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

I guess I was what you call the "go-fer"--whatever had to be done I did it. If it meant picking up people at the airport, day or night, I was the man. If they wanted money delivered or picked up in Nogales, Sonora, I did it. When the radio technician from Culiacan, a guy named Fermin, came to town, I took him to a Radio Shack to buy the things he needed to build his own radio, I took him and paid for the stuff. When he had everything he needed I drove him back to the hotel room to build his radio.

It was unbelievable what Fermin could do with a few wires and microchip panels. In a little over half an hour he built a radio capable of talking to the tower at the airport in Culiacan. After the radio was finished, I took Fermin to the desert strip we had selected earlier so he would mark the location and relay the location to the pilot waiting at the airport in Culiacan. Once we were back in the room, Fermin called the tower and gave the coordinates of the landing strip and the weather forecast for the next forty-eight hours. The tower relayed the information to the pilot, and the deal was on.

This is how we worked: Danny usually rode in the van that off-loaded the plane when it touched down on the desert floor. His job was to throw open the sliding door closest to the plane and receive the duffel bags of cocaine as they were thrown out by two guys in the plane. Once the wheels touched down we had two men jump out of the van and run along side the plane and they were already throwing the bags into the van while the plane taxied. The whole operation took less than five minutes from touch-down to take-off.

Most of us were young, nobody over thirty except for the old man of the crew who was an ex-con. His name was Bill and his job was to sit at a vantage point during the unloading behind his pet .50-caliber machine gun and protect the crew in case the police or any rip-off artists happened by. Chi, Danny and Bill were the main guys. The rest were interchangeable, including me; I helped out where I was needed. Sometimes I stood by the side of the strip with the flares, guiding the plane down. When the plane landed, I helped unload it. As fast as we could move we threw the shipment into the vans. When the vans were loaded, we drove the load to one of the stash houses I rented for this purpose before the shipment came in.

The cocaine usually came in duffel bags or suitcases and had to be repackaged and separated into other containers. Early the next day after a load came in I rented a U-Haul truck and I bought small and medium packing boxes as if I was going to move. The medium boxes held about ten kilos each, the smaller boxes five. Back at the stash house we loaded up the truck (or trucks, depending on the size of the shipment) with the boxes that were now filled with cocaine. While the truck was being loaded I drove to the closest Goodwill or Salvation Army store and bought old chairs, tables and other items that anyone moving out of town would have. We threw these into the back of the truck to make it look legitimate in case the truck was stopped along the road. After the truck was loaded, Danny or Bill drove it to Los Angeles, New York or wherever the load was expected by its buyers. Most of the time the loads went to California. Danny and Bill were paid up to $100,000 for taking the load to California.

No one can keep a handle on the flow of the money. The numbers become unreal because no matter how large the sums, the work is still grubby, dangerous and monotonous. And the money goes, slips through the fingers oh so easily.

I am sitting at Don Arturo's when from time to time a dealer we both know drops by. He has just finished almost five years in the federal joint. Upon getting out, he was healthy from all the prison weightlifting and making claims of going straight. Within a few weeks, he was into smalltime dealing and earning two to three thousand a week. Suddenly, he drives a Corvette. But what stuck in my mind was not this bloom of money. The guy was always broke. One time he is desperate to sell Arturo some junk jewelry he claims is gold. The next time it is a Glock that upon arrival turns out to be a junk revolver. He has three or four children by as many women and supports none of them. Usually, he has no real home, simply crashing now and then at the apartment of one woman or another. He is making a six-figure income, sitting there in Arturo's yard trying to peddle junk. And from the anxiety in his eye, he needs money badly. The money just slips through your hands. Because deep down in your gut, you know you are not going to make it. Prison is inevitable, violent death likely.

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