I feel a sharp pain in my ribs, and as I open my eyes I feel it again. “Get up,” says a deep voice hovering above me in the dark. I’m groggy. Confused. When my eyes adjust I make out a man holding a large object in his hand. He jabs me in the ribs again. I get up, wide awake now, and realize that the man standing in front of me is clutching an AK-47. Is this a military check? I wonder. He is wearing a hat with some sort of insignia on it, along with a bulletproof vest with another handgun attached. He must be military. Just another Mexican passport check.
“Cuántas personas?” the man asks.
I point to Chase and Taylor and say, “Tres.”
He wakes them up by tugging on their feet and in broken English says, “Give me phones.” It takes me a second to realize that he is asking for our phones and not passports. I oblige and hand them over. Along with the phones, I hand over any hope that this is military. Military doesn’t ask for phones…This is a robbery. This is a cartel.
Another man enters our room and points his gun at us. “Get up! Move!” He is more aggressive than his counterpart and seems to be on edge. We put our arms above our heads in fear and follow the men. They lead us into the room where Tom and Lugo are staying. It’s pitch black. Tom tells us to keep our heads down and shut up. We do. Soon, they bring Matt into the room and he sits next to us. We’re all here. Except John, the property manager, who stays in the studio behind the house. Do they know he’s here? I can’t think about anything but dying. A few whispered words are exchanged among us. There are six of us. Can we take them?
After 15 minutes in Tom’s room they tell us to get up and move. We walk in a single-file line down the stairs and into the pool area. A full moon casts a soft glow onto the patio where five masked men equipped with heavy artillery are waiting at the bottom of the stairs. No, we cannot take them.
They order us to stand shoulder to shoulder against the wall. They’ve got their guns on us and are arguing about something. We can’t understand, but it doesn’t sound pleasant. We keep our gazes on our feet, avoiding eye contact with our captors. But in my peripheral view I can see that two of the men have removed their ski masks. My knees go weak and I feel sick at the sight. This could only mean one thing: they don’t care if we see their faces, because they are going to kill us.
After five minutes we’re on the move again. This time they march us up the stairs to the back house where John stays. I am in the middle of everyone and, if they shoot now, I won’t be the first to go. I am relieved by the thought. As we get to the top of the stairs there are no lights on in the room but the TV is flickering, casting a creepy glow on the man with a ski mask who sits inside. He looks jittery and won’t stop fiddling with his gun. He keeps loading and unloading it. Loading…Unloading…Loading…
They tell us to sit on the bed. Playing on the TV, appropriately, is a film called Killer Elite. The people in the film are getting shot and all kinds of crazy shit is happening and it’s giving me anxiety. We don’t need a bunch of cracked-out narco terrorists getting trigger-happy because of some over-produced Hollywood movie. I grab the remote and press pause. All the cartel members object and signal to keep it playing. I press play. The killing continues. I look around and all the boys have their heads in their hands and look to be saying a prayer. I say my own, thanking God for the good things I have had so far and ask Him if, just maybe, He could spare us. After contemplating it for a while I become OK with dying. Although strangely, I’m scared of it hurting.
John, who speaks Spanish, explains to us that this is just a robbery and the cartel has come to get supplies. One of the cartel members speaks perfect English and tells us it will all be OK as long as we don’t do anything stupid. Their assault rifles are aimed at our heads. At John’s feet lies his dog, oblivious to what’s going on. One of the cartel members snickers and says, “Some watchdog.” None of us laugh, but we’re starting to feel like we might make it out of here. A few of the guys are even making small talk with us. “You scared?” “You want a drink?” One guy goes as far as to say, “We should all play soccer some time.” That sounds like fun, we all agree. Tom and I take the guy up on his drink offer and he escorts Tom downstairs to fetch some beers, M-16 aimed at his back all the while. They soon return and Tom has a conflicted smirk on his face. He’d noticed that the cartel members were enjoying his famous salsa that he had prepared earlier.
Sensing that maybe we’ve become too comfortable, one of the men — the jittery one — loads his gun and aims it at each of us and utters the words, “BANG…BANG…BANG.” That scared-straight feeling returns and tension is once again running high.
All of a sudden one of them barges into the room waving a bag of weed around and shouting at us. He demands we tell him whose weed it is but no one says anything. It’s clearly one of the previous guests in the house, but they don’t believe us. John tries to calm them down and lies and tells them it’s his. Now they think we do drugs, and the mood shifts. “I have weed, PCP, crystal, coke, heroin, crack — whatever you want,” one guy says to us. “How are we going to buy drugs from you when you’ve taken all our money?” Chase replies under his breath. I have a little laugh and feel a bit better.
One of our new friends looks at us and says, “You like guns? You know what this gun is?” A few of us answer that, yes, we know that’s an AK-47. Hell of a gun. And I tell him that I play a video game that has all of the same guns that they have. He stares at me for a few painful seconds, and then begins taking a bullet out of each different gun. He walks over to us and hands a bullet to each of us saying, “Gift…gift.” A small Mexican souvenir in exchange for all our belongings. While each of us examine the thing that might be the end to each of our lives, he pulls out a hand grenade and starts waving it in our faces asking, “Do you want to see it?” “No,” Chase replies, and the man puts the grenade away, looking slightly offended.
The entire group of men is now gathered in the room. We know this is it. Either the end or…the end. The English speaker says, “OK, we are going to leave now so don’t be calling the police, Marines or military because if you do, we will know and be back right away. We have people on the inside that will tell us. If your phone rings, answer it within three rings or we will be back here. It will be the cartel boss and you better tell him what he wants to hear or else we will be back.” He motions toward the door and the rest of the guys follow him. One of them even has the cheek to wave goodbye and, in a goofy voice, says, “I’m sorry.”