Sandra Rodríguez Nieto | The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez | Verso Books | Nov. 2015 | 19 minutes (4,857 words)
The following excerpt appears courtesy of Verso Books. The passage—the book’s opening chapter—details a single terrible crime, which Rodriguez Nieto uses as an inroad to discussing Juárez’s emergent culture of crime. Verso writes:
Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper El Diario de Juárez for nearly a decade. Despite tremendous danger and the assassination of one of her closest colleagues, she persisted. She didn’t want the story of her city told solely by foreign reporters, because, in her words, “I know what is underneath the violence.” This book traces the rise of a national culture of murder and bloody retribution, and is a testament to the extraordinary bravery of its author. Among other things, The Story of Vicente is an account of how poverty, political corruption, failing government institutions and US meddling combined to create an explosion of violence in Juárez.
A warning: the excerpt below contains graphic violence.
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 and murder 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 wondered 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.
A little after midnight, Vicente got up one last time to check on his parents. When he returned to his room he took up the pistol and gave it to Uziel.
“They’re sleeping now,” he said. “Come on, ándale. It’s time.”
“No,” Uziel responded.
“¡Ándale! You lost the coin toss, remember.” Vicente was using that manipulative tone he knew worked so well on Uziel. “¡Ándale!” he said again.
Uziel took the gun and walked out of the room, but then almost immediately tried to get back in.
“No,” he said, softly. “I’m not going to do it.”
“What do you mean you’re not going to do it? Think about how much money we could make. ¡Ándale!” Vicente’s tone sharpened, rising above the insistent whisper he’d been using.
“Vicente,” a voice called. “Is that you?”It was Alma Delia, his mother, calling to him from bed. “¡Ándale!” Vicente said again, getting behind Uziel and pushing him toward the master bedroom. “Just imagine,” he whispered into his friend’s ear, “riding in a brand new car.”
Uziel walked down the dark hallway, the pistol clutched in his right hand. He stopped in front of the bedroom door.
“Do it!” Vicente ordered, opening the bedroom door.
Uziel closed his eyes, slightly turned his head away, and fired twice. One of the bullets hit Vicente León Negrete in the chest, piercing his lung.
In the room, lit by the flickering television, Alma Delia could just make out the blood starting to flow from her husband’s wound and his open, already dead eyes.
Uziel ran off, down the hallway and onto the front porch. Vicente darted into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.
Left alone in the hallway, Eduardo walked to the bedroom door to see what his friends had done. Blood was pouring out of Vicente’s father. Stunned, Eduardo hardly noticed the screams of Alma Delia, who was still lying next to her dead husband. The weight she had gained over the years labored her movements, her shock and fear seeming to anchor her in place.
Still in the doorway, Eduardo felt a presence behind him.
“The knife,” Vicente said. “It’s your turn.” He gave him a little nudge, speaking in the same tone he had used with Uziel, the same tone Vicente’s father used with him.
“It’s El Güero!” Alma Delia screamed, using Eduardo’s nickname.
“Do it!” Vicente ordered.
“Vicente,” his mother screamed. “Help! Why are you shooting at us?”
“It wasn’t me,” he said to his mother, then whispered to Eduardo, “Kill her.”
The wailing, the blood and the confusion all stirring together, Eduardo nearly dove into the room, knife-first.
“But Lalo!” Alma Delia screamed. “Why?” She stretched her arms out, groping the air, trying in vain to defend herself from the attack.
“I wish I knew, ma’am,” Eduardo responded. “Ask your son!”
Eduardo was only able to quiet her with the knife. The glowing TV silhouetted his body and cloaked Alma Delia in shadow, hiding her face of pain and panic. He could hear nothing but wheezing as he stabbed her two, three, four, twelve more times. He punctured her neck, her thorax, her abdomen, and then he smelled the nauseating whiff of blood. Had it not been for the sudden pain that shot through his head and slid to the bottom of his stomach, Eduardo would have continued, almost unconsciously, destroying the body of his friend’s mother. When he regained some sense of consciousness, he wasn’t even able to take a moment to see what he had done because he had to race to the bathroom, fighting to contain his vomit before reaching the toilet.
A girl’s voice called from the hallway. It was Laura Ivette. Still half asleep, she crept out of her room. Her hair was down and disheveled, her white pajamas and her half-shut eyes accentuating the innocence of the question she had for her brother.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Vicente responded, hooking his arm around her neck and stabbing her with a kitchen knife, sinking it into her nine times. The teenager’s body, so fragile, took only a few minutes to succumb to the loss of blood from her shredded vital organs.
Eduardo, on his way out of the bathroom, could see into the dark hallway as Vicente strangled and stabbed his sister.
Instinctively, he made his way to the front door, which Uziel had left open when he had wildly fled to the porch. He closed the door behind him and saw Uziel, who was trembling, covering his ears, slapping his forehead, and still clutching the gun.
“Get inside,” Eduardo demanded. “You can’t be outside with the gun. The cops might drive by.”
When they turned back to the living room, they saw Laura Ivette’s body on the floor. She was motionless, face down, a pillowcase already over her head. Vicente ordered them to the bedroom: they needed covers and sheets for the bodies. He went to get the Explorer that one of his father’s clients had left behind. He reversed it until it nuzzled against the patio door and then reached back and reclined the backseats before getting out and opening the hatch. Eduardo came out onto the patio and cut a piece of blue tarpaulin that had been covering one of the cars. He used it to wrap up Laura Ivette’s small corpse and then, with Uziel’s help, he lugged the body to the door. They heaved it through the trunk of the Explorer, where it slumped into the backseat.
In the bedroom, Uziel looked at the other two bodies. That they would somehow, somewhere, dump them had been the only step in this crime that they’d easily agreed upon. After killing the parents, they figured, it would be simple enough to get the bodies in a car and look for a place to dispose of them. If Uziel and Eduardo believed in one thing that Vicente had told them, it was that this part would be a breeze, that no one would ever find out who had killed them.
“Make peace with your mother,” Uziel said to Vicente.
By the bedside, Vicente hoisted his mother by an arm, Eduardo taking the other arm, Uziel the feet. They set her on top of a blanket, dragged her from the bedroom to the patio, and hoisted her up again in order to slump her over the rear passenger-side seat.
Then they came back for Vicente’s father, who they also wrapped in a sheet. But when they tried to move his body, they saw that his blood had coagulated all over his back, and it was so thick that it had stuck to the mattress. Vicente rushed to the kitchen and came back with a pitcher of water to try to wash it off. He then lifted his father’s body by an arm, Uziel took the other arm, and Eduardo, this time, the feet. Again they crossed the house, made it to the patio and heaved the man’s body into the backseat, next to the body of Laura Ivette, who slumped sideways until she rested on her father.
Only then did Vicente turn on the lights in the house. All along the hallway, red stains formed a trail between the bedroom and the door. He took the pitcher, filled it with water again and emptied it on the floor. He stripped the beds and pillows of their sheets and pillowcases, picked up the knife, which had ended up on a dresser, and dumped it all on top of the bodies in the van. From the patio he got a bucket and mop. Uziel and Eduardo, meanwhile, sat on a living-room sofa, observing Vicente’s frenetic cleaning, who at some point had taken off his gray school uniform pants, which the other two still wore.
“What are we going to do with the bodies?” Uziel asked.
“We’ll have to burn them,” Vicente answered. “Any idea where we could ditch them? Somewhere over by your house maybe?”
“There’s an empty lot past Fidel Ávila.”
“Fine. I’ll take the Explorer and you guys can follow me in one of the shop cars. Take my dad’s Cherokee. The keys are inside.”
Vicente walked out to the patio and went to the small storage shed on a corner of the lot, where his dad kept his work tools. He took the keys to the Explorer, a gallon of gasoline and a bottle of Reduce, a flammable solvent used to strip paint off car parts. He opened the front gate, got behind the wheel and set off. Eduardo and Uziel got into the Cherokee and followed him, heading north down dusty Rosita Road. A little up the way, Vicente came to a stop and waited for his friends to pull up next to him.
“Where to?” Vicente asked.
“Where we said,” Uziel answered. “Just drive.” And he sped off, letting Vicente trail behind him.
From Rosita Road, in their pair of unregistered cars, past the bars, cheap restaurants and motels that cluster near and around Zaragoza Bridge, the boys took Ejercito Nacional Avenue, which crosses Juárez-Porvenir Street and, a little farther down, turns into Internacional Avenue, or, as it’s known in English, Waterfill Road. They turned north on Nardos Street, a wide, unpaved artery on which expansive McMansions adorned with balustrades are interspersed with abandoned housing developments and vacant lots. Passing one such lot, cattycorner to a playground, the Cherokee took a right, toward the Rio Grande, driving about 100 yards through fields of crops on a chalky path encircled by trees. This was Zaragoza Road.
“Stop.” Uziel’s command seemed to fall from the encompassing darkness. They had only the lights of the border wall to illuminate a distant point in their path. “We’ve got to wait for Vicente.” When Vicente arrived and pulled up on their passenger side, Uziel told him to drive ahead, as deep into the brush as he could.
Vicente obeyed, driving a few yards until he came to a tree where he braked, briefly, before slamming on the accelerator and crashing the Explorer. He exited the car, took the gallon of gas and the flammable solvent and, along with Uziel, started to douse the inside of the van, the seats, the dashboard, the floor, the bodies of his mother, his father, his little sister.
“Get out of the way,” Uziel ordered him before fishing a lighter out of his pocket, setting the car ablaze and sprinting away.
Eduardo waited for them with the Cherokee running and, when Uziel and Vicente got in, sped off in the opposite direction of the river. It was around three in the morning.
“Go to my house,” Vicente said as they passed through the city. The boys were so convinced of having committed the perfect crime that they even dared to drive a few miles out of the way on Internacional Avenue to buy hydrochloric acid at a twenty-four-hour Bip Bip convenience store. The employee attending them failed to notice the bloodstains through the drive-through window.
When they got back to the house, Vicente used the acid to wipe down everything in sight, from the floor to the door handles, the dressers, the fans, especially the beds. With Eduardo’s help, Vicente turned over the mattresses and made the beds with clean sheets. His friends were tired now and wanted to go home. In silence, they peeled off their gray school uniform pants and put on some of Vicente’s clothes.
Vicente slinked into the room where his little brother, C.E., was still sleeping and sat down next to him.
“What are you going to do about your little brother?” Uziel asked from the doorway.
“He’ll be OK. I’ll get him out of Juárez and take him to a ranch.”
“Take the Cherokee,” Vicente said to them. “Remember, you’ve got to come back in the morning. Then we’ll decide what to do.”
When Uziel and Eduardo left, it was almost five in the morning. At that hour the yolk of sun was just breaking in the morning sky, and from every direction buses taking commuters to their factory jobs were rumbling through the streets.
Alone in his house, Vicente continued to wash away the blood. Bloody shoe prints were everywhere, in the kitchen, in the hallway—he had to go out to the patio spigot several times to refill his bucket with clean water. Along with the stains, he washed away all of his parents’ unjustified reprimands, the promises they took back without explanation, the constant pressure to obey rules he didn’t understand, the feeling of having to belong to a group of people with which he couldn’t communicate. Then he washed away the stain of humiliation that was Laura Ivette, their parents’ favorite, for whom they had even bought a car.
Vicente finished cleaning around six in the morning. He crept back into C.E.’s room and covered him in a blanket, wrapped him in his arms and brought him to his parents’ bedroom. There on his parents’ bed he cuddled with his baby brother and fell asleep until ten in the morning on Friday, May 21, 2004.
* * *