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The Mule


ISSUE:  Fall 2009

 

There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.

—Alfred North Whitehead

Trafficker: Here’s the smack, fucking asshole.
User: Here’s the money, asshole.

—Zulema, former trafficker

1: All Right

Maria had been dead once, by her reckoning for a good five minutes. She hadn’t fallen unconscious or drifted off to sleep, and she hadn’t taken a break to rest her eyes. As Maria tells the story, she was coded and cold—motionless, overdosed, and deceased—on a gurney in the intensive care unit at an East Lansing hospital. This was back in the late nineties. Her ex-boyfriend had just died from a heroin overdose, and after receiving the news, she’d put the phone down and picked the bottle up in the same motion, the physics of simultaneously catching one thing while dropping another be damned. She remembers her death that day, the result of a telescopically short and sweet bender of beer, Irish whiskey, and barbiturates. She’d pounded and then paraded the empty bottles of booze and Seconol in front of her roommate, who called 911 and then instructed her not to sit or lie down. But Maria laid herself down on the couch anyway, fell asleep, and that’s when she died.

Sure, she knew enough not to lie down, she would tell me later. Maria claimed to have a sixth sense for extra-medicinal dosing, a clairvoyance that enabled her to size up a user and then prepare any drug in an amount appropriate to court danger. Perhaps based on rough increments of twenty or thirty pounds, she could gauge roughly how fucked up you’d get if you weighed x pounds and snorted y lines of coke, each containing z milligrams of powdered cocaine hydrochloride. Once, when a friend balked at the outrageous amount of coke she had divvied out to a fellow traveler—probably enough, she later said, to make just about anyone overdose—she brushed it aside: “I think Johnson is going to be all right with this.” And he was, provided that all right meant not dead, but close to it. Years later, by her own admission—to me and to her probation officer—Maria confessed that she was “much more of a stimulant girl,” and as such really didn’t warrant court-sanctioned drug testing for heroin or methadone, an unfamiliarity which could possibly account for the absurdly small size of the overdose of depressants that led to her death. (The court included testing for the entire slate of DEA-scheduled drugs as part of her probation anyway.)

Drugs were her lifestyle and livelihood back then, and a good businesswoman (which Maria insisted that she was, rarely feeding her own demand by cannibalizing her supply) had to know how to revive an overdose victim, if only to hedge against losing a customer. Moreover, she was no stranger to curing herself. In those days, when she wasn’t on the road between Mexico and the market, she was intravenously injecting (snorting didn’t do it for her anymore) herself with so much cocaine that she periodically had to home-remedy her own overdoses. When she’d gone too far, pushing her cardiovascular system over the line, she’d rectify the situation with immersions in bathtubs full of ice water. That afternoon, though, with her vitals skewing in the other direction, Maria just couldn’t keep herself off the couch and awake. This was a suicide attempt, after all, and like everything else she did with narcotics—ingesting and selling, smuggling and trafficking—it had to be performed as superlatively as possible. It had to be done right, for maximum dramatic effect.

Her memories restart at the moment she emerged from death. Her mother was holding one hand, her sister the other, and she was awake and alive. EMTs had gotten the poison flowing in the other direction, and biochemical normalcy began to creep in as the slough of depressants drained out. When she got out of the hospital, she went to her favorite stool at her favorite bar, asked for a shot and a beer, swore at the bartender who questioned the prudence, and returned to daily life among the living.

 

2: I About Had a Fucking Heart Attack

The first run, from Tampa to McAllen to Greensboro, was a bit of a lark. Maria was living in Tampa—Gibsonton, Florida, actually, the widely-acknowledged circus freak capital of the world—and she was bored. So when a friend, someone she knew to be a Mexican drug cartel–affiliated smuggler, appeared at her door with a business proposition, she leapt at the opportunity. He said to her and her friend, “You girls want to make about $5,000 for driving for us for a few hours?” She was more than willing. “I’m just like, ‘Sure, fuck it,’” she says. “What do I have to do, you know?” Maria had been selling drugs for years (since the early nineties when, as a thirteen-year-old girl growing up in the upper Midwest, she felt the dude at the junior high school who charged $7 for one joint, $10 for two, was ripping her off), but this new opportunity was like getting called up to the majors. She signed on with a Mexican drug-trafficking organization, one of a handful smuggling contraband into the United States over the South Texas border (and one still operating profitably today). Maria attributes her big break to her years of work in the loose-joint-and-dime-bag trenches, selling small amounts of product and networking and schmoozing the underworld. That knock on her door in Florida had been serendipitous but not random. “I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time,” she says. “But then it also helped that I knew people from up north who were involved in kind of the same stuff. I had my own thing going because of some of [my] connections—and they all connected to each other.”

She and her friend left for Texas the next day. “We had no idea what we were doing—it was so fucking stupid—and we go meet the Mexican guys and they give us a sweet Mustang and we start driving. The two of us drive all the way to McAllen, and we’re supposed to call when we get down by the border. So we call, and they’re just like, ‘Take this exit and pull into the first hotel you see.’ So I do, and it’s this little dive-y shithole roach motel and I pull in there. And I’m standing in the parking lot when this fucking Porsche pulls up and almost hits me in the leg while it pulls into the parking spot. And two Mexicans get out. They already knew my name, and they already knew who I was, which was kind of creepy.” They also knew the names of her family members and where they could be located. With standard introductions unnecessary, they set to work on the details.

“They tell me that the next morning they’ll come pick me up, and we’ll go have breakfast. At that time, they gave me a route and a car and just kind of sent us on our way.” They headed north-northeast through Texas to Houston, Dallas, and points beyond. Still green to the game, Maria wouldn’t be handling the contraband on this first trip, just driving the car. “It takes a while before you bring the trucks to actually go over the border and get the stuff,” she explains. “That took several years for me.” Eventually, she’d earn enough respect and influence within the cartel to control multiple layers of distribution and logistics herself, but this time, she had to content herself with the 1,500 miles from McAllen to Greensboro. The trip hit its only snag when, halfway to the Carolinas, a Georgia State patrolman pulled over their Mustang. The hollow bumpers had been packed with bricks of marijuana, sealed with Styrofoam, and then painted black to match the rest of the car, but admittedly, “if you really know cars and you know what you’re looking for, you’re going to notice something like that,” Maria says.

“We were riding around with two hundred pounds of weed stuffed in the car. I basically told [my partner] I’d kill her if she didn’t just listen to me and stay calm. She was about to start crying.” Though there’s objectively something extraordinary about a marijuana-laden Ford Mustang barreling up a Georgia highway at one-hundred-plus miles per hour, the traffic stop—and her first introduction to trafficking—proved quite ordinary. “We did get a one-hundred-and-seventy-something-dollar ticket for being so high over the speed limit,” she says with a weary laugh too tired-sounding to be quite a giggle, “but my partner had to eat that because it wasn’t me driving.”

Years later, reflecting back on the incident, Maria tells me that she in fact had little to worry about from the Georgia State Patrol. “He didn’t really fuck with us too much,” she explains. This is why the cartels select white girls as mules. “It’s kind of a safety net.” Attrition also accounts for the cartels’ appetite for young white girls. “Most people who get into that profession,” she says, “like me—some average white girl that starts out as a mule—you last about a year or two before you get popped.” Or busted. Indeed, the overriding philosophy of smuggling is More Trips, Less Weight, so the more available mules, the better. More runs also means more busts, but a critical mass can be reached by determining how successful US interdiction efforts can maximally be—that is, what share of smuggled drugs the government might expect to seize—and then by overwhelming the border with enough product to make that share irrelevant. By the mid-nineties, for example, when Maria began working for her cartel, Juárez Cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed “Lord of the Skies,” could expect the DEA to take about 7 percent of the estimated 150 tons of cocaine he sent into El Paso each year. With the width of the Rio Grande serving to multiply fourfold the value of the drugs, that missing 7 percent made hardly a dimple in either the cartel’s profits or in the street price for the user. The trophies from the War on Drugs—framed photographs of smiling narcs posing in front of mountains of seized drugs—don’t represent even the tip of the iceberg.

Back on the highway, Maria, her partner, and the Mustang’s two hundred pounds of weed made it to North Carolina. “We rented a hotel, called, and told them where we were at,” she recalls. “They come pick up the car, hand you an envelope with a shitload of money, and then they’re like, ‘All right, see you later. We’ll call you next time.’ Pretty simple. That was the first time.” There would be hundreds more, and eventually she earned enough credibility to be trusted to operate south of the border. “When you go down to Mexico, you’ll go to Reynosa and they’ll give you bodyguards. You’re not in tourist-Mexico, just Mexico-Mexico, which isn’t really safe if you’re just a young white girl wandering around. So I’d have a security guard. And I also got close enough with the cartel leaders that I’d actually end up staying at some of the members’ house. Their wives were really nice.” But accommodation at the cartel members’ houses could pose its own hazards, especially as Maria climbed the ranks and became aware of more and more of her married colleagues’ sexual indiscretions. She learned to keep her mouth shut—or risk their wrath.

“The next morning I’d drive up, almost to the border, and that’s when my security guard would get dropped off.” From there, it was northward to the river. “The thrill of it was so invigorating to me that I don’t think I really felt the fear,” she says. “I don’t think the fear was that real in my head yet. Going through the Mexican border—I’ve done it so many fucking times—out of the hundreds of times I’ve done it, my car was probably only searched three times.”

The key, she says, is looking comfortable—and having your story straight, just in case. “It’s easy. Basically, whatever car I was driving, I came up with a personality to fit that. So sometimes I would have a tailored suit or something on and I’d be pretending to be a businesswoman. I’d have a whole story ready because when they pull you out—and they do pull you out—they’re going to question you one at a time, maybe four or five different cops, so you’ve got to have your story, you’ve got to have your nerves together. Your stories always have to match, because they’re going to try to trip you up if they think you’re doing anything. I really kind of took pride in it in a weird way. I loved it so much. Every time you pull up, there’s five or six K-9s running around, a billion fucking cops. That’s part of what makes it more fun, because you know you’re getting away with something right under their noses.”

In a study of female traffickers in Juárez published in Anthropological Quarterly in 2008, Howard Campbell describes how mules revel in using feminine wiles to trick male border agents, creating an interesting dynamic in which the traditional machismo of the business is both subverted and celebrated. “I think women have a big idea for smuggling,” an informant tells Campbell. “[They’re] better than men. They have more nerve to do it, especially as drivers … Women are trusted more by the drug traffickers and by the border inspectors, customs, and immigration. You smile and chitchat with them. Some of them go so far as to actually hand over their telephone numbers … The customs agent will say, ‘Hurry on home and I’ll give you a call later.’ So you know that person is not going to search your car.”

Besides surprisingly naïve border agents, the IRS had to be duped, too. No one pays taxes on smuggled drugs, and it’s conspicuous to live lavishly with zero legitimate income. So, officially, in Tampa, Maria was a roofer. All she’ll say about her roofing exploits is that she was worse at it when she was stoned, and that she had in fact almost fallen off a roof one afternoon for just that reason. She wore extra-short shorts in the Tampa sun just to piss off her co-workers’ wives, her fuck-you attitude, which was generally reserved for law enforcement agents, extended to the blue-collar wives of Hillsborough County. She didn’t like roofing, but preferred instead picking up inconspicuous cars in Tamaulipas and taking them up north with drugs in all the previously empty crevices and recesses, packing the weed and the amphetamines and the coke so the dogs couldn’t get to it—pool cleaner the best deodorizer, she said, but baby laxative could work too, and be a useful cutting agent later—preferred the trunks filled with decades-in-prison cargo to the roofers’ nine to five. But roofers don’t get busted by the DEA, their stock in trade piled up into a neat mountain for a classic seizure photo.

 

3: So, Where’s the Stuff?

Maria left federal prison in Tallahassee in the winter of 2004 and she began to make her way legitimately. No trip to Malverde’s shrine near Culiacán to thank him for only being busted for pot (and, well, conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute), for getting out of the organization alive and with fingerprints intact. She swore off whatever glamour and prestige the cartel had offered her before prison (and that beckoned afterward). Legality began with a seventy-two-hour Greyhound ride to Portland, Oregon, which is where she met me. Aside from her beauty, her vicious acid tongue, and her forearm tattoo of a woman sodomizing a man with a twelve-gauge, she could also roll the world’s greatest joints. It was an odd boast, made with crystals of THC stuck to her fingertips, as if her joint-rolling skills, and not her ability to elude the cops or the DEA, had enabled her to rise in the cartel during those pre-penitentiary years.

Her fingers had flitted over the orange package of one-and-a-quarter-inch Zig-Zag cigarette papers—she refused to roll with anything else—her nails had creased the rice-paper leaf, and her tongue had sealed the Cannabis sativa and C. indica blend into the paper tube with a mix of saliva and natural gum glue. She worked a Bic (the only acceptable lighter, really) flame over the seam of adhesive, strengthening the bond and instantly evaporating any excess water in the rice paper. It was beautiful, and it was perfect. It looked like an unfiltered cigarette, an unwrinkled Lucky Strike straight out of the factory and neat and uniform enough to be put on display at R. J. Reynolds’s headquarters in Winston-Salem. It was illegal, naturally, but there was something artistic to it—not a van Gogh, for sure, or even a doped-up Basquiat, but still.

It was a special joint, too. A girl named Juana, the girlfriend of some kind of a bigwig in the organization, was the original roller of this kind of marijuana cigarette. She had divined the structure and method—the extra longitudinal fold two-fifths of the way in, the temporarily-employed false curl at the edge, the papers-package scoop—and hers were, in fact, the only joints her narcotraficante boyfriend would smoke, until she taught the girl who now sat in a studio apartment rolling one for me, and he agreed to smoke those joints too, because they were just as good. There was no tobacco mixed in with the marijuana in these joints (a drug- and money-saving technique customarily employed when rolling a European or American spliff); tobacco “ruined the taste of the weed,” she told me as she rolled, and if you were part of a Mexican cartel, as she had been, and were privy to endless supplies of Mexican-grown marijuana (a favorite tale of hers involves a soundproofed basement, a hatchet, a sledgehammer, and brick after brick after brick of unbelievably well-packed marijuana) then you could literally afford the luxury of smoking straight dope, of not ruining the acrid, earthy taste of the weed.

Of course, part of that taste came from whatever masking agent had been used to hide the dank aroma of drugs from sniffer dogs and cops. “They grow the weed in Mexico, and then it’s pressed,” Maria explains. “What they do is, they wrap it several times, put motor oil on it, lace it with cayenne. Then they’ll wrap it over again and they’ll put pool chemicals on the wrapping.” It’s not a perfect system, although it does keep the marijuana undetected and dry. “It’s definitely a lot crappier by the time you get it to where you’re going because it’s been dried and compacted and wrapped in a bunch of weird shit.” As driver, she rarely loaded trucks herself—or even saw them loaded. “Most of the time I didn’t because I’d be out running or flying back to come pick up another load they’d already set up.”

The cartels are built around a kind of franchise-based model, and in the late nineties, after a few years of smuggling, Maria got the cartel’s equivalent of a “charter” to set up her own racket in Michigan. “I had my sister set it up, so I’d run up there and meet her. We’d take the car apart ourselves, get all the shit out, saw it down, weigh it, and turn around and sell it. A week later I’d come back [to Mexico], and I’d have to give [the cartel] so much money, and then my sister and I would split the rest.” And it was lucrative. “There are some trips where you’d take a little bit of weed—that would typically be like three grand. If you were doing a little bit of weed with a little bit of ecstasy or something like acid, then that would be a five-grand trip. You start moving stuff like heroin and cocaine, and you’re getting almost eight to ten grand a trip.” For Maria, whose most expensive purchases were (and are) typically tattoos, her job inspired her inner Robin Hood. “I got to use it to take my friends out, spoil my friends,” she said. Parents sometimes complained to Maria that her gifts to their children were too lavish, she recalled wistfully. As an entrepreneur as well as a mule, the profit margins were outrageous.

“[The drugs] were fronted to me, and they’d still pay me for [smuggling it]. So they’d say, ‘Okay, we’re going to give you two hundred pounds,’ and the cost for me would be a hundred dollars a pound. Well, in Michigan, you can sell it for nine hundred dollars a pound. So I’m getting two hundred pounds, and I’m making eight hundred dollars off of every pound, and they’re still paying me for the run.” Once, while she and I watched Blow, the Johnny Depp biopic about cocaine smuggler George Jung, she sighed longingly during the scene in which Jung and his associates run out of space in their Winnebago to store all their profits (which they estimate by weighing, not counting, the twenties and hundreds). “I know what that’s like,” she said. “You make a lot of money, and once the cartel saw how much money I made, they were like, ‘Oh, we want a little more.’” So the Mexicans tripled their take from each one-pound brick, a tribute tax to which she readily acceded. “We’re still fucking getting two-fifty apiece for each fucking pound for two hundred pounds. That’s a lot more money than most kids our age will ever have.” The increased wholesale price also included a promotion for her. “Once they trust you and once they realize how much money you’re making for them, they’ve got reason to take care of you. And even while I was operating my own thing, I still wanted to run all the time, and I got to the point where they were like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this anymore. You can kind of just sit back, relax, and make money now.’” She demurred. “I’m like, ‘No, I actually like doing it.’ I’ve always been a workaholic and I treated this exactly the same way. I loved my job. I took pride in doing it. Worked hard at it.”

“My favorite cars to run were Mustangs,” Maria told me. “But unfortunately, they’re probably one of the most dangerous [models]. They’re the hardest ones. You’ve got the hollow-bumper trick, in the front and the back, and then you can do an extension on the gas tank, but if you want to take any more quantity than that, it’s going to all have to go in the paneling, so it’s kind of risky.” The process is decidedly low-tech and low-maintenance. Though the Mexican illegal-drug industry boasts of unofficial numbers on a par with UPS’s $51 billion annual revenue (and blows that legitimate corporation’s $5 billion annual income out of the water), there are no tracking numbers or barcodes attached to the shipments of product; what matters is pickup, delivery, and whose fault it is if something goes missing. One way to dispatch a rival (or undesirable employee), she says, is to set him up with an empty truck; when it (and the trafficker) arrives at its destination, the load is presumed stolen and the driver held responsible. What happens next is up to the accusers. The setup is a constant fear.

“With the guy who I usually coordinated everything, we always picked a route that went out the east side of Texas,” says Maria. “Well, this other guy was working with me one day and he was like, ‘You know what? Just take 281 out.’” US Highway 281 bisects Texas from south to north and is one of the most heavily patrolled smuggling routes in Texas. With an interior checkpoint at Falfurrias, about eighty miles north of the border, the cat-and-mouse dynamic is fairly blatant. Directing her up 281, she says, should have made her suspicious of a setup. “I’d already made it through both checkpoints—through the Mexican border and the US border—and then you have a third border-patrol checkpoint about an hour and a half or two hours after you get out of McAllen or Harlingen or any of those border cities.” Homeland Security maintains these additional checkpoints, like the one in Falfurrias, to direct and funnel potential drug traffic toward major cities like San Antonio and Houston. She says, “[I] hit George West, Texas, and I was driving through there and my license plate was just stuck in the dash. I was in this total redneck truck and I looked like a total redneck. I get pulled over by three cops.

“They started questioning me, and they’ve got dogs running in and out of the car, and they start taking it apart right in front of me. They start taking the door paneling off, and everything else, and I fucking just started freaking, you know? I didn’t freak out around them, but I was definitely freaking out on the inside, and I was like, ‘Well, this is it.’ And they didn’t find anything, and they took the car apart. And I started thinking, ‘Fuck, I’m getting set up. Someone wants me gone, so they’re sending me with an empty carload and then they’re going to say, ‘Oh, she must have taken it.’ But it turns out that they had put an extension on the gas tank, and that’s where the shit was. That was really nerve-racking.”

Once, years later, in Oregon, before Maria and I drove to a friend’s house in The Dalles, about eighty miles east of Portland, she demonstrated her own packing skills with makeshift materials from the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. We were taking two joints down I-84, hardly the stuff of legend (or, in her case, what would once have been hardly an afterthought), but I figured the added risk factor of her probation and the specter of a return to prison if she got caught made up for the lack of “weight” that we’d be moving. She placed a paper towel—Bounty—on the coffee table and sprayed it liberally with Windex, which she said would be the substitute for pool cleaner. There’s a fine line between soaking and spritzing, and she was careful not to get that inner membrane of paper towel too wet. The living room soon smelled of ammonia. She then covered the Windex-dampened paper towel with red-pepper flakes and ground cayenne. A layer of Saran Wrap. Then ground black pepper. More Windex and cayenne. Then she picked up the whole reeking package and set it on the two sheets of aluminum foil that would form the outer shell. Once she’d prepared the package, she swathed the two AA-battery-sized joints in Saran and nestled them inside the innermost layer of Bounty. The final bundle was about half the size of a Quaker granola bar, and she stuck it in her cleavage. Hours later, when a Wasco County sheriff’s deputy pulled us over for driving suspiciously slowly and seemingly aimlessly through the streets of The Dalles in a furtive search for Maria’s friend’s house, the packaging proved its worth. She even congratulated me for playing things so coolly. I looked at her and felt quite small.

Trafficking is a talent just like hitting three-pointers or diagnosing biopsies, and by 2001, as a dependable young white girl who hadn’t been “popped,” she was a known somebody; in straight America, she’d have been fast-tracked for a corner office. Her bosses advised her: “They’d tell me, ‘Hey, when you start getting good, you’re going to be approached by other people’”—corporate headhunters. Sometimes, she said, they’d be looking to bring you over to their organization; at others they’d be trying to set you up, to hit at a rival cartel by sending one of its best assets to prison. To get revenge on a smuggler who had murdered her father, one mule described to anthropologist Campbell how she “dressed like a hooker,” “went to sleazy bars” along the border, and arranged a bogus deal with her mark, who was picked up by US authorities as he tried to cross the international bridge between Juárez and El Paso. Though vengeance served as a motive in this instance, in the pure zero-sum game of trafficking, the revenge begets the loss of a mule and the subsequent weakening of a rival organization, which in turn opens up a slot into which an opportunistic cartel can slide a moneymaking tentacle. It’s very much a territory-and-turf-oriented enterprise—the main trafficker in this essay maintained Florida/Carolinas- and Minnesota/Michigan-based circuits for her cartel—and the removal of a given territory’s supplier can create a lucrative vacuum for any organization willing and able to exploit it. With finite turf, of course, comes corporate poaching.

“I remember taking one run up to Minnesota, and when I got to the hotel, there was a knock on the door,” she says. “It was these dudes I knew from another cartel, and they were like, ‘Come on, we want to take you out for dinner and drinks,’ and I was fucking scared because I didn’t know what the fuck they were going to do to me. I waited until they left and I called the guys I worked for and I was like, ‘Hey man, this is totally fucked. I just got approached.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I told you that was going to happen.’ That guy ended up getting stabbed for approaching me, which is pretty fucked up. And he’s the guy who eventually fucked me in the ass.”

When “eventually” arrived, and it all went horribly wrong, she wasn’t surprised. The deal stank from the beginning.

“Undercover walks up to my side, the window, and I roll it down, and he’s like, ‘So where’s the stuff?’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ He ended up opening the door, yanking me out, and within two seconds we were surrounded by about eight huge white vans. Cops came charging out of them with semiautomatic rifles and handguns and I get slammed to the ground. It was like a movie.” The arrest went down in the parking lot of a Bradenton, Florida, mall. “You can tell them anything you want; you’re not walking away. At that point I knew it was going to end one way or the other, so I wasn’t totally distraught by it. I was just like, ‘Fuck it. It’s over.’” Drug traffickers are fatalists. They have to be. One can bat .930, as did Amado Carrillo and his mules, but anytime one runs drugs, there’s that 7 percent to think about. The end had come in Bradenton by way of Minnesota. It was the guy who had been stabbed for knocking on her door and trying to recruit her to a different cartel.

Recruitment hadn’t worked in Minnesota, so things were ratcheted up to coercion. According to a memorandum filed by her lawyer, “The Defendant was told to serve as a driver for the drug operation. She was offered three thousand dollars as payment for her services. When she later wanted to get away from these individuals, she was told that she would continue driving for them. She would get only one thousand dollars in compensation but she and her family would be safe. As the leadership of the enterprise all were armed and dangerous, she felt compelled to comply or else risk the safety of herself and her family.” Her “services,” as it turns out, were closely monitored by the DEA, and the drugs she was unwillingly running were destined for an undercover agent (and a framed narcs-and-cache photo).

“I should have known better than to go in with this guy because he’s a greedy idiot,” she explains now. “He made a deal with somebody who offered him way too much money for the amount of shit that was coming in, which should have been the first warning sign.” That “somebody” was an undercover DEA agent, and the “deal,” according to court documents, was an arrangement to receive monthly deliveries of upwards of two hundred pounds of marijuana. “If they’re too anxious to get a hold of [the shipment], then there might be an underlying reason why, so you should just be cautious and steer clear of it,” she reflects in hindsight. Though she had gotten herself stuck in an impossible pickle—a retribution-seeking trafficker on one side, the government on the other—she still sees her capture and imprisonment as the result of poor execution, not of a poor plan to begin with. She kept her mouth shut about her original employers—the first cartel that had come knocking in Tampa that one afternoon—and maintained a loyalty to the industry that had nurtured her and provided for her. She was rewarded with the opportunity to go back.

The Mexicans had offered to burn (or slice—she told two different versions of the proposal) her fingerprints off, to erase her identity, and to let her back into the organization when she got out, but she had decided it was more important to be able to see her mother, a law-abiding schoolteacher. “If you stick with us, we’ll take care of you,” her bosses had told her, but upon her release from prison, she decided it was time to quit. “The next time I get caught, it’s not going to be forty-one months. It’s going to be like ten or twenty-five years—if I’m lucky enough to go to prison and not get killed by someone. I didn’t like prison enough to do it twice.” She said she’d never go back. Not to trafficking, not to prison. She was just an American citizen—passport revoked, yes, and weekly urine sample required, true—but a citizen, a free woman.

To ensure anonymity, all names in this essay have been changed.

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