The Cartel (42 page)

Adán turns off the lights and gets in bed beside her. “It’s all right,” he says, holding her. “I love you and everything will be all right.”

He’s not sure he believes any of it.

God damn Salvador, he thinks.

Betraying the Tapias for Sal’s freedom was a huge—and ultimately futile—mistake. Now Salvador is dead anyway, my oldest friend has become my worst enemy, I’m at war with the entire world and very likely to lose. It all hangs on a thread—if Mexico City goes against me…

Was I duped, he wonders? Did Nacho use me to get rid of what he perceived as a rival? And who told the Tapias about the deal? Who tipped them off?



Then it hits him like a punch to the stomach.

Of course.

Adán curses himself for his stupidity, his lack of foresight.

I handed it to him, he thinks.

I handed it to Keller on a silver platter.

Keller watches the honor guard flank the three flag-draped caskets of the slain police officers.

The AFI troopers wear their blue uniforms, flak jackets stenciled in white with
, dark blue baseball caps, and black combat boots as if they were on duty, ready for battle.

Behind them stand the president, the secretary of the interior, the secretaries of the navy and defense, the attorney general, and Gerardo Vera, in his full dress uniform.

The three officers were his friends, men he appointed to their jobs, and he’s personally leading the investigations into their murders, with support from SEIDO and liaison with Keller.

Aguilar is heading up the Salvador Barrera investigation. Now he stands beside Keller. Without taking his eyes off the coffins, Aguilar says, quietly from the side of his mouth, “Whoever leaked the information to the Tapias has blood on his hands.”

“What are you getting at?” Keller asks, even though he knows what Aguilar’s getting at, and that he’s right. I leaked it, Keller thinks, and it’s something I have to live with.

Three dead cops.

He doesn’t give a shit about Sal Barrera.

The media haven’t tripped to the deal that started it, their take is that Adán Barrera and Diego Tapia have fallen out over the latter’s murder of four policemen in retaliation for his brother’s death.

It would be funny, Keller thinks, if it weren’t—this view of Adán Barrera as the morally outraged supporter of law and order, whose poor nephew has paid the price for his uncle’s principled stand.

The Sinaloa cartel has broken into civil war, with Nacho Esparza siding with his son-in-law Adán. The Tapias will seek out alliances, but with whom? The Zetas and the Gulf? The Fuentes in Juárez? La Familia? Teo Solorzano?

Barrera will be looking for allies, too. Solorzano is out, but the Zetas, CDG, and Juárez could be on the table, as could La Familia.

Some of the shabbier papers are running odds as if it’s a horse race, with the smart money saying that if all the other organizations side with the Tapias, or even stay neutral, we could finally be looking at the end of Adán Barrera.

That would be fine, Keller thinks, but that’s not his bet, not even the game he’s playing.

He’s playing a
deeper game.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” Aguilar asks. “You couldn’t get to Barrera yourself, so you set the Tapias to do it for you.”

Keller doesn’t answer. Let him come, let him press, let him make a mistake.

it you,” Aguilar asks directly, “who leaked our arrangement to the Tapias?”

“Is that a question or an accusation?” Keller asks. And now he knows that Aguilar wasn’t on the Tapia payroll.

Maybe Barrera’s, though.

“Both,” Aguilar says.

On shouted orders, the honor guards snap their rifles to their shoulders. The sound is crisp and sharp.

“I guess we suspect each other, then,” Keller says.

Aguilar’s face goes red with anger. “Were you thinking that, when you were sitting at the table, with my family?”

Good, Keller thinks. It’s out there. “As a matter of fact, I was.”

The rifles crack.

Calderón makes a speech.

“Today I reiterate my promise not to retreat in the quest for a Mexico where order prevails,” he says. “We must say, all Mexican men and women together, that enough is enough. We have come together to confront this evil. We can’t accept this situation. Our fight is head-on. The capacities of the Mexican state are aligned to break the structures of each cartel. We are determined to recover the streets that should never have ceased being ours.”

Gerardo Vera stands up and says simply, “We will not be intimidated.”

“You’re corrupt,” Aguilar says to Keller as they walk away. “You’re a corrupt man and a corrupt cop, and I’m going to bring you down.”

Mutual, Keller thinks.

Christmas 2007

Sinaloa, Mexico

The Barreras come home for Christmas.

Adán has his new security system in place with the Gente Nueva, the government has come down hard on the Tapias, and while the war with them drags on, it’s more the Tapias on the run than him.

The killings of three top police officials have shocked the nation. The public relations campaign has worked—people from vastly different demographics agree that the Tapias should be hunted down like rabid dogs.

The Tapias did the government a huge favor, Adán thinks. It’s a game change—heretofore the public has been lukewarm on Calderón’s war on drugs, some even protesting in the streets against it. But the disgust at the murders has aroused a feeling of patriotism and support for the government not seen in a very long time.

The Tapias have handed Calderón a mandate.

And me as well, Adán thinks.

Eva is glad to be home.

She decorates the
in La Tuna with traditional poinsettias—unaware that they symbolize new life for fallen warriors. Sinaloa has a heavy German influence, so she and Adán put up a gigantic Christmas tree outside for the village children to come see because Eva wants to start a new tradition.

So they sponsor a
a children’s parade from the village to the
where Eva has spent thousands on the tree with special carved wooden ornaments imported from Germany and a nativity scene with ceramic figures from Tlaquepaque.

The children, with two playing Mary and Joseph on a burro, march to the nativity scene, where Eva has hung up a gigantic star-shaped piñata from a ficus branch, filled with candy and toys.

After that, Adán and Eva host a feast for the village, with
tamales, and hot
spiced with cinnamon and vanilla.

Then they sing the
the Christmas carols.

Adán is a little surprised, but pleased, at how traditional Eva is. Christmas Eve, she insists that they go to the village church for the late-night Mass of the Rooster, and she delights in the fireworks set off after the service.

Then there’s a midnight dinner, this time the traditional
dried cod in tomato sauce with onions—which Adán can’t stand but tolerates because it reminds Eva of her childhood—and
revoltijo de romerita,
shrimp in
sauce, which he does like.

They spend Christmas Day itself quietly, sleeping late and getting up to eat leftovers.

Three days later comes Los Santos Innocentes to commemorate the boys that Herod slaughtered in his futile hunt for the baby Jesus. Tradition has it that anything borrowed on this day doesn’t have to be returned, and Nacho phones up asking to “borrow” the Laredo plaza. Adán declines and they chat for a few minutes about inconsequential things before hanging up with best wishes for the New Year.

Los Santos Innocentes is also Mexico’s “April Fool’s Day,” with the mandatory pranks, including phony newspaper stories, one of which announces that Adán Barrera, despite being rumored dead or employed as a sous-chef at Los Pinos, will nevertheless take over as host of
Atínale al Precio

The Price Is Right.
Eva hides the paper from him, but he laughs when he sees it and, to her delight, does a passable impression of Héctor Sandarti, replete with Guatemalan accent.

Adán doesn’t really want to go out for New Year’s Eve, but Eva very much does and he doesn’t want her to think that she married a grouchy old man, so they fly to Puerto Vallarta, where his men go into the club first, collect all cell phones, apologize, and tell the other celebrants that they’ll be locked in until El Patrón leaves, and then Adán and Eva come in and join the festivities. She looks more than wonderful in a short red dress and a silly New Year’s Eve tiara, and she even talked Adán into a tuxedo on the promise that she would talk him out of it later.

Eva dances her head off and Adán does his best to keep up, although he has to admit—albeit only to himself—that he’s quite ready for midnight to come when they do the traditional thing of feeding each other twelve grapes along with the strikes of midnight for good luck in the coming year.

They leave shortly afterward, and cell phones are restored to their owners, who have a new story to tell.

Epiphany—El Día de los Tres Reyes Magos, “Three Kings Day”—is the next festival in the liturgical calendar. That night, January 5, Eva, as she did when she was a girl, leaves a shoe outside the door where the Wise Men will enter to greet Jesus. That afternoon, the village children put messages inside helium balloons provided by Adán and Eva that explain why they have been good or bad that year and what they would like as a gift, and then loft them to the heavens with great hope.

And that night, five Nueva Gente armed with high-powered rifles and night scopes shoot to death five of Vicente Fuentes’s key people in Juárez.

Holidays are hard on the solitary man.

The single, the widowed, perhaps most especially the divorced, to whose loneliness is added the bitter spice of regret.

Marisol invited Keller up to Valverde for Christmas, but he declined. Although the threat against him has diminished—neither side is likely to kill a DEA agent and tip the scales—he prefers to be alone with his angst. Starting things with Marisol again won’t solve any of the underlying issues, and there’s no point in prolonging it for either of them.

It’s been a miserable six months.

Luis Aguilar has been waging his own bureaucratic war on Keller, doing everything he can to get him recalled to the United States.

“You been fucking around with the working agreement?”
Taylor asked Keller on the phone a few weeks ago.
“Going behind Aguilar’s back, developing your own sources? Is the past prologue here, Art? Tell me you don’t have some sort of relationship with the Tapias.”

“I’ve been a Boy Scout.”

“Aguilar says you’re taking money, Art,”
Taylor said.
“He says you’re in the Tapias’ pocket.”

“Jesus Christ, Tim.”

“Could you pass a polygraph?”


“What, you have evidence?”
Taylor asked.

“No.” Not yet. I don’t have it yet, Keller thought, but I know it’s coming. “You test me and I walk.”

“That’s not much of a threat at this point.”

“Go to the videotape,” Keller answered. He cited his record—Osiel Contreras sitting in a Houston supermax, Alberto Tapia on a slab, and the Sinaloa cartel split into pieces. “I shouldn’t have to plead for my life here. The fuck, Tim? You think I’m dirty?”

He heard Taylor sigh.
“No, of course not. You’re a lot of things—most of them bad—but you’re not dirty. You do play the edges of the plate, though, and it’s not helpful in trying to keep you there. If it weren’t for Mérida, I’d have no fucking leverage. Play nice, Art, huh? If your usual dick-meter is at, say, 10, try to be, I don’t know, a 5, okay?”

Not easy, with Aguilar cutting him out of everything and Vera so obsessed with the Tapias that he’s not paying attention. Add to that the fact that Aguilar has him under surveillance now, with SEIDO agents tracking him constantly. Keller has to assume that his phone is tapped, too.

Aware that he’s wallowing in self-pity, Keller microwaves a Swanson “Hungry Man” turkey dinner with its little tub of cranberry sauce in a parody of Christmas dinner. Balancing the meal on his lap and washing it down with scotch, he watches Mexican television and remembers other Christmases in better times, when the kids were young, the family together and never thinking that they’d ever be apart.

He almost calls them but then thinks better of it, not wanting to tinge their day with his melancholy. Maybe they’re with their mom, maybe they’re with friends. Maybe Althea took them somewhere special—Utah to ski, Hawaii to lie in the sun. Maybe they’re with Althie’s family in California.

And I’m here, Keller thinks—Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Ahab chasing the great white whale—alone with my obsession. As hooked as any junkie in a shooting gallery, any crack whore on the stroll.

My personal war on drugs, my own addiction.

Two scotches later, he phones Marisol.
“Feliz Navidad.”

“Feliz Navidad to you,”
Marisol says.
“Are you having a good day?”

“Not really.”

“Are you drunk?”

“No,” Keller says. “Maybe a little.”

She’s quiet for a second and then says,
“I asked you to come here.”

“I know.”

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” Keller says. Then, against his better judgment, “Do you want to come down here for New Year’s?”

“I wish I could,”
Marisol says.
“But it’s so busy here. Sadly, it’s the domestic violence season as well. Could you come here?”

He knows he’s being a dick, but he says, “For the ‘domestic violence season’? I think I’ll pass.”

If his intent was to piss her off, it worked.
“All right.”

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