Part 13 can be read here
No matter the light I tried to shine on it, my last conversation with the Hammer kept giving me the impression that I had clearly outlived my usefulness to him. Though he had seemed to receive the message with equanimity, I didn’t really think that perceptions mattered much when it came to his world. Underneath the mask, he had to have been simmering. True, the real target of his ire was probably the real Rudy, but he had the advantage of being hundreds of miles and one international border away. Me, well... I was somewhat more geographically disadvantaged. My attempts at installing a safety net by speaking to Don Julian had merely resulted in the conversational equivalent of a waterboarding session. I was immediately reminded of the 1980’s arcade game "Frogger." For reasons that are never made exactly clear, you are supposed to guide a very determined amphibian across a major thoroughfare. Using only the four cardinal directions, you must advance past a psychopathic deluge of speeding humans to reach the other side. Usually you just got smushed. Though I had played the arcade game many times as a child, I had never really sympathized much with the little 8-bit frog. I did now, and decided that it would probably be for the best if I just stayed the hell away from the highway for a time.
Mostly I spent my days fixing up the ranch and worrying about the upcoming field trip to Aldama, wherever that was. I've never considered myself a very handyman-ish type, but it was a relief to pour myself into tasks that left me mentally and physically spent by the end of the day. I really wanted and needed to return to the library on a regular basis, but I was so spooked I think I only went once or twice over the next two weeks. I might as well have stayed at home, because all of my vocabulary practice seemed to flow unimpeded from one ear to the other and out again without impacting a single brain cell.
I had every intention of returning to the barbershop the following Sunday to continue my conversation with Don Julian. That morning, however, the Hammer's son Edgar showed up early in his truck and invited me to something he called "las Canoas," which apparently required me to wear shorts. This turned out to be a natural spring that bubbled up from beneath a sixty foot sandstone cliff a few miles outside of town. The place was crowded with children and I mostly just tried to stay out of their way. By the time we returned to Cerralvo evening was setting in, so I tossed on my running shoes and raced to the Placita. Fortunately, Jesus the market vendor was still present, and he had been able to find a passable mountain bike for me in Monterrey. We completed our transaction and I rode back to the barbershop.
The place was locked tight, all of the lights off. I weighed the potential insult of blowing Julian off versus bugging Don Antonio at home, and decided that a bit of detective work couldn't hurt too much. I proceeded to the house that sat adjacent to the barbershop, to which the tunnels in the woodwork simply had to connect. Antonio wasn't home, but a lady in her mid-40’s was able to tell me that he was "jugando billares." Seeing as how that meant nothing to me, the lady breathed the sort of sigh that can only come from a lifetime of dealing with foolish men and made shooting movements with her hands. It took me a moment, but I eventually figured out she was talking about a pool hall. I had not even been aware of the existence in Cerralvo of such an establishment, so, after another sigh, the lady gave me brief directions and slammed the door in my face. Hopping on my new ride, I began my search.
To call this place a pool "hall" might be something of a deception, or, to use one of Don Julian's phrases, a “terminological inexactitude." It was more of a pool closet, a pool nook. True, there were two tables, one a surprisingly nice and well cared for 6x12 foot affair, the other a less impressive 5x10 foot one. And true, there was also a five-foot bar stocked with beer and mezcal. The problem was, there was only enough space in the room for people to utilize one of these three items at once. Why Oscar the owner didn’t toss out the small table is beyond me. In something like twelve months of patronage, I never saw the other table used as anything other than a glorified drink rest. Removing it would have eliminated the awkward movements of the crowd each time a new shot had to be lined up. At Oscar's, pool was practically a contact sport.
Both the barber and Julian were in attendance, along with five or six other men of various ages. The Law of No Conversations seemed to be in effect here as well, but at least there was a stereo playing softly in the corner and the players did speak to call their shots. Compared to the barbershop, I suppose this was a party in high swing.
Julian seemed to be in a bad mood, or, to be more accurate, a normal mood. He merely nodded to me when I apologized for missing our appointment. Don Antonio didn't acknowledge me at all. Turning to the game, I was surprised to see that the men were playing snooker. They had had a single snooker table at the pool joint I used to frequent, but I had never bothered to learn the rules before, as that corner of the bar seemed a magnet for hipsters wanting to bathe in the light of their own awesomeness. Snooker is played with fifteen red object balls that are not numbered, six object balls of various colors and point values, and a cue ball. All of the balls are roughly two inches in diameter, so quite a bit smaller than regular billiards balls. It is a game of great skill, which I would come to appreciate over time, though I never touched a cue on the night of my baptism and exposure to its awkward and formal rules.
Awkward was actually the motif for the evening. It was obvious that the other patrons had no idea who I was and didn't particularly want me there. Neither Julian nor Antonio seemed disposed towards making any introductions, either. There were no women present, and I was to learn that in old school cantinas across Mexico, the only women who would have entered this place were prostitutes. After perhaps twenty minutes of being ignored I had had enough. I put a few bills down on the bar and made a circular motion to the bartender while pointing at the crowd. No one said anything to me when I walked out the door; I don't even think they noticed I was gone. It was like High School all over again.
I didn't really sleep much the following Friday night. The Hammer had been pretty scarce since I had informed him of the staggering magnitude of my worthlessness to his bottom line, and I spent many hours running through all of the possible permutations for what this absence could mean. When he didn't show up all day Friday, I began to hope that perhaps he had changed his mind about my inclusion. For the life of me, I couldn't see any upside to bringing someone like me to what sounded like a narco family reunion. I didn't buy for a second Gelo's tale that I had a crazy look. Even if that were true, it wouldn't be worth potentially creating state’s witness number one for a look.
I was ready and waiting by 6am the next morning nonetheless. When he hadn't shown up by 6:20, I began to relax. I had just started to change out of my decent clothes when I heard the crunch of gravel on tires. In case you ever have to make the appropriate entry at a gathering of thugs and peddlers of illegal narcotics, the vehicle of choice is not a Bentley or a Benz. It's a taxicab. A late-90s Nissan Tsuru, to be exact, a car that is the approximate size a footlocker with wheels. I didn't know what to make of the presence of the thing sitting outside of my front gate, so I waited in the darkness until it honked and I saw Papa Ramos climb out of the passenger seat. He waved at me as I started towards him and told me to go back to get my straw vaquero hat. When I reached the cab he was smiling. His gaiety did nothing to help alleviate my fears.
The next seven or so hours exist as a jumbled mess in my memory. I recall climbing into the cab to see El Smiley's immense bulk somehow crammed into the driver's seat; his face smiled − smiled! − at me from the hack's license hung from the rear-view mirror along with a colorful icon of la Virgin de Guadalupe. I recall that his name was claimed to be Carlos Something Something, but I knew that couldn't be right. I remember that we exited Cerralvo and headed south; almost immediately we passed through the underlit traffic cones and watchful stare of a military checkpoint. Men behind sandbags and machine guns stared as several others approached the cab. Papa Ramos seemed to know the officers stationed there, because they didn't even ask for identification as soon as they saw who was inside. While the other vehicles in the line were searched, we were waved through with a smile. We spent a little over an hour winding through mountains and hills before entering the metropolis of Monterrey.
Monterrey is a city of vast contrasts and heartrending juxtapositions. The third largest city in Mexico, it is the seat of hundreds of factories which produce goods for the American market. The chances are excellent, for instance, that most of the appliances in your kitchen were made in Monterrey and its environs. From the immense Macroplaza downtown, wealth radiates outward, bouncing off of the abrupt peaks of the Sierra Madre Orientals, which surround the city. Interspersed with the boutiques and the shopping malls are shanty towns which echo outward in increasing rings of poverty and desperation. The miles and miles of tin corrugated roofs cover some of the worst conditions I have ever witnessed. After spending so much time in tiny Cerralvo, Monterrey felt like returning to civilization.
For a time we wove through the downtown area, and I noticed that Gelo kept receiving text messages. Each time one of these came through he would mutter a few words to Smiley. Once we went through a tunnel underneath one of the mountains, and then passed through it again sometime later. We passed through a huge plaza in which shot upward an immense red spire, some sort of modern art project on steroids. I would come to learn these streets on my own terms, but on that day they seemed exotic and mysterious. I spent much of the journey looking up words from billboards in my pocket dictionary, which I was never without. At least half of these unknown words were absent from the thing, and on several occasions I considered tossing the bloody thing out the window.
After perhaps 45 minutes of meandering about the city, we entered a major thoroughfare, which ran underneath an elevated mass transit system. We followed this structure for some time before pulling into a massive transportation hub. This was Cuauhtemoc, where the underground metro merges with the elevated train system. Adding to the confusion, the largest bus terminal in northern Mexico sits adjacent to this complex. The parking lot into which we pulled was the size of a small town, and was filled with taxicabs. There must have been at least many hundreds of them, almost all painted exactly like the one we were in.
"Queekly now," the Hammer whispered to me after Smiley pulled into a parking space. We exited the cab and headed towards the station, which looked like an airport terminal minus the planes. Inside the station was pandemonium. Thousands of people were compressed into various lines and waiting areas. Television monitors listed arrival times, while others blared novelas and daily variety shows at high volume. Shoeshine men called to passersby, while babies screamed and food vendors hawked their wares. I saw chickens in cages. I saw a pack of Emo punks checking out the new arrivals, looking for the next mark. I saw cops, too, tons of them, though they didn't seem to see much of anything. Probably an occupational advantage in Mexico, that. The Hammer led us through the chaos, and I thought it was interesting the way people parted for him. He was a small man, but he had a way of crawling into your unconscious that made you decide it would be a great idea to be somewhere else. I will grant him that; he had status. We eventually reached the rear of the building and exited one of the many gates into the departure area. Scores of busses waited in lines underneath an overhang of the building, while many hundreds more sat parked in a huge lot. Before entering this, the Hammer sent a text message and then dropped his cell phone into a trash receptacle. As we wound our way through the mass of busses, I had to admit that it would have been next to impossible to follow us, as low-tech as this strategy was. Maybe a drone could have managed the feat, but I'm not even sure about that.
Once we cleared the lot we exited onto a busy street. We had only walked down it for half a block when we heard a horn honk three times behind us and another taxi drew to a stop. Without hesitating, the Hammer climbed into the front seat. Not wanting to see how Smiley managed to squeeze himself into the rear, I walked around the cab and sat behind the driver.
This turned out to be el Lobo, Don Gelo's lieutenant, he of the stress-induced verbal diarrhea. In truth, I was glad to see him. Of all of the Hammer's goons, he had been the kindest to me. He looked a little absurd dressed up in his norteño shirt, but my capacity for observing the absurd was pretty much maxed out by this point and I didn't think much about it at the time.
I can't tell you anything about how we got there, but within a few hours we exited the highway in a place called Ciudad Victoria. I probably couldn't find it on a map, but I think based on the sun that we had headed mostly to the south and the east. We spent a little time inside this city before again heading south. I do remember seeing a sign for an eco-preserve of some sort called "El Cielo," but we never passed through it.
An hour or so past Ciudad Victoria, El Lobo turned off the main highway and onto some less-travelled roads. The land here was far greener and wetter than the near-desert which surrounded Cerralvo. We passed a herd of goats that were grazing along the roadway, the shepherd walking casually to one side. The Hammer saluted the man, which I found curious. Before long we passed a second herd, then a third.
|As it happens, I actually have a photograph of this phenomenon taken on one of the back roads leading away from Cerralvo. Anybody want to be to bet that this chivero paid for his brand new truck with the sale of goat meat? Didn’t think so.|
"Is it common practice to feed the livestock on the roadways? Seems kind of stupid," I couldn't help but remark at one point, while we waded through a small ruminant sea.
"Dangerous for las cabras. Very good for the goatman," replied Don Gelo.
"Why would it be good for the...uhm...'goatman?’"
"Cooperas o cuello," was all he said.
I felt like I was missing something, so I looked up these words in my dictionary. "Cooperate or neck" was what I came up with, before realizing that it probably implied a slit throat somewhere in there. Oh. The herders were lookouts. You could really snarl up a roadway with a few hundred goats, if that was your aim. In the narcolingo of the times, I would hear such men referred to in the future as "puntas."
We eventually passed though a small village of perhaps 30 small cinderblock houses. Just before we entered this, the Hammer turned around to me and told me to put on my sunglasses and to hide my face beneath the brim of my hat as much as possible.
"What's going on?"
"Alphabet soup," replied the Wolf. I thought he must have mispoken until we passed through the only crossroads in town and I saw about fifteen new SUVs parked along the side of the road, their windows deeply tinted black. Clearly, the Mexican government was aware of the party. Now I understood why the Mole was not with us.
"Who were they?" I asked after we had passed, my skin crawling
"Who can say? SIEDO, CISEN, la AFI, el PFM, PF, PGR, FDS, FEADS...they take they photos and write they reports, but they no do notheeng," sad the Hammer. "No hay porque preocuparse."
The front gate of "la rancha" looked pretty much like the entrances of every other household in the area, save for the line of twenty taxis waiting to enter, and the dense storm cloud of what were obviously gunmen stationed around the perimeter. I'm not really a gun person. They mostly all look alike to me. But I do know what an Uzi looks like, and there were several in evidence on these men, poorly concealed under light windbreakers. I recall wondering why they even bothered with the jackets. Their function was obvious.
It took us another half hour to reach the front of the line, where the Hammer was asked a number of questions. One of the rent-a-thugs spoke something into a radio, and a few moments later this squawked back to him. The only part of the conversation between the men that I was able to decipher was that there were no cell phones allowed. I didn't need to ask any gringo-dumbass questions about this part of the drill.
The men at the gathering had a special name for it, one that I have had difficulty identifying since that day. I seem to recall the Hammer referring to the event as a "coyuntura,”which roughly translates to a "situation,” as in: "la coyuntura socioeconomica," or the socioeconomic situation/climate. It is also one word for a joint in the body. Neither of these definitions seemed particularly helpful to me when I looked the word up years later, and I believed for a time that I had simply misremembered the term. Now I am not so sure. During the era of the Tupamaro revolution in Uruguay, the guerilla leader Raul Sendic believed that they could obtain power only at a certain critical juncture, when the political, social, and economic conditions were conducive to revolution. They called this sweet spot the "coyuntura." If I am correct about remembering this, I think the implications are very, very interesting.
Whatever it was called, the conclave was a pretty surreal event. Even had I wanted to turn state’s evidence, I wouldn’t have had much of anything say. All I saw was a bunch of men to enjoying the day. Sure, they were heavily armed, but probably no more so than your average meeting of the Texas Legislature. The gravel road leading from the front gate stretched out for several kilometers, eventually ending in an immense cleared space.
There were many trucks and SUVs spread around but by far the most common conveyance was the humble taxicab. There must have been at least three hundred of them. Some were parked in a massive lot, but most were stretched out in two long, parallel lines, the reasoning for which became apparent once we had found a spot. In between the rows was laid out a racetrack of packed dirt. At one apex of this was one of those gates you see at the Kentucky Derby, a huge metal structure with ten or twelve openings which spring open in sync to release the riders. And release they did, all day long. Apparently the Hammer was not the only narco to enjoy caballos, and this congress was an opportunity tor them to show off their stables. In addition to the horses there was a "big house," which I never saw, and an immense pavilion at one end of the property in which supposedly was housed an all-day orgy of bare-knuckle boxing matches. I say "supposedly" because l never ventured more than fifty feet from the taxi all day.
As soon as we pulled into a slot, the Hammer conversed with Smiley tor a moment and then headed in the direction of the pavilion. It was the last I saw of him for several hours. I assume that the major players congregated there to discuss business, but this is only a guess on my part. Smiley, too, disappeared after a few minutes. I was never given the Ramos family organizational hierarchy flow chart, but it became clear to me that while Chuy, Abelardo, the Mole, Edelmiru and the Ear Chopper all reported to the Wolf, Smiley answered directly to Don Gelo. I can't say there was tension between the Wolf and Smiley. I just have the feeling that they represented two ways of viewing the world.
The Wolf was a numbers man, the behemoth the muscle.
Within a few minutes or our arrival the Wolf and I had been approached by various campesinos selling handmade belts, wallets, hatbands, and boots. We rented some plastic chairs for a ridiculous sum, plus two glasses of "nopal," which turned out to be ice-cold cactus juice. When I asked how much one of the belts cost, I was told 6000 pesos - at the time just under 600 dollars. It was well made, sure, but I eventually figured it out. These narcos were not fools. By giving the locals a chance to earn a small fortune by working the crowd, the cartel won their loyalty. I imagine that it would have been impossible to get anywhere close to the place without 50 cell phones (purchased by the cartel) calling predetermined numbers.
The Wolf and I set our chairs behind the rear of the cab and watched several series of horse races. Men up and down the line cheered and placed bets, while others came, spoke for a few moments, and then were gone. I honestly do not know who any of these men were. I suspect that most were Gulf Cartel, the old guard. There must have been Zetas there, too, but I could not have been able to identity them to save my lite. Probably the men at the gate with Uzis were Zetas, as well as the men in the black Suburbans who I saw occasionally headed towards the pavilion. No one wore "Hi, my name is X, and I'm a Zeta" nametags for my benefit, lamentably.
The Wolf was kind enough to give me some running commentary. In addition to whatever else he did on the side, during the days he worked as an attorney specializing in real estate transactions. I no longer wondered how Ramos set up his holding companies in the States, thanks to that little tidbit of information. Occasionally, he would nod at a man with his pointy nose, saying he was "un valiente," a "great man." Some were "machos," others "matones"- thugs. Most were "puchadores," or small time vendors. Of the nicknames there were too many for me to recall. He seemed to know everyone, even if he did not speak to them. There was an "El Mochomo," (a type of stinging red ant) that nodded to him, and one called "El Taliban" that he sneered at. There was an "El Gonzo," an "El Azul," and an "El Chango." There was an "El Gallo de Oro" (the Golden Rooster), a name that I liked very much. There were several named "El Doctor" which was sinister, and an "El Chayo," an "El Kitty," an "El Camucho," and an "El Verduro." One, "El Barrado," asked the Wolf where "El Cachas" was, and I learned that to this crowd Smiley had a different name, translating roughly to "the Hulk." I thought that fitting.
During one of the pauses in the races, a soft, fatty man in his mid-20’s pranced his ice-white stallion onto the track. He had a wide belt on, and, like most others present, he had several pistols in holsters at his side. The difference was these were antique revolvers, the sort you see in western movies. The Wolf nodded to him and said he went by "El Chito," which roughly translates to telling someone to "shhh!"
I laughed. "You want to explain that one?"
"His father is a very important man, but his son is an idiot. He speak too much, like he earned the right to do so. So this sticks to him, this name. Behind his back all call him a "cachorro," or a puppy. You can see he is drunk now."
He certainly was. As the man showboated past on his beautiful horse, he gave the Wolf and I a cursory look that was mostly curse. About 20 yards down the line, the horse had apparently had enough of him and tossed him off before galloping away. Attempting to annex the high ground, Shhh-puppy picked himself up and promptly pulled both pistols from his belt, firing into the air while emitting that extremely peculiar form of shout called in Mexico simply "el grito." He probably wouldn't have been so cocky if he had been sober enough to account for just how many very steady hands were holding very steady pistols aimed in his direction. Someone loyal to the father moved in to corral the Dauphin and led him and his wounded pride away. Masks are always easier to read than faces, and for the brief period of time that the men around me had shown their true selves I am grateful. I had begun to relax, somehow forgetting where I was. Even after the arsenal had been put away, I felt like my entire body was rigid. I stayed like that for hours, Pygmalion in reverse.
How does one measure the wingspan of evil? Some of these men surely deserved that title, but they covered themselves well. The place smelled of beer, sweat, horses, gunpowder, and limited life expectancy, a Mobius strip of ego and moral dyslexia. Incomprehensible data streams washed around me, and I began to realize that many of these men had developed a sort of narco-speak which was as indecipherable as the "Nasdat" used by the droogs in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The narco-life is more than an occupation. It's an entire culture. It's helpful to keep this in mind when trying to figure out why government programs to lure people into legitimate employment fail so spectacularly. It's not easy to leave a way of life behind.
The Wolf mostly answered my questions in good cheer. The only ones he avoided dealt with organizational structure. At the time it seemed to me this was mostly because even he wasn't certain about who was in charge any longer. At one point he nodded to a group of men who drove up in a dark Land Rover, saying "I can't believe he showed up." When I asked who the man in the center of the group of bodyguards was, he merely said "El 40" as if that answered everything. A short time after that, he nodded at a fat man in an all-white vaquero suit who was making his way down the opposite line of vehicles, pausing to speak to each man and shake their hands. Whoever he was, the Wolf called him "el mero mero" and got very excited and began to fawn over him in terms that practically risked hagiography. There was something special about the man, I had to admit. He positively dripped charisma. He looked as I imagine Moses must have as he descended from Mount Sinai with the Law. Only in this occasion the "Law" was an assault rifle, which he had strapped across his back. When he was nearly opposite us, the Wolf leapt up to race across the track to wait in line for his turn in the sun. When he returned he was glowing, ebullient. He sighed happily as he took his seat.
"Oh, si. I was told he would not come this year. You should have come with me. You will never get this chance again."
"Thanks, but I'll pass. Was it just me or was than a gold AK-47 on his back?"
"Ha, yes, it was made of oro."
"It actually fires? Wouldn't it melt?"
He looked puzzled for a moment. "Rudy, if this man needed to fire a shot, he could have asked any man here to pull the trigger. He needs no gun. The gold, it is a sign, yes?" I suppose there was something to that. In the world of semiotics, a bullet is pretty self-explanatory.
The rest of the afternoon was more of the same. I had plenty of time to think about my position here and eventually I figured it out. Seeing that I was utterly useless to his operation, the Hammer was salvaging something from my presence. By positioning me next to his number two, everyone here who knew the Wolf would see that Don Gelo had some new American connection. I was a cipher for the competition to figure out. In the end, I was a distraction, a feint, a red herring. There was simply no other reason for me to be here.
A few minutes after 5pm the Hammer returned with Smiley-Hulk. They had a brief conversation with the Wolf before nodding to me and heading for the taxi. We piled in and sat there for a time. When I looked behind me I realized what was happening.
Approximately twenty or so cabs stretched out behind us, and more were arriving by the minute. By the time we left the ranch that number had at least doubled. We moved in caravan until we hit Ciudad Victoria, where we all made mad dashes in different directions. After a few minutes of evasive maneuvers, the Wolf pulled into a small home with a two-car garage. We entered the house, went through the backyard and through a gate into a house on a totally different street. In this garage was an old Ford Bronco, which we used to get back to Cerralvo.
It was dark before we arrived back at the Hammer's ranchita. Shortly before we pulled into town, the Hammer turned around in the passenger seat and smiled at me. "So, mijo, tell me, what deed you theenk of our leetle organization?"
"You call that an “organization'? It's all bullets and cash and self-interest. That sounds more like a war to me."
He laughed at this. "Yes, eet is that, tambien. I theenk next year I take Edgar. He would like the horses, and you are no fun."
"You plan this life for Edgar, but not for Pedro. Don't you think Edgar deserves better?"
"You deserve what you accept."
"That's not an epiphany. That's not even a postcard. And it's certainly not an answer."
"Pedro is smart. Edgar is no smart. He is muy obrador, though. He will do well. And I am no discussing thees weeth you."
I took the hint, and before long we pulled into the ranch. Looking back, I can't say that I knew any more about the drug trade than when I had woken up that morning, save for perhaps I was now aware of the existence of gold-plated assault rifles. The one piece of information that I was absolutely sure of at the end of the day was that my time living under the Hammer's thumb was over. Tomorrow, I was going house hunting.