This article originally appeared on thump
Playa del Carmen is a Mexican beach city 45 minutes outside of Cancún. Over the last decade, thanks largely to the swarms of tourists flocking to its annual BPM Festival, it's become an international party hub for dance music diehards – and an under-the-radar getaway for people who don't want to be found.
My brush with the darker side of Playa began in October of 2013, when I was working as a salesperson and concierge for a company that rents luxury villas to vacationers sometimes willing to pay upwards of $3,000 (£2,275) per night. My duties included booking deals, answering questions and ensuring our guests had everything they needed during their stay. I landed the gig when my own family rented a villa there; after a few shots of tequila and the bitter realisation that I had no desire to return to school anytime soon, I asked the owner of the company if he needed any help. Turns out he did, and a month-and-a-half later I was on a one-way flight from my hometown of Los Angeles to Mexico.
Playa del Carmen is a small town, and during my three months there I rubbed shoulders with all kinds of characters from every corner of the world: expats; nomads; international club kids; even self-admitted criminals hiding from the Feds. Still, it was Micha's* story that I'll never forget, because it was my first (and probably last) glimpse into the elusive and glamorous world of those in the upper echelons of the drug trade. In retrospect, I actually got to see more than a glimpse – for a few surreal weeks, I was a character in Micha's world, fully immersed in the lifestyle of an international drug kingpin.
I met Micha in January of 2014, when he rented a five-bedroom villa on the beach from us. He was 6'2" and clean-cut, harbouring a taste for fitted clothing, designer shoes and watches that cost close to a teacher's starting salary. Perhaps part of his charm to me was that he seemed like the embodiment of traditional masculinity, with the chiselled physique of a UFC fighter, the commanding presence of a Godfather-style mafioso, and a strong jaw that would clench whenever he was mad or lost in thought. After some initial small talk, I learned he was from Manitoba, Canada, in his early-thirties, and of Eastern European descent.
Micha arrived with his friend Tim, whose trip to Mexico was the first time he'd left Canada after spending his entire young adulthood in prison for attempted murder. Tim was 29, but had the energy of a teenager. It's was as if his development ceased when he entered prison.
The relationship between Micha and me was unconventional from the start. Before I had the chance to give him and Tim a tour of their villa and my usual concierge spiel, Micha took a Ziploc bag out of his pants loaded with what he told me were 75 pressed ecstasy pills and a sheet of acid. After I got over my initial shock, the adrenaline junkie in me kicked in. Micha's brazenness was a welcome change from all the bougie rich people and mums gone wild I'd been dealing with all season.
"Do you want any?"
He gave me five ecstasy pills.
WATCH: Big Night Out – Ibiza
Wondering why the hell anyone would casually carry around so many drugs, I asked the guys what they did for work. Micha mindlessly pulled out three cell phones and told me he was "in construction". I continued to press him, asking, "You know this villa is for up to ten people. Is it just the two of you?" Micha said he was flying in a friend and some girls from Colombia.
Sure enough, the next day two of the most gorgeous women I'd seen in my life strolled in through the door and introduced themselves as Lorena and Mari. The girls looked like vixens straight out a music video, with Sofía Vergara faces and Nicki Minaj bodies. They were dressed in tiny T-shirts and bikinis, with skin-tight jeans, long acrylic nails and plenty of jewellery. Somewhat mysteriously, I was told they were "being paid to party for the week".
The girls were kind to me. The three of us bonded over our mutual love for electronic music and travel, and Lorena even showed me videos of her DJing at parties in her hometown of Cali, Colombia. Our interaction beyond this, however, was limited, as the girls spent a majority of their time taking selfies and snorting a strange powder straight from the bag. "Ningunas personas en Colombia les gustan cocaine" – "No one in Colombia likes cocaine" – Mari told me in Spanish. They told me it was 2C-B, a designer drug similar to MDMA.
A day after the women arrived, Micah's buddy Ivan showed up – also from Cali, Colombia. While emptying his luggage in the common area, Ivan pulled out more designer drugs and a couple grand in $100 bills, casually informing me that the money was grade-A counterfeits. He then told us that he was held up at the airport in Cancún because of his record showing a traffic warrant in Miami.
According to Micha, he met Ivan several years ago in Guadalajara during one of his frequent trips to Mexico, and they've been friends ever since. Now, Ivan was essentially Micha's right-hand-man whenever they were in Mexico; his primary duties included being a translator between Micha and his harem of Latinas, driving everyone around and carefully coordinating nights out on the town.
Micha took a liking to me – perhaps because I was the only female he could communicate with in English. Over the course of a few nights he took us all out partying at clubs like Mamita's, Kool Beach Club, Canibal Royale and La Santanera. It was just around the time before BPM Festival, so the DJs played mostly underground house and techno. Micha preferred a more Vegas vibe, but stuck around as long as there were pretty girls and plenty of champagne.
Our routine usually went something like this: we'd show up at the club, pay for a table and immediately be treated like royalty. The servers would bring Moët, but Micha wouldn't be satisfied, so they'd come back with Dom Pérignon. The tab would run to at least $10,000. Always paid in cash. Every night also involved copious amounts of drug use, astronomically expensive meals out and plenty of Colombian-Canadian sex. It was the type of grade-A reckless hedonism that movies like Spring Breakers are made of, and truthfully, I enjoyed every second of it.
A few days before his check-out date, Micha decided he wanted to make an impromptu trip to Guadalajara to visit friends. Meanwhile, the women and Ivan flew back to Colombia, leaving me alone with Micha and Tim. We immediately ran into a problem: the guys couldn't pay for flight tickets with their credit cards because they wanted to avoid leaving an electronic paper trail. After all the time we'd spent together – with Micha essentially letting me tag along on his all-expenses-paid vacation – I felt inclined to help. At this point, I knew that Micha was probably not the owner of a run-of-the-mill construction company, but at this point I enjoyed their company so much that I chose to ignore my growing suspicions.
I offered to put the tickets on my card and have the guys pay me back in cash. They politely declined. Instead, Micha gave me 1,000 pesos (approximately $100) to drive to Cancún International Airport and buy two tickets to Guadalajara for him and Tim, in cash.
After Mexico, Micha flew back to Canada and I went home to LA. For the next six months, we kept in touch via WhatsApp. It felt exciting to be friends with an elusive bad boy who orbited on a level far above the small-time dealers I'd fucked with in Playa and LA. I still wasn't even sure what he did exactly, but would soon find out.
In August of 2014, Micha announced that he was coming to LA for a month-long vacation, and was thinking about investing in the El Pollo Loco restaurant chain after hearing from friends how good their Mexican-style grilled chicken is. He told me that he might want to open one back in Manitoba.
He offered me $150 a day, plus free shopping trips and meals, if I agreed to be his driver during his visit. I didn't have a job at the time, so this sounded like a sweet deal. Plus, working for Micha meant we'd get to hang out all the time, and that's really all I wanted. I'd always had a thing for bad boys, Micha was handsome and treated me well. Based on our time together in Mexico, I knew hanging out with him in LA was guaranteed fun. Sure, he was probably involved in some shady industry, but my infatuation with him completely clouded my better judgement. I told myself: no one's perfect, right?
The first couple of days we spent together in LA were great. I took him to El Pollo Loco a few times and he loved it. We went to the beach and hung out in Hollywood and Santa Monica. We stopped by Fred Segal's and he bought me jewellery, pulling out a thick wad of cash to pay for it. Like our time in Mexico, everything was always paid for in cash to avoid a paper trail.
Then, one afternoon, he suddenly disappeared. We'd made plans to go to the beach in Malibu, but I didn't hear from him all day. He'd mentioned the night before that he was planning to meet friends at some hotspots, so I assumed he'd had a wild night partying at Playhouse or Greystone Manor in Hollywood, both clubs he expressed interest in visiting. I didn't think much of it.
Later that night, I received a barrage of panicked texts and phone calls from him, asking me to meet him down the street from his apartment, in the parking lot of a strip mall. On the phone he still sounded like the calm, collected Micha I knew, yet I could sense in his voice that something was very wrong.
When I arrived, he hopped into the passenger seat. "Just drive," he said. No explanation. He leaned the seat all the way back, making sure his head wasn't visible from outside the car's window. He periodically looked over his shoulder. I was confused, but secretly liked the thrill. It felt like we were living in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Finally, when we were at least ten miles away from his place, Micha sat up. I demanded to know what was going on, and he told me that, the previous night, a swarm of local police, FBI and DEA raided his apartment and seized $300,000 (3227,445) in cash. They'd been watching him the entire time he was in LA and saw him interact with a group of "shady men in vaquero hats". This was the only reasoning he gave me for the raid, but it was all I needed to know to tell what was really going on.
Micha told me he was thrown in jail for the night, but paid someone to pay his bond so he could be released in the morning, just hours before I picked him up. This explained why he'd gone incommunicado with me for a while.
Next, he asked me to drive him to his lawyer's office so he could figure out how to get back to Canada immediately. But, at this point, I was starting to freak out as the gravity of the situation sunk in.
"If you want me to drive you anywhere, you have to tell me what the fuck you really do," I demanded, pleading that my safety was at stake.
"Give me your phone," he said, staring at me intensely with his piercing blue eyes.
I handed it over. He turned it off and kept it in his pocket.
"I move Molly and H," he said nonchalantly.
"Oh, OK," I stuttered, shocked that he'd finally admitted to it.
"I'll fucking kill you if you tell anyone," he laughed. I knew in my heart that there was some truth to this.
Strangely, after his "confession", I felt at ease knowing I wasn't crazy, and that Micha wasn't some wild construction tycoon with bad financials. He assured me that I would be safe, and strangely, I still trusted him.
I drove him to his lawyer's, rationalising to myself that I wasn't doing anything illegal, and I could always plead ignorance. The attorney's office was in a seedy part of Van Nuys; I assumed he also represented some of the big-time drug gangs, like the Van Nuys Boys or the Pacoima Piru Bloods, known in those parts of LA. We sat in the waiting room and out came a thin man with a flashy watch and a pinstripe suit. Micha went into a room with him, and when he came out, he had good news: his attorney knew how to get him home to Canada. Micha would just have to pay him $35,000 (£26,535) – presumably for more flashy watches and pinstripe suits.
After we left the lawyer's office, Micha made a couple of phone calls on one of his burner phones, arranging for two girls from Manitoba to meet him in LA the next day with more burner phones and cash.
In a moment of clarity, even my naïve, thrill-seeking 22-year-old self anticipated the murky waters ahead should I continue to associate myself with Micha. So after I dropped him off, I called my dad from my car and asked for advice. Even though he's always practiced a sort of laissez-faire version of parenting, my dad was genuinely concerned for my safety when I told him what was happening. He instructed me to immediately delete Micha's number unless I wanted a file on me and law enforcement trailing my whereabouts – or worse.
The following day, I texted Micha, letting him know that I was headed out of town for a while. I lied and told him I was thinking about moving back to Mexico and might be difficult to contact. He replied telling me to have fun, keep in touch and that maybe we'll see each other in Mexico again. Then, I reluctantly deleted his numbers from my phone and eventually changed my own.
That friendly goodbye was the last thing I ever heard from Micha. To this day, I still think about him from time to time. Sometimes, I even look him up on American and Canadian prison inmate locators, hoping to dig up a trace of him somewhere. But I've got nothing. In fact, I still don't even know that Micha was his real name.
*All names have been changed