If we're dealing coke to a girl, he said, what will she do? Break into her parents' room and steal money out of her dad's wallet. If she's on X, she sneaks into her dad's room to give him a hug.
Oh, how they laughed! In the Gringo's mind, it all made perfect sense, as if his whole life had been leading up to this moment. Stuck between being a bad son and a good son, he could make up for the sins of selling those horrible painkillers and getting his friends addicted and still follow his illegalist destiny. He could have a stretch of lawlessness in a place where lawlessness still exists. In his addled mind, it was a strange kind of self-improvement program that might finally purge his suicidal impulses. His Che Guevara quote tattoo said it all: We cannot be sure of having anything to live for unless we're willing to die for it.
Still, the good son had to teach the next day. So Cuz walked him down to a little mom-and-pop stand to catch the bus back to Guadalajara. While they waited, Cuz turned his wild-eyed grin on the cashier. I'm on acid right now, he said.
The cashier smiled. The 1970s are back—nice.
Cuz started him off at a high price, $7 a pill, supplying acid, X and molly, which is X so pure you can snort it or put it under your tongue. The molly sold for $15 each. The Gringo could make $400 in a single night, almost as much as he earned for a whole month of teaching. He also started hanging out with Cuz a couple of days a week, helping him sort and package pills and move money from place to place.
Soon after, his mom came down for the holidays, and Cuz took them out to lunch at a fancy Argentine steak place. She asked, Is Mexico safe? Cuz said, Oh, don't worry; we're just getting rid of all the dirt balls, rapists and killers to make a better society. They hit it off, even became Facebook friends, and that helped seal the Gringo's bond with Cuz, because Mexico is all about family. He didn't tell his mom that 18 headless bodies had just been found a mile from her hotel.
By January he had stopped teaching altogether. He worked parties and gay clubs and hung out with hot French girls. He was their peek into the glamorous narco lifestyle—a dancing bear, as he puts it.
But more and more, he found himself hanging out with Rigo. Talk about an illegalist! Rigo would walk out of a club and shoot his gun in the air. He would fire off a couple of rounds at the front door instead of ringing the doorbell. He had been a meth addict, a heroin addict, a professional killer who took payment in cars. He never judged and never criticized, accepting the craziest behavior with a laugh and a shrug. I always like having people around who are crazier than I am. More important, he was the dauphin of a powerful cartel family, and as long as he was around, nobody would touch them—as the Gringo learned one night when he got into a club dispute with a thug who threatened to slit his throat. He went straight home and called Rigo.
This fucking guy from Sinaloa threatened to kill me, he said.
Don't worry, Rigo said. They'd have to get permission to hit a white guy and his uncle would hear about it. I'll put the word out; nothing will happen.
And nothing did.
Around March, the Gringo moved in with Rigo. Their housemates included a Satanist death-metal fan who had been arrested for manslaughter, the burned-out son of another powerful family and a hot-dog salesman who doubled as muscle in dangerous times. There were bullet holes in the palm trees and rumors of bodies buried in the backyard, left by a former owner who led one of the cartels. They called it the House of Pain, and the Gringo made it his mission to turn it into the Happy House. To Rigo, he was a minty blast of American optimism.
For the first month, they did a lot of coke. People would come by, drink a beer, buy some pills. Or they'd go to one of the nightclubs Rigo's uncle owned, hanging out in a private lounge with bottles of champagne and Johnnie Walker Black, the narcos' favorite drink. Rigo's uncle would come by with his fancy watch and $300 shoes and give them a big bag of lavada, the narco drug of choice, coke double-washed to clean out the chemicals. It had no bite and didn't make you hunger for more, just lifted you up on a waft of soft air and deposited you in a fluffy cloud—and it smelled like strawberries.
Hour after hour Rigo would explain the business. Somebody always runs the plaza, which is sometimes an actual plaza and sometimes just a part of town. Rigo knew how much things cost, how to move things, how things worked in the U.S. and what groups you needed to make alliances with. He taught the Gringo how to recognize other narcos, the flashy ones who wore designer sunglasses and glittery shirts and the kind who looked like skate punks. Almost always they carried three phones: one for the boss, one for the customers and one for the family. And you have to know your history, he said. The narcos get offended when you don't know the history of Mexico or the cartels.
The management of violence had a single rigid rule: If they lay their hands on you, come back tenfold. That's how Rigo's cousin was killed. He set up a meeting between two guys who were fighting, and one of the guys slapped the other guy. The guy who was slapped killed the guy who slapped him and then killed Rigo's cousin just for setting up the meeting. So Rigo and his hit-man cousin Demente had no choice. They burst into the man's home and killed him along with his entire family.
After that, Rigo went out of control. His uncle was dropping off kilos of crystal and Rigo was such a good cleaner he could save a tenth of the product, which he smoked. He got so paranoid he spent half his time in his room with his gun. He cheated on his wife and she left with their three kids. Finally his uncle came to him and said, You're skinny; you don't look so good. I hate to see you like this. I'm not going to do business with you till you clean up.
Rigo got a job as a bellhop, got fired and got another job and got fired again. And another. And another. Finally his uncle called and said, What are you planning on doing?
I want to do whatever you want me to do and gain your trust back, Rigo answered.
That's why Rigo was so obsessed with the rules he was always breaking. Under his training, the Gringo felt militarized. They were soldiers in a war, brothers in arms, and nothing in his white-bread American life had ever felt so real.
All that winter the Gringo continued to work as Cuz's sidekick. Sometimes Cuz would say, You want to make some money, just drive this down the street. One time he drove 15,000 pills to a guy's house. Once, Cuz came out with a black bag the size of a loaf of bread, a million pesos in small bills. Cuz made it all seem like a rolling party, blasting his beats on the car radio. You hear this part? You hear this part?
One day Cuz was flipping through a magazine called Proceso and he came to a picture of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and a billionaire who has appeared on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest men. He asked, What do you think about this guy?
I don't know what to think, the Gringo said.
He'll fuck you over, but he has a big heart, Cuz said. He'll fuck you over if you need to be fucked over.
That was the first hint that the Gringo's chain of command ultimately stopped with El Chapo himself. The next hint came from another regular at Rigo's house, a volatile 39-year-old gangster named Roberto who dated an Argentinean stripper and loved to talk about killing people. If I was having lunch with your mom, he said with an evil grin, I would tell her, "He's with Chapo now."
So the Gringo was working for the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in the world. So be it, he thought. He had come to see everything through the eyes of his friends, whom he loved for their loyalty and straightforward, no-bullshit way of living. The other cartels were the dickheads. Worst of all were Los Zetas, a cartel from southern Mexico that was making a big push on Guadalajara and the north. They use a lot of poor people to do their shit, guys from the projects, Central American guys, guys who are willing to kill for nothing. Chapo ran the good cartel. He buys things for people and helps with public works projects and stuff. To this day, the Gringo always calls Cuz "my boss," and it's hard not to hear an echo of the fatherless son in his voice.
But the sane part of him, the part that wanted to live, started to live in fear. At one of the mountain parties, he saw a guy hit on one of the narco princesses and get dragged out into the night by two big guys, never to be seen again. At another Cuz was in the narco tent, chatting with a former MMA fighter, when the Gringo looked too long at his girlfriend and made a joke about his fighting skills. Are you challenging me? the MMA fighter asked. The tension lasted all through the long night. And Rigo's house kept getting crazier. One guy named Manuel was so out of control they'd put Xanax in his drink to calm him down. One time he opened the refrigerator and pissed in one of the drawers, so they beat him up and threw him in the street. An hour later he came stumbling back. Rigo said, I'm sorry I hit you, but you can't piss in the fridge.