[Homestead] Emilio Rojas Contreras, my business associate and dear friend
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Sun Sep 19 18:06:03 EDT 2004
I have been privileged in business association with a long list of
highly competent people and three completely crooked ones---one I put
out of business in Houston, one I got a multi-million dollar verdict
against in Houston Court, one I would have killed, but for the fact I
could do nothing worse than allow him to live to cope with a fourteen
year-old daughter he had to keep in a padded cell within his house.
But the most talented economic broken-field runner had to be Emilio
Rojas Contreras. Born to parents who started and ran the biggest jelly
and jam factory in Chile they and he had to cope with the double
disaster of Salvador Allende and Pinochet, which meant looking outside
I ran into him in Esmeraldas, Ecuador where I was thinking about buying
a shrimp-processing plant owned by one Robert Stills (you got it, father
of the Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young musical group)
Found out Robert Stills was a crook, trying to dump his free factory
(financed by a no-strings-attached $500,000 loan, really a gift from
Balfour and Guthrie in Scotland) on us before it collapsed around his
ears---he didn't pay anybody, not the shrimp fleet, not his suppliers of
boxes, not the Communist metal fabricator in Esmeraldas who made his
freezer trays (big mistake), not the banker who he conned into loaning
him the Port Captain's payroll, not the Port Captain who is God in South
American seaports (worst possible mistake.)
It began as a weird experience---a five and one-half hour drive from
Guayaquil, by a maniac taxicab driver who knew only two throttle
positions, wide open and idle---stopping at Army outposts to fish a
bottle of Coca Cola from an ancient water-filled cooler, and through two
inches of scum on the top. Then there were the encounters of the fourth
kind---flying through herds of cattle and trucks headed the opposite
direction on a road built for a single line of traffic.
Anyway, I finally got to Esmeraldas---then the problem became how the
hell to get out and go to Quito---didn't want a repeat of the taxicab
trip to Guayaquil, even if a taxicab were available in Esmeraldas for a
long trip---which it wasn't.
So the owner of the tiny hotel in downtown Esmeraldas told me what to
do---go to the airline ticket representative a couple blocks away, and
buy an airline ticket to Quito.
The airline ticket representative turned out to be an ancient old lady
running a tiny grocery. She sold me a ticket, and said to get to the
Esmeraldas airport, I would have to take a taxi to the riverfront, where
I could hire a boat to take me to the airport on the other side of the
river. Not exactly the way it worked. I hired a taxi, hired a dugout
canoe and operator, and headed for the open sea. Went about five miles
out in the Pacific Ocean across sand flats I could touch with my hand,
and five miles back up the other side of the river, plus another two or
three miles to the crumbled relic of a bridge that used to carry traffic
from Esmeraldas to the airport.
Oh, yeah, I forgot---anxious to not miss the airplane, I asked the
old-woman ticket-seller if she was sure I would be at the airport when
the airplant to Quito came in. She said sure, her taxicab-operator son
would make sure the airplane did not leave without me.
Got out of the canoe, expecting the "airport" would be close by. That
didn't happen either, trudged with my luggage across three miles of tall
grass and brush to a grass strip that was the "airport", with a tin shed
in which a radio-operator and dispatcher lurked. Showed him my ticket
and was told the airplane to Quito would be in momentarily and I could
He pointed to what turned out to not be not a DC-3, but a Cessna 205,
barely visible it was dragging so low through the treetops. It landed,
threw off a bundle of newpapers and taxied up to the tin shed, where it
proceeded to load gasoline by a very suspicious procedure---no attempt
to drain water out of the wing tanks via a drain-valve, and a fifty five
gallon fuel drum was rolled to the airplane, its unfiltered and
water-contaminated contents pumped into the wing tanks.
This is where I first met Emilio. As I inspected the plane he approached
for the same purpose. I explained my doubts about fuel safety, and we
made a physical inspection---the horizontal stabilizer and rudder
severely damaged by flying through treetops, the thread showing on worn
out tires, AND THE PROP, great balls of fire, THE PROP.
BIG crack for or five inches from the tip. I knew if that let go, the
engine would rip out of the mounts.
Asked the pilot how the hell that happened. He shrugged and said he ran
into a maintenance stand in Quayaquil, but the ower of the airplane told
him to ignore it. Ignored bad weather too, flying through clouds almost
at ground-level, a lot of which had solid rock centers, and accounting
for flying through treetops at the Esmeraldas airport.
I told Emilio it would be suicide for us to fly to Quito in that wreck,
he agreed and we took the long trek back to the Esmeraldas ticket-witch,
across three miles of tall grass and brush, down seven miles of river
out in the ocean, back five miles on the other side of the river, back
to the ticket-witch for a refund and to buy a truck-taxicab ticket to Quito.
Hell on wheels, a five and one-half hour grind up a thirty-five degree
angle incline, almost no places to pass, and similar truck-taxis coming
at us head-on, brakes burned out and flying. No safety rails of course,
a thousand-foot drop to the river valley below, and I knew how lucky we
were when we arrived at Quito and read the daily obituary---the entire
back page devoted to deaths on the road we travelled. I didn't even
mention the physical problems of the trip---dusty, hot as hell, goats,
chickens on board, together with their owners carrying gunnysacks full
of clothes, foodstuffs and no small amount of homemade hooch.
Before we left Quito, Emilio wandered about sniffing for bargains. Found
an old-time hardware dealer who had hard-to-sell items stored for
decades on the upper floor. Part of those hard-to-sell items were five
hundred genuine Tiffany lamps he bought for five dollars apiece and
Ka-Ching!, sold for five hundred dollars apiece in New York.
But back to the Emilio history. To escape Arbenz and Pinochet he
concocted a highly profitable "Transire" scheme. By mutual treaty in
South America, all countries allow six-month duty-free operation of
businessman automobiles during which businessmen can transact business
and go on their merry way.
Emilio examined this fact and figured out how to turn it to his bank
account advantage. He bought about fifty Mercedes automobiles and kept
them rotating between his businessman clentele, never paid a dime import
duty, and they divided the tax savings (100% or more on the high-priced
Mercedes) and his suddenly fatter bank account let him explore other
Argentina being a safer business site than Chile, he went there next,
and formed a partnership with a large meat packer who could use cheap
foreign cattle---if they were categorized as expensive breeding cattle
for Argentine breeders. Had to get around the currency blockage problem
for common slaughter cattle though.
Easy, Emilio came to the U.S., met me at a Mid-Florida slaughter cattle
auction---arranged for the slaughter-cattle to get papers as horribly
expensive breeders, bought them cheap, sold them to his Argentine
packer-partner as breeders and they pocketed the currency-exchange
profit. Then, how to add to their profit by slaughtering them---sure as
hell couldn't sell scrub cattle to savvy Argentine breeders.
So they slaughtered, packed and sent the scrub cattle by air to
beef-poor Bolivia. As usual, gave up some of the profit to customs
agents who live primarily on bribes, but there was plenty profit left to
divide---the bank accounts swelled further.
After the Tiffany lamp experience, Emilio decided it would be nice to
duplicate it in some fashion---and did. Bought hundreds of ancient
duelling pistols in mint condition in Argentine, dating back to colonial
times, complete with fancy boxes and ownership records from the
factory. KA-CHING! again. So much profit he could hardly count it. I
tole you Emilia was a genius at economic broken-field running.
Almost forgot, he developed and owned at least half of the world King
Crab market. As Alaskan sources declined, his restaurant gourmet eating
habits reminded him that he could turn that to his advantage.
He recruited fishing captains and their vessels in Punta Arenas, Chile,
inducing them to drop fishing nets for King Crab nets and traps. Their
iced cargo went by air (ridiculously low rates headed north---I used to
ship air-freighted fresh fish, iced lobster tails from Panama to Miami
for as low as seven cents a pound, never over nine cents, and no import
duty whatsoever, only a very small import/export broker fee, who handled
all the paperwork.)
So the King Crab you ate in the 1960's probably originated first in
Emilio's imagination, then in his fishing and exporting procedures.
Lost track of Emilio after I arranged to buy popcorn shrimp from a
Guayaquil shrimp-processing factory for eight cents a pound---in those
days you coundn't give away popcorn shrimp, but with my Mainland China
and Chinese-language background I knew Chinese restaurant-operators
would buy every popcorn shrimp I could bring in. Emilio went on to
bigger and better things.
I know Emilio is no longer around. He lived richly and too well, burned
his candle at ten ends, but had a hell of a fascinating good time on
this earth---rest in peace Emilio, 'twas good to know ye.
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