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A Crime: The first chapter from Sandra Rodríguez Nieto's Story of Vicente

Sophia Hussain10 November 2014

Image for blog post entitled A Crime: The first chapter from Sandra Rodríguez Nieto's <em>Story of Vicente</em>

Mexican journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto's Story of Vicente, Who Killed His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez chronicles the devastating impact that cartels' impunity has had in Ciudad Juárez, and how it led one 16-year-old to believe he had constructed a crime that no
one would care to investigate.

May 2004: a horn blasts into the night, a car alarm screams. Just south of the US-Mexico border a Ford Explorer without license plates and with its front end wrapped around a tree trunk catches fire. The blaze lights up the darkness of Zaragoza Road, a dirt path cutting through the scattered farm fields of this quadrant of the Río Bravo Valley, the most cultivated area of the otherwise arid outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Nothing is visible in the darkness except, about 300 yards to the northeast of the smashed Explorer, the water slides of Las Anitas Water Park, silhouetted by the lights of the border wall, which shine down on the dry ditch of desert and split the land in two.

The Explorer wasn’t the only car on the road when it caught fire. Nearby was a Jeep Cherokee, which, a few minutes after the Explorer burst into flames, at about three in the morning, took off heading south, away from the border. This isolated strip of Zaragoza Road might seem the perfect place to dump anything that is unwanted. It was really only connected to the urban stain of Juárez by the incongruous waterslide park built in the middle of alternating plots of farm field and wasteland. The night’s darkness inundating this stretch of land added to the feeling that distinguishing any person, or any act, would be nearly impossible.

But the nearly abandoned road that the driver of the Cherokee figured to be so perfectly solitary that night was actually the property of businessman Ricardo Escobar, brother of Abelardo Escobar, a member of Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN), who two years earlier had been named secretary of agrarian reform under President Felipe Calderón. One of Escobar’s night watchmen was the first person interviewed by the state police about what occurred on the night of May 21, 2004. From a small hut built along the edge of a field, the fifty-year-old night watchman was jolted awake by the shrieking car alarm, followed by the growl of the Cherokee speeding away. The racket tore him out of bed, and he ran to his front door, where, facing the international border, he could see a burst of flame and, close to one of the poplar trees that hugged the border wall, what he thought was a second truck whose color and model were too dark for him to distinguish. He left the hut to see what was going on but then heard a series of explosions. He would later tell the investigators that he wanted to call the police, but he didn’t have a phone. Meanwhile, the Cherokee made a slow getaway, bouncing over the potholes and rubble of the dirt road.

The burning car was reported to the fire department an hour and a half later when, from his patrol car on the Zaragoza International Bridge, a police officer saw what looked to be a brushfire along the edge of the river.

Four months previously, a group of state policemen had been identified as the perpetrators of the kidnapping andmurder of twelve persons whose bodies were discovered in the very heart of central Juárez, in an outdoor patio of the housing development Las Acequias. The policemen were accused of working for the Carrillo Fuentes Cartel (also known as the Juárez Cartel), which controlled all the drug-trafficking points in the state of Chihuahua at the time, including the five border crossings between Juárez and the United States. But even after the prosecution and disbandment of the criminally involved policemen, murders and gunfights continued to plague the city. That same year, there were a total of twenty-three victims executed cartel-style; in the previous week alone, there had been four. Though the policeman on Zaragoza International Bridge thought it was only a brushfire, the current spate of violence spurred him to take a closer look.

Firemen came. They fought the blaze for over an hour, the sinister yellow flames flickering along with the flashing blue and red emergency lights.

“Let’s get out of here,” one cop said to the first responding officer.

“Nope. You guys stay. This truck may just have a gift for us.”

It was after five in the morning, the sky already beginning to blush, when the cops could finally see through the smoke to the blackened skeleton of the truck with the soft-top back. A fireman was the first to approach and peer inside. What he found, he would later say in an interview, was more shocking than anything he had seen in a six-year career fighting fires: the burnt remains of three bodies, almost completely ravaged by the flames, lying on the collapsed backseat. Each of the body’s skulls had exploded in the heat of the fire. One of the bodies didn’t have arms or legs anymore. He could see a spine through an open chest cavity. One of the bodies, he noticed, was significantly smaller than the other two.

This was the “gift” the officers had waited for.

Some six hours earlier, on the evening of Thursday, May 20, three teenagers drove around in an old cherry-red Dodge Intrepid a few miles south of Zaragoza Road on the unpaved Rosita Road, cutting across vacant lots and a smattering of residential areas, farms and garbage dumps. This was the boundary line between the shores of the Rio Grande and the fanning edge of the Chihuahua Desert.

Bouncing over potholes in the Intrepid was a scrawny, brown-skinned teenager and his two best friends. The scrawny kid in the passenger seat was sixteen-year-old Vicente León Chávez, student of the Colegio de Bachilleres 6, the only high school in the Juárez Valley. Driving the car was Eduardo, a seventeen-year-old El Paso native, who had become Vicente’s inseparable friend after the two met at the beginning of the fourth quarter of school that same year. Uziel Guerrero, who Vicente had known for years, dozed in the backseat; he was eighteen years old.

Hidden under his white collared school uniform shirt, Vicente had a .38 caliber pistol tucked between his belt and his gray slacks. On their way to his house, Vicente spoke to Eduardo in a clipped, demanding tone.

“It has to be today. Tomorrow is Friday. And then the banks close on Saturdays.”

“Well, then let’s do it next week,” reasoned Eduardo. “I mean, we’ve already got the gun.”

“No way,” Vicente insisted, his quick temper already swelling. “I only get to keep it for a day.”

Vicente was used to giving orders. He spoke to his friends firmly, often raising his voice to force his ideas on them. He thought he was smarter than them, and often told them so. For years he’d ordered Uziel to keep his mouth shut because “he was an idiot,” and because only one of them could ever be right. Without quite knowing why, Uziel had tolerated this ever since they’d studied together at the Secundaria Técnica 44, their middle school, where they’d already shared their bad grades and worse reputations. In the short time since they’d met, Eduardo had also found Vicente to be an indispensable friend, and he forgave him anything. Though Eduardo had a subdued demeanor, and differentiated himself from the other two by his good performance in school, his grade point average had started to dip since getting to know Vicente, who was a drinker, dabbled in pot, ecstasy and mushrooms, and had a reckless and devil-may-care attitude. Of course, that was what Eduardo and Uziel found so enticing about him.

The adrenaline of their friendship had risen to a feverish pitch since Vicente and Eduardo had begun scheming on how to get a gun, especially after Vicente had told Eduardo what he planned to do with it. For hours they’d amble the streets of Melchor Ocampo, considered one of Juárez’s most dangerous neighborhoods, openly asking every cholo they bumped into where they could buy or rent a piece.

Uziel was largely unaware of his friends’ conspiracy until that Thursday, the night he planned to take a girl out to a billiards hall in the suburb where he lived. Uziel had long ago abandoned his parents’ evangelism, which he may have once used to reason himself out of potential trouble, and he was now so far removed from any moral grounding that when his best friend told him what he wanted to do that night, he was taken aback, but only for a moment, and quickly responded that he’d help him on the condition that they do it early enough so that he wouldn’t miss his date.

He would miss it. It was already eleven at night when he awoke in the backseat of the car as Eduardo parked in front of Vicente’s house. The cool spring wind whipped them in the face as they stepped into the night and began strolling the bald, sidewalkless streets. The streetlights cast a dim amber spotlight on a row of gray houses surrounded by a dark smudge of land, bare except for a few trees and Vicente’s father’s zinc- roofed auto-repair shop.

A small address plaque can still be seen on the corner of Vicente’s house. It says: “5824 Rosita Road. God Bless Our Home.”

Vicente paused on the front porch before stepping inside his house.

“Maybe we shouldn’t yet,” he said. “We need more bullets. I only have one.”

“Fine with me,” Eduardo responded.

The three stood in silence. Vicente, taller than the other two, observed his friends from above. It wasn’t true about the single bullet. He only wanted to gain time and find a way to convince one of them to pull the trigger for him. He won- dered if he would actually be able to talk them into it.

Uziel was getting nervous. His survival instinct, run-down as it was, told him that this time Vicente had gone too far, that he was serious about wanting to use the pistol. Uziel had known Vicente for years; he knew what he was capable of.

“We’re gonna flip for it, see who pulls the trigger,” Vicente said. The other two boys looked at him, surprised and nervous. Was he serious?

“Remember about that two hundred thousand dollar ransom,” he insisted. “I already told you, everyone’s gonna think it was a narco job.”

In the strained silence, Vicente took three coins out of his pocket, giving one to Uziel and one to Eduardo. He flicked his own coin into the air, catching it and slapping it on his wrist. As usual, Eduardo and Uziel imitated him without a second thought. A moment later, Uziel had lost.

“No,” Uziel said. “I can’t do it.” Just this once, he wanted to stand up to Vicente.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Vicente replied. “You already said you would.”

Something in Vicente’s voice and mannerisms always seemed irrefutable to Uziel, as if a law had been laid down, one of the very few that proved unbreakable to him. So used to obeying his friend, he hardly noticed that he had already taken the gun into his hand.

“Alright! You got the gun now,” Vicente said. “It’s on you. Let’s roll.”

Uziel tried to give the pistol back, explaining with as much conviction as he could muster, “I’m not doing a thing. They’re your parents, and they’re your problem. You shoot.”

Vicente stopped trying to convince him and took the gun. He knew that soon enough he’d make his friend fulfill the destiny of the coin toss. Momentum was the only thing that mattered now, getting into the house and finishing off what he’d decided to do.

Vicente was sick of his family. He couldn’t stand his father, who seemed to enjoy punishing him, yelling and cursing at him for sport. He hated his mother too, who never came to his defense and always pointed out his mistakes. But who he especially detested, more than anybody else, was his little sister, Laura Ivette, a sweet thirteen-year-old girl who, like her brother, had a clear complexion, big, slightly drooping eyes, a fine nose and thick eyebrows. Calm, studious and obedient, Laura Ivette was adored by her friends at school. It seemed everyone who knew her loved her. Plus, or so Vicente believed, she was obviously their parents’ favorite. But to Vicente, more than anything, she was a hypocrite. Behind everyone’s back, she would sneak up to him and antagonize him, rubbing it in that her parents had already bought her a car so she could start driving to school. And they were never going to give him a car, Laura Ivette would hiss. And not having a car meant that he’d have to keep riding an hour each way on the crammed, bouncing micro-buses, those old clunkers that wound their way around the city for an hour before dropping him off at school. In the summer afternoons, the lack of AC in the battered buses left him bathed in sweat before class. He would counter the heat and boredom by drinking nearly a whole liter of beer on the bus, making him famous among his school friends for being a drunk. His teachers, meanwhile, considered him nothing more than a pest.

But aside from Uziel and Eduardo, nobody would have imagined that the only thing on Vicente’s mind those days was wiping out his family, killing them all except for little C.E., his three-year-old brother and the only person in the world for whom he felt true affection.

“We’ve given it enough thought,” Vicente said, walking into the house.

A living room and kitchen fanned out behind the blanched wood of the front door. Vicente flicked on the light.

The family home was bigger than average for this part of Juárez. The living room alone spanned 215 square feet. On the left, there was a hallway leading to the master bedroom, where the parents, Vicente León Negrete and Alma Delia Chávez Márquez, forty and thirty-six years old, respectively, were watching television with the window open, enjoying the night’s soft breeze, completely unaware of what was going on in their son’s head.

Laura Ivette, dreaming of her crushes, slept in her own bedroom on the other side of the hallway. C.E. had fallen asleep at her side.

"Let’s go to my room,” Vicente said, snapping off the light and leaving the living room in shadow, as it would remain the rest of the night. The three boys shuffled into Vicente’s bedroom, which abutted the living room. Uziel and Eduardo sat on a twin bed framed by a brown and yellow headboard, Vicente on a plastic chair facing the bed.

The three of them, still wearing their school uniforms, took turns with the gun, passing it around, cocking it, aiming it, posing as gang bangers. Soon, however, they seemed to forget about the murder and started talking about the school field trip they’d have the next day: in celebration of National Student Day they were going to Las Anitas Water Park.

But Vicente’s thoughts didn’t waver for long, and he tiptoed out of the room a few times to sneak a peek at his parents. The last time he checked on them he returned with a kitchen knife, handing it to Eduardo.

“Just in case,” he said. “You follow Uziel, and if he doesn’t pull it off, you’ll know what to do.”

Vicente had the attitude down: his voice aggressive and commanding, his gait confident, even insolent, like someone about to commit a crime. He convinced his friends that they only needed to wait until his parents were asleep, and then they would kill them with ease. More importantly, they should be thinking of what they were going to do with the money they’d soon have. Nobody, he assured them, ever, without a doubt, would find out what had happened.


For more on Story of Vicente, click here.

Filed under: excerpts