Some of my best friends are drug dealers. One of them, Miguel Luis (not his real name), was the Chicano "capo" who handled business for the now-jailed Garcia Abrego clan. Its network stretched from Brownsville, Texas, to New York City -- talk about making it! -- and he wasn't even featured in Hispanic Business 500.
The only time I read about him was when he was going to testify about the relationship between his boss and Raul Salinas, the notorious brother of Mexico's former president.
Drugs have defined my family's struggle for the American dream. My brother Gabo is in a Texas prison for a series of armed robberies prompted by his cocaine addiction. My younger brother David died in 1993 from flu complicated by his longtime drug habits. You should have seen the funeral -- a hundred grieving customers, from students to professors. It turns out he had sold nickel bags and pills for years to pay his University of Texas tuition. My sister Magda has detoxed from an affair with heroin.
It's easy to say that drugs are bad. But the people I know in the business, sellers or users, are just trying to make it "The American Way." They figure the dream has a double standard -- I have to play by the rules, you get to make them. They say the drug business is more honest than any corporation. "Look at pharmaceuticals, tobacco, the Ford Pinto case," says my friend Juan Antonio, a law student. "They know people have died using their products, and they don't care. In the narcoindustry, no one lies to you."
And, unlike the rest of American business, the drug trade values Latinos. Bilingual and bicultural skills are critical for communications with Colombian and Mexican drug lords, and the intact family unit is essential for survival.
Yes, the risks are great, but the rewards are a dream come true. Latinos have grown up seeing the glamorous life on TV, just like everyone else, and drugs are the obvious route. Just say yes. Maybe you can't be a doctor -- I never met a Latino physician until I was 30 -- but you can make more money than they do.
Miguel Luis may have dropped out of school, but that doesn't mean he wasn't ambitious. I suspect some of our best minds are laundering money because they were bored in school. With las drogas, you can pioneer accounting and finance techniques faster than you can say FBI. You have to.
If it sounds like I'm proud of Miguel Luis, I am, in a way. What is the difference, anyway, between the narco-CEOs and the barons of the last century? Miguel Luis is the classic poor boy who made it. In a hundred years no one will ask how he became so rich.
The drug culture that I know includes everyone. All in the same familia. My high school chum Adelina prosecutes people like my brother, whom she adored. Sal, the judge who could put Miguel Luis away for life, was a close friend of my late father-in-law. My friend Paulina, with her M.D. from Harvard, swears she could have saved my brother David because she knows -- her own brothers have been ruined by drugs.
Next time you're in a room full of professional Latinos, ask how many have a relative in prison for drugs. Wait for the denials. Then slowly, but surely, you'll hear, yes, a cousin once-removed is doing time for a robbery, he needed money for his fix. Then someone will talk about Tio Roberto whose car panels were stuffed with little plastic bolsitas of white powder. And the neighbor's grandson is using her house to sell homemade amphetamines. We've lived with these secrets for so long we don't think about them anymore. They confuse us. They embarrass us.
My intimacy with the drug world has reminded me of something very important -- that we are all connected to each other, even when we would rather forget it. If you're going to sell drugs, you need someone to buy them. There is Miguel Luis the drug lord and there is my brother Gabo the addict. One simply cannot live without the other.
The drug culture is a microcosm of haves and have-nots. It is America played out around my mother's kitchen table. For Latinos like me, the questions bite, the answers elude us.
Why me? Because I am in the middle, the witness to this spectacle. I know the drug pushers. I go to receptions with the merchants who sell the Mercedeses and Rolex watches Miguel Luis bought. I also know the drug war is not supposed to be won -- because we want our drugs at any cost, and Latinos are going to pay that cost.
I am supposed to tell the truth. About playing ball with Henry, now in jail for burglary. Playing makeup with Zenaida, now a cokehead. Fishing with Tonio, who is now a drug boss. These are our uncles, our cousins, the black sheep. We are the cops and the robbers, the bankers and the drug lords, and the line separating us is surprisingly thin. Believe me, a graduate degree doesn't mean much when your brother is in prison or dead.
Yes, the individual chooses. But society has never asked me how we make that choice. Why I get to win when so many others have lost.
People say, "But you're different. You made it."
We think, "Sure. If you only knew."