Escape from U.S.

Our foreign correspondent describes his life in exile for those who want to flee the country if Trump wins

illustration by jonathan buck

I must have slept through the roadside exchange because by the time I managed to lift my eyelids enough to re-register reality, all that remained of the suffocating heat from the coastal jungle had been preserved on the windshield. Now we were descending steep curves in variegated moon-shadows cast down on us from an outcrop of conifers delineating the boundary of an agave plantation.

Without headlights, it was like we were stationary and our surroundings were floating backwards past us through the chilly pre-dawn.

More immediately, Lalo, the unemployed Audi tech from Puebla who we had picked up in Pochutla was no longer riding in the truck with us. Lalo was a lovely, extremely polite man in his 40s or 50s who seemed as sweetly dedicated to the welfare and happiness of his family as he was to his own mindblowing obesity.

At some point while I had been asleep, we had swapped Lalo for a sunburned and dreadlocked 30-ish white woman from Austin who said her name was Azucena. I had my doubts.

She sat to my right, gripping the handle on the roof with both hands.

Adan gathered momentum, expertly angling the truck through consecutive hairpin turns, freely using both sides of the road. The incredible momentum caused the woman to crash alternately against my side and against the door.

Falling asleep had only made me want to sleep the clock around, but as I fought my way out of the fog, I saw, up ahead, a curving pattern of flickering orange traffic cone barrel lights. They were forcing us off the road for an impromptu roadblock of some sort. There were more lights ahead and I could make out light reflecting off several trucks straight ahead on the soft shoulder of the road.

We were told to stop.

All the men were wearing black ski masks and dressed in different iterations of camouflage, their uniforms made trimmer by tight blue kevlar vests, some bearing the initials of an agency I didn’t recognize. While these types of roadblocks were common in Mexico, you really never could tell exactly who was behind them until they told you what they wanted.

A scooter with a taillight out, carrying a family of three—a school-aged kid up front clinging to the handlebars—was waved on past us. The bike emitted a chirp as it passed to our left. Azucena seemed very concerned about the kid on the bike, wondering what he was doing awake at 2:30 a.m. and how his parents could risk his safety on a motorscooter. She obviously wanted to say something to them. Chide them a little. Luckily, her Spanish was shit.

“They’re probably dropping the kid off at work,” said Adan, hiding a smile. “I think there’s a sweatshoop that manufactures pesticides in an open pit near here.”

Azucena smiled and nodded, obviously not understanding. “Oh,” she said and then smiled. “I understand. Si.”

I guess Adan was used to people coming to his country and telling him how it should be run.

Federali checkpoints are usually busier and well-lit. Army checkpoints usually have a little shack for the C.O. These guys seemed to be hiding themselves. You couldn’t say how many of them there were. A handful or a brigade. No telling. We were out of Zapitista country and Normalistas (teachers involved in a sometimes-armed revolt) usually occurred closer to the city and involved jackknifing or overturning a PeMex truck if possible. This wasn’t territory of Los Zetas. Cartel-wise, it is a kind of a no-man’s land run by Oaxaquenos. Not a heavily traveled smuggling route, either. For what it’s worth, it’s not the guys dressed like commandos who scare me. It’s the guys in cowboy hats wearing plaid shirts tucked into jeans with big belt buckles who scare me. Even more so if they’re sporting thick El Chapo-style mustaches. There was a narco they called El Gringo who used to film some of his more gruesome killings, some of which found their way onto YouTube before being taken down, including one which shows what happens when he detonates a decent quantity of dynamite duct-taped to a victim’s body.

Azucena was very concerned. “After what Donald Trump said about Mexicans yesterday, we’ll be lucky if he doesn’t shoot us all,” she said.

“I saw the Celebrity Apprentice once,” I said. “One of the celebrities was just one of the people who had been on the regular Apprentice. Now, how does that work?”

“I saw it on CNN,” she said. “About Mexicans. He said that they’re all rapists and criminals and that if he were president he would deport every single one of them and then seal the border with a giant wall that he’s going to make them pay for.”

“Which show is the one where the people live in the same house for weeks at a time?” asked Adan.

“Is it a singing show?” I said.

“Fuck,” said Azucena, ruefully. “I’m sure that’s probably it. We’re going to be killed because of Donald Trump.”

“Why should they kill me?” said Adan.

Azucena handed me her cell phone and told me to play a certain video file.

I couldn’t believe he had said such a thing. Well, I could believe it, but it was still shocking.

“Not even Donald Trump would be stupid enough to say something like that,” I said. “At least now there’s no way in hell he could ever win the election. Not in a million years.”

I watched the video again. Donald Trump’s face appeared on the screen, filling up every pixel as though he had paid for the space and didn’t want to let any of it go to waste. It was a shocking picture only because I hadn’t seen a picture or even thought of the guy in a couple of years and I didn’t remember his hair being such an alarming shade of blond-orange but at the same time neither blond nor orange. To paraphrase the title of a Cintra Wilson novel, it was a color “insulting to nature.” Since when did his “hairline” start with his eyelids? His face appeared unnaturally bronzed.

He was defending what he had apparently said about Mexicans. Classic Trump. No apology. Straight out of the Esquire or GQ “rules of real manhood.”

“We’re going to be killed,” frowned Azucena.

The guy seems to think like a 1940s Hollywood studio head. Like Louis B. Mayer. He thinks with a New Yorker’s myopia—that the world extends only as far as he can see. I imagined him at a tense summit with Russia and Turkey over the war in Syria. Somebody says something he disagrees with and then Trump flashes that superior smirk-sucker’s grin where every facial orifice seems to fold neatly into itself and he takes on the patchy look of a radiation-poisoned rodent from behind. Trump stares at Putin. “Vladmir Putin,” he says. “You’re fired.” Then looks for a camera that isn’t there.

Not in a million years. I could see Trump dancing around the oval office, his most recent mail-order bride at his side while doing some kind of Les Grossman schtick. “Literally fuck your face!” he shouts into a phone, hangs up and then does a touchdown dance.

Maybe a billion years.

The soldier who had our passports was walking back to our truck. The butt of his weapon hit the side of the door and Azucena jumped. He reached inside and handed the passports back through the window and told us to have a good day and enjoy our stay, then waved us on.

We never did figure out what any of that was about.

Going back to mezcal

Highway 175 is basically one long, diabolical two-lane video game S-curve that just keeps going on and on for hours. The build up of centrifugal force shoves you hard from one side of a vehicle to the other as it leads you up and down dark mountain passes like a goat path, which it might as well be because it’s not unusual to come around a blind curve and have to stomp the breaks because there are two or three goats just standing there blocking the middle of the road and staring at you, not yet at all committed to their next move.

I don’t generally hitchhike here in Mexico, but it was late July, and I had blistering burns on the soles of my feet from walking on the sand, and they were already starting to blister over and weep through my socks so it felt like I was walking on broken bags of gel. I was really just wanted to get home. The thought of going from that state of sweat-induced tropical dehydration and getting on a bus with the inevitability of waking up shivering as a duct shot air-conditioning through every pore of my skin until reaching my very bones and I was wearing every shirt I owned to keep warm wasn’t very appealing. Besides, the ride from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca City, while only about 260 kilometers on a map (161 miles) takes more than 10 hours because the road goes up and down steep mountain switchbacks and when you finally do get going, there are topes—like speedbumps built on tables—to slow you down. Also, if I had to watch or listen to one more Spanish-dubbed Tyler Perry movie I was going to start self-harming.

So, when a guy wandered in to the bus station and asked if anybody was headed to the city of Oaxaca, I decided it was worth the risk. Driving alone at night isn’t the safest proposition in this part of the country for various reasons, some of those reasons are highlighted in every single U.S. newscasts that has anything to do with life in Mexico, i.e. murder. Every story about Mexico in the U.S. news always comes back to murder. If it’s not about murder, it’s about mass murder.

About 50 km outside of Oaxaca, we stopped to pick up another hitchiker. We had no choice but to stop. This guy was gesturing wildly in the middle of the road, apparently drunk or mentally unwell. He was wearing a baseball hat high on a pile of messy hair and there was a half-empty gas can at his feet. There was enough room when we pushed the seat back and Azucena complained about having to sit next to a drunk.

“At least he’s got his own gasoline,” she said, then watched in horror as the man unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back and took a long swig of the high-octane mixture until his hat fell off the back of his head.

Adan laughed.

Obviously, it was mezcal.

Azucenna said: “Dear God, I hope that man doesn’t have any children.”

The man’s name was Tony. He was a funny guy. He described the level of English he spoke as similar to the amount of English one might speak after spending a certain period of time in a supervised detention facility in California.

“Folsom or San Quentin?” I asked.

In Spanish, he asked if Azucena and I were siblings and what we were doing in Mexico.

I told him we were working for Donald Trump. “When he becomes president, not only is he going to deport all the Mexicans from America, but then he’s going to deport all the Mexicans in Mexico to Guatemala.”

Azucena punched me.

“Donald Trump is a pendejo,” laughed Tony. “But we have our own problems here.”

He offered a slug of mezcal to Azucena, who surprisingly took a drink.

She whispered to me. “It’s rude if they offer it to you and you don’t drink,” she said pedantically.

I had been almost 500 days clean at that point.

Tony unwrapped a piece of notebook paper from his pocket and began picking the seeds and stems from his mota before rolling a joint. He told us what he knew about Donald Trump.

He said Donald Trump didn’t enter the world upon parturition from his mother’s womb like most children, but that he arrived in the same manner that all clowns come into this world, intimating that he wasn’t delivered, but rather hatched from a clown egg after the standard period of incubation.

Which might explain why his hair looks like a pile of feathers, said Adan.

I was starting to fall back asleep when I remember Azucena discussing to what ends of the earth she was willing to go to if Donald Trump could somehow become president one day. I think she had taken another couple of shots of mezcal.

“If Donald Trump wins, I’m moving here,” she said.

I thought about it. It’s a pretty common sentiment, especially around election time. In 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry for a second term I remember hearing that vow quite often among some of my friends. I remember several celebrities promising to do the same thing. I don’t think any of them actually moved.

“I enjoy clowns at the circus,” said Tony. “How many can they fit into such a small car and so forth.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Jeb Bush is the next president. It’ll be Jeb against Hillary, and Jeb will win. They decide these things years in advance.”

We were getting close to Oaxaca. There were suddenly buildings and stores along the road.

“You’ll see,” she said. “I’ll be on the first flight here.”

Fear of clowns

Just a few days after the dust settled from the February 23 GOP caucus in Nevada, which Trump won handily, taking 46.9 percent of the Republican vote and 14 of the Silver State’s delegates, the once-crowded field of conservatives is down to three serious candidates—Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—and two guys waiting for a miracle. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize that Dr. Ben Carson, who actually is a brain surgeon and doesn’t seem to realize this, doesn’t stand a chance. Nor does John Kasich, who has already been lapped twice.

Ted Cruz has the face of a criminally insane man who escaped from a sanitarium and decided that the best place to hide was in plain sight. In every photo of the man I’ve ever seen, he appears to have just emptied his tank of the day’s charisma by belting out a showtune, and, if he’s sweating, perhaps a little dance number for accompaniment.

What a difference seven months can make. Despite Donald Trump crossing more lines of decency than traditional state lines during the primary season, nothing seems to blow up in his face. Announcing that he’ll halt Muslim immigration and track the ones who already live here. His repertoire of sexist and racist jabs. Bragging several times that he could kill a guy and not lose a single vote.

If politics was a celebrity roast, Jeff Ross would be Secretary of State.

In the original 1989 edition of Trump, the board game, every player starts off the game with a modest $500 million. And then: “You need to do whatever it takes to turn $500 million into billions.” Bankruptcy is not an option. You roll the dice and go in circles attempting to outbid the other players on high-end real estate, yet the bank seems to subsidize everything. Trump the candidate is getting close to becoming Too Big to Fail. Even those with coulrophobia (fear of clowns).

Back of the truck

And then there was the time I was kidnapped down here. It happened in the first couple of weeks I was living here in Mexico. I spoke zero Spanish.

But it actually turned out to be a huge misunderstanding.

I was in the nearby park talking to a guy from Mexico City named Aramis, trying to figure out of there was a grocery store open late anywhere withing walking distance. He was here in Oaxaca visiting family before he was to begin his training as a Federali. The park was crowded like it is every warm Sunday night. There was a giant two-story inflatable SpongeBob Squarepants slide that the city puts up for the local kids. People were everywhere.

Suddenly, I felt a strange sensation on my back. I didn’t need to ask what it was because I could see there was another guy holding the same thing up to Aramis’ back. It was a pistol.

The guys demanded that we get in the back of a waiting moving truck. We had to step up and then jump to get up inside it. As soon as we were in, the back was shut and locked. It was absolutely completely dark in there. I could not see a thing. The only bit of light was coming from the part of the trailer closest to the front, and that was very minimal. Aramis and I walked to that side of the trailer and sat down against the wall. His English was lousy and so was my Spanish, but I didn’t need it. I could tell he was nervous and scared, and I could hear him crying. The reality shot through my body and came out the other side, leaving a huge gaping exit wound around my heart. What had I gotten myself into by moving to Mexico? Even worse, I thought, suppose these guys decide to kill Aramis and then they want to keep me because they think they can get a bunch of ransom money out of my family? I could imagine my father sitting on the phone with a yellow legal pad in front of him making an offer. How does $250 sound, he would say? And then I’d get nothing for the next two birthdays. Shit. These guys are really going to kill me.

I could feel the truck moving up an incline, meaning we were leaving the valley floor and heading into the wild hills around Oaxaca. This was dangerous ground. They had just shut down several “superlabs” around here and seized thousands of pounds of meth.

My father opened a beer. Did some calculations in his head and then with the calculator. “I suppose I could go as high as $300,” he said. “But I’m going to need you to send him back with some of that Oaxacan cheese and some gourmet coffee if we’re talking this kind of money.”

I grabbed Aramis’ hand. He told me he was sorry. I tried to make a plan with him about what to do when they opened the doors. How we had to try to jump them if we even wanted a chance at surviving. He explained to me that they probably wouldn’t even bother. They’d probably stop the truck near a cliff and push the whole damn thing over. Certainly the truck had been stolen, he explained. Our bodies would be burned beyond recognition.

Again, I could see my father. “You say he’s alive but he’s suffered 40 percent second-degree burns all over his body from the gasoline fire? Well, I’m thinking that should entitle me to a 40 percent discount. Yes, he’s my only son. What’s your point?”

The truck kept moving up higher in the surrounding mountains. Occasionally, we would stop, there’d be some words exchanged between the driver and somebody on the street. It seemed to me that we were going further and further behind cartel lines. The truck was coming to checkpoints and being waved through. I wondered how I would react in the final moments. All you ever heard about Mexico was murders and violence. Why the hell did I decide to come here? Because I was a full-time freelance writer, and I could no longer afford to live and prosper in the First World?

Eventually I started to accept my fate. There was no way in hell my Spanish was good enough to even try to talk my way out of this. I couldn’t even order a meal.

Finally, about 40 minutes later, just as I was beginning to believe that the trailer was filling with carbon monoxide or that we were running out of air, we stopped. I heard a bunch of shouting coming from the front of the truck and then heard the doors open and then slam shut. Someone was screaming. Someone was angry. There were three gunshots. So loud. I remember I put my head in my hands, and then I heard the back of the truck being opened. Maybe the police had rescued us and killed the kidnappers?

As the door opened, I heard Aramis say how sorry he was again.

As the door opened, I could see we were up in a small town. A village was probably more correct. There were only a handful of buildings around. No street lights. Aramis walked toward the opened door. He sat down on the ledge and pushed himself out. I waited. I was not in a hurry to die.

Suddenly, I heard laughter. Aramis was on the ground throwing punches at another guy. I still had no idea what was going on and when another guy came and told me I didn’t understand a word.

After several minutes, Aramis jumped back in the truck and apologized again. We rode for another 40 minutes, this time mostly down hill. When the truck stopped again, we were right back in the park near my hotel. The doors opened, and we jumped out. What the fuck had just happened? I didn’t find out exactly what had happened until I got a message from Aramis on Facebook and managed to get it translated. He had recently decided to become a Federal police officer. The whole thing had been like a hazing ritual, put on by other Federal police.

“I have never been so sure that I was going to die,” he wrote me. “But you might have been OK if you could’ve gotten your family to pay them ransom since they took you by mistake,” he said. “You were never in any real danger.”

I thought about my father. He was arguing with the kidnapper over which money transfer service to use to send the money. He had one that he preferred over the others but they didn’t want to use that particular one. “If I’m going to spend $1000, I sure as hell want to get the miles,” he said. Then he cussed at them and hung up.

Yep. I was never in any real danger.

Ted Cruz has the face of a criminally insane man who escaped from a sanitarium and decided that the best place to hide was in plain sight.