How Do You Know Better?

“You should have known better,” she said to Carlos (not his real name) after the judge handed down the conviction, as Carlos was being taken away. His mother then told him she loved him, they shared a quick hug, and off he went to federal prison. She then turned to look at the half-empty gallery, wiped her tears, and walked out the door.

Months earlier, Carlos was offered a job by a neighbor. The neighbor was a shady character, but he had the best cars and a big screen television in his house. The house was a three-story house in a neighborhood full of rancher-style houses and mobile homes. Almost everyone knew that the neighbor was involved in some sort of organized crime syndicate, but no one said anything. After all, the neighbor threw the best parties almost every weekend, and everyone was invited to eat and drink and dance as much as they could.

The job was to drive a car from El Paso, Texas, to Denver, Colorado. It would be a ten-hour drive straight up I-25 through New Mexico. Carlos would leave the car at a parking garage, walk across the street, and then jump into a Greyhound bus back home. He would get $5,000, cash, to go up to Denver and then get another $5,000 when he got back. All he had to do was get the car safely to that parking garage and ask no questions.

By now, I hope you know where this is going.

What was then called the Border Patrol set up a checkpoint on I-25 just north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, where cars would be inspected. They’re all over the border as a second line of defense against drug and human smuggling. As it turns out, Carlos knew what he was driving in that car, and he was very nervous about it. To make matters worse, he had the $5,000 in cash in an envelope on the passenger seat. As soon as the Border Patrol officer asked Carlos where he was going, Carlos froze.

checkpoint
It wasn’t a friendly checkpoint. Let’s leave it at that.

Because he wasn’t a “snitch,” Carlos didn’t tell the prosecutors who had sent him on the trip to Denver. For that, they were not lenient at all and asked for a ten-year sentence. The judge agreed, especially after the judge gave Carlos one last chance to name the person who hired him. (Frankly, you can’t blame Carlos. He’d probably die in jail while his family back home would be made to pay in some way.)

As I sat in the gallery and saw Carlos being taken away, I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t decline the offer. I knew his family was going through a rough patch financially. Carlos’ father died a slow death from cancer and left them with some hefty medical bills. Carlos had dropped out of high school to help his family, but the jobs the got didn’t really help. Living in the Lower Valley, it was expensive for him to go into the city to get a good job. So he had odd jobs here and there.

In essence, he was his neighbor’s perfect target for a drug mule.

“Why didn’t he know better?” I asked myself. The deal was too good to be true. I’d known kids in the neighborhood who had turned down the deal because they knew it was too good to be true. Not Carlos, though. He was desperate. He had just seen his father waste away, and his mother was sick of a broken heart. Carlos’ younger sister wore clothes donated to the family by neighbors (but not from the wealthy neighbor). He probably knew better, but he knew of no other alternative.

I left El Paso early into Carlos’ time at the Sierra Blanca Federal Prison. He was sent there to be close to his family in El Paso. From what I heard, his mother died a year after I left. His little sister was sent to foster care. (I’d run into her on one of my returns, but that’s for another post at a later time.) Carlos finished his time at the prison and was released and deported. His permanent resident visa was revoked. The last news I heard of him was that an attempt was made on his life during the drug war in Juarez and that he was left with some sort of physical disability from it.

There are going to be times in your life when you’re faced with some pretty tough choices. You’ll be tempted to do things that are not good — or even illegal — and think that you should go through with them because you either think you’re going to get away with it… Or you have no other choice. The best thing would be to be in a position where you had other choices and not have to turn to shady deals to move ahead in life.

We’re not all that lucky, though. So, while we may know better, the hard part is to do better.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen