If only that man would speak to me, I could be on my way.
Waiting exasperated me. The man’s bombastic voice gave final instructions to a subordinate in the hallway behind me.
“Tell them we can ship to Singapore and have it there in six weeks. Or they can pay for air freight if they can’t wait that long,” he said.
I turned and saw Manuel Del Campo standing outside the double doors of his office. The molding of the oversized doorway framed his muscular and impeccably-dressed physique. He wore a crisp, highly-tailored, bone-white suit—appropriate to the climate, yet contrasting conspicuously with the concept of steel mills.
I sat in Del Campo’s plush office near Medellín, Colombia, waiting for him to answer a few questions for me. Fidgeting with my nails, I contemplated the multiple reasons I’d accepted coming here to do this job. I was having second thoughts, but it was too late. Now that I was on-site, it was better to just get on with it.
I’d flown in last night. A weather delay before I left Minneapolis, plus the five-hour flight to the Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellín, gave me ample time to think about corruption in Latin America—corruption so widespread that individuals across the workforce, from police officers on the street to the back offices of low level government officials, supplemented their incomes inappropriately. When dishonesty exists openly at the street level, it always emanates from the top and permeates all of society. In countries like Colombia, drug related crime adds more layers of complexity to unscrupulous behavior. I was fortunate not to be investigating drug traffickers. I was here to probe into possible mismanagement of a steel mill.
My eyes scanned the top of a carved mahogany desk directly in front of me. A photo stared back at me of Del Campo himself, wearing the same bone-white suit he sported today. Del Campo entered the room, his tone of voice tempering to lower ranges, apologizing for the delay in meeting with me.
“I have time,” I said. I assumed he never arrived late for business appointments with men, but since I was a woman, he had been purposely rude.
He walked to his carved desk, preceding our meeting with pleasant Latin platitudes as he flipped open a cherry wood humidor, his initials engraved on the top, and selected a seven-inch Churchill. He cut the cap with a double guillotine cutter and lit a narrow strip of Spanish cedar with an old-fashioned butane lighter he retrieved from the top drawer of his desk. Cigar in mouth, he slowly rotated it in the spill’s flame as he pulled air in gentle puffs to ensure an even burn. The spicy-sweet aroma of good hand-rolled tobacco mingled with the scent of the burning cedar, making me crave a cigar. But Del Campo was not about to offer a cigar to a woman and certainly not to one who was a lowly auditor. Manuel could ignore the ban on indoor smoking that worldwide headquarters in Minneapolis had issued. After all, Medellín, Colombia, was a long way from Minneapolis.
He looked at his cigar and rolled it around between his fingers. Without lifting his eyes, he abruptly turned the conversation to the purpose of my visit.
“So you’re here to investigate me.” His voice hardened as he spoke.
“I’m here to investigate allegations of wrongdoing reported to headquarters,” I said.
“I’m completely transparent about managing this company,” Del Campo said. He puffed on his cigar. “Everything here is on the up-and-up, like in a game of fencing.”
“Fencing? What does that have to do with managing a company?”
“You don’t go for perfection,” Manuel said. He puffed on his cigar, blew out three smoke rings, and stared at me as the rings slowly dissipated. “You just go for solid returns.”
“I don’t know much about fencing. I’ve seen it televised at the Olympics. But let me ask a few routine questions about the mill.”
“Women stand to learn a lot about business if they learned the game. In the context of fencing, it’s all about the frame you set up.” He took the photo of himself, set off by a gilded frame, and fidgeted with it until the angle of it set straight ahead of me.
“Frame?” I asked, confused.
“Let me explain. If you tell yourself your opponent is weak, and you play the game believing you are better, you create a psychological advantage. On the contrary, if you are afraid of your opponent, you will see yourself ambushed.”
“That philosophy is true in life. In the weeks to come, you can explain the game to me. Right now, though, I need to get some information from you about the company.”
“I’m listening,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
For the next hour, I asked a lot of questions. He lit up a second cigar. The more he spoke, the longer he drew on each puff. He held the seven-inch Churchill between his thumb, middle, and index fingers, like an aficionado. I continued probing. He continued blowing smoke rings.
“If everything is above board, as you say, why did your employees call the Corporate Security Office to report misappropriation of company assets?” I asked.
He switched the cigar to his left hand. The inch-long ash fell in one piece on the highly-polished mahogany. His right hand, fingers cupped, pushed the ashes across the desk in a semicircle and onto the floor in one sweeping motion.
“It’s probably a disgruntled employee trying to discredit me. Or a competitor,” he said.
“You think one disgruntled employee would be so persistent?” I asked, my voice firm.
“One angry person can easily try to incriminate another, especially behind the veil of anonymity. Why believe a caller who won’t give his name?” Manuel asked, his voice playful.
Almost immediately, he swiveled his chair, moved forward, and looked me straight in the eye.
“Look, Ms. Corporate Auditor Nikki Garcia, I’m tired of your insinuating questions. I find your tone accusatory. If corporate headquarters is not happy with my performance, they can fire me. They can trust me and stop this goddamned investigation, or they can fire me. You tell them that.”
His voice became heated; his face turned fire red. He looked at me as if it was all he could do to control his anger. If I’d been a man, he may have taken a swing at me.
“I thought the game of fencing was about dealing psychologically with the opponent,” I said.
He took what remained of his cigar and crushed it against the ashtray with such force I thought the ashtray might break. His face became purple with anger, and he stood, signaling our meeting was over. As I got up, his demeanor relaxed. He escorted me out of his office, smiling like a man accustomed to getting his way through temper tantrums. He cleared his throat, as if the cigar had irritated it.
“If you need anything while you’re here on assignment, Nikki, just speak with my assistant. She’ll arrange it for you. We want to make your visit to Medellín as pleasant as possible,” he said. He closed the door to his office, officially ending our conversation.
I stood by the door, once again livid with the corporate policy of informing high-level executives when they were the object of a review for fraudulent activity. No one ever told lower level employees when they were the target of an audit, a tactic to ensure they didn’t have time to cover up or destroy evidence. So why inform executives?
That man, manipulative as he seemed, had been president of Amazonia Steel for twelve years. He had taken control of a small company, which manufactured for the Latin American market, and grown it into a vast enterprise that exported around the globe, and he had been relentless in building his empire. His name had been tossed around at headquarters as a successor to the aging worldwide CEO, but Del Campo himself had taken his name out of contention, preferring, he claimed, to live in his native country.
I looked at the lavish furnishings around me in the office Del Campo’s administrative assistant occupied. I’d met Theya, his assistant, that morning before she left at noon for personal reasons. The entire building was impeccable, but the elegant setting of the executive suite made me feel as if I were in upscale offices in Upstate New York instead of Medellín, Colombia.
I walked to the window to calm my anger at corporate policy before I talked with anyone else. Five floors up, I had a splendid view of an artificial lake that sparkled in the sunlight like a jagged and vast aquamarine. Occupying several acres, the lake had a bridge spanning the two shores at their narrowest point. The bridge curved gracefully over the lake, ending at a small, treelined parking lot to the right side of the front entrance to the building. Trees sprinkled along a pathway circled the circumference of the lake. Beyond the lake and across the highway were low, rolling hills. The vacant land, lake, and neatly-tended lawns around the company gave the entire complex a country club atmosphere. The steel mills were tucked out of sight half a mile away.
Amazonia Steel was one of the most profitable affiliates in the Globan family of companies. Globan International, where I worked, had worldwide holdings in steel, mining, energy, and large scale construction. I’d been sent to “la ciudad de la eterna primavera,” City of Eternal Spring, after the Globan Corporate Security Office received fifteen anonymous phone calls on the Sarbanes Oxley Hotline claiming the president was defrauding the company.
Sarbanes Oxley was the law that resulted from several large accounting and fraud scandals in corporate America, including giants like Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom. Though the law is complex, multinational companies instituted telephone hotlines as part of their internal policing function to comply with a small part of the legislation. Employees could report malfeasance anonymously on these hotlines.
Calls to Globan’s Security Office Hotline gave few details on the accusations against Del Campo. I could be chasing a hoax. Yet that thought quickly evaporated as I focused on Manuel’s behavior at our meeting. Still gazing out the large window in Theya’s office, I glanced at my watch. It was time to call it a day.
Excerpted from "Waking Up in Medellin" by Kathryn Lane. Copyright © 2016 by Kathryn Lane. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.