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Jack Divine – Baja private investigator

He hunts missing planes and boats

Jack Divine: “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed." - Image by Craig Carlson
Jack Divine: “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed."

Jack Divine banked his single-engine Cessna into a steep turn over the town of San Felipe, Baja California, squinting through the sunlight that glared on the plane’s windows. From an altitude of only 1000 feet he had a good view of the community below, and he scanned it anxiously for signs of life. There were almost none; a few cars moved through the streets, and on one comer a group of children played with a ball. Divine circled twice, then headed for the airstrip two miles south of town. “I hope that was enough to make some taxi driver notice us,” he muttered. “If it wasn't. . . .”

Mazatlan

A few minutes later Divine brought his plane to a stop in front of the San Felipe terminal. The small, gleaming new brick-and-glass building was deserted except for a lone attendant, who presided solemnly over the empty counters and hallways. Divine spoke to him in Spanish, and the attendant — a thin young man in a flower-print shirt — explained that the tower radio could be used to call for a taxi. He disappeared momentarily to take care of it, and when he returned, assumed a post behind the ticket counter, absently tapping his fingers on the counter top and watching the afternoon heat waves dance on the runway outside. After a few moments he inquired politely about Divine’s occupation. “Investigador privado” (“Private investigator’’) was the abrupt reply.

To the kind of people who like to own things without the inconvenience of paying for them, Mexico often seems like a good destination. It’s a big country, and communication with its many small towns and villages is neither as easy nor as efficient as it is in the United States. Most of the natives are too polite to ask a lot of questions, and when it becomes necessary to explain things to the authorities, the most effective story is sometimes a few sizable bank notes. The average thief, whether Mexican or American, apparently believes he can live out his fantasies in some peaceful little place hundreds of miles from the border, where no one will be able to find him, if anyone even bothers to look.

San Francisquito

But the average thief doesn’t count on Jack Divine. Divine is a private investigator licensed by the Mexican government, one of only a handful of men authorized to search for and recover property that has been stolen in the United States and taken to Mexico. He works under the terms of a 1936 treaty, and his clients are banks, insurance companies, private individuals — anyone who has a financial interest in the property and can pay to get it back. It is an expensive undertaking, partly because of the time it takes and partly because of Divine’s rather exclusive fees, and the stolen property must be valuable to make it worthwhile. Almost always it is an airplane, a boat, or an automobile.

Divine, who is sixty-one, is an American citizen, but for the last twenty-seven years he has lived on the outskirts of Tijuana. He speaks Spanish both fluently and eloquently, and he has a reputation for getting what he’s after. “I know of four [recovery] companies in Mexico in the last few years that decided they could make more money by just folding up and disappearing,’’ says Jack Whaley, head of a San Diego repossession firm that works closely and frequently with Divine. “That’s the type you often wind up dealing with in this business. But Jack is good; he’s one of the few who can get things done [down in Mexico]. Like anyone else down there, if he spends fifty dollars, he’ll tell me he spent seventy-five. But like my father used to say, he’s good people.”

Near San Blas

It was fifteen minutes before a taxicab pulled up in front of the San Felipe terminal. The driver was a stocky, bushy-haired man with three gold teeth in front that glinted when he smiled, and he smiled a lot. He talked even more. Divine answered his questions patiently in Spanish, explaining why he had come to San Felipe. A certain resident of the town had purchased a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit in Lake-wood, California, a few years ago, paying for it with the aid of a loan from the Bank of America. Now the buyer had missed several loan payments in a row, and the bank, through Jack Whaley’s San Diego office, had requested Divine to see what was up. “It’s a chicken-shit little job,’’ Divine complained, turning to me and breaking into English. “The guy’s owned the car for three years; he’s damn near got it paid for. I talked to him last night on the phone, and he told me not to bother coming — he’d make the payments.’’ He shook his head.

A short while later we pulled up in front of an aging house on a wide, quiet street. A hand-lettered sign on the front identified the building as a laundry, but Divine had been told it was also where the owner of the Volkswagen lived. The car was nowhere in sight. Divine got out of the cab, grumbling that the man had probably gone to Calexico to make the payments on the car. He was surprised when an elderly woman answered his knock, and spoke to him from the shade of an interior courtyard. After a long conversation, Divine walked quickly back to the cab. He seemed agitated. “Time to get out my ID,” he announced as he got in. “I came out here peaceable, but I can’t be peaceable now.

On the gulf

“We just discovered something. He sold the car. Now the guy’s a felon — it’s a felony to sell something you don’t own. No wonder he didn’t want me to come. Boy, I’ll bet that old woman didn’t realize what she was telling me. Now I’ve got to have all the [bank’s] money.”

The cab driver gunned the car back over the rough dirt street; when he reached a paved avenue near the harbor he swung onto it sharply. The woman at the laundry had told Divine the Volkswagen was sold to a woman who worked at the local tourist office, and that was our next destination. When we got there, Divine pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase — legal documentation on the bank’s ownership of the car. Then he got out his private investigator’s license and walked inside.

It was all over in ten minutes. Divine spoke politely, elegantly, but firmly to the woman, whose round young face fell as she learned that she’d purchased a car that had been sold illegally. But when Divine explained to her that the Volkswagen wouldn’t be repossessed if she paid the remaining $2660 owed on it, she quickly agreed to send him the money. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers, and Divine left. After a phone call to Whaley in San Diego to inform him what had taken place, he directed the cab driver to return to the airport.

Divine's log and photos

“We could rent a hotel room and stay here and repossess the car,” he said on the way, “but we don’t need to. Most people are reasonable about something like this when you explain it to them. They realize you’re right, and hell, they don’t want any trouble. You look at that woman’s face, you can see she’s honest. I think she’ll pay for the car.”

It wasn’t long before we were airborne in Divine’s Cessna again, bound for San Francisquito, a small fishing resort roughly 200 miles south of San Felipe on Baja’s gulf coast. Divine was in good spirits; the wind was with us, and he pointed to the air speed indicator with a grin. “A hundred and ninety-five miles an hour,” he said, calculating the flying time to San Francisquito in his head. He had plenty of work ahead of him over the next few days, but his first job in San Felipe had taken less than ninety minutes, and he was looking forward to a little fishing before dark.

Jack Divine grew up on his parents’ dairy near Barstow, California, and learned to fly when he was only sixteen. After serving a term in the Army with the 1344th combat engineers during World War II, he found work in the oil fields near Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. In a few years he had his own small company, an outfit that removed old oil flumes and performed other demolition work in the drilling fields. According to Divine, it was work that sometimes brought in $800 a day. The only trouble was, money that good attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. One year they figured Divine owed them half a million dollars. The way Divine figured it, he didn't owe them anything. The discrepancy has been resolved since then, but at the time, he decided life would be more pleasant on the other side of the border. He crossed into Mexico in 1957, and he has been living there ever since.

Divine married a Mexican woman in 1966, and he and his wife now live in a house in La Mesa (a suburb about five miles southeast of downtown Tijuana) with their two daughters Jacklyn, fourteen, and Alma, ten. It is a medium-size, comfortable, one-story place, with a spotless modern kitchen and a roof that sometimes leaks when it rains. A fence around the small courtyard in back is covered with a brightly colored mural, painted by one of Divine’s many acquaintances. In it, a stream pours down from distant mountains and crosses rolling green hills. “This is my estate,” Divine said with a chuckle as he showed me the mural one afternoon not long ago. “It’s all mine — from here to the mountains.”

He is a burly man, about five feet, ten inches tall, with big, meaty hands and a face that seems permanently burned by the Mexican sun. He has a penchant for screwdrivers — the kind made with vodka and orange juice — which tend to make him even more jovial than usual. Although he never finished high school, he has a keen wit. “I learn something from everyone I meet,” he said as we flew south toward San Francisquito. “I guarantee you that before this trip is over. I’ll learn something from you — some way you talk or act that I’ll like. And I’ll say to myself, ‘I should do that.’”

For many years Divine supported himself in Tijuana by selling used cars from a lot next to his house. (“I’ve been a bum all my life,” he told me once, “but a workin’ bum.”) He still owns the business but no longer takes an active role in it. In the late 1960s he learned that a number of American companies were looking for someone who could help them recover stolen property from Mexico, and Divine found himself well-suited to the work. The first few times he labored for free, but he soon began charging for his services, and eventually developed a steady working relationship with the Sunset Detective Agency in Las Vegas, under whose authority he works while in the United States. (Divine has a separate, and coveted, license to work in Mexico; he says in all of Baja there is only one other such investigator’s license, held by a Mexican man who’s used it for more than forty years.) Taking along his wife and a friend or two in his motor home, Divine would roam the states of northern and central Mexico, tracking down stolen cars for banks and insurance companies. Many times he took possession of the cars from whoever was operating them, and returned the vehicles to their legal owners north of the border. But as the drug trade expanded throughout the early and mid-1970s, the real bonanza in his business became airplanes. The planes, stolen from the United States, were used frequently to transport shipments of marijuana from Mexico back to the U.S. Ten years ago, Divine claims, he could locate as many as twenty of them in a week, abandoned at various small airfields around Mexico, testimony to smuggling plots gone awry.

In recent years the number of stolen planes found in Mexico has dwindled, but there are still enough of them to keep an enterprising investigator busy. Divine, who keeps his own Cessna at Tijuana International Airport, can fly anywhere in Mexico in a few hours. On one of his many trips he might notice an abandoned or suspicious-looking plane standing, say, in a corn field or behind a hangar at an airstrip. He photographs the plane, jots down its call numbers or serial number, and then traces its owner using microfilm records from the Federal Aviation Administration. Once he contacts the owner, Divine often offers to buy the plane from him. By that time it is not unusual for Divine to have already spent as much as $2000 in travel costs and phone calls, but as he says, “What difference does it make what it costs you? You make yourself a whole ton of money.” A few years ago he bought a single-engine Cessna for $2000 and sold it for $8000; another time, a Rockwell Aero Commander that he purchased for $2100 brought $22,000 when it was restored to flying condition.

Of course, if the owner prefers to have his plane back, Divine can take care of that, too. All it takes is a lot of time and money. To comply with the 1936 treaty, it is necessary to obtain copies of numerous documents that prove ownership, have them certified by the American Embassy, translate them into Spanish, and then have the translations certified by the Mexican consulate — a process that usually takes more than eighteen months. Occasionally, however, things can move considerably faster than that, as in the case of John Rice’s Piper Navaho.

Rice, who owns San Juan-Pacific Pools on Miramar Road in San Diego, had purchased the twin-engine, $250,000 plane in conjunction with a business partner, James Lewis. The Piper Navaho was the foundation of a new airplane-rental business the two men had started, called Diversified Aviation Company. But they had owned the plane less than two months when Rice got a call from U.S. Customs on the afternoon of January 30, 1979. “They asked me if I knew where my plane was,” Rice recounted. “I told them no.” He knew his plane was not at its usual space at Montgomery Field, but thought Lewis had taken it out for a few days. “And they said they had just picked it up on radar over southwestern New Mexico, coming north out of Mexico. It was a real blow.” Unknown to Rice, his plane had been stolen several days earlier and flown to a small town near Obregon, Mexico, to pick up a shipment of marijuana. The thief, an American pilot, then flew north into the United States, but as he approached his drop-off point in New Mexico, realized he was being followed by a U.S. Customs plane. He made a 180-degree turn, and the two planes flew side by side for more than an hour, during which the customs officials observed “suspicious-looking” packages piled high in the rear of the plane.

The thief disappeared back into Mexican airspace, but soon ran out of gas and made an emergency landing in a field near the city of Chihuahua. “It was a feat of its own, to land that Piper in a field,” Divine would point out later. The thief then hitchhiked to town and bought a truck to load the marijuana into, but was apprehended by the Mexican federal police when he returned to the plane. His endeavor had come to an end, but Rice’s problems were just beginning.

“You hear horror stories about how if you don’t find [a plane] right away, you never do get it back,” said Rice. He and Lewis started asking around, and they heard of Divine from a friend who works at Montgomery Field. After contacting the detective by telephone at his home in Tijuana, the three of them met at the McDonald’s restaurant in the Central Federal Building in downtown San Diego a few days later. Rice’s insurance company (which would have had to pay off $200,000 in theft insurance if the plane was gone for good) had sent Rice and Lewis $1500 to get the investigation rolling, and Divine used part of the money to send telegrams to airports all over Mexico, asking for information on the plane and offering a reward of 2000 pesos. “By the end of the week, we had heard from the comandante of the Chihuahua airport,” Rice recalled. “He said the plane was there, and Divine flew down to confirm it.”

After that, the paperwork battle began, but Divine had an interest in seeing it terminated more quickly than usual; the insurance company had offered him a $25,000 reward if he could get the plane released within ninety days. “Divine handled everything,” said Rice. “We didn’t have to enter Mexico until the end, and then we flew to Chihuahua to pick up the plane.” The final arrangements took another day or two, but Rice and Lewis got their plane back on the ninety-first day — and Divine still claimed the reward.

While getting the proper paperwork together is the most time-consuming stage in recovering a stolen car, airplane, or boat, taking possession of it is the most delicate. Often the item has been appropriated and is being used by an important citizen, or even a government official. But Divine excels at this aspect of his job, too, in part because he speaks Spanish superbly and in part because he has developed a network of well-placed contacts in his many years of traveling around Mexico. “You can get justice in Mexico, but it’s hard to get to the man who administers it,” he says. “Other [recovery experts] don’t have the good contacts down here that I have. They meet some guy on the corner who speaks English, and they think they’ve got it made. But it turns out the guy really can’t do much for ’em. . . .” Divine also knows precisely how and when to turn on the charm. “I’ve never met an American who can think like a Mexican as well as I can,” he boasts. “Give me ten minutes in a guy’s office, and I’ll have him in my pocket. You have to be real nice, invite the guy to lunch. . . . If you’re obnoxious, he’ll run you out. So I charge a lot for my services, but I can do things no one else can do. That’s not braggin’ — it’s just the truth.”

Divine asks $125 for every hour he is in the air, and $200 a day for his services, plus expenses. (He has been known to settle for less, however.) He has visited almost every corner of Mexico in the last twenty years, and whenever possible he stays at top hotels, eats the finest foods, and drinks the best vodka. A hunter who has shot jaguars in Nayarit and deer in Sonora, he recognizes the similarity between his occupation and his favorite pastime. “This work is just like huntin’,” he says. “And I like to hunt people more than anything else. I don’t do this just for the money, man, I enjoy it.”

Like most people, I imagined Divine’s work to be full of danger. But in general, he assured me, it is not. He carries a pistol on occasion, but insists he has never had to use it on anyone. “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed, but I think you have to be stupid to get into a situation like that. If you go into a town looking for a car, and you find out it’s out on a ranch somewhere, you better not go out there by yourself. You go to the local judicial police, show your papers and your license, and tell them you have reason to believe the car is out on this ranch. You ask for an agent to go out with you, and offer to pay the guy’s wages for a day. They always give you one or two agents, and they always carry a machine gun or a carbine. You go out to the ranch and there’s no trouble at all.”

The more I found out about Divine’s work, the more it seemed like accompanying him on one of his trips would be a peach of an assignment. He would scour Mexico’s countryside for stolen merchandise, and I would ride along soaking up Mexican sunshine and tequila. But the illusion of an enjoyable, uncomplicated sojourn south of the border was swiftly shattered on the plane ride from San Felipe to San Francisquito. A storm front moving in from the north was wreaking havoc on the air masses above Baja’s gulf coast, and we bounced and pitched along crazily for well over an hour. I am not a frequent passenger in small planes, and perhaps this is why I failed to take an academic interest in the sudden updrafts that would sweep Divine’s Cessna upward at an alarming rate, followed moments later by downdrafts that would propel us just as rapidly toward the earth. Divine himself would sometimes glance at his vertical speed indicator and note, with a slight tone of surprise in his voice, “A thousand feet per minute” (he later told me the maximum rates of climb and descent were much greater than this). At long last we reached San Francisquito, circled once to check the wind direction, and then came in low and fast, nearly obliterating two big turkey vultures that were floating serenely over the landscape. They couldn’t have looked more surprised to see us. ‘‘We’re really haulin’ ass according to them!” Divine shouted gleefully as we left the two vultures behind; and a few moments later, as we taxied to a stop and my furiously uneasy stomach finally gave up its pretense of calm, I heard him bellow, ‘‘You’re not a bad flier, but you’re not worth a shit on the ground!” Even though I was vomiting, I had to smile at a comment like that.

We fished at sunset, trolling slowly across the gulfs serene blue surface in a small boat Divine keeps at San Francisquito, and for dinner that night ate grouper that had the misfortune to find our lures. As darkness came, stars lit up the sky; there was the soft slap of gulf waves on the shore, and a warm breeze from the south. Divine was up before sunrise the next morning, drinking coffee and a wake-up glass of Scotch on the rocks, and soon we were high above the gulf, heading east toward Hermosillo on Mexico’s mainland. The weather was calm and clear, and the turbulent flight of the previous afternoon seemed like only a bad dream.

Divine planned to gas up his plane in Hermosillo, then fly south to Mazatlan, where he had to check medical records at the Red Cross hospital for a case he was working on. From Mazatlan he would fly south to San Bias to look for a stolen boat; and it was this that was the main focus of the trip. The boat, a forty-foot commercial fishing vessel out of San Diego called the Viento, was reported stolen from its berth at Shelter Island on December 29, 1982. The owner, Bill Moilanen, suspected his deckhand, a friend of ten years whom he had allowed to live on the boat in return for keeping it shipshape. “I had no warning about [the theft] at all,” Moilanen said recently. ‘‘I knew the guy had been in a scrape before, but I thought he’d squared himself away. He worked for me most of 1982. . . . But the thing that really got me was, I had no insurance on the boat.”

Moilanen heard of Divine from a friend at the Shelter Island marina, who had once worked with the detective in returning another stolen boat to San Diego. The Viento’s owner called Divine on January 5, and agreed to send him $150 to begin the investigation. Divine used the money to send telegrams to the harbor masters, known as captains, of every Mexican port between San Diego and Acapulco, inquiring if they had seen the Viento and offering a reward of several thousand pesos for information. Meanwhile, by pulling a few strings, he was able to obtain a copy of the F.B.I.’s records on the suspect. It turned out the man had once robbed a bank, and had also held up a foster home with a shotgun to obtain custody of his two children. By the time Divine left on his trip southward, he still hadn’t heard anything from the port captains, but the detective wasn’t discouraged. “He’ll have to stop somewhere for food, gas, or water,’’ he said of the thief. “They all stop for something. He can’t go north [from San Diego] because there’s too much law enforcement. Besides, the guy always talked to the boat’s owner about how he had lived in San Bias for a couple of years, and how much he liked it. I don’t know for certain that he’s there, but I’ll bet he is. You’d be surprised how often I’m right.”

Because Moilanen had little money to pay for the work, Divine had agreed to search for the Viento on his own; if he found the boat he would get a percentage ownership in it, and Moilanen could take out a loan to pay him off. “I don’t usually work like this, but Moilanen seems like a nice guy, and I had all this other little stuff to do that will pay my expenses [for this trip],” Divine explained. “I sincerely hope we find the boat; if we don’t, I won’t make a fuckin’ nickel. But if we do, I might make ten or twenty thousand dollars.”

As we got out of the plane at the Hermosillo airport, Divine pointed to a couple of beat-up old planes that stood in a weedy lot next to the runway. They were stolen, he said, and abandoned here years ago; now they were falling apart, beyond recovery. “There used to be about fifty planes here,” he said, adding that he had recovered a number of them himself a few years ago. “In those days, every place I flew I was late, because I had so much to do. It was excitin’. But you’re too late for all that — now we’re just doin’ little stuff.”

After filling the plane’s tanks, we walked into the terminal, where Divine spent a long half hour talking to an immigration official who joined us for breakfast in the airport’s coffee shop. Most of the conversation consisted of jokes and stories the two men swapped in Spanish. On the way out Divine paused to chat with two other immigration officials, and he even had a few words for the clerks in the operations office as he filed his flight plan. But back in the plane, he told me, “Don’t think all that visitin’ is because I love everybody. I depend on guys like that for information. It’s important for me to be known down here, and known as an honorable businessman. It saves time later on.”

We flew south over agricultural fields and chicken farms. “It’s the richest farmland in Mexico, right here,” Divine remarked. The earth became a checkerboard with squares of tan, green, and dark brown, broken here and there by the sinuous line of a canal. Later, we reached the western coast of mainland Mexico, and we could see the surf pounding far below on mile after mile of deserted beach. A procession of clouds, puffy and white as balls of cotton, passed beneath us, and not long after that the three small islands offshore from Mazatlan appeared in the distance. Divine pointed at the floor of his Cessna and said, “This son of a bitch is going down," and in a few more minutes we were standing on the runway of the Mazatlan airport in the early afternoon heat.

Divine rented a big, comfortable Ford Elite at the airport, and then did some quick calculating. We hadn’t showered for nearly two days, and he had planned on checking into a hotel in Mazatlan to clean up before going to the Red Cross hospital to see about the medical records. But it was nearly two o’clock — siesta time — and he knew from experience that the person or persons he had to talk to at the hospital would be relatively high in the chain of command. In other words, there was a good chance they wouldn’t return to work after siesta. He decided to visit the hospital immediately, and we set off for it reeking like a couple of hockey players after a workout. Divine accelerated at every comer and straightaway, making all possible speed through the crowded city streets, until finally we were directed off the main road by a detour sign. Rounding a comer, we discovered that traffic was backed up for blocks, waiting for a small convoy of trucks to wind its way through the narrow streets. “This is exactly the kind of thing that the people I work for just don’t understand,” Divine said, throwing up his hands in disgust,

The people Divine works for these days are still often insurance companies, but the nature of most of his cases has changed quite a bit. A concerted crackdown on the drug trade by Mexican and American authorities has forced much of the smuggling activity southward, and most of the planes stolen in the United States now end up in Central and South America, not Mexico. At the same time, soaring travel costs have made recovering stolen cars from Mexico financially less attractive to American companies, and so Divine finds himself working much of the time on what is known in the insurance business as “product liability” cases. In a typical one, a man driving, say, a Chevy Malibu, will wreck his car on a road in Mexico. He will sustain a serious injury in the accident. The driver will then sue General Motors, claiming it was their faulty automobile that caused the accident and injury. General Motors will refer the case to its insurance company, which will in turn refer the case to Divine. His task is to round up witnesses and information that will aid the company’s defense. Divine claims that product liability work pays much better than his old task of tracing stolen planes and other property, but one senses that he misses the excitement and exotic nature of his former work.

On this trip he was interested in locating the medical records of a Mexican citizen whose hand had been crushed by a punch press in Los Angeles in early 1980. The man claimed he had been treated several months later by the Red Cross in Mazatlan, when his hand swelled up badly. Divine wanted to verify that the man was indeed treated here; it could make a difference in the settlement amount. But when we arrived at the hospital, the afternoon supervisor, a handsome young man with a thin mustache, explained that the 1980 records had already been forwarded to Red Cross headquarters in Mexico City. Divine thanked him politely, and we left. “I could have told the insurance company this without even coming down here,” he fumed as we got back into the car. “But my job is not complete until I come down here to check. Shit.”

After a short debate with himself over whether to spend the afternoon getting drunk in Mazatlan or continuing on south to San Bias, Divine decided in favor of the latter. Instead of flying, we would drive the rented car some 200 highway miles to get there, in part because Divine had an old hunting partner he wanted to visit along the way. He figured we could make it to San Bias in three hours. I thought he was being grossly optimistic until I saw the way he drives, which is not much different from his approach to flying. In both cases the only guidelines he observes is to go more or less in a straight line, as fast as he can. On the way, he talked repeatedly about the Viento, and the man suspected of stealing it. “If we find this guy, he goes to jail. It’d be nice to walk into a bar in San Bias and see him sittin’ there, wouldn’t it?” (Divine had brought with him several Xerox copies of the man’s picture, which he obtained from sources he prefers not to reveal.) But when I thought of the man holding up a foster home with a shotgun, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to meet him in a dimly lit bar.

The highway was crowded with trucks, buses, and cars. We passed through small, dusty towns in which the tiny houses were all brightly painted and thatched with palm fronds. Pigs and burros stood near the road, blinking as we raced by. Gradually, the rolling green hills of Sinaloa gave way to the steep mountains and dense, vine-covered thickets of Nayarit. Wild fig and palm trees grew by the highway, along with wispy pink flowers unknown to me. The air became humid, and from time to time we passed groves of mango, banana, papaya, and lemon. Rounding a turn after more than two hours of driving, Divine pointed out a low, marshy area where he had gone after jaguars with his hunting friend several years earlier.

We reached the home of Divine’s friend in the early evening. The house was right on the highway, but no one was around; Divine knew right away because the old fellow’s favorite chair on the porch was empty. We got out of the car anyway and wandered up onto the porch, which the house shared with a small restaurant. But the restaurant was closed, and chairs were turned upside down on its few tables. A cage nearby contained a huge blue and green macaw, and another cage next to the house had a young javelina, a wild pig, in it. Divine helped himself to raw peanuts from a huge sack near the door, and then took me for a brief tour of the “grounds.” His friend is a botanist as well as a hunter, and the house was surrounded by an elaborate garden that contained thousands of exotic trees and plants. There were bloodhounds tied up in the back that barked anxiously as we passed by, and down near the road was a big cage with a live jaguar in it. The jaguar eyed us warily; we obviously didn’t belong.

Divine’s friend, whose name is Senor Parra, drove up with his wife ten minutes later. He was a tall, stately looking man of sixty-seven, with the light-brown eyes of a lion, and he wore a heavy camouflage jacket and a fatigue hat. Divine said he owned the countryside for miles around, and that his father had been the first governor of the state of Nayarit.

Senor Parra sat down in his favorite porch chair, and his wife brought out cups of coffee for everyone. Divine and Senor Parra talked in Spanish. My command of that language is sketchy, but I understood enough to learn I was being referred to as “este muchacho” (“this boy”). Senor Parra also inquired about the purpose of Divine’s trip, and when he learned we were going to San Bias, insisted on coming with us. He placed a loaded shotgun on the seat of Divine’s rented Ford — in case we encountered bandits, he explained — and the three of us set off to look for the Viento.

The road to San Bias was narrow and winding, and walled in on both sides by huge trees. Divine drove, talking most of the way with Senor Parra, who sat beside him in the front. Este muchacho sat in the back. The evening was fading, and the sky above the road glowed orange and then dark blue. By the time we reached San Bias, the town’s street lights had been turned on, and they gleamed like gold coins in the darkness.

Senor Parra suggested going directly to the house of the port captain, Pancho Rivera, to ask if the Viento had been seen. The problem was, Senor Parra didn’t know where Rivera lived. No one we asked on the street seemed to know, either, although that didn’t stop them from giving us directions.

We bounced through the narrow cobblestone streets for a half hour or more, several times passing the town square with its lighted shops and hip young Americans, who sat on benches in the warm evening, looking smug. Everywhere Senor Parra would inquire in Spanish, “Where is the house of Pancho Rivera, the captain of the port?” At last we turned onto a darkened street and pulled up in front of what had to be the right house. It looked as if it had been boarded up for months. Discouraged, and having eaten nothing since our breakfast at the Hermosillo airport that morning, we decided it was time for dinner.

By this time, Divine was getting a little frustrated. Senor Parra had taken control of the expedition, and there was no way Divine could turn down his suggestions without appearing rude. When Senor Parra insisted over dinner that we spend the night at his house, the detective turned to me with a resigned expression. “You can sleep anywhere there’s a bed, can't you?” he asked.

We headed back toward Senor Parra’s house at about eight o’clock, but before we got out of town Senor Parra asked Divine to make one last stop, at the office of the local police. Perhaps they had heard something, he pointed out. They hadn’t, but they invited us to step into their office anyway.

The police wore straw cowboy hats, sport shirts, and slacks. Their “office” was a stark plaster cubicle lit by a bare light bulb. A plastic Jesus was fastened to the wall next to a rack that held four rifles. On another wall hung a short length of garden hose. It didn’t look as if anyone used it to water plants. Divine politely explained to the three officers what he was looking for and why, and gave them a picture of his suspect. They agreed to let him know if they found out anything.

Back at Senor Parra’s house, Divine and I made our way around back to an old shed with a furnished room in it. Divine took the lone bed, and I got a mattress (with clean sheets and a pillow) on the floor. It looked like a good place to encounter scorpions, centipedes, and other furry little poisonous things, but as it turned out, the thing that banished sleep was the constant stream of trucks that roared by on the highway outside all night. You could hear them coming and going for a half mile in either direction, and each one shook the rafters as it passed. The last thing I heard from Divine before he turned out the light was, “This isn’t what I planned on for tonight.”

In the morning, bleary-eyed, we drove to San Bias again. This time Senor Parra brought a pistol and two rifles. On the way into town we passed an American, Bob Brown, who has lived in the area for ten years, and we stopped to talk to him. Brown is a former diver who married a Mexican woman and now makes his living cultivating fruit trees, and he sees much of what goes on in the San Bias harbor. He hadn’t seen the Viento, however. Divine gave him a picture of the suspect, too, and after Brown promised to keep his eyes open for the guy, we continued on our way.

In San Bias we left additional pictures of the suspect with the local fish-and-game warden and the assistant port captain (we never did find Pancho Rivera), but neither one of them had seen or heard of the Viento. A brief tour of the San Bias harbor turned up only shrimp boats and a few small sailing vessels. We drove south several miles to a wide bay, where Divine scanned the distances through his binoculars for the Viento, but there was no sign of the boat there, either. “AquI no esta” (“It is not here”), he finally remarked out loud.

We drove slowly back to Senor Parra’s house. He tried to talk Divine into staying for a few days to explore the countryside, but Divine begged off, explaining he was working, not on vacation. We shared a final cup of coffee on the porch, and Senor Parra gave me a sprig from his cinnamon tree, which he said was very rare and had come from Ceylon. “My home is your home, you understand?” he told me in Spanish and then in English as we got into the car.

On the long drive back to Mazatlan, Divine was philosophical about not finding the Viento. “We’ve done a good job if we visit all these places, talk to the local law enforcement agencies, and leave a picture and description of the boat and the man. That’s about all we can do, really — you can’t stay down here a year waitin’ for the guy to show up.

“But I’m certain he’s around here someplace,” he continued. “Bob Brown said he thinks the guy might be out on Santa Isabel Island [a very small island some forty-five miles off the coast near San Bias, where Divine once discovered another stolen boat]. There’s a lot of people out there, and they’re all hidin’ from something. I think we’ll get this guy within sixty days.”

Divine has plenty of product-liability cases to keep him busy in the near future, but he admitted that the recent peso devaluations have hurt both his used-car business and his life savings. Although he has been trying gradually to retire from the recovery business over the last four years — he currently refers cases involving stolen airplanes to Art Willis, a pilot who lives near La Paz — he told me he is planning to gear up again, and will be placing advertisements soon in San Diego papers. He has an associate that he is training, a Mexican citizen who has been working with him for about six months, and Divine hopes the two of them will be able to gamer a major portion of the work that American companies will inevitably generate for modern-day bounty hunters in Mexico. “Things are slower now, but there’s still good money to be made in this business,” he insisted.

After that he was silent for a long time, and I got the feeling he was disappointed about not being able to find the Viento. But he perked up when the white high-rise hotels of Mazatlan came into view, and in a few more minutes he became downright cheerful in anticipation of the resort city’s food and nightlife. “Man,” he said, “I know plenty of sixty-year-old guys like me who do nothin’ but sit around the house all day. But this is the life, isn’t it?” And suddenly I had a vision of Divine the way I had seen him at San Francisquito a few days earlier: lying on a chaise longue on the front porch of his thatch-roofed cabin, less than thirty yards from the ocean’s edge, with a glass of Scotch at his side. “This is what I’d do all the time if I had the money,” he had told me then. “I don’t have the money, so I work this job that allows me to do it.” With that. Jack Divine had closed his eyes, and a few minutes later fell contentedly asleep, snoring loudly.

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Jack Divine: “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed." - Image by Craig Carlson
Jack Divine: “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed."

Jack Divine banked his single-engine Cessna into a steep turn over the town of San Felipe, Baja California, squinting through the sunlight that glared on the plane’s windows. From an altitude of only 1000 feet he had a good view of the community below, and he scanned it anxiously for signs of life. There were almost none; a few cars moved through the streets, and on one comer a group of children played with a ball. Divine circled twice, then headed for the airstrip two miles south of town. “I hope that was enough to make some taxi driver notice us,” he muttered. “If it wasn't. . . .”

Mazatlan

A few minutes later Divine brought his plane to a stop in front of the San Felipe terminal. The small, gleaming new brick-and-glass building was deserted except for a lone attendant, who presided solemnly over the empty counters and hallways. Divine spoke to him in Spanish, and the attendant — a thin young man in a flower-print shirt — explained that the tower radio could be used to call for a taxi. He disappeared momentarily to take care of it, and when he returned, assumed a post behind the ticket counter, absently tapping his fingers on the counter top and watching the afternoon heat waves dance on the runway outside. After a few moments he inquired politely about Divine’s occupation. “Investigador privado” (“Private investigator’’) was the abrupt reply.

To the kind of people who like to own things without the inconvenience of paying for them, Mexico often seems like a good destination. It’s a big country, and communication with its many small towns and villages is neither as easy nor as efficient as it is in the United States. Most of the natives are too polite to ask a lot of questions, and when it becomes necessary to explain things to the authorities, the most effective story is sometimes a few sizable bank notes. The average thief, whether Mexican or American, apparently believes he can live out his fantasies in some peaceful little place hundreds of miles from the border, where no one will be able to find him, if anyone even bothers to look.

San Francisquito

But the average thief doesn’t count on Jack Divine. Divine is a private investigator licensed by the Mexican government, one of only a handful of men authorized to search for and recover property that has been stolen in the United States and taken to Mexico. He works under the terms of a 1936 treaty, and his clients are banks, insurance companies, private individuals — anyone who has a financial interest in the property and can pay to get it back. It is an expensive undertaking, partly because of the time it takes and partly because of Divine’s rather exclusive fees, and the stolen property must be valuable to make it worthwhile. Almost always it is an airplane, a boat, or an automobile.

Divine, who is sixty-one, is an American citizen, but for the last twenty-seven years he has lived on the outskirts of Tijuana. He speaks Spanish both fluently and eloquently, and he has a reputation for getting what he’s after. “I know of four [recovery] companies in Mexico in the last few years that decided they could make more money by just folding up and disappearing,’’ says Jack Whaley, head of a San Diego repossession firm that works closely and frequently with Divine. “That’s the type you often wind up dealing with in this business. But Jack is good; he’s one of the few who can get things done [down in Mexico]. Like anyone else down there, if he spends fifty dollars, he’ll tell me he spent seventy-five. But like my father used to say, he’s good people.”

Near San Blas

It was fifteen minutes before a taxicab pulled up in front of the San Felipe terminal. The driver was a stocky, bushy-haired man with three gold teeth in front that glinted when he smiled, and he smiled a lot. He talked even more. Divine answered his questions patiently in Spanish, explaining why he had come to San Felipe. A certain resident of the town had purchased a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit in Lake-wood, California, a few years ago, paying for it with the aid of a loan from the Bank of America. Now the buyer had missed several loan payments in a row, and the bank, through Jack Whaley’s San Diego office, had requested Divine to see what was up. “It’s a chicken-shit little job,’’ Divine complained, turning to me and breaking into English. “The guy’s owned the car for three years; he’s damn near got it paid for. I talked to him last night on the phone, and he told me not to bother coming — he’d make the payments.’’ He shook his head.

A short while later we pulled up in front of an aging house on a wide, quiet street. A hand-lettered sign on the front identified the building as a laundry, but Divine had been told it was also where the owner of the Volkswagen lived. The car was nowhere in sight. Divine got out of the cab, grumbling that the man had probably gone to Calexico to make the payments on the car. He was surprised when an elderly woman answered his knock, and spoke to him from the shade of an interior courtyard. After a long conversation, Divine walked quickly back to the cab. He seemed agitated. “Time to get out my ID,” he announced as he got in. “I came out here peaceable, but I can’t be peaceable now.

On the gulf

“We just discovered something. He sold the car. Now the guy’s a felon — it’s a felony to sell something you don’t own. No wonder he didn’t want me to come. Boy, I’ll bet that old woman didn’t realize what she was telling me. Now I’ve got to have all the [bank’s] money.”

The cab driver gunned the car back over the rough dirt street; when he reached a paved avenue near the harbor he swung onto it sharply. The woman at the laundry had told Divine the Volkswagen was sold to a woman who worked at the local tourist office, and that was our next destination. When we got there, Divine pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase — legal documentation on the bank’s ownership of the car. Then he got out his private investigator’s license and walked inside.

It was all over in ten minutes. Divine spoke politely, elegantly, but firmly to the woman, whose round young face fell as she learned that she’d purchased a car that had been sold illegally. But when Divine explained to her that the Volkswagen wouldn’t be repossessed if she paid the remaining $2660 owed on it, she quickly agreed to send him the money. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers, and Divine left. After a phone call to Whaley in San Diego to inform him what had taken place, he directed the cab driver to return to the airport.

Divine's log and photos

“We could rent a hotel room and stay here and repossess the car,” he said on the way, “but we don’t need to. Most people are reasonable about something like this when you explain it to them. They realize you’re right, and hell, they don’t want any trouble. You look at that woman’s face, you can see she’s honest. I think she’ll pay for the car.”

It wasn’t long before we were airborne in Divine’s Cessna again, bound for San Francisquito, a small fishing resort roughly 200 miles south of San Felipe on Baja’s gulf coast. Divine was in good spirits; the wind was with us, and he pointed to the air speed indicator with a grin. “A hundred and ninety-five miles an hour,” he said, calculating the flying time to San Francisquito in his head. He had plenty of work ahead of him over the next few days, but his first job in San Felipe had taken less than ninety minutes, and he was looking forward to a little fishing before dark.

Jack Divine grew up on his parents’ dairy near Barstow, California, and learned to fly when he was only sixteen. After serving a term in the Army with the 1344th combat engineers during World War II, he found work in the oil fields near Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. In a few years he had his own small company, an outfit that removed old oil flumes and performed other demolition work in the drilling fields. According to Divine, it was work that sometimes brought in $800 a day. The only trouble was, money that good attracted the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. One year they figured Divine owed them half a million dollars. The way Divine figured it, he didn't owe them anything. The discrepancy has been resolved since then, but at the time, he decided life would be more pleasant on the other side of the border. He crossed into Mexico in 1957, and he has been living there ever since.

Divine married a Mexican woman in 1966, and he and his wife now live in a house in La Mesa (a suburb about five miles southeast of downtown Tijuana) with their two daughters Jacklyn, fourteen, and Alma, ten. It is a medium-size, comfortable, one-story place, with a spotless modern kitchen and a roof that sometimes leaks when it rains. A fence around the small courtyard in back is covered with a brightly colored mural, painted by one of Divine’s many acquaintances. In it, a stream pours down from distant mountains and crosses rolling green hills. “This is my estate,” Divine said with a chuckle as he showed me the mural one afternoon not long ago. “It’s all mine — from here to the mountains.”

He is a burly man, about five feet, ten inches tall, with big, meaty hands and a face that seems permanently burned by the Mexican sun. He has a penchant for screwdrivers — the kind made with vodka and orange juice — which tend to make him even more jovial than usual. Although he never finished high school, he has a keen wit. “I learn something from everyone I meet,” he said as we flew south toward San Francisquito. “I guarantee you that before this trip is over. I’ll learn something from you — some way you talk or act that I’ll like. And I’ll say to myself, ‘I should do that.’”

For many years Divine supported himself in Tijuana by selling used cars from a lot next to his house. (“I’ve been a bum all my life,” he told me once, “but a workin’ bum.”) He still owns the business but no longer takes an active role in it. In the late 1960s he learned that a number of American companies were looking for someone who could help them recover stolen property from Mexico, and Divine found himself well-suited to the work. The first few times he labored for free, but he soon began charging for his services, and eventually developed a steady working relationship with the Sunset Detective Agency in Las Vegas, under whose authority he works while in the United States. (Divine has a separate, and coveted, license to work in Mexico; he says in all of Baja there is only one other such investigator’s license, held by a Mexican man who’s used it for more than forty years.) Taking along his wife and a friend or two in his motor home, Divine would roam the states of northern and central Mexico, tracking down stolen cars for banks and insurance companies. Many times he took possession of the cars from whoever was operating them, and returned the vehicles to their legal owners north of the border. But as the drug trade expanded throughout the early and mid-1970s, the real bonanza in his business became airplanes. The planes, stolen from the United States, were used frequently to transport shipments of marijuana from Mexico back to the U.S. Ten years ago, Divine claims, he could locate as many as twenty of them in a week, abandoned at various small airfields around Mexico, testimony to smuggling plots gone awry.

In recent years the number of stolen planes found in Mexico has dwindled, but there are still enough of them to keep an enterprising investigator busy. Divine, who keeps his own Cessna at Tijuana International Airport, can fly anywhere in Mexico in a few hours. On one of his many trips he might notice an abandoned or suspicious-looking plane standing, say, in a corn field or behind a hangar at an airstrip. He photographs the plane, jots down its call numbers or serial number, and then traces its owner using microfilm records from the Federal Aviation Administration. Once he contacts the owner, Divine often offers to buy the plane from him. By that time it is not unusual for Divine to have already spent as much as $2000 in travel costs and phone calls, but as he says, “What difference does it make what it costs you? You make yourself a whole ton of money.” A few years ago he bought a single-engine Cessna for $2000 and sold it for $8000; another time, a Rockwell Aero Commander that he purchased for $2100 brought $22,000 when it was restored to flying condition.

Of course, if the owner prefers to have his plane back, Divine can take care of that, too. All it takes is a lot of time and money. To comply with the 1936 treaty, it is necessary to obtain copies of numerous documents that prove ownership, have them certified by the American Embassy, translate them into Spanish, and then have the translations certified by the Mexican consulate — a process that usually takes more than eighteen months. Occasionally, however, things can move considerably faster than that, as in the case of John Rice’s Piper Navaho.

Rice, who owns San Juan-Pacific Pools on Miramar Road in San Diego, had purchased the twin-engine, $250,000 plane in conjunction with a business partner, James Lewis. The Piper Navaho was the foundation of a new airplane-rental business the two men had started, called Diversified Aviation Company. But they had owned the plane less than two months when Rice got a call from U.S. Customs on the afternoon of January 30, 1979. “They asked me if I knew where my plane was,” Rice recounted. “I told them no.” He knew his plane was not at its usual space at Montgomery Field, but thought Lewis had taken it out for a few days. “And they said they had just picked it up on radar over southwestern New Mexico, coming north out of Mexico. It was a real blow.” Unknown to Rice, his plane had been stolen several days earlier and flown to a small town near Obregon, Mexico, to pick up a shipment of marijuana. The thief, an American pilot, then flew north into the United States, but as he approached his drop-off point in New Mexico, realized he was being followed by a U.S. Customs plane. He made a 180-degree turn, and the two planes flew side by side for more than an hour, during which the customs officials observed “suspicious-looking” packages piled high in the rear of the plane.

The thief disappeared back into Mexican airspace, but soon ran out of gas and made an emergency landing in a field near the city of Chihuahua. “It was a feat of its own, to land that Piper in a field,” Divine would point out later. The thief then hitchhiked to town and bought a truck to load the marijuana into, but was apprehended by the Mexican federal police when he returned to the plane. His endeavor had come to an end, but Rice’s problems were just beginning.

“You hear horror stories about how if you don’t find [a plane] right away, you never do get it back,” said Rice. He and Lewis started asking around, and they heard of Divine from a friend who works at Montgomery Field. After contacting the detective by telephone at his home in Tijuana, the three of them met at the McDonald’s restaurant in the Central Federal Building in downtown San Diego a few days later. Rice’s insurance company (which would have had to pay off $200,000 in theft insurance if the plane was gone for good) had sent Rice and Lewis $1500 to get the investigation rolling, and Divine used part of the money to send telegrams to airports all over Mexico, asking for information on the plane and offering a reward of 2000 pesos. “By the end of the week, we had heard from the comandante of the Chihuahua airport,” Rice recalled. “He said the plane was there, and Divine flew down to confirm it.”

After that, the paperwork battle began, but Divine had an interest in seeing it terminated more quickly than usual; the insurance company had offered him a $25,000 reward if he could get the plane released within ninety days. “Divine handled everything,” said Rice. “We didn’t have to enter Mexico until the end, and then we flew to Chihuahua to pick up the plane.” The final arrangements took another day or two, but Rice and Lewis got their plane back on the ninety-first day — and Divine still claimed the reward.

While getting the proper paperwork together is the most time-consuming stage in recovering a stolen car, airplane, or boat, taking possession of it is the most delicate. Often the item has been appropriated and is being used by an important citizen, or even a government official. But Divine excels at this aspect of his job, too, in part because he speaks Spanish superbly and in part because he has developed a network of well-placed contacts in his many years of traveling around Mexico. “You can get justice in Mexico, but it’s hard to get to the man who administers it,” he says. “Other [recovery experts] don’t have the good contacts down here that I have. They meet some guy on the corner who speaks English, and they think they’ve got it made. But it turns out the guy really can’t do much for ’em. . . .” Divine also knows precisely how and when to turn on the charm. “I’ve never met an American who can think like a Mexican as well as I can,” he boasts. “Give me ten minutes in a guy’s office, and I’ll have him in my pocket. You have to be real nice, invite the guy to lunch. . . . If you’re obnoxious, he’ll run you out. So I charge a lot for my services, but I can do things no one else can do. That’s not braggin’ — it’s just the truth.”

Divine asks $125 for every hour he is in the air, and $200 a day for his services, plus expenses. (He has been known to settle for less, however.) He has visited almost every corner of Mexico in the last twenty years, and whenever possible he stays at top hotels, eats the finest foods, and drinks the best vodka. A hunter who has shot jaguars in Nayarit and deer in Sonora, he recognizes the similarity between his occupation and his favorite pastime. “This work is just like huntin’,” he says. “And I like to hunt people more than anything else. I don’t do this just for the money, man, I enjoy it.”

Like most people, I imagined Divine’s work to be full of danger. But in general, he assured me, it is not. He carries a pistol on occasion, but insists he has never had to use it on anyone. “People can’t understand why I don’t get shot or knifed, but I think you have to be stupid to get into a situation like that. If you go into a town looking for a car, and you find out it’s out on a ranch somewhere, you better not go out there by yourself. You go to the local judicial police, show your papers and your license, and tell them you have reason to believe the car is out on this ranch. You ask for an agent to go out with you, and offer to pay the guy’s wages for a day. They always give you one or two agents, and they always carry a machine gun or a carbine. You go out to the ranch and there’s no trouble at all.”

The more I found out about Divine’s work, the more it seemed like accompanying him on one of his trips would be a peach of an assignment. He would scour Mexico’s countryside for stolen merchandise, and I would ride along soaking up Mexican sunshine and tequila. But the illusion of an enjoyable, uncomplicated sojourn south of the border was swiftly shattered on the plane ride from San Felipe to San Francisquito. A storm front moving in from the north was wreaking havoc on the air masses above Baja’s gulf coast, and we bounced and pitched along crazily for well over an hour. I am not a frequent passenger in small planes, and perhaps this is why I failed to take an academic interest in the sudden updrafts that would sweep Divine’s Cessna upward at an alarming rate, followed moments later by downdrafts that would propel us just as rapidly toward the earth. Divine himself would sometimes glance at his vertical speed indicator and note, with a slight tone of surprise in his voice, “A thousand feet per minute” (he later told me the maximum rates of climb and descent were much greater than this). At long last we reached San Francisquito, circled once to check the wind direction, and then came in low and fast, nearly obliterating two big turkey vultures that were floating serenely over the landscape. They couldn’t have looked more surprised to see us. ‘‘We’re really haulin’ ass according to them!” Divine shouted gleefully as we left the two vultures behind; and a few moments later, as we taxied to a stop and my furiously uneasy stomach finally gave up its pretense of calm, I heard him bellow, ‘‘You’re not a bad flier, but you’re not worth a shit on the ground!” Even though I was vomiting, I had to smile at a comment like that.

We fished at sunset, trolling slowly across the gulfs serene blue surface in a small boat Divine keeps at San Francisquito, and for dinner that night ate grouper that had the misfortune to find our lures. As darkness came, stars lit up the sky; there was the soft slap of gulf waves on the shore, and a warm breeze from the south. Divine was up before sunrise the next morning, drinking coffee and a wake-up glass of Scotch on the rocks, and soon we were high above the gulf, heading east toward Hermosillo on Mexico’s mainland. The weather was calm and clear, and the turbulent flight of the previous afternoon seemed like only a bad dream.

Divine planned to gas up his plane in Hermosillo, then fly south to Mazatlan, where he had to check medical records at the Red Cross hospital for a case he was working on. From Mazatlan he would fly south to San Bias to look for a stolen boat; and it was this that was the main focus of the trip. The boat, a forty-foot commercial fishing vessel out of San Diego called the Viento, was reported stolen from its berth at Shelter Island on December 29, 1982. The owner, Bill Moilanen, suspected his deckhand, a friend of ten years whom he had allowed to live on the boat in return for keeping it shipshape. “I had no warning about [the theft] at all,” Moilanen said recently. ‘‘I knew the guy had been in a scrape before, but I thought he’d squared himself away. He worked for me most of 1982. . . . But the thing that really got me was, I had no insurance on the boat.”

Moilanen heard of Divine from a friend at the Shelter Island marina, who had once worked with the detective in returning another stolen boat to San Diego. The Viento’s owner called Divine on January 5, and agreed to send him $150 to begin the investigation. Divine used the money to send telegrams to the harbor masters, known as captains, of every Mexican port between San Diego and Acapulco, inquiring if they had seen the Viento and offering a reward of several thousand pesos for information. Meanwhile, by pulling a few strings, he was able to obtain a copy of the F.B.I.’s records on the suspect. It turned out the man had once robbed a bank, and had also held up a foster home with a shotgun to obtain custody of his two children. By the time Divine left on his trip southward, he still hadn’t heard anything from the port captains, but the detective wasn’t discouraged. “He’ll have to stop somewhere for food, gas, or water,’’ he said of the thief. “They all stop for something. He can’t go north [from San Diego] because there’s too much law enforcement. Besides, the guy always talked to the boat’s owner about how he had lived in San Bias for a couple of years, and how much he liked it. I don’t know for certain that he’s there, but I’ll bet he is. You’d be surprised how often I’m right.”

Because Moilanen had little money to pay for the work, Divine had agreed to search for the Viento on his own; if he found the boat he would get a percentage ownership in it, and Moilanen could take out a loan to pay him off. “I don’t usually work like this, but Moilanen seems like a nice guy, and I had all this other little stuff to do that will pay my expenses [for this trip],” Divine explained. “I sincerely hope we find the boat; if we don’t, I won’t make a fuckin’ nickel. But if we do, I might make ten or twenty thousand dollars.”

As we got out of the plane at the Hermosillo airport, Divine pointed to a couple of beat-up old planes that stood in a weedy lot next to the runway. They were stolen, he said, and abandoned here years ago; now they were falling apart, beyond recovery. “There used to be about fifty planes here,” he said, adding that he had recovered a number of them himself a few years ago. “In those days, every place I flew I was late, because I had so much to do. It was excitin’. But you’re too late for all that — now we’re just doin’ little stuff.”

After filling the plane’s tanks, we walked into the terminal, where Divine spent a long half hour talking to an immigration official who joined us for breakfast in the airport’s coffee shop. Most of the conversation consisted of jokes and stories the two men swapped in Spanish. On the way out Divine paused to chat with two other immigration officials, and he even had a few words for the clerks in the operations office as he filed his flight plan. But back in the plane, he told me, “Don’t think all that visitin’ is because I love everybody. I depend on guys like that for information. It’s important for me to be known down here, and known as an honorable businessman. It saves time later on.”

We flew south over agricultural fields and chicken farms. “It’s the richest farmland in Mexico, right here,” Divine remarked. The earth became a checkerboard with squares of tan, green, and dark brown, broken here and there by the sinuous line of a canal. Later, we reached the western coast of mainland Mexico, and we could see the surf pounding far below on mile after mile of deserted beach. A procession of clouds, puffy and white as balls of cotton, passed beneath us, and not long after that the three small islands offshore from Mazatlan appeared in the distance. Divine pointed at the floor of his Cessna and said, “This son of a bitch is going down," and in a few more minutes we were standing on the runway of the Mazatlan airport in the early afternoon heat.

Divine rented a big, comfortable Ford Elite at the airport, and then did some quick calculating. We hadn’t showered for nearly two days, and he had planned on checking into a hotel in Mazatlan to clean up before going to the Red Cross hospital to see about the medical records. But it was nearly two o’clock — siesta time — and he knew from experience that the person or persons he had to talk to at the hospital would be relatively high in the chain of command. In other words, there was a good chance they wouldn’t return to work after siesta. He decided to visit the hospital immediately, and we set off for it reeking like a couple of hockey players after a workout. Divine accelerated at every comer and straightaway, making all possible speed through the crowded city streets, until finally we were directed off the main road by a detour sign. Rounding a comer, we discovered that traffic was backed up for blocks, waiting for a small convoy of trucks to wind its way through the narrow streets. “This is exactly the kind of thing that the people I work for just don’t understand,” Divine said, throwing up his hands in disgust,

The people Divine works for these days are still often insurance companies, but the nature of most of his cases has changed quite a bit. A concerted crackdown on the drug trade by Mexican and American authorities has forced much of the smuggling activity southward, and most of the planes stolen in the United States now end up in Central and South America, not Mexico. At the same time, soaring travel costs have made recovering stolen cars from Mexico financially less attractive to American companies, and so Divine finds himself working much of the time on what is known in the insurance business as “product liability” cases. In a typical one, a man driving, say, a Chevy Malibu, will wreck his car on a road in Mexico. He will sustain a serious injury in the accident. The driver will then sue General Motors, claiming it was their faulty automobile that caused the accident and injury. General Motors will refer the case to its insurance company, which will in turn refer the case to Divine. His task is to round up witnesses and information that will aid the company’s defense. Divine claims that product liability work pays much better than his old task of tracing stolen planes and other property, but one senses that he misses the excitement and exotic nature of his former work.

On this trip he was interested in locating the medical records of a Mexican citizen whose hand had been crushed by a punch press in Los Angeles in early 1980. The man claimed he had been treated several months later by the Red Cross in Mazatlan, when his hand swelled up badly. Divine wanted to verify that the man was indeed treated here; it could make a difference in the settlement amount. But when we arrived at the hospital, the afternoon supervisor, a handsome young man with a thin mustache, explained that the 1980 records had already been forwarded to Red Cross headquarters in Mexico City. Divine thanked him politely, and we left. “I could have told the insurance company this without even coming down here,” he fumed as we got back into the car. “But my job is not complete until I come down here to check. Shit.”

After a short debate with himself over whether to spend the afternoon getting drunk in Mazatlan or continuing on south to San Bias, Divine decided in favor of the latter. Instead of flying, we would drive the rented car some 200 highway miles to get there, in part because Divine had an old hunting partner he wanted to visit along the way. He figured we could make it to San Bias in three hours. I thought he was being grossly optimistic until I saw the way he drives, which is not much different from his approach to flying. In both cases the only guidelines he observes is to go more or less in a straight line, as fast as he can. On the way, he talked repeatedly about the Viento, and the man suspected of stealing it. “If we find this guy, he goes to jail. It’d be nice to walk into a bar in San Bias and see him sittin’ there, wouldn’t it?” (Divine had brought with him several Xerox copies of the man’s picture, which he obtained from sources he prefers not to reveal.) But when I thought of the man holding up a foster home with a shotgun, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to meet him in a dimly lit bar.

The highway was crowded with trucks, buses, and cars. We passed through small, dusty towns in which the tiny houses were all brightly painted and thatched with palm fronds. Pigs and burros stood near the road, blinking as we raced by. Gradually, the rolling green hills of Sinaloa gave way to the steep mountains and dense, vine-covered thickets of Nayarit. Wild fig and palm trees grew by the highway, along with wispy pink flowers unknown to me. The air became humid, and from time to time we passed groves of mango, banana, papaya, and lemon. Rounding a turn after more than two hours of driving, Divine pointed out a low, marshy area where he had gone after jaguars with his hunting friend several years earlier.

We reached the home of Divine’s friend in the early evening. The house was right on the highway, but no one was around; Divine knew right away because the old fellow’s favorite chair on the porch was empty. We got out of the car anyway and wandered up onto the porch, which the house shared with a small restaurant. But the restaurant was closed, and chairs were turned upside down on its few tables. A cage nearby contained a huge blue and green macaw, and another cage next to the house had a young javelina, a wild pig, in it. Divine helped himself to raw peanuts from a huge sack near the door, and then took me for a brief tour of the “grounds.” His friend is a botanist as well as a hunter, and the house was surrounded by an elaborate garden that contained thousands of exotic trees and plants. There were bloodhounds tied up in the back that barked anxiously as we passed by, and down near the road was a big cage with a live jaguar in it. The jaguar eyed us warily; we obviously didn’t belong.

Divine’s friend, whose name is Senor Parra, drove up with his wife ten minutes later. He was a tall, stately looking man of sixty-seven, with the light-brown eyes of a lion, and he wore a heavy camouflage jacket and a fatigue hat. Divine said he owned the countryside for miles around, and that his father had been the first governor of the state of Nayarit.

Senor Parra sat down in his favorite porch chair, and his wife brought out cups of coffee for everyone. Divine and Senor Parra talked in Spanish. My command of that language is sketchy, but I understood enough to learn I was being referred to as “este muchacho” (“this boy”). Senor Parra also inquired about the purpose of Divine’s trip, and when he learned we were going to San Bias, insisted on coming with us. He placed a loaded shotgun on the seat of Divine’s rented Ford — in case we encountered bandits, he explained — and the three of us set off to look for the Viento.

The road to San Bias was narrow and winding, and walled in on both sides by huge trees. Divine drove, talking most of the way with Senor Parra, who sat beside him in the front. Este muchacho sat in the back. The evening was fading, and the sky above the road glowed orange and then dark blue. By the time we reached San Bias, the town’s street lights had been turned on, and they gleamed like gold coins in the darkness.

Senor Parra suggested going directly to the house of the port captain, Pancho Rivera, to ask if the Viento had been seen. The problem was, Senor Parra didn’t know where Rivera lived. No one we asked on the street seemed to know, either, although that didn’t stop them from giving us directions.

We bounced through the narrow cobblestone streets for a half hour or more, several times passing the town square with its lighted shops and hip young Americans, who sat on benches in the warm evening, looking smug. Everywhere Senor Parra would inquire in Spanish, “Where is the house of Pancho Rivera, the captain of the port?” At last we turned onto a darkened street and pulled up in front of what had to be the right house. It looked as if it had been boarded up for months. Discouraged, and having eaten nothing since our breakfast at the Hermosillo airport that morning, we decided it was time for dinner.

By this time, Divine was getting a little frustrated. Senor Parra had taken control of the expedition, and there was no way Divine could turn down his suggestions without appearing rude. When Senor Parra insisted over dinner that we spend the night at his house, the detective turned to me with a resigned expression. “You can sleep anywhere there’s a bed, can't you?” he asked.

We headed back toward Senor Parra’s house at about eight o’clock, but before we got out of town Senor Parra asked Divine to make one last stop, at the office of the local police. Perhaps they had heard something, he pointed out. They hadn’t, but they invited us to step into their office anyway.

The police wore straw cowboy hats, sport shirts, and slacks. Their “office” was a stark plaster cubicle lit by a bare light bulb. A plastic Jesus was fastened to the wall next to a rack that held four rifles. On another wall hung a short length of garden hose. It didn’t look as if anyone used it to water plants. Divine politely explained to the three officers what he was looking for and why, and gave them a picture of his suspect. They agreed to let him know if they found out anything.

Back at Senor Parra’s house, Divine and I made our way around back to an old shed with a furnished room in it. Divine took the lone bed, and I got a mattress (with clean sheets and a pillow) on the floor. It looked like a good place to encounter scorpions, centipedes, and other furry little poisonous things, but as it turned out, the thing that banished sleep was the constant stream of trucks that roared by on the highway outside all night. You could hear them coming and going for a half mile in either direction, and each one shook the rafters as it passed. The last thing I heard from Divine before he turned out the light was, “This isn’t what I planned on for tonight.”

In the morning, bleary-eyed, we drove to San Bias again. This time Senor Parra brought a pistol and two rifles. On the way into town we passed an American, Bob Brown, who has lived in the area for ten years, and we stopped to talk to him. Brown is a former diver who married a Mexican woman and now makes his living cultivating fruit trees, and he sees much of what goes on in the San Bias harbor. He hadn’t seen the Viento, however. Divine gave him a picture of the suspect, too, and after Brown promised to keep his eyes open for the guy, we continued on our way.

In San Bias we left additional pictures of the suspect with the local fish-and-game warden and the assistant port captain (we never did find Pancho Rivera), but neither one of them had seen or heard of the Viento. A brief tour of the San Bias harbor turned up only shrimp boats and a few small sailing vessels. We drove south several miles to a wide bay, where Divine scanned the distances through his binoculars for the Viento, but there was no sign of the boat there, either. “AquI no esta” (“It is not here”), he finally remarked out loud.

We drove slowly back to Senor Parra’s house. He tried to talk Divine into staying for a few days to explore the countryside, but Divine begged off, explaining he was working, not on vacation. We shared a final cup of coffee on the porch, and Senor Parra gave me a sprig from his cinnamon tree, which he said was very rare and had come from Ceylon. “My home is your home, you understand?” he told me in Spanish and then in English as we got into the car.

On the long drive back to Mazatlan, Divine was philosophical about not finding the Viento. “We’ve done a good job if we visit all these places, talk to the local law enforcement agencies, and leave a picture and description of the boat and the man. That’s about all we can do, really — you can’t stay down here a year waitin’ for the guy to show up.

“But I’m certain he’s around here someplace,” he continued. “Bob Brown said he thinks the guy might be out on Santa Isabel Island [a very small island some forty-five miles off the coast near San Bias, where Divine once discovered another stolen boat]. There’s a lot of people out there, and they’re all hidin’ from something. I think we’ll get this guy within sixty days.”

Divine has plenty of product-liability cases to keep him busy in the near future, but he admitted that the recent peso devaluations have hurt both his used-car business and his life savings. Although he has been trying gradually to retire from the recovery business over the last four years — he currently refers cases involving stolen airplanes to Art Willis, a pilot who lives near La Paz — he told me he is planning to gear up again, and will be placing advertisements soon in San Diego papers. He has an associate that he is training, a Mexican citizen who has been working with him for about six months, and Divine hopes the two of them will be able to gamer a major portion of the work that American companies will inevitably generate for modern-day bounty hunters in Mexico. “Things are slower now, but there’s still good money to be made in this business,” he insisted.

After that he was silent for a long time, and I got the feeling he was disappointed about not being able to find the Viento. But he perked up when the white high-rise hotels of Mazatlan came into view, and in a few more minutes he became downright cheerful in anticipation of the resort city’s food and nightlife. “Man,” he said, “I know plenty of sixty-year-old guys like me who do nothin’ but sit around the house all day. But this is the life, isn’t it?” And suddenly I had a vision of Divine the way I had seen him at San Francisquito a few days earlier: lying on a chaise longue on the front porch of his thatch-roofed cabin, less than thirty yards from the ocean’s edge, with a glass of Scotch at his side. “This is what I’d do all the time if I had the money,” he had told me then. “I don’t have the money, so I work this job that allows me to do it.” With that. Jack Divine had closed his eyes, and a few minutes later fell contentedly asleep, snoring loudly.

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