1 You’re Not from Here
Robert Garcia was twenty-nine the first time he questioned success. Every accomplishment, it seemed, came with some deficit or drawback or innocence-eroding knowledge. You earned a scholarship but didn’t feel college. You won the battle but lost the bonus. You fell in love, and faced a dishonorable discharge. The autumn of 1997 should’ve been the brightest season in Robert’s promising career, but it arrived with sorrow. The yin and the yang, he called it.
Two decades earlier, as a child of Norma and Robert Sr., Robert emigrated from Piedras Negras, Mexico, to the Texas border town of Eagle Pass—an international journey of one mile. Robert Sr., needing to support his family, had been working in the States as an illegal immigrant; once he demonstrated an income and showed that he was spending money in Texas, he gained a green card for the family, meaning that Norma, Robert Sr., Robert, and Robert’s younger sister, Blanca, could come to the States as “resident aliens,” not U.S.
citizens. After they arrived, Norma gave birth to another daughter, Diana, and another son, Jesse.
Robert, the oldest, started third grade in an American school. After school and on weekends, he and Robert Sr. picked cucumbers, onions, and cantaloupes on local farms. In spring and summer, Norma, a seamstress for Dickie’s, the work-wear manufacturer, stayed in Eagle Pass with the girls and Jesse while Robert and his father followed fellow migrants to Oregon and Montana for the sugar beet season. There, Robert attended migrant programs at local schools. Dark-skinned but ethnically ambiguous, he found northern communities mostly welcoming, with their food festivals and roadside stands where Indians sold tourist stuff. The verdant landscapes were a reprieve from the dusty flatiron of South Texas. America was a beautiful place.
Back in Eagle Pass, land was cheap. There were no codes. People could build what they wanted. The Garcia family lived in a two-room hut while they built the home they’d live in forever. It was piecework. They saved up, then tiled the bathroom; saved more, then bought a tub. In winter they heated the place with brazas, coal fires in barrels, and in the mornings Robert went to school smelling like smoke.
When would the house be finished? No one asked. Work drew them together.
As other immigrants settled nearby, Robert Sr. built a one-man concession stand where he sold snacks and sodas to neighborhood kids. Robert Sr. brought his family to the States for a better way of life, but in his mind he would always be Mexican. He was proud to live next to other immigrants in Eagle Pass. By the time Reagan took office, their patch of dirt was becoming a bona fide suburb, sprouting neat rows of handmade houses. When neighbors needed assistance with an addition or a plumbing issue, they turned to “the Roberts” for help.
Robert Sr. treated his oldest boy like a man, and Robert’s siblings respected him as a kind of second father. Trim, bony, and bespectacled, he walked taller than his five feet, eight inches. In high school, he enrolled in ROTC and played bass clarinet in the marching band. He finished high school a semester early, took a fast-food job at Long John Silver’s, and deliberated over whether he should capitalize on a college scholarship in design, or go in a different direction.
At seventeen he seemed to know himself: hyperactive, confident. He had a talent for improvisation. He was respectful in a rank-conscious way, but didn’t care what others said or advised. Introverted and impatient, he had his own way of doing things. He learned as much from his father as he did in school. He also felt the lure of service, a patriotic duty toward the adopted country that gave him and his family so much. Formal education, he decided, was not for him. So, in the summer of 1986—the same year a boy who would change Robert’s life was born in Laredo, another Texas border town 140 miles southeast—Robert, much to the dismay of his non-English-speaking parents, passed up the scholarship and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Since he’d enrolled in ROTC during high school, he arrived at basic training as a seventeen-year-old platoon leader, instructing men who were older. To compensate for the age difference, and his small size, he acted extra tough and earned the nickname Little Hitler. After basic training, he began to work as a watercraft engineer at Fort Eustis, Virginia, where he picked up a mentor, a sergeant major, who led him to work on military bases in Spain and England. On the bases, he played baseball and lifted weights. Little Hitler sported ropy arms. His neck, once nerd-thin, disappeared into his shoulders.
In the Azores islands, on a small U.S. Navy installation off the coast of Portugal, Robert met Veronica, a blond gringa from Arizona. The daughter of a navy man, Ronnie was the only female mechanic
at the base. She was tough. While fixing the hydraulic system on a tugboat one day, Robert snuck up and slapped her neck with grease-shaft oil. She wheeled around, called him an asshole. “Fuck off!” she said. One week later they conceived a son.
Ronnie was twenty, already married to a soldier, and had a two-year-old son. Her parents never liked her husband. As far as they were concerned, he was a freeloader who drank excessively at the bar they owned in Arizona. They didn’t like seeing their daughter be the breadwinner and the parent. And now here was Robert: didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, would do anything for her.
But adultery in the military was a serious crime; at the discretion of a military court, it carried felony time and a dishonorable discharge. The chiefs read Ronnie and Robert their rights. They owned up to the affair. Ronnie’s husband flew to Portugal; furious, he stomped around the base, drank, got in fights, and broke windows at Ronnie’s house. No one liked her husband. So the chiefs held a meeting to arbitrate the love triangle, and let Robert and Ronnie walk away with reprimands. When the husband called Ronnie’s mother and said, “Your daughter’s a whore!” Ronnie’s father grabbed the phone and said: “You weren’t even born from a woman! Two freight trains bumped together and you fell out of a hobo’s ass!” From there, the separation went smoothly.
In 1991, Robert’s four-year military contract neared its end as the First Gulf War started. Robert saw other soldiers reenlisting and collecting $10,000 bonuses. He was willing to reenlist, until the U.S. government offered him citizenship instead of the bonus. Robert didn’t care much about citizenship. Like his father, he’d always think of himself as Mexican; and, besides, his resident-alien status entitled him to a U.S. passport. But he still took the denial of the bonus—and the offer of citizenship as a substitute for the money that other soldiers received—as an insult. How could he serve his country for four years and not get citizenship automatically? So he
declined reenlistment, walked away with neither the bonus nor citizenship, and returned to Texas with Ronnie and the boys, where he got a job as a diesel mechanic in Laredo—a border town neither of them knew.
IF IT WAS YOUR FIRST time, you drove south on Interstate 35, passed San Antonio, and expected to hit the border, but the highway kept plunging south. Texas hill country flattened out into a plain so fathomlessly vast, it gave you a feeling of driving down into the end of the earth. One hundred twenty miles later, and still in America, you reached the spindly neon signs of hotels and fast-food joints, gazed back north, and felt as if what you’d just traveled through was a buffer, neither here nor there. To the west, several blocks off I-35, rows of warehouses colonized the area around the railroad track. To the east, upper-middle-class suburbs gave way to sprawling developments, ghettos, and sub-ghettos called colonias. Go two more miles south, and I-35 dumped out at the border crossing, 1,600 miles south of the interstate’s northern terminus in Duluth, Minnesota.
Robert and Ronnie were small-town people. Sprawling Laredo, with its 125,000 residents, was a big city compared to a place like Eagle Pass, which had a population of fewer than 20,000.
“Oh well,” Ronnie sighed. “We’ll try it for a year or two.”
A few months later, while recovering from a work-related hand injury, Robert saw an ad for the Laredo Police Department. He enjoyed public service more than working for a company. But he had to be a U.S. citizen to be a cop. He didn’t see any benefit to citizenship, aside from this policing career, and wasn’t feeling especially patriotic after his snub by the military. He wondered: What would his father do? His father would shut up and do right by his family. Land the career, move forward. So Robert studied, took the test, and took the oath of U.S. citizenship.
When he joined the force, the Laredo Police Department employed about two hundred officers. Cops purchased their own guns. Uniforms consisted of jeans and denim shirts, to which wives sewed PD patches. Each patrol covered an enormous area. Squad cars called for backup, and good luck with that. But aside from domestic spats and some armed robbery, the city saw little violence. Across the river, Nuevo Laredo, with its larger population of 200,000 people, wasn’t much worse. Drug and immigrant smuggling were rampant. But a smuggler’s power came less from controlling territory with violence and intimidation than from the scope of his contacts in law enforcement and politics, and his ability to operate across Mexico with government protection. In exchange for bribes, politicians and cops refereed trafficking and settled disputes.
Mexico’s narcotics industry was well organized. The business consisted of two classes: producers and smugglers. On the western side of Mexico, in the fertile highlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, gomeros—drug farmers—contracted with smuggling groups to move shipments north to border towns. In the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua, an ideal combination of altitude, rainfall, and soil acidity yielded bumper crops of Papaver somniferum. Those poppy fields—some with origins in plantings made by Chinese immigrants a century earlier—produced millions of metric tons of bulk opium per year. Marijuana, known by its slang, mota, was Mexico’s other homegrown narcotic. When the marijuana craze hit the United States in the 1960s, mota came chiefly from the mountaintops of the Pacific states of Sinaloa and Sonora, then expanded to Nayarit, Jalisco, Guerrero, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. The irrigated harvest for mota ran from February to March; the natural harvest from July to August. All merca, merchandise, had to reach the border by fall, November at the latest. Americans didn’t work during the holidays.
The large, curving horn of Mexico was anchored on two great
mountain chains, or cordilleras, both rising from north to south, one on the east facing the green Gulf of Mexico, the other sloping westward to the blue Pacific Ocean. Between these mountain ranges, a high central plateau tapered down with the horn to the Yucatán Peninsula. Eons ago, volcanoes cut the plateau into countless jumbled valleys with forests of pine, oak, fir, and alder. The coastal lands were tropically humid, but the plateau had a climate of eternal spring. It should’ve been eminently fit for man.
Instead, Mexico’s future would be full of conquests, dictatorship, revolt, corruption, and crime.
When Robert and Ronnie arrived in Laredo in 1991, the major crossings along the two-thousand-mile border between Mexico and America—from east to west: Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Juárez, and Tijuana—were controlled by “smuggling families” that straddled the border and charged a tax, known as a cuota or piso, which was in turn used to pay the bribes that secured the routes for trafficking in drugs and immigrants. Fights broke out between the families, and there was some spillover violence, but there were no cartels, not yet.
Patrol officers in Laredo PD seized large quantities of narcotics and saw some dead guys left in the front yard. But nothing too graphic. The young cops, making their nine dollars per hour plus overtime, were cocky. They had no awareness of the larger world; everything revolved around them. Places like Florida, Colombia, Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Washington, D.C., were a world away, and changing. Drug-war politics were in flux. In Laredo, Robert and his partners knew little beyond their squad cars.
As cops came up in PD, some set their sights on SWAT; others tried out state agencies like Child Protective Services and found that they didn’t mind dealing with domestic nightmares. Robert liked drug work because of the local impact. A drug arrest wasn’t mere pretext. You weren’t just taking a guy with dope off the street. That
guy also committed assaults and robberies to get drugs. If the guy was a big dealer, maybe he used kids as drug couriers and to operate “stash houses,” the places where dealers kept their drugs and money. Robert would stop a guy with a gram of coke or a pound of weed, or bust a house that sold heroin to local Laredo addicts. He’d get his picture in the Laredo Morning Times perp-walking a guy to the local jail. He felt like he was “sweeping the streets of crime.” He’d turn on the TV, see some Nancy Reagan–type person telling everyone, “Say no to drugs!” and feel like Superman.
THE LUMP-SUM PAYOUT RONNIE GOT when she left the military took some weight off her and Robert’s life together. They paid cash for a mobile home in South Laredo. Robert’s salary covered bills.
Still, they were a young couple with two kids, trying to make it in a new city. There was plenty to fight about. One of about one thousand white people in a city where bloodlines and patronage determined jobs and social circles, Ronnie was more of an outsider than Robert. As a stay-at-home mom she felt isolated. Life in Laredo wasn’t fulfilling. That was their biggest fight: She wanted to get out. When she did go looking for work, she felt lucky to get hired at a doctor’s office, where she was told, “You know, I like it that you’re not from here.”
Later, Robert would learn to divide the cop persona from the father-husband. But in his twenties, the machismo kicked in at home. I’m the man and you’ll obey. I’m going out tonight. There’s nothing you can do about it. Ronnie was dominant herself, until she grew sick of fighting and relented. “Okay,” she told him one night, “have a good time.” Taken aback by her capitulation, Robert worried about what she was going to do when he got home. He rushed back an hour later. Is that all it takes? Ronnie thought.
If Robert’s bravado failed to impress his wife, his little brother
Jesse saw him as a hero. Jesse, feeling as though he could please their parents only by matching Robert’s accomplishments, dropped out of high school in eleventh grade and came to live with Robert and Ronnie in Laredo, where he got a job as a high school security guard. Jesse wanted to become a cop, too, but he was young. Robert advised him to get an associate’s degree in criminal justice at Laredo Community College. But Robert hadn’t gone to college, and Jesse was eager to start a career. There were openings at the police academy in Uvalde, near Eagle Pass. In the summer of 1997, Robert gave Jesse some money, and his old service weapon, a .357 Magnum. Jesse completed the academy but failed the written test, then failed it again. If he failed a third time, he’d be barred forever from a job in Texas law enforcement.
Meanwhile, after hundreds of drug arrests, fourteen cars wrecked in hot-pursuit chases, and a dozen minor fractures, Robert was awarded Officer of the Year.
A week later, Jesse bused up to Wisconsin, where his parents were doing factory work that fall. He spent the weekend with them, showing no particular signs of depression, then returned to the family house in Eagle Pass and shot himself in the heart with Robert’s service weapon.
Rumors emerged in the aftermath of Jesse’s death. A girlfriend might’ve been pregnant. He might’ve been messing around with drugs, might’ve owed people money. Robert put his fist through a wall, then stalked around Eagle Pass looking for people to speak with about Jesse, until his father said, “Déjale.” Leave it. Don’t investigate. So Robert took Jesse’s prized possession, a Marlboro jacket he’d sent away for, and bundled up his grief.
The Officer of the Year Award came with an opportunity. The Drug Enforcement Administration offered Robert a role as a task force officer. He wouldn’t make the pay of a federal DEA agent. He’d remain a cop, collecting salary from Laredo PD. DEA agents,
who had college degrees, made twice as much in base salary as task force officers. Agents also earned monetary awards for major investigations, sometimes as much as $5,000 per case. The only incentive for task force officers was overtime pay—an extra $10,000 or $12,000 a year for the crazy hours. Win an award, lose a brother. Get a promotion, make the same pay. But now Robert would have the power to investigate drug traffic and make arrests anywhere in the country. He talked to Ronnie. “I’ll travel and won’t see you or the boys much. But it’s temporary. I can bust my ass for awhile.” Eric, the older son, was in third grade; Trey, the younger, was in first. Ronnie knew this arrangement made her a single parent. “Okay,” she said. “Take four years.”
For a young cop who believed in the drug war, joining the DEA was a big step in his career. It would be nothing like he expected.