El Perico pivoted toward the mirror in the dim light of his motel room and considered himself carefully. He ran a hand over the $300 Polo suit; checked the $100 Italian boots for scuffs and watermarks; straightened and restraightened the collar of the $60 Nik-Nik shirt. He tamped and nudged at his coal-black, shoulder-length hair; fussed with his well-coiffed beard. He heaved a long and throaty sigh.
El Perico: Six feet, two inches; 225 pounds. Thirty-two going on thirty-three. Third-generation Mexican American. Divorced, two kids. Ninth-grade education. Father dead, mother living—barely. Place of residence: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso—never in one place too long. Friends: None.
El Perico: Professional informer. Latter-day bounty hunter. Those names were acceptable, he supposed. So were “special employee” and “cooperating individual,” which were what his people, the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, called him.
What wasn’t acceptable was the word snitch. An informer, an informante, okay. But El Perico was no snitch, no stool pigeon. Snitches were a different breed, a lower species. They were down-and-out pushers and junkies working off a bust by squealing for the Man. One or two jobs and they disappeared back into the mean streets, probably to pick up where they left off—pushing or using the stuff. Snitches were—what was the gringo word?—greaseballs, lowlifes. El Perico was anything but that. He was simply a professional doing his job, he supposed.
He was tending bar at the Dallas nightclub his half sister owned; the regular crowd, as in many Chicano bars in Dallas, was heavily laced with addicts and pushers. El Perico knew all of them, listened to their long and rambling discussions about chiva (heroin), even joined in some of them. But he’d never touched the stuff—not even marijuana. It wasn’t that he’d grown up any angel: the Waco Police Department files were full of the records of some of his adolescent exploits—a couple of gang rumbles, that sort of thing. Like most Chicanos, the ways of the street had been a part of his growing up.
But that juvenile delinquency was a far cry from dope. Dope was, well, evil, he thought. It made morons of smart men and criminals of good men. Made a man—he didn’t quite know how to put it—less: less than he could be. To El Perico, that was not only criminal. It was a sin.
Anyway, he’d been hanging out one night when a Chicano dude—a fellow with no front teeth who was dressed in white pants and a fuchsia body shirt—asked him to join him in the men’s room. In the restroom, the dude carefully locked the door behind them, pulled out his wallet, and produced two joints as thick as garden slugs. “You want to get high with me?” he whispered. El Perico had quickly stuttered out a lie, “No man. Trying to stay off the stuff, you know?” The Chicano nodded knowingly, shrugged, and retired to the restroom’s single stall to smoke.
He was barely midway into the first joint when El Perico sneaked back into the kitchen and dialed the Dallas police vice squad. He still doesn’t know why. A born snitch? No, not really. He’d never had any boyhood wish to be a cop like a lot of gringo kids did. It was just that he wanted to do something to stop the dope. His sister had been busted once before, and he had seen what that did to his parents. Sometimes he even thought it had killed his father. Crimes like burglary, robbery, and assault were bad enough. One man’s inhumanity to another had always been difficult for him to stomach, but dope was even worse. Dope was man’s inhumanity to himself.
The heat had arrived in barely ten minutes that night, sending the bar into mayhem: pushers and junkies scurrying for the kitchen and bathrooms to unload their junk. It might have been a comical scene, El Perico later reflected, had it not been for the fact that his sister had been busted once again along with a dozen or so others.
Since then he’d been informing in some way, for someone. His tip to the vice squad that night had not been anonymous. The gringo agents at the Dallas Police Department, always on the lookout for bigger and better busts to put on their monthly reports, quickly latched onto the willing young Chicano informer. So he began working a deal here and there for them, all the while keeping his printing shop as a cover. It had been a comfortable, even lucrative, arrangement for El Perico. The work, for him anyway, was easy; the money good.
No, he was no greaseball. He was El Perico, the smartest, smoothest informante around; better at busting dopers than a lot of agents and they all damn well knew it. The Man didn’t pay greaseballs $5000 a bust and let them roam free. And the Man didn’t call on greaseballs to counsel with congressmen and senators on the drug enforcement problem. And greaseball snitches didn’t make $25,000 a year at their trade. He was no mere informer. He was somebody.
El Perico punched the tiny gold knob on his digital watch. Five sharp. Another hour to wait. He would spend that hour thinking about death. Would this be the time? He didn’t know, never knew. He might be the best informante around, but the odds were against him. So many of them; just one of him. Five years on the streets can burn even the best undercover man. Sooner or later they would kill him. He had no doubt about that, because they had tried at least a dozen times.
And they had come very close once. El Perico could still feel the heat of the .22 bullet as it ripped through his stomach lining; still hear the desperate footsteps of the faceless gunman as he fled across the parking lot and into the shadows. That had scared him. Not just getting shot, but the lengths to which his assassins had gone to kill him. They made their play at the Holiday Inn where he was staying with four other agents waiting to testify in a federal court in Brownsville. It was a crazy, risky thing to do, and they almost succeeded. Death, the abstract, was one thing to reckon with; all men had to face it. But death, the reality, was quite another. Death was not something El Perico mused about after funerals or when he saw a gory car accident on some freeway. It was a presence that stalked him constantly: every time he turned the key to his car engine; every time he flicked out the lights in a motel room; every time he turned a strange corner in some border town.
But was it worth it? Yes. It was worth it because it was the only way he could be somebody. Some gringo who’d grown up with his belly full of food and his closet full of clothes probably wouldn’t understand that. But to El Perico, being somebody was all there was to life. You don’t drop out of school at twelve to help your father wash dishes at the bus station and not have something to prove to the world. And you don’t have your hands rapped with a ruler by your first-grade teacher for speaking Spanish in class and not have something to show everybody. And you don’t come home from school every day and wash out your one pair of jeans so that you have something to wear the next day and not want to leave some kind of mark. Yes, being somebody was all there was to El Perico’s life. Even if it led to his death.
Tonight’s business was of particular importance. Tonight was the beginning of what would become one year of undercover work on a big-time heroin pusher by the name of Valdez.
Valdez would be a particularly tough nut to crack, probably because he was not just any old horse pusher. Valdez was a member of the upper crust of the Mexican dope industry—a member of one of the ten to twenty large families who move tons of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana across the Rio Grande each week. Like most of the big dope families, the Valdez clan was based on nuclear bonds; only brothers, uncles, cousins, and other blood relations were brought into the upper echelons of the operation. Like the big Mafia families of New York and Chicago, the Mexican dope families believed that blood ties were the only trustworthy relationships when dealing outside the law—particularly when the gross from those illicit dealings could total well over $1 million a week.
Dopers like Valdez didn’t simply get into dope; they grew up on it. As such, their antennae for the Man were much more finely tuned than those of the average greaseball street pusher. Talking big and flashing a lot of C-notes wouldn’t sell a Valdez; like most businessmen, he had to trust and like a prospective client before doing business. Acquiring that trust and friendship required a good line of smooth talk, to be sure; but more than that, it required patience.
El Perico had met Valdez the way he met many dopers: through a friend of a friend of a friend. His early connections to dopers through his sister’s bar, plus his years on the street working undercover, had left him with a long string of acquaintances in the doper underground. Only a few of these knew he was an informante, and most of them were behind bars. For one thing, he’d adequately maintained his cover by being arrested along with the dopers in many of his cases. For another, he knew that one thing dopers didn’t do was communicate with one another about such matters. Sure, they drank together, made referrals; but they rarely traded stories about busts or the people involved in them. Dopers were nothing if not selfish. If another of their kind got busted, that was his problem.
A junkie he’d known for some time introduced him to Valdez one night at a Dallas bar. They exchanged typical barroom banter, the traditional “mating dance” of dopers. El Perico could tell Valdez was sizing him up. After all, that junkie didn’t introduce Valdez to this stranger because he was lonely. And this stranger wearing the expensive clothes and jewelry obviously was not, as he claimed to be, a vacuum cleaner salesman visiting Dallas for a convention.
El Perico, for his part, did his own share of sizing up. He already knew something of Valdez and his family from DEA intelligence. The Valdez clan, like the other large Mexican dope families, worked from both sides of the border out of Laredo. Family interests owned poppy fields in the Mexican interior and heroin and cocaine labs in the highlands near Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco and maintained a huge cadre of buyers, sellers, and runners in the major border cities along the Rio Grande; the family generally stopped there, though it had solid, loyal connections in San Antonio, Dallas (the two big “middle man” cities), Chicago, LA, and New York. The mechanics of the trade with most big Mexican dope families was carefully divided among the family members. Valdez, for example, dealt only heroin; his brother dealt only cocaine, a cousin dealt only grass; yet another cousin traded only in pills. Brothers or cousins rarely crossed commercial lines into another family member’s milieu. Valdez, for example, never talked coke or grass or pills; he talked only heroin. Like most billion-dollar industries, dope dealing had become rigidly specialized.
And billion-dollar industry was no exaggeration. The amounts of money involved in the dope trade still staggered El Perico. Consider just one paltry kilo of heroin. It came out of a lab at the “pure level”—meaning 85 to 90 per cent. It sold to a dealer for $20,000. From there, the dealer “cut” it once, maybe twice. “Cutting” was the doper’s version of nuclear fission. One kilo of 85 per cent lab heroin could easily become two kilos of 42 per cent H, or four kilos of 20 per cent horse, and so on, simply by being strained into the proper amounts of granulated sugar.
Cutting a kilo any number of times did not at all reduce its potential sale price on a per kilo basis; in fact, depending on where the dope was dealt, it could increase it. In other words, by the time that one kilo from the lab reaches the streets, it could be as many as 25 to 30 kilos of “street” heroin (2 per cent) selling at $75,000 to $100,000 per kilo—a 500 per cent markup from production to retail sale.
El Perico and Valdez had spent that first evening conspicuously avoiding talk of dope. Valdez, of course, didn’t want to overplay his hand with the stranger. El Perico, in turn, didn’t want to appear anxious either. Only the Man was anxious in dealing with dopers. Role-playing was an important part of undercover work, to be sure; but overplaying the role could be more dangerous than underplaying it. The initial meeting had ended with Valdez casually mentioning to El Perico to drop by his bar the next time he was down to the border.
El Perico had waited a couple of weeks to trek down to Laredo. After five years of dealing with scores of dopers, El Perico knew exactly how to approach the Valdez bar. That was why he had once again put on his best threads. Clothes were as important to dopers as they were to pimps—maybe more so. If you trade in dope, you make money; if you make money, you spend it on clothes. This was a convention of the doper underground not to be slighted. Like some exotic species of tropical bird, dopers tend to trust only those of their particular plumage. Jeans and work shirts were reserved only for the top dogs—men like Valdez. Only they could say to the rest of the doper underground, “I’m so big, I don’t need the threads to prove it.”
The second prerequisite for the first visit to the bar was a pocketful of “whip out”—$1000 or so in $100 bills to flash around. Once again, the purpose was simple: to reconfirm in Valdez’ mind—even if in a small and rather juvenile way—that the stranger had cash. The third element was something not so easily acquired as expensive clothes and a pile of C-notes. It was “acting cool.” Acting cool was nothing that could be taught at the DEA agents’ school in Washington, D.C.; nor was it necessarily something that could be picked up on the streets. El Perico didn’t like to brag, but either you had it or you didn’t.
El Perico had spent the first two nights in Valdez’ bar baiting the trap. This was a simple, sometimes silly, process but one that EI Perico had found invaluable in undercover work. The idea was to attract Valdez’ attention to the extent that he made the first move. This was extremely important at any stage of undercover work. Dopers were very wary of a stranger who seemed too anxious or aggressive; invariably, he was some inexperienced agent overplaying his hand. Moreover, the laws of entrapment—the doper’s favorite defense in the courtroom—were sufficiently vague to warrant extreme caution on the part of the undercover agent.
El Perico had walked into the bar as if he owned it, taken a seat at one end, alone and conspicuous, and dropped a $20 bill on the bar. Then he’d motioned for the bartender, a fragile, wan Mexican youth with unkempt shoulder-length hair, to take his order. He leaned forward, took off his $40 sunglasses, and said in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the bar, “This is for you. I want Johnny Walker Black, straight up, and I don’t want my glass to ever be empty. Got it?” The youth whispered, “Yessir,” and bowed slightly.
Two drinks later, El Perico dropped a C-note on the bar, and ordered the bartender to serve up a round for the bar.
He dropped another $10 on the bartender out of his change. Then he checked the time, making certain the Chicanos in the back booth—undoubtedly part of Valdez’ coterie—caught a glimpse of his Pulsar watch. Then he simply waited.
Valdez made his appearance soon enough. He greeted El Perico warmly, bought him a couple of drinks, and asked him to join the group at the back booth. El Perico was once again careful not to look overanxious, saying he only had time for a couple of drinks, since he had business to take care of. Mentioning mysterious “business” was a favorite ploy. It always tended to confirm in the doper’s mind the suspicion that this well-dressed stranger with the C-notes in his pocket was a dope dealer looking for action.
They were four in the booth—Valdez, El Perico, and two husky, mean-eyed bodyguards. The conversation started with basic bar talk. El Perico was a master at this. Whether it was an inborn or acquired talent, he did not know, but he had always had a natural flair for man talk. It was a particular skill, the agents who worked with him often said, that separated El Perico from most other injormantes.
The key to El Perico’s art of conversation had as much to do with listening as talking. Dopers, he’d often reflected, could be hustled just like women. Tell them what they want to hear and listen to what they want to say. That is why with a man like Valdez, he spent a good portion of the initial conversation, listening. Listening and laughing. Laughing was important, too. Dopers, like most criminals, were egomaniacs; they liked to have their jokes properly appreciated by the audience. This also El Perico had refined to an art. He could conjure just the right giggle or guffaw for any joke; and he could do it without sounding nervous. There was only one thing worse than not laughing at all—laughing too much.
Eventually the discussion rambled to its first key juncture. Valdez, in the middle of a long and rhapsodic soliloquy on the virtues of gringo women, suddenly turned to El Perico and asked, “Hey, amigo, what line you in?” This was an integral part of the ritual of foreplay between doper and doper; asking what a stranger did for a living was a universally understood icebreaker between drug dealers. El Perico said, “Oh, you know, this and that. I got two or three things going. I’m down here checking out some imports for a little business I got.” Imports: that was the keyword. It was as good as saying, “I’m in dope.” With some dopers, more overt talk was necessary. There had been the doper in McAllen whom EI Perico had approached by saying, “Hey, you seen chiva around here?” The doper had tried to look confused. “Chiva!! No. No chiva around here.” EI Perico had replied with an incredulous grin. Then the doper had quickly said, “Oh, chiva! Sure, chiva, like heroina. Sure!” With a pusher of Valdez’ stature no such monkey business was necessary. The suit, the boots, the watch, and imports were all the data he needed to size up El Perico.
Then it was only a matter of how long Valdez wanted to wait before he got specific. This was a matter essentially out of El Perico’s hands. He could nudge and prod the doper in various ways, but he couldn’t force the issue. Pressing the matter before Valdez trusted and liked him could only make the doper suspicious. Besides, playing the waiting game could be its own kind of pressure on the doper. If El Perico had learned one thing about dopers, it was that greed, more than anything else, governed their business transactions. As wary and careful as they might try to be, any doper—even a Valdez—would eventually succumb to an overriding lust to sell one more ounce of dope. Like used-car salesmen, dopers were never really satisfied with the present trade.
El Perico had left Valdez dangling that night. Valdez had advanced the foreplay by mentioning that he had worked with several people in imports and might introduce El Perico around the next time he was in town. El Perico had left it at that, giving Valdez a list of his phone numbers and saying whenever he was back in town he would drop by again. He knew, though, that that wouldn’t be necessary. Valdez, he sensed, would make the next move.
The next morning, before leaving Laredo, El Perico called two agents at the DEA and briefed them on his progress with Valdez. Though they were characteristically anxious to push the doper, El Perico advised that they play cat and mouse for a few weeks anyway. When and if he sensed that Valdez wanted to talk specifically, he would bring one or both of the agents along as his “associates.” That way, Valdez would be familiar with the gringos and less likely to suspect them of being the Man as the negotiations progressed. This was always a tricky stage of any undercover operation. As smooth as El Perico was at setting up dopers, he had little control over how they might react to two strange gringos. It was, however, something he was stoical about. The agents were, in their way, as crucial to any bust as the undercover informante. They were, after all, the ones with the badges and the weight of the law behind them. It was crucial that they be present for the actual exchange of cash and dope. The word of a mere informer in court could easily be impeached by a clever defense attorney; the word of one or two agents could not be.
Two, four, then six weeks passed and still no word from Valdez. The agents were getting impatient, and even El Perico had to admit he was a little worried.
Then, less than a week later, he got a phone call late one night at his Dallas apartment. It was Valdez. He said he had talked to his friends in the import business and that they might be able to help El Perico. When could he get down to the border? El Perico allowed a small grin as he told Valdez he was pretty tied up that week, but that maybe he could get down the next. Would Valdez be around, say, Wednesday? Sure he would, just come by the bar. Would it be okay if he brought a couple of his associates by to meet Valdez? Sure, no problem.
El Perico immediately called his agents in Laredo to inform of the break in the case. He said he would meet them at the Holiday Inn on Tuesday before the meeting to discuss details. Then he went to his closet and checked his wardrobe. He sifted through the expensive suits and shirts. Nothing he liked. He decided to go shopping. Nothing was too good for Mr. Valdez.
The bar was empty when El Perico and the two gringo agents arrived and took a booth toward the back. El Perico exchanged pleasantries in Spanish with the young bartender, dropped another $20, and ordered a round. Then he told the youth to find Valdez.
Valdez appeared from a back office—alone this time, a sure sign that he was ready to talk business. Rather than treat the gringo agents with suspicion, Valdez seemed to ignore them as he talked and joked. That was fine, thought El Perico. Like most dopers, Valdez was used to lackeys and flunkies. His disregard for the gringos meant he believed El Perico was, in fact, a big-time dealer.
The conversation meandered through three rounds of drinks. Valdez was obviously priming his visitors for the “booze test”—a test of a stranger’s ability to hold liquor. Heavy drinking was a time-honored rite of the doper subculture. Any stranger who began to flop his head a little or slur his speech after four or five cocktails was immediately suspect. Also if a stranger did in fact get a little drunk, the doper might pick up some crucial insights—like whether he was on the level or not—from his boozy talk.
El Perico had endured hundreds of booze tests. Sometimes they turned into all-night orgies, or even five-day binges, but he had never failed to survive. For one thing, his bladder was probably as good as any doper’s. For another, his favorite drink—scotch straight up—was the sort of cocktail one could drink slowly, while appearing to consume a lot. Third, El Perico knew every trick in the book when it came to marathon drinking. His favorite ploy was to take two or three sips from a cocktail and then, when the doper went to the restroom, to pour all but a fraction of the booze on the carpet beneath the table. It was a silly, almost juvenile subterfuge, but it had never failed to work.
Valdez finally broke the ice by inviting the three to a party later that night. He said a lot of his friends in the import business would be there, and it would be a good opportunity for everyone to get to know one another. Though disappointed Valdez had not actually brought up drugs, El Perico considered the party invitation progress. He realized it was more stalling, more testing, but at least Valdez was still playing ball.
The party was the ultimate doper affair: lots of booze, girls, joking and backslapping, loud music, even a little freelance gambling on the back porch. He must have met a dozen Valdezes: cousins and brothers and brothers-in-law, sisters, wives, and uncles. Only one piqued his interest—an elderly uncle by the name of Antonio. Antonio, a bright-eyed, white-haired man of sixty or so, was clearly the family godfather. His manner, more than his statesmanlike appearance, gave him away. The blithe way he accepted the attention and services of the rest of the brood, the kingly smile he gave all the women, the way he lorded over the hired help clearly pegged him as the jefe. So did the way he looked at El Perico.
The old man had been studying him since he and the agents first arrived. His manner was that of a polished professional. The elder Valdez didn’t gawk or stare; he just kept the stranger within his line of sight at all times. Moreover, El Perico could tell he was studying the little things. How the stranger walked, how he greeted family members when introduced to them, how much and how quickly he drank. In a perverse way, El Perico admired the old man’s skill; he was as good at surveillance as most agents El Perico had worked with.
Finally Valdez introduced El Perico to Antonio. The old man shook El Perico’s hand firmly as he inspected the $300 suit, the boots, and jewelry. He seemed favorably impressed. He chatted amiably about this and that—like his nephew, he was a profuse talker—and eventually brought the discussion to “imports.” He said he hoped El Perico had managed to meet the Valdez family members who were involved in imports. Perhaps, he said with a wink, we all could do some business someday.
At last! The old man approved! Now Valdez could, and would, talk a deal! Trying to contain his excitement, El Perico replied matter-of-factly that, yes, that might be arranged, although he was pretty booked up these days. He waited for some sign in the old man’s eyes, some indication. But the old fellow was a pro; he wasn’t about to get rattled by such big talk. But maybe, just maybe, thought El Perico, he will pass the message along to his nephew: move quickly with this tall stranger; he’s ready.
The next morning Valdez called El Perico and asked him to meet him—alone—at the bar. The edge to his voice told El Perico that the doper had, in fact, been cued by his uncle; he was ready to talk time, amount, and price. Valdez surprised El Perico by beginning the meeting without benefit of the normal small talk. “How much money your associates have?” he asked, sipping at a cup of coffee.
“Enough,” El Perico replied.
“Hmmm. I tell you. I’ve got some extra stuff I need to unload—a couple pounds of sixty per cent chiva that’s burning a hole in my pocket. Could you handle, say, fifty a pound or so?”
“Don’t see why not, but I have to check.” Valdez nodded.
El Perico stood up from the booth, extended his band, and said, “I’ll call. If it’s no, maybe we work something out another time. If it’s yes, you set it up like you want.”
Valdez looked troubled. “Something else, amigo. Your people, can they put something up front? Say, twenty per cent, something like that?”
El Perico withdrew his hand and stroked his beard. ¡Mierda! He knew something had to go wrong. Of course a doper like Valdez would want some cash fronted—it was a common hedge against ripoff artists, and, not incidentally, the Man. Any dealer who couldn’t front money was immediately suspected of being one or the other. ¡Mierda!
He studied Valdez’ questioning face and quickly considered the matter. Would the feds be willing to front this time? He never could tell. On rare occasions they would, but it was more or less policy not to let loose of the taxpayers’ money until the dope was delivered. The red tape was complicated, and there were some legal problems. Fronting money could be construed in some sense as entrapment. All in all, the feds would rather wait out a doper or make several smaller buys over a period of time, than front money.
He would just have to see. The fronting problem was a common one. Generally, he dealt with it in one of two ways. Either he told the doper he’d have to ask “his people” or he feigned anger and insult at the suggestion of fronting, hoping to play on the friendship and trust he’d built up. With Valdez, he quickly decided on the latter.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, amigo. My people don’t like fronting. Besides, you want a front, how ’bout fronting us some dope? I can find other people to sell to me, you know.”
Valdez’ face was impassive, bearing no hint of his reaction to El Perico’s reply. Would the ploy work? Would Valdez be bothered that he’d obviously insulted this new client? Would that make him hack off? Or would Valdez in turn be angered by El Perico’s terse response? He didn’t know. He would have to wait. Once again, he would leave Laredo with his prey just barely out of reach.
During the next few weeks, El Perico and the agents discussed Valdez’ demand and what they could do should he decide not to recant it. Essentially, they had two options. Since an outright front was out, they could renegotiate with the doper, suggesting a smaller buy or series of buys amounting to the several pounds the dealer wanted to unload. Such a maneuver was called a “buy and walk,” a common practice in undercover work. Buy and walks were useful in many ways. First, since the amount involved in the sales was substantially reduced, the doper usually didn’t push so hard for front money; second, many dopers liked to transact for a relatively small amount—say five to ten ounces—before making a larger sale. It was, like the booze test, a way of checking out a stranger.
But for some vague reason, El Perico sensed that a buy and walk was not right for Valdez. Valdez had done all the checking he needed by parading the strangers before his family and Antonio; once they had stamped their seal of approval on the deal, he had likely put all questions or suspicions out of his mind. Moreover, he had brought up the suggested size for the transaction. To reduce that now, to change the deal, could only make him suspicious. Particularly since the inability to front and the tendency to buy dope in a series of small amounts were trademarks of the Man.
His second option—the one he knew he would eventually select—was to wait the doper out, and if and when he contacted him again, suggest a “flash.” “Flashing” was a watered-down form of fronting, a device agents and informants had developed to live with both DEA policy and the ways of the doper underground. Basically, a flash involved the agents—the buyers—rounding up a few thousand dollars in cash and showing, or flashing, it to the doper; the doper, in turn, producing a few ounces—or some small percentage of the actual sale—of dope for the agents to see. Sometimes an exchange took place, sometimes it didn’t. In any case, the ritual was merely the final act of foreplay before the deal.
El Perico had found flashing a reasonably effective means of skirting the matter of fronting; but he still would have preferred to have the freedom to front outright, if necessary. He could understand DEA’s point in its policy. As the largest single purchaser of illegal drugs in the United States, the federal government had to be careful about how it used taxpayers’ money in the pursuit of dope dealers. An actual buy or a flash was fine; the money was being put to some tangible purpose. But an outright front smacked of an unnecessary waste of money. As long as agents could somehow get around the dopers’ demands for front money, the government saw little sense in relenting to the traditions of the doper underground.
But to El Perico, that was just the point. Fronting was a way of life on the border, particularly in the upper echelons of the dope industry. As far as he knew, the inability to front outright hadn’t actually blown many busts, but it had a kind of chilling effect on how far up in a particular dope family an agent or an informer could go. El Perico had often theorized, in fact, that the best way to get at the dope problem would be to free up, say, a couple hundred thousand dollars for two agents and their informante and let them do as they pleased with it. With that kind of money, and the freedom to front it at will, El Perico had no doubt he could buy his way up to a heroin lab or poppy field—the real core of the dope trade. Busting a dealer was fine; but in many cases, he was replaced by another greaseball the next day. The actual flow of dope across the border was hardly affected. But busting a lab—now that would significantly curtail the amounts of heroin and coke coming across the river. El Perico sincerely hoped drug enforcement would take a turn in that direction one day—whether he was still around or not.
In the meantime, though, he would simply wait.
One, two, three, four months passed with no word from Valdez. El Perico, now doing some undercover work on gunrunning out of the Midwest to Mexico, had all but given up on the doper. He figured he’d failed, failed for the third or fourth time in his career. Valdez just turned out to be too smart, too sensitive to the peculiar ways of the Man. Like the other times a doper had turned cold on him, he began to worry a little. What if word got around about this tall Chicano stranger who was the Man? What would happen the next time he wandered into some strange doper bar in some border town? Would they be waiting with open arms and cocked triggers? That certainly was a possibility. No one, least of all El Perico, could overestimate the temper of a doper. They had a special hatred for the Man, a hatred El Perico had seen on the faces of each of the thirty men he’d sent behind bars. It was a narrowing of the eyes, and then the chilling, “Hombre, I’m going away for twenty years, but I will live through it just to come back for you.” Was Valdez thinking that?
The break came early one morning—early enough for Valdez’ phone call from Laredo to wake up El Perico. Valdez once again said he’d been wondering where El Perico was and how their business proposition was coming along. El Perico hesitated for an instant and proposed the flash. Conjuring all the anger he could in his voice, he said evenly: “My people and me, we don’t front. I thought we had a pretty good relationship, but then you want to front. You want money fronted, you front some dope.” He listened to Valdez’ soft breathing on the other end of the line.
“Okay, amigo,” Valdez said. “You come on down. I flash a few ounces. Maybe. But we talk again. Okay?” El Perico knew he had the fish hooked now; it was only a matter of reefing him in firmly, without mercy. “No, no, no, amigo. Let’s say now. We see a few ounces, you see the cash. Okay?” More soft, even breathing on the other end of the line.
“Okay,” Valdez whispered. “Two days from now, the Holiday Inn. You call.” The hiss of the long-distance connection stopped abruptly. El Perico smiled in the morning shadows of his bedroom and heaved a happy and satisfied sigh.
After discussing the details of surveillance with the agents, El Perico called Valdez at his bar. Valdez seemed genuinely pleased that the deal was finally on its way. He agreed to meet El Perico and his people in the parking lot of a shopping center on the outskirts of the city; since it was a Sunday, the rendezvous would probably be deserted.
At 3 p.m. El Perico sat in the backseat of an old Chevrolet awaiting Valdez at the shopping center; the agents sat in the front seat. All three sat in pensive silence. El Perico knew he had to be at his best today to bring a year’s work to fruition. The agents knew they had to be alert. Once dope and money were actually involved in a setup, the agents had to keep track of every detail of the transaction. They had to see the dope, verify its nature, remember each and every thing the doper said. All this would be extremely important later in court, where El Perico’s word could easily be impeached.
Valdez arrived five minutes late. He rode in the backseat of a small American compact. Two goons manned the front seat, both wearing suspicious and surly faces. El Perico and one agent got out of their car and walked the six feet to Valdez’ auto; the doper beckoned him into the backseat. El Perico was careful to leave the back door of the car open, so that the other agent could watch the transaction. El Perico produced a paper sack from under his coat; he pulled out a handful of wadded $50 bills. He nodded to Valdez.
Valdez reached down into the crotch of his pants and produced a small package wrapped in white butcher paper. The two exchanged parcels. El Perico immediately handed the package to the agent, who carefully unwrapped the butcher paper and the two layers of plastic wrapping covering the finely granulated beige substance. Valdez meanwhile rummaged around in the paper sack, extracting wads of fifties to inspect. The agent fingered the substance, sniffed at it, and nodded curtly. El Perico broke the silence: “You want to count it, amigo?” Valdez looked at him and smiled. “No, no need.”
Then the agent spoke. “Give us a couple of hours. We need to check the stuff for sure. Then we talk again.” Valdez nodded, obviously impressed that his new clients had the skill and the savvy to field test the dope. The three exchanged handshakes.
At the motel room the agents carefully ran the substance through a field test; it was horse all right, high-grade horse. They had at last consummated a buy from the elusive Valdez. Now the only question was how best to finish him off. With little discussion, the agents and El Perico agreed on a game plan. They would not transact for the remaining three pounds in Laredo, but ask Valdez to bring it to Dallas. The strategy had several rationales. For one thing, Dallas was simply a better place for a big buy. There were more agents for surveillance, the money would be more readily available. For another, a Dallas rendezvous could only reaffirm in Valdez’ mind that his new clients were, in fact, big time. Only greaseballs dealt exclusively on the border. A Dallas connection meant the buyers had established contacts in the city to cut the dope and move it to Chicago and New York for street sale.
El Perico called Valdez and explained the deal. As they had expected, Valdez was readily agreeable, though he said it would take more time to arrange. Fine, El Perico said. How about, say, one week from today. You call me this time. Bueno, Valdez said, and hung up.
Later that night, as he crawled between the damp, mildewed sheets of his motel bed, El Perico reflected on the year with Valdez. It never ceased to amaze him how a simple introduction through a friend of a friend and a couple of drinks could lead to a multi-thousand-dollar transaction for heroin. Such occurrences, he supposed, were common in legitimate businesses; but with dope, the process of deal making seemed, well, so primitive. No contracts, no lawyers, no fancy agreements, no luncheons at high-class restaurants, no long and smoky sessions in conference rooms. Just one man’s trust for another. Friendship. He was amazed by how fragile the basis was of this multi-billion-dollar illegal industry.
Did he feel any remorse for Valdez? Maybe a little. He was by now, of course, hardened to such guilt, but he had liked the fellow. Except for what he did for a living, Valdez was a pleasant man, enjoyable company. But then, so were most other dopers. The way El Perico liked to look at it, Valdez was not really the object of the bust—the dope was. It was the dope he hated, not the man. Valdez just happened to be in the way.
Before sleep overtook him, he thought briefly of Valdez’ Uncle Antonio. He wondered what the old man’s reaction would be. Stoical? Perversely amused? Vengeful in a cold and businesslike manner? No. Antonio would be mad, furiously mad. As Antonio’s visage faded, one more thought crowded its way into El Perico’s mind.
That thought was about death.
The agents picked up El Perico at 6:15 p.m. The three rode in silence to the rendezvous, each contemplating his particular role in the last act of the Valdez caper. As El Perico watched the neon-studded sky of suburban Dallas, he mused on what Valdez would say, how he would look, what his very first reaction would be. Sometimes dopers could surprise you with their reactions. More than once, a doper, after being arrested, simply turned to El Perico and in an awe-filled voice said, “Pretty good, amigo, pretty damn good”; others seemed slightly amused by the turn of events; still others were silent and would not look at him. Valdez? Well, like his uncle, he would be angry, very angry.
When the agents and El Perico arrived at the restaurant, they carefully selected a shadowy, deserted portion of the parking lot. Surveillance cars were in place and ready to roll when the bust began. Headquarters was ready to process the suspects once they were in hand. Now it was only a matter of waiting one last time for Valdez.
To no one’s surprise, Valdez was late—dopers take pride in showing up in their own time. As in Laredo, the Valdez car pulled up parallel to the agents’ auto, about six feet away. El Perico and one agent got out of the car and once again joined Valdez in the backseat of his auto. The second agent also got out of the car and positioned himself between the two autos, where he could keep an eye on the two goons in the front seat. The ritual was the same, but more perfunctory; after all, one buy had already been made. There was no reason for suspicion or mistrust this time around. The agent handed Valdez a paper sack filled with wads of hundreds. Valdez, in turn, reached under the seat of the car and produced three packets. The agent took the packages and tapped them lightly with his right hand; Valdez took the sack and did the same.
Now it was time. The agent and El Perico got out of the car; El Perico took the parcels of dope and began walking toward his own car. Valdez inadvertently did them a favor by also getting out of the car, apparently to exchange parting pleasantries. As soon as he had shut the car door, the agent nodded to his colleague, reached in his back pocket, and produced his badge.
“Federal agents. You are under arrest. Do not move.” All manner of cussing and squealing erupted from the front seat of the car as the second agent carefully extracted the goons from the auto, frisked, and cuffed them. Valdez looked absolutely mortified. “¡Chingada!” he whispered through pursed lips. “¡Chingada!”
El Perico wandered back to the dopers’ car, as the agents were reading them their rights. He did not try to avoid Valdez’ eyes; he knew it would be impossible. He had been right. His were not the bemused eyes of a doper who found the whole scene perversely comical; nor were they the sullen, resigned eyes of a doper berating himself for trusting a well-dressed stranger. They were the fiery, angry eyes of a doper who wanted retribution. And there was a determination behind the anger that sent chills up El Perico’s back.
El Perico was quickly whisked away by one of the surveillance cars that had arrived just after the bust. After the dopers were jailed, he would meet the primary agents at DEA to help them with the arrest reports. Later he would take the stand at the trial. This was something not many informantes were willing to do. Not only did it mean taking an uncommon risk; it could also be a humiliating experience. Defense attorneys in dope cases liked nothing more than to get a snitch on the stand. Most snitches were easily impeachable because of their prior arrests, pending charges, general reputations—just the fact that they were snitches. Generally, the informer in a case sent a long and detailed affidavit to court signed only by his DEA code number.
El Perico had decided long ago that that was the coward’s way out. If he was willing to spend a year on a man like Valdez, he ought to be willing to see it through to the end. Besides, he firmly believed he could better convince a jury of the veracity of the “snitch’s” testimony by showing up than by signing a nameless, faceless statement. Certainly it increased the odds of his being knocked off. He still shuddered at the words of one of his arrestees as he left the courtroom after being convicted and sentenced. “I’m going to the joint for thirty years, my friend. But I’m going to make it through just to get back here and settle things with you.” He remembered he had conjured a blithe, smartass riposte, “Okay, my friend. I’ll be here.” But down deep he was scared. He wasn’t sure what scared him more: whether he would be there—or whether he wouldn’t.
The jangling of the phone awakened El Perico from the deepest sleep he’d had in many weeks. It had been a little more than two months since the Valdez bust, but only in the last week had he returned to comfortable sleep. He could not forget the doper’s eyes.
The voice at the other end of the line was strange: a thick Mexican accent, a soft, almost distant tone. He did not recognize it.
“Amigo,” the voice said, “you don’t know me, but I do you. I’m in imports too.” The voice paused. Another doper. El Perico struggled to get himself awake. His mind raced. Where could this fellow have heard of him? Many places, he thought. Such calls were, in fact, routine. His number had more than once turned up in the hands of some doper he’d never met.
“I thought we might meet to discuss our business,” the voice continued. El Perico considered the offer. Why not? He hadn’t been working any big deals since the Valdez arrest. The trial was now only a couple days away and that would take up more of his time. Why not get another one on the hook while he had the chance?
“Where?” he asked groggily. The soft voice described a small warehouse near a junkyard in downtown Dallas. Fine, El Perico thought. He had to take his daughter to a music lesson near there, so he would drop by on the way. The meeting was set for 11 a.m.
At 10 a.m. his daughter’s music teacher called to cancel the lesson. El Perico decided to drop her off at an aunt’s house for the afternoon, since he had errands to run after his meeting with the doper. At 10:50 a.m. he pulled into the gravel lot of the junkyard. He immediately spotted the warehouse—actually more of a rundown toolshed. He parked his car and locked it.
The toolshed had a single door and, from what El Perico could see, it had no windows. As he approached the door, he noticed a sleek, late-model car parked in the rear of the shack. Maybe he’d lucked into a bigger fish than he thought.
The door creaked slightly as he pulled it open and stepped inside the shadow-filled room. He edged into a small shaft of light provided by a crack in the roof. From this eerie natural spotlight, he could see a swarthy Mexican seated at a small table across the room. El Perico smiled and nodded; the Mexican returned the smile and beckoned him with a slight gesture. El Perico stepped forward with the casual, matter-of-fact gait of a man merely there to hear someone out.
Halfway to the table. The doper continued to smile. El Perico continued to smile back. The room was silent, except for the faint squishing of his shoes on the wooden floor. Suddenly, behind him the door closed with a slam. The doper continued to smile. El Perico whirled toward the sound. He was halfway around when the bullets hit him.
For the next two months, he lay half dead (half alive?) in a Dallas hospital room. One bullet had creased the side of his skull—causing no permanent damage to the eye or brain. The other had burrowed into his back—missing the spinal cord and doing little damage to the stomach lining. He was very lucky, the doctors said.
El Perico appreciated his good fortune, but he often wondered, as he lay in the starched and sterile hospital bed laboring simply to breathe, whether it wouldn’t have been better to die. There was, of course, the pain. Dying couldn’t hurt this much: one does not get hit by two slugs from a .44 and not hurt. But there was another, more nagging pain: the pain of facing up to quitting this crazy work once and for all. His time had finally come, he supposed. He could not ignore that. All the years of outwitting death were finally over. Yes, he was alive. But it was a small victory. A fraction of an inch difference and either of those bullets could have killed him. That should be enough for any sane, rational man.
After all, he had been at this business five years—much longer than any other informante. He had risen to the top, done things no other special employee had ever done. He had been, he supposed, about as brave as a man could be. And he was not some poor slob with nothing else to his life. He had his kids and now a new wife. He also had his dream of one day opening a drug rehabilitation center. Maybe someone was trying to tell him now was the time to live that other part of his life.
The drug center would not exactly be copping out. He would still be doing something to stop the dope. Maybe he would be doing more. This would not be any crazy methadone clinic or any of that. It would be a class place, where junkies would learn to stay off the stuff and become productive people. Junkies? Productive people? What was he thinking? A dream, sure. He knew too much about dope not to realize that. But a dream, well, that was part of living. And a dream was certainly preferable to thinking about death, wasn’t it?
But what would that living be without being an informante, the best informante? Could it be that a man was what he was until he died—regardless of how often or how closely he brushed with death? Was he like some old and crippled athlete—worn out, but unable to escape his former greatness?
He didn’t know. He only knew that the two gaping holes in his body the size of baseballs demanded that he find out. Most everyone he knew wanted him to quit; but he still couldn’t be sure. Even the pleadings of his wife, the confused eyes of his children as they watched him lie immobile on the couch in his apartment could not convince him.
One afternoon he dozed off, for a few minutes, a few hours—he was never sure these days. When he woke up, he decided to bring in the mail, to try once again to get up and walk without the pain. When he checked the mailbox, already feeling the fatigue from his twenty-foot walk, he found a single letter.
Inside, he flopped back on the couch and opened the envelope. It was a check from the DEA in the amount of $8000—payment for Valdez plus expenses. An answer? Did this mean remain El Perico, the smoothest, smartest informante around? Did this mean remain El Perico because now you have something to prove—to them? He fell asleep again with the questions still ringing in his ears.
The next morning he received a phone call from yet another doper who’d picked up his name on the streets. He said he had sixty ounces or so to unload. El Perico’s mind raced. Was this them again? He doubted it seriously. But should he do it? It was now or never. He could eliminate the worry about death with one simple no.
Then, in a quiet, calm voice-he heard himself ask the doper: “When?”