Sunday, April 8, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part l

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

The following is a true story….

Roughly 300 kilometers north of the narco-Mecca of Culiacan lies the portion of the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains known as Las Barrancas del Cobre. The land is an angry gash of ochre-hued canyons, some of which are significantly deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Once a source of vast copper wealth, the land has reverted into an arid wasteland, the hegemony of the sun once again triumphant. Anyone foolish enough to wander in uninvited quickly learns the rule of the day: aestivate or die. The only residents of this land are the Raramuri, or "the people who run." In their language, the word for anyone not of the eight tribes translates as a "person with spider webbing across the face." They believe that men have three souls and women four, and that when one of their numbers dies they become the stars in the sky. They tell of a legend, as old as any in a land pregnant with old myths, of the dark days when the old gods were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Nazarene and his man-horses made of metal. After wandering for eight years, their flight took them to Las Barrancas del Cobre, where they made their final bargain with the Great Earth Mother: in place of nurturing the land in spirit-form, they would become men and replenish it with their sweat and blood, until the age came to a close and the time of running came to a close. They chose to fall, to till the earth and to become it, and then rise to the heavens again when the time of trials was over. To the Raramuri, the difference between men and gods is smaller than a grain of sand, quieter than a whisper. To the Raramuri, one cannot truly exist until one has fallen.

I expected gun towers. Howling dogs. Imposing concrete ramparts endlessly stretched out to the horizon, a testament to all that divides mankind from itself. I expected 1984. What l got was a traffic light. In theory, there are two halves to the puente. First you pass through the American checkpoint, where an aging and slightly rusted traffic light randomly determines which cars get searched. Red indicates questions. Green means Pasale Ud. Rudy and I had been watching the bridge tor the past fifteen minutes from the porch of an abandoned apartment building, and had yet to see the red light blink on a single time. As far as we could tell, the three Border Patrol officers in charge of the Roma-Miguel Aleman crossing were far more concerned with a deep analysis of the undersides of their cowboy hats than with any of the vehicles in the outgoing lanes. Had I been slightly less numb at the time, I would have recognized that Washington DC and its rhetoric were a world away, and that nothing that passes between worlds survives the transition intact. But that was a lesson for later.

I could tell Rudy was nervous. Always loquacious, the machine gun tempo of his chatter had been pounding into me for more than six hours. Six hours and 37 minutes since I had left my Yukon in the middle of one of the most crime-ridden apartment complexes in Houston, along with the transmitter that SLPD had affixed to the underside of the fuse box. Six hours...I wondered if they knew I was gone yet? Had they tried to call my cell phone? Had That was not a road I could allow myself to go down. Not then, or tor many months yet. The one ahead was hard enough to contemplate, without looking in the rear-view mirror.

We would only get one opportunity to attempt the bridge. I had always suspected that second chances only occurred in the movies and in dreams, and now I felt this hypothesis confirmed. My ID was good, as such things go. I had been using it to buy beer since I was 18, and it had never failed me. Even after I turned 21, I had it renewed with the same guy in Little Saigon, just in case. I never expected "just in case" would ever mean... this.

As we approached the bridge, Rudy kept up the tempo, trying to lose himself in the lie. I envied him that. The lie lost itself in me so long ago we were inseparable.

Green light. As we passed the checkpoint, I noticed a wall of laminated photographs, one long chain of homogenous mug shots. Mine would be up there soon, I knew. I wondered how long it would be before the Erinyes were on to me, and I suspected that I was already running on borrowed time. With the officers deep into their siestas, I don’t suppose it really mattered at the moment.

The Mexican checkpoint didn’t even bother with a light. The true customs entry into La Republica isn’t the bridge, but rather a series of toll-booth-esque buildings straddling all of the major thoroughfares exactly 22 kilometers past the river, euphemistically known as "el veinte-dos." The chunk of land sandwiched between these lines of demarcation is la Zona del Commercio, the purest expression of laissez-faire government I have ever seen. It`s not that the laws are extinct. It's that they never evolved in the first place.

Getting around the 22 could be problematic, and for that Rudy had reached out to his father. Rogelio Ramos, Sr., was a mid-level player in the Gulf Cartel, exactly the type of guy who knows how to evade government checkpoints. On the drive towards the border, a significant percentage of the contents of Rudy’s verbal diarrhea consisted in stories about his father. Instead of riding in Cerralvo's Fiestas Patrias parade on a horse – like all of the other narco-donors - he bred and broke a bull. All of his father's friends called him El Martillo - the Hammer. To hear the son tell it, his father was a Mexican Alexander, the type of man that could whisper in a crowded room and be heard. Calling yourself "the Hammer" tends to have that effect, I remember saying at the time. Rudy looked at me sideways for a moment, before responding that I shouldn’t joke about things like that until I learned how he got the name. Touché. I shut my mouth.

As far as I could tell, Miguel Aleman was owned almost entirely by Los Zetas, at that time the Gulf Cartel's enforcement and assassination wing. In the late 90's, Osiel Cardenas Guillen recruited members of the elite Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFES) to serve as his private army of hit men. Trained by the Delta Force at Fort Bragg, these defectors brought with them real tradecraft, mil-spec weaponry including Javelin anti-tank missiles and attack helicopters, and a sociopathic work ethic. Not long after I passed through town, the new mayor of Nuevo Laredo stood confidently on the steps of City Hall and declared that he was beholden to no one. Six hours later, the vampire earth sipped at his curdling blood. Thirty bullets will do that to you, the modern interpretation of Judas' bargain.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, Rudy stopped in front of a cinder-block building, which appeared to be a taqueria. He motioned for me to wait while he went inside. I stepped out of the car and moved to a point where I could see the entire street. I could feel the Micro-tech Halo velcroed to the inside of my left wrist, and I wondered if I would have enough time to get one throw in before the bullet came. A scrawny grayish-brown dog with noticeable ribs sniffed the air in my direction before changing his mind and loping off down the street. It appeared that there were more dogs than people in Miguel Aleman. If my two years in Mexico taught me anything, it was how correct that assessment truly was.

Instead of a fusillade, Rudy returned with two orders of tacos, two glass-bottled Joya sodas, and a pre-paid cellular phone. He had arranged for his father to meet him in town today, but The Hammer had survived in some very deep waters by never being where he could be found. Bowing to the forces of cliché, we were set to meet in a cantina in la colonia El Jardin. The place was difficult to find, mostly due to the fact that I have had walk-in closets that were larger than this establishment. A tomb would have been livelier. The bartender didn’t even look up at us when we walked in. While Rudy attempted to locate his father on the cell phone, I attempted to read the various nearly colorless signs on the wall. The only one my poor Spanish could decipher was the rather obvious one about not smoking. I casually looked down at my feet, where the floor looked like an ashtray. After 15 minutes, Papa Ramos changed the meet. I left my sunglasses on my stool when we left, and then pretended to remember them and ran back in the bar. The bartender was talking rapidly into a cell phone, pointing out the door we had just used. He smiled when he saw me watching him. He had as many teeth as customers.

Now that I knew the score, I settled in. Over the course of the morning, we were maneuvered around the board of Miguel Aleman until we were finally ordered to stop at a small western clothing store on the outskirts of town. Along one wall were scores of cowboy hats, in all styles and materials. Along the other were stacks of boots, some looking to be handmade. In the back of this section sat a small man, relaxing and so inconspicuous that I didn’t notice him until he tilted his head slightly to the right, watching us intently. His eyes were stethoscopic, boring into us. Rudy hadn‘t detected him yet, but I knew from less than two seconds of eye contact that we would not be ordered to another location. Papa Ramos, the Hammer, was a short man with goofily large ears and a simple, functional sort of attire. His boots were sturdy but not expensive, and his watch was a plastic affair that probably cost 1/300th of what my Rolex did. He didn’t look like much of anything, let alone a professional dealer of illegal narcotics; poor tradesmen perhaps, or a farmer. That was the first inkling I had as to just how dangerous the man really was. The first thing most dealers do after making a big score is to run out and buy mountains of ostentatious shit, all designed to scream “look at me!" This man was worth millions, but he looked like the only line he flirted with was the poverty one. A man without the slightest hint of vanity is a fearsome thing.

Father and son embraced, and then fell into a rapid conversation. Even though I had bought an English/Spanish dictionary the week before and had spent the last seven days memorizing vocabulary, I understood precisely nothing of what was said. The entire time, the Hammer kept his eyes on me, never blinking once. I returned the favor, but began to get the strange impression that I was not seeing all of him, that the largest part of him coiled back into another dimension, unseen but very much felt. That was my first real impression of him, and it was one that would recur many times over the next two years. By the time their negotiation ended, I had bought a straw vaquero hat, and Papa Ramos had bought me. Neither of us seemed terribly pleased with the bargain.

To be continued...

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

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