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Drugs

From Bank Robber to One of Mexico City's Most Notorious Drug Dealers: The Story of El Tío

"Robbing banks was lucrative, but selling drugs is way less dangerous."

by Octavio Cárdenas
Aug 27 2015, 2:20pm

El Tío's table. Photo by author

This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico.

"How I started selling drugs? It actually came to me rather naturally. Before becoming a dealer, I used to commit another kind of crime and eventually I suffered the consequences. Look," El Tío said as he rolled up his sweatpants to reveal three huge scars on his right leg.

He had spent 15 years robbing banks until he was shot by the police during a robbery in 1993. "The cops shot me a couple of times and I never fully recovered. I wasn't sure what to do so I asked a friend to help me out. The guy pulled out two bags of cocaine and handed them to me. 'Start selling, that's all you can do,' he said," Tio recalled. "Robbing banks was lucrative, but selling drugs is way less dangerous."

It was just after 9 AM and we were sat in a small apartment in one of the housing units that the Mexican government built in the capital city after the earthquake of 1985. A bag full of small white packages and some cash lay on a messy table. El Tío grabbed the money and took it to his bedroom. It was then that I managed to get a photo of the cocaine and debris—as soon as he came back he told me to cool it with the pictures.

"Robbing a bank gives you an adrenaline rush, man. You need to have a clear head to do it. Bank robbers are never high on drugs—well, maybe the ones that steal at night. You need a strategy to get the job done. You need to observe the patrol cars, calculate exactly how long it takes the police to get to the bank, and what kind of access you can have to the bank teller's windows," he continued.

"Back in my time, all you needed to rob a bank was a team of four. One person went for the manager, one kept an eye on the tellers, a third watched the customers, and the last person stood guard outside. There always needs to be one outside," he said. "Cops and security guards will help you if you pay them. They'll give up their car, their badge or even their gun; they'll just hand over the businesses they are supposed to be watching. The biggest loot I ever got my hands on was the equivalent of $600 million at the time. We shared it between seven of us."

When I asked whether or not he had ever considered leading a life without crime, he laughed and shook his head. "Of course not. Why would I do that? After my first heist, I had like $10 million. You get so high on the adrenaline which comes with putting your life at risk, that greed takes over. If you make friends with criminals it's usually because you want to commit crimes, too. When you go to jail, you get asked why you got involved—you might as well just be honest and say it was jealousy. You see how easily people earn their money and think: 'Why not me?' That's how everyone starts—you envy the trainers, the jewelry, the cars, the furs, the women. You know you're going to get killed but at least you'll have lived.

"I was self-sufficient by the age of 15, thanks to petty crime. I went to parties; I could afford to buy my own clothes. I already knew all about this," he said, pointing at the cocaine that littered the table. (During the interview, he snorted a couple of lines.) "But it was a luxury," he continued.

"When I was younger, you had to go to the barrio to buy weed. Getting your hands on a blunt was pretty tricky because you needed to go into the rough areas to get it. If the dealers didn't know you, they'd rip you off. It's the same in Tepito these days—if the dealers don't know you, they'll beat you up. Selling cocaine wasn't so dangerous because it happened at a higher level; you'd buy it in a nice neighborhood called Cuauhtémoc. It was only for posh kids, artists and the upper-class. Thanks to Salinas de Gortari and his brother Raúl, the prices dropped; he was the one that let the drug into Tepito and that was it. Everyone in the area became addicted because of him. Since then, cocaine has been everywhere," he said referring to the former President of Mexico whose entire run in office was plagued with allegations and convictions for corruption.

El Tío's business grew and he quickly became famous. As he says: "You don't inherit a business like this. You build it. That's how you earn respect." It's also a business that's landed him in jail five times, with the longest sentence lasting from 2008 to 2014.

"In 1988, I received a two-year sentence. It was a tough trial, but I got lucky. I never paid the full price for what I did. There were 23 charges against me—including murder. But, I won. In this business, you will never be hungry or left to die. It's a faithful business but it's resentful. Back in the day, if someone set up shop next to you, you'd just leave them alone. You didn't want to end up in a fight. After I got out of jail, it was different: Some people were like, 'You can't be here, it's my turf. I pay for it.' A dealer even threatened to kill me recently for working in his turf. I just told him that I had no interest in fighting, that I just wanted to work. What was his problem anyway? I was there before; I just went on holidays."

El Tío is 57 now and will soon have to leave the business. Looking closely at him, he is 5'7" tall and weighs a little less than 155 pounds—a dark-skinned man with frizzy hair. He'd just gotten out of bed and was wearing blue sweatpants, a white T-shirt, and sandals. He seemed humble and lowered his voice every time he talked about things like the death of family members or fear. In many ways, he seemed like to be both an honest and a wise man.

"My body isn't as strong as it used to be; after a point, you begin to slow down. Age forces you to retire. I have four or five years left, at most."

I couldn't help but wonder how a retired drug dealer makes a living. "I learned a few things in prison. Maybe I'll become a lawyer. Before I got involved in crime, that's what I wanted to do. I actually worked at a law firm—that's where I learned about life and how to defend myself. And ethics, because in crime you need ethics too; you need to respect yourself and others."

"And how do you sleep at night?" I asked.

"Calmly. Life made me this way. I'm too old to regret anything. My wife left me last year; she couldn't take my lifestyle anymore. It was in prison where I learned to embrace change. That's just how life is, you know? One day, someone is going to shoot me in the back. People will say: 'He didn't mess with anybody and still got killed.' Actually, to be fair, I probably did a lot of harm to a lot of people."

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