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 could see him hesitate. The other guy was nothing, didn't even have a gun showing. As soon as I pulled my gun they both started backing up toward their car. The pistolero opened the door of his car and sat down behind the steering wheel. "Who put you up to this?" I asked. He started to raise his window. "I'm talking to you, asshole!" I screamed at him.

I pointed my gun at the window. When he tried to start the car, I raised the gun to his ear and fired three times. It was June 10, 1986.

There are no police reports or hospital reports of that shooting. There is no way to prove that Miguel in the early dawn warmth of a June day fired pointblank at a man sitting in the front seat of his car. This happens, the desert swallows civilizations whole and hardly notices a few stray corpses. Don Arturo, through his connections, tried to run down that morning but came up empty.

So maybe Miguel fired into the car window that morning, or maybe he is lying. Either way, the documents we crave in our effort to kill experience with verifiable facts will likely be absent. The drug world is the lost Atlantis of our lives. What Arturo has is Miguel's tale, one verified here and there with cop reports and trials, but still one that floats out there the way all our lives float out there. And he has that adamant voice of a man living without apology.

Arturo seems to operate without fear. For a man hard of hearing, crippled up by his sport (for years, a semipro catcher) and his luck (stoved up from an accident while working in a military depot), he got around.

The pistoleros are coming over the walls of Amado Carrillo Fuentes' unfinished mansion in Hermosillo, and this is several years ago, and Arturo is the tour guide for a crew from the Geraldo Rivera show. The white domes and turrets of the million-dollar-plus house blaze in the light as Arturo and the film crew flee Amado's henchmen.

Arturo is a bin full of such memories, snippets from a vast pageant called the War on Drugs or the Drug Business or called nothing at all and largely ignored by the press except for little items of busts and convictions. He is an old narc, a man half a dozen generations deep on the border, a man riled all his days and nights by the hyphenated nature of his identity. He rails against the term Mexican-American ("Why not American-Mexican?") and yet has lived and still lives mired in two cultures. His father was Anglo, his mother Mexican-American, and that is why his name became a bunch of names--Harry F. Strong, Arturo Strong, Arturo Carrillo Strong, and now, with his hair gray, his body dying and his head full of a lifetime, Don Arturo.

Tucked away in his big file cabinet is a folder marked "Farewell to Anger," a sprawling stab at autobiography. It begins: "It seems I have been involved in the drug war longer than anyone in the world. I know that isn't true but it just seems that way. It started for me in the early days of the late 1950s and early 1960s in the barrios of Tucson. Or after World War II, when I was barely in my teens and my best friend told me he was hooked on heroin. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I did remember people in the 1940s talking about marijuanos, those poor lost souls who were possessed by the terrible weed of the devil, one puff and you were doomed forever. A year later my best friend was dead along with five or six other kids coming home from a party in Phoenix, they were all loaded on drugs and booze and hit a car head on. . . . Having been born and raised a scant fifty miles from the Mexican border and living most of my life on the edge of a downtown Tucson barrio cursed with what I thought was the unfair advantage of being stuck with an Anglo name . . . I could switch from being Mexican to being Anglo by just walking across the tracks, so to speak . . ."

He still runs on anger as he slumps in the reclining chair (the pain no longer allows him to sleep in a bed or sit for more than five minutes at a desk). He is surly about the general disinterest in the contents of his file cabinet, about the vast silence greeting this new world being born, a world of the border, death and money, of a mass movement of souls clawing out of Mexico on an airline made of snow. He is also keen on the national pieties: that drug use is on the run even though the seized tonnages and estimated illegal importation reach numbers that have never been higher; that the problem is Mexican in good part even though the customers are adamantly non-Mexican; that corruption resulting from the industry remains docilely on the other side of the fence and that U.S. police, banks, businessmen and politicians remain chaste and pure as torrents of billions of dollars cascade through the drug world.

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