“Give me his details, I’ll go send some boys over, take the trash out.”

I had just told Rafa what had gone down with my violent and abusive ex, which had sparked my move from Mexico City to Acapulco for a year, and I’m not going to lie, when he made the suggestion I did consider it for a minute, before telling him, “That’s a very kind offer, but nah, I’m all good, thank-you.”

“Clearly,” he shot back, eyes narrowed, laughing, flicking his cigarette butt onto the street and stretching his arms out. “Keep the trash card, you never know when you might want it. Even the strongest woman needs a man’s help sometimes.”

Pinche pendejo.

Is it really possible to see everything as simply good or bad? To believe people are “trash” and to not think twice about “taking them out?” Is it really possible to view the world in purely black and white?  Despite his rhetoric, Rafa would seem to prove otherwise, he would seem to prove there’s a definite gray area—but then again, maybe not, maybe he’s just a psychopath—it’s a distinct possibility, given the fact I’m an appalling judge of character.

It’s difficult to tell when you’re dealing with a former gangbanger whose moral compass is set at a drastically different degree than the “norm”. When we first met, Rafa had just been deported back to Mexico, following a six-year-long stint in Los Angeles County jail for shooting a man in the head.

It was pretty much a given that either an early death or prison were on the cards for Rafa—from a young age, it was just a matter of when and for how long. He had become a fully-fledged MS-13 homeboy at the age of 14, following his participation in an unbelievably grisly, violent, and bloody murder—so his future was already written in the cards, before he was barely out of puberty.

Rafa’s first murder victim was definitely “trash” in the eyes of him and his friends, despite only being 16-years old. Clad in blue and black, he was a member of 18th Street, a rival gang with close ties to the Mexican Mafia, who constantly battled with MS13  in a savage and bitter turf war.

The murder had been a retaliation attack, following the death by shooting of an MS-13 member, and the gang wanted to send a message—which they did, loud and clear by beating the teen senseless with baseball bats, before hacking him to death with machetes, dismembering the body and ripping out his tongue, which they left on the blood-soaked floor, next to the corpse’s bashed-in skull.

It was a shockingly brutal slaying, even for MS-13—whose motto is “Mata, roba, viola, controla” (Kill, steal, rape, control), but the four attackers were never apprehended for it—they got away scot-free—well, legally anyway. 

For all his bravado, Rafa’s participation in the murder had clearly impacted him and he confessed to suffering regular nightmares over the assault, in addition to still being able to recall his victim’s screams in crystal clear detail.

“It’s just something you never forget, it’s there forever,” Rafa admitted, pointing to his head. “That dumbass will always be with me I guess,” he concluded, punctuating his statement with a hollow laugh.

The boys were experiencing an adrenaline high after the murder, they dumped the weapons at a safe house for disposal, cleaned themselves up, and went out to “celebrate” with tacos. The four teens tried to buy beers to go with their food but were turned down for being too young—they had to make do with cans of coke instead.

It was following his first kill that Rafa adopted the “coping mechanism” that enabled him to function and live life day to day in MS13:

Quick breath….. Don’t think…. Keep Moving.

It was a mantra he found himself repeating in his head frequently over the years, whenever he did something morally reprehensible, or whenever he faced potential danger or trauma, which as an MS-13 member, was pretty much daily.

It was also front and center in his mind after learning that his mother had died.

Marianna’s death came quickly, she had been suffering from abdominal pain and extreme fatigue for several weeks but didn’t want to skip work to go to the doctors. By the time she did go, it was too late, Marianna was diagnosed with advanced-stage four bowel cancer. The disease had already spread to her liver, brain, and lymph nodes, and within two months Marianna was dead—she was 34-years old.

Rafa was 16 when he lost his mom, the pain was amplified by the fact he hadn’t spoken to her in eight months—and he never got the chance to say goodbye. He hadn’t spoken or heard from his father since Marianna fled Mexico with Rafa when he was a little baby, but his dad called him when he found out about Marianna’s death.

Ernesto had been a violent and angry drunk who regularly took his anger out on his young wife by way of savage beatings. After she had left him it was business as usual pretty much as Ernesto unsuccessfully attempted to dull the fury and drown his sorrows in bottle after bottle of cheap whiskey.

So, Rafa wasn’t expecting a loving reunion with a caring, kind father, or any sort of happy ending actually, which is just as well really.

Ernesto was working with the Tepito Union Cartel, living in a remote rural area in Oaxaca state, and overseeing part of the gang’s lucrative human trafficking operation. He told his son that he missed him and wanted to see him. He told Rafa to get a flight down to Oaxaca as soon as he was able to, promising the 16-year-old, “you’ll have your own little place to stay in and I’ll have a little whore ready, just for you.”

It was a touching moment, but even Rafa has his morals, and raping a 12-year-old girl who’s being held against her will just really isn’t his bag, so he turned his father’s kind offer down, and mentally wrote him off for good…..took the trash out, if you will.

Rafa was 16 and he was on his own in the world….well, not strictly on his own, he always had MS13…..

Quick breath….. Don’t think…. Keep Moving…

The most surprising thing about being in a gang is how boring it can be. The majority of Rafa’s days were spent hanging out at different houses, whiling away the hours playing cards, and eating crap junk food. The boredom was peppered with random acts of extreme violence, extortion, street patrols, robberies, dope slinging, driving around and the odd job here and there to pay the bills—because that’s another surprising thing about gang life—crime really doesn’t pay, well, not that much anyway.

Being a gangbanger also seriously shrinks your world, literally. As an MS-13 homie, Rafa’s life was reduced to just a few blocks of his neighborhood, with any trips outside of the area involving potential violence and conflict with rival gang members.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of anxiety and fear involved with gang life, a fight or flight mentality is essential and Rafa shifted quickly to living in survival mode 24-7. When you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, trying to exist in a war zone, you learn that there’s no point in planning for the future or dreaming big. Just one look around you tells you all you need to know about what’s in store for you—and it’s pretty much either prison or the morgue.

Rafa discovered what his outcome would be, just two days after turning 18. He was partying with two 15-year-olds in a motel room when the father of one of the girls tracked them down and came knocking for his daughter. Rafa had been celebrating his milestone birthday with a three-day-long meth-fueled non-stop party, so it’s safe to say he wasn’t in the soundest state of mind, and paranoia was starting to seriously set in. So, when somebody started hammering on the door and screaming loudly, he didn’t think twice—Rafa picked up his gun, opened the door and fired.

His aim was spot-on. He had shot the father once, in the head at point blank range. He was heading to County on a voluntary manslaughter rap, and he wouldn’t pass go.

Rafa’s world was about to get even smaller—about the size of an average parking space—for the next six years of his life.

Quick breath….. Don’t think…. Can’t Move….Oh Fuck!

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