Let’s cash our chips in now
While they’re burying folks for free
—Pedro Infante, La vida no vale nada
To cut a long story short: a couple of days after the shootout by the Santo Cristo church (you know the one, Fer, where a group of soldiers mowed down some guys they’d been chasing), and after the video surfaced of those rolling heads outside the Televisa building (you remember, a couple of hooded guys walked out of there dragging two other men, guns to their heads, reeling off the names of a load of people mixed up with Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, including the nicknames of the police commanders and journalists working for them, spilled their guts, before the hooded guys popped those snitches and cut their heads off), around three days after the shootout, I can’t remember exactly when, but let’s say not longer than a week later, El Gordo called me and told me that the same guys had got in touch with him to say they wanted to see us, to talk to us, and well, my fucking balls shrank to the size of peanuts, although the truth is I was half expecting it, because we’d known about the list since May; a guy from the Fifth District Court had told us there was this register, supposedly drawn up by Los Zetas, listing the names of lawyers who took on narco stuff, you know, drug-related crime, possession of illegal arms intended for Army use, that sort of shit, and that we, because we’d brought the Andrés case, we were on that list, so we should watch our backs if we didn’t want to end up fucking dead, which is why I was shitting myself, straight up shitting myself, but anyway I told El Gordo to tell them we’d go, because I figured it’d be worse if we didn’t show our faces, and El Gordo, decent fucking guy that he is, said: “Don’t sweat it, old girl! If you want, I’ll go on my own,” but I said no way, as if I’d leave him to handle that shit alone, after everything the guy had done for me, because it was thanks to El Gordo that I was working at all (you remember what I told you, how El Gordo got me out of a hole, how he was the only one who helped me when I was at my lowest? I had no work after the financial crash, no home, no woman, and I was working at an Italian Coffee in the center for fifteen pesos an hour to stop myself from starving to death, living on the lattes and cakes I stole whenever the branch manager wasn’t looking, fucking grim, and El Gordo was the one who got me out of that shit, who offered me some work, who proposed we team up to work as “coyotes,” kind of like unofficial legal aides for people in need, go-betweens: he’d be in charge of finding clients and dealing with the assholes from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and I’d handle our legal strategies, the letter-writing, you know, the part I enjoy, the part I’ve always been shit-hot at, ever since back in law school. “Boys and girls, this here is what you call an appeal,” one of my teachers used to say, a tough old nut he was, and he’d hold up my final project in front of the class to the envy of all the posh pricks I studied with at El Colón, the dumbest fucks you could imagine, but with money, and contacts, and when they graduated they all found work in the Justice Department and the most prestigious law firms in the city, while I served coffee for fifteen pesos an hour, a real fucking low, and it was all down to the economic crisis, and the fucking nepotism epidemic in this town, and my girlfriend who dumped my ass the second she saw the way things were headed, just the same as my so-called friends, who didn’t want to hear about my problems and pretended they didn’t know me in the street, probably laughing behind my back in private. Out of that whole fucking bunch of assholes the only one who offered to help me out was El Gordo, he was the only one who had my back and got me out of the gutter, Fer, and he never stopped believing in me and telling me: “You’ve got this, bro, you’ll see, you’re gonna get yourself out of this hole,” because not even my parents, the two people who put me on this earth, Fer, even they refused to help me out, I even called once or twice to ask them for money, but each time they sent me packing, said I was a grown man and that they’d done their bit paying my way through university, a private one at that, and they said it was high time I learned to stand on my own two feet and whose big idea was it to become a lawyer instead of joining the army like my father, yeah, fucking harsh, and only my man El Gordo reached out, saw what a shit spot I was in and asked if I wanted to join forces with him and go into the coyote business together, because I was good at reading and he was good at roughing people up, and while I fucking hated going to court and dealing with those thieving sons of bitches, I’m talking literal wastes of space, El Gordo was in his element around that bunch, he probably even banged the secretaries on the sly, or who knows what he did to get them to take notice of him in there, but anyway everybody worshipped him, respected him, and pretty soon the business was up and running, and we were handling various cases and the money was rolling in, and after all the kindness he showed me, how was I going to let my man go alone to meet those guys, no way, it was my moral duty to go with him, so even though I was shitting my pants I said: “Nah, big man, we’ll go together, no worries.” But anyway, to get to the point: El Gordo arranged a time to meet behind the Allende prison, on the back street there, I can’t remember the name of it, where Cappezzio’s is, right in front of Cappezzio’s, that’s where we agreed to meet them, and they turned up at the agreed time in a Ford Lobo, a hulking orange and black truck with huge fuck-off tires, each one easily worth thirty grand, those heavy-duty tires that can bear a ton each, because the vehicle was armored up to the hilt. To tell the truth, I almost shat myself when that motherfucker pulled up in front of us and the doors opened and out came three guys, unarmed but I could see from the pavement that the pricks had guns in the car (M16s, no messing around), and you could tell they were ex-military from their shaved heads, their bearing, and the way they eyeballed you, but there was also one who looked like a real thug, I think he must have been high on weed, or maybe blow because he kept twitching and looking over his shoulder and in the end he went and stood on the street corner where he just nodded and raised his eyebrows at everyone passing by—people walking along the streets, franeleros hanging around for the next driver looking for a parking spot, taxi drivers, and even police—as if to say “You keep out of our shit and we’ll keep out of yours.” So anyway, eventually the head honcho got out, the one who’d asked to see us in the first place, the one who wanted to go into business with us: he was short with blue eyes and a big hat, and when he spoke he had a norteño accent. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said, all chummy, “how are we?” “Good,” El Gordo replied, “and here we are, sir, so you tell us,” and he nudged me with his elbow but I was so tense I couldn’t get my words out. “You asked to see us,” El Gordo went on, “what can we do for you?” and clearly the boss liked that El Gordo was cutting to the chase so he started telling us how he’d been doing some digging, asking around for the best lawyers in town, and that people had told him that we did good work, that we were effective, and what he really wanted to know was whether we wanted to do some work for them, for the group. My eyes had been boring into the man’s boots, and from there I only looked up as far as his belt buckle, shaped like a Mexican flag billowing in the breeze, before lowering my gaze again because I didn’t dare reply, I didn’t dare tell him no, that frankly I wanted nothing to do with him or his people, that the only thing I wanted was for them to let me get on with my work, and let me live, obviously. But nor did I want to snub the man because he kept going on and on about how he’d heard we were excellent criminal lawyers, and that it was common knowledge that we’d made fools of the judge and secretary from Fifth District Court and even the chumps from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, with that business with Andrés, which at that point was the only drug-related case, the only one, that El Gordo and I had handled (the one I was telling you about, the one about the truck driver who was snitched on for dealing weed, the guy who wasn’t even a truck driver—more like a helper who did the heavy lifting—let alone a narco—although it’s true he was a waster—and they locked him up for dealing, for selling weed, when in the end it turned out that that wasn’t true at all and the fucking AFI investigators apparently opened a preliminary inquiry without even bothering to put together a proper case, or, say, provide adequate proof; and to make matters worse, the fucking judge pulled his sentence out of his ass, essentially just cutting and pasting all the bullshit lies from the preliminary inquiry into his imprisonment order, a fucking disgrace, Fer, a bullshit fucking case full of inconsistencies, because the real truth was that this truck driver, Andrés his name was, wasn’t even carrying any drugs on him when they arrested him, so they charged him on the basis of what they’d found in the guy’s house during a police search made when he hadn’t even been in, and they’d come across a shitty little pot of weed and some .45 caliber bullets, which Andrés said were there when he’d moved in, the prick had just kept them instead of throwing them away. But anyway, we couldn’t do anything for the poor guy because the other judge, the one from the Sixth District Court, wiped his ass with my appeal and even after all the work we did, all the detective work to demonstrate that his so-called investigation was a load of bullshit, they still sentenced Andrés to seven years in prison, the poor fucker, and then to make matters worse it was Los Zetas running the show inside the Allende, and when they realized Andrés was inside for dealing, all hell broke loose and they went for him, beat his brains out and I think they might have even raped him, and then they started training him up, and poor Andrés—who had never been a narco or anything fucking close to one, just a regular stoner who popped his uppers just to keep up at work—ended up becoming one of them, as a matter of survival, you know, because that was the year a fuckload of inmates died in prisons across the state, supposedly hanged themselves in their cells, but those were some crazy-ass knots, real complex. So anyway, Andrés turned into a fucking hard nut, it was like a total transformation, Fer, a full one-eighty, because he went from being a chilled out guy to a proper headcase, gnarly as fuck, and the last time we went to visit him he threatened us, told us that when he got out we were fucking dead men, that’s what he said, for not having helped him, for not having worked harder to get him out), and the long and short of it is that the case went nowhere, and in the end we had to drop it because, having reread all the court files, having looked into what exactly had gone down and uncovered all the lies and bullshit the feds and judge had pulled, in the end it turned out that it was all Andrés’s stupid fucking wife’s fault, the one who’d called us in the first place and hired us to defend the guy, and she’d paid us well, too, because she was a teacher and she had some sideline going on over in Piedras Negras, and so after all that she turned out to be the one who started the whole thing, because she’d found out Andrés had a piece on the side, a Guatemalan girl, and to get her revenge, and without thinking it through, she called the AFI number, the one to make anonymous tip-offs, and she told them Andrés was a narco, that he sold drugs, who knows what the silly bitch was thinking or why it never occurred to her that the feds would take her seriously, or that those bastards would show up the very next day at Andrés’s house to arrest him, but since they didn’t find him, they made up a story about some random guy who’d testified that Andrés had sold him a bag of weed, and the fucking agents never described or named this witness because—wait for it—he never existed, and there was no record of the guy in either the IFE, the IMSS, the ISSSTE or Telmex or anywhere at all, and the address he’d allegedly given didn’t exist either, but that stupid cow can’t have had the first clue about how the law works in this country, in this bullshit fucking country where a lie has a better chance of being proven in court than the truth, and where ultimately the winner is whoever tells the biggest lie, or whoever pays out the most cash, and sometimes not even that, sometimes it all depends on the people at the top, on the orders they pass down, which in this case happened to be a witch hunt against any poor fucker locked up for drug-related crimes, a witch hunt to increase the numbers of detentions so that Calderón could justify his little war, his so-called struggle against the narcos, and when Andrés’s woman couldn’t lie to us any longer, when at last she confessed, bawling her eyes out like Mary fuckin’ Magdalene, telling us it was her fault Andrés had been put away, how she’d made bogus claims to the AFI out of pure fucking spite because Andrés was going around with someone else, El Gordo and I just gawped at her, because what the woman was confessing to us was enough to get Andrés out of Allende, but there was a snag: if Andrés was released from jail then the woman would have to go in in his place, for false allegations, and if they locked her up, then who the hell was going to pay us?, and so even though it’s true we ran rings around that prick of a judge and his dumb secretary, in the end no good ever came of it: we never got anywhere with the appeal we filed and we had to abandon the case, but we were hardly going to tell the boss that, the big guy still standing there talking to us in the middle of the street as if we were old friends, as if we were there because we wanted to be. He was as cool as ice, the blue-eyed motherfucker even offered us a drink, because inside the truck he had a cool box, and outside it was sweltering and we were sweating, and he went: “Can we offer you some sort of refreshment, gentlemen?” And El Gordo, the little scrounger, accepted the offer, but I shook my head; I just wanted get the hell out of there, Fer, I was terrified, and the boss stood there eyeballing me before he said, sounding offended: “Well, do you want one or not?” And I cleared my throat and replied: “No, thank you,” and the guy smiled to himself and said to me: “That’s more like it, that’s what I want: speak up, like a man, and lighten up a little.” And he shouted at one of his minions: “Tosco, get these gentleman a drink,” and so I was handed a glass bottle of soda, even though I didn’t want it, and the guy who gave it to me forgot to take the cap off. “Fucking cretin,” the boss told him, and the guy had to come back to open our bottles with the knife that was tucked inside his waistband. By now I was drenched in sweat, right down to my goddamn boxers; it was midday and we were standing under the full glare of the sun and so, having initially not wanted a drink, I ended up taking a sip of my soda, for the shock, while the boss continued to tell us not to be so shy, that we were all friends. Anyway, to cut to the chase, eventually he said: “So, what do you say? Are you in or out?” And he looked at us, and El Gordo and I looked at each other, and then at him, and in all that looking I could tell that El Gordo was tempted, but I couldn’t take the pressure and I caved and said: “Look, boss,” like a fucking pussy, “the truth is it frightens me, you can see the sort of cases we take on, just regular work, so, to be honest, I don’t think. . . the conditions . . .” a gibbering wreck. The boss turned to El Gordo, who didn’t say anything, so he said: “In that case we’ll take you off the list, but first I want you to do me a favor.” “Yes, boss, just say the word,” I said, like a little bitch. “The favor is this: if you gentlemen come across any matter that might involve me, you’ll get your fucking noses out of it fast. And when I say fast, I mean yesterday. And another thing, from now on if I’m so much as thinking something, you two had better read my mind, agreed?” El Gordo and I said yes and the fucker shook our hands and even gave us a hug, like we were old friends, before saying: “Anything at all, you know where we are,” and he climbed into the pickup with his pack of animals and off they drove, and El Gordo and I stood there on the street, the bottles of soda still in our hands, unsure what the fuck had just happened, and El Gordo turned to me and he said, like he always did whenever it looked like we were in a fix we couldn’t get out of: “It’s not worth a thing, this life,” like the song from the Pedro Infante film, and I responded how I always did when I heard it: “Life’s not worth a thing.”
“Life’s Not Worth A Thing” © Fernanda Melchor. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2022 by Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.