The Narc and the Smuggler in the Land of Plenty
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.
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.
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.
And as Arturo sits there dying and talking to me, he keeps circling back this one voice in his file cabinet. In part, because he is a storyteller and he knows a good story when he hears one. And in part, because that voice, the steady, articulate voice of Miguel, who talked to him endlessly, whom he kept taping and taping and then transcribing. So as Arturo dies, he lives with this voice.
I am Miguel Villalobos. When I crossed into the United States I was not your typical Mexican who comes to this country just looking for honest work and enough money to be somebody in his ejido or hometown after he has earned enough Yankee dollars to live in reasonable comfort at home. I wanted more, I had a dream of riches and fame.
Miguel talks to Arturo Carrillo Strong because he wants some shred of fame and because he knows he may die at any moment. Not that he has become totally foolish--Miguel Villalobos is not his real name. Still, like anyone else, he wants his life noted, possibly remembered. He feels that he has been and is part of something very important, a vast folk movement of his people north, and the enormous creativity entailed in a new industry and way of living. The drug world. He does not see himself as a fallen angel. He is the man who refused to stay put and stay down.
He comes from a section of the Sierra Madre where Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua meet, a broken ground called Jurassic Park by the DEA, a seed bed of dragons. He was born in 1951. I ask Don Arturo what enables Miguel to keep taking chances. He says with disgust that Miguel is crazy, that he thinks he is in God's hands.
The lack of compactness in Miguel's story is essential. He is not the Harvard boy scheming on his M.B.A. and dreaming of his wealth and retirement. He is not us, for that matter. He may be what we once were--a life without a plan but driven by desire.
His story begins in innocence, a premise all humans seem to claim for the beginnings of their journey on Earth. He talks of a beautiful place in the mountains of Mexico where the land is rich, the peasants simple. And then a man comes from the city to bring that apple off the tree of knowledge, and corruption invades Eden. The apple is opium and marijuana. Like the Bible itself, the tale is hard to believe if taken literally and hard to ignore for its insistent ring of truth.
I was born on the ranch of my father in a village located high in the Sierra Madres of Chihuahua. My father's name was Rafael, and though he too was born in the same village, we had always been sort of considered outsiders by some of the people who could trace their ancestors way back in time. You see my grandfather came to the mountain from Barcelona, Spain, to work at the nearby mine when he was a young man. To make things worse he married an American woman who worked at the mine as an interpreter. This was in 1885, just before the Tarahumara Indians went on a rampage and killed many of the miners and finally drove off the Americans. When this happened they closed the mine and it brought hard times to our area, hard times that we never really recovered from.
My grandfather still loved the mountain and long before the mine closed my grandfather and grandmother started buying land. It was cheap and totally beautiful land, so they combined their money to build their empire. Before long they had accumulated 800 acres of prime land. After the mine closed, they were out of a job and could not afford to buy enough cattle to make the ranch pay. They became land poor, barely able to eke out a living from the land. It wasn't very long after grandmother died that grandfather went to join her in heaven. Naturally he left the ranch to my father and my uncle Julian, who each lived in their own house on the ranch. Uncle Julian never married and usually took his meals with us. They raised a few cows for milk and meat; we had some pigs and chickens and raised corn and alfalfa when we could, and we raised everything for our table, like tomatoes and chile, and maize for tortillas. What was left over we took down to Chihuahua and sold.
On the mountain there are waterfalls above the lowlands that feed the river that runs down through the ranch, and there is a place on the ranch where the channel narrows and feeds into the arroyos. This water has created a forest so thick with pine, walnut and mango trees that you couldn't see the sky above when you were in it. The air was clean and the water was pure and sweet--it was the most beautiful place I have seen on this earth. The only sounds were those of nature, the birds in the trees, the clap of thunder and lightning on a cloudy day, a horse moving in the brush. . . . It was one of the few places left on this earth that was not polluted and dying.
My mother was from a large family who lived at the next ranch. They had lived in these hills since the beginning of time. A branch of her family were the Garcias. [Like all names in this chapter, a pseudonym.] The head of this clan was Juan Garcia, the oldest of five brothers, a mean bastard, full of hate. He pretty much controlled the Garcia clan. What he said his brothers did without question. He hated us because we had the finest ranch on the mountain and my father was a man who worked hard, was honest and had the respect of the people. It galled him that my mother had gone against the wishes of the family when she married my father. In our part of Mexico marriages were often arranged by the parents from birth; for them to go against the family tradition was unheard of.
Juan Garcia was determined to drive us off the mountain, and it didn't matter to him if we left dead or alive. It wasn't even a blood feud--revenge was not called for, we had not killed any of their family or insulted them publicly. If it had been a blood feud the people would have understood and stayed out of it, but this was only from envy and greed. A blood feud has to develop over the years, it might start over cattle or money but usually over a woman or an insult, but it has character and the people understand that revenge is sweet. At first it galled Juan because they had to pay rent to my father for land to graze their grubby cattle, and he hated us because the ranch was the most beautiful in the area and he wanted it for himself. When the marijuana and opium growers started coming to the mountain looking for places to grow their crops he could see a quick way to make a great deal of money with very little effort.
The opium growers were represented by a smooth operator named Jesus Mendez. He had everyone fooled, except my father.
Jesus Mendez made the rounds from ranch to ranch, looking for takers in this get-rich, can't-miss opportunity. When Jesus Mendez first came to the mountain, he used the excuse that he was selling sewing machines. In reality he wanted to get friendly with the people so they would lease him land and help him harvest the opium poppies he was planning to grow. He was very clever, he gave the women bolts of brightly colored cloth, thread and needles to sew with. He sat and drank mescal with the men and treated everyone with great respect.
After a few weeks on the mountain, Jesus Mendez told the people who owned land that he wanted to lease their fields to grow lettuce. Most of them believed him because we had no experience with marijuana or opium and didn't suspect anything was wrong. The planting season took place in early February, and before long the fields were covered with flowers that turned the countryside a beautiful burgundy color.
Mendez continued his rounds from ranch to ranch, passing out candy for the children and cheap cotton dresses for the ladies. Most of the campesinos thought planting the fields with lettuce was going to be good for the economy, and almost to a man went along with him.
On the morning of La Fiesta de Santa Cruz, Trini Garcia, one of the younger brothers of Juan Garcia, came to the house to invite my father and my uncle Julian to celebrate the feast day with them. Trini was a compadre to my father, having baptized one of my sisters. Of all the Garcia brothers, Trini was the only one my father and Uncle Julian really liked and trusted. Trini was very convincing. He said they knew Rafael was alone and they felt the family should be together and spend the day with them in peace. Then he told him to be sure and bring me along. At first my father didn't want to go. He was suspicious of their motives. But then, if Trini said it was all right it must be so. He didn't believe that Trini would betray him. He thought about it all morning and I knew he was considering the invitation from every angle. It was mid-morning before he made up his mind.
"Miguelito," he finally said, "go up into the pasture and bring my palomino and your donkey. We are going to go to the fiesta." I was elated because I really wanted to go to the fiesta and see one of my cousins, who I thought was a beautiful girl. We really had a crush on each other. I gave his horse and my donkey a good bath and brushed them until they were shiny. My father put his best saddle and trappings on the palomino stud, the saddle with the silver and gold inlay that had been left to him by his father.
Then he put on his finest charro suit; it was the traditional suit the Mexican cowboy wears when he goes to town to show off. Like his saddle, the pants and vest were adorned with silver buckles and braids. The legs of the pants were tight and flared at the bottom. Uncle Julian would be wearing something similar, and he would meet us at the fiesta. For this occasion I wore my new denim shirt, khaki pants and huaraches.
We arrived about noon. The music was already playing. Even before we arrived I could hear laughter and singing as we approached the corrals. My uncles, the Garcias, had killed two pigs and a goat and put them in the ground over hot coals and smooth rocks that had been heated by fires overnight. The women of the village were making tortillas and there were large pots of beans cooking over mesquite fires. Everyone brought what they could afford--a chicken or a bunch of onions, tomatoes or maybe some fresh green chilies for the huge bowls of green salsa the women were preparing.
It was very festive despite the government's ban on drinking mescal or tequila at the fiestas on the mountain. There were just too many people getting stabbed, and too many shootings over petty quarrels. . . . But this doesn't mean that there wasn't plenty to drink. It just meant that the men had to go off by themselves to the arroyos and fields where they had hidden their jugs.
Uncle Julian and my godfather, Eduardo Gutierrez, were already at the fiesta when we arrived. I could hear shouts of greeting from old friends and my father took time to wave and greet all his friends. As the afternoon wore on, the guests were starting to feel better and better from the frequent visits to their jugs, and the men were apparently getting tired from the dancing and from racing their horses in the skill games. The fiesta seemed to be lagging a bit. A harmless fist fight or two broke out near the place where the mescal was stashed. Actually they were just catching their breath so they would be able to keep going into the night, when things really got lively. My father, who was not much of a drinker, limited his drinks to just one or two that afternoon and was in good condition . . .
Once or twice I tried to persuade my father that it was time to go home. I didn't like the way the Garcia men were drinking so much and making trouble. Besides, I was tired of chasing Jesusita Garcia around the village trying to get a hug and a kiss from her. I could see that my father was having a good time and knowing him it wouldn't do to rush him. My Uncle Julian, God love him, was drinking too much and making a fool of himself to please the ladies. But this was expected and he infected everyone around him with good cheer and laughter. I loved Uncle Julian and considered him a true friend. It was my Uncle Julian who taught me to ride a horse in the proper style and how to shoot straight with a pistol that was almost as big and heavy as I was.
It was about three in the afternoon when Trini Garcia came looking for my father and called him aside. Trini told him that Juan wanted to have a drink with him in the corral and to talk to him about something important. My father was in a good mood and thought nothing of the invitation. The corral was a logical place to have a drink and talk business. It was a very large corral surrounded by a sturdy wood fence and used mostly for branding calves and cutting the bulls' gonads to make them into steers. In the center was a huge walnut tree that gave shade to one side of the enclosure. There was a large gate that swung easily on leather hinges. The corral was often used for the dances, and in fact the musicians were already playing outside the corral, getting tuned and warmed up for the dance that evening.
I noticed my father's concern for the first time as we approached the corral. All of my uncles were under the tree by their horses. They were all armed and were drinking heavily from a burlap covered jug. I saw my father hesitate, he looked around to see if there were any friendly faces nearby. He saw Julian and Eduardo, but they had been drinking all day and having too much fun to notice anything around them.
Once my father was inside the corral, Trini slammed the gate shut, pushed the lever home, and escorted my father to where his brothers were waiting. I waited outside of the corral because this meeting was going to be between the grown-ups. My uncle Juan didn't waste any time sweet talking him.
"We are sick of you telling us what we can do and what we can't do on our mountain. We are tired of your cowardice about drugs and tired of having to pay for our cattle to graze, and the best way to settle this once and for all is to kill you, Julian, and your miserable son," he yelled.
My uncle Juan then reached over his shoulder and pulled a long machete from its leather sheath and started hacking away at him. Fortunately, my father had not been drinking very much so he had all of his senses about him, and he had fought against the machete before. I knew he was in trouble and then I realized he had not worn his gun, it was in his saddlebag where it was of no use to him. He was making Juan miss a lot but some of the blows caught him on his arms and hands and cut him badly. The blood gushed from a stroke that caught him on the left shoulder. He tried to keep moving away from him, feinting and weaving, I was thankful he was wearing the heavy charro outfit. He never thought to yell for help or plead for mercy.
I was already running for the palomino and yelling for Julian, Eduardo and another compadre who had wandered over to hear the music, but I wasn't sure they heard me. Uncle Juan was in a drunken rage and was already tiring, so the other brothers, Joaquin and Trini, tried to get behind my father to stab him with their knives. The palomino was close by, tied under a palmetto tree. Without another thought I jumped on his back and pulled the reins in one motion. As I raced up to the gate, I was met by a horrible sight, my father had just fallen under one of the horses tied by the corral and Juan was trying to finish him off.
I screamed again for my uncle Julian and Eduardo to come and help him. They heard me this time and I saw them both leap on their horses. Julian's horse jumped the fence and, thankfully, Eduardo was not far behind. Unfortunately Joaquin Garcia saw him too, and before Julian could be of any help, Joaquin shot him in the chest. Uncle Julian died almost immediately. I was outside the fence screaming for my godfather to help them. Without hesitation he jumped the fence on his horse and at least for the moment was able to divert their attention to him.
It was terrible. Two of the younger Garcia brothers knocked him off the horse and Joaquin started stabbing him in the back. I could see the blood running down his hand. . . . I jumped the palomino and he cleared the fence easily. Juan was trying to reach my father with the machete, so he didn't notice me. I could see my uncle Joaquin coming up behind my father to stab him in the back. They were all in a killing frenzy even though there was a crowd gathering outside of the corral and there would be witnesses to the crime they were committing.
I wasn't really thinking, just reacting, when I reached into the saddlebags and grabbed my father's gun, a long-barreled .32-.20 revolver that fired bullets bigger than a .38 special. I turned the horse so that we were between Uncle Juan and my father. My father was struggling to climb up behind me when I saw that Uncle Joaquin was about to stab him in the back. It seemed like everything was now happening in slow motion, as I've often noticed happens to me when there is great danger. I remember very well that my hand was steady when I pointed the big gun at Joaquin and pulled the trigger. The first bullet hit Joaquin in the middle of his big belly, about four inches above his balls. There was a horrible look of both anger and shock on his face as he was blown back by the impact. Somehow he got back to his feet and started forward. . . . Joaquin had drawn a gun of his own. I fired again. The second bullet hit him square in the chest above his heart, and he died right there in the sand. When I finally turned my horse the others were running for cover and I knew they had guns somewhere close by.
I helped my father get on behind me and I made a run for the fence, my father slumped behind me. As we came close to the fence I saw Eduardo crawling under the gate. The palomino was a big horse and both of us were small, so we had no trouble clearing the fence. Once we were out in the open I watched as my poor godfather crawled to a small stream that ran by the corral. He screamed that his back and stomach were burning up and then he fell face down into the water. . . . He died right there before anyone could help him.
My father wanted to stay and fight, to finish it right there once and for all, but I knew he was too weak from all the blood he'd lost, so I disobeyed him and turned the palomino for home. For once he didn't argue. People were scattering in every direction to get out of the line of fire. Women were screaming and the children were crying. . . . We made it to the house without being chased. I guess my uncles had their fill for the present. I was able to get my father into the house and stop the bleeding. As best I could I treated and bandaged the deep cuts from the machete. Before I could put him to bed Jose Maria Santini, a close friend, barged into the house and begged my father to take refuge at a line camp they had higher up on the mountain. He told us the Garcias were running around like mad dogs. Joaquin was dead and they wanted revenge.
For some reason, Jose told us, everyone said it was my father who had killed Joaquin, but everyone also agreed that it had been in self-defense. This is what they would tell the local commisario. The bad news was that my uncle Julian and my godfather were dead, and another compadre of my father's who tried to help us had been badly wounded trying to cover our escape.
Three or four months later I told my father I was leaving. I was tired of struggling all of the time and I wanted to go to the United States to make a good life for myself. It made my father very sad. Now he was really going to be alone, I tried to make him come with me, to sell the ranch or just leave it. But I knew he couldn't leave the mountain or the ranch--this is where he was born and this is where he would die. He gave me his blessing even though I knew it was hard for him to see me go. I'll never forget how we embraced, and for the first time in my life I saw my father cry.
They never want to leave their country. After his first killing at age 13, Miguel went down the sierras on foot, almost died plunging into rock chaos of the canyons, came out the Mexican coast and worked for a bunk and beans for year. Then he was ready for the great world to the north.
This is part of the basic American saga, the passage from an old world through the various Ellis Islands of the mind into a new world, a hard journey that in our telling always ends in an all-electric kitchen where we are surrounded by children and grandchildren that are as strangers to our wayfaring souls. There is truth in these sagas but the grit gets lost. Migration from one world to another is not a success story, but a story. And true stories, especially sagas, always have brutal passages. Thus, each American immigrant wave starts out as scum and ends up as a success story and a credit to the nation. The gore in between these two fictions gets lost. This censorship is our custom.
As soon as we had crossed the border the coyote drove us through San Diego to downtown Los Angeles, and dumped us on Main Street, between Broadway and Fifth. The coyote wished us luck: "If you don't make it and you need me again, I'll be there for you." With that, he drove away. Even though my brother lived in Los Angeles, I had no intention of bothering him. I had written for his help twice and he never even bothered to answer. We were in the middle of town and I knew we stood out like sore thumbs among all these gringos. I told Paco we had to find the Mexican part of town where we could blend in. The traffic was scary, much more than any place I had ever been, so many cars and so many people.
It took us a while to figure out the traffic signals. Paco was the first to get the hang of it. . . . We kept walking south because that seemed the natural way to go, back toward Mexico.
We wandered around until we spotted a group of men who looked like they were Mexicans. They were eating at a sidewalk stand that sold chicken with rice, tacitos, beans and seafood. We told them we had just crossed the border (as if they couldn't tell), and needed some help. They had all experienced the same lost feeling on their first trip to the United States, and one guy named Carlos, who seemed to be their leader, agreed to help them. They took us to Torrance, California, where they were staying. Carlos drove the black 1959 Chevrolet Impala convertible that the six of them had chipped in to buy. I guess they were all illegals, but these guys were seasoned veterans of the Tijuana Tango. They had jumped the fence many times and knew the country pretty well by now. Sure, they had been caught [by the Border Patrol] several times, and tossed back over the border, but after a short visit at home with relatives and friends they always jumped back across. After a while they learned the language, not very well but enough to work and survive. Now they dressed more like Americans and knew just where to apply for a Social Security card, a driver's license, where to get medical assistance and food stamps. I knew I could learn from them to help me survive.
Three hours after crossing into the United States, we were motoring down the freeway in a fine looking convertible with the top down and I was enjoying every minute of it. The deal was that everyone had to pay his own way as soon as they went to work. In Torrance we drove to a run-down, faded orange, cement block apartment building in the housing project where Carlos told us we could live until we found our own place. I walked into their small two bedroom apartment and couldn't believe my eyes--there were at least fifteen, maybe twenty, guys staying with Carlos. Carlos said we each had to pay fifteen dollars a week to the guy who rented it. The inside of the building was not much cleaner than the outside. Broken down cars stood in front of almost every apartment, some converted into bedrooms for those who didn't, or couldn't, share the rent. The residents of the apartment changed from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour.
So far it was working. I didn't drink or smoke like some of my friends did, and I was too young to go looking for girls. This way I was able to buy some nice clothes from time to time. I made it a point to buy clothes that made me look like an American teenager, not a Mexican. Across the street from the car wash there was a Samba's Restaurant that the guys said hired people without too many questions asked. I made it a point to eat there a few times and to make friends with the people who worked there. Finally I asked the manager for a part-time job. He hired me on the spot and I started working four hours a night in the kitchen, washing dishes and clearing tables. It was hard work but I didn't have anything else to do and this job solved my eating problems as well because the job came with one meal a night. Once I learned the ropes I could salvage enough untouched food to take home for breakfast and lunch.
I knew that dressing like a gringo wasn't enough, so I studied English by going to the neighborhood theater to watch American movies every chance I got. My friends only went to see the Mexican movies. Then I finally was able to move from the apartment and I splurged to buy a second-hand television set that had probably been stolen. Every moment I was not working I was watching television. I tried to memorize as many words as I could and to study the way Americans lived and behaved.
Miguel wanders to Arizona and eventually gets that job in a mine near Tucson. Here other employees introduce him to marijuana and cocaine and he starts buying some and then he thinks, why not sell it? There are many details in his passage from young working man, husband and homeowner to the world of drug dealing, but they are the same as for everyone else: the money. Finally, he makes a main connection with a man we will call Chuy.
My friends were more important to me than my marriage. It was exciting as hell and I didn't want it to ever end. Chuy Lopez was the best known of my new friends, and the one who I respected more than anyone other than my father. Chuy had big-time family connections in Culiacan, the drug capital of Mexico. Chuy had been sent to Tucson by the Culiacan cartel as a set-up man for their smuggling operation. It was his job to get the feel of the situation as it existed at that time, to find out who the big hitters were, to recruit people for the organization so that when they started sending the planeloads of cocaine they would have a crew to unload and deliver the drugs to the bigger markets in California and New York. It was Chuy's job to rent the stash houses and map out areas where planes could land and yet avoid detection. He was also supposed to evaluate the law enforcement capabilities of the local police agencies, to find out if anyone was on the take or could be induced to cooperate.
Chuy was working in the Tucson area using the credentials of another member of the cartel who had a valid work permit. It was through this friend that I first met Chuy and became friends with him. Come to think of it I hooked up with Chuy at about the same time we switched to cocaine in our car pool at the mine. Now instead of buying an ounce of weed, we were buying a gram of cocaine, and we were riding higher than ever. The going price was $120 a gram, and then all of a sudden it seemed like everyone was doing cocaine. Not just the miners and the hippies, but the professional people, doctors and lawyers and I would find out later on that there were some judges and big time business people who were doing as much if not more coke than we were.
To show you how much I liked to work, before I started using cocaine in a serious way, I had started fixing up the house, putting Mexican tile down on the floors, painting and adding rooms. Most of the work I did myself because I liked to learn to do new things. I was a quick learner when I wanted to do something around the house. I kept working at it until I had it down pat. My friends would come over to see what I was doing or to show me what to do. I was getting so good at it they would ask me if I could lay some tile for them. I seldom turned anyone down even though I was working my regular shift at the mine. I was making good money on the side, and I enjoyed what I was doing.
The reason the drug smugglers are so successful and one of the many reasons the drug war is a joke, is that there are so many people starving in Mexico. The guachos, the brown-trash of Mexico, like I was to a certain extent in the Sierra Madres, have nothing to lose. If they get killed or arrested their women and children will wail and cry and no doubt be worse off than they were. But how much worse can it get when you already have nothing? If they make it, and this is in the hands of God, they will prosper and live a good life, and this, too, is God's will.
I was determined that this time it was going to be different; these were exciting times, historical times, times that people will be writing about for years, just like they did about the hippies in the 1960s. And I was part of it. The big thing with the guys from Mexico who were selling drugs in Tucson in the 70s and 80s was to make a big splash, to show everyone how macho they were, and to see how much money they could spend doing it. When I first got into selling drugs the people I knew that were dealing like I was lived one moment at a time, nothing was too much, we did what we wanted because none of us knew what tomorrow was going to be like. We might be dead or in prison. Either way it didn't matter to me.
For many of the guachos, people like the ones from my village in the Sierra Madres, it was the first time they had been able to get off their knees and straighten up. Now they were not content to work as dishwashers or fruit pickers. Now they were men of respect with four-wheel-drive monster trucks and rolls of hundred-dollar bills in their pockets. Part of the game was showing off their new-found wealth. One way was renting a limo and doing the night-club, titty-bar scene. We dominated every bar we entered, tipped the dancers big bucks, hired them for the night, and then seldom touched them. It was like a big circus out there, and we were just the clowns.
We wore designer jeans, Rolex watches, and gold; lots of gold. Gold chains were in, so were four-wheel-drive pick-ups, and Broncos, and Blazers, and automatic weapons. Everything we did was in excess; we did too much cocaine, wasted too much money, had too many women which we spent too much money on. It wasn't anything to go to TD's, a topless joint with pretty nice looking women, and stuff fifty and a hundred dollar bills into their G-strings and bras. It wasn't nothing to tip the limo driver a hundred bucks. This wasn't just happening here, this way of life was going on everywhere where drugs were sold by Mexicans, in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and even in Mexico. Now, with all the big busts and all the talk about a drug war in the papers and television, the smart ones have gone low-profile. They mellow out when they get to the United States.
There is a rush in busting drug people, and Don Arturo has missed the joys of making a good collar ever since he handed in his badge. But there is also a rush in a drug deal and, through listening to Miguel, Arturo gets to relive the life from the other side of the table. It is not unusual for a drug dealer to bond with a narc. Who else can understand what they live and want to talk about?
There are several constants to the drug world whether one is a cop or a robber. Vast spells of time spent waiting. Compressed, exhilarating moments of excitement. Patterns that repeat and repeat. And constant stress. Both narcs and dealers destroy their lives with women. The marriages fall off the table, the casual affairs pile up. Finally, lust itself succumbs to the stress of the work and the lure of the streets. And both become addicts to the work. And both know in their bones it is pointless. The narc can never stop the flow of drugs. The dealer can never hope to escape prison or death.
I had not met all of the crew and probably never would because it changed constantly; new people were always coming in from Culiacan or California as they were needed. Sometimes a buyer wanted some of his people there when the plane landed, so they became part of the crew. The core unit however was always in place. In the Mexican version of a Mafia operation Chuy Lopez was the boss, or the local boss, but unlike the Italian Mafia where the boss gives all the orders, in our operation there seemed to be several people from Culiacan who were above him or at least equal in authority. They seemed to come in and out of town on a regular basis, staying a few days and then leaving for California or New York.
At the time a kilo of cocaine was selling for $40,000, and we were unloading 700 kilos or more at a time. The outfit was always searching the desert area around Tucson for remote places to land a plane, especially in the Avra Valley just north of Tucson. We looked for flat areas that were well off the highway but accessible by dirt roads. They weren't really air strips but simply places in the desert that were pretty level. When we found a good level spot we just removed the rocks, chopped down a cactus or two, and made a map of the area and marked the spot where we wanted the pilot to land.
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.
From January of 1986 until June of the same year we had grossed over forty-eight million dollars for our bosses. Juan Cesar Fonseca and Don Neto felt that those of us working in Tucson deserved a vacation, so the crew was invited to Culiacan for a little rest and recreation. The plan was to spend a day or two in Culiacan and then move on to the beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Instead we went to a ranch on the outskirts of Culiacan, near the highway going to Durango. That morning Juan Cesar came out to the ranch to see Chuy, who immediately turned over to him the $80,000 he had brought from Tucson. Juan Cesar had two of his pistoleros with him. We sat around the veranda talking to Juan Cesar for some time. After a while Juan Cesar stood up and told us that he was going to the bank in Culiacan to deposit the money and then, after he paid a couple of bills, he was going to bring back some good cocaine, beer, champagne, mariachis and, best of all, some women. When he left, we were all looking forward to a grand fiesta in the style of Sinaloa, with a lot of food, wine, and the women he had promised us. Little did we know that it would be the last time we would see him alive.
This was one of those times when the federal and state judicial police were cooperating with the American DEA. The afternoon that Juan Cesar went to the bank a carload of federales and two DEA agents just happened to drive by when Juan Cesar and his two pistoleros walked out of the bank. It was a fluke meeting. The DEA agents and the federales noticed that Juan Cesar and his men were carrying guns tucked in their waists, as they always did. The DEA agents recognized Juan Cesar and wanted to know why the federales didn't do something about it. The federales reluctantly stopped the car and the three of them carefully approached Juan Cesar and his men. They met them on the steps leading down to the sidewalk. The way we heard it later on was that the federale officer in charge, with apology in his voice, said, "Juan Cesar, as long as we are in town, you will have to surrender your guns to us because we have these stupid DEA agents with us and your gun makes us look bad in their eyes." The DEA agents had remained by the car because they were not allowed to carry guns or interfere with the Mexican officers.
I guess Juan Cesar stared at him coldly and yelled at him, "Pinche puto, the only way you're going to get my guns is when I'm dead and you steal it from my grave. What's the matter? I'm not paying you enough money?"
"Of course you are, Juan Cesar," the captain agreed. "We are well paid but these chingado gringos are forcing us into this very unfortunate situation. They are idiots; they don't understand the Mexican way of doing business. Besides, your guns will be returned tomorrow. You and your men are not being arrested and never will be charged with any crime as long as I am in charge." Thinking that the matter was resolved, the two pistoleros turned their guns over to the federales, hoping to calm Juan Cesar down and prevent a gun fight.
Juan Cesar faced the captain and said, "Captain, you and your thugs are less than nothing to me. If you think you're man enough to take my guns, go for it now or get out of my way." You can see that now it was a matter of honor all around. Without any other warning than the blink of the captain's eyes, they all went for their guns. Several shots rang out. Bystanders and the unarmed DEA agents dove for cover. In a matter of seconds it was over. Two of the federales lay dead, and the wounded captain would die shortly afterward. Juan Cesar lay mortally wounded . . .
This was too important for someone not to write a corrido about Juan Cesar and the brave way he died in Culiacan. According to the song, when Juan Cesar fell to the sidewalk, he fell face down with his arms in front of him. Those who saw him that day said his wrists were together, in the form of a cross, the money in one hand, his gun in the other.
You want to know how it ends and where it ends, but you already know it does not end. It is down the block, in your pipe, around the corner. Miguel, he goes down in a bust, turns informant and makes a million or two snitching people off for the federal government and a bunch more from continuing to sell drugs. This is all in Don Arturo's file cabinets, tale after tale. Where is Miguel now? Where the ground is American, the laws can be broken, the appetites are strong, the religion is family, the official word is love and the war is about drugs. Pretty much anywhere, obviously. He is doing very well, has a big place, a business and is close to the good roads and airports. He has not retired. Once he went back to his home in Chihuahua to visit his dying father. There was no problem. He came with guns, cocaine and money, and these tools remedy almost anything in Mexico. Or the United States. If you meet him, and you have or you will, you will think nothing is amiss because nothing is amiss. He is an American making his way in the American world. He hardly sees himself as part of the drug problem because he knows of no drug problem. He knows being poor and he knows having money and he knows buying drugs and selling drugs and using drugs. But who is this drug problem?
Don Arturo has good days and bad days. He slowly grows weaker and the work on the files is more intermittent. There is so much to be done, all those voices in the file case and on the tapes, the cries of people who made history, refused to sit in the back of the bus, took the bull by the horns, the battle cries of Americans coming north into their country. He can never make sense out of all his files now, and that to me is their very value. People who want to make sense out of such material are the very ones who have kept it out of the newspapers. This demand for sense is really a demand for order and, in the end, always creates either silence or lies. The voices buried in the file cabinet all teach the same lesson: The emperor has no clothes.
Once Arturo went by Miguel's business--this was before Miguel had to vanish into another name and place--and some Mexicans were outside roasting a pig. Miguel then lived in a very nice home and in the night one of his fine dogs had gotten away and murdered a neighbor's pet pig. So he paid him for it, and hell, a man from the sierra does not like to waste good carne. The men roasting the pig on a spit were drinking beer, and Don Arturo and Miguel stood there watching them dream of fresh pork. Spring was in the air as the smoke curled off the fire and drifted through a paloverde tree. For a moment, everyone was back in the sierra, and crackling flesh became a statement of home.
Miguel said that it used to be guys would show up at his place who had just come through the wire and want work, any work. Now, he says, they show up and want bus fare so they can go rent a beeper and get on with the life. Of course, most people who come to the United States do not become drug dealers and naturally most of you reading this would not have anything to do with drugs. Miguel is just expressing the sourness all Americans feel toward new arrivals.
Still, that is what he said as the pig roasted in the fine morning air.
In many ways Don Arturo and Miguel were twins. Both lived in their heads as orphans, as boys tossed into the world on their own lookout. Both crossed lines and never got over the tension caused by that act. And both came to ground in the same place, Arizona.
Arturo Strong died on February 11, 1998, surrounded by friends and family and in his own bed. Until the last week of his life, he kept trying to peck away at this saga that had consumed him. He died bothered by the fact that he had not finished it, and I never told him the truth: that it was already finished. The very shaggy nature of the story is why the story is true. This reality cannot be killed by drug czars, national commissions or Just Say No campaigns. The poor will try to better themselves. The money in drugs will always recruit workers. Americans' need to deaden their fears and brighten their minds is unending. Miguel will keep coming to our home to give us what we want. Neither the silence of nations nor the hypocrisy of all of us will change this fact.
So we are left where we began. We can turn a deaf ear, but we refuse to turn down a line. And the river of blood and money rolls on.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.