It was 10 am in the morning and Martha Strang looked out over the waterfront as the shutters were raised on her bar on the Rambla overlooking the River Plate. As usual she checked that the four back tables of the bar had their chess boards and figures laid out ready for the old emigres who came to play in the dark shaded reaches of ‘Martha’s Bar’.
Harry her barman, business partner and closest friend, was busy cleaning glasses and checking that the coffee machine was warmed up and ready to serve endless cups of Café Largo along with the day’s delivery of Medilunas – the sweet Uruguayan version of a croissant. Unlike other bars, the background music was always classical, particularly those many ballets she loved, with those by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky being her favourites.
The sun was up and burning bright and it was on days like this that the tattooed stars on her chest itched, a reminder of the time spent at the notorious IK14 prison in Mordovia – a god-forsaken land southeast of Moscow. It was there that Martha, or as she was called then, Marta Mikhailovka Stranny had served fifteen years for drug smuggling and theft. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that she had been allowed her freedom, and the ability to move to South America, where with the help of her ‘friends’ she had opened her bar on the Montevideo waterfront. Those friends – all of whom like her, had stars tattooed on their chest, and in some cases on their knees with the message ‘I kneel to nobody’, had helped her forge close links with the large Italian immigrant community, as well as providing a safe haven for the many of her countrymen who had also left Russia, to take advantage of the many opportunities available in the southern reaches of the Americas. She like the many emigres had no desire to return home to either Mother Russia or a Russian Prison.
Uruguay, a small prosperous South American country, was often ignored by many of those crime agencies such as the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Interpol, and Europol; and was now providing a fruitful source for the ever-increasing cocaine market in Europe. The drug itself was being smuggled out of the country by Italian and Russian “businessmen” to their Italian colleagues in Naples and Calabria. This was enabled by the total lack of Customs Control and Supervision in many of the South American ports. ‘Martha’s Bar’ had served as a central meeting place where, deals were made, and shipments arranged, Martha herself with Harry’s help, had acted as a broker between the interested parties to ensure a smooth transfer of the drugs to Italy and guaranteed that cash flowed in the opposite direction. Martha had risen in the Russian Brotherhood both before and after her imprisonment and had earned her stars of seniority whilst in prison.
Following her trial, her husband had fled the Soviet Union with their daughter, and had disappeared for a while, though information had come to light that he had settled in the US Midwest. Their daughter, had grown up as a US citizen, graduated in law and was now working in the US Attorney General’s Office. Martha had tracked down her husband to Boise, Idaho and had sent him a message of intent via a Chechen Boyevik – a Warrior, her daughter however remained unreachable.
By midday the bar was half full. At the back a number of older men were sipping coffee, playing chess, and smoking Papirosu – the old-fashioned filter less Russian cigarette. Sometimes Martha would join them in a game of chess, but not today.
Promptly at one O’clock four Russians entered the Bar and after greeting them, Martha asked Harry to show them up to the meeting room above the Bar whilst she waited patiently for the remaining members of the group to arrive. After a wait of a few minutes four more middle-aged men entered and speaking in heavily accented Italian Martha welcomed the men representing their Italian partners and led them upstairs. She seated herself at the head of the table, whilst the eight men took their places, helped themselves to drinks and coffee and discussed the next series of shipments to Europe, agreed prices, delivery dates and cash deposits. The talks were friendly, no disagreements, and all agreed that as long as the supplies continued, and the various Uruguayan politicians and Senior Police Officers were adequately compensated then a peaceful coexistence could continue.
The quiet calm of the afternoon was shattered by an explosion in the downstairs bar and the meeting room door burst open as six armed members of the Policia Nacional entered all with their weapons pointed at the seated group around the table, standing Martha noted that one of the guns red laser beams was firmly focused on her chest. The balaclava wearing Policia were followed by four civilians all wearing body armour and black caps bearing the logo of the DEA – the US Drug Enforcement Agency. One of them a female that Martha thought she recognised but couldn’t remember from where, approached her saying in perfect Russian, ‘Hello Mama, it’s good to see you again after so long’.