Kissed by the Devil: A Tale of Theft and Rescue

September 25, 2007

Cuernavaca, Saturday, June 13, 1998: At 1:55 in the afternoon I park my pickup truck on Avenida Central, across the street from La Harinera, about a block from the big traffic circle, La Luna. Thinking I’ll be right back, I don’t attach the security club to the steering wheel or check to see if there’s any danger nearby. I lock it as always and run off to my errands. Twenty minutes later I am back; it seems to me that fewer vehicles are parked on the street and I don’t see any trucks. For a few moments I doubt where I had left it.... Then an icy chill runs down my body; I realize that yes, this is exactly where I had parked and now it’s not here.

I try to think about how to find help, what to do; I see my old friend the mariachi Pancho López walking toward me on his way to work. I wait for him anxiously and as he comes near I call to him: “Pancho, they just stole my pickup from right here.”

“Ay, amiga,” he says, “this is happening every day, the gangs see every opportunity; it’s certain they were watching you. It’s this system that brings up delinquents; we’re all at their mercy. What can I do for you? I have to go to work now but take a taxi to my house and one of my daughters will go with you to make a complaint.” I thank him, but decide to walk in order to think clearly about what to do and which papers I will have to find. At that moment I can’t remember even one digit of the licence plate number, not to mention where any of the documents are.

Two hours later I am home with my niece who has come over to help me look for the papers and make phone calls. I am crushed when she finds out the insurance policy has been cancelled in accordance with my own instructions. We report the theft to the Cuernavaca transit police without the slightest hope that it will do any good. I make the rounds of all the police entities—federal, state, local—asking in each department how they will proceed and what the possibilities are that they can actually recover the vehicle.

Sunday, June 14: The following day is particularly difficult, the sadness is enormous; I take advantage of being alone and cry about my bad luck; only my mystical friend Rosi comes to be with me for a few hours, bringing with her some of her tools of divination. It is Rosi, after letting a small pendulum-like object gyrate over a map of southern Mexico, who for the first time predicts that the truck is in the neighboring state of Guerrero.

Thursday, June 18: My sister Julia, who has been through the stolen car experience, helps me through some of the transit-police procedures I haven’t completed yet. She manages to get one of the chiefs of the state Judicial Police to assign a police officer to accompany us with permission to visit all the privately owned auto pounds in the city. During this tour of the pounds, I learn that the judiciales know a lot more about stolen vehicles than they admit to.

Saturday, June 20: We visit four of these private pounds in the morning. The officer, being new to the force, appears to want to be honest. At the end of the day he tells me our search is a waste of time. “These Nissan pickups aren’t stolen to be dismantled and abandoned,” he says. “They are taken to Guerrero to be driven up in the sierra. They sell for a good price there and that’s where they turn up.” This is not a big surprise. The craggy sierras have long been “no man’s lands,” famed for their lawlessness.

But this is something new to think about. Who do I know in Guerrero—that immense state—who might be able to help me? I immediately remember Father Antonio, the sierra missionary—and used car salesman—whom everyone knows as “Grasshopper.” It seems logical to at least tell him about the theft. I reach him the next day. With his usual enthusiasm, he tells me not to worry, that if the truck is anywhere in the Guerrero sierra he will find out; not only does he have friends who sell cars but he can ask all the priests of the sierra to keep an eye out for it. We agree that he will call me later to get all the necessary information to take to the police in the state capital, Chilpancingo, to find out what the correct procedures are.

Wednesday, June 24: At midnight, a phone call wakes me up. It’s Padre Toño “Grasshopper” telling me that that very day, in a meeting with other missionaries, as he was asking them to join in the search for a truck with such and such characteristics, a deacon told him that yes, that very truck was up in the sierra in the town of Coyoteptl, that he and Father So-and-So had seen it. He tells me he will find out just how to proceed, and adds that Coyoteptl has a dangerous reputation.

Friday, June 26: I speak with Alfonso, the Coyoteptl deacon who had spotted the vehicle. He assures me that we are talking about my vehicle because that particular Nissan hadn’t been there before. At each little description I give of the truck he says “yes, that’s it.” According to him, a lot of stolen vehicles arrive in Coyoteptl to be given to the crews. “The crews?” Yes, he says. The crews are groups of workers who are taken to the fields in the trucks. I ask him how I can retrieve it and whether he can help me. He answers that I will have to go to pick it up myself and that it’s certainly risky because the people are very cautious and if they see me there alone they will get suspicious. And the fields worked by the crews, he adds, are opium poppy fields.

I decide to revisit the Judicial Police in Cuernavaca; I ask my old friend Roberto to drive me. On the way over we talk about how to act, what to say and not to say to the judicial, knowing that he may well be in collusion. When the commander arrives, without letting on that we already know something, we sound him out about the risks of going to get the truck. We have decided to tell him that we are missionaries, that we use the truck for our work in the states of Morelos and Guerrero. We tell him we have close ties with the missions of both states and that several missionaries were already helping us look. We name various towns where “they are already looking,” and when I say “Coyoteptl” he looks at me and says: “Well, that’s where it probably is.”

I ask what I would have to do if I were to find the car in some town like Coyoteptl. He says I should tell any police officer belonging to the force investigating the theft that I had seen the vehicle, and as long as I had the proper papers proving my ownership, they would then hand the vehicle over to me. He emphasizes the words “belonging to the force investigating the theft,” and from those words I understand that he is not going to look for anything. Further, I suspect he knows where the stolen-car rings operate and that the rings may well have police protection. I feel he is telling me: “If you know where your truck is, look for it, get the local police to help you and good luck.” I also realize he knows I am making my own investigation.

We leave trying to think of a low-risk rescue plan. We can’t come up with one. Roberto thinks of involving the deacon’s parish. The local parish, he says, acting on behalf of a missionary, should claim the truck from the Coyoteptl police. He suggests I call the parish priest the next day to ask for his intervention, thus avoiding having to go to the sierra and pick up the truck ourselves. But he offers to take me there if necessary.

The rescue plan has to be put into effect as quickly as possible so as not to lose track of the truck. The deacon, in fact, has suggested we come up on Sunday, the day of the weekly used-auto market, since many people go to the sierra on that day and we would pass unnoticed. If we were to go during the week there was a greater chance the car thieves would take back the vehicle at gunpoint or simply prevent me from taking it. This was what I kept being told.

Saturday, June 26: I make more than 30 phone calls trying to contact the parish, the police and my friends. When I speak again with the deacon, he sounds frightened; he asks me please not to involve him; he says the fathers have advised him to be careful, to keep the parish out of trouble. He asks me not to mention his name and almost begs me not to call again. That’s when I realize that I am on my own.

While this is going on, a friend gets some information about the local authorities, including the name of the municipal president and some comments about the fame of the community for its killers and criminals. He also finds out, according to a native of Coyoteptl now living in Cuernavaca, that “the new authorities were elected as reformers and are trying to change all that and do away with municipal corruption.”

I call my informant Alfonso again and ask that he do me the favor of checking the exact position of the vehicle; I assure him that I will protect him by telling the authorities that I myself have spotted the truck, that I am certain that it is mine and that I want the police to recover it for me.

With the information I receive I call the municipal offices and tell a trustee that I have been on the track of my truck for four days, that I’ve just come back to Cuernavaca to ask my friends to accompany me, that it’s on such-and-such a street in front of such-and-such houses, that it had arrived the previous Monday and was being used to “go to work.” I assure him that at that precise moment it’s parked in such a position; I also tell him that I have people keeping watch over it to check every movement and that for reasons of security I can’t reveal their names. I offer a reward for the next day, Sunday, when I intend to retrieve it. I speak with the trustee as though I know the municipal president, referring to her by name and as a woman worthy of the job, honorable in the carrying out of her duties.

He assures me that they are very responsible in cases of vehicle recovery, that the judicial police don’t even enter the community; that they themselves are the authority and that if I show up with the ownership papers, they will confiscate the truck and hand it over to me personally. He says they will go to find it that very minute and they will call me in about two hours if all the descriptions I have given him really fit the vehicle.

An hour and a half later the trustee calls to tell me they have recovered the truck, that all is well and that they will wait for my arrival to give it to me personally. When I ask him whether I run any danger at all he advises me not to come alone and to come as early in the day as possible. That’s when my adrenalin rises to record levels and I begin to plan the rescue. I round up seven male friends for the long drive from Cuernavaca through the sierra to Coyoteptl. It isn’t easy for the men I invite to agree to accompany me, and a few ask if there might be another way to get the truck back. Nonetheless, all are ready to take the risk.

That night I receive a call from a woman who asks if I am the owner of the truck, and whether all my papers are in order. I ask if there is some problem and she simply replies, “No, I am just getting ready to return your vehicle to you tomorrow. I am the president of the municipality of Coyoteptl and I will have the pleasure of helping you tomorrow at noon.”

Of course, I can’t sleep at all that night imagining the risks I could be running. I have everything planned, and have enough money for expenses and rewards. My friends begin arriving at five in the morning. They are almost camouflaged, each one representing his chosen character: the human rights representative, the gringo missionary, the newspaper reporter, the Guerrero tough guy and the family members. We leave soon after five in Roberto’s van; the “Red Van Gang” is riding to the rescue.

We take the highway toward Acapulco, and about four hours later, as we turn into the sierra, we begin seeing dismantled, rolled-over and abandoned vehicles along the shoulder of the road. Just as we turn onto the dirt road that will take us to the heart of the sierra, we see an open-air used-vehicle market, with at least a half dozen Nissan pickup trucks for sale. It looks like an auction among armed and rich men, protected, or at least legalized by the presence of the police.

We drive by slowly, wary of the situation we may be entering. As we slowly proceed, the driver of a truck parked by the side of the road motions for us to stop. He gets out and approaches us, and as he peers in the passenger side front window he asks: “Is one of you the owner of a truck from Cuernavaca?” I identify myself and he tells me the municipal president is in his truck and would like to talk with me. We are all worried that the plan has fallen through and the whole “committee” gets out of the van to accompany me. The president excuses herself for this “improvised” meeting, but tells me she has given orders to her assistant to deliver the truck to me when we arrive in town. “Everything is in order,” she says.

We continue up the mountain to Coyoteptl. When we arrive, we see about 200 cars, most of them without plates and with temporary permits from at least eight different states of the country. The town is not as poor as others in the sierra and we see a good looking vehicle even in front of the poorest houses. We grow increasingly uneasy. Even though it’s the rainy season, since entering the surrounding area, we have not seen a single cultivated plot of corn; and we have seen several small airfields on the way up. People look at us suspiciously; young boys follow us closely, asking: “How did you get here? Who told you your truck was here?” Clearly, we have entered a town supported by the drug trade.

Arriving at the center of town, we quickly spot the truck and see that it’s near the municipal building and seems to be in good condition. We speak with a police commander who tells us the truck’s “owners” have threatened not to let us take it. He also tells us about the mechanical failures of the vehicle, that the sparkplugs don’t work, that it stalls going uphill, that we won’t be able to find either a mechanic or spare parts in Coyoteptl, in short, that we’d never get it out of town.

We meet with the trustee who prepares all the paperwork and also speaks of a supposed “owner” who has purchased the truck for 4,000 pesos and has now complained because his vehicle has been confiscated. The trustee acknowledges that these are vehicles “outside the law” but that he can’t do anything because the police can’t guard so many cars and also because, unlike myself, the theft victims almost never come up to claim their cars, so “if we seize them we are accused of wanting them for ourselves. We will do what we can do.”

At about three in the afternoon, without having to pay a reward or “repurchase” it, I’ve got my truck back and we leave Coyoteptl, traveling as fast as we can down the sierra; I am driving the truck, following the red van that had brought us there. Behind us, escorting us out of the sierra, are seven armed officers in a police car. At one point they catch up to us and tell us they don’t have enough gas in the tank to continue escorting and protecting us. I agree to pay for their gas, and when we reach the agreed-upon point at which we would no longer need their “protection,” we all step out and I make the payment. After that point, we don’t stop until we are back on the main highway near Iguala. There we catch our breath, have something to eat and talk about the adventure. At last we feel safe.

Several weeks later: After relating all this to Father Antonio, he tells me of a recent experience of his. A campesino who had a small farm in the sierra came to church and, leaving an appropriate fee, ordered a mass to be said “whenever it might be convenient for the padrecito.” When Father Antonio asked what the “intention” of the mass would be, the campesino responded: “Well, it’s always the same, Padrecito, that we have a good poppy crop this season.”

“But we can’t say that in the mass; you know it’s against the law.”

“OK, Padrecito, so how shall we say it?”

“Well, for the planting. Or for an abundant harvest.”

“That’s fine, Padrecito, as long as God knows it’s for the poppies.”

When I went to the parish house to reward the deacon for having found the truck, I realized that this church lived side by side with the drug trade without being able to influence it in any way. They could help me, as Father Grasshopper had said, “under the table,” but they had no power to see that justice was done because if they tried, their very parishoners would then abandon, or worse, attack them. And more, they realized the impoverished campesinos of the parish lived a bit better for the poppy cultivation, and so they turned a blind eye.

For several weeks after the adventure, the truck remained cloistered with the Sisters of the Divine Mystery in Cuernavaca. The nuns offered to guard it until I decided whether to paint it a different color, sell it, or simply get over my fears that it would be stolen again—perhaps at gunpoint. Eventually I took it back, reinsured it, and sure enough, it was taken again, this time from inside a “well-guarded” garage in a shopping mall. This time, since it had clearly been “kissed by the devil,” I left it to its fate in the sierra.

Irene Ortiz is a writer and activist based in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Some of the names in this story have been changed. Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

Tags: Mexico, drug trade, auto theft, narcotrafficking

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