As told to Jemayel Khawaja.
This time two years ago, Eddie Rangel was just another aspiring music producer in the underground house and techno scene in Los Angeles. A golden opportunity to play a New Year's gig led him to the Mexican resort town of Sayulita, where a freak accident during a scuffle left him accused for a murder he didn't even know if he committed. His idyllic excursion unraveled, and he was thrust into the maw of the Mexican penitentiary system, where he came face to face with corruption, inner turmoil, and the complex, symbiotic relationship between party culture in the states and the drug cartels in Mexico. The whole story, in Eddie's words….
In 2013, I was 25 and living in LA, starting to make a name as a producer and DJ under the pseudonym IZM. The scene at the time was all kids in warehouses, influenced heavily by Burning Man, but a little bit darker, lots of white powders. I was having a good year. I played on the art cars at EDC and I was getting regular play on the club circuit, but I wasn't making any money.
To make matters worse, my roommate skipped out on the rent. She was going through some weird mid-life crisis and just dipped out to Mexico, leaving me to pay for the whole warehouse we were living in. I had no savings, so eventually, we were just squatting there. [By] Christmas Eve, we were getting evicted.
When I went on Facebook to track down my missing roomie and chew her out about our rent situation, she was all excited about something. Apparently, she'd made friends with the owner of a new club in Sayulita, the town she'd escaped to in Mexico. She'd shared some of my music with him, and he was really into it. The headliner he'd booked to play their NYE party had bailed, so he asked if I'd be interested in playing, which, obviously, I was.
I didn't even have a passport. I'd barely been outside of the country. This guy who owns the club, Carlos, said he'd pay me $2,000, and that I could stay in a flat connected to the club, but he wanted me to detour to San Francisco to pick up cash, DJ equipment, and a couple of envelopes before flying to Mexico. I had a feeling something might be awry, but if you work in nightclubs or undergrounds in LA long enough, you realize that everyone's shady. I didn't think I had anything to lose.
A few days later, I was on a plane to Mexico, headed for Sayulita. I didn't have much information at all—just the name of a restaurant called Choco Banana where I was supposed to meet this Carlos guy.
After the plane ride south and an hour-and-a-half long cab ride through the jungle, I emerged in this town square. I was wearing skinny jeans and a leather jacket, with an overgrown, lopsided mohawk and pierced ears; I stuck out like a sore thumb. After a while, this very caucasian, kinda unassuming guy came up to me and introduced himself as Carlos. He was not what I expected. I thought he was gonna be Chapo Guzman or something.
Carlos took me to the club. It was named The Zen Garden and done up with yogi vibes, and he introduced me to a bunch of white people with Mexican names. My next few days were filled with diarrhea and a diet of Valium and Disaronno. New Year's arrived, and we all did a shit-ton of ecstasy. I played for like six hours straight; the place was packed. It was one of the best sets I'd ever played. I was like, "Yes. This is the lifestyle I'd always wanted."
The crew and I spent the first few days of the new year just lazing around on a balcony connected off the apartment connected to the club. Five of us [Eddie, Carlos, Benny, Ashley, Adashi] were just hanging out, kinda spaced out one day, when this local drunk stumbled in, beyond belligerent, expecting a party. The crew yelled at him to get out, and in an act of either defiance or just plain douchery, he stole a decoration from the wall on his way out. Carlos chased the drunk out onto the street, and they squared off. It turns out that Carlos knows a form of martial arts called San Soo, and in this single, crazy motion, he kicked him in the nuts and hit him in the nose. I guess Carlos felt guilty, so he gave him some ice for his injury. And then the dude took off.
Next thing you know, I heard this screech coming from downstairs and the sound of someone yelling in Spanglish. It was the nicest car I'd seen in Mexico—a brand new Camaro. The drunk guy was back, and he had brought [what looked like] some low-level cartel boss and his posse with him. They were yelling shit at us, and we were just trying to ignore them, until the Camaro boss chucked a square of ice, that Carlos had given [his friend], in our direction. It hit our friend Ashley; she threw this glass she was holding at him and it clocked him in the face, right above the eyebrow. Even with my broken Spanish, I understood what the boss said next: "Dame la pistola."
I ducked down, expecting shots, but instead the guy and his buddy bumrushed the club and up the stairs to the apartment where we were. I could see them all coming up on the security monitor [Screenshots below]. It was just like a movie. You see the guy kick the door to the apartment and it reels, three times. He gets through. Carlos takes his leading hand, gets the guy down, and then we chased the others down the stairwell. I trained in Muay Thai for two years, but I didn't really know what I was doing––it was all adrenaline and muscle memory. I put him in a sleeperhold [choke] and the guy stops moving, falls asleep. I had done this before, never in a life-or-death capacity, in training. When I left the guy, he was still breathing.
Carlos restrained the guy with an RCA cable and a pink dog leash and I took off after our friend Adashi, who was chasing down a fleeing posse member. High on adrenaline, I started running down the streets of Sayulita, spattered in blood, looking like a maniac. I don't even know why I was running. It was like tunnel vision. When I really think about it, half of it was just me being excited that something interesting what happening to me. That was a thought that kept me through until it wasn't funny anymore.
When I got back to the club, I walked up the stairs and saw that the dude was just staring at the ceiling. Carlos was just standing there munching nonchalantly on a granola bar, and Ashley was babbling in a state of shock. I just stopped in my tracks. I had to step over the guy and look at him to realize he was fucking dead. I later learned that the autopsy showed some combination of blunt force trauma to the head, signs of asphyxiation, and a heart attack as the cause, but I had no idea then and I still don't know how he died.
My mind was in overdrive. My first instinct was to wash the blood off of myself, then I grabbed my laptop and recorded a quick video of the scene to send to a friends and let them know what was up in case things got worse. They did get worse. Almost as soon as I hit "send," I heard all these trucks pull up outside. It was the Nayarit state police.
They busted through like storm troopers. And these guys are not normal cops, they're like the SWAT team. They call them the Black Masks, The Nayaritas. They lined all five of us up outside, and roughed us up with rifle butts. Guys in balaclavas with rickety, hand-me-down M16s handcuffed us all five of together, and put us in the back of this fucked-up white Ford F150 that's riddled with bullet holes. It didn't feel like we were being arrested. It felt like we were being kidnapped.
Nayarit State Police propaganda video.
We pulled out and started flying down these unpaved jungle roads with their guns pointed at us. I remember there was a low fog that night. It was blistering cold and Benny, who was asleep through the whole altercation at the apartment, just started laughing this nervous laugher, like he was starting to lose it.
We were taken to a place that looked like an air force base in Tepic [Approximately 80 miles from Sayulita]. A big gate opened up, and armored carriers, helicopters, black masks were everywhere. The place they took us then, the only way I can describe it is a dungeon. You walk in and you're immediately hit with intense smells of humanity, excrement from all the open latrines. It's totally dark, but you can feel eyes on you.
The floor and the walls were all painted this deep crimson color. I know now it's just to camouflage all the blood from the people they throw in there. No light came in at all, and the only way you knew it was night time was because it got really cold. Water came two or three times a day from a kid with a bucket, and everyone drank from the same mug. They crammed all of us into separate but equally overcrowded holding cells. We were there for four days. I didn't speak a word of Spanish, and was surrounded by strangers. They only took us out of the darkness for the occasional round of rough questioning in broken Spanglish.
On the fifth day, we were notified of the charges against us: "homicidio calificado" [aggravated homicide]. It carries a potential sentence of 45 years in prison. They tried to say that we lured him in there and beat him to death.
In the middle of that fifth night, the black masks loaded us us onto a truck and delivered us to Venuztiano Carranza, a prison in Tepic. It was only supposed to hold, like, 500 inmates, but there were thousands of people crammed in there. After about a week and a bribe, payment, whatever, of $40,000, Ashley, Beny, and Adashi were released due to "lack of evidence," but Carlos and I were left in this state of limbo. We didn't know when or even if we were gonna get out, but I had to try to settle into the situation, no matter how bad it was.
Our area wasn't even a cell or a room; it was a patio area they had covered up with a tarp, and we spent a whole month there. As soon as we walked into the place, everyone's eyes were on us. They had seen us on the nightly news, a bunch of gringos charged with murder. I'm sure we looked like a circus side show. The whole place was like a holding cell for the drug wars. It's [unofficially] run by the mafia, but the mafia has to be in there too, so they have to make it semi-comfortable. Everyone realized early on that we didn't belong, but knew we were in for murder. They eventually weirdly took to us with this side-eyed respect.
Even with the overcrowding and shitty conditions, I found certain aspects of Mexican prison more comfortable than I thought they'd be—definitely more comfortable than LA county jail, which I had once spent a few nights in. It was the closest thing I ever had to summer camp; it's twisted, but it's true. As much as it wasn't pleasant sleeping on concrete and getting up at 6AM and standing in line for count and clean-up, it was some kind of structure, and it gave some kind of format to the day.
The prison itself was more of a town between walls than what one might imagine as a prison. The area outside the cell blocks is called the pueblo, a shanty town where inmate vendors sell wares from shacks. It has its own economy. You can buy just about anything––coconuts freshly sliced with a machete, bootleg American DVDs. There was even an openly functioning crack house, all of it under the watchful eye of the men in black we all called Los Talibanes, the Beltran cartel mercenaries who watched from towers above. The place was sort of a cross between the bazaar on Tatooine in Star Wars and the worst Burning Man theme camp ever.
Footage from inside Venuztiano Carranza prison.
The prison is co-ed. One of the top professions inside is prostitution—that's why prison rape culture doesn't exist there like it does in the States. They have places called hotels that they use for conjugal visits. They're solitary confinement units that they've converted into places for people to pay to go with visiting guests or the any of the prison hookers, who would come by every day. Prisoners even produce their own alcohol. It's called turbocena, and it's made out of limes. A bad batch can supposedly make you go blind. From the cells of the narco bigwigs, you would hear the incessant racket of narco-corrido banda music. Mariachi is like folk music for mexicans, but narco-corrido banda is mariachi's bastard step-child with a cocaine problem. It's gangster rap with accordions, the soundtrack to the narco lifestyle.
I started sketching a lot and reading eastern philosophical books like Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. I even got my hands on a Spanish workbook and became a dedicated student of the language. Our second month there, this guy named "The Engineer" offered Carlos a job as the English teacher, and I became the assistant. I learned Spanish by reverse engineering English. It was cool! That became something to focus on. We developed lesson plans. It was such a rewarding experience. I remember teaching the students how to talk to cops in America without implicating yourself. That was funny for everyone.
Sometimes I felt very at peace with it all. Other times I fuckin' hated thinking about the outside, about girls, what I was gonna do with my life. It like it was fuckin' useless, like I was never gonna get out and I would do whatever I could to just get by. They had me on a regimen of mood stabilizers and SSRIs, but on such inconsistent schedules and doses. I swear they would just give me whatever was around. It had me completely manic-depressive, and it was getting the better of me.
An exercise from an English lesson Eddie taught [L] and a page of his journals [R].
One night, about four months into my incarceration, catastrophe reared its head in this fucked-up flurry of hedonism and black magic that almost left me for dead.
We had partied in the hotels before; it was something of a ritual, but we never really partied with the heavy dudes, the bigwigs. Ashley, who had been one of the crew arrested with us, was at the prison on a conjugal visit. Carlos had somehow smuggled in a vial of liquid Klonopin, which we downed with a couple bottles of moonshine—fully aware of how dangerous the combo was, but past the point of giving a shit. Things got next-level weird very quickly.
The night descended into this weird, sex-fueled ritual dedicated to Santa Muerte, who is basically the narco death God. One of the guys had a whole shrine dedicated to him in his room. The whole thing felt incredibly dark to me, and I had this sort of misplaced compulsion to protect Ashley and got a little too ballsy with the heavies. Carlos picked up on this and tossed me out of the room, but it was too late. I made up my mind that there was some twisted shit going on that I had no control over, and blacked out.
When I came to my senses, I was on top of the perimeter wall, although I have absolutely no clue how I squeezed through the bars and managed to navigate through that maze of chicken and razor wire while blackout drunk. For a moment, I saw just how easily I could have gotten out of there, but I realized I was in too deep, and jumped back down into the prison.
Of course, Los Talibanes caught me. They beat me, questioned me, and then beat me some more. They tried to squeeze my head back through the bars in an attempt to figure out exactly how I managed to get through, but to this day I have no clue how I did it. They chained me to a wall and knocked me around. Eventually, they went away. One of them felt bad I guess, and threw me a couple cigarettes. In the morning, they just took me back to my area. Apparently it isn't a crime to escape from prison in Mexico, but they will fuck you up on principle.
That was bad as things got. After that, Carlos and I started doing daily sessions of [meditative practice] Qigong and [martial art] san-soo. It was all very The Karate Kid, but it helped me get from one day to the next, and i just kept my head down. It was around then we started to see some movement on our case. There were a couple of times when we got notices saying we were entering different phases of the process, but it was all very esoteric, and I had no idea how the process worked. They literally pull this shit out of their asses.
And then, all of a sudden, almost seven months after we got to Venuztiano Caranza, it happened. We got released. Carlos had a feeling, he said, because of things our lawyer was saying and because all of Carlos's mysterious friends had stopped sending supplies. We could tell the other inmates knew we were getting out, because they all started to offer us scams with lawyers, like, "Give us $1000 and we can get you out." There was no trial, no clearly defined plan; everything was dependent upon our lawyer's ability to schmooze the judge in order to get a proper bribe amount. Carlos, at the end of it, ended up having to pull some favors for the cartel. It came from his resources. It cost $320,000.
When I was little, I used to catch bugs and lizards. When I let them go, sometimes they'd stand there for a minute, kind of anaesthetized, not knowing what to do. That's just what I felt like after I was released. I was fried, I was anxious, and I had no idea where we were going, but I wasn't ready to go home. I sort of had stockholm syndrome or something. I spent some time in a little village called Yelapa, but eventually friends launched a Gofundme to get me back stateside, which was really what snapped me out of it and got me home.
Carlos took me and my stuff to their airport. I got on a plane, and landed in San Diego. There wasn't any real feeling of transition; there wasn't any closure. I didn't feel right until I was on the train four days later, heading back to LA with no money, right where I had left off. It was like, "Welp, you're back. Pay rent! Figure your shit out!"
Eddie's newest work as IZM.
Back in LA, I felt so different than before I went to Mexico, but I stepped back into the old cast of characters. All of my past pursuits seemed so vapid and narcissistic and egoic. I felt like I had seen so much and traveled such a distance internally. I felt at odds with drug culture. Here in the States, electronic music culture—the culture I had tried so hard to be a part of—revolves so much around drugs. That's fine, but everyone's talking about no GMOs, all organic, free range, and they're still gonna do a fuckin' rail of cocaine off the back of a toilet seat. There's some cognitive dissonance there that I cannot exist in. We consume drugs and we have no fucking clue as to the repercussions. I've seen what your drug money pays for. We are inadvertently perpetuating corruption and misery and violence with every bump or line we do.
It's been almost exactly two years since we were all arrested, and even now I find it difficult to put the whole thing into context. I've been in a weirdly reclusive state. I'm trying to figure some shit out, but I won't be able to until I can contextualize my experience and make it into something that is positive, something that people can maybe draw something from. I feel like I have an obligation to make something of myself so the experience that I had doesn't define who I am. I think the biggest thing is, I saw so much suffering there that brought out this sense of empathy in me, and a desire to be able to do something.
After the experience I had, my goals have shifted, but they haven't changed. I can't not make music. It's going to come out—it's just a matter of how. What I'd really like to do is find musicians in conflict regions, and have them tell their personal stories, and record their music with them. And I'd like to make their work, the stems, and their tales open source material for people to build upon. Aside from that, I've been working on music I feel good about as "IZM" and plan on playing again. I'm just taking things one step at a time.
Jemayel Khawaja is THUMP's Editor-at-Large - @JemayelK