By the night the mirror came crashing down, when Rigo roared his war cry and the Gringo made his decision to take the gun, all this seemed almost normal. They prepared for the gunfight by doing coke and listening to heavy metal for 10 hours. That made perfect sense too. When they finally got to the projects, it was three in the morning and the Gringo was so wired he pissed on a gang sign and shouted, Come out, motherfuckers. We're here.
The coke dealer appeared with 10 buddies. They fanned out behind him as Rigo walked up to the guy, his nine in his back pocket. The Gringo moved his hand over his piece, ready to draw.
For a long moment life and death hung in the balance.
Finally the dealer stepped forward and held out his right hand. I'm so sorry, he said.
He had discovered who Rigo's uncle was, and he was scared to the point of shaking. That's when the Gringo finally had a flash of sanity. What the fuck am I doing here? How did I get into this? But it passed quickly as they left in triumph, Rigo and Demente laughing at the crazy Gringo pissing on the gang sign. El Gringo es loco, said Demente—high praise from a guy whose nickname translates as "insane."
As a reward for his service, Rigo revealed his real last name. From now on, bro, you are family. "La Flama Blanca" was no longer enough. The crazy white boy from Portland deserved a new name: El Gringo Loco.
All that summer, protected by Rigo's name, El Gringo Loco worked a circuit of three beach towns—Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. By now he was paying $4 a pill and selling them for $25 each. He quit drinking and cut back on X and even looked into a job selling time-shares at inflated prices but decided it was too dishonest. You get a pill from me and it's a good pill and you pay the same price everyone is paying. Taking money from people in a fraud, I couldn't fucking do it.
That's the paradox he still can't get over. In Portland he might have done it. But in this world where violence settled disputes, the Bob Dylan rule applied: To live outside the law you must be honest.
But the paranoia got worse. At night his mind would go to the worst thoughts—torture, death, dismemberment, dishonor. One night in Sayulita he was selling in a bar and a guy with a pit bull took him into a back room, where a group of men were waiting for him. The boss pointed a finger at him and pulled an imaginary trigger. You need to leave—you need to leave now. Another night in Puerto Vallarta a Zeta chieftain cornered him in a restaurant. I know where your fucking pills come from, man. You shouldn't be working here. This is past your border. Another night he was at a party, and Roberto announced, This is the boss from the dragonflies. This is the distributor. He was pointing at the Gringo. The problem was, dragonflies were a superior brand of X controlled by another cartel. The Gringo wasn't supposed to be selling them.
Shut the fuck up, he told Roberto. You're going to get me killed.
Roberto gave him the cold eye. You're lucky you're my friend.
The beautiful girl who gave blow jobs for X was no consolation. To get his mind off his troubles the Gringo started to write poetry. I need to get the crazy out of my life, he thought.
Instead, he moved back into Rigo's house for the three craziest months of his life, partying his way into narco legend.
In November it all came crashing down. Cuz sent him to Mexico City with 10 kilos of weed and he came back with 50,000 pesos in his pocket, and no sooner did he arrive back at Rigo's house than he ran into a phalanx of cops. Hey, gringo, we need to see ID.
A year had passed since he started the narco life. The cops searched him and found the money. What the fuck is this? He put on an innocent face. That's my rent. The cops searched further and found an X. What the fuck is this? He said, Guys, these aren't my jeans. They cuffed him and put him in the car. From the backseat he tried to make a deal. Take half the money and we call it a day.
Still afraid to give his real name, he pretended to be German and demanded a translator. That pissed the cops off so much, they sent him to one of the most notorious prisons in Mexico, Puente Grande. On the bus another prisoner warned him, Gringo, you better get ready. These guys don't play.
Walking in, he was shaking inside. They put him in a tiny cell with six other men. The showers didn't work; you had to pay for your food, phone calls, weed—that's all they did in prison, smoke weed. He found his way to a neutral area called Beverly Hills and made friends with some cholos, who saved his ass when he got into a fight with another narco. Finally Rigo called his mom, and his mom found Cuz on Facebook and they hired a lawyer, who got him transferred to an immigration prison to wait for his papers. It took 17 days. One day a guy from Honduras brought up the Zetas, and El Gringo Loco couldn't help repeating the Sinaloa line: Their own mothers don't love them.
Yo soy los Zetas, the Honduran said. After a tense moment, the Gringo twisted his face into one of his goofy expressions and cracked a joke. Oh, but I don't know any from Honduras.
Laughter saved him once again. The next day he was on a plane back to Portland.
Now he's going back to Mexico. It has been 10 weeks since he was deported, and he's already sick of his cubicle job. He's sitting in his mother's elegant suburban house, skimming the internet for news about Guadalajara, where a cartel prince called El Changel just got wounded in a gun battle with police, unleashing violence all over western Mexico. Still, he thinks it's a fine time to slip back down for one more taste of the narco life. The complication is, he's bringing a reporter who looks alarmingly like a DEA agent—me. Hopefully his friends won't think he got turned in prison.
The night before he leaves he sends me this message:
I feel nervous, good and excited, mostly nervous. I mean, I trust my people, but these are killers—if I was not nervous then I suppose I would need to check my pulse. I did not sleep well last night, I have to get my war face on. In the end I am a soldier and I have trained myself for this. I have said good-bye to my friends, and if I go then it has been a hell of a ride. I get to go from being a normal white guy who works a nine-to-five and stands in line at the grocery store to a man who is feared, respected and loved. I look forward to it with an absurd amount of excitement. In the end I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.
After his plane lands, the Gringo meets me in a hotel lobby. I can't believe I'm back here, he says. It's definitely not a world I want to come back to.
But he's going to go see Cuz tonight to get some acid and X and do a few little deals. And Rigo is coming over in a few minutes—in fact, there he is now, just as the Gringo described him, a skinny, good-looking guy who looks about 25, if 25 were as sad as 70. He's tweaked out on something, fanning his neck and impatient to go see a hostess who used to be a narco wife—yes, she has a gold watch. A nice one, the Gringo says.
Rigo doesn't care. He's supposed to meet her in eight minutes. No, seven minutes. And man, what an ass she has. She's sitting on it.
They drain their beers and go.
The scariest part is the anticipation of meeting Cuz for the first time. The cartels really don't like journalists—according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, they've beheaded, tortured and shot at least 45 of them in the past seven years. Many more have disappeared.
The next afternoon the Gringo takes me to Rigo's house. This too is just as he described it, a two-story place on a pretty, tree-lined street. Inside it's just raw walls and a couple of sofas around a glass coffee table, some weights against a wall, a brown lawn out back. Rigo points out a big hole where a friend shot the wall. The doors have all been kicked in; not a single one closes properly. Out back they show off the bullet holes in the trees.
Odd as it may be, Rigo really does seem like a sweet guy, eager to like and be liked. Maybe that's why he starts telling his backstory, his teen years cleaning meth and the lessons his father taught him: It's better to have a gun and not use it than to need a gun and not have it, for example. Each story has sub-stories and punch lines to illustrate the ridiculous glory of narco life. Over and over he insists the narcos are good people and kill only people who need to be killed—except the Zetas, of course.
When we part that night, Rigo pushes a button on his dashboard and then another button to release a secret compartment—in some narco cars you have to tune the radio to a certain station before you push the buttons. Inside is a space that spans the width of the car, big enough for 40 kilos. He takes out a bag of X and hands it to the Gringo—to El Gringo Loco.
Saturday, Rigo and the Gringo head downtown for some six-peso tacos. Rigo's already on his second or third beer of the day. Every few minutes he spots some hot girl. Look at that ass. She's sitting on it! Walking toward the city's big open-air market, they stop for Cuban cigars and some gifts for the Gringo's nieces. At the taco stand Rigo brings up the guy who shot his cousin. We killed his whole family, just walked into the house and started shooting.
In the same detached voice, he says he killed one of them from about as far away as those poles across the street. It's not like the movies. You pull the trigger and he falls down. There's no blood.