The Seychelles – Gangsta’s Paradise
A country of white sand beaches and palm trees, the Seychelles is an exotic tourist destination. It also happens to be a haven for international criminals. Ambassador David Fischer describes his time there like something out of “an Eric Ambler novel, where an innocent character suddenly stumbles on something, and he becomes involved in a huge conspiracy.” Fischer became a character in a much larger story that included fraudulent banking, Mob activity, money laundering, drug smuggling, and murder, much of which involved France Albert Rene, the president of the Seychelles.
When Fischer informed Rene that people were plotting to overthrow him, the suspects were rounded up, beaten to death and their bodies disposed of in the Ambassador’s yard. Rene then threatened the Ambassador’s son. (In its wisdom, the Department agreed the son should leave the island immediately; however, it declined to pay for his travel.) Fischer notes that William Casey, who had had contact with many people on the Seychelles before he became CIA Director, had apparently ordered the Embassy’s Chief of Station “never to report, never to use any assets or any resources to pursue anything regarding international fraudulent banking operations on the Seychelles” despite the country’s obvious involvement.
David Fischer was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Robert S. Pastorino in March 1998. This excerpt was originally cited in a June 2014 article in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and again in a June 2014 article in the International Business Times, “How the Island of Seychelles became a Haven for Dirty Money.”
You can read about FSOs’ experiences with the Mafia in Italy and about CIA Director William Casey’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. You can also read about Fischer’s experience with his rather unprofessional ambassador in Nepal. Listen to the podcast here.
“The dregs of the British empire washed up in the Seychelles”
FISCHER: This is the stuff of a novel. The Seychelles was a rinky-dink little country. A capital city in Mahé that had 20,000 people. On the other hand it had eight international banks, which is another story I’ll get into. Credit Suisse, Credit Lyonnaise, Barclays’ Bank, BCCI [Bank of Credit and Commerce International], I mean there were all these international banks for reasons that were unclear to me when I first arrived.
I went there in 1982 and again, unbeknownst to me, six weeks before I arrived, the South African government attempted a coup d’etat by sending in 50 armed mercenaries in a botched operation. I had asked specifically if were we behind it. Was this a CIA operation? I was told up and down no. But, as it turned out, we had provided some logistical support to the South Africans. We were certainly aware of the planning of the operation. The President of the country knew damn well what we had done. He had captured seven of these kids, and he had interrogated them.
Seychelles was an incredibly interesting country. The Seychelles in a way was the jewel in the crown of the British Colonial Empire in East Africa. It was a beautiful country, but it was an island country that had no airport until the mid-1970s. The old PNO, Pacific and Orient steam ship company, which was the steam ship company that put all the British colonials into India, stopped there three or four times a year….
Anyway, the dregs of the British empire washed up in the Seychelles. They were alcoholics, they were people who got off the ship to or from India. The Seychelles was an island of free love. It was a most unusual culture. It was a mixture of French, African, Indian, Chinese, and British.
The islands had been French until the War of 1812. So you have French planter stock. The British were the colonial power, so you had Brits there as well. The British freed slaves. There was a great anti-slave movement in England in the 1820s-1830s. When slavers were captured, the slaves were released in the Seychelles. So you had a very strong African stock. The Chinese came to the Seychelles in the early part of the Twentieth Century to work as construction workers. And then, you had the Indian population. It was a melange. It was truly a multi-ethnic culture and a very interesting one.
An extraordinarily venal man with a horrible human rights record and 120 North Korean troops
The President of the country at independence in 1976 was a playboy, a rather famous guy by the name of Jimmy Mancham. Jimmy Mancham was overthrown in a coup d’etat when he was off in England at a Commonwealth meeting by his arch-rival, a man by the name of France Albert Rene.
Rene was the bastard son of a French planter and of a local woman. He was extraordinarily bright. He had been educated in England as a lawyer. Among other things in the early 1960s, when as a member of a col
ony he could live in England, he worked for Midland Bank. He developed for Midland Bank the concept of offshore banking in the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. However, Rene came to power ostensibly as a Socialist. So he had all sorts of crazy Marxist rhetoric.
I remember asking him one day, “What the hell are you? On the one hand you’re an English trained lawyer and a banker, and on the other hand, you claim to be a Marxist.”
He looked at me, and said, “To understand me, you have to understand I’m red on the outside and green on the inside.” He is an extraordinarily venal man with a horrible human rights record who basically was an opportunist….
He was convinced, probably with cause, because the United States was knocking off little tin pot Marxist dictators around the world, and some day the search light would fall on the Seychelles and we’d send out some guys to overthrow him. Which is another story. But he decided to bring in some mercenaries of his own.
So he had 120 North Korean troops on the island, the only place the North Koreans were outside North Korea, I think. Absolutely wacko people. His bodyguards and his intelligence were East German and Cuban. That was the kind of atmosphere.
The diplomatic corps, such as it was, again the stuff of a Somerset Maugham novel. Somerset Maugham, by the way, had lived in the Seychelles at one point. The diplomatic corps consisted of: on one side of the room, the British, the American, and the French Ambassadors. On the other side of the room, the Russian, the Cuban and the Libyan Ambassadors. I guess in between were the Indians and the Chinese.
We had an Embassy, as I say, of seven people. We had a CIA station. We had a Peace Corps program. We had sixteen Peace Corps volunteers on the islands in the years I was there. We gave the President basically two million dollars a year through an aid program. That was the quid pro quo for maintaining the tracking station. [Pictured on the stamp] And of course, the tracking station with 200 some Americans was the largest economic entity on the island and produced enormous revenue for the country.
Indeed, one of the things that arose, we discovered in the Seychelles, was that the Soviet navy had free and ready access to the port, the American navy did not until I arrived because of our policy — of our unwillingness — to declare whether there were nuclear weapons on ships. The Soviets dealt with this issue by simply saying ‘we don’t have nuclear weapons.’ Of course, we were able to track precisely how many nuclear weapons they had on their ships in the harbor.
The Soviets I guess at one point in 1984-1985 experimented with using laser beams as ways to blind the American satellite that beamed down to the Seychelles. This was a violation of all sorts of treaties, and ultimately they did end it.
But we had very little interest there. Our sole interest in that country was to maintain the tracking station. But the President understood that if he in any way threatened the tracking station, he’d be cutting his own throat, the largest economic source of foreign exchange, and at the same time he’d bring down the wrath of the United States on his head….
The main island physically was seven miles long and three miles wide with a mountain range of thirty-five hundred feet right down the middle of it. One town, 20,000 people, and then villages scattered around. But with a very high standard of living.
Ironically, the Seychelles had the second highest standard living in Africa outside of South Africa because when you got a GNP of $220 million dollars divided among 60,000 people, that’s a very high standard of living. The average per capita income was over $3000 when I was there. We were shocked, having come out of Tanzania, which was truly a country of economic disaster.
I can remember the first day my wife and I walked into a supermarket; they actually had a French supermarket. They had bread from Paris, caviar from Moscow, lobster locally caught. It was really quite posh.
“We reported all this stuff to Washington, but no one seemed to care”
Q: The GNP came from the tracking station and tourism? No other economic endeavor to speak of.
FISCHER: Not that we knew of.
Q: Except the offshore banking. Did that make money?
FISCHER: We were not aware of the fact that there was offshore banking. One of the questions I asked myself and the CIA chief was to figure out what the government was up to. Well, we had a two-hour lunch period and one day, my CIA guy had gone off on one side of the island to a beach for lunch, and I had gone out on the Embassy boat to the other side of the island for lunch, and we came back and met in the Embassy at 2:30 p.m….
But the Agency guy said, “I had the damnedest experience. I saw a guy who looked an awful lot like Michael Papa.” Papa was wanted by Interpol [International Criminal Police Organization], and the CIA had instructions to report him to Washington if he washed up somewhere.
The most enigmatic figure in the country was an Italian with murky business interests. His name was G. Mario Ricci. Ricci was a tea plantation owner, an Italian with an enormous beard ,very close to the government. We didn’t quite understand what his relationship was, we didn’t know what he was doing. He claimed to be a member of the diplomatic corps. He claimed to be the honorary Ambassador for the Knights of Malta.
Michael Papa was a guy who was known to Americans because he had tried to arrange for [President Jimmy Carter’s brother] Billy Carter to invest in Libya during the Carter administration. Papa was an international arms smuggler. He was thought to be widely connected to an operation in Italy called the P2, which was a chapter of very conservative neo-fascists who’d been involved in a number of anti-government activities in Italy.
As a result of that chance circumstance, we began to investigate what was going on with this mystical figure, G. Mario Ricci.
Like an Eric Ambler novel, where an innocent character suddenly stumbles on something, and he becomes involved in a huge conspiracy, that’s precisely what happened to us in the Seychelles. By that chance encounter, we soon discovered all sorts of stuff, ranging from money laundering by the Gambino [Mafia] family in New York to gun-running to Libya. [Pictured]
We reported all this stuff to Washington via State Department and CIA channels, but no one seemed to care. Foreign policy in the early 1980s didn’t dirty its hands with issues like money laundering or drug smuggling.
“Your stuff out of the Seychelles has the highest top priority” for the CIA
However, at one point in, I guess 1983, I received a telegram asking me to return to Washington for urgent consultations. Now that’s highly unusual for an Ambassador in a rinky-dink country. But U.S. Customs wanted to talk to me.
I can remember going into a meeting in the State Department in which I was braced by two Customs Agents, both of whom were wearing not only shoulder holsters, but also ankle holsters. They had file upon file regarding a very large Mafia heroin scheme which involved shipping heroin as fish, canned fish, into New York and also laundering money out of the Seychelles.
Now what I’m about to say sounds so ridiculous, that I hesitate to put it down on a piece of paper, even an oral history because, frankly, I don’t have the answer to this question.
When I was in Washington on that trip, I went out to see a man whose name was George Hazelrigg. George had been my Chief of Station of the CIA in Tanzania and then had gone on to become the Chief of CIA in Rome, Italy. George was on home leave. I don’t know how we knew about each other’s visits. I went out and had lunch with him at the Agency headquarters.
After lunch, Hazelrigg pulled me aside. I can remember walking with him to the parking lot. He looked around and said, “I just want to tell you that everything you send out of the Seychelles is blue streaked.” Blue streaked in CIA terminology means a report was marked for the attention of the Director, then William Casey.
“I don’t know. I only know that your stuff out of the Seychelles has the highest top priority.”
To this day I speculate as to why that was the case. I don’t know.
In any event, I went back to the Seychelles. As we began to dig more and more in to operations, a bank appeared on our radar scope called BCCI, Bank of Credit and Commerce International. We had access to some bank records. I don’t know to what degree that helped or precipitated the ultimate investigation of what was clearly a major fraudulent banking operation. But I know it played some role. But we began to get more and more out of this Mafia stuff.
Then one day, my CIA Chief came to me and said, ”I’ve just gotten the strangest message in operational traffic.” He threw it down on my desk. It was personal, to the Chief of Station, from the Director, eyes only, William Casey. “You are hereby instructed never to report, never to use any assets or any resources to pursue anything regarding international fraudulent banking operations in the Seychelles.”
It was an injunction that they could do nothing. Why? I have one idea. People can draw their own conclusions.
“If you don’t release him, I’ll shoot you”
We had a source in the Seychelles, a CIA source, who alerted us that Interpol’s Most Wanted Criminal, a man by the name of Michael Pacienza, was in the Seychelles. He reported that Pacienza was living secretly in the Seychelles in a beach house owned by the President of the country. He wanted us, because he couldn’t do so, to send a message to Interpol to say that Pacienza was there.
Interpol in the form of the Italian police acted open our tip, flew into the Seychelles on a Tuesday and arrested Pacienza. He was taken to the local police station. The problem was that the Alitalia flight didn’t return to Rome until Friday so he had to be held locally. We were cognizant of what was going on. Pacienza was in jail so far as we knew. The Chief of Police was cooperating with us.
On Wednesday morning I realized that something was up because the Italian Ambassador who was resident in Kenya arrived in my office, having chartered an airplane to come out to the island. He was not aware of what was going on, and he wanted to be briefed. He was the Italian Ambassador, I figured what the hell, this is Interpol business, he should know, so I briefed him.
At about five o’clock in the afternoon the Chief of Police came running into my office, screaming,” What have you done?” I just had the President of the country come down to the jail and said he wanted this man released.
He said ‘If you don’t release him, I’ll shoot you.’ He was accompanied by the Italian Ambassador.” The Interpol agents were in my office 20 minutes later saying we understand he’s been released from jail, etc. Mr. Pacienza disappeared.
We subsequently learned he was taken by the President of the country to an outlying island where he was kept in one of Rene’s guest houses. The Italian Ambassador denied any intervention in this. He said he was never in the jail. Pacienza was apparently taken off by a boat and was subsequently arrested in Chicago two years later traveling on a Seychelles diplomatic passport. He was held in a number of crimes in New York involving the Gambino family. That was the kind of crazy place it was.
There were things going on on that island. Most of it was just out of some second-rate spy novel. You’d see the tip of an iceberg, and you’d have no idea why people were using this little island to do this kind of stuff….
“Tell your fucking son to watch out, he’s next”
Q: Talk a little bit about how you related to the President of an independent sovereign country, what I would call a banana republic.
FISCHER: Exactly, total banana republic. But, we were not the dominant power. This is not like being the American Ambassador in Guatemala. The Russians were the dominant power. Yet Rene knew that despite the Russians providing him physical protection against the potential of an American attack or coup, as bizarre as that might be, you have to understand that this is a guy who did experience a coup attempt in 1982 that the United States was at least aware of and did provide some support for. Even paranoids have their enemies.
On the other hand, he needed the United States because of course, we were the main economic power. So Rene was very adept at playing off the Americans against the Russians. I would get a call maybe once a week. My office was right at the base of the hill where his state residence was, so I would go up. He was always surrounded by Cuban bodyguards. It was a very strange room to go into — a room and there was his office. At one end of the room, a curtain, big velvet curtain, and I knew that on the other side was a big burly Cuban bodyguard. It was a little bizarre.
Occasionally I would go up, and my primary function was to try and maintain decent working relations with this guy despite the fact that he had an abysmal human rights record, and despite his dealings with the Mafia. We needed him. We needed that tracking station. So my three years there was to try and convince him that his paranoia about the United States was misplaced. We had no intention of overthrowing him. I don’t think I succeeded in that task at all….
He never had dinner with anybody in the diplomatic corps. He was married, and he had a girlfriend in the last years I was there. His marriage was very rocky. He subsequently divorced his wife and married his girlfriend. So he was somebody you didn’t have a friendly, cordial relationship with and yet because of the size of the capital city, you’d bump into each other all the time. He and I lived on the same road. I lived about 1000 yards below him.
But whenever he went to or from the office, the road was blocked by outriders and Cuban bodyguards and an army personnel carrier. So occasionally I be waiting to go down the driveway, and you’d hear the sirens. You’d back off, and he’d wave or whatever.
However, in 1983, my son Keith, who was a student at Oberlin College, was in the Seychelles on summer vacation. Everybody in the Seychelles knew who he was, everybody knew who I was. On a Thursday, two young kids approached my kids on a street. “We have to get an urgent message to your father. We are going to kill the President on Sunday in church at Mass. We expect the U.S. to come in and save us from this Marxist dictator.”
My son told me, and on Friday I called in the CIA Chief and said, “What do we do?”
He said, “Don’t give this information to Rene, he’ll kill these kids. I believe that our overriding interest is to see that this guy survives. Maybe we don’t like him, but we have to work with him.”
I went to see the President on Friday morning, and I said, “I don’t know who these kids were; they approached my son. I’m just telling you I don’t know if the information is true. I’m just telling you exactly what I know.” He said thank you very much.
On Saturday night, he arrested those two kids. He knew who they were. They had a third person, a young, innocent kid. To make a long story short, the secret police beat the kids to death with tire irons and soaked their bodies in gasoline and then threw them in my backyard. The one kid who survived and who is working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we smuggled him out of the country. He was an interesting kid, beaten to within an inch of his life.
On Monday morning, I went to see the President without instructions. I said, “Can I sit down?” I read him the Riot Act. I don’t think ever in my years as a diplomat I have ever been so blunt. I was so pissed. Rene smoked big cigars. He took it. He sat there stone-faced. “If we provide you information, we’re not here to overthrow you,” etc.
At the end of maybe fifteen minutes of this, he stopped and looked at me and said, “Can I talk to you?” He spoke impeccable English. “Can I talk you, not as President to Ambassador but as father to father? ”
“Tell you’re fucking son to watch out, he’s next.”
Q: Did you report all that to Washington?
FISCHER: I did and I got back a flash message. I remember it very well. It said, paragraph one, eyes only for Ambassador, Deeply disturbed to hear a President’s threat on your son. We believe, underlined, you must get your son off the island on the first available flight.
Paragraph two, in accordance with 3 FAM — Foreign Affairs Manual — this shall be done at the employee’s expense because we already paid for one educational trip.
“We’ll bury you at sea”
Q: This is 1983, did we spend much time as a policy on human rights?
FISCHER: We did. We had the annual human rights report which most embassies wrote, did a moderate job to give to a junior officer. I, of course, because I had nothing else to do and because I felt very strongly, wrote a human rights report which was one of the best things I ever wrote in the Foreign Service. It was well documented, involving murders, disappearances, etc. I used all sorts of sources.
When it was published, you got an advanced copy which you were supposed to give to your local government. I gave it to the Foreign Minister. Knowing full well that I would be summoned by the President, he was going to be pissed off.
Nothing happened, nothing happened. Weeks went by. I didn’t raise the issue. I just wanted to see what was going to happen. Well, within three months, the Foreign Minister to whom I’d given this document, defected to France.
The next night, what had happened when he had defected, they went into his office and they pulled out his desk drawer. There was the human rights report, which nobody in the country had read up to that point. The next night, I’m sitting at home with my wife….
The phone rang at eight o’clock at night. It was the President’s wife on the telephone. She used the foulest language I have ever heard a woman use in my life up to that point. “You… You don’t like it here, you can get off this island. If you think we’re going to kill people, you’re going to get killed. We’ll bury you at sea.”
So the next morning I went to see the President. I said, “You know, I got the most interesting phone call from your wife.”
He said, “Yes, I know, I was in the room.”
I said, “You know, it seems to me that if you have a bone to pick with us on human rights, maybe you and I and the Foreign Minister ought to sit down.”
“No, you just pissed my wife off and I can’t control her. And remember this, even though you’re the American Ambassador, the power of America doesn’t extend to this woman.” He said, “I know you go to the market every Saturday morning. You and your wife and I see you down in that market. I want to tell you if I see you in the market, Juanita or whatever her Cuban bodyguard was, she has instructions she’s going to blow your balls off!”…
CIA cables leaked via Embassy Rome through the Italian Intelligence Service
Q: Going back to Pacienza, how did you get this message from Interpol?
FISCHER: Through the American Embassy in Rome.
Q: So you were responding to another U.S. government official, not Interpol?
FISCHER: It was sent by the FBI in Rome.
Q: Did the Department have any interest in this stuff?
FISCHER: Initially, no. But the investigations by Customs, the DEA and Justice began to focus people’s attention on the Seychelles. It was clear that all the banks, including British and French banks, were moving a lot of hot money in and out of the country. Everybody had a little piece of the puzzle. All the threads pointed to this man G. Mario Ricci and his relationship to the President. Beyond that we didn’t quite understand and we didn’t know all the details of what was happening. People were killed. This is jumping ahead a bit.
The head of the CIA and I were invited for dinner at Mr. Ricci’s house one night. It was very clear that without our wives, stag evening and whatever — 1984. We had a very pleasant dinner. He was married to an Ethiopian woman who was a good cook, very attractive. She served the dinner. After dinner we went onto the patio, he had a beautiful house. His English was very limited.
He said, “Just a minute I want to show my CIA friend something.” He went back to his office and came back with a file folder about an inch thick and handed it to the CIA Chief. He looked at it, read it, going through pages and closed it. I didn’t look at it.
“I only hope that you didn’t pay more than a thousand bucks for this because this is all bogus information,” he replied.
Mario Ricci said, “I paid a lot more than a thousand dollars for it and you and I know this is not bogus information.”
My COS [Chief of Station] said, “Ridiculous, You get forgeries like this all the time.”
We finished our cognac, and we got back into the car. I was driving. As we left the driveway I asked, “What the hell was in the file folder? He said, “Every CIA operational telegram I have sent of this Embassy over the last two years. Every single one.” Well, it was a leak through the CIA station in Rome.
We were copying anything to do with this financial fraud thing which was sent to the CIA station in Rome because it was an Italian who was running the operation. They had a liaison with the Italian Intelligence Service, which had been penetrated, so it was all coming back to Ricci.
Money-laundering and the CIA
There was a bank called the Banco Ambrosiano. Banco Ambrosiano was a Vatican bank that lost about $8 billion dollars of money — embezzled. This was being investigated by the Italians. The man who had been the chief target of the investigation who had been the President of the Banco was a man by the name of Roberto Calvi. Calvi had been killed in London, hung from the Black Friars Bridge. [Note: This was a subplot in the movie Godfather III.]
In the telegram we got from the Agency, saying ‘yes, we know so-and-so (the man you met), we want to talk to him at all costs. We believe he is the man who killed Roberto Calvi, pushed him off the bridge. Do whatever you can within the law to try and contact him and get him to defect. Tell him we will provide what he wants.’
He wanted permanent resident alien status in the United States which they had denied him, he hadn’t done enough for the Dozier case. But if they could interview him and he will provide us with the information we think he has, you are authorized that we will seriously now consider this application for permanent resident alien status.
I don’t know how we contacted him. I wasn’t involved. But the Agency did reach him. He agreed he would go to London. He would be met in London by the CIA and interviewed there. British Airways flew from the Seychelles on a Friday evening.
We made arrangements for him to board the flight, but he never arrived. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he was killed.
But the whole issue involving Banco Ambrosiano, a big issue in Italy and in Italian politics, clearly what was going on in the Seychelles had a direct connection. After Calvi’s death, and as the Italians began to investigate Banco Ambrosiano and the P2 Masonic lodge, about $3.5 billion was missing from the accounting. [Gianni] Agnelli who was the President of the Board of Fiat [Motors] had ostensibly lost money.
They claimed that this money they had invested was missing. We had very good reason to believe that a lot of that money ended up in the Seychelles or was being laundered through the Seychelles. Among other things, Warner Brothers Communication opened up a casino in the Seychelles. Now you ask why you would have a casino on an island with 60,000 people, most of whom are relatively poor — yes you had European tourists, but they were 100,000 people a year maximum and only ten percent of them gambled. But, this was a thriving, wonderful casino.
The reason they had the casino was as a money-laundering operation. If you were an illegitimate businessman, you’d be flown out to the Seychelles. At the end of the year you could tell your tax authorities I lost this or I won this. That operation lasted about nine months and then they closed it down.
But there was a lot of stuff going on. This is all the stuff, as I say. One day I will write a novel. A lot of it is loose ends.
Pacienza was arrested in the United States and served some time here. He was then freed on appeal. He lives in America, I’m told. I subsequently told because I have done some background investigation that in the early 1980s there were a couple of Americans that were private security consultants who were working, trying to get a contract in the Seychelles for bodyguard services and intelligence services.
Some of those people became very close to William Casey before he became Director of the CIA. Some of those people became important figures in the Reagan administration.
So I suspect that Casey’s interest in what was going on in this country was generated as much by what may have been some covert operations or things that I’m certainly not cognizant of, that took place in the late 1970s or early ‘80s. It is true, however that Bill Casey was a very important figure in the Knights of Malta, the legitimate Knights. This bogus group, this guy Ricci who claimed to be an Ambassador for the Knights of Malta in New York, was in fact, a spinoff….
“‘You’re on a hit list for the Mafia'”
One day in early 1985 the CIA Chief came into my office and said, “I have good news and bad news.”
I said, “Okay, what’s the good news?”
He said, “You’re Number Three.”
I said, okay, what’s the bad news?”
He said, “You’re on a hit list for the Mafia.” Well, I kind of blew this all off until the Number One guy on the list was shot in downtown London, machine-gunned. I knew who did the killing. The Thompson sub-machine gun was purchased by an arms dealer in South Carolina, and the name on the export license was France Albert Rene.
Then the Number Two guy, who was the former Foreign Minister who had defected from the country, they tried to kill him in the South of France. They got the wrong house and murdered the family next door. So, I realized this was serious business. No question they were going to kill me because we were getting very close to stuff they wanted to keep hidden.
I was out on a boat one day with my CIA Chief on an outlying island. We pulled into what is the world’s best beach, if you look on lists of beaches in travel beaches, Top 10 beaches, this is always #1.
There is Mr. Mario Ricci who was gutting a huge hammerhead shark. It was out of a novel. Here’s this bearded guy, wearing shorts, he was very muscular, gutting with this knife that’s sharp.
I came up to him, and at this point I knew I was leaving the Seychelles. I’d been there for three years.
I said, “Mario, I want you to know that I’m leaving.”
He came over with his bloody hand, he patted me and he said, “Ambassador, that’s good news for me, but it’s much better news for you!”
“I sure as shit don’t talk to anyone in a men’s room with a gun. You want to talk to me, you call my Embassy”
It was truly weird. I can remember one time, this was the Pacienza incident. I was invited to lunch at a very swank Italian restaurant with Mario Ricci. Ricci and I were always skirting around each other. In this restaurant, a waiter came up to me, I was sitting there, my napkin had fallen on the ground.
I reached down to pick up my napkin as the waiter did, and the waiter put in my hand a piece of paper. Now, I’m not trained in espionage, but this is called a brush pass. So I took my napkin out, and I read the note. It said, “I want to meet you immediately, I’m in the men’s room.” Not signed, what the hell.
I excused myself and went into the men’s room. It was a modern, beautiful Italian hotel. All marble etc. The men’s room must have had twelve to fifteen stalls and as far as I can see, I look under the stalls and I don’t see anybody. So I walk down the stalls and kick the doors open.
About the fourth or fifth stall here’s a guy squatting on a toilet with an AK-47 in his hand, pointed at me. He says, “I’ve got to talk to you. My name is Franco whatever.” I said, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t talk to people in men’s room and I sure as shit don’t talk to anyone in a men’s room with a gun. You want to talk to me, you call my Embassy.”
He said, “I can’t.” But, he handed me a slip of paper with a telephone number on it — area code 703 [Northern Virginia] and said it was the contact number for his CIA handler. This guy who wanted to see us in the men’s room, needless to say, never showed up at the Embassy. However, when I went back after lunch, I gave the CIA the card and asked that they run a trace and find out what the hell this was all about.
The next morning we got a flash message from Washington. For those people who don’t follow history that closely, there was an American general, General Dozier. Dozier was the head of all U.S. forces in Italy who’d been kidnapped in 1979 or 1980. We made an enormous effort to get Dozier free, and we did.
Among other things that were done, the Mafia was used to find information and penetrate the Red Army or whatever outfit had kidnapped him. The guy who I had met in the men’s room had had a CIA contact. They confirmed it, they knew him and he had been helpful. He had been one of the CIA’s contacts in Italy on the General Dozier case….
A Mafia hit in New Jersey and Rene’s phone number on the body
Boy, was I happy to be leaving. This is an assignment that if I’d gone out there, and I’ve said this to friends of mine who’ve been assigned to banana republics, who’ve taken jobs particularly in successor states of the Soviet Union in the early days, in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, where things were really tough, “Look go out there for three months, you got the title of Ambassador, quit.”
There were many days I wanted to quit. My wife hated the Seychelles. I’ve never been in a situation where my wife was so unhappy. There was nothing for her to do….
One last story. In New York, this must have been 1984, there were a series of murders called the Pizza Murders because they involved drugs that were run out of pizza parlors in northern New Jersey. Somebody found a body. The way in which the Mafia took care of these guys, killed them in gang wars, was to shoot them in a place called Secaucus, New Jersey in the swamps, put them in the trunk of a car and that would be it.
Well, I got a telegram one morning that said, “We would like you to inform the President of the Seychelles that we have just picked up the body of Johnny whatever and in his address book on his body, we found the private telephone number of the President of the Seychelles.”
So I went up to see France Albert. “I just want to tell you something, you’re over your head with this Mafia business. You’re in with Ricci.” Rene used to smoke big Cuban cigars. He never said anything, he was a very cool negotiator.
I just laid it out. “You know when they’re finished with you, they’re going to kill you.” I said, “I just want you to know that we found a guy in the trunk of a car, and he’s got your private telephone number.” It was the only time I saw France Albert Rene flinch.
But his answer was, “Don’t worry about it, I can take care of it.”
Well, I guess he was right. We’re doing this interview in 1998, and he’s still President of the country. He’s managed to pull it off. [Rene stepped down in 2004, after 27 years in office.]