The argument was too loud. It was right next to Eddie Jacobo, awakening him as he rose from the passenger seat of a Ford F250. His eyes turned to his father, Ruben, sitting behind the steering wheel and a well-dressed stranger outside yelling at him. Eddie remembers the man’s distinct and dapper wardrobe: a vest, dress shoes, designer jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. There was something unsettling about his dress. In the back of his mind an uncomfortable thought began to take shape. This man was a member of a cartel, possibly a Mafioso.
Next to Eddie, his father Ruben had a similar thought. He was almost certain, as other cars began surrounding his vehicle, of this stranger’s prerogative. This man was a sicario. A hit man. Ruben parked his vehicle, surrounded, unarmed and with his son next to him. “I had no other option,” he said. “Sicarios are the ones who kill for money.” The man was livid, disrespected after Ruben had ignored his signaling to pull over. “Why the [expletive] did you ignore me? You’re on our side now,” the man told Ruben. The man was in no mood to negotiate with words.
The elements were all there. Eddie and Ruben were in Juarez, Chihuahua, a city so embattled by cartel violence that the city’s name is now synonymous with drugs and the violence they fuel. They were attempting to pass through a checkpoint with a relative, who rode behind them in a Dodge Durango. They were 12 hours removed from their home in Aurora, Colo., and needed to make sure they purchased car insurance and a special license to continue their journey south into Mexico. But there stood this man. He was asking for money. He wanted $400. He looked high. And he looked damn serious.
In a country where bodies are routinely found mutilated beyond recognition and murders are as certain as the rising of the sun, any threat is a serious threat. It wasn’t long before the man told Eddie and his father they would be killed if they didn’t cooperate.
“I was scared, but I was mad at the same tie,” Eddie said. “I wished I had a gun; I would have shot that guy straight in the face and just dip.” That was May 2011. Eddie, married to wife Stephanie and father of a three-year-old son, Adriel, is glad that episode ended in the best possible way. His father gave the man all the money in his wallet, $140, enough to satisfy the threatening stranger. There was an exchange of sorts soon after. With the debt fulfilled, the man gave Eddie’s father a coin. He assured them that the coin would grant them full protection, but only in Chihuahua. Eddie’s family lives in Michoacán, in central Mexico. Still hours away. So his father spoke to some cops after the incident, and after handing over an American bill, they escorted his convoy near the state’s border.
Ruben remembers a time when it wasn’t like this. When escaping with his and his son’s life wasn’t something to pray about. Passing through Juarez is no longer a casual affair.
He knew as he kept driving on the long and burning road—his heart pumping blood into a disconcerted body—that the man could have just as easily killed them both. No one but their family would have cared. “Once you’re there, you have to think about what you’re going to do,” Ruben said. “If you don’t have money, they will kill you. But even after you pay, you’re not comfortable driving. When you’re driving by yourself, it’s not as scary. But when you’re with someone, you feel more cowardly. There’s no point in being brave.”
In late 2006, after the Mexican presidential election finally left Felipe Calderon in charge of the country’s highest office, a war was launched against the extremely lucrative and increasingly powerful drug cartels. Six years later, the war still wages. The number of dead is closing in on 50,000. Calderon is on his final year as president-elect. There is no peace in Mexico. “You can’t do anything,” Ruben said. A native of the Mexican state of Michoacán, where drug violence is prevalent, he came to the United States in 1987. Eddie was born in California in 1991. “What are you going to do? You’re living in the United States. And if you’re stopped or attacked in Mexico, no one will ever know the culprit. The day they stop you, that’s when they’ll kill you.”
Ruben knows too many drug cartel stories. Some involve family members. Like a brother-in-law of one of Ruben’s brother’s who nearly lost his life to drug violence. After he was stopped and refused to act as a drug mule for a cartel near the border, the men opened fire. He somehow managed to survive, but was left in a coma. Soon, his wife tried to visit him. “The man’s wife went back to Mexico, and they tried to get her to pass drugs. She didn’t have any options. And as luck would have it, she was caught with the drugs. She was jailed.”
There is no law and order. Knowing which cop is legitimate and which is on the cartel payroll is like playing roulette. You can only hope that they’re going to help the situation instead of making it worse. “The government is one thing, the police another. The government is soldiers, and the police are the patrolmen in black cars.” Soldiers protect; police are a gamble. But Ruben understands that there are cycles. “February through October are the most dangerous times,” he said.
The world of corrupt cops is inevitably chaotic. Arturo Aldama, a Mexican-born professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder said that if you follow violence in states like Michoacán, police chiefs are the most likely to be assassinated, their families threatened. There’s simple reasoning to turn crooked. “Most police officers in Mexico are extremely low paid because the local, state and federal governments pay them an unlivable wage and most police officers have to bring bribes to their sergeants to keep their shifts and stay in good graces. Most police officers hate the corruption and would prefer to have a decent wage and benefits,” Aldama said.
Thousands of miles away, back in the comfortable surroundings of her home in Aurora, Marta Jacobo was unaware that her husband and son’s lives had been threatened. It wasn’t until the trip ended two weeks after the incident in 2011 and Eddie and Ruben returned to the United States that they disclosed the story to Marta. “I felt afraid, but at the same time they were here,” she said. She is well aware of the dangers she faced the same year, when her family and several others were stopped. Again, by some stroke of luck they were shown mercy. Marta thinks it was because they had so many children with them. Yet even after a horrifying experience, Marta still has reason, and more importantly motivation, to return. Taking a trek that cost some their souls is not any easy decision. But one woman makes it worthwhile in her eyes. It’s her mother, and she lives in Guanajuato, a state north of Michoacán located in central Mexico. “To never go back, and to leave my mother there, that would be mean-spirited,” she said. “But I am going to try to figure out how to go back, and try to gain my citizenship and bring her back. Because it’s ugly out there.”