Stumbling into Mexico's Drug Wars

I’d been in Mexico all of 90 hours.  I’m a young, solo traveler simply looking to relax, eat tacos, and learn Spanish.  There’s no way I would ever get involved with the cartels or the Federalies (Mexican Federal Police) – especially not within four days of arriving – right?  Wrong.


Acclimating Well

“Delicious,” I thought as I finished the last of an iced Chai Tea at a café in San Pancho.  It was about three “de la tarde,” which means “in the afternoon,” though “afternoon” here starts around two and continues until it’s pitch black out.  I learned this fact the hard way after wishing my neighbor “Buenas noches” at 7pm and getting a puzzled “Como?  Buenas tardes.”

Just my fourth day in Mexico, I found myself acclimating quite well.  The heat was rough but manageable, I had found two great cafés near my apartment (there’s three in the town), and I already had started making friends with some locals.  Plus, the café WiFi was actually working today!

The cafe is on the right (closed).  When open, they put wooden benches outside on the street there, which is where I post up with my laptop and Iced Chai Tea.

The Call

After paying for the tea, I started packing up my things.  Suddenly, my phone started ringing, a surprising occurrence since I just bought a SIM card the day before and the only person with my new number was my landlord Paula.  I pulled out my phone, saw “Unknown Caller,” and picked up with an eager “Hola?”

Caller: “Hola."  [Immediately launches into a full-blown Spanish dialogue.  As is always the case when I start a conversation off in Spanish – albeit with a basic greeting like “hola” – the speaker assumes I’m fluent.]

Me: [After the speaker has been talking for a solid 20 seconds] “Uhh, no hablo espanol.”

Caller: “Oh, you speak English?  Ok fine.  I’m with the Mexican Federal Police.  You called 911 this morning when the shots broke out down by the marina in Vallarta.  We’re going to need you to come in for questioning –

Me: [heart rate immediately accelerates] “Wait, what?  I didn’t call 911.  What are you talking about?”

Caller: “Yes, you did.  The call came from this number.  The caller reported the shooting that took place in Vallarta this morning.”

Me: [Shooting?!] “Sir, I’m telling you, I didn’t call 911.”

Caller: “We have the record.  It came from your number. [Starts realizing that I’m a deer-in-headlights.]  Sir, are you familiar with the cartels here?  Organized crime.  The “Nueva Generación” – the New Generation cartel in Vallarta.  These guys don’t play around.  This is serious.  They were involved in the shooting at the marina this morning. 

Me: [Am I getting Punk’d?  Why is this guy trying to scare me?  This has to be a joke, right?]  “But I didn’t call 911!  I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

Caller: “You don’t know about phone cloning?  These cartels clone phones all the time.  Hack the lines.  That’s how they operate.  This is Mexico.  You know, you can do anything here if you have money.  You may think you have a clean phone, but the cartels are using it.  You bought your chip at a Telcel store, yes?  [Mexicans call SIM cards “chips” and Telcel is, as far as I can tell, the only wireless provider in the whole country.]

Me: [This trip may have been a mistake.] …Yes…

Caller: “Yep.  That’s how it happens.  Your number was cloned.  They do it all the time.  You’re a tourist?  Here in Mexico on vacation?”

Me: “Yes”

Caller: “Who are you with?  Friends, family?”

Me: [Don’t tell him I’m alone, don’t tell him I’m alone.]  “I’m with a lot of my friends”

Caller: “Ok, where are you now?”

Me: [Don’t tell him where I am, don’t tell him where I am.] “I’m in Puerto Vallarta.”

Caller: “Ok, we need you to come meet with us.  We’re at the marina.  Do you know where that is?”

Me: [Ahhhh!!!] – Hang up - 

At this point, I was still standing in the café, and I looked around sheepishly to see if anyone had been listening.  I’m sure I was a bit shaky and probably had lost what little color I had in my face.  Thankfully, nobody seemed to notice, and I quickly started walking back to my apartment.  On the way, my mind raced: "What have I gotten myself into?  Can they trace the call?  Will they send police to come get me?  But I wasn’t even involved!  Why’d he feel the need to tell me about the New Generation cartel? I can’t believe this is happening.  I’m so screwed.”

As soon as I walked in my apartment, I took the SIM card out of my phone and smashed it to pieces.  I spent the next couple days in a slightly worried state, but soon rationed that the Federal police wouldn’t expend resources looking for some American schmuck whose phone number got cloned. 

Putting the Pieces Together

There's the Telcel store, right across the street from the community center on the main road, Avenue Tercer Mundo.

A couple days later, I returned to the Telcel store to buy another chip.  (I wasn’t going to try to explain what happened to the Telcel worker, who didn’t speak any English whatsoever.)  I paid 150 pesos, got the new chip, and went on my way.  Trouble was, my phone wouldn’t work, and some voice-recorded Mexican operator would yell at me in Spanish and automatically cancel the call whenever I tried to dial anyone.  When I returned to the Telcel store yet again, this time a bit perturbed, the woman conveyed the fact that I had bought the chip for 150 pesos, but now needed to buy minutes (why she didn’t tell me that initially, I don’t know). 

This immediately sparked a realization: I had bought the first chip for 150 pesos, hadn’t bought any minutes, but was still able to make calls.  This seemed to prove that the number had already been cloned and loaded up with minutes.  The second time around, the number was fresh, and therefore didn’t have any minutes connected to the account.  As I paid 50 pesos for 50 minutes, confirming that this wasn’t a cloned phone, and that – hopefully – I wouldn’t be getting another call from my friend with the Federal Police, a wave of relief flooded over me.

One final note: I tried my hardest to find a police officer and/or police vehicle to take a picture of for this blog.  However, in two weeks of searching, I didn't see any.  So, the picture of the cafe and Telcel store will have to suffice.  Sorry!