Like a hot and dusty cellar, Mexico has always been the unsightly foundation on which American capitalism stands. Over the years, as the United States has grown, advanced and thrown some truly outstanding parties, it has always been thankful to have a place to store its junk. But sadly, all that is coming to an end; the listless country of siestas, car shrapnel and wild chickens is crumbling beneath us. Since 2006, an all-out drug war has swept across Mexico. Tourists won't visit Baja anymore, ex-pats won't search for a cultural identity in remote mountain villages, and an unprecedented number of college co-eds refuse to make bad decisions in border towns. Frankly, it's gotten a little out of hand.
This is what's at stake.
Armed with only a pen, I traveled to the city of Juarez at the heart of the violence to lend an intelligent and unbiased voice to this explosive moment in North American history. Instead I accidentally got kidnapped by drug lords. It was the third worst trip I've ever had to Mexico.
On my first day there, I explored the winding city streets from the back seat of a car. The landscape was a monotonous brown, the heat oppressive, and the air smelled of old burlap.
"If you promise not to scream anymore, I will take the sack off your head," my new travel companion told me. His voice was soft and warm, his gun barrel pointy. I nodded once and the world was bright again. Three men sat staring at me, including the driver which seemed reckless even for a kidnapper. Their faces were dark but betrayed a hint of compassion. The gun carrier smiled and I knew immediately that these men were not killers.
"We have killed many men," he told me. "But never one as handsome as you. You do as we say and we don't kill you, huh?" His voice was still smooth though I could now see sweat beading his upper lip. The car stank of fear on both our ends, it smelled like a pine tree.
"Yes, absolutely. Anything." I warned him.
"Good. Now, we have been through your pockets. Do you know what we found?"
"Yes, awards. Many awards. What kind of man has pockets filled with awards?"
I didn't answer him, I was starting to feel carsick.
"I think, a very important man. Wouldn't you think that?" Everyone nodded. "A man who is well known and who many people would miss if he disappeared."
"Maybe. Look, is there like a straighter road we could take or-"
He pushed the gun under my ribs and whispered, "I think someone would pay a lot of money to see you again."
Now I've heard that police and military personal who have trained for years don't remember the actual moments of combat, the training simply takes over. Sitting in that car, my own instinct for heroism grabbed a hold of the situation and forced me into action. I launched an aggressive vomit attack on everyone in the car.
They hugged the walls, the car swerved and the gun carrier pulled the bag over my head again. My assault didn't win me freedom but it won me their respect. Now these kidnappers knew exactly the type of human weapon they were up against, and it frightened them. I threw up six more times in my potato sack before the car finally stopped.
I was held for the night in a basement with a female captive, which was at first enticing and then disheartening when I realized she was more pregnant than I'm generally comfortable being around. Her husband was a Mexican dignitary and that this was her fourth kidnapping.
"It's getting really old," she said. "I've had to reschedule my ultrasound six times."
Andrea was full of useful information about rationing water and the best corners in which to defecate. She revealed that our captors were members of prominent Mexican cartel that was currently losing a significant amount of money to the local police and rival drug runners. In an attempt to recoup some of that money they relied on ransoms, pancake breakfasts and craft fairs.
"The sweaty one, with a voice like caramel. He makes beautiful socks."
Alone in our cell, we whispered encouragement to each other deep into the night. We discussed how much money they would ask for, if they ever tortured or killed their hostages, and why Mexicans insist on ruining their candy with chili powder. We fell asleep in one another's arms and didn't wake up until the gunman with the soft voice kicked me in the ribs and said we were going to meet his boss.
After a shorter car ride with considerably less egestion on my part we arrived at a mansion with a courtyard slightly larger than mine. It had a fountain. I was jealous. Vincente Carrillo Fuentes was waiting for us, lounging on a palmetto wicker sectional I recognized from Pottery Barn. This guy had everything.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
I nodded. "You are the leader of the Juarez Cartel and the Golden Triangle Alliance. You are the most dangerous man in Mexico."
"Yes, and you are that writer. My daughter has your poster above her bed." He looked me over while letting a cigarette burn away in his hand. "I am curious. Do you have friends, Mr. Bowie?"
I looked to the gunman and he shook his head. We were not friends.
"We contacted everyone you know. We have spoken to your family, old roommates, your editor. No one is willing to pay your ransom." Vincente stood and walked within a few inches of me. "That puts you in a very bad situation. Do you understand?"
I had heard stories of Mexican drug cartels cooking people who couldn't manage ransoms in vats of acid, they called it
He looked hurt. "No. No, see this is the problem. You have severe intimacy issues. You have to learn to let people in." He pointed a stubby finger into his chest. "Right here. Except not in me, in you. Your heart. You are so busy trying to make the world love you, that you have shut out the people who truly do. It is unhealthy."
"Yes, I kill. But I also heal."
The other men in courtyard nodded stoically. I opened my mouth to speak and Vicente put the same stubby finger to my lips. "Just take some time, think about it."
Back in the basement I told Andrea everything. She held my head in her hands and assured me that he was a master at torture, that he didn't mean the things he said. She told me that she cared about me and that she considered me a true friend before kissing me on the cheek. I asked her in which trimester she was still allowed to copulate and she slapped me, hard. Such is the nature of friendship.
Just as we were drifting off to sleep on opposite sides of the room, the gunfire started. It was distant at first, like the sound of rain in the trees, or far away bullets. Then it grew louder, accompanied by explosions and shouts. The Sinaloa Cartel was launching an offensive for control of the area, and we were in the middle of it. A grenade shook the walls and blew a sizeable hole in the ceiling but it was too high for either of us to reach.
"One of us will have to boost the other," Andrea said.
"But then only one of us can escape."
"I know," she whispered. "I want it to be you."
"But, you're pregnant!"
"Yes. And you are pregnant with talent. Your future is brighter, your potential greater."
"Yeah, I get that. We're on the same page. I just meant that you may not be able to lift me properly with that belly in the way."
It proved no problem for her in the end. With a single push, I was born back into the world, new and hungry for life. I ran in the direction I assumed was north with Andrea's words of encouragement fading behind me.
To this day, I don't know if she ever escaped, but I vowed to honor our friendship in the most fitting and respectful way possible: the minute I got home I hunted her down on Facebook and fired off a friend request. It is still pending. Whether or not we see one another again, I will always remember her, and treasure those last words I heard her speak.
"You are the true hero, Soren! You are the one who must bear the burden of being you!"
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