The Tribes Take Over
Xavier is from Puerto Rico, grew up poor, and today is a struggling young actor in Hollywood. We met by accident six years ago, became close friends and he spent the other weekend at my place in Laguna to escape the crushing heat in L.A.
On Sunday, his uncle’s former business partner came to visit. Together, that man and Xavier’s uncle had run the cocaine trade in one section of Puerto Rico. Today, that former partner lives in Fountain Valley. He speaks little English and I speak little Spanish, but we got along well and I liked his energy. He seemed like a good and loving man.
I told that to Xavier, who replied matter-of-factly, “He had to be good guy or my uncle would have killed him.” I looked sideways at Xavier. He wasn’t smiling. It wasn’t a joke.
“My uncle dealt coke, sure, but he was the patron, the godfather. He took care of everyone. Everyone. If you had a problem, say, your mother is sick and can’t pay the medical bills, he took care of it. Money for another family problem? He took care. Someone being bullied? He took care. He took care of everyone and his partner had to be the same way. It wasn’t just them being nice; it also meant no one informed on them.”
The former business partner hates living in Fountain Valley. He considers it boring. I asked why didn’t he go back?
“You don’t understand. He made it out alive. He did it. You know how hard that is?”
We were sitting at my little Cove in north Laguna, and one of the locals started talking about the massacre in Vegas. Such a tragedy. Didn’t we feel so sorry for the victims?
From Xavier, “I feel sorry, sure, but what good will that do? Nothing will change.”
Her, “What’s wrong with you?”
“I saw my first murder when I was 4. “
“The guy got caught cheating, so they shot him.”
Xavier was talking about the Puerto Rico where he grew up 20 years ago. It was in the worst part of the island, the hub for the cocaine trade and Xavier grew up in the middle of it.
This is how. His mother was a beauty and became the mistress to the drug king of the island’s cocaine trade. Xavier remembers packing plastic baggies full of white powder when he was 10.
The drug lord considered Xavier like a son and pleaded with him to get the hell out. He knew there was no good end to a drug dealer’s life. It’s either death or prison. Today, that drug lord is serving a life sentence, and most of Xavier’s former buddies indeed are either dead or in prison.
Seeing murders was normal for Xavier. It happened all the time. It was part of the cocaine business. Easy illegal money breeds gangs and gangs breed macho violence.
Xavier got out by luck. A girlfriend talked him into doing a photo shoot for a regional magazine, where a producer for a local soap saw him and hired him for it. Thence he got a bit part on a minor HBO series, and that got him to Hollywood where he is today.
We had been talking about today’s situation in Puerto Rico. By far, it is the poorest U.S. state or territory. The unemployment rate exceeds 20%. The government already was in formal bankruptcy before Hurricane Maria hit. Now, the island’s infrastructure is toast, clean water is scarce and Xavier’s family has reverted to fishing, literally, for food. Help from any government is a joke.
For a few days, Laguna had a horrible heat wave. In Puerto Rico, everyday is worse. Xavier sent his family portable generators because the electrical grid was destroyed. The family kept three for their local neighborhood (everyone uses them) and gave the others to homeless shelters.
Now shift to a related topic: who keeps the peace? The government is dysfunctional; it cannot even get to many parts of the island. So, guess who has replaced them? One guess.
The local drug lords, the patrons.
Today, the patrons provide the peace. They have to; there is no one else. It is primitive again. It is tribal. The patrons have the money and power to provide safety. And to distribute water and food and to find shelter.
The drugs lords are trying to do it all because no one else can or will. It is that simple and that complex. When governments fail, tribes take over. If the tribes make a living from dealing drugs and killing people in the process, so be it.
Our problems in Laguna are nothing.
The author lives in Laguna Beach and works in real estate development and investment.