mean, gorgeous body, and she had everything else. She was dressed casually but elegantly. I could see Latin fire. I stepped out of the car to meet her—I speak fluent Spanish—and I think she said we had a mutual friend in Miami. So I said, ‘You know, Pilar, let’s have dinner.’ That’s how it started. A week later, she was in bed with me. I introduced her to my dad, my brother. And we became wonderful, wonderful friends.”
An hour into the fund-raiser, with people chatting over their champagne and hors d’oeuvres, gazing out at the lake through Spanish moss hanging from the trees, Pilar’s pager suddenly went off in her purse. She saw the call came from her housekeeper, who was minding her two kids. She found a phone in a quiet anteroom and called to ask what the trouble was. The children were fine, the woman said; it was that these two men had showed up at the house. They’d knocked on the door and asked to talk to Pilar. They were large men, abrupt and a little gruff, certainly not friendly, and they wouldn’t say who they were or what they wanted. Informed that Pilar was out for the evening, they said they’d come back the next day, and then left. They drove away in a white van, and the housekeeper was alarmed enough to have taken down its license number.
This news did not give Pilar a good feeling. Before returning to the festivities, she called the Boca Raton Police Department to tell them what had happened, and that she was frightened. She gave them the license number of the van and asked them, please, to send someone around tomorrow to stand watch over the house, for when these guys came back.
She returned to the party and told Freddie that one of her children wasn’t feeling well and she needed to go home. After reaching the house, she got a callback from the Boca police. They said they’d run a check on the plate and that they didn’t see any reason to send a police officer out there the next day. According to the registration number she’d given them, those guys in the van were the police.
Copyright © 2016 Bruce Porter.
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Bruce Porter is a former writer for Newsweek and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who has written for the Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, Playboy, and Rolling Stone, as well as dozens of other magazines and newspapers. His first book, Blow, was a bestselling New York Times Notable Book and was made into a major motion picture. Bruce lives in New York City.