The Road to God Knows Where: A Fugitive's Tale
Picture a sheer cliff overlooking the vibrant Mexican city of Guanajuato. The blazing sun, up unusually early around these parts, pierces the skin, but the surrounding air is morning crisp. Overhead, an eagle optimistically stalks, patiently waiting with baited breath for one of us to stumble to an untimely death. Metres below us, a federale on a standard issue motorbike skirts the downward spiralling dirt track that leads back to the city, at typically Mexican breakneck speeds. A stray German Shepherd circles the immediate isolated area with a learned precision; he has clearly scaled this rock before. Burrowing into the north-west face of the desert cliff is a small cave. The gypsy dog leads us right to it. This is Sierra Madre country. Home to peyote awakenings, savage wild horses and the occasional runaway murderer.
Squatting opposite me is a shirtless, heavily tattooed, Mexican-American. As I sit and observe, he play-wrestles the German Shepherd with an authentic bravado. "I love animals man, but I hate people." He says it with such an unceremonious deadpan and mundanity that it catches me slightly off guard. Busily preoccupied with the dog, my cave companion offers me no further explanation. I get the feeling that this is the first time he's smiled in months. In the blackened guts of the cliff, the cave's brooding silence is broken only by sharp bursts of pin-pointed sunlight reflecting off the white cliffs opposite. It helps break the tension. No one knows we're here.
"You see these eyes, man?" I squinted, but I couldn't really penetrate the cave's opaque. I didn't need to. I had already witnessed his intense glare a few days earlier; electric black saucers that razor-cut such a focused concentration and awareness that one just knows he has multitudes of horrific tales to tell. Upon initial glance, meeting him for the first time all those anxious days ago, his eyes became indelibly branded in my skull. Soul penetrating, gut wrenching. Remembering that i hadn't yet answered his question, I eagerly nodded in recognition.
"These eyes have seen shit you wouldn't believe, man. Even you'd be too scared, and man, I've heard some stories about you." His familiar jibe settled me into somewhat less of a sphincter-clenching recoil. His near perfect English was only rendered movie-stereotypical by his comical East L.A. street accent, but the echo in the cave was tight. It seemed to quantify every word he spoke in an authoritative, stereophonic clarity.
The intimidating figure in question requests, nay, demands that as far as myself and my readers are concerned, his name is Sin Nombre (no name). Who am I to argue? Sin Nombre is an ex, and I must stress, ex, Los Angeles gang member. The unsettlingly deep scar that runs the longitude of his chest plate, suggests that a life of unquestionable violence dominates his past. "Oh that? That was just a machete attack."
Backgrounded behind the wretched knife wound is a prison-inked tattoo of the number 13. Despite its obscured positioning, the tattoo sits proud and emblazoned, and is as important and symbolic a marking to the blood brother mentality as his hereditary caramel skin. 13 represents the letter M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. The letter M stands for Sin Nombre's mother country, Mexico. "Every Mexican gang member gets the 13, man. It's the final initiation. If you don't earn it or if you don't want it, you're out."
In order for a prospective gang member to earn the 13, he must participate in one of the following; a rumble (a street brawl between rival gangs), a drive-by (the patrol and shooting of a rival gang member's family home) or a direct slaying of a rival gang member. "If you want in, you got to show some cred; we don't just take anyone, hombre."
Despite having been born and bred in Los Angeles, just hours from the Mexican border, Sin Nombre has never had the opportunity or desire to visit his ancestral homeland; until now. Finally, he has made his first trip south of the border, except he's not here for the tequila and tacos. His motives are of an altogether different, more sinister variety. Sin Nombre is a fugitive.
Little over one year before our carefully and meticulously constructed rendezvous, Sin Nombre, with the aid of several drug cartel members, escaped the tightening clutches of U.S. law enforcement, beneath a hessian tarp under the cover of desert darkness. The four-day quest for ultimate freedom, an odyssey that took him over the surrounding mountains of El Paso, Texas, and into the netherworld of the infamous web of clandestine tunnels concealed a world below the Rio Grande, very nearly took its toll on his life. Frail, dehydrated and tenderised by the rigid journey, he was eventually safely ushered across the border and into Juarez, one the most murderous cities on the planet. Once there, Sin Nombre was issued with a new identity. Life, as he knew it, was over. There could be no going back. Not alive, at least.
The police on both sides of the border, each with their own seperate taskforces specialising in such cases, are still frantically trying to track Sin Nombre down. Both desperately want to see him cuffed, shackled and extradited. Selfishly, it would mean another case closed, another trophy for the cabinet, another honourable mention. But for some police members, who have seen decades of gang violence replicating a war zone on the streets of L.A., a successful apprehension of Sin Nombre would at least mean closure for one more faceless, grieving family.
The way Sin Nombre sees it, he was just following orders. Loyally acting on an authoritative request from a senior ranking member in much the same way an active soldier in the army must do. To refuse, would mean a dishonourable discharge. In Sin Nombre's world, that means a punishment by death. So he did what he was told. He shot two rival gang members at point blank range while they sat on their front porch drinking beer. They were brothers. It was a retaliation. Sin Nombre, is a murderer.
"I had to do it. There's no other way to survive on those streets, man. There really isn't. The ones that can move away, they do. No one wants to stay. But they can afford it or they're smart and get scholarships. The rest of us, we stay and we fight for our neighbourhoods and our lives. It's the only world I ever felt comfortable in."
To fully understand Sin Nombre's current predicament, it is necessary to travel with him on a torrid journey past, to the height of America's involvement in WWII, the 1940's. Newly immigrated Mexican men, incentively in the country to assist with the U.S. defence effort, and thusly attempting to seek a relevant identity in their new world, created brand new personas for their Chicano brothers to embrace. They became pachuchos; Zoot-Suiters.
Zoot-Suiters were mostly Mexican youths who dressed sharply in the very fashionable, high-waisted, baggy and tightly cuffed suits of the day, often accessorising themselves with fedora hats and French style shoes. Los Angeles, saturated with newly arrived Mexicans and on-leave defence personnel, fast became a hotbed for racial tension, drunken brawls and violent sexual assaults. The U.S. marines and sailors in particular, took offence at the new immigrants flaunted arrogance and sense of style, considering the clothing far too extravagant, and their southern neighbour's personas as bombastic and demonstrative. As a result, a superficial, months long series of spontaneous public attacks ensued.
Young Mexicans were repeatedly jumped, beaten and pinned down by drunken sailors, who would then repeatedly gang rape the zoot-suiter's wife, girlfriend or sister. Sin Nombre's grandmother was one of those women. She was dragged by the hair onto the street from a crowded bar, raped by four marines and eventually beaten to a pulp by local police who then threw her in jail for 48 hours, for her own "protection". It would be fair to say that Sin Nombre is not the L.A.P.D.'s number one fan.
Fast forward to the 1960's, and a young Latino is visiting his father in prison. His father, in for eighteen years for murder, racketeering and drug dealing, orders his sixteen year old son to rough up the son of a fellow inmate who had recently made an attempt on his life. Given little option, the boy obeys his father's command, and in doing so is unwittingly initiated into a lifelong gang culture of drugs, violence and retribution. Within months, the young man would be in prison too. Meet Sin Nombre's father.
Sin Nombre's father had steered him into gang banging by the age of thirteen. Against the explicit wishes and increasing protests of Sin Nombre's mother, his father pulled him out of school and set about teaching him the ways of the street. This is something that to this day is not at all uncommon to ganged-up families trying to survive the apocalyptic mean streets of East L.A. "It's a necessary part of survival, man. We don't have no jobs, no money, so we join a gang. It's a brotherhood, man. Something to belong to. Protection por vida; for life." Sin Nombre's father is currently in prison once more, doing a short stint for a drug dealing rap.
In 2016, things are very different than they were when Sin Nombre's father first started out. Back in the 1960's, heroin was king, and was exclusively controlled in Los Angeles by the rapidly expanding Italian Mafia. When the Mexican gangs started to muscle in on the Italian's turf, tensions began to swell. With the rising of the newly founded drug cartels back home across the border, the Mexicans demanded control of their own supply in their own barrios. Senior East L.A. gang members would peacefully approach mafia Capos on a regular basis in an attempt to strike a deal, but local La Cosa Nostra boss, Nicolo Licata, turned them down repeatedly. As a frustrated symbol of intimidation, associated Mexican prison inmates raped and severely maimed Licata's son, Carlo, who was doing time for petty offences in the same cell block. In a swift and brutal retaliation, Licata ordered that the next batch of heroin to hit the Mexican barrios be completely uncut, leaving a pure strain of the drug to unfurl its wrath on an unsuspecting community. Within a 48 hour period, 23 Mexican drug addicts fell victim to fatal overdoses. Message sent.
Borne out of these atrocities, a governing organisation designed as a control and defence mechanism for Mexican barrios and solely operating from prison, was formed. Enter the Mexican Mafia. Still in operation today, La Eme (Spanish for the M; standing for Mexico) have outmuscled and outlasted the Italian mafia who infamously collapsed at the hands of petty infighting, snitching and a series of high profile arrests. The Mexican Mafia's original mission statement still stands; the inside controls the outside. But unlike in Sin Nombre's father's heyday, all is not rosy within the ranks of La Eme.
Sin Nombre recalls, "My dad was very high up in La Eme. He had respect and he respected others. There was loyalty. Even when I started out there was loyalty. Loyalty is dead now, man. No one gives a fuck about anyone else. They only in it for themselves. I saw my best friend strangle his own cousin, man. He killed family."
Much like rival gangs, the movie fodder Bloods and Crips, the Mexican Mafia has now splintered into offshoot clicas, who now spend the majority of the time fighting amongst themselves. The smaller, less powerful street crews, still operate under the protective umbrella of La Eme, more out of necessity than want, but still, headquarters is fast losing control. Sin Nombre, squinting painfully as he focuses on the evolving streams of light shining into the cave, bows his head and laments, "People just do what they want now, man. No one listens to the honcho. They pretend to listen but then they go against him behind his back. I stopped listening too, man. Fuck him and fuck them. They don't care about me no more. They want me dead. They cut off my dad's ear in prison. But he'll never talk. I guess loyalty does still exist."
I'm continually amazed at the composure Sin Nombre keeps when recounting these poignant slices of history. On the surface, his aura seems pure and righteous. Once he is comfortable with the situation, he is very sweet to talk to, fiercely passionate and at times, darkly hilarious. But there is a sense of loss in the way he speaks. Not remorse or sadness, but the measure of a man who is now dead inside. A man in need of a healing soul. Foolishly, I recall the famous ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs by singing the words to Steeler's Wheel 'Stuck in the Middle With You'. Sin Nombre does not find it funny at all.
We step outside the cave for some light. Sin Nombre makes me promise to erase our recorded interview from my mobile phone. To put his mind at ease, I invite him to erase the file personally once I'm done with it. He agrees, and signs the verbal contract with a death stare aimed straight at the pit of my stomach. Tomorrow, we will meet at the cave once more.
Looking out over the kaleidoscopic tapestry of Guanajuato's multicolour, Sin Nombre continues to regale me with speech. "See this tattoo, man?" He points with his crooked index finger to a banner-like tattoo stretched across his concave stomach. He looks like he hasn't eaten in weeks. The proud title, Mafia Mexicana, heralded in Olde English font, signals for all to see that this man is not to be messed with. He's connected. But he is no longer proud of his insignia, in fact, his commentary of it somewhat surprises me. "This tattoo, this is my death warrant. If I go back to prison, either here in Mexico or back home, they'll come after me and kill me for sure."
By they, Sin Nombre means his one time friends and protectors, Los Zetas. Listed as the fourth most dangerous gang in the world, Los Zetas are the reason Sin Nombre is in this predicament to begin with. Operating as a loyal foot soldier for many years, countlessly intimidating, maiming and now killing, he has now hit a wall with no way over, around or through. His time as a gang member is up. And for his years of service, this is his reward. "Gang members aren't meant to run. No matter what you do, you must stay and fight. Now that I've run, they see me as a threat. As someone who knows too much, who can point the finger and bring them down. Hell, I ain't talking. Do they think I'm stupid? But whether I talk or not, it don't make no difference to them. They gonna kill me regardless."
But, whether on the inside or outside, Sin Nombre has some powerful allies of his own. The legendary Sinaloa Cartel, headed by the sub-mythical El Chapo, have his back, thanks to his father's years of unconditional business and friendship with three of its high-ranking members. They provide safe houses, intelligence, false identities, even money and women in order to keep his spirits up while on the run. The Sinaloa cartel is by far the most powerful business in Mexico, far out-influencing even the country's own government, and for now at least, Sin Nombre is more than happy for that to be the case.
Apart from the Sinaloa Cartel, should Sin Nombre be apprehended, extradited and imprisoned, he does have a another, somewhat unlikely source of protection. Along with certain factions of the Mexican Mafia, Sin Nombre's local crew are still closely associated with the hugely influential Aryan Brotherhood. They are commonly used by Mexican gangs (in prison and out) when some extra heavy muscle and intimidation is required in a turf war. They work their craft well and are inwardly feared by many gangs right across the United States. "They'll still try to protect me even though I'm out of the game. I've done a lot for those guys over the years. Even did some time for one of their stupid bodega raids just through association. They owe me big."
The lead up to Sin Nombre's current predicament started back in 2013, when a group of fellow Mexicans, keen to muscle in on some traditionally claimed turf, came off second best in a street brawl in his East L.A. barrio of El Sereno. One of Sin Nombre's crew sliced a chavala (punk or rookie) across the face with a machete, rendering him partially blind in one eye. The imminent retaliation came when the freshly-founded crew committed a drive-by shooting on Sin Nombre's best friend's family home. The random scattergun of bullets made their way into the front room of the home, seriously injuring a three-year-old boy playing on the floor. In mid 2014, composed as always and under direct order from his superior, Sin Nombre personally visited the family home of the two brothers that were thought to be the ringleaders of the shooting. The young toddler had since died and turned out to be the son of a Los Zetas underboss' cousin. With clearance from the top, Sin Nombre was happy to do it. "We just parked our car down the street and waited for the motherfuckers to come outside. Unlike them, we weren't going to risk killing an innocent person. Fuck that. Once they were out, I casually walked up to the gate and started shooting. My boys had my back if something extra went down. Those putas didn't stand a chance."
Sin Nombre seems completely unapologetic. "Those cunos had it coming, man. Fuck them." He spits on the floor of the cave with an ingrained hatred. "They shouldn't have started us. They just shouldn't have started us." He dips his head between his knees as a sense of stark realisation shudders through him. The double murder signalled the end of the line for the seasoned gangbanger. He knew it, his friends knew it, and his bosses would come to know it too. The final bullet piercing the chest plate of victim number two was Sin Nombre's resignation notice.
It took a little while for the LAPD to piece together the puzzle, but eventually, through months of tedious interrogation of tight-lipped gang and community members, they found their snitch. In the meantime, Sin Nombre had spent his time in relative comfort jumping from safe house to safe house. This went on for the better part of a year, but eventually the time came that the jig was up. He had to move. Enter El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel.
Fending off wild coyotes, scorpions and rattlesnakes, Sin Nombre, two heavily armed cartel foot soldiers and a border crossing specialist, slowly moved on foot by night towards the Mexican border near El Paso, Texas. Getting close to El Paso was the easy part, however a wide berth of the city was necessary in order to complete the journey safely and successfully. Crossing the mountains that overlook the Chihuahua desert with only strict rations of food and water proved extremely difficult; the one saving grace being that several spotters were strategically placed further into the mountains to provide up to the minute intelligence as to where the travelling party needed to be directed, in order to avoid the constantly roaming border patrol.
"I been on the run for nearly a year, man. Do you believe that? A year! I been dehydrated, had hypothermia, been bitten by scorpions, hell, I even got arrested up in Durango for copping weed. No one knew who I was! The cops didn't have a clue. I just showed them my fake ID, paid a bribe from my cash stash that I keep in a pair of socks and just like that *snaps fingers* I walked out of the jailhouse the very next day."
"I can go to most cities in Mexico and be given a safe house and a even nice girl to fuck. But now I feel like it's all coming down on me. I gotta lay extra low right now. My instinct's telling me that something ain't right, bro. So right now, because it's warm, I sleep in the mountains. A different spot every night. I can see everything from up here. Anyone comes my way, I got a head start of about ten minutes every time."
When Sin Nombre finally crossed the border, he headed straight to the hectic and gang-ruled city of Juarez. There, he knew people; heavy people. He was home free. Disappearing in a sea of people in a lawless border town would be a snap. Or so he thought. First, he needed medical attention. Urgently. Attending a public hospital wasn't an option, so the cartel offered a more appropriate solution.
"They took me to a barn in the desert. You should've seen it! It was real Breaking Bad shit, man. The inside of the barn was like a fucking hospital!" Sin Nombre starts laughing uncontrollably, as if he were cashing in on all the missed out laughter of the past year. "It was really weird, man. For three nights in the desert, I suffered from hypothermia, and each day, I suffered from heat exhaustion. I was dizzy from scorpion bites, nauseous from not eating, dehydrated from no water, sunburnt and with crazy blisters on my feet. I'm a fucking city kid, man! I'm not cut out for that shit. Crossing the border is more dangerous than El Sereno ever was!"
Sin Nombre was put on an intravenous drip, fed regular meals and was even supplied with cocaine to help push through the pain. "Inside the barn was surgical, man. Bright lights, stainless steel, doctors, nurses, the works. In a room off to the side, the cartel guys drank beer and played cards. All day. They invited me in and we did coke together. That got me through."
Sin Nombre wandered northern Mexico a new man. Free and healthy, with a new identity and armed with a supply of cocaine to help fund his escape for at least a few weeks. He was also provided with a .45 caliber Glock for protection. In the cave, with the sun now streaming in through the entrance from the west, Sin Nombre produces the shiny weapon from his backpack and shows me. "I ain't had to use this yet, man. I hope I never have to. I'm really tired of that shit. I don't want that life no more. I want a wife. I want a family and a house. Somewhere away from all this. Maybe down in Belize or somewhere. I hear it's nice. You been?"
Belize is nice, but a more pressing matter is what is in store for Sin Nombre from this point on? How is he going to get out of this? He is no longer free in Mexico either. Word has trickled down to him that the policia are on the hunt for him too. "For now, there is no way out. I just have to keep moving around until shit dies down. It will. It always does. I hope they'll forget about me one day. I've thought about faking my own death but I couldn't do that to my family. So for now, I'm stuck more closer to hell than to heaven."
"I'll keep heading south in a few weeks, but for now I gotta go slow. When I do go south, I have an old friend who's in the Zapatistas down in Chiapas. He's gonna help smuggle me across the Guatemalan border. For now, that's my best option."
Sin Nombre is under no illusion. He knows that he can be caught at any minute of any day. But he is prepared. "If the police have me surrounded and there's no way out, I'm gonna go down. I'll make sure of it." He left it at that, leaving me to speculate on exactly what he meant by "go down". Visibly upset, he abruptly calls the interview off. "Sorry man, that's it. You can stay but I ain't talking no more."
To be honest, Sin Nombre putting an end to the interview was a relief. With every recounted violent story and with every wave of anger shot from those black saucers, I would literally tense up in the chest. We stepped back out of the cave, into the fresh, soothing air and walked to a nearby ridge. The German Shepherd had vanished; he was long gone. The city below, with all of its colour and bustling life, seemed not quite real as we sat, legs dangling freely over the cliff's edge. We must have looked like two little kids from down below, but from this day forth, I at least, would never be the same. Whatever innocence that was left inside of me, hanging on for grim life, had been killed off. It would take a little while to recover from this experience.
Sin Nombre lights up a pre-rolled joint and, after inhaling a gargantuan toke, passes it to me. I won't lie, I needed it. There we sat, two strangers, now with some warped, inexplicable bond. Permanently linked, or at least until death comes knocking for one of us. Sealing our bond, the sweet aroma of burning weed and the now exaggerated colour schemes of Guanajuato. Sin Nombre breathes out a long, deep sigh; perhaps his final sense of freedom. He stands up, slaps his hand on my shoulder, and seemingly defeated, he concedes, "It really is a beautiful country, isn't it?"
*If you enjoy Benjamin's writing, subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.