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Dick Stivers

Justice by Fire

Proofed by an unsung hero.

1

Roberto Quesada, commander of El Ejercito de los Guerreros Blancos, greeted the young Salvadorans with handshakes and abrazos, the Latin American embrace of macho friendship.

Each of the six young men — all wide-shouldered, with the close-cut hair and straight posture of soldiers — spoke for a moment with their commander, then filed through the double-door entry of the ultramodern Miami mansion of concrete and plate glass.

Quesada followed the last man through the doorway, as the limousine drivers unloaded suitcases from the trunks of the Lincolns and Cadillacs parked on the circular driveway.

* * *

Across Ocean Avenue, in a rental car parked in the night shadow of a flowering silk tree, a reporter braced a motorized Nikon on the car's steering wheel. He scanned the mansion's windows. Dwarf palms and ferns screened the interior from his sight. Finally, he took his eye from the camera's viewfinder. He watched the chauffeurs carry suitcases inside. Snapping the cap onto the 400mm telephoto lens, Floyd 'The Cat' Jefferson carefully set down the camera. He noted the time and exposure details in his notebook: 9:38 p.m. Color Kodak 1000 ASA.

He checked a schedule of airline flights. The evening flight from El Salvador had arrived in Miami less than an hour earlier. Floyd Jefferson knew the six soldiers came from El Salvador. To double-check his assumption, he worked out the crosstown travel time from the airport, added time to clear customs. El Salvador.

Who're they here to kill? Or perhaps they are here only to talk about murder. And torture and mutilation.

Parked a mere hundred yards from the leader of one of El Salvador's most feared death squads, Jefferson leaned back on the car seat to wait. He wanted more photos. Even with the high-speed emulsion of the film and the camera's expensive optics, night photography of subjects in motion remained an exercise in luck. He had the good luck of the entryway lighting illuminating the Salvadorans' faces, but any detail — a wrong guess on the exposure, a flare off the windshield, the turn of a head — might ruin a photo. His story required at least one good shot of every member of the death squad. Perhaps he would not learn why they had come to Miami, but he could prove they came.

Soon, Jefferson would introduce the North American public to the Guerreros Blancos— the White Warriors. North Americans already knew of the Salvadoran death squads terrorizing that nation in the name of anti-Communism. Everyone who owned a television had seen — in lurid color — the bloated, decomposing corpses of students, nurses, teachers and farmers dumped in the ditches and the ravines of El Salvador. Forty thousand civilians had been murdered in the campaign of terror to defeat the Salvadoran government's attempts to reform and modernize the country.

But the news of one murder — only one man hacked to death, beheaded with machetes — would carry the name of the Army of White Warriors to every citizen of the United States and Canada. Soon, with photos and details and sworn testimony, Jefferson would take the first step on the road of protest.

He had no illusions. There would be no trials of the murderers, not in El Salvador nor in the United States. The American administration went through the twice yearly charade of 'human rights' certification. Every six months, the United States Congress and Senate protested the thousands of murders, including eight United States citizens, but noted for the record that the number of murders per night continued to decline. Then the representatives of the people of the United States of America voted to provide more money and weapons for los escuadrones de muerte, the squadrons of death.

Despite his hatred and the horror of what he had seen, Jefferson laughed to himself. Damn right they're not killing as many. That place is running out of people to kill.

They had hacked his friend to death. Jefferson knew he could not force a trial of the killers, not even an arrest, but the journalists and camera crews would crowd the iron gateway of Quesada's Miami Beach sanctuary. Quesada would face microphones and photographers every time he left his estate. After a few days of that, perhaps the Salvadoran mass murderer would return to his own country.

Where he could get shot…

A car passed. Fear touched Jefferson when he saw the driver look at him. He glanced in the rearview mirror. The car continued south, toward the lights of the towering tourist hotels at the other end of the island. He saw no one walking on the asphalt or on the tree-shadowed sidewalks. He scanned the fronts of the nearest estates. No guards watched him.

At the Quesada mansion, the chauffeurs waited, standing in a group behind one of the Lincolns. A butane lighter flared. Cigarettes scratched arcs against the darkness as men gestured. Jefferson watched the windows of the mansion.

Why did the drivers wait? Jefferson had seen them carry suitcases into the house. If Quesada's gang planned to stay with their commander, why the waiting limousines? Did they intend to tour Miami's nightspots?

Jefferson totaled the numbers. Quesada and his wife and four children occupied the mansion. Plus four bodyguards and a live-in maid. Now six guests. A total of seventeen.

Unless Quesada had installed racks of bunk beds, the six young men would sleep at a hotel. Then why had the chauffeurs carried in suitcases?

Tires screeched to a halt. A light blinded Jefferson. He heard car doors fly open, slam shut. Careful not to move too quickly, he sat up straight as he put both hands on the dashboard, fingers wide.

'What you doing here, boy?' a voice demanded. From the curb side, a flashlight swept over the interior of the car.

'Nothing, officer, nothing at all.'

'Then tell me why you're doing nothing here.'

'Have I broken a law, officer?'

The second patrolman opened the passenger-side door. 'Don't get lippy, punk. You don't belong in this neighborhood. Out.'

'Leaving right now.'

'Out of the car!'

'Yes, officer. I'm getting out. Don't shoot.'

'Shut your mouth!' the second patrolman ordered.

'What's your name?' demanded the first police officer. 'What're you doing with all this photographic equipment?'

Jefferson managed to leave the car without lowering his hands. He stood on the sidewalk, hands clasped behind his head. The radio of the Dade County Police cruiser blared numbers and addresses into the warm, humid quiet of the luxury district. A slight ocean breeze brought the scents of brine and jasmine.

'Why aren't you answering, boy?'

'I'm twenty-three years old, sir.'

'I didn't ask how old you are. Show us some identification.'

'Yes, sir. Reaching for my identification. Here it is, sir.'

'Take it out of the wallet.'

'Keep your hands up!'

Jefferson raised his hands above his head as he slipped his California driver's license out of his wallet. He

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