When I first picked up Angels Gate, I was not at all sure of what to make of the subtitle, Based on a True Story of: The Greatest Heist-Never Told. The idea that this caper has remained a secret for 30 years would certainly make sense, considering the details. Then again, it could just be an elaborate indemnification for authors Andrew J. Rafkin and Louis Pagano. I must say that in the end, I really did not care either way. Angels Gate is one of the most entertaining tales I have come across in some time, whatever the reality of the case may be.
Ever since Robert Sabbag’s classic Snowblind, I have been a sucker for a good dope-smuggler’s story. As Sabbag himself has stated, times have changed, and a book with a smuggler as the hero cannot be written any more. Thankfully, Rafkin and Pagano did not get that particular memo though.
Angels Gate takes place in the early ‘80s, during what would prove to be the last days of the big-time marijuana smuggling industry. Cocaine was coming, and along with it came the extreme violence of groups like the Medellin cartel. Pot smuggler August Taracina is presented as a sympathetic character right off the bat, as he is described as being one of the last of his kind. He is from the old school, sort of a hip entrepreneur more than anything else. Many of the ‘70s-era smugglers saw the trade as more of a calling than a business, and while gun-play existed, it was frowned upon.
The story is highly intriguing. The authors describe August’s operation, and how he winds up going into business with four aging surfers, who happen to work at the LAX airport. They come up with a method for moving pot through the airport that involves transferring suitcases between domestic and international flights. This was back in the days when airport security was relatively lax. The scam was good while it lasted, but security was soon beefed-up, and that was the end of that.
The surfers have a dream of cashing out with the proverbial “grand caper,” and heading south to Costa Rica. Since moving drugs through the airport is now off the table, they begin to look at other options. One has to do with the Brinks loads that come on the planes regularly. If they could hit one of these, they could walk away rich. It is a tempting thought, and they begin to look deeper into the possibility of pulling it off.
At the last minute, they bring August in to help. His years of experience and contacts could prove invaluable, and he accepts. The method they come up with to steal the Brinks bags is ingenious, and they soon have six very hot unmarked bags. The problem is, there is no cash, jewels, or gold in the bags, only stock certificates.
When August looks through the stacks of paper he discovers something that could be quite lucrative though. There are 350 bonds, payable to the bearer, each for one million dollars. He realizes that these could be converted into cash by the right people, but finding them is another matter. What follows are excursions by August and his (unwitting) girlfriend into the nether-regions of global finance. To be precise, he meets with Swiss bankers, who are very intrigued by the certificates.
The situations August finds himself in at this level are fascinating, although there is a strong temptation to write it all off as an elaborate fiction. But the publication of Angels Gate could not have been better timed. The English banking concern HSBC was busted and heavily fined for engaging in similar practices just a couple of months ago. In fact, the whole scheme is the subject of a story in the current issue of Rolling Stone. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that it could have happened before, and was kept quiet for various reasons.
In any event, this is a very engaging book. I found the descriptions of the smuggling operations to ring true, as well as the scenes in which August is sitting down with greedy Swiss bankers. Who knows if everything in the book happened word for word, and who really cares? Angels Gate is full of action and adventure, and if all of the events really did occur, then it was the heist of the century. This is an excellent book for buffs of the genre.