Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Big Pac-Man still tucks his trousers into his high black jump boots. He learned to do this at jump school in the Army. He posts photos of jumps on Facebook—high up, looking down on paratroopers as they drop, Fort Bragg tiny below like a model-railroad landscape. His knees and back still ache from all the hard landings. But he walks through the pain in a brisk march. He has a loud laugh—you can hear him coming before he arrives.
On the day we meet with him, he’s driving his white beater car, the seats occupied by his soldiers. They’re laughing and shouting over the radio. They could be warlords in an insurgency or narcos swarming out of Tijuana, looking for targets. Big men. Shaved heads. Music blaring in Spanish. Their car comes in off the cracked street and rattles to a stop in the apartment courtyard. The communal chihuahua runs for its life as the soldiers burst out of the vehicle. “I’m hungry!” Big Pac-Man shouts, which is why they call him that: He’s always eating.
It is not uncommon to find him in his dress uniform. He wears his beret and sometimes stands at attention at the U.S. border fence, watching lines of cars snake into San Diego. It’s a kind of sentry duty. Tourists and businesspeople avoid eye contact, but he stands firm before them. His colleagues often join him, and they form an honor guard, squared away as if awaiting inspection. Their signs say Banished Veterans. Hector Barajas, of the 82nd Airborne. Deported.
Barajas is a member of a shadow army whose numbers are kept obscure by the U.S. government. He estimates that 3,700 veterans of the U.S. military are exiled in Mexico alone. It is hard to prove; even requests under the Freedom of Information Act yield scant data to prove or disprove his theory.
He and his colleagues have created a tiny, unofficial VA center in Barajas’s apartment: the Deported Veterans Support House. Here, between his social-media activism, impromptu health care, counseling and charity work, Barajas attends to his calculations and his restless hunt to discover others like himself.
“From my understanding,” Barajas says, “we have had more than 10 veterans in each detention center. There are about 250 centers in the United States. Let’s say 16 years of deportations since 1996. Ten times 250 equals 2,500. Twenty-five hundred times 16 equals 40,000. I think you can get better stats than I can.”
But as we will see, that is not entirely true.
Most Americans have no idea Mexico’s border cities house a cadre of banished warriors who believed their service in the U.S. armed forces would win them access to American citizenship. Barajas and his partners have discovered fellow deported soldiers in 19 countries besides Mexico—Jamaica, Italy, Canada, Guyana, Peru, Trinidad, the U.K. and Bosnia among them. The deportees are not just Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; Korea and Vietnam vets live in dirty rooms all over Tijuana.
Fabián Rebolledo is Barajas’s partner in the Deported Veterans Support House. He can’t eat as much as Barajas, so they call him Little Pac-Man. But who can eat as much as Big Pac-Man? The vets scoff at the notion. Rebolledo was promised citizenship for enlisting, but after returning from active duty in Kosovo, he was deported.
“They taught me it was easy to kill people,” he says. “Then they threw me away.”
The Pac-Men’s small VA operation is in Rosarito, Tijuana’s sister city to the southwest. Twenty miles north, across the border, the American coastal neighborhoods are billion-dollar enclaves. Here, not so much. The glory days of MTV Spring Break and college students cavorting in sombreros are gone. Now bodies and body parts are regularly found throughout the city—a woman’s tattooed torso zipped up in a black suitcase left on the beach, an arm in the weeds by the highway.
The Deported Veterans Support House is situated in Barajas’s cramped two-bedroom apartment in a surreal compound. Painted bright colors, it is populated by expat gringos in various stages of distress. Radios compete for most obnoxious squall. A pregnant-looking American dude with unbuttoned shorts drags a heavily pregnant Mexican woman wearing yellow rubber gloves onto his lap and kneads her ass. An addled evangelist barks, “You ever been shot in the mouth? I have!” He displays blown-out teeth. Then he tries to make the perfectly normal leg of a visitor grow an inch through the power of Jesus. Big Pac-Man sends him scuttling away. “Learn some manners,” he says as he fires up the computers.
“I like Mexico and all,” he says. “But I hate being in this country. I want to go home. I’d gladly go to prison for five years if the U.S. would finally let me be a citizen and raise my daughter.”
Barajas works the machines, sending messages to a growing army of contacts and followers. He is a tireless Facebook presence. Soldiers find him and seek his help. The Pac-Men have people around them all the time. It is unclear who they are or what they want. On this day a young man with the kind of scary neck tattoos that make suburbanites shy away sits in a corner. He could be a soldier.
“Were you in the crazy life in Los Angeles?” he is asked.
“Were you a bad boy?”
“If we were in East L.A., would we be talking?”
He smiles. Hangs his head. Chuckles.
Barajas says, “In my case, I didn’t shoot anybody. Nothing like that. Okay, I may have shot a car.”
They burst out laughing. And Rebolledo stares at his hands. Their dress uniforms hang on the wall, carefully pressed.
For Big Pac-Man, it started with partying. He was a fiery kid, a quick-fisted social butterfly from a neighborhood ruled by gang law. Barajas popped in and out of high school, finally enlisting and reenlisting in the Army. He started to straighten out, snaring a 1997 certificate of achievement for providing “outstanding medical support to the 82nd Signal Battalion during immunization day.” By 1998 there was a Good Conduct Medal for “exemplary behavior, efficiency and fidelity in active federal service” and by 1999 the Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service to Charlie Company, 307th Forward Support Battalion. It said his “outstanding performance reflects great credit upon himself.” Barajas was honorably discharged.
But home in Compton he started hanging with old friends. One night the homeys thought they were being followed. They weren’t: They were high, strung out and paranoid. Shots were fired. Barajas pleaded guilty to discharging a firearm at a vehicle and served three years in prison. Then he was deported.
Big Pac-Man tried to sneak home, but he got caught. Today he has pretty much given up on the idea of sneaking back to Los Angeles. Instead, from Rosarito he is assembling his own deportee army.