Monday, May 31, 2010

Here's looking at tú: life as a gringo gumshoe

The full dope on a a Latin life spent largely undercover by our very own correspondent, the Bogotá gumshoe

By Bogotá gumshoe
A woman walks beside a wall painted the colours of the Colombian  national flag in Bogota.
A woman walks beside a wall painted the colours of the Colombian national flag in Bogota. Photo: Reuters/Eliana Aponte

Think of private investigators and to most people images of Jim Rockford and Charlie's Angels spring to mind – a beach-bound existence, fast cars, beautiful women, and an answering machine. That might have been the scene in southern California in the 1970s, but life as a British private eye in darkest Latin America in the noughties is a somewhat more exotic, and potentially more dangerous, affair.

Detective work is not something I ever planned to do. Rather, it's a second career I drifted into while working in Latin America as a foreign correspondent. Luckily my familiarity with the region and some of its quirky cultural traits – at least to an outsider – made it a relatively seamless transition. That said, in Latin America reality is rarely, if ever, what it appears to be: there is always a layer of something unusual, or sinister, beneath the surface.

The types of investigation I undertake vary greatly, but they're always about people. One recent and typical case required me to dig up, on behalf of a multinational in London, details of the background and the reputation of Don Ricardo Pérez (no it's not his real name) – a wealthy, powerful and seemingly honourable individual with a business empire spanning Latin America. How many companies did the man own? How is he connected politically? And, most importantly, might there be any evidence of corruption?

Finding the answers to these questions can be like playing with a giant jigsaw: it can take ages to fit the pieces together to discover the full picture. But a private investigator – be he in South America or in south London – has a range of methods and tools at his disposal.

For starters, public records offices can be veritable goldmines of information. Tucked away in a basement archive somewhere in Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Caracas or Mexico City, even the most obscure company will probably be the subject of a dusty file waiting for the investigator to leaf through its dog-eared pages.

In it, he'll hopefully find names of shareholders, directors, business connections and other titbits. With names and addresses, court records can be accessed, helping fit together more pieces of the puzzle.

But unlike the West, a disadvantage in Latin America is that dealing with public archives can sometimes be a surreal nightmare. Often they're closed for days for no apparent reason. In addition, while some bureaucrats are helpful, others can be downright obstructive. And every now and again, files just go missing: for some dark reason someone has surreptitiously snatched a set of records.

In the case of Don Ricardo, I had gleaned useful details of his companies and assets. But some pieces were still missing. It was time to gather deeper background and arrange meetings over lunch with those in the know.

"So, Roberto, tell me: what do you know about Don Ricardo Pérez?" The response was insightful: "Don Ricardo's become a pretty seedy character, you want to steer well clear of him," confided my confidant Roberto, whose sources are legendary. "Business hasn't been going well for him recently, and it's known in government circles that he's got some shady deals going on with… [he names a Prominent Government Official]. He's going to get nailed sooner or later."

Detailed comments like Roberto's, supplemented with additional information from several other reliable contacts dotted around Latin America, helped fit together many of the other pieces of the puzzle.

To capture some additional insight, I decided a spot of surveillance was in order. Lurking in the bushes outside someone's house has been a technique long used by private detectives specialising in infidelity investigations, and with great effect. But subtle variations work in my field, too.

Rather than remaining ensconced behind a tree for hours on end, it was a matter of waiting in a parked car with a camera across the street from what I discovered was Don Ricardo's favourite restaurant.

It was only a matter of time: Don Ricardo came out smiling and hugging the Brother of the Prominent Government Official, and hands him a large brown envelope.

As a private investigator, I'm only in the business of providing information, I'm neither judge nor jury.

In the case of Don Ricardo Pérez, I had a detailed report ready on his business activities, background and reputation. It would be up to the client to make their judgment based on the information I had obtained. And it was time for me to leave town before anyone tipped off Don Ricardo that he was being watched.

While business-type investigations comprise my bread-and-butter work, sometimes clients need help with a more personal problem. Last year, a wealthy American businessman needed to delve into the background of Señorita María Fonseca (name changed again), a dishy diva he met on holiday in Peru. Was she the successful businesswoman that she said she was, and as young, free and single as she claimed? It was time for the old rubbish bin tactic. Like everywhere else in the world, in Latin America people unwittingly discard documents such as bank statements and all variety of compromising paperwork – a prized source of information for the private investigator. But rummaging through dustbins in the dead of night is a task best subcontracted out to those with experience in the finer arts of recycling: tramps naturally fail to arouse the suspicion of security guards.

Thanks to Arturo, a friendly beggar I found roaming the streets of Lima, I gathered enough background details on Señorita Fonseca to figure out that while she was definitely successful, she operated in a very different sphere to that which my client was led to believe: she was a professional confidence trickster, well known to the police. My client was a little disappointed but he was also pleased, because the investigation probably saved him a fortune.

While Arturo's dustbin assistance might be seen as sharp practice, other more brazen methods of research are now out of bounds. The new UK Bribery Act, for example, means that I cannot grease an official's palm to encourage them to hand over a copy of a useful file.

But on the bright side the new law means more work for investigators as the tighter rules mean that British companies must take steps to ensure that they are not involved in bribery or corruption – even through third parties.

When people ask what I do for a living, if I'm among friends, I'll tell them. The answer usually meets with surprise and curiosity. What on earth is a British private investigator doing here in Latin America? Who do you work for? I'm always happy to reel off a few anecdotes, but one thing I can never do is disclose who my client is – that's strictly confidential.

When I'm busy out in the field, I like to portray the image of an unassuming and harmless academic researcher, certainly not an international spy. As a middle-aged, balding man in jeans and a cardigan, I can usually get away with it, too. But every now and again someone gets the wrong end of the stick. While on a case in Argentina, the mood of a man I was chatting to at a lavish cocktail party in Buenos Aires suddenly changed.

"You're from MI6," he said, cradling a large whisky in his hand as he eyed my pinstripe suit. Despite my repeated denials, he insisted: "I'm sure you are!" It was an awkward moment, and I could see that once he had downed another whisky he would only become more hostile and probably start shouting. It was time to leave the party.

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