Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The coyote I once was (Crime and art)

It was early that chilly October night in New York City during the fall season of 2008 and a group of Houstonians were the main attraction for visitors in the facilities in the CUE Foundation Gallery on West 25th Street in Manhattan. It was the first visit to the Big Apple for local artist and poet Juan Salvador Macias as part of an art exhibition put together by fellow artist and bar owner Jim Pirtle.
“I had the opportunity to go to New York with Jim driving a U-Haul truck with all the art for the NotsuoH show piled up in the trailer. I really couldn’t miss that experience,” said the artist, who quit his job at a local warehouse and sold his beat-up ’92 Saturn for $300 to barely cover his expenses for the trip.
30-year-old Sal (as he’s known by friends and acquaintances around town) has medium height and average body build leaning on the slim side. He mostly displays a good-natured, frank attitude, but isn’t shy about expressing his spirit, both irreverent and mischievous. The Texas native is a curious mix of gypsy and Latino with hair that is dark, wavy and kind of shaggy anchored with a goatee that’s pointy at times.
On occasions Sal dresses in black and seems to exude an aura of coolness, perhaps, comparable to the late country singer Johnny Cash.
Paintings, drawings, craft pieces, poetry and prose are shared with his circle of artists, bohemians, and plain partygoers looking to satisfy their inner cravings with art and a mixture of spirits. But Sal has not always been the affable, creative artist that friends know around Houston.
Past life
“I was a thief, I used to steal from people or beg for money, I burglarized homes, including my family’s who didn’t care much for me and I didn’t have any friends left. Nobody wanted to deal with me and I had nothing,” confessed Sal talking about when he lived in Laredo, Texas where he was born in the late 70s.
Around those times he didn’t even use his real name and was known as “Red” by his buddies.
“Laredo, in the words of Kerouac, it’s a no man’s land,” Sal shared. “You can do whatever you want. If you want drugs, if you want whores, if you want to drink, any kind of debauchery, there it is, for the taking.” According to the Laredo native, the border town of Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side is the whatever-you-want-zone.
The life Sal led on this border area where he grew up in the 80’s and 90’s was saddled by vice. Just like drugs guided him to heroin to satisfy his craving for a greater high, crime was the channel for him to become a “coyote” as immigrant smugglers are called.
Applying for a job
“I used to shoot up heroin with a neighbor at his place y once he told me he could hook me up with someone that could help me out,” Sal remembered.
Before his neighbor offered him the opportunity to meet a gang leader for a job within the organization, Sal, a Mexican-American,  had sold his birth certificate and social security card a few times.
“I sold it to them for $150 each time but I have no idea what they used the papers for,” explained Sal while acknowledging that he’d spend the money on drugs and partying.
Although those on the border who decide to work as coyotes are motivated by the prospect of getting loads of cash, that was not really the case for Sal.
“I was a loser; I was nobody, a dud, a useless mule. You know what I mean?” asked Sal seemingly asking for redemption from a past state of mind. He began his experience as a coyote in early 2003 y did it for about six months. His contact, associated with an infamous Mexican gang in California, had relocated to Texas recently and one day took him to meet the chief coyote who led the alien smuggling operation in the area.
“This guy didn’t even speak Spanish because he was from north California but he literally looked like a damn Mexican Indian,” Sal chuckled about his neighbor.
The Top Dog
His neighbor took him to a residence that appeared average in a regular middle class neighborhood and once inside, Sal saw a bedroom where several undocumented immigrants were held. He learned that besides several Mexican nationals, there were some Brazilians, a Chinese man and other Hispanics.
“After I was introduced to the man in charge, he told me ‘I hear that you’re surviving with just $10 to $20 a day with your addictions and you wanna get better,’ but I don’t think he realized how bad of an addiction I had,” Sal said.
The redeemed artist claimed that started using heroin back in 1997 and never suspected he’d immerse in that type of environment at 18 years of age.
He quoted the old saying, “Like they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Sal remembered the day the pleasure of heroin turned into pain when he woke up one day feeling sore all over, very weak and anxious at the same time.
“Unlike pot, pills, or other dope, your body screams for a dose of heroin,” Sal said.
His mother could tell his son was hurting due to his drug use, as Sal’s dad had been addicted to drugs for about 30 years, but he had gone clean by then. There were fights at the Macias home with Sal’s brothers because of the problems stemmed by his drug use.
“I don’t know but I think that there are more heroin, coke and crack addicts on the streets of Laredo than in Houston because there is really nothing to do in that town,” he said. Sal added that it is known that heroin dealers only sell their product during the day.
Many times the police stopped him on the street to question him about drugs or crimes, but the street smart man never carried needles and had usually his drug of choice bagged underneath his tongue. He had to swallow the dope a couple of times to avoid getting caught.
“Back then, I never really came face to face with death, but every day came with some of kind of catastrophe or disgrace for my life,” Sal said.
The business
“They gave me all the heroin, all the coke, all the cervezas I wanted, plus $1000 for just three hours of work at night,” said Sal of the agreement he made with the leader of the smugglers ring.
According to Sal, Aside the coyotes, mostly Hispanics, there were “gringos and blacks” as well in the pack. Besides the ethnic makeup among them, Sal mentioned that there are two kinds of coyotes.
“Everything in life is made for money but there are some good coyotes and the bad coyotes,” he explained.
Like one of Sal’s cousins, the good ones do it mostly for humanitarian reasons and the groups are formed to bring family or friends. There are cash transactions, but it’s mainly to cover the expenses of the trip.
The bad kind are only looking for money and don’t care about anybody or anything, and one example Sal gave was the chief coyote he worked for.
“He was a wretched scoundrel, bad company and just plain bad all over,” the artist said.
However, this bad coyote -also a member of a Mexican gang- was “cool” with Sal, treated him with drugs all the time and got along pretty well.
“I just became a member of one of his three teams that operated in the area. He had drivers, walkers and scrubland guides,” he revealed.
Besides the smuggling activities, Sal also ran everyday errands for his boss, like taking his pit bull to the veterinarian.
First chores
Despite the fact that Sal failed on his first run because he got too high, drunk and paranoid, the main honcho still sympathized with him, and kept him on the crew.
The rookie coyote left a human cargo abandoned out in a dirt field next to some empty warehouse buildings on the outskirts of Laredo. The group of illegals he was guiding had been crawling for about a mile to avoid being caught by the powerful searchlights of the border patrol.
“They gave me a cell phone to keep in touch but I lost it, and we had agreed on picking up the cargo after sneaking through a check point with sensors out of Laredo,” Sal recalled.
After promising the immigrants that he’d be back, Sal left them in an agreed spot, and walked about two miles and called his contacts from a pay phone at a gas station. He made up a story that they had been caught and he had been chased by patrol officers before getting away.
The former coyote remembers he was leading three women and four men that night, but in the following months the ages fluctuated to both younger and older travelers. Sal recalled the leading coyote telling him and his men that they could party all they wanted, but they had to clean up, be prepared and treat the business seriously when the time came up to work.
The company
Sal would meet up with a fellow coyote who’d bring illegal immigrants through Mexico’s soil to arrange their distribution once inside Texas. He asserted that the easy part is to get from the Mexican side to the U.S. The hard part is to pass the patrol areas outside the border towns in this side of the border.
By Sal’s account, his boss moved from the house in the suburbs to a big mansion in historic downtown Laredo back in 2003 which was watched over by body guards and where he held clandestine meetings for gang affairs.
The Hispanic artist was a witness to many things including rampant licentiousness like coke parties he admits being a part of.
As a coyote at night, he was detained and questioned by the Border Patrol on various occasions about his wandering around in the middle of nowhere in the dark. They even suspected Sal to be an illegal alien in the beginning, but after a while they knew who he was and figured what he was up to.
Saved
“I continued on a path of self-destruction until the day they caught me red-handed out in the fields,” Sal said.
He remembers border patrol agents arrested him one hot summer night in August, 2003. He was charged with conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, a federal offense, so he was looking at a likely prison sentence.
During the time he was jailed, he went through withdrawal symptoms from his drug addictions and even had to be taken to the hospital. Sal felt that if he had eventually been locked up, he would have ended up being part of a gang; but fate or God had a different route for him.
“I didn’t know, but when I went to court, I found out through my parents that the judge presiding over my case knew our family well,” Sal said.
The Laredoan man was convicted of the charges, but didn't do any jail time through a  plea deal in the  judge's Webb County court.
A condition reached through his family’s agreement was that Sal would leave Laredo to start a new life anywhere else in Texas, but only after finishing a rehab treatment  for several months.
“Getting arrested was the best thing that happened to my life because when I came to Houston, everything changed,” he asserted.
The newly freed man received support from his counselor and other people when he finally left the rehab facilities, including getting a one-way bus fare from Greyhound to come to Houston. All he had was a backpack with clothes and a bit over $100, but he had some family friends to assist him in the beginning.
"It was the best thing for him to leave because he would have gotten into more trouble if he had stayed in town longer," said Roger Macias, one of his brothers who came to Houston to visit him recently.
His family was happy and relieved Salvador was leaving Laredo even if it meant being far away from him and only seeing him occasionally.
“I left the heroin needle and the search for that high and I picked up a pen to write and a brush to paint. Now I have had some stuff published and people are buying my paintings,” added Sal, a former coyote in No Man’s Land who has turned into a popular local artist in the Space City.
Previously published in www.examiner.com

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