David had lived his entire life in Mexico City, and never once thought of leaving it. His father was a street vendor of fruits and vegetables, and so was David. While his father was still alive in the 1950’s and 60’s, they went together every morning at 3 a.m., except Sundays, to the huge central wholesale produce market to buy enough produce to fill their red Ford pickup. By 6 a.m., fully loaded, they drove to the middle class neighborhood they’d sold in for a generation, and motored slowly through the streets, shouting “Fruta! Vegetales!” At their cries, the maids came out of the houses, and bought what they needed for the day. By 9 a.m., the truck was empty, and they headed home to sleep until lunch. David’s uncle had a furniture factory. David and his father carefully washed their pickup every day after lunch, and then delivered wooden tables and chairs, dressers and bedsteads all over the city.
When his father died in 1970, David took over the business alone until his own son was old enough, at 15, to help. They took the business in a new direction when they began selling vegetables on contract to restaurants. They made more money than David and his father had, and took on two of David’s nephews as helpers when they expanded to three delivery trucks. By the time David was 50, in the mid-1990’s, he was able to devote himself to the marketing and sales building while his son supervised the delivery staff. David had his office at home, and was able to sleep until 6 a.m. for the first time since he was 12 and began working with his father.
One of his contracts was with a wealthy man who owned three restaurants; it was their biggest contract, and provided almost ten percent of the company’s income. This man, Salvador Mendez, suggested to David that he would like fruit and vegetables delivered daily to his mansion in an exclusive neighborhood, as a thank-you for his business. David obliged, especially since his trucks had that neighborhood on a daily route. The cook would choose what she needed, and there would be no charge. It wasn’t an inconvenience, and it didn’t cost much. Mr. Mendez died in the late 1990’s, and the restaurants went to his son, Marco, who terminated the contract with David in order to buy from his brother-in-law’s vegetable delivery company. But there was a mix up, and David’s staff kept delivering vegetables for free for a few months to the mansion, where now Marco Mendez lived. When David organized his books and ordered a stop to the deliveries, he decided to send a bill to Marco for the months of free fruit and vegetables. It totaled about $400.00 US dollars.
A month went by with no response, so David called Marco, who swore at him and hung up. Against his wife’s advice, David went to a lawyer who sent a letter to Marco to demand the $400. And that is when David’s troubles, the first of his relatively serene life, began. In front of David’s house, which was set inside a walled garden and patio, four thugs in dark suits and dark glasses appeared one late morning a week after he’d sent the letter. David was in the house when the blockade began, but his wife and three of his four children were not. David’s daughter, Maritza, and her two toddlers were in also inside, but Maritza’s husband had gone out. The thugs stood in front of the only door to the street, which opened in a long wall against the sidewalk. David saw them from an upper floor of the house.
The phones didn’t work; the lines had been cut. Cell phones weren’t much in use in 1998, and there were none in the house. The thugs threw a note tied to a rock over the wall. It read, “Come get your $400, asshole. It’s waiting for you.” It was signed “Zeta.”
Zeta. It meant Marco was aligned with the powerful Zeta crime organization, one of the largest in Mexico. It meant no escape, no begging forgiveness, no way to have life go on as before. It meant his death. No one in the neighborhood would call the police; it was dangerous in addition to being useless. David knew all this from the moment he saw the four men, standing in front of his house like they were settling in for a long wait. When his wife and children walked towards the house, they would know, too, and would turn away. They too would not call the police. It would make things so much worse when the police informed their Zeta contact.
David had to either give himself up and accept his torture and death, or somehow leave the house unnoticed if he was to save the rest of the family. He and Maritza waited until dark. She went out the door with her children in her arms and told the thugs she was going to her in-laws house. She left the door open. At the same time, when Maritza was talking to the thugs at the front door, David used the bed sheets he and Maritza had tied together to lower himself to the street from a back window. He dropped to about three feet from the pavement, let go, and jumped. He heard a snap; he was a heavy man, unused to exercise, and he broke his left ankle on impact. But he couldn’t lie in the street. He dragged himself across the street to a neighbor’s house, who, miraculously, let him in.
From his neighbor’s house, he saw the thugs going from room to room in his house, and heard the crashing as they hurled vases, dishes, and furniture to the floor. After an hour or so, they left, with, David assumed, anything of value they found. They didn’t come back, and in the weeks that followed, as David’s ankle healed in his neighbor’s house, his family returned to clean up and restore the house, and to keep the business going. The Zetas seemed to have lost interest in pursuing David, but everyone knew that it was only because he disappeared. He would be a target again if they found him in Mexico.
This ankle healed, but incompletely. The doctor who came to his neighbor’s house to attend him wanted him to go to the hospital for surgery, but David couldn’t risk it. He would walk with a limp to the end of his days, but he would walk. His son made arrangements for him to be taken by private plane to the border with Arizona, and then by a “coyote” (a smuggler) to Tucson. From there he was to fly to Seattle, where his cousin Angel had lived for more than thirty years. He would live with his cousin, find work, and then return to Mexico when the Zetas’ crime network was dismantled by Presidente Calderon, who had pledged to break the powerful organization. He wouldn’t be gone long.
That was the plan. Here is the reality: he did fly to Ciudad Juarez, bordering Arizona, and he did find the coyote his son hired. But instead of taking just him, the coyote had a group of 18 men and four women to walk into the Arizona desert. David told the coyote that his son had paid for him to be smuggled alone. The coyote laughed. “No one goes alone,” he said. “I can’t make money like that.”
The group left at night, at about 9 p.m., and walked by moonlight until they took a break at 1 a.m. They started again at 2 a.m. and walked until about 5 a.m. when, he heard shouts of “Paren, paren (Stop! Stop!)” coming from all around him. “Escondense! (Hide!)” He heard a man shout. “La migra! (Immigration!)” With his limp and the pain from the walking, David was behind the group, who were in their teens and twenties and a few in their thirties. The coyote already had had to slow the group several times, so David could keep up, and he had urged David to go faster. One of the boys in his teens found a thick stick that he cut to fit David’s height, to use as a cane. But when la Migra surrounded the group, David was at least twenty-five yards to the rear. From behind a small boulder, he watched the border patrol close in, approximately fifteen officers holding the group at gun point. They handcuffed the entire group, including the coyote, and marched them over a rise where a van must have been waiting for them. David heard the van start up, and drive away. Then it was silent, and David was alone in the desert without a map or guide, little food in a small backpack, and no water. The kind teen who cut the cane for him had offered to carry David’s water.
The daylight came on soft at about 6 a.m., but by 8 it was already too hot to move. He knew he needed to find even the tiny shade of a cactus or a rock, and stay there, moving with the sun, until it was low in the sky. But he was parched with thirst. From his years of selling vegetables, fruit, and herbs, he knew of some desert water- filled plants, and he looked for them. He found mosoquelete in relative plenty, with thick stalks that he could break and suck, but handfuls of stalks were barely enough to wet his mouth.
To be continued...