Spoiler alert! - Read Chapter 7
Since his early twenties, Armando had never been without money, and since then it had kept accumulating. Over the past three decades he had been a workaholic, stopping only to get married and have a family of three, whom he mostly saw at dinner, when he wasn’t eating out with potential business partners and politicians. During that time he had kept several mistresses that he discarded as their novelty faded.
Armando was a passionate man in both love and business. Tired of real estate and public works, he moved into technology, in particular telecommunications. Partnering with a Chinese company that produced knockoffs of recognized international cell phone brands, he began providing cheap prepaid phones to the poor, at the time an untapped market. This undertaking, marketing a product instead of merely speculating in land and subcontracting builders, proved the great challenge he needed; consequently, the boredom he had felt creeping into his life, which his mistresses could never assuage, melted away. He set up his corporate headquarters in Mexico City, hired managers to oversee production, distribution and marketing; accountants to keep track of the money, and traveling salesman to visit distant pueblos and ranchos. Meanwhile, with the help of government subsidies to modernize the countryside, he built transmission towers. So it was with his help that his father, now in ripe old age, was able to call him from the rancho on a cell phone. Hiring local salesmen familiar with their communities proved to be the key to his success. In ten years Armando had captured the rural cell phone market, only to watch it slowly slip from his grasp with competition from other providers who undersold in order to gain market share. He realized he could not compete with multinational corporations and sold off the business while he could still make a good profit.
Still, Armando was not yet ready to retire. Rich and nearly sixty, he felt the need to reinvent himself for the next challenge, whatever it proved to be. A life spent in the sun, abetted by alcohol and cigars, had left his face tanned, leathery and replete with wrinkles. Though he was handsome in an authoritative way, vanity compelled him to have plastic surgery. He knew it was not manly but reasoned that if he could afford it, and be a younger man in spite of his age, he would. Only his wife and children knew of his operation, and though friends and acquaintances might have noticed the change, they did not mention it.
In the past Armando’s name had often appeared in the press, and the few pictures taken of him before he became more vigilant of his privacy showed him as a younger man, back when his star was rising and there were rumors he would run for mayor of Mazatlán, or even governor of Sinaloa. But Armando was not an overtly political man, preferring to be a free agent who lived by his gut and his wits. He had convinced himself that he did not need the paternity of the state beyond the capacity of a helpful sidekick. He valued his privacy too much to be in the public eye, and was glad that with time people had largely forgotten him. This anonymity was valuable in that it opened up the possibility for radical change, which increasingly seemed necessary.
If Armando wanted to remain a player in the game, he would have to adapt to the current political and economic climate. He could no longer count on his old friends in government, given that their political party was marginalized and those who weren’t already retired had lost influence. More importantly, the drug economy had completely taken over the country, particularly in the north. Those shadowy men he remembered from his past had grown in stature and were now in a battle over control of the business, and the business had changed. It was no longer marijuana and heroin, but cocaine and methamphetamines, all destined for the American market where consumption never seemed to abate. Sinaloa had always been the center of the Mexican drug trade. It paved the way for poor young men on the ranchos to escape the claws of poverty while maintaining their characteristic independence and contempt for the law. Raised on corridos, they had found a clever way to avoid singing the blues. With the drug trade they hoped that songs like “Soy Infeliz” would become nostalgia and not a frank assessment of reality. And for a time they were successful, establishing family cartels and dividing up their territories by town and region with surprisingly little internecine strife.
NAFTA had long since bankrupted Mexican agriculture, and Mexico was facing stiff competition from Chinese manufacturing, resulting in mass layoffs in the maquiladora industry of the border region. With the collapse of the global economy, the drug business was proliferating as young, poor Mexicans with ambition served as desperate foot soldiers for cartel leaders vying for control of what was a very lucrative market. Sinaloa was emblematic of a larger struggle for power between the government and drug cartels, which political corruption had previously held in check. Though the Mexican cartels had been working with their Colombian counterparts for several decades, the major Colombian cartels had collapsed with the closure of Caribbean and Florida entry points by the DEA. Now Mexican cartels had taken over control of distribution to the United States. As with politics in Mexico, the monopoly was over, and anyone with connections -whether in government, the police force or the military, through old partnerships, or as part of an existing cartel- could start their own drug operation, particularly when major players were being arrested or killed in the ongoing drug war. And so it went, free market capitalism in its crudest and most lethal form with everybody hoping to get rich and many ending up dead for their trouble.
Although a pragmatic man, Armando was a valiente at heart; even if he had bowed to the government all these years, it didn’t mean he enjoyed it. He liked to think that in spite of the cronyism, it was his enterprising nature and business instincts that had made him successful. In his opinion, everyone had a choice of what to do with their life, and only a fool would choose to starve over abstract moral principals. Conversely, if the gringos wanted to destroy their bodies, minds and souls with drugs, then good riddance. Like most proud Mexicans he had had enough of the United States’ pretensions of superiority and holier-than-thou moralizing about corruption.
As he aged, Armando found he could not forget that moment of intimidation at his family ranch, and wondered now if he shouldn’t have shot the men who had come that fateful evening. If he had, he might have become a major trafficker in his own right; as a man from the Sinaloan monte, he certainly had the pedigree for the business. As it stood, it had taken him decades to amass the wealth he could have acquired in a few short years with a few dozen drug shipments across the border.
Armando could not deny that he envied some of those men he periodically read about in the papers, such as Sergio “El Tigre” Sacramonte, his Sinaloan countryman. They were every bit as famous as movie stars and singers, and some had even been included in Cash Magazine’s annual richest people ranking. Armando was cynical enough to appreciate and chuckle at the irony of criminals being included on a list of wealthy businessmen. And even if such men ultimately ended up dead, the valiente in him declared that it was better to die fighting than of old age in bed. This thought began to repeat like corrido in his head. Most of the narcos were half his age, and though clever, they lacked wisdom. Following as he did the drama of narco-politics in the daily paper, he noted that many of the mistakes they made were foolish acts of bravado and vanity that could have been easily avoided. He realized that the problem with business, and drug trafficking in general, was that you could trust no one, yet you had to rely on others to get the job done. He thought that if he were a younger man and better connected then he would have given it another shot, but alas in Sinaloa there was too much competition for an old man to play the game and hope to gain from it or even live to enjoy success.