No Luck Narco

This is the story of J. R. He tried to be a narco-trafficker and it didn’t go well.

Olia Mishchenko, untitled, A-frames (detail). 2010, pen and ink on paper. 18 × 24". Courtesy of the artist.

Synopsis

J. R.’s possessions include a fight dog that has gone blind, a few Chamín Correa cassette tapes, a 1970 Dodge Dart that doesn’t start, a wristwatch with a broken second hand, a pickax, and the guitar he played at his wedding. One day, while watching a Pedro Infante movie, he realizes that poverty doesn’t even look good on TV. So he grabs his wife and two children and comes down from the mountains. Soon he will discover that the majority of emigrants from his hometown now live in the city of Culiacán, as God intended: what they don’t have, they buy, and what they don’t buy, they steal. J. R. will end up drawn to this world of money and blow, and he will do what he can to be able to sing that corrido that goes: I already started to make money, things have really turned around / Now they call me boss, they even have a code name for me. To become a respected capo, J. R. will try his luck as an errand boy, marijuana transporter, assassin, small-time drug dealer, cocaine cleaner, and operation frontman. This life, however, will bring him bad luck and the understanding once and for all: “That all this about how everyone who gets into the narco business strikes it rich, is just a fucking myth.”

First Try

It all started like this: I was at my place, listening to Chamín Correa and getting really into it, when my cousin who had left our mountain town showed up looking like he was living large, his wallet full of bills.

“Cuz,” he said to me, “I need somebody real trustworthy to take the weed down to Culiacán.”

And, I don’t know, since with a gig like that you can just see in your head this vision of getting rich, well you just say fuck it, I’m there. I was already sick of selling natural health products. Here folks don’t care if they die from a heart attack or from sugar, and you barely sell anything. So what did I do? I went in on the deal. Why tell you I didn’t when I did? Besides, in those years—I’m talking about the ’90s—the game was chill. There was just one cartel, and there weren’t disputes like there are now, where you have to define yourself as either working for Chapo Guzmán or the Beltráns. As if you didn’t know that either way you’ll get killed.

So I crunched the numbers in my head and figured out that it was good money to transport weed. My mom got mad, but I didn’t care. You see, the attitude of us folks from Sinaloa is half stubbornness and half just not giving a shit.

“I’m just gonna tell you one thing, you piece of shit,” my mom said to me. “If they kill you, which God willing they won’t, don’t come up over here, I already have your father’s ghost to deal with.”

(Culiacán. J. R. snakes along Lázaro Cárdenas Avenue, where it goes through La Popular. The beauty salon Ilusión is closed because its owner, Micaela Cabral, had a visit a few days ago from the kind of guy who wasn’t there to get his hair cut. He came to tell her, “I have a present for you,” took out a nine-millimeter, and shot her six times. J. R. knows this and other stories about the dead who roam these streets. He doesn’t want to die. For this reason, he has asked me not to use his real name. Nor does he want me to give too many details, like about the job he was on when he met the wrestler Hijo del Santo, or to describe what he looks like. He does allow me to say that he now makes a living as a singer, has two girlfriends, and is bordering on 40 years old.

That was the deal. And, once it was agreed upon, we climbed into a car that would give any valet guy the impression he would be getting a nice tip at the end of the night, and J. R. slammed the gas like he was trying to kill a snake. That’s how we got where we are now, at the corner of Lázaro Cárdenas and Río Aguanaval. Micaela’s last stop.

J. R. says that Micaela, a woman in her forties, was not involved with the mafia, that they must have taken her out because lately, in Culiacán, people kill for no reason. He’s right: in February 2011, there were more deaths than days in the month, 41—nearly a third of all murders recorded in the State of Sinaloa. You could even say that, in Culiacán, the rate of population growth, 1.5 children per day, is held in check by the rate of murders.

But I digress; I came to hear the true story of J. R. . . .)


You know the line about how man cannot live on bread alone, so off I go to Tamazula. I could just see myself as the boss of all the weed dealers, with a pimped-out truck and a rifle slung around my shoulders just so. But, man, there was none of that. Instead, I was an errand boy. A fucking servant. And, well, nothing to do but work. There I learned that we had to go down to a riverbed and pack up the weed in seconds flat, so the army helicopters wouldn’t see us. And there is absolutely no talking or horsing around with the compadres. If you say something or you start laughing, the boss will slap you upside the head.

Have you seen how they pack up the weed? Then you’ve never lived. Nobody speaks to you; all you hear are the noises of the hydraulic jacks and the duct tape. Did you know they use car jacks to make the squares? Yeah, you put together the packages with those fucking things. Afterward, you wrap them in a thin cloth—the kind the doñas use in the kitchen. Then comes the duct tape. You sprinkle some oil on them, so that they don’t get wet when they put them on the boats, and finally you wrap them in another round of cloth and tape. I did this for three months, until we had piled up five tons’ worth.

“You and you are gonna take the weed down,” my cousin told us, and he gave us one of those shortwave radios and the keys to the trucks.

And off I went, following the point men, dudes on ATVs telling you if there are army guys ahead or not. Everything was going fine, but since you do the gig at night, you don’t see too good, and I went and crashed the truck. They had to send some other wheels, and we moved the weed in a hurry and hid out in a little town because the sun was already coming up. Long story short, I finished the gig and dropped by my cousin’s in Culiacán to get my pay.

“In life everything has a price,” he said. “And you fucked up a truck.”

“Bro, don’t give me this shit, I didn’t mean to do it.”

“Now, none of that little fish, short reckonings make long friends.”

Only because my ma is his godmother, he took out two hundred damn dollars. He didn’t give a shit that I had given it my all. Fucking prick. I don’t even know why I got in with him in the first place. That was the moment I should have realized that the narco business is no joke.

The Mafia Life

Sitting on an ice chest and listening to a corrido I grabbed an AK-47 / Surrounded by my friends with every verse I remembered all that I have been in my life,” sings El Coyote as J. R. drives through Los Huisaches, a poor area where most of the young people think the best escape is fame and a violent death.

“Kids today have the mafia sickness,” says J. R., who talks so fast he sounds like he’s in a constant battle with a stopwatch. “Folks get into the business just to rub shoulders with Macho Prieto or Chino Anthrax, the cartels’ best sharpshooters. They get into the business just to say that they are Chapo’s people or with Mayo Zambada, so they can command respect and feel like they’re the shit. They want to drive around in a truck to pick up high school girls.”

“But they do end up with money, don’t they?” I say.

“They don’t get shit!” he says, punching the steering wheel to emphasize his words. “The trucks they drive are stolen. The clothes they wear are from China, fakes, all imitation. Their pistols aren’t theirs, either, and if you could see the rat holes where they live you would pity them even more.”

“You paint a very different picture than what they’re showing off.”

“I was in the business, I have friends in it, and I can tell you that 70 percent, if not more, are totally fucked. They spend the little they make on drugs and booze. Here in Culiacán nobody admits they’re poor. They’d rather beg and borrow from you and say it’s for an investment.”

Second Try

“Bro, what’s up,” a compadre said to me over the phone. “Listen, I’m going to say this real fast, since not even your shadow can hear the details.”

He goes on to tell me that he wanted to recruit me to move some cocaine. I was so happy I even said, God bless those fucking Colombians. And, I don’t know, I even wanted to toast to myself, to my soul. And then I go to his pad so he can explain the gig. Seriously, I could see myself in Bolivia, in Peru, in Colombia, in all the fucking drug countries. But no. My compadre just sends me to Mexicali. He tells me he’ll rent a house to store the coke in, that I’ll be picking it up in the Gulf of Santa Clara, and that some other dude will get it across to California. But it wasn’t even coke, it was weed. “No big deal,” I said to myself. And I rolled and smoked a joint, so it would stink up the place real good.

The second shipment was during spring break. I remember because during the day we dressed up as tourists. You know, khaki shorts, sandals.

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The first time around I didn’t have any trouble. The weed got to where it needed to go. The problem was my compadre didn’t pay up. “I’ve got some debts, but on the next shipment you’ll get your money,” he promised.

The second shipment was during spring break. I remember because during the day we dressed up as tourists. You know, khaki shorts, sandals, and dark sunglasses. Then at night we would go to where the broken lighthouse was, what the locals call El Machorro. We waited there for the boatmen.

On one of those nights, we flashed a light three times to tell them to head over to us, that we were ready. But they answered us with two flashes. And two, if you don’t know, means danger. We looked around, but everything was real dark and we couldn’t see anything. But at one point, I glanced over at the lighthouse and caught a glimpse of a guy lighting a cigarette.

“They’re on to us, run, run!” I told my compadres, and we were flying. I was in a truck that was carrying the gasoline for the boatmen and—shit!—it gets stuck in the sand. And in that kind of sand, having legs is good for nothing. The thing is that I’ve never exactly been thin, and I just fell with bullets flying all around me. I was touching my body all over, but I didn’t have any injuries, just fear.

“Judicial police, freeze asshole!” I heard, and I’m just praying to God to help me out, even though I knew that I shouldn’t involve Him in this stupid shit. Anyway, I was able to make it to the town and ask an old fisherman for help.

“Compadre,” I told him, “they’re after me, do me a favor. My truck got stuck, but I have fifty gallons of gasoline in it, and they’re yours if you help me.” I guess gasoline in places like that is like gold, because the dude hid me in a barn where he kept a bunch of shit.

The police started to go door to door looking for me. “Where is that fucker?” I heard one dude yell. Later, I found out it was Sergeant Jorge Magaña, the father of the guy named Orlando Magaña who killed a family in Mexico City.

“Soon as I find you, you’re gonna look me right in the face so that you know who to watch out for when you’re in Hell,” shouted the sergeant, and I pissed myself. They didn’t find me, and hours later I left the barn to give the old man the fifty gallons of gas, and I got the hell out of there for Mexicali.

When I got back, I found the safe house all messed up, like they’d searched it. So I was ready to leave, but when I came out Sergeant Magaña was already right there with his compadres. “So you’re the motherfucker I was looking for yesterday,” he said. “Well, you lucked out because we’ve already resolved the situation.” The “resolution” was that the policeman would take half of the weed. I remember he even helped us unpack it from the boats.

Later, my compadre paid me $500. He told me that I had lost the job and that he hoped I understood the situation, and I told him to fuck off. Almost four months of risking my ass for five hundred bucks. I sent half to my wife, and with the rest I bought natural products that I planned to sell in Mexicali. I say “planned to” because on the day I go out to sell them, some dude almost runs me over. It was Sergeant Magaña. “Check it out, it’s my fucking Sinaloan, moving product and not letting me know?” He drew his gun on me.

“Boss, no, I’m not in the game anymore, my work is clean now,” I said, and showed him my natural goods. After hitting me a few times and cocking the gun next to my temple, he said he believed me.

“It’s your lucky day,” he said. “I need someone with contacts to move some blow.”

I thought that life was giving me a second chance, and I told him OK. I ditched my products on the side of the highway and got in his car. On the road he got into details, and I couldn’t believe it: what he really wanted me to do was to be his tough guy, to mess up the drug pushers and then he would pay me with stolen cars. You’re going to think I’m an idiot, but I never liked to steal. You can accuse me of pretty much anything, but I’m not a petty thief. And so I go back to Culiacán without a fucking cent.

Autograph

In the seafood restaurant where we’re eating, a high school girl comes over and interrupts J. R.

“You’re J. R., the singer, right?

“No,” J. R. answers her, “I look like him, but no.”

“Yes, you are! You can’t fool me.”

“OK, if you say so,” and J. R. shrugs, smiling like the devil in a nativity scene.

“May I have your autograph?” says the high school girl, handing him a notebook and ballpoint pen.

J. R. signed, “With all my affection. He who looks like J. R.”

Third Try

Habit is really fucking something, and I missed being a part of it all. I’m talking about 2003 and 2004 now. And so, when I was most wishing for it, a guy from my town comes looking for me. “I want you to do me a favor,” he tells me. “Go kill this fucker who owes me money, all right?”

“You got it,” I answered him without thinking about it. “Just because I haven’t had a chance yet, but when it’s time to fuck people up, I fuck people up, and when it’s time to be stealthy . . .”

“OK, OK,” he said. “Do you have a visa?”

And I went that night to Tijuana, to cross over into San Ysidro.

“When you get there,” he had told me, “you’ll call this dude. He’s going to take you to the guy who owes me.”

“Compadre, it’s J. R. and I’m here,” I said over the phone.

“All right, we’ll meet up at the intersection of Washington and Main,” he told me, and I didn’t know where that was because I’d never been to the land of the gringos. I asked a Latina girl who was just all right, and she told me I had to get on the trolley, count three stations, get off there, and when I left the station I would see those streets. And, sure enough, getting off the trolley, I saw Washington and Main. I called him again.

“Compadre, I’m here,” I said.

“Is there a McDonald’s where you are?” he asked me. I looked around and told him there was.

“Across the street, is there a Footlocker?” he asked. I looked around and said there was.

“I’m on my way, give me about fifteen minutes.” An hour passed with no sign of him. So I called the guy I knew from home and told him this dude was fucking around with me.

“You know what? I think this dude is in on it with the guy who owes you,” I told him.

“Well look,” he answered, “when you see him tell him to give you the guns, and ask him where that fucker lives and then take them both down.”

About two hours later I called the dude. “Listen, you fucking son of a bitch, you have me here waiting for you like a damn good-for-nothing, stop dicking around.”

I called the dude again and told him, “I’m in National City, asshole!”

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“Let’s see compadre, where are you if I can’t see you?”

“Right here, in front of the McDonald’s.”

“Well I don’t see you and the street is empty.”

“It’s already three in the morning, by this time even the stray dogs have gone to bed,” I told him.

“Let’s see, compadre, ask someone what it’s called where you are.”

“But if there ain’t nobody around?” I walked to the bus stop and a guy who spoke Spanish told me, “In National City.”

I called the dude again and told him, “I’m in National City, asshole!”

“No, compadre, you’re the fucking idiot. I’m in Fontana, like three hours from where you’re calling me.” Well, shit. How was I supposed to know that in the States there are thousands of streets named Washington and Main?

When I got to Fontana, the dude took me to where the guy I had to kill supposedly lived. He told me what truck he drove, that he was fat as a pig, and he gave me his nickname. I spent a week watching the house until the asshole showed up. In a hurry, I pulled out the pistol and entered the house, breaking down the front door.

“This is your last stop, fucking pig!” I said as soon as I saw him. The dude was porky but not humongous, and so I started to beat the shit out of him à la Charles Bronson. Then I cocked the gun and said, “El Viejón sent me. What are your last words?” I know it sounded pretty stupid, but it’s all I could come up with.

“Don’t kill me, compadre, don’t kill me!” he said. I told him not to be a faggot, that guys from Durango go out peacefully and with dignity, since I had been told that’s where he was from. He started to tell me that he knew what’s-his-name and so-and-so, that they could help him come up with the money. I got confused because I knew those same people.

“Well, what’s your name, compadre?” I asked him. And guess what? The dude was one of the guys from my compadre’s clique. Fuck. If I hadn’t recognized him it was because he was real fat and his face had already gotten pretty deformed.

“So you’re J. R.?” he asked me, and we ended up giving each other a goddamn hug.

I told him what the gig was about and he asked me for twenty days to get the money together. I told El Viejón that the dude was hiding out, but to give me time to find him. “And if the dude wants to pay up?” I asked him.

“Well then forgive him for it, because he’s one of the family.”

So after all that, I went out partying with the fatty. But all good things come to an end, and I went back to Culiacán because he finally did pay up.

Right after getting off the airplane I went directly to El Viejón’s house. Of the $3,000 he had given me for the trip, I only had like $50 left, and he had told me he would pay me for the job when I got back. He let me in right away, hugged me, and told me he admired my dedication, or something like that, and that in the morning I should go to his ranch, that Miguelón would be there, his right-hand man, to tell me what came next. Not just anybody gets to go to El Viejón’s ranch, which is why I thought that, at the least, he would give me one of his trucks or pay me with drugs. And so I show up at the time he told me to, I ask for Miguelón, and they put me to work mowing the lawn and feeding the horses! For real. I swear on my children’s lives. I couldn’t take it. I said thanks to El Viejón and hit the street again to sell my natural products.

El Pistolero

Komander: What a surprise to find you on my ranch.

Erik Estrada: I’ve been waiting for you for a while.

Komander: Why do you have so many gunmen with you?

Erik Estrada: I prefer lots of money.

Komander: I don’t understand what you’re talking about.

Erik Estrada: They paid me to kill you.

“The kids listen to songs like this one, and they go around saying they’ve got calluses on their fingers from pulling the trigger,” J. R. muses as we pass the baseball stadium. Then he lowers his tinted window to gawk at the fans of the local team Los Tomateros, clad in their cherry-colored jerseys, and gives them the finger.

“Like I was saying, today’s assassins are paid 2,000 pesos a week, at most. In other words, these dudes know only one thing: that they’re going to die and they’re not going to go out easy.”

Fourth Try

One day I came to the realization that the narco business is the most individualistic of them all, that it’s your thing and that’s it. That here two heads instead of one makes for getting fucked over even quicker, and for that reason it’s not a bad idea to be distrustful. That’s why I never could work well over there in Michoacán. This is the story, so that you get what I mean.

A second-rate narco asked me to partner with him in pushing weed. You see? I wasn’t going to be a fucking rat anymore! This was something bigger, it was a gig where there wouldn’t be anybody to tie up our hands after we’re swimming in dough.

“No, compadre, I always end up getting fucked over,” I said, because the dude knew I wasn’t one of those types who jumps in the deep end right off the bat.

He begged me until I said all right, let’s do it. He put in 1.5 million pesos, and what I was supposed to do was buy the weed, transport it, cross it over, and collect on it. The game was easy and low-risk; this was around 2006, when they still were allowing you to work on your own, only and always if you paid “taxes.” The problem later was that the guys from the Juarez cartel and the fucking Zetas got ambitious and violent, and now it would be insane to try to go it alone.

But like I was saying, I go to my hometown to buy the weed. But no. Everyone had given their word to El Chapo about their weed and couldn’t sell me any. I went to Badiraguato and it was dry, too, with people telling me this and that about how the crop has been fucked by something called global warming, that there’s only enough for 300 plane shipments have come out of it, and that was all for the Beltráns. I went to Atascaderos, in Chihuahua, and nothing there either; it was all already sold to the Carillos. I left real sad.

“You know what, compañero,” I said to my partner, “this business seems to have the devil’s hand in it. There’s no weed.”

“How could there be none, compañero, if that’s what there is too much of?”

“I swear on my father’s grave.”

My partner made some calls. “It’s all set, compa,” he said. “Go to Michoacán, over there by Lázaro Cárdenas, there’s some there.” And I left in a hurry, thinking about all the dough I was going to make if the gig worked out.

I went with some dude who was real fucking annoying, with silver teeth, and who thought he was a real ladies’ man. For two days he was busting my balls about how Sinaloenses were ugly, lazy bums, drunks, and faggots. I had to slap him in the face a few times and tell him that he should show us more respect, that I was there to buy weed and he was there to get it for me.

We were in a beach town, and to get up into the mountains where the weed was took no time, three hours max. The perfect situation. But the more trips we made, bringing down a few kilos of the stuff at a time, the more annoying this guy got. How can I explain it? He was full of himself. He would take my truck and drive around the town with the stereo as loud as could be.

“Compa, quit fooling around, they’re gonna catch us,” I begged him.

“Don’t be silly. Here everything is fixed.”

After driving around in the truck, he would go shoot off his gun and get drunk and tell people that he worked for some real heavy Sinaloenses. He didn’t say anything else after that because, one morning, a judicial policeman showed up at our hotel. I tried to leave through the window, but there were cops everywhere. When I got out, I saw how they’d roughed up the annoying dude.

“I didn’t say anything, I haven’t said anything!” the asshole was telling them. I told the commander that yes, I was from Sinaloa, and that I was there because a partner and I wanted to start a packing business for shrimp we would bring from Mazatlán.

“Well, just imagine that,” the cop said. “I don’t believe you, but I haven’t found any weed on this guy either, so I’m going to be watching you. You’ve been warned.” And with that, he left. The weed was in the house belonging to the annoying dude’s lover, that’s why the federales didn’t find it.

Right away I called my partner.

“This fucking annoying dude fucked everything up, tomorrow I’m off.”

“How much weed has he gotten together?”

“One-and-a-half tons.”

“All right, tomorrow I’ll send you the fishing boats so get over there right away.”

The next day, my partner had kept his word, and we took the weed to the fishing boats. I think it was around one in the morning when the judicial policeman showed up.

“Climb in, compa, climb in!” the fisherman told me, and off I went. At that moment, truthfully, I didn’t feel badly about leaving half a ton on the beach. I needed to lose the cop. We gunned it so fast out to sea that we got lost ourselves. Since he had left in such a hurry, the fisherman hadn’t had time to set the compass. And that was when I swore to God that if he got me out of this, it would be my last gig.

It would take too long to tell you about each of the seven days that we were lost at sea. Maybe someday I’ll write a novel about it. What I will tell you is that around something like the fourth day I started to hallucinate. I thought I saw trailer trucks at sea, and I didn’t even do lines of coke like the other two dudes did. At one point they were ready to kill each other with their machine guns; they blamed each other for the mess over the compass. I got so sunburned all over, I looked like the rotten skin of a mango, and I lost weight like I never had before. On the fifth day we saw a boat, but it belonged to the Navy and so we pushed further out to sea.

The gasoline started to run out, and just when we thought we were going to die in a fishing boat full of marijuana, another boat appeared. They helped us in, my compadres pointed at them with the machine guns, and I just asked them for food and water. They really did help us out. They even got our compass set right. We were about twenty hours from Islas Marías. And that’s how, on pure fumes, we were able to make it to Mazatlán. My partner was there to rescue us.

I wanted to rest, but I had to fucking hurry off to Mexicali to sell the weed because it was already starting to turn brown, and at that point it’s no good. I sold it, for sure, but real cheap, and we didn’t even make back the investment. In other words, I didn’t get shit.

Narco Chicks

They strut the best designer clothes and precious stones

the most expensive cell phones, a different one for each day,

their nails perfectly done, they love to look pretty.

“This music from the Movimiento Alterado is pure sickness,” says J. R., with a song by a girl named Jazmín playing on the stereo.

“When they hear this music and see the capos’ daughters are out and about, it makes all the girls feel like narcas. Some might look weak, but as soon as they get a machine gun in their hands, they become real powerful. And then some of them just dream about going out with a gangster guy. And we are right back where we started, in the narco business, where the majority of the guys don’t even have a dignified place to die.”

“If one of them heard you, they’d think you’re jealous of them.”

J. R. looks at me with a certain disdain and turns down the first street. He honks in front of a house that has been worn down with time. A guy, no older than 30, comes out and greets J. R.

“Compa, how long have you been in the business?” I ask him.

“Why?” the guy says with distrust, and looks at me as if I were a cop.

“Answer, asshole! For how long?” J. R. says.

“I’m coming up on eight years.”

“And do you have money?” I asked.

“Well, not so much, but I drive this truck that picks up chicks by the fuckload.”

J. R. drives off and says to me, “You see how it is?”

Fifth Try

My stint as a small-time drug dealer was short. It took me longer to learn how to wash the cocaine than it did to realize that the dealer either ends up working to pay off the cartel or ends up dead. I started to sell dime bags and when I asked people to pay up they took out their pistols. And what was I supposed to do then, huh? That’s why I’m telling you that I didn’t last long.

Later, a kingpin tracked me down so that I could wash a kilo of the good stuff. And there you have me buying ether, acetone, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, paper, and pots and pans. I usually washed it batch by batch but this time, out of laziness you could say, I washed it all at once. And fuck! I ruined it. I told the narco what happened, and he told me that I had two days to pay him. The dude was a fucking badass, just hearing him cursing could give someone diabetes. So I had to pull together $15,000. I borrowed here and there, sold my soul to a few people, and even my mom sold a car she had. Shit, who knows why, but everything goes sour in this life, don’t you think?

Mountain Reflections

“Do you regret anything?” I ask J. R. on the way to a radio DJ’s party in Culiacán.

“Yes and no,” he says, and his teeth gleam like steel. “Yes, because I could have taken advantage of that time in a better way. No, because I can say to my children with authority that lo narco isn’t what it’s hyped up to be, and because I never stole or killed nobody. I think that life must regret my still being here because this business is like the lottery, and getting to survive is like winning the jackpot.”

The Last Try

My so-called career as a narco was on its way out. I didn’t want to hear anything about it anymore. Now I really was going to fulfill my promise to God. But around that time the right-hand man of one of the biggest gangsters came looking for me, saying, “We need you as a frontman, we’re going to pay you well.”

Since it was just about doing a favor for some people, I didn’t feel conflicted about God. What I had to do was accompany them to Oaxaca, say that I was a businessman, stay at the Victoria Hotel, and wait for a small plane to arrive loaded with coke.

And so I went, dressed to the nines, looking like a real mobster. I arrived and they introduced me to the boss who owned the drugs. “I’ve heard about you, they say you’re honorable, an idiot, but honorable,” he said, and I just laughed. What else could I do?

I checked in to the Victoria and waited. There were days when all I did was sleep and other days when I played chess with the boss. One afternoon, the boss’s right-hand man told me that the plane was going to arrive that night, that if everything went well I would go back to Culiacán with a nice stack of bills. I went down to the restaurant and ate like a little pig out of pure happiness. A gangster movie was on TV, and I thought there was no point in watching it since I was with a real mobster myself. At that moment, I saw two dudes I’d never seen before, in all the ten days that I’d been staying there. Then I saw another three. And then more. I walked out, went over to the boss’s gunmen, and told them what I’d seen. They sent me to the boss to let him know, and when I went up he already knew the situation: “They’re militares, now we’re fucked!”

Since I was a kid, every house I went into was a house I was figuring an escape route out of. And in the hotel, I had found a little stairway that led to another property. “Don’t get sad, boss, I’m going to get you out of here,” I told him, and took him with me. We crossed the street, and he got into a car and left. His right-hand man told me to get out as well, that the shipment had been confiscated, that there wasn’t going to be any stack of bills.

I went back to Culiacán, but I didn’t lose the hope of a good reward. After a while, I saw the boss in Guadalajara. And do you know what happened? Nothing, he just gave me a hug, told me he never would forget what I did for him, and gave me a bottle of Buchanan’s 18-year-old Scotch. Fuck.


The “Lord of the Mountain.” A guy was holding a Nextel cell phone. On the other end of the line, someone was listening to a cover song sung by J. R. “Joaquín Loera is and will be a fugitive of justice, lord of the mountain, also boss of the city; friend of the good friend, enemy of enemies, joyful and in love is Loera. That he is and will always be.

When the singing stopped, the guy with the Nextel went over to J. R. and passed him the phone. From the other end of the line he was told, “You sing well, compa, I congratulate you. Whenever you need something from anywhere in Mexico just look me up.”

“Was that really El Chapo on the phone?” I ask J. R. when we get to his house.

“The one and only.”

J. R. collapses onto the couch and starts to tell me about his life as a musician. But that’s another story.

—Translated by Emma Friedland

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Every cheap shot, each subtle disrespect, any advantage unfairly taken—these have to be balanced out.

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