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The Way to Juarez

The doctor didn’t try to hide from me the storm my father was passing through:

“It’s called delirium. Hallucinations, amnesia, psychic disorder. It could also be a case of dementia caused by psychotic depression. We need to do a serum electrolytes test and an unenhanced cranial tomography.”

The neurologist wanted to look inside the theater of my father’s brain, to become a spectator of that absurd drama, as if there might be a new Ionesco trapped inside my father’s mind. I never liked Eugene Ionesco. In his stories dead bodies grow inside a room and men turn into rhinoceroses; as far as he was concerned, dreams are more lucid than our waking thoughts. In the world of that madman who triumphed with his delirium, dream stories unveiled dramatic forms. Seen from this point of view, at night when we dream, or in our delirium when we go mad, every one of us is a surrealist; we are all Breton, Picasso, Dalí. Along the road of madness, Ionesco was a recognized master of the theater of the absurd; but actually his dialogues are heavier than a grand piano. To understand him you have to carry around a whole dictionary of literary terms: avant-garde, postwar trauma, the loneliness of Man, language crisis, alienation, and some hidden eroticism thrown in for good measure. Anyway, let’s move on to my father.

My dad’s ideas were not so different from Ionesco’s. Carried away by his hallucinations, he plotted fantastical stories from the shadows of his room. The creatures of his mind shut away in the basement of his cerebral functions were clamoring to enter the house of his consciousness. In the end the doors gave way and the strange thoughts brought his inner reason crashing to the ground. Of course, the mind is an unsolved mystery and as for life, it’s a dream.  My father chose an international intrigue to help him plunge into a dark labyrinth. He assembled the central theme of Mexican public life from his own private world.

I tried to follow his plot. That was how I found out that for some time now he had been working as an undercover spy, using coded messages to report on the activity of two or three drug lords in the Juarez Cartel, a criminal organization which had fallen on hard times since the death of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, El Señor de los Cielos, or the Lord of the Skies. On one mission my father found himself entangled in a string of lies and was finally betrayed in Madrid. Federal agents bought with dirty money forced him right to the edge of the abyss. The charge was extremely serious: according to the traitors, my father planned to bring a shipment of drugs into Spain. He was arrested at Barajas airport, accused of collaborating with Colombian drug lords. Since he was working undercover as a federal officer, the national authorities didn’t recognize him as a secret agent and accused him of being a member of the cartel that had tried to introduce 1,500 kilograms of pure cocaine into Spanish territory.

“1,500 kilos,” I repeated the figure with feigned amazement.

“You know nothing about organized crime,” he reproached me, angrily.

While he described his ongoing drama, I tried several times to bring him back to this side of reality. My father just looked at me with distrust. He broke off in the middle of his story to say:

“Tell me the truth. What’s your role in this treacherous game?”

“Nothing,” I answered, cast down by his phantoms.

“Do you trust your brother?” he asked me, in a hushed voice.

“Yes.”

“I would look into it if I were you. There are too many loose ends.” He put his finger to his lips, calling for silence.

He became desperate when he told me that my mother had been arrested as a suspected money launderer. He tried to make sense of his experience and force order on chance events: in the end he revealed that two spies dressed as nurses had caught him in a trap. He pointed one of them out to me from his bed. This whole creation came from inside my father’s brain, that galaxy which fits in one hand and which neurologists have described as a self-sufficient universe. This aleph is formed by billions of interconnected neurons and is capable of both creating and deleting its own energy and information. It functions with the same intensity in wakefulness as in sleep—when there are no intrusions from the outside world—and also in madness, that powerful dynamite for the conscious mind.

Mom tried to follow my father through the fantasies he invented with the furious uncertainty of a desperate creator. She gave up at some point during the Spanish intrigue and declared:

“Your father is wandering among us, but he’s no longer here.”

She was talking about a ghost, a presence which has come to carry out some unfinished business in the world of the living. As on other occasions my mother was right. Dad was in many places at once, but he wasn’t there with us.

“Tell your mother whether or not I was at Chanona airport last night,” he said, calling on me to give evidence.

“Chanona is a long way off,” I replied, following the false trail of this nonexistent airport. “Were you there?”

“Yes. An impressively modern airport,” he lied with all the conviction of madness.

In the mornings the nurses came and went, looking after the old people. The movement upset my father and he called me to his room to ask about this domestic activity which to him seemed like a battle that takes no prisoners.

“What’s happening here?”

“Nothing,” I told him. “The nurses are making the beds, emptying the toilets, making breakfast.”

“This is an African chaos,” he insisted, describing the hustle and bustle around him. Disorientated, he added: “Last night I fell asleep in Puebla. Two days ago I woke up in a seat at the Plaza cinema and last week in a strange apartment in the Condesa buildings. I went mad,” he told me, and started to cry. “I don’t want to stay another minute in this life. It’s a department of hell.” It sounded like a call for closure, but to this day nobody can ask destiny to fix the date and time of their own death, unless with a bullet through the brain.

My father was right. The cloak of madness on the shoulders of old age makes existence a living hell. It adds a tragic touch of darkness to a dead-end alley.

“Let’s talk to the doctor,” I tried to comfort him. “You’re getting out of this maze.”

I didn’t know what I was saying. The results of the serum electrolytes test revealed no alteration in the level of sodium, potassium, magnesium or calcium, abnormal levels of which are the usual cause of delirious thoughts. The tomography revealed a brain free of tumors or hematoma. The neurologist attributed my father’s mental disorder to a psychotic depression which had originated many months before in a well of sadness. If I understood correctly, the origin of delirium is unknown. It can be sparked off by a heart condition, an attack of bronchitis or an episode of pain which plunges the sufferer into an endless dream. Tucked within the folds of each delirium wait fleeting moments of happiness and sorrow, pure fantasy and the red-hot iron of reality, a sweet memory or an unbearable nightmare. This was the dream prison that my father had entered to serve the sentence of his ninety years of age.

The doctor drew on a battery of chemicals to save him from the shadows: Risperdal, Rivotril, Remeron. This antidepressant, antipsychotic, and anxiolytic front defeated the assault of anxiety but sunk him into a cloud of lethargy. The sedatives returned my dad’s delirium to the inner world of dreams, but reduced his waking life to just a few hours.

“He will sleep more now,” the doctor warned us, “but he’ll be calm. Without anxiety as his enemy he’ll suffer less, and maybe we can bring him back.”

Whenever he woke from the chemical lethargy caused by the medicine, my father shooed away imaginary cats and confused the windows with doors. In one of his waking moments he told me:

“I don’t understand. This morning I was at the plaza de toros in Mexico City.”

“Did you want to fight a bull?” I tried a reckless joke.

“No. I want to celebrate my ninetieth birthday there.”

“With fifty thousand guests?” I pointed out the size of the bullring.

“Yes,” he replied with conviction. “Do you think we could fill it?”

“I think it would be difficult. We don’t have that many friends,” I answered, and for a moment instead of the flame of madness I thought I saw the clear water of humor in his eyes.

“If we charge an entrance fee we could do a pretty good trade” he said, instantly making me his business partner.

There are some character traits which never leave us, not even on our deathbeds. Unbridled vanity and the obsessive hunt for fortune were my father’s second skin, even in madness and old age. Life plays games of chance with us: in the days of the criminal drama that culminated in my father’s arrest in Spain, I was invited to visit Ciudad Juarez.

 

I went for the money. I didn’t want to go to Juarez, but in the end I agreed. I could fill a notebook with the number of times I’ve accepted offers I wanted to turn down. They offered to pay me to sit at a table and spout off about culture and drug trafficking alongside two journalists who no doubt knew everything about the drug world that I didn’t. The shadow of bankruptcy was hovering over me, which was why I agreed to take on this and other undesirable commitments. Whenever there are children, old people, or invalids in the house, money will never stretch far enough. I ended up working twice as hard and earning half as much. I missed deadlines handing in texts on subjects I cared nothing about. We always do the opposite of what we once wanted. I knew nothing about drug trafficking that hadn’t been lifted from the eight columns of a newspaper or a television report. I made a living telling extraordinary stories collected from the press.

If they don’t want to die of hunger or fade into obscurity, writers these days have to parrot away at every literary forum and head to television studios and radio booths. Of course, this financial motivation doesn’t fully explain the sheer quantity of loudmouths in the public eye who dominate the world of arts. Maybe it’s because nobody is afraid of exhibitionism. Anyone will happily take their place in front of a camera or microphone and talk like a river flowing nowhere in particular. Fame is a corrosive poison.

I packed a bag and left for the airport. During the flight I read in El País that Spain had become the gateway for Colombian cocaine arriving in Europe and the money laundering center for drug cartels, who set up fly-by-night businesses to clean up their earnings. The global drug trade generated 322 billion dollars annually, almost two thirds of which came from cocaine. The central photograph on the front page showed the deck of The Oceania in Vigo, where police had seized 1,500 kilograms of cocaine. The leaders of the operation had been arrested, a Colombian and a Mexican, two of the international police’s most wanted drug traffickers. The Mexican had been trying out new alliances after the collapse of the Juarez Cartel’s empire. The copy of the newspaper in my hands was printed several days after the delirious drama which had seen my father arrested at Barajas airport. I thought to myself that the dreams of madmen come true every day somewhere in the world; we are all the realization of a delirious dream taking place on the other side of the planet. When the pilot announced that we were landing at Ciudad Juarez Airport, I remembered Chesterton’s phrase: a madman is anything but a man who has lost his reason.

Juarez is the  mouth of Hell. On entering, the desert sun reveals the dazzling glare of a midget town stretching across northern Chihuahua on the border with the United States. For many years, this village won first prize in a macabre lottery: organized crime, lawlessness, police corruption, unpunished violence. The hotel we were put up in was part of an American chain. It was horrific. They laughed in my face when I asked the way to the town center. There are no central streets in Juarez, as if the funnel of the frontier had sucked them all toward the American dream on the other side of the border.

Under clouds scattered by hot summer winds, the Franklin Mountains lie across the border that separates the two countries. This small mountain range houses a strategic military kingdom for the United States: Fort Bliss. Here, in the desert landscape of this mountainous labyrinth of caves, US marines trained to invade Iraq. North American soldiers break out of this prison of discipline to get high and let go in Mexican brothels.

The closest thing to a town center is an old train station where Francisco Villa once got trigger happy and murdered innocent people during some military episode or other. There’s nothing unusual about that; Villa and his men were always killing innocent people. Instead, I was pointed toward a street full of bars, also called Juarez, on the way to the oldest bridge across the border. Everything in this town is named after that hero of independence from Oaxaca and everything taints his name with the antithesis of Juarist values. Juarez’s nightmare has come true in Juarez.

I walked under the desert sun among images of the end of the world: poverty, drugs, prostitution. Wherever I looked on the street I saw ruined houses. I later found out that these were crack houses, dens of drugs and prostitution where heroin is the common currency. The state government razed them to the ground. After they had closed them time and time again and arrested the owners, the houses were taken over once more by the mafia and heroin addicts. The only solution found by the municipal government to put an end to these centers of madness and delinquency was to destroy them. Sometimes the only remedy is to add rubble to rubble.

I went into the Kentucky, a shadowy bar where the wail of northern redova music could be heard in the background, singing a tale of drug trafficking. That high noon of relentless sunshine had brought together uncomplicated American soldiers out for a good time, men who had crossed half the country looking for work at the assembly plants, and young people dressed in washed-out denim who embroidered the skin of their faces with rings, pins, and knives. In the sordid shadows of the bar I asked myself: Is this where Mexico begins or ends?

My cellphone rang. The nurse handed the phone to my father:

“Did you hear what happened last night?” He sounded agitated, as if someone had just told him a secret.

“No,” I answered, waiting for his story.

“They arrested one of the chiefs of the Gulf Cartel. Any moment now it will all come to light. You have to come and get me, go to the embassy if you have to.”

“Take it easy. I’ll come and get you,” I lied.

I told the nurse to give him two more drops of Risperdal to reduce his anxiety. I didn’t tell my father about the trip to Juarez because I didn’t want to add delirium to his delirium. However, in the Kentucky bar the message sounded not only real but urgent: any moment now it will all come to light. The shadows of the bar were filled with an air of imminent attack.

Every street corner in Juarez harbors the story of a murder. Everybody bears a story like a strange medal of merit: tales of crimes that went unpunished, women thrown out into the desert, and the pathological brutality of the soldiers of the drug war. I happened to hear from a taxi driver the brief and unfortunate love story of El Chiquilín, a minor drug baron who operated under the rule of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies, and his brother Vicente. El Chiquilín had both the glory and misfortune of falling into the trap of love with a young beauty, who he took away with him one day as if robbing an object from a house. He was happy with her for a while, until she in turn fell into the trap of passion with a subordinate, who responded so feverishly and so fully that their guilty love soon came crashing out into the light for everyone to see. “At last the secret is out, wrote Auden,” I thought as I listened to the taxi driver’s story.

The stabs of disloyalty leave mortal wounds. El Chiquilín resented his friend’s betrayal more than that of his young wife. The man was under his protection; it was El Chiquilín himself who had made him somebody in his small kingdom on the streets of Juarez. El Chiquilín took no notice of the woman and said to his former friend: “I’ll give you three hours to do whatever you want and then I’m going to start looking until I find you and kill you.” He gave him three last hours of freedom and then went looking from brothel to brothel, bar to bar, house to house until he found him and killed him with his bare hands. The man was left lying in the darkness, from where he had once been picked up and made somebody in the light of that street kingdom. Meanwhile, El Chiquilín had cut down the number of payments he had to make in exchange for selling his merchandise to the brother of the Lord of the Skies, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, heir apparent to the empire where El Chiquilín had his kingdom. The heir missed his money and sent some men to ask after El Chiquilín, who had spent months lost in drugs and debauchery since the execution of his friend and the loss of his love. When they found him, he didn’t understand what they were saying and never really understood why they were killing him on the corner of one of the streets lined with ruined buildings that had once been his kingdom. As for the woman, she was never heard of again.

The taxi left me at the hotel entrance. I went up to my room and scribbled down as much as I could remember of the story so that I could read it out the next day as an opener to my public presentation for which I would be paid good money. At the end of this introduction full of forbidden love and mortal laws I added a line that was not my own: Así pasa la Gloria del mundo: sin Gloria, ni pena, ni mundo. Thus passes the glory of the world: without glory, without sorrow, without a world. Sleep overpowered me as I was trying to remember the author’s name. Stretched out on the bed, I lost myself in a tangle of meaningless images, with one phrase echoing inside me: any moment now it will all come to light.

 

“Rumbo a Juárez” © Rafael Pérez Gay. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Catherine Mansfield. All rights reserved.