They were locally known as Las Rocas, a band of ugly, heart-hardened young men bearing heavy chips on their shoulders. Las Rocas’ faces and necks were tattooed with blind desperation and inner pain. They shouted words like bullets and hurled insults like homemade fire-bombs. Although Carlos had never heard of them before, he immediately recognized their scent, the putrid stench of gang members, of angry, violent men obsessed with death and bent on destruction.
It was the coyote they initially came for. They shot open the front door of their safe house in Tampico and demanded El Lobo’s whereabouts through clenched teeth and raised guns. And when the migrants could not satisfy their questions, Las Rocas commenced to beating and destroying, sending the migrants running out of the house, fleeing for their lives.
One of the young men eyed Carlos curiously. He grabbed Carlos and asked the teen his name. He sought out Carlos’ origins, his reasons for being there, his ultimate destination. And from the depths of fear, Carlos responded honestly, all the while trembling, sweating, stammering in his words.
Las Rocas laughed at him initially. They talked amongst themselves and questioned allowed whether Carlos alone would be enough to satisfy El Lobo’s debt. The men pointed to Carlos and sized him up as if he were a piece of meat.
“Gus, he’s young, he’ll do fine,” said one.
“He looks smart, he could run for us,” said another.
“I don’t know, Gus. He looks too scared to me. He might turn on us,” said yet another, the youngest of the crew who appeared to be only a few years older than Carlos.
Carlos was caught in the grip of a strong man. He could neither run nor hide. He could not flee the horrid little house in Tampico as all the other migrants had done. So instead, he cried. And Las Rocas laughed louder. They mocked him and called him crybaby names. For several minutes, they ridiculed Carlos’ tears and intensified his trembling.
That is, until El Lobo appeared. The moment he spotted Las Rocas in the house, El Lobo tried to run, but Las Rocas grabbed him and dragged him back inside. They slapped the old coyote. They punched him and knocked him around until he was gasping for breath and begging for reprieve.
“Please,” El Lobo said in a husky Spanish. “Please…stop.”
Las Rocas obliged gradually, stopping only until they were sure that El Lobo knew they meant business.
“Where’s the money?” said the leader.
“I – I gave it to you,” replied El Lobo, slumped on the floor, trembling.
“You gave me half, El Lobo. I want the other half.”
“You never said it was half. You told me that it was for the whole trip.”
“You lie, old man! I told you I wanted the other half when you brought them to Tampico…along with three boys. There’s only one here.”
El Lobo sighed. “I don’t have the money. And I had three lined up, but the other two ran away. You let them go.”
“I – I don’t have it, Las Rocas. The migrants were supposed to give me the rest when we get to Reynosa. That was the deal. Now they’re gone. So I don’t have it. There is only that one there – Carlos. You can take him.”
The Las Rocas leader did not like that answer. He slapped El Lobo and punched him in the stomach.
“I want my money!” he roared.
El Lobo, bloodied and weary, put up his hands in true surrender. “I – I don’t have it. I don’t. Check my pockets. My bag. Take whatever you find. But I don’t have the full amount.”
The leader did just that. He snapped his fingers to his men. They checked El Lobo’s pockets and found nothing. Then they rifled through El Lobo’s bag and found a wad of pesos, but apparently not enough to satisfy his debt. When the leader turned back to El Lobo, the old man’s eyes grew big. He froze with terror at the sight of a big gun trained on him
“Wait, wait,” said El Lobo. “Take Carlos! He is very smart. I chose him along with two others but I think he is worth more to you than the other two…and the debt.”
Carlos swallowed. He was afraid to scream lest the leader shift the gun’s aim to him. He did not want to join a gang, whether by force or otherwise. Quietly, between trembles, he prayed that God would intervene and save his life. And somehow, He did. Just as the leader turned his attention to Carlos, someone outside banged against the windows.
“Come out! It’s the Mexican Police!”
The leader and his men looked at each other, then quickly scattered throughout the house, taking cover behind broken chairs or broken tables. The men pulled out their guns and pointed them at the windows, the doors, through the cracks in the walls.
“Come out! The Mexican Police will give you only two more minutes to surrender!”
Carlos hid in a corner the best he could. He covered his ears when the shooting started. He could not speak when the police barged through the house and shot and wrestled and handcuffed those members of Las Rocas who did not manage to escape.
In the melee, Carlos ran out behind the house and fled northward. He ignored the shouts of locals or police calling after him. His legs carried him as far and fast as he could muster. For what seemed like hours, he ran. He cut through open fields, narrow alleys and farmland. With the ocean to the east, Carlos continued until the smooth road changed to a dirt road then to rugged terrain. Locals gave him only a passing glance as he blazed by.
His youthful exuberance carried him far and fast. At a sustained pace, Carlos whisked around humble homes, past little boulders and hurled through trees and bushes. He ran until those homes disappeared and the smell of the ocean faded away. He ran until the Mexican sun began its late afternoon descent beyond the horizon.
When he came to the Tamaulipas mountain valley, exhausted and out of breath, Carlos thought it was over, that the sudden and terrifying encounter with a Mexican gang was over, that he was not going to be coerced into doing something he did not want to do, that somehow he would escape this strange nightmare and return home to Guatemala, safe and sound.
But little did Carlos know, he had been followed by a young man in a car who was a Las Rocas, one of the men that had entered the safe house but had miraculously escaped. The gang member, having exited his car parked nearby, slowly approached Carlos from behind as the teen leaned against a tree, desperately trying to calm his fears.
“Got you!” said the gang member, startling Carlos.
“Leave. Me. Alone,” whispered Carlos through trembling lips.
“You’re fast. We could use a fast runner. Come on!”
The gang member glared at the teen. “What did you say to me? No one tells Manuel ‘no,’ okay? No one!”
Carlos was about to repeat his bold attempt at defiance but the sound of nearing police sirens swiftly ended his show of strength. Manuel suddenly looked left and right, then ran like a gazelle, away from Carlos and the nearing police. Carlos watched him flee away from the mountain’s base seemingly in the direction of Tampico.
Then the teen turned and raced through the valley and up the gentle slopes on the mountain’s eastern side. He went as far as he could physically go, then rested against a boulder for several minutes. Carlos tried to slow his breathing, he tried to think, he tried to reclaim his sanity in the midst of this sudden and drastic change in plan.
He slowly surveilled his surroundings as he sat there. The Tamaulipas mountain ranges were like big beautiful green lumps of varying peaks and widths. Hills ran into hills. Slopes twisted and turned around lush valleys. Rock plateaus decorated the mountain peaks. Its beauty was breathtaking and awesome. Colorful birds dashed through the sky above. The vast landscape reflected dizzying variations of green and brown against an orange sky. Purple and yellow flowers danced in the near distance, swaying to an early evening wind.
As the sun waned, the trees around Carlos gently danced with the breeze. The serenity the landscape offered was almost too perfect, suddenly overwhelming Carlos with emotion. Tears of frustration welled in his eyes before racing down his cheeks. Out of sheer desperation, Carlos closed his eyes and thought of his late father.
He recalled an evening when the elder Carlos was on the roof of their little house in Guatemala City, attempting to fix a leak caused by a recent storm. Despite the recommendations Señor Alza received from neighbors, no material seemed to permanently stop the sliver of water that was continually dripping into their shanty house, threatening to cause further damage. So Señor Alza simply placed a bucket beneath the leak. And when Carlos’ mother protested such crude repair, Señor Alza merely shrugged his shoulders. Don’t worry, he had said. The Lord is our strength and our defense. He is our salvation. We are Alzas. We will survive…we always do.
Carlos opened his eyes and sighed. Despite the danger the wilderness posed, he did not want to leave the mountain’s refuge and he was too scared to go to the police out of fear that Las Rocas would find him. So instead, Carlos moved to another nearby boulder that was larger and out of the line of sight. Then he took off one of his shoes and shook out his father’s fishing knife. He placed the knife on the ground near his thigh, strategically within hand’s reach.
After putting back on his shoe, Carlos drew up his legs and folded his arms across his knees. Then he waited. He waited for the evening to fold into night and for the night to transform into morning. He waited for a plan to come to his mind that would somehow transport him back home to Guatemala. Carlos waited, intermittently drifting in and out of superficial slumber.
DAY 19 – morning
Carlos awoke and whipped his head toward the sound while simultaneously reaching for his father’s fishing knife. After several seconds, he spotted a guilty raccoon scurry across the dusty ground and disappear behind a rock. Taking a cautious sigh of relief, Carlos stood up and stretched his legs. Dawn was slowly emerging over the mountain ranges, gradually overcoming the gray darkness. His stomach grumbled. His body ached. His head pulsated with poor sleep. His mind raced.
What do I do now? he thought. If I go west, I’ll probably find a dirt road that would melt into a paved road. Then I could hitchhike to Ciudad Victoria, but then what? Carlos had no money and nothing of value to offer anyone in exchange. Las Rocas had robbed him of everything he had taken with him from Guatemala, including his own identification. When I get to the next town, how do I get out? How do I get back to Guatemala?
His hope of going to America had all but vanished in Tampico. El Lobo’s horrific plan was disastrous and had resulted in the abrupt end of all of the migrants’ journeys, including Carlos’. Like a clever devil, El Lobo had kept his scheme secret.
But Carlos had sensed something was awry when days ago, the coyote had taken them to a pit stop in Puebla and engaged in a strange shouting match with a visitor, a middle-aged Mexican man with thinning hair and shifting black eyes. It was after that bizarre encounter when the migrants began whispering about El Lobo, rumoring amongst themselves that the old coyote was up to something.
Then when El Lobo took them to Tampico, a far east destination which was a departure from the original plan, the migrants quickly realized that their suspicions were legitimate. Expecting resistance, El Lobo had said nothing while he ushered them into the little safe house and locked them in, ignoring their cries and pleas for freedom. In fact, Carlos knew it was by God’s grace alone that he managed to escape Tampico and find temporary shelter in the mountains.
Carlos froze again, expecting a raccoon to scurry out as it did before, but nothing emerged. Figuring the sound came from some small animal hiding in the wilderness, Carlos leaned his head against the boulder and sighed. He held up his father’s little knife and ran his finger across the blade.
Carlos had never hurt anyone. He had barely even yelled in hot anger. At sixteen, Carlos was almost a carbon copy of his late father. Quiet. Soft-tempered. Perceptive. An only child, he had been raised to help his mother cook and assist his father in fixing the old truck and to open doors for his sweetheart-crushes. Never had Carlos fought or injured another human being.
He recalled a time when he saw his own father gallantly avoid a fist fight with a local gang member in La Limonada. It had been a day of laughter and fun as the Alza family returned home from a trip to the countryside to visit extended family. Their spirits were uplifted. Their cheeks were stinging from hours of uninterrupted smiles. Their hearts were soft with gladness and familial joy.
The elder Carlos had just reached Guatemala City, turning off the main road onto the local street. Yet as he neared a traffic stop, a local gang member who was on foot, approached their truck on the driver’s side. The man immediately addressed Señor Alza with jealous anger and degrading accusations.
Carlos’ father had exited the truck and told his family to stay inside. He then turned and faced the gang member like a bold lion, quietly listening to his taunts and his envious cursing.
Carlos later learned that the gang member was a former co-worker at the old depot where his father had worked and tried to enlist Señor Alza into stealing from the company. But his father repeatedly refused to join such a criminal enterprise and even threatened to turn in the gang member to the police.
The man had grown angry at Señor Alza’s stubborn righteousness. His face scowled and his brow furrowed until it seemed steam was spewing from his ears. And then the gang member balled his fists and swung. He hit Señor Alza in the jaw, stunning him and causing him to stagger back a few paces. Carlos remembered watching his father quickly calculate his next move. His father massaged his jaw then slowly turned to face the man, but he did not hit him back.
Instead, through clenched teeth, he spoke sternly to the angry gang member, unleashing a powerful monologue about crime and consequences. Señor Alza implored the man to choose a better way, to choose a path that would turn him into a real man, a real Guatemalan man with clean hands and a loving heart. He condemned the man’s dark thoughts and dirty hands. He implored him to turn his life over to God, to let God be his strength, to let God be his salvation. He vowed to turn the gang member into the authorities should his felonious intentions persist. Señor Alza did not mince his words nor soften his tone. His voice was of thunder, his words, a painful sword.
The gang member cowered by Señor Alza’s words alone. He held his hand to his side as if the old man’s words struck him physically. With his back hunched and his eyes guilty and shamed, the man pleaded for the elder Carlos to stop. He promised that he would never bother him again and that he would not engage in the criminal scheme anymore, at least not to Señor Alza’s knowledge. The gang member promised that he would never again think of Señor Alza as a man who lived such a dishonorable and wayward life as he did.
Seemingly satisfied, the elder Carlos ended the bloodless battle. When he climbed back into the truck, no one spoke. Carlos reflected on the pride he felt that night. Without throwing a single punch, his father taught him something about the strength that comes from God, about–
It was Manuel. He was back. Carlos was certain of it now. He could almost smell the menacing gang member’s sour body odor floating upon the breeze, turning Carlos’ stomach upside down. Remembering his father’s boldness, he mustered his strength and swallowed his fear. He gripped the knife and walked towards the source of the sound coming from a cluster of trees fifteen feet away. The leaves fluttered spasmodically as if something had suddenly disturbed them.
“Come out, Manuel!” yelled Carlos in fearful Spanish, his voice cracking, his breath labored. “I – I’m not afraid of you!”
“You sound like you are,” said Manuel, confidently strolling out from behind his cover of trees.
The young gang member seemed everything that Carlos was not. He was tall and lanky while Carlos was short and muscular. Manuel sported a crown of curly dark brown hair framing a heavily tattooed face while Carlos’ straight black hair tucked under an old baseball cap, accentuated a smooth, clear face with humble eyes. And Manuel was a known criminal while Carlos was simply a regular teen who had just wanted to journey to America to help his ailing mother.
“Carlito,” sang Manuel. “I bet that’s what your mama calls you, eh? Carlito? Well, Carlito, you should be afraid of me. You never should have run from me, Carlito. I was not going to hurt you…if I didn’t have to. I was going to protect you, okay? I’m Las Rocas.”
“Protect me? From what?” said Carlos.
“From this. Here. The elements. You could die out here, okay? Tamaulipas mountains are no place for a rookie from La Limonada.”
“I – I’m not a rookie.”
“Oh no? Then why are you trembling?”
Carlos waved his father’s fishing knife at him. “Leave me alone! Just leave me alone.”
“You think you can do some damage with that? You think you can hurt me with some dull knife from your poor country? You don’t know what you’re doing, Carlito.”
Carlos quickly looked around, searching for a pathway around his foe.
“Where do you think you’re going?” taunted Manuel. “Las Rocas owns Tampico! Las Rocas owns all of Tamaulipas! Cordoba! Mexico City! You cannot run from us, Carlito.”
“What – what do you want from me?”
Manuel smirked. “Want? Want? I don’t wantanything from you, okay? You’re nothing but a poor migrant rat!”
“Then – then, please, just leave me alone. Leave me here to die on the mountain.”
“I can’t. I’m here on orders. You have to come back with me.”
“Yes, orders. You’re coming with me, Carlito, dead or alive.”
“What? What did you say to me?”
Manuel moved closer. Without saying another word, Carlos turned and ran away.
“Come back here, you little migrant rat!” yelled Manuel.
They raced down the eastern side of the mountain toward a wide expansive valley. Loose rock and dust tumbled behind their quick feet. Some deer and what appeared to be a family of raccoons stopped to watch from a distance. It seemed nature was holding its breath, waiting to see who would be the victor in this deadly game of cat and mouse.
“Get back here, you little snake!” called Manuel.
He chased Carlos along a worn path created by tourists and curious locals. It led them to a small lagoon on the eastern side of the mountain. Rushing water poured out from a large crevice in the mountain’s side and flowed into a crystal clear pool. The lagoon was surrounded by trees and mountain. And from the untrained eye, it seemed there was no way through or around the water.
Carlos stopped running and turned to face Manuel. “Manuel…please,” he said. “Just leave me alone. Leave me out here to die. Tell your gang that I died out here. They’ll believe you.”
“If it was up to me, I’d leave you here, okay?” replied Manuel. “I don’t really care about you one way or the other. And I don’t even know why Tony sent me back here to get you anyway. His majesty should just do this himself! I’ve got better things to do than recruit some poor snot-nosed migrant rat! I don’t even want to do this, okay? I don’t even care!”
“So, let me go. Leave me alone!”
“Look, Carlito don’t make this hard, okay? I have orders. I have to follow them or else I get it, okay?”
“Why me? Why me? I don’t want to become like you. You…you’re the coward!”
Carlos had taken a grave risk in disrespecting his aggressor. It was a move he would never have made in normal circumstances, especially back home. But due to a present war within himself, a duel between his childhood self and a wiser, bolder version of who he wanted to be, Carlos felt he had no choice but to try anything to save his life.
Surprisingly, Carlos’ accusation of Manuel triggered an awkward expression to flash across the gang member’s face. For a few brief seconds, Manuel appeared as a true young man, lost and yearning for a better way. Crushing guilt suddenly crept into Manuel’s eyes and settled there, causing him to look away when he addressed Carlos.
“I’m not a coward, okay?” said Manuel in a strange high-pitched voice.
Shocked at the sudden and odd change in his temperament, Carlos gently pressed further.
“You’re not that much older than me,” he said. “My father told me that gangs are just big groups of cowards.”
“You’re not my father, okay? Shut up!” yelled Manuel as if Carlos had spoken a truth he had heard before.
“What about your family?” continued Carlos. “Your…your mother? What has Las Rocas given you in place of that?”
“Shut up, Carlito! That’s none of your business! You’rethe coward! You’re the one hiding in the mountains, crying for your mama! You’re the one shaking like a leaf! You’rethe one that doesn’t know where he’s going! Not me! Not me, okay? Not me!”
“You can get out of Las Rocas. I’ve seen guys do it in Guatemala. You can get out of the gang and leave and-”
“Shut up, okay? There’s no leaving Las Rocas! There’s no leaving his majesty. Never!”
“So you want to get out?”
Manuel looked at Carlos intently, his brow lowered, his mouth terse. He seemed to be boiling with inner rage, yet he made no sudden move towards Carlos, violent or otherwise.
“You want to get out?” Carlos repeated, hoping this was a strange window of opportunity, a moment to pry open the heart of an apparently not-so-hardened gang member and successfully convince him to release his prey.
“I tried, okay?” said Manuel softly. “Two years ago when I tried to make it to America, I tried. I was a migrant, too, okay? I’m from Honduras. My family is from Honduras, okay? And that coyote led us all the way past Chiapas and then he sold us to Las Rocas, to his majesty, Tony. We were sold like slaves, like we were just pieces of meat!
And I fought them hard, okay? I fought them hard and I ran and they brought me back and they beat me up. Carlito, it’s not easy to leave. Las Rocas owns Mexico, okay? They’re even in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, everywhere, okay? Tony has eyes everywhere. He said if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, he would kill my family. He would kill me. So…I stayed.”
Carlos, perplexed by Manuel’s sudden openness, kept going.
“What about the police?” he asked.
“The police!” Manuel chuckled. “Hah! They all know Tony. They all know Las Rocas. Las Rocas is paying most of them off. In fact, they just added some more dirty cops to their list. If I turned myself in, Las Rocas would…they would kill me.”
“Well, my father used to say-”
“Shut up, Carlito! I don’t care about stupid old fathers, okay?” yelled Manuel, his voice resuming its normal angry tone. “Look, I’m tired of talking. Let’s go!”
Manuel pulled out a black handgun and pointed it at Carlos. “Let’s go,” he said.
“No,” said Carlos.
“What did you say to me, Carlito?”
“No. I – I’m not going with you. I’m going back home.”
“No, you’re not. You’re coming with me.”
He came closer to Carlos and pointed the gun. “Now what are you going to say?”
“No,” replied Carlos, sweating, his heart beating loudly.
Manuel sighed and lowered the gun to his side. “Who do you think you are, Carlito?” he said. “A prince? You think you’re better than the rest of us out here? You think you’re better than me?”
“I…I’m not a coward.”
Manuel threatened to punch him, but Carlos immediately held out his hands in surrender. He knew he could not escape Manuel for the young man was well-armed while Carlos was equipped with only a small fishing knife. And even if by some miracle, Carlos emerged victorious from a fight with Manuel, the simmering day would soon melt into darkness, forcing him to withstand another lonely night in the Mexican mountains without food or shelter.
As he thought of what to do, Carlos suddenly recalled the last teaching his father had given him as the elder lay on his death bed. Carlito, he had said. God is our salvation and our strength. He is my God and I praise Him. When I am weak, He is strong….
Carlos breathed deep and silently prayed that God would protect him.
Then he turned to Manuel. “Okay,” he said softly.
“What? I didn’t hear you, Carlito.”
“I said okay. Take me to Las Rocas.”