The Narc and the Smuggler in the Land of Plenty

A dying narcotics agent opens his files, and out pours Miguel, just one of a legion of Mexicans who embraced drug-running as their ticket to the American dream

Harry F. Strong has these scraps of names, events, memories and deals, and as we sit in the semi-darkened living room, Mexican voices lap against the silence. Strong is in his late 60s, and the cancer eats his colon, liver and lungs and, most likely, other organs. By nature he is used to giving it, not taking it. When he was a boy, his grandfather paid other kids a nickel to fight him so he would become tough. When he was a cop, his name on the street was Strongarm. Now as he spends the first month or so of 1998 swiftly dying, he is sapped by weakness and surrounded by unfinished business.

He wanted to be the historian of a new world being born all around him, a throbbing realm of Spanish-speaking people, narcotics and easy death. When most turned a deaf ear to this world, he stubbornly listened, a man crippled by industrial injuries, bedeviled by his own mixed identity, and hindered by a lack of credentials. He is a string of names: Harry F. Strong on his birth certificate, Art to his friends, Arturo Carrillo Strong in what he writes, or Arturo in certain byways of the barrio.

Voices have harangued him for years, but now they have grown more insistent--calling from news clips, tapes, old computer disks, notes taken on legal pads with pages now curling from age--a din demanding attention from the big file case. He has buried them for years out of disgust with an uncaring world.

His ankles are swelling, his skin yellow from jaundice, the belly swelling from edema, the flesh fleeing his neck and arms, the voice raspy as his lungs fill with fluid, but the mind stays alert, perhaps even keener as the clock ticks more loudly. We have been friends for years, and now the work, in the stillness of the living room with death softly whispering--suddenly the work is important, unfinished, the essential task at hand. He is a dead man talking.

He shrugs, and says, "No one cares."
"I know," I say politely, even enough I don't care that no one cares. This has always been a point of contention between us since I think his job and my job is to make them care.

And then I ask, "Where is Miguel now?"
He tells me and I say I should look him up to go over some details, and he blurts out, "We should have done that when I was still alive." And I smile.

Miguel has been an on-again, off-again obsession for Arturo for five years. He was originally tipped to him by a friend, and then taped him endlessly because he sensed in this one life the basic story of Mexico's emergence as the drug masters of the hemisphere.

I knew mention of Miguel would bring life back to Arturo's voice. I have never met Miguel. The one time I was supposed to have a drink with him, he canceled because someone picked that day to try to kill him. I remember waiting in the bar, getting irked at Mexican time, and then when the reason for his lateness was made clear, I asked Arturo what Miguel was going to do about the problem. He said nothing, that Miguel considered his foes cowards and losers.

Now as we sit talking in the quiet living room, Don Arturo's eyes glisten because Miguel is the loudest voice in the file cabinet, and the most intriguing. Miguel is part and parcel of Don Arturo's problem--a man who exemplifies something big but is not big himself, a figure basic to understanding the world as it now is but not tidy enough for moral lectures, MTV or the romantic lies of gangster worship. Miguel with his hungers and violence and loves and hates is the one no one really cares about. Miguel is the one we do not want to know. I flip through the pages of notes, look over at the stack of tapes. Ah, Miguel, you just won't shut up regardless of what the gringos try to pretend.

Miguel speaks from Don Arturo's library:
I'd been up all night with the others. They were waiting for 700 kilos of cocaine, and the delivery was overdue. When word finally came that the shipment and some of the people had been busted outside of Tucson, I was ordered to go out and collect as much money from his retail dealers as I could for a defense fund.

When I arrived at the Doubletree Hotel in Tucson in the early morning hours, I'd already collected close to $40,000. I'd been using cocaine since early evening so I didn't feel the fatigue of not having slept for two days.

The collection at the Doubletree went without a hitch. The dealer owed $10,000, which he paid. I walked to the parking lot, not tired but so coked up my nerves were too tight.

I walked out and saw two men standing near my car. It was 5:30 and just starting to get light. They weren't there to invite me to breakfast. The tall, thin one with the Pancho Villa mustache I knew; he had a reputation for being a hard guy, a pistolero or hired gun for anyone who had the need and the money. I also knew he wasn't much of a man against someone who wasn't afraid of him. I wasn't, I didn't give a shit. I was doing so much coke I thought I was invincible, nothing could harm me, not even the police. I didn't even look at the second guy, I just kept walking towards them and when I was close enough to touch them I opened my shirt and pulled out the 9 millimeter from my waist. What worried him the most was the smile on my face; he was used to seeing fear in the eyes of his victims.

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