By Glenn Dallas
Dan “Tito” Davis has seen more of the world than most people, and certainly under different circumstances. He visited more than 50 countries while on the run from U.S. and international law enforcement.
Convicted for five years in the ’80s for tax evasion, he found relatively safer work smuggling pot. Until an associate who was dealing in much harder drugs — meth in particular — used him as a bargaining chip and threw him under the bus.
Facing a 30-year sentence, Dan opted to flee the country. No name, no ID, no contacts… just cash.
That’s only the start of the story revealed in Gringo: My Life on the Edge as an International Fugitive. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dan and discuss his book, his life, and this incredible journey.
Glenn Dallas: After your first stint in prison, you were essentially the fall guy for a friend’s drug-related indiscretions, facing a 30-year federal sentence, so you went on the lam. There are no How To books for going on the run, no finishing school for fugitives. How aware were you of the difficulties you’d be facing while on the run? How much did you know, or were you able to prepare for, ahead of time, and how much did you learn on the fly?
Dan “Tito” Davis: When I went on the lam, there was no fax, there was no internet. A fax was high-tech. They still had attendants at the gas stations who would fill up your car, check the oil, and clean the windows. I missed a generation.
When I came back, everything had changed. There were smartphones, tech… I’m still battling the tech war.
There was no finishing school for fugitives. I went to various libraries, studying, and I studied diligently. Very diligently. I was like a law student trying to pass the bar, and I knew that I had to pass. There was no other option. I had to acquire as much knowledge as quickly as possible. Because one mess-up, and I was going to be doing life in prison.
My wife and I had been married less than a year. I was madly in love. But, from my prior experience, I knew that she would go on with her life… it was just a matter of time. And I’d rather get a Dear John and lose her as a free man than lose her while I was incarcerated and never seeing the sun again.
GD: I assume acquiring ID was at the top of your list.
TD: When you’re a fugitive, everything is ID. You are that person. You have to convince yourself you’re that person. When they say your real name walking down a corridor, you can’t get tripped up. You’ve gotta keep walking. You have yourself convinced that you are that new person. You know his mother’s maiden name, you know his date of birth, you know where he was born. You’ve done research on that particular town. You know the signs of the Zodiac and what sign you are.
If they’ve got you strip-searched, bent over, and tell you to “spread ’em,” they’re looking for drugs, and then they turn you around and start interrogating you, you have to be able to think literally on your feet with your ass in the air. Being able to think on your feet is what’s going to save you.
First of all, you need to get a stolen passport or a passport from a foreign country to set up in Latin America. Because, if I had a false Latin passport, that in itself raises flags, because every Latin wants to come up north, and a gringo running around with a Latin passport… they’ll know he’s had problems. It doesn’t make sense. A Latin American passport for a gringo in Latin America doesn’t work. You need a passport from some other country. It’d be better if it was an Eastern European country.
GD: Learning a foreign language under such stressful circumstances couldn’t have been easy—especially considering that fluency would be a valuable commodity. How long did it take you to get comfortable speaking Spanish?
Beginning a new life, not knowing the language, where to go, where to start, no name, being wanted, leaving a wife that I was madly in love with, a stepdaughter… my whole life was crashing down. I was extremely fortunate to make bail and use my Get Out of Jail Free Card to successfully leave the country. There was no way that I ever planned on returning. I intended to stay gone until I was either dead with pennies on my eyes or in handcuffs. I was bound and determined to start a new life.
And the first part was learning a foreign language at a high level.
I enrolled in a Spanish school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It was good for grammar, but not much for conversation. When I was in this class, I met a lot of Americans. Almost everyone there was American, and I was one of the very, very few males. My name was Jeff in that school. The only ID I had was the tag that you put on the front of your shirt that said “Jeff.”
When they wanted to take pictures of us in classes or during excursions they had in the afternoons, I was always the one taking the pictures, not in it. I was paranoid.
When everyone else was out partying, I was at the local library at night studying. I knew that this wasn’t a party. Other people had a home to go to, a life, and a name. I had none, I had to rebuild everything from the start. And the start was learning the language. They told me various times that I was the most focused student they’d ever seen. If they’d known why… I had to learn. I mean, I had no choice. Otherwise, I would definitely spend the rest of my days in jail.
GD: As a fugitive, you managed to visit more than 50 countries across five continents. I can only imagine the variety of planes, trains, and automobiles you had to employ to complete some of these journeys. Which excursions were the most problematic for you?
TD: Flying into an airport, depending on the country. Argentina and Brazil — in Argentina, if you fly into Buenos Aires, they’re gonna scan your passport. Once they scan your passport, they’ve got the photo recognition, and if you’re leaving that country under the same name but a different passport, you’re gonna have problems. Or if you’re leaving with your picture and a different name on there, you’re gonna have problems. So, if you have to switch passports, or you don’t feel comfortable — something came up with the number of that passport, you think they have a notice out to detain you — you’d better go overland.
The best way going overland is NOT by yourself. Get an excursion, go with a group, buy a tour. Let’s say there’s 42 people on the whole bus — I did it to get into Paraguay from Argentina — I got with a group of people from Uruguay, and he just took all our passports — he being the excursion guy, and he would go to Customs and Immigration with a pile of passports, and the clerk would just systematically stamp them. It was no problem.
If I came alone to the border, they would look at you pretty hard—especially if you were travelling alone to places like that. Most likely to get a bribe more than anything else, but they were going to come up with reasons to pressure you into giving them that particular bribe.
I did a lot of traveling in automobiles around Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia. When I was living with the cartel, they had Toyota Atun land cruisers that were bulletproof. That was the top narcotraficante vehicle of choice. That’s what they liked. And they always traveled in a caravan, an armed caravan.
GD: What was traveling in and around the city like for you as a gringo and a fugitive?
TD: One time, with Julio, we were coming in from outside of Medellin where we spent the weekend. He sent me with his driver, headed back to Medellin because I was in the university and I had a Spanish class test that morning. So, he sent me with his driver, Andreas—a retired FARC guerrilla with one eye shooting off to the side—and I had no ID. At that point, the guerrillas were basically running the country, and the government was losing the war.
There were lots of roadblocks. They put mirrors underneath the car, got everybody out, frisked them, went through the car, the trunk, looking for weapons. So, they stop us, they get us out, I know not to speak — with my accent, I’m gonna have problems — and they ask him some questions. They just looked at me and motioned for us to get back in. I got back in, along with Andreas, and we continued on to Medellin. I lucked out.
Patrols would go around Medellin, shaking down alleged safehouses, cars, anywhere they thought there might be a cartel member. And they had an officer in charge who would take one sector of the city or a portion of a barrio or suburb, and be on a mission to go in there and check people out. Cartel members on the lam, arms, communication equipment, drugs, bombs… they were always hunting for something. And the barrio where I was most of the time—Campo Valdes—Julio and his crew ran it, so the people were tight-lipped.
When you’re in a frontier area — close to a border, there in South America — in many areas, they call in your passport to the local police, to see if you’re wanted or if you’re affiliated with any narcotraficante group. If you think you’ve got some problems, you don’t rent a hotel room, you stay in one of their people’s house, so there’s no record. Or, if you’re by yourself, like I was most of the time, you just go rent a room. There are boards around, like in bus stations — this was before the Internet — donde esta posible alquilar una habitacion?… where you can rent a room.
GD: For quite some time, you were living in Colombia on land ceded to the FARC guerrillas. Those lands are virtually a separate country from Colombia. How did life under the FARC differ from your time elsewhere in Colombia?
TD: When I was living in Colombia in 1994, it was right after they killed Pablo [Escobar] in Medellin in 1993. There was a power vacuum. The president of the country was Andres Pastrana, and they were losing the war with the FARC and the ELN (the two guerrilla groups). He ceded a part of Colombia larger than Switzerland to the guerrillas.
Those lands WERE a different country from Colombia. The FARC were the law. They performed marriages, baptisms, everything. That was their country. They taxed the narcotraficantes so much for each kilo, they provided protection for the cocaine labs. The cartel felt secure in FARC territory. Soldiers didn’t invade there, it was hands-off, a sanctuary. No one went in there who was not affiliated with the FARC or had their blessing.
But, with them, I had an adventure like no other gringo had. I had the prerequisites to be a trusted member living with the cartel, because I had done time with some of their heads, I knew their girlfriends, I was a fugitive, I was a pilot… I was one of them. I was also the token gringo there, and they liked showing me off to their other buddies, that they had a gringo living with them, and they were helping me out.
They had big hearts, very big hearts. When they arrived at some of the pueblos, they would go visit the local priest and give him money to distribute to the people in need. They told me those priests know who in the Pueblo needs the money. They were kinda like mobile Robin Hoods.
The people knew the government wasn’t going to help them, so if these particular cartel members needed any information from the local people, they were more than happy to provide it.
They took me to the baptisms, the weddings, the funerals, the weekend parties… I was part of the family. It definitely wasn’t like when Johnny Depp was playing George Jung and he shows up in Medellin to meet Pablo and meets him for an afternoon or whatever. I lived with these people, I dined with these people, I traveled with these people. I slept in the same room as the heads of the cartel. I was part of the family. No other gringo had the experience that I had.
A lot of people went down to Colombia — they loaded up a boat or plane or something from some other delivery boy, they never met the real bosses — and they left. I lived with the bosses, and I lived in some very different parts of the country. I traveled all over Colombia.
Leticia, which is out in the jungle, on the border of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru. There’s no roads in there, it’s all airstrips. Acandi on the Panamanian border, Pasto on the Ecuadorian border. In Medellin, obviously, I lived there for about a year and a half. Passed through Cali and numerous other cities. Turbo, which is on the Atlantic. I was all over the country. I was in more parts of Colombia than most Colombians, so I got to know the country quite well and as I said, I was traveling with the cartel, and they took very, very good care of me.
I was with the cartel at all times, other than when I was in the university. When I went into the university, it was like going into a jail. They had the razor wire around the fence, they checked all cars with mirrors, they went through all your backpacks. This was right after all the bombings in Medellin. I met several people who were disfigured or had lost family members in the bombings. Also, when we had parties in the finca at Julio’s on the weekend, numerous people had family members that were being held by the FARC or that were kidnapped, and they would negotiate their release.
I mean, if you did that in the US… I don’t know that I’ve ever met a person here that’s had a family member kidnapped or currently held as a hostage. There, there were a lot of them. I wouldn’t say it was really common, but it’s not uncommon.
When I was living in Colombia, you didn’t travel by bus—only on special holidays, like Semana Santa, when a bus went in a caravan with a military guard. Other than that, you’re probably gonna get kidnapped unless you were traveling by bus in a FARC-controlled zone and you had their blessing. We either traveled around the city or flew, basically.
I remember going to Turbo one time, or Acandi, and I remember Julio said, “If you take the bus, Jeff, you’re gonna get kidnapped. You gotta fly. I’ll have Edwin pick you up.” [Edwin later tried to kill me for $2,000 that he was going to split with Julio, but anyway.] Ground travel, other than in the city—and even then, depending on where in the city—was off-limits. There couldn’t be two guys on a motorcycle at once, because they’d assume the back guy was the shooter. It was illegal for two guys to be on a motorcycle at the same time. You could not wear helmets. Helmets were forbidden because they’d want to identify the shooter. It goes on and on.
GD: Eventually, the law caught up to you in Venezuela. The Marshals Service reported that you were found “working in a hotel bar,” conveniently neglecting to mention that this “hotel bar” was, in fact, the Wind Guru Cafe, part of a high-end resort you funded and built.
That’s an enormous undertaking for someone who had grown accustomed to needing to stay mobile, in case you needed to move at a moment’s notice. Had you reached a point where you felt comfortable, where you wanted to settle down for a bit, or did you always suspect that it might prove to be too big a risk?
TD: When I was living in El Yaque, Venezuela, the top spot on the entire planet at the time for windsurfing and kitesurfing, warm water, and consistent winds, I felt there that I’d found a home. I had a beautiful wife, and I could see, with the Chavistas coming into power, that there was opportunity. I’d done some real estate developing in the states.
I was thinking it was definitely a risk. I needed to be mobile, but in this case, there was no extradition to the United States. I didn’t think I was a big enough fish where they would come in and kidnap me. They didn’t know where I was. I’d been moving around, and I was tired of traveling. So, I decided I should either go into Brazil, marry and father a child there to set up a new life, or set up here in Venezuela.
I spoke a lot better Spanish than I did Portuguese, I had more of an infrastructure in Venezuela, and I knew a lot more people. And, I guess, I just got lazy and thought, “This is the spot.” I didn’t realize with all the anti-American rhetoric, that that could come to haunt me.
I don’t know. I’m not sure. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty. If I would’ve set up in Brazil, I don’t know if they would’ve kidnapped me or not.
When I was a fugitive, especially the first few years, I always had a backpack ready to go in my closet. If I was in my apartment in Merida, or if I was out traveling, I had at least one pack ready, and it was loaded with everything I needed. So, I could leave in twenty seconds. For a while, I’d sleep with my shoes on, I was so paranoid.
GD: How did the resort idea come to be?
TD: When I was kitesurfing. I was feeling extremely comfortable in El Yaque. I’d seen the influx of people to this new sport and there were no luxury accommodations. At the time, they’d shut down direct flights from the states into the island of Margarita, but we were getting a multitude of tourists direct from Europe. Everything was good, the pueblo was booming. They put in a new water system, a new sewer system.
Venezuela had beaucoup money with oil prices up, and Chavez was giving away loads of houses and cars. Life was good.
The people would come in from Eastern Europe—especially people who had bought factories for a penny on the dollar. They practically stole them. They’d come from, say, Poland, and they’d fly in, and they’d have a lot of liquid cash, and they wanted to buy property. If it was thirty below there in January, they come to this tropical paradise, and it was an easy sale. You didn’t have to sell, they sold themselves.
The problem with building something, and going from literally nothing, like a building lot you bought for $2,000, to a multi-million-dollar resort, and you build the whole thing, brick by brick, with money from pre-sales and just using your wits, is it becomes part of you, it becomes part of your family. It’s part of your dream, and I was living that dream, and I had made that dream, and I was successful. I was very successful.
And when my buddy’s wife gave me up, I was terrified. I couldn’t believe it. It was shocking. I couldn’t sleep for several days.
Then I left Venezuela.
From outside the country, I contacted people that I knew there — governors, generals I had met through a money exchange (I maintained) that was very successful, and, through them, I met all these people in positions of authority — also people I had met during the construction period of the resort, and they all told me, “Doug, come on back! You’re in the safest place in the world! Hugo [Chavez] is in front of the United Nations calling Bush the Devil. We’ve thrown out the US ambassador. No extradition. Don’t be afraid, come on back! If they put up a red notice on Interpol, we’ll let you know. You’re not going anywhere!”
My gut told me this was too good to be true.
GD: Your gut turned out to be correct, as you were arrested and brought back to the United States. A report from the Rapid City Journal says that marshals learned of your presence in the Margarita islands in 2006, and they “sent information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents working in Venezuela.”
But your version of events differs greatly from theirs, supposing that you were a victim of extraordinary rendition, the government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another. This act is almost wholly associated with the United States government.
TD: I’d had to bribe a few people down there before to get things done. I forgot how easy it was. The people with all the money, obviously, is the US government. No one’s got more money or contacts than them. It’s very easy for them to find some people to pay, give them some green cards, passports, and a few dollars, or whatever to go do a mission. There’s a lot of those people out there, and that’s what they do.
I didn’t think it would come to that. I was indicted in a small state in South Dakota. So, the US marshals didn’t have anything better to do than keep the pressure on. Through the Freedom of Information Act, I found out that every 90 days, they’d update on me.
If they’d been in a major city, and these same marshals had gone on and gotten promoted or gone to a different post, then I wouldn’t have been a target, but up there, they didn’t have anything to do. They’d reached the top when they were chasing me, I was probably the first international fugitive they ever had up there. It was a big thing.
When I was finally kidnapped and brought back there, a couple of them came up to my cell and told me, “Did you think you were ever gonna get away and actually pull it off? I had to look at your ugly face on a wanted poster for thirteen years and I told myself I’m not gonna retire until we got you.” I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say a word.
But I was thinking “It wasn’t good police work that got me.” Through the Freedom of Information Act, I found out they thought they had me in Hermosillo, Mexico. Said I was working in a health club down there, and that I’d committed bribery, so they put up the red notice [a flag with Interpol offices].
They said I’d bribed the local authorities to leave before they [the marshals] could act. And they sent people down to Costa Rica to look for me. People to Belize. And then they said they lost me for years and years until Heather gave me up. So now they know where I’m at.
If I’d known all of this and had information, I wouldn’t have moved back to Venezuela, because I didn’t realize they had that type of hard-on for me. But unfortunately, they did.
And they didn’t put up a red notice with Interpol. If they had, I would have known it, and they wouldn’t have gotten me, because I would have left. I would have gone in with the cops there and been under protection.
But, like an idiot, I sat around and didn’t listen to my gut, got kidnapped, and it hasn’t been the same since. I woke up in Miami, basically, with a soggy roll of toilet paper as a pillow, some guy urinating next to my head, and it splashing off the metal toilet onto me, and I’m facing life.
And I’m not getting out.