Just Say Uncle

On his last day as a free man, in the spring of 2006, Pablo Rayo Montaño probably didn't venture far from his home in São Paulo, Brazil. It was too dangerous, even for a man like Rayo. São Paulo was virtually under siege: Inmates had rioted at 70 prisons across the country while their confederates on the outside, armed with grenades, stormed police stations and torched city buses.

Night fell on May 15 along with a light rain. Paulistanos, the city's residents, heard fewer gunshots than in evenings just past. The city had paused. At a few hours after midnight, seven federal officers assembled at Rayo's door, armed with a search warrant and assault rifles. They let themselves in and found Rayo, known by his nickname "El Tio" ("The Uncle") or simply Don Pablo. He was right where the American agents said he'd be.

The Uncle was charged with drug-trafficking and money-laundering. Fifty-four years old then, he had a baby face that belied his reputation as a kingpin who moved narcotics and laundered money between the Americas.

As they cuffed Rayo and led him away, similar scenes were enacted at 22 spots in several countries. Twelve suspects were taken down in Rayo's native Colombia alone, mostly in Cali and Cartagena. Those coastal cities, Cali on the Pacific, Cartagena on the Atlantic, served as bases from which Rayo's men allegedly oversaw drug shipments; that's why the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) called the Rayo case "Operation Twin Oceans." Police simultaneously busted his accomplices in Panama, in Costa Rica, and in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where they said Rayo laundered his profits.

The Uncle fit the bill for a drug lord but for one thing: He wasn't infamous. He managed to keep a low profile even as the U.S. Justice Department put him on its ten-most-wanted list of traffickers.

Twin Oceans spanned three years and included 52 tons of cocaine that agents seized. In his prime, Rayo moved 15 tons of coke a month to the United States and Europe, agents estimated. The operation has also led to more than 100 arrests, including 37 people indicted in South Florida's federal court.

The indictments read like a James Bond screenplay: Rayo's workers allegedly ran their coke in go-fast boats — small, souped-up watercraft that can run circles around a typical Coast Guard vessel. From there, they transferred the drugs to oceangoing yachts, fishing boats, and even submarines. A private island is almost a cliché, but Rayo owned three — Las Tres Marias — which sit about 45 miles off the coast of Panama and once were a refuge for real pirates. Agents say the Uncle used the islands as drug-shipping centers; they too were seized.

"The Rayo organization had its own private rogue navy to run a drug business that was nearly as sophisticated as a small nation," DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy said at a news conference the day after Rayo's arrest.

Twin Oceans nabbed $3 million in cash — drug profits, agents claim. That was peanuts compared to the $100 million in assets that agents say the Uncle used to launder money. Among them is Panama City's largest marina and boat supply center, plus a fashionable São Paulo art gallery and about 50 other properties in five countries. One source familiar with the case guesses that a final tally of all those assets could reach $1 billion.

Yet there are days when the War on Drugs seems even less auspicious than the real war in Iraq. Taking down the Rayo organization didn't cause so much as a hiccup in the global drug trade. As Tandy faced the media in D.C., a gram of coke could still be bought in any American city on the same corner and at the same price as the day before. The DEA took pains to paint Rayo as a supercriminal, but the truth is more prosaic. The Uncle was a capitalist who saw an opportunity, weighed the risks, and grabbed it. When his real estate holdings "went from three islands to one jail cell," as the DEA proudly put it, any number of people stood ready to take his place.

Pablo Rayo Montaño was born in 1952 to a poor family near Buenaventura, the busiest port on Colombia's Pacific coast. Like many in the city of 325,000, the Rayo clan depended on the fishing industry for its livelihood. But Pablo possessed ambition, a quality he shared with a younger boy from the same neighborhood, Freddy Rincon.

Rincon applied his will to soccer. He'd become a star on Colombia's national team, where he'd prove himself one of the world's elite defensive midfielders, a player with a knack for clutch goal-scoring. For Rayo and his brothers, ambition took longer to bloom. They chose not to follow their father into the commercial fishing business; instead, according to the Panamanian paper La Nacion, Pablo started working at 16 for a customs office in Buenaventura. A few years later, he co-founded a pharmacy in Cali. As he opened more drug stores, one of his brothers, Roberto, came aboard. Then Pablo, the fledgling Uncle, somehow won the Colombian lottery and invested his prize, roughly $50,000, in the currency-exchange house Rapicambio. It's not clear when the brothers allegedly went into the drug trade, but the first indication of that seems to come in 1988, when Roberto was kidnapped, allegedly by leftist guerillas who later killed him.