The mirror crashes to the floor and Rigo is in the doorway with his nine in his hand—We're at war! We're at war!
The Gringo bolts from his bed. He's been in the cartel seven months, a college-educated American kid from the suburbs of Portland with a shaved head and the massive shoulders of the offensive tackle he once was. It started out pure fun, easy money, gorgeous women and the camaraderie of soldiers. They called him La Flama Blanca, the white flame, which somehow inspired a series of Talladega Nights jokes. We know how to shake and bake Flama Blanca style! And man, did they party. But lately the Gringo's been getting paranoid. That's why he put the mirror against his door, the only alarm system that still works after Rigo freaked out and smashed all the alarms, thinking they were spy cameras.
We're at war! Rigo shouts again.
As usual, Rigo's out of his mind on coke and ecstasy and massive quantities of booze. He's 30, skinny and good-looking, with the vagued-out sweetness of someone nursing many inner wounds. His uncle gave him a job cleaning meth when he was 13. When he was 15 he watched his grandfather stab a man to death. When he was 18 he stabbed a man and then spent five years in prison. In the past few months he's become the Gringo's best friend.
Calm down, the Gringo says. Tell me what happened.
What happened is Rigo went to the projects to score coke and some guy sold him a $10 bag that seemed light, so they had words and Rigo punched him in the face. According to the narco code, the guy is going to have to come back hard. The alternatives are ostracism or death.
They're coming for us, Rigo says. We're fucking at war right now.
Then Rigo sits down on his bed and starts to pass out. Thinking there's a gang of killers on the way, the Gringo says, Motherfucker, what the fuck?
Rigo wakes up for a second. I just need some milk and cookies, Mom.
After that, nothing will rouse him. So the Gringo takes his gun and stands watch all night, hoping this nightmare will dissipate in the light of morning.
No such luck. In the light of morning, Rigo still wants to kill the guy. He calls his cousin Demente, a hit man who shows up with an extra Glock. Rigo says, I'll talk to the guy, but I'll probably shoot him. And Demente holds out the gun to the Gringo.
This is it, the point of no return. If the Gringo doesn't take the gun, his brief, improbable career as a white American in a Mexican cartel is over.
Let's do it, he says.
The Gringo from Portland is going to war.
Before he went to Mexico, the Gringo was an athletic kid from a prosperous American family with two beach houses. Life was good until he was 11, when his parents divorced and his mother married a much younger man, leaving the Gringo with a fatherless ache that lasted all through his teen years. But he poured his energy into sports and never took illegal drugs till he was 23. He made all-state in high school and got a football scholarship to Portland State, where he picked up a bachelor's degree in communication and a painkiller habit. His biggest rebellion was a taste for Latin American revolutionary history. After college he found work as a high school football coach.
He's telling this story at his mother's house in Portland. He's been back from Mexico for two and a half months, found a job doing telemarketing from a sterile cubicle and taking shit from a snotty boss, and he's trying to sort out his feelings. Should he go straight? Should he go back to the cartel? You get burned if you stand by the fire, he says, but who wants to be cold?
His dilemma began soon after he graduated from college, when he started selling painkillers to pay for his habit. He started to think of himself as an "illegalist," his term for a revolutionary without a revolution. He read Mao and Castro and Chomsky and Kropotkin, cultivating a rage against a society that is created to keep us from thought and from being happy.
Three years later everything fell apart. One of my friends is in a mental institution, one got addicted to heroin, and I introduced them to pills. He felt so bad, he stopped caring if he lived or died and did reckless things that attracted the attention of the police. So when his mom saw an ad for English teachers in Guadalajara, he jumped at the chance to escape. Emiliano Zapata! Pancho Villa! What better place to clean up than sunny Mexico?
He arrived in October and got a job teaching English at a factory, waking up at 6:30 and catching the train, a period he now thinks of as the time I was trying to pretend to be a normal person. But one night, he and another teacher were in a club and a guy came up with a tray of free beer, said he was a hit man from Michoacán who had decided to protect them—and lifted his shirt to flash his gun. The Gringo was fascinated. In the circles he was running in, narcos were Robin Hoods who battled the corrupt government and refused to abide by social norms. Ballads memorialized narcos' deaths. What could be cooler?
That November, the same teacher took him to a party in a big house on a tree-lined street near the Expo Guadalajara. The host was a skinny young guy who spoke perfect English. Call me Rigo, he said, launching into the fantastic story of his life as a fourth-generation narco. One of his first memories was his dad kicking a hole in the wall and digging out two cases of money and a shotgun. He was eight. Next time they met, he was 16 and his dad gave him an ounce of cocaine for a Christmas present.
Another night in another club, one of the Gringo's friends bought some ecstasy from a guy whose boss then came up to their table. He was in his 30s, a good-looking, relaxed dude, six feet tall, big for a Mexican, with the Buddha belly of a man who loves to drink and party. Call me Cuz, he said.
Cuz and the Gringo hit it off. Cuz was funny, an outgoing party guy everybody instantly liked. He grew up in Juárez and loved Americans, was a huge music fan and rave promoter. Soon they were exchanging stories about their backgrounds, and it was amazing because they were both the black sheep of wealthy families with elder brothers who were the favorite. They both loved Scarface and Pulp Fiction and American Gangster. They talked about the bad things they had done and the lives they were destined to live. You can correct yourself all you want, Cuz said, but you're still going to be that person, the person you are.
That night, Cuz made out like he was a little guy who sold a few pills at raves. You hang out with these teachers; you could sell to these teachers, he said, giving the Gringo half an X to try. Remember, call me tomorrow. Don't forget.
The Gringo did as he was told.
A week later, Cuz called back. Let's get some beers and go to this little party. So they gathered some of the Gringo's friends and hopped in a cab and drove till they were 40 miles out of town and starting to get nervous. Suddenly, at the top of a hill, a squad of federales appeared. They searched everybody but Cuz, who walked right past them as if he were invisible. The Gringo and his friends followed him over a ridge onto a mountaintop lit up like a nightclub with 5,000 people dancing. A line of gunmen in ski masks stood guard around the perimeter with AR-15s. The Gringo turned to Cuz. Are those more federales?
No, those are our dudes.
The Gringo was starting to realize that Cuz was connected in a big way. He walked from one hug and high-five to the next. He seemed to know everybody. He led the Gringo to a tent with heat lamps and black leather couches and beautiful women who all seemed to be wearing big fat gold men's watches—the sign of a narco princess, as the Gringo would soon learn. You see one of those watches on a girl, you steer clear.
They were in the narco tent. Famous DJs from Europe chatted nervously with the gangsters, who tended to fall into categories denoted by the drugs they sold—the coke guys were the scariest, dancing like maniacs and giving you that cold coke stare. But the Gringo was oblivious, bopping up to the most dangerous guys and babbling like a goofball. He had a way of twisting his face into comic expressions that contradicted his football body and made him hard to pigeonhole: Was he a thug or an idiot? Not always in a friendly way, the narcos asked, Who is this guy?
Cuz wanted them all to take acid. The Gringo had never done hallucinogens before but found it hard to say no. Cuz just laughed at everything. There was no darkness in him, no judgment. Nothing was true, so everything was permitted, as the old Russian anarchists used to say. Fuck it, the Gringo said. Let's do it. So the sun came up as the acid came on and they were in this beautiful Mexican countryside where everything seemed to fall into place and Cuz seemed like a prophet. The world was divided into good and evil and light and dark, he said, but all divisions were profitable to somebody and it was the same with the cartels dividing the world into families, raising prices in collusion with the cartel of the U.S. government. But some day the world would be one, and all the countries and cartels would go away. That's why Cuz didn't use hit men or deal heroin or speed or crack, because that ruined people's lives. If it was his destiny to be a criminal, he could at least improve his karma by sticking to softer drugs.