Read The Cartel Online

Authors: Don Winslow

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #International Mystery & Crime, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

The Cartel (43 page)

“All right, well…I guess I’ll talk to you.”

“All right. Goodbye, Arturo.”

Goodbye, Marisol, he thinks.

Keller gets good and drunk that night, for the first time in many years. The next morning, he showers and shaves and makes himself go into the office. The embassy is all but empty over the holidays, eerily quiet.

Settling himself behind his desk, he pores over intelligence reports, data spreadsheets, and analyses.

The Sinaloa civil war (the war you set in motion, Keller reminds himself) has spread corpses out all over Sinaloa and Durango, while the fighting in Michoacán goes on with no end in sight, and the trap Keller set has yet to be sprung.

But the intense pressure on the Tapias is going to accelerate that, Keller thinks. It has to, because the clock is winding down on you.

Going through the data, Keller tries to get a line on Barrera’s next move.

He already has Laredo, Keller thinks.

He’ll soon have Tijuana back.

There’s only one other target left, the biggest jewel in the Mexican smuggling crown.

Juárez.

2

Journalists

Those were truly golden years my Uncle Tommy says,
But everything’s gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez.
—Tom Russell
“When Sinatra Played Juarez”

Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua

2008

Pablo Mora has one of those hangovers where you see yourself in the mirror and think you look familiar.

The mirror’s not his friend this morning. His unshaven face is puffy, his hair a rat’s nest and badly in need of a cut, his eyes are bloodshot. He brushes his teeth—even that’s painful—finds a bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet and swallows two of them, then shuffles back to the bedroom, finds his cleanest shirt on the bed, and then struggles into jeans and sits down to put on socks and shoes. He sniffs the socks—they’re just on this side of acceptable—and notes that the shoes need a shine that they’re not going to get.

The bed calls him to come back, but he has stories to get in and Óscar will not be happy if he misses another deadline.

And Ana, who’d had every bit as much to drink, would mock him as a pussy.

Making coffee seems like too much work—and he’s not sure he has any left anyway—and the thought of breakfast is literally nauseating, so he decides to head downtown and go to the café across the street from the paper’s offices.

The owner, Ricardo, is simpatico with hungover journalists.

He’d better be, Pablo thinks. It’s half his business.

Pablo heads out the door of his second-floor apartment and gingerly navigates the stairs. The place has an elevator but Pablo doesn’t fully trust it anyway and he’s not sure he can handle the doors slamming shut.

God
damn
Jaime’s, Pablo thinks as he walks out into the brisk January morning. He’d let Ana talk him into going there after work for one beer, although they both knew how that would turn out. He’d started at Jaime’s with a Modelo, then graduated to dark Indio, at some point Giorgio joined up with them and shouted for tequilas, and, by the time they apparently thought it would be amusing to go to Fred’s, they had graduated to some scotch older than Pablo’s grandmother.

Which, he thinks now, they could afford neither physically nor financially.

Newspaper reporters in Mexico make basically shit, and city-beat reporters in Juárez make less than shit—about a hundred dollars a week, paid every Friday—and although his rent is cheap he has child support payments, and now he tries to remember if this is his weekend with Mateo.

Doesn’t so much matter—he sees his son almost every day anyway. Mateo is almost four now, and getting to that point where his jokes are actually funny. Victoria is good about letting him see their child, and Pablo usually picks him up from preschool these days.

So his ex-wife is easy about that.

On other things? Not so much.

Then again, she’s a
financial
journalist.

Whole different world.

He gets into his ’96 Toyota Camry, which is decked out with all the reporter’s essential equipment—two mostly empty cardboard coffee cups, several El Puerco Loco burrito wrappers (the smiling pig logo grinning up at him with derision), a mapbook of the city streets, which he doesn’t really need, a two-way Nextel phone (provided by the paper), which he does, and a police radio scanner that provides the background track of his working life.

The Camry isn’t in much better shape than Pablo. It isn’t hungover, of course, but it is in need of a paint job to disguise the dings on all four fenders that Pablo has inflicted on it by getting in and out of literal as well as metaphorical tight scrapes. The back passenger window is cracked from a rock thrown by a disgruntled wino in Anapra, the rubber in the windshield wiper has long since melted in the summer sun, and a fine layer of khaki dust mutes the car’s original blue.

“Why don’t you get a nicer car?” Victoria asked him just last week.

“I don’t want a nicer car,” Pablo answered, even though a large part of the answer was that he can’t afford a nice car.

Besides, a nice car is just a liability in his work. The residents of the poorer neighborhoods that he goes into get jealous and suspicious when they see an expensive car, and people are less likely to steal his old
fronterizo,
even though car theft is epidemic in Juárez.

The strange thing about Juárez car theft is that the cars turn up on their own—usually on the same day—which was a mystery to police until reporters like Pablo figured out that minor-league narcos were stealing cars, driving them across the border with drugs, coming back, and dumping them off.

Anyway, the Camry starts up and Pablo drives to the paper.

Pablo loves Juárez.

A true Juarense, he was born here, educated here, and would never live anywhere else. Admittedly, Juárez is surprisingly cold in the winter, miserably hot in the summer, and you just hope that either spring or autumn falls on a weekend so you get to enjoy it. The city is known more for its dust storms than its scenic beauty, more for its bars than its architecture, and its most famous invention is the margarita, but Pablo loves his town like a long-married husband loves his wife, as much for her flaws as for her virtues.

He’s also a little defensive about her.

Maybe it’s because Juárez has always been looked down on as a place you go through to get somewhere else. Even its original name, Paseo del Norte, proclaimed that it was just a place to cross the Río Bravo to the north, but Pablo likes to remind people—especially North Americans—that the city’s mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe was founded in 1659, when Washington, D.C., was still a malarial swamp.

The name was eventually changed to Ciudad Juárez to honor the old democrat who threw the French out of Mexico, and it boomed in the late 1880s under the leadership of the Five Families—the Ochoas, Cuaróns, Provencios, Samaniegos, and Daguerres—whose descendants still dominate the city. They created the central business district—the old Calle del Comercio (now Vicente Ochoa) and 16 September Avenue, named to celebrate independence.

Then again—and Pablo is proud of this—Juárez has always been a hub of revolution. Old Pancho Villa hung out here, arriving in the city with eight men, two pounds of coffee, and five hundred bullets, but eventually becoming governor of Chihuahua, beating Díaz, and even invading the United States. The fighting destroyed Juárez, though—it was a burned-out shell by 1913 and the Five Families had to rebuild the whole thing, which accounts for the city’s early-twentieth-century look.

Even the neoclassical cathedral was only built in the 1950s.

Then again, the ’50s were Juárez’s heyday, the old Tourist Zone, now called by the brutally ugly name PRONAF (Programa Nacional de Frontera), was the place celebrities went to have a good time.

People get sentimental—and, Pablo thinks, silly—about
el Juárez de ayer,
“Old Juárez,” the freewheeling city of bullfights, brothels, and nightclubs where Sinatra and Ava Gardner would paint the town. At thirty-four, he’s not sure he even knew the real “Old Juárez,” but the city he grew up in was enough for him.

Not that it hasn’t changed.

Enormously, and in two great waves, first in the 1970s when the maquiladoras—the factories from American companies—came to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor, and again in the 1990s when the maquiladoras left for even cheaper Chinese labor.

The first wave created gigantic slums as workers poured in from all over Mexico, but especially the poor, rural south. The city couldn’t hope to keep up with the population boom, and the
colonias
had little, if any, infrastructure—decent housing, electricity, running water, or plumbing. And because the maquiladoras’ management preferred women workers, it left thousands of men, shamed and bitter, to sit idly in the slums, drinking cheap beer and, increasingly, doing drugs.

The
colonias
were bad—when the maquiladoras left for even higher profit margins, they got worse.

Now most people—men and women—are unemployed.

And the desperately poor
colonias
—Anapra, Chihuahuita, and the others—edge the city like a necklace of worn beads, hard along the border with El Paso, just across the river.

Juárez has about a million and a half people, El Paso about a third of that, but El Paso has most of the wealth, unless you count the Mexican “partners” who got rich off the maquiladoras (and even most of them live in El Paso nowadays), or, of course, the narcos out in Campestre with their new McMansions, almost a parody of the American upwardly mobile suburban dream.

And that, whether Pablo likes it or not—and he doesn’t—is the central fact of the city’s existence: Juárez and El Paso are inextricably linked, in many ways one community divided by an arbitrary line.

A strong arm can throw a stone from Juárez’s downtown—El Centro—to El Paso’s, and you stand on one or the other side of the river and look across at the other city, the other country, and the other culture. But many residents of both towns have dual citizenship, almost everyone has family, or certainly friends, on the other side—El Paso is, after all, 80 percent Hispanic—and people go back and forth as a matter of course.

So the city’s most important structures aren’t its bars and clubs, its stores or office buildings, or even the old bullring or the
fútbol
stadium (Pablo’s beloved
fútbol
stadium, home of his beloved Los Indios)—the central structures are the bridges.

Four of them.

More than two thousand trucks and thirty-four thousand cars cross those bridges every day, carrying $40 billion worth of legal trade in a given year. And somewhere between $1.5 million and $10 million worth of illegal drugs (Pablo finds the wide range of the estimate itself instructive) go over those bridges
every day.

Cash comes back.

Well, cash and guns, Pablo thinks, but that’s another story. Literally billions of dollars in cash—called “new money” in Juárez—comes back over those bridges, and a lot of it gets invested in the city’s businesses and real estate.

Pablo didn’t come from poverty or wealth. His parents—both university professors—raised him in genteel, comfortable middle-class shabbiness and have always been quietly disappointed that he didn’t pursue a career in academia.

He’s vaguely a “leftie,” like most journalists (not Victoria, though—as a financial journalist she’s a free-market true believer who thinks that PAN will be the salvation of the country; their political differences were symbolic of the other issues in their marriage).

So is Ana a leftist, but nothing like Giorgio, who with his long hair and wild beard is an out-and-out communist and presents himself as a latter-day Che except, as Pablo has pointed out to him, the photographer lacks Guevara’s seriousness of purpose. Giorgio cannot leave a bottle undrunk or an attractive woman unfucked, and those activities tend to get in the way of revolution.

Pablo hopes that Giorgio has left Ana unfucked, although he suspects that he hasn’t, because she’s strangely quiet on the subject even though she’s generally quite open about her love life.

Ana likes pretty men.

And I, Pablo thinks as he drives past the Plaza del Periodista—Journalists’ Square—am decidedly
not
a pretty man.

Not ever, and especially not this morning.

The topic of him and Ana going to bed has come up on several sodden occasions, and they even teetered on the brink of that cliff a couple of times, although they backed away from the edge with the conclusion that they were too close, too good friends to risk it, but the attraction (he can understand his for her, but not hers for him) is mutual and always there.

And apparently noticeable, because Victoria used it as the cutting edge for several arguments, observing that Ana, not herself, was Pablo’s true love.

That and booze (depending on her agenda), and chasing down sordid stories (ditto) of a degenerate street life that could only appeal to a degenerate readership, and why couldn’t he cover stories that mattered (by which she meant international economic policy or politics, both of which bore the shit out of him). Pablo loves to write about the old man selling flowers at the traffic circle, the kids spray-painting murals, the mothers who strive to raise families in the
colonias.

He writes mostly about crime, although if he can talk Óscar into it he’ll do “color” features, human interest, travel stories, film critiques, and the occasional restaurant review—because it’s a free and usually good meal—and all these extra stories pay him a few more pesos. If he’s really in Óscar’s good graces, the editor will send him to cover his beloved Indios
fútbol
matches out at Benito Stadium.

Pablo does American stories for his own paper—making the tedious slog across the border into El Paso for material—then freelances stories that are basically recirculated rumors about the narco-world back to American papers, which have a seemingly insatiable appetite for scary tales about the looming threat that is Mexico. Adán Barrera is usually good for an overdue utility bill. (We all, in our own way, he thinks now, profit off the
pista secreta.
)

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