This story illustrates the colorful characters and unbelievable stories you run across in expat life, and serves as a cautionary tale for gringos considering business in Latin America.
I met Darren Cox in Bogota in 2011 (like Farsan y El Colonel, the following is another story I’ve been sitting on for 10 years). Darren was fighting to get his monster truck out of Colombian customs in Buenaventura, where it had been declared abandoned. You hear plenty of tall tales from the kind of people who pass through Bogota, but Darren wasn’t the kind of guy who passed through Bogota.
Darren wasn’t a cokehead, party animal or whoremonger / sex addict, which are the first things you want to know about a gringo in Colombia. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish or show any interest in learning. One of my favorite Darren anecdotes illustrates his appreciation for new cultures. I organized a group of expats to chip in for a Peruvian chef friend to make ceviche. When it was time to eat, Darren zapped his in the microwave.
Darren wasn’t interested in anything Colombia had to offer except this monster truck, Sin City Crusher. He claimed to be getting meetings at Colombia’s finance and justice ministries. A full-time interpreter accompanied him everywhere he went for those first few months, until money dried up and Darren was on his own in the cheap tourist district of La Candelaria.
In time, we saw videos published on YouTube of him and his truck doing shows in Chile and Colombia.
I didn’t sit on this story for 10 years because it involved sensitive characters. I procrastinated because whatever happened was too difficult to understand. Darren’s writeups include every minute detail in what was already a Kafkaesque labyrinth of Colombia’s import-export regulation.
Sorting what can be verified from speculation is a tall order, but I can give you the contours. Darren alleges a sprawling conspiracy involving his American promoter and characters from the monster-truck industry, a Colombian-American freight forwarder, Colombian drug traffickers, Colombian logistics agents and even international shipping companies.
The object of that conspiracy was to have Colombian customs seize all six monster trucks that were on the South American tour so the legal titleholder could (A) steal the trucks, (B) launder money via live events, (C) purchase a key input for testing cocaine purity or (D) all of the above.
Having looked at the case and consulted with an import-export veteran, I believe this was a simple scam to steal the trucks. B and C may have made nice extras, but the gist of the scam was to steal the assets.
As you may have assumed, the people in the monster-truck industry may not be the most sophisticated agents. And they’re managing assets worth a nice house. Darren says his Sin City Crusher, maybe the best truck on the tour, was worth $250,000.
The American promoter, who owned one of the six trucks that would go on tour, linked up with a Medellin-based promoter who connected him to a Miami-based freight forwarder to get the trucks into Colombia. The Colombian promoter would then produce shows throughout South America.
Maybe it’s easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but as someone who has worked in import-export for a while, I see red flags already. The American promoter consigned assets worth about $1 million to the Colombian promoter’s recently incorporated entity with no assets via a Colombian-American freight forwarder who was recommended by the aforementioned Colombian promoter.
After the trucks entered Colombia, the group did shows in Colombia, Bolivia and Chile, and came back to Colombia. The owners flew back to the United States to await their monster trucks … but they never came.
The Miami-based freight forwarder was asking for over $200,000 to get the trucks out of Colombian customs. Darren’s relationship with the American promoter had soured. He stopped taking Darren’s calls and didn’t respond to emails.
With their trucks in Colombia and no further information, three of the truck owners pooled money to send Darren to Colombia to find out what was going on. Now, a little background on Darren.
Once upon a time, Darren was an exotic dancer in Las Vegas. He helped a Native American family who were lifelong friends obtain a $2 million check from the government. Darren was not a lawyer, but he persisted enough with legal forms and red tape to win the family a settlement under the Homestead Act. They gave him a nice chunk in appreciation, with which he bought a monster truck.
Darren first went to Buenaventura, Colombia’s port on the Pacific, where the trucks were held in customs. He later moved to Bogota to tell his story to people in the national government. That is when I met him.
In Buenaventura he met with a logistics agent who informed him that there was in fact a large tax bill for the trucks, but also that if it weren’t paid soon, the trucks would be declared abandoned. Nobody had communicated this to him or any of the other truck owners.
In Bogota, Darren rounded up the money to get the trucks out of customs, but was confronted with another wrinkle. The Colombian promoter, whose name the trucks were in, wouldn’t cooperate with the basic paperwork. Without his signing off, the trucks would be released to him even if Darren paid the bill.
Around this time I was pseudo-deported out of Colombia. But while I was starting a new chapter in Peru, pressure from Darren and now the national government led the Colombian promoter to sign whatever needed to be signed to release the trucks. The American truck owners paid the bill and Darren recovered four of the six trucks.
The American promoter recovered his truck separately. Another truck owner relocated to Colombia, where he apparently still does shows today (Godzilla). Darren managed to obtain a lien on the American promoter’s truck, but he says he hasn’t seen any money from that.
Darren stayed in Colombia long enough for me to see him when my Peruvian wife and I went on a six-week trip there in late 2012 (including honeymoon), over a year after he got his trucks. He was trying to recover some of the tax bill from the shippers whose lack of due diligence he believed bore legal responsibility for the high storage costs.
Darren kept the Sin City Crusher in storage with a friend in Texas. Darren says this friend started using the truck in shows, unbeknownst to him. The Sin City Crusher was ultimately burned beyond repair at a show in Wyoming. Darren suspects foul play. From the little I’ve seen of this industry, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Monster trucks run on methanol, a key testing agent for cocaine purity which is also useful in washing impurities out of freshly produced cocaine. Apparently it’s a tightly controlled item in Colombia, but legally owning monster trucks would allow someone to buy as much as they claim is needed to produce monster truck shows.
During the time I knew Darren, he learned to avoid mentioning the methanol angle to authorities when telling his story. Keeping it a clean, tidy swindle for assets was more convincing.
The Costa Rica Template
Now, for an expert take on international logistics and customs clearance, let’s hear from our old friend Rafael Stumbo Tarasco of Air Mail Costa Rica:
Intent to commit fraud is difficult to prove but that does not preclude individuals taking advantage of the situation every step of the way. This adds up to exorbitant storage fees, missed delivery dates and fines, which combined can lead to vehicles being seized or sold after being declared abandoned or operating on an expired permit.
It would not be fair to pass judgement on any individual player, but anything that could go wrong most certainly would in this scenario with the players involved. It’s difficult for a first-time international shipper to grasp just how much good faith is required to make a transaction go smoothly. When everyone is acting in good faith, not a problem. But all it takes is one bad actor in the chain to kick off an opportunistic reaction from everyone in the process.
More common than stealing assets are schemes to milk the shipper. Or as we say here in Costa Rica, “make sausage.”
I once dealt with a Texas beef producer who had invested almost $1 million here in Costa Rica in a steakhouse, deli, gourmet butcher shop and a New York-style pizzeria. He was looking for an English-speaking logistics company who could provide door-to-door service to sort out all the headaches he was having with customs.
“Wolfgang Puck buys meat from me,” he said. “I sell Wagyu to the Japanese.”
Tex’s chef, who doubled as his yacht captain, had managed to get an initial shipment of beef into the country, but a larger cargo was now stuck in Miami cold storage for more than three months. There were also several pallets of seafood, pork and Texas sausage being held up because of registration issues in Costa Rica.
Tex asked if I could get everything moving, and in so doing train his new restaurant manager, a curvy young Tica. Not unrelated, her social media features pics of her in a bikini on the aforementioned yacht.
Tex first gave me a test with some barbecue equipment that Captain Chef had been struggling with for six weeks. I delivered it in eight days. Tica came to my house with an envelope of hundred-dollar bills. She confided that Tex’s Costa Rican business manager didn’t like her, and that this Jefa woman was close with Captain Chef. Tica also told me that sabotage was rampant in the organization.
I thought this was the beginning of a beautiful business friendship, but now I knew it wouldn’t last. Rivalries in the chain of command are a telltale sign.
The next day I obtained documentation for the product stuck in Miami from Tex’s U.S.-based administrator, including contact info for the Florida-based freight forwarder. I spoke with her daily about logistics for a time, but then one day she resigned without notice after a conflict with Jefa.
I got the wheels turning on Costa Rican food permits and then contacted the Florida-based freight forwarder. Speaking by phone in Spanish, I told Florida Man I would move Tex’s cargo to my warehouse. Florida Man insisted the large cold storage bill needed to be paid first. I informed Tica, who informed Jefa and Florida Man was paid.
I contacted Florida Man to pick up the cargo. Oh no, still not possible. It had already been shipped to Costa Rica. None of the foods had permits yet, I had only applied last week. Who was going to clear the shipment? Florida Man referred me to the Costa Rican agency they had been using.
The gourmet beef had effectively evaded my control. It would now rack up more bloated storage costs in Costa Rica and/or a dodgy customs clearance involving extralegal shenanigans, with who knows how many kickbacks mixed in. What happened?
- Florida Man ran up the storage bill.
- Once Tex paid, the cargo was shipped to CR with no food permits.
- Their customs agency cleared it by paying off port officers.
- The agency moved the shipment to a friendly storage facility on the Pacific coast.
- Captain Chef provided transportation.
“Mae, hay una cadena de chorizo aqui impresionante,” a Costa Rican customs official commented at some point in my investigation.
I learned Florida Man was Jefa’s old friend. The Costa Rican customs agent was Florida Man’s pal. Captain Chef was close with Pacific cold storage and, coincidentally, cold storage was pals with the customs agent too. Everyone in the chain got a piece, and the whole network was controlled by Jefa.
I explained the scheme to Tica. She reported to Tex, who contacted Jefa.
A few days later I was informed by Tica that once the food permits came in, my services would no longer be required. That’s when I met Jefa for coffee. An educated, middle-aged woman, she drove a Mercedes and wore pants with flat shoes and a butch haircut. In not so many words, she acknowledged that I had exposed her chain of chorizo and congratulated me on my agility.
“So what are you going to do?” she asked.
I got up, paid for our cappuccinos and said, “Nothing. You can keep him.”
Rich guys in foreign countries often resort to buying friends. Tex knew he was surrounded by blood suckers, but he was his own worst enemy. I admire Tica for going to him with the scheme, but Tex ultimately had me back off.
I later learned of a dramatic “Who me?” display, in which Captain Chef broke into a teary, screaming tantrum (standard Latin reaction when caught with their hand in the cookie jar). “How dare you insult my integrity!” And Tex basically concluded, “He’s not just my chef and boat captain, he’s my friend.”
Keep your friends and employees in separate camps. Get second opinions from private contractors. Don’t let anybody build out the entire logistical network outside your control.
Final Notes – Monster Truck Wars
For more information on the monster trucks in Colombia, here are a few threads from the industry web forum.
For laughs, here is one where the American promoter disparaes another tour in South America: Beware monster truck owners!!!!!
I learned from those forums that one of the most famous monster trucks of all time (and St. Louis native), Bigfoot, has been doing tours in Brazil since being stranded in customs in 1998.
Here’s the man himself, my old friend Darren, giving a local news interview.
One of the drivers was seriously injured in a Chile show. Watch that moment in a few different angles below.
Promo post for the tour: Monster Truck Wars South American Tour!!
Fanpage for the American driver who stayed in Colombia.
FB page for Godzilla (monster truck in Colombia).
And a secret recording of the American promoter talking about the story.
Be careful, boys and girls!