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Translation: The Devil’s Flower

Translated by Patrick Moseley

Daniel Alarcón:  Did you know NPR has an app? It’s called NPR One and it offers the best from public radio and beyond. News, local stories, and your favorite podcasts. NPR One joins you while you travel, wait in line or wait for a friend. Find us on NPR One in your app store.

Before we start this episode, I want to warn listeners that this story contains graphic descriptions of violence and sexual abuse.

For Rosa Julia, it all starts in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. In a lost town in the mountains…

Rosa Julia Leyva: It’s beautiful, it’s on the Costa Grande with the mountains up above. Colorful birds fly, the mountains are above and the sea below.

Daniel: And from her town, Rosa Julia remembers…

Rosa Julia: The smell of coffee, how it rose out of roof tiles. How the sunlight came out from behind the mountains, how it fell on our beautiful houses’ tiled roofs…made out of adobe, bahareque and mud.

Daniel: Most of the people who lived in her town were indigenous. They spoke Nahuatl, the most spoken native language in Mexico. Almost all of them were farmers.

Rosa Julia: My dad worked in the fields. And he sowed the fields and to do that…he worked with other farmers and us as well. We were his work force.

Daniel: There were many kinds of plots, including marijuana and poppy, the plant heroine comes from. And for Rosa Julia these fields were completely normal.  

Rosa Julia: Well, I think that…during all my time there I walked among fields of poppies and marijuana. I didn’t see it as bad. I even picked flowers… There’s a type of poppy that’s a kind of purple. And it’s like the flowers and the color say to you: “Come, come. Pick me”. And I used to make arrangements of poppy flowers with ears of corn and would put them on the table.

Daniel: Until one day her mom told her…

Rosa Julia: Not to go pick anymore of those flowers because they were of the Devil. At that time I said, “why? if all pretty things are of God. Why are these flowers of the Devil?”. And now that I’m older I understand, you know?

Daniel: And it’s because the heroine industry at that time wasn’t how it is today. Rosa Julia was unlucky to grow up in Guerrero in the mid-60s, just as it was forming, as the first heroine boom in the US was taking off. All of a sudden, almost overnight, there was a market… And money. A lot of money. Poppy cultivation in towns like Rosa Julia’s changed everything…

And now, well, there’s no going back. For example, Rosa Julia would rather not say the name of her town. She’s afraid.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. And this is…

José Luis Pardo: José Luis Pardo. I’m a Spanish journalist, but I lived in Mexico until recently, for six years.

Daniel: When did you meet Rosa Julia?

José Luis: About three years ago. And I was interested in her story immediately. Because for a lot of people drug trafficking can be abstract, something they read about, something they talk about, but not something they experience.

But for Rosa Julia…for her it isn’t. Because of where she was born, it has always been part of her life. And it affected her very directly.

Daniel: And that is the story José Luis is going to tell us today.

José Luis: When Rosa Julia was a girl, strange people started coming to her town, from other countries…

Rosa Julia: Bearded, blond, blue-eyed, like you, but with blond hair.

José Luis: And they came for the poppies, and for the marijuana plants.

Rosa Julia: Those that I walked through my whole childhood…

José Luis: And with the arrival of these foreigners, a lot of things changed.

Rosa Julia: And what I do remember is that everyone complained that, because of these people who came from abroad, things in the town were expensive, because there were dollars in my town.

José Luis: There were dollars where there were almost no Mexican pesos, and that is normally a terrible combination. The money was the first thing to change life in the town. It created more inequality in a place where people were already poor.

Rosa Julia: Then, what happened? Things got more expensive, people who were already very poor, who actually worked the land, couldn’t buy anything.

José Luis: That idea that the narco creates progress is a myth. To give you an idea, el Chapo Guzmán is from a town called Badiraguato. But Badiraguato is still one of the poorest municipalities in the state of Sinaloa. Because, of course, those drug dollars aren’t for everyone. So, there started to form a town with two speeds.  And a period started in which…

Rosa Julia: Well, it was still…there were no deaths, stories just circulated and there was a shroud of mystery. But they were very respectful. They weren’t going to kill anyone. If they charged people, the people still had a say and paid what they owed.

José Luis: They were creating a market with the Devil’s plant that Rosa Julia’s mother talked about. Now, that flower was being turned into a drug.

Rosa Julia: It turns into something so destructive, that erases your family, that erases civilizations, that gives people the power to control other people. And it’s all surrounded by poverty, by ignorance.

José Luis: Years went by and some people in the town started to get involved in the marijuana and poppy business. Other people, like Rosa Julia, continued their lives in the country.

Rosa Julia was teenager by this point.

Rosa Julia: I dreamt about prince charming. But I never found prince charming; I did meet one who was dark and strapping. And the first time he kissed me, I remember thinking I was going to get pregnant! I was terrified! And I was very excited, very, very, very excited when he kissed me. I couldn’t tell anyone.

José Luis: Rosa Julia wanted that boy who had given her her first kiss to be her boyfriend, to come to her house and ask for permission…  

Rosa Julia: But it was impossible. Religion played a huge role in those things. So everything was a sin: everything was don’t do it, don’t say it. And when I started to feel different feelings, I started to feel like a bad woman, and when I went to mass I would confess and I would tell the priest.

José Luis: Between her first and second kiss, everything was more or less the same. The guilt, the strict family, the fields…

Rosa Julia: I kept dreaming: I dreamt about learning to read and write. I dreamt about reading books. I dreamt about being a sculptor.

José Luis: But there was no grade school in her town and her parents didn’t know much either. So she kept working the fields, making dolls out of mud and taking care of the plants.

And when she was 21 a Spanish architect arrived who was going to build the first grade school. Rosa Julia sold food to the construction crew and the architect caught her eye…

Rosa Julia: And he said “good morning” to me, and he smelled good. And he had a beard. Well he must have been about 60…

One day he told me that I had very pretty round little eyes. “You have very pretty eyes.” And no one had ever said that to me.

José Luis: And she, who had only had one relationship in her life, felt very flattered. Until one day…

Rosa Julia: He ran his hand through my hair —oh, I felt electrified— and then, he kissed me. I remember he said to me: “You should stay.” And they gave me a mezcal… Well I think I had five and I was just a lump. I don’t even know what happened.

José Luis: What happened is that she got pregnant.

Rosa Julia: And I went and begged him to marry me, and he said: “Are you crazy? How could marry and indian like you?”

José Luis: Rosa Julia told me the architect offered her 800 pesos, which is about 40 dollars, to have an abortion. But she refused. The architect finished building the school and left… with his wife and children.

Rosa Julia hid the fact that she was pregnant as well as she could.

Rosa Julia: I was almost eight months along, no one noticed anything because I was already had a round shape. I started to gain weight all over.

José Luis: But the time came that her family found out, of course…

Rosa Julia: It was really terrible. My dad beat my body and almost killed me. And they ran me out of the house.  And it was really terrible to see how my father cried and said: “Why did you do this to me?”.

José Luis: She had to go live with her godparents who also lived in the mountains, but in another community that was relatively close. Most of the people in town rejected her —the priest wouldn’t even bless her— but a short time later Karen Yolotzin Leyva was born.

Rosa Julia: When your hips open and it’s your last contraction, you hear your bones pop and crack. Crack! And then you hear your child’s cry. It’s something so sublime, I can’t describe it to you.

I think it was the most marvelous thing that has ever happened to me.

José Luis: When Rosa Julia became a single mother, that simple life in the country, that life that she remembers as such a bucolic time, well, it was over. Her godparents were very poor and she had to start working…

Rosa Julia: So I started gardening, but I had to go to town and I would leave Yolotzin with her godparents. I came and went, came and went, but I didn’t make much.

José Luis: She sold plants in a little cart.

Rosa Julia: I managed to buy oil and put it in lamps for light, to eat a little, to buy a few things, not much.

José Luis: After having Yolotzin for some time, about 3 or 4 years, Rosa Julia went back to where her parents lived. She kept on trying to make a living and she tried to work in a hotel district in Guerrero, gardening. But they wouldn’t hire her because she didn’t know how to read or write.

Rosa Julia: That day I told my mother that I couldn’t find work. And well, I was very afraid. My mom told me: “Well, see what you can do. Clean houses. See what you can do, because your daughter is going to starve to death.”

José Luis: It was an economic problem but, well, she also felt very guilty…

Rosa Julia: Will I be able to raise a child? Why did I bring a child into the world if I don’t even have enough food for myself? I’ll have to fill her bottle with coffee so she doesn’t ask for food. So it was terrible for me to see Yolotzin’s little hands, her face, her voice.

José Luis: Rosa Julia was desperate and started to think about what she could do. And she had a cousin who lived in Mexico City and who one day, while visiting her parents’ house, encouraged her to go to the city.

Rosa Julia: My cousin told me: “What you want to do in the hotels is called landscape architecture. Why don’t we go to Xochimilco and I’ll pay for you to take a course at night and learn to read and write?”

José Luis: Not knowing how to read and write made her very sad. So she was excited to be able to learn, to get good at gardening. And most importantly: be able to make enough for her daughter Yolotzin to eat well.

Rosa Julia had a “comadre,” a close friend who she practically grew up with.

Rosa Julia: She was someone I knew my whole life, she was like my other half.

José Luis: Her friend was traveling to Tijuana in those days.  But first she had to take a bus Mexico City and take a flight from there. The friend told her they should take the bus to Mexico City together but asked her if she would bring a bag of money.

Rosa Julia: It didn’t even occur to me to say no to her. It was the first time I was going to leave my community. And I was going to take the trip with a friend. For me that was a gift.

José Luis: The idea of traveling with a friend to Mexico City, of taking off for the city in order to get an education and be able to give her daughter a better life was exciting for her. It was 1992. Rosa Julia was 24 and Yolotzin was 5.

She managed to convince her parents to take care of her daughter and she decided to go.

Rosa Julia: I remember it as if it were today, my mother and my daughter on the side of the road. With her hand like this. Waving her hands. Waving goodbye.

José Luis: Rosa Julia got on the bus with her friend on her way to the capital. Perhaps her last moment of wonder and joy for a long time was perhaps seeing Mexico City in the window.

Rosa Julia: It was early morning. We were arriving from Cuernavaca to Mexico City and I saw a sheet full of stars. And I thought they were fireflies. And I remember I said to my friend: “Comadre, look there are fireflies.” “Comadre, what fireflies? Those are the lights from the city. We’re arriving now.”

José Luis: She had arranged for her cousin to pick her up at the bus station. And when she arrived it was full of people.

On top of that he had asked her to bring 5 boxes of mangos to sell.

Rosa Julia: I was standing there with five boxes of mangos, with the little bag with the money I was carrying to help my friend, with my change of clothes, my toothbrush and my voter ID there in my duffle bag.

José Luis: Minutes passes and then hours and nothing: her cousin didn’t show up.

Rosa Julia: It got really late and I was very scared because he wasn’t going to find me. But he hadn’t come… And I was thinking he got the day wrong, that… I don’t know what all went through my head.  

José Luis: Later she would find out that her cousin couldn’t get there on time because his car had been damaged. But since Rosa Julia didn’t even have her cousin’s address or telephone number, her friend told her that she couldn’t leave her there. And she made a suggestion:

That they go to Tijuana together. On a plane. And Rosa Julia, not knowing what to do, said yes. In just a few hours she had seen the city for the first time and now she was going to fly in a plane. 

They arrived at the airport and Rosa Julia was dazzled seeing all of this for the first time. When she hears a voice:

Rosa Julia: “Federal Judicial Police, stop, ma’am”… I never thought they were talking to me…

José Luis: But they were. Rosa Julia turned around to see her friend who was rushing up the escalator. Her friend shouted at her…

Rosa Julia: “Put your things there, they’re going to search them. We’ll wait for you here, comadre.

José Luis: And officer said to her:

Rosa Julia: “What do you have there, ma’am?”. And I stood there looking at her and said: “Well, money.” And the person says to me: “Why didn’t you declare your assets?” And I said: “What assets?” “Well, the money.” “Oh, because the money isn’t mine, it’s hers.”

José Luis: And the moment she puts her things on the floor, the officer touches her. And even though this seems like a minor detail, it isn’t. It has to do with her childhood and how she was raised…

Rosa Julia: In Guerrero things are, well, very tough. Mothers never go around giving you hugs, or kissing you. They raise you to be tough. There, if a little boy falls over, he gets slapped and they tell him: “Stand up, cabrón.” They hit you because you fell because you were an idiot, you know? So displays of… There’s no contact. So when the woman grabs me, I say “hey, why are you grabbing me?”

José Luis: And Rosa Julia started shouting to her friend:

Rosa Julia: Comadre, come back! Something’s wrong! They want to know about the money! Come back!”

José Luis: But her friend never came back.

That was the last time she saw her.

And the officer’s dog started barking like crazy.

Rosa Julia: And the man said to me: “Ma’am, you aren’t carrying money. My dog is trained to find drugs and look at him.”

José Luis: Her friend had put heroine in the bag. From there everything happened very quickly. Rosa Julia didn’t really understand what was going on, like it was all a mistake. They took her to airport security and there a police officer told her…

Rosa Julia: “The drug you’re carrying is the extract of the poppy seed pod…If you only knew, you pathetic indian, how much time you’re going to do for this.”

José Luis: And Rosa Julia remembered…

Rosa Julia: How my mother told me they were the Devil’s flowers. And now I understood why they were the Devil’s flowers. But it was too late…

Daniel: When we come back, far away from the town where she was born, Rosa Julia begins a new life…one that is nothing like what she had imagined.

Thank you for listening to Radio Ambulante. Before we go back to our story I want to tell you about another NPR podcast, one about music, called Alt.Latino. It’s hosted by Felix Contreras, and Felix is your guide into the world of Latino arts and culture. An alternative approach to traditional music. Interviews with cultural icons like Rita Moreno and Carlos Santana as well as contemporary vanguards like Calle 13 or author Junot Díaz. Find Alt.Latino on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts.

Daniel: Before the break, we heard about how Rosa Julia ended up arrested for possession of heroin the same day she left her state for the first time. She was about to travel from Mexico City to Tijuana, but she was detained in the airport. And well, graves and jails in Mexico are full of people like her, people who represent the weakest link of the narco supply chain. Anonymous people. José Luis Pardo continues the story.

José Luis: At airport security they wouldn’t leave her alone. They asked her who the leader of the cartel was, where the lab was, where they operated. But Rosa Julia, of course, didn’t know what they were talking about. She could only tell them the truth: that her comadre had tricked her.

Rosa Julia: I couldn’t believe that my friend had done that, because I knew, well, that it was hers, you know? I think the greatest prison I could have was hate.

José Luis: Only later did she find out…  

Rosa Julia: The my comadre and another friend were working for one of the cartels.  

José Luis: The agents told her that she could call someone, but Rosa Julia didn’t know how to.

Rosa Julia: I didn’t know how. In the mountains there are no phones. They had to go down to a telephone booth in the village, and wait two, three days. I never communicated with them.

José Luis: Several days went by from when they detained her and when she was put in prison. First they gave her over to the military because they suspected that Rosa Julia worked for two army generals who were involved with drug trafficking. From there..

Rosa Julia: They bound my hands, bound my feet and blindfolded me. I learned from their radios that we were going to the number one military camp. And there they hit me again and again.

José Luis: Rosa Julia doesn’t know exactly how many days she was held in the military camp, but what she does know is that the whole time she was there she was blindfolded…

Rosa Julia: I think that I was there for about 15 days, and I must have been conscious for about, I don’t know, six or seven. I was passed out the most of the time.

José Luis: Two years ago the UN said that torture is a generalized practice among all of the security forces in Mexico. And that has only gotten worse with the War on Drug Trafficking. But it’s nothing new.

Rosa Julia: I think they burned me with the lighters from their cars because my burns were very round. They put a bag over my head. And you want to gasp for air and the bag clings to you. I was like a lump. With excrement stuck to my body, dried blood…Living between reality and fear –and it was a type of fear that I can’t explain to you.

José Luis: After several days, the military officials were finally convinced that she didn’t know the generals and they sent her to the PGR, the Attorney General’s Office. And there there was an agent they called ‘El Lobo’, the Wolf.

Rosa Julia: And if things were hard with the army, well, with El Lobo things were terribly hard.

José Luis: El Lobo was tall blond man with a mustache. He had a Northern Mexican accent.

Rosa Julia: He had pointed boots with metal tips. He would hit me terribly in this bone here, my shin. Aweful, aweful, aweful, aweful, aweful. He would ask me the same questions.

José Luis: And she remembers he told her:

Rosa Julia: “Ah this pathetic indian. These men with their training in the Persian Gulf haven’t made you talk? You haven’t accepted food? Did you know that fucking makes you hungry? I’m going to fuck you like you’ll never forget and you’re going to ask for food. And with me, even the mute talk, even if it’s with signs.”

And I remembered I would say to God: “Please let me die, let me die.”

José Luis: In the end, after days of torture and rape, el Lobo brought her a document and Rosa Julia signed her confession. Well, she signed it in a sense, more accurately she put her fingerprint on a piece of papel since she still didn’t know how to read or write.

In a few weeks she had gone from her simple life in the mountains to a cell with just one toilet for 25 people. Rosa Julia was 28 years old. She barely spoke Spanish and she still didn’t understand her new life.

Rosa Julia: Everyone there smoked, took drugs, kissed each other, and I felt like I was in a world that… I didn’t felt like I was a bad person who deserved to be treated like a dog.

José Luis: And on, top of that, she really was alone. At least she took comfort thinking that her family didn’t know she was in prison. But the news of her arrest did make it to Guerrero. Here’s her daughter Yolitzin. At that time she was 6.

Yolotzin Leyva: My mom’s brother was wrapping a papaya with a piece of newspaper once.

José Luis: And there in the pages of the newspaper…

Yolotzin: Then I saw my mom’s picture.

José Luis: In an article detailing her arrest.

Rosa Julia: And then my brother… My daughter shouted to my brother: “Hugo, Hugo, I saw my mom, Juli!”

José Luis: They told Rosa Julia’s dad about the news.

Rosa Julia: “Julia is being held in the prison up north for marijuana.”

Rosa Julia: The adults started talking and Yolotzin poked out her head, curiously, anxiously, trying to understand what had happened to her mom.

Yolotzin: They started talking about public prosecutors. They started talking about a list of things that before the I only knew about from telenovelas, you know, from my grandma watching telenovelas. So when they were talking about that it meant “jail.” That was when I realized that she wasn’t going to come back.  

José Luis: Rosa Julia could only try to adapt to prison and the other inmates.

Rosa Julia: I think that being tortured so much by the time I got there is what really helped me. They realized that I didn’t speak. That I was tortured. And all did was ask them to put me in the shower.  For a long time I showered and showered and showered.

José Luis: After a few days, she concentrated on cleaning.

Rosa Julia: I would go clean bathrooms that were all covered in poop and I left them impeccable. Working wore me out. I would work here, work there to make myself tired and be able to sleep, because they spent all their time doing drugs, day and night, day and night… The smell…

José Luis: Rosa Julia never took drugs. She cleaned, she cooked and slowly the other inmates went to confide in her. They told her their stories…

Rosa Julia: I would analyze their lives and realize that mine was, well, a different world, you know? And in their stories I learned some had been raped by their stepfather, they had… I knew their stories forwards and backwards. Hearing them had a profound impact on me.

So I turned into a kind of… I think I turned into a kind of mother for them.

José Luis: Almost one year after entering that prison, she finally had her trial. Throughout the court proceedings, Rosa Julia heard the administration say terrible things about her time and time again. She heard them say for example…

Rosa Julia:  “That bitch left her children behind.” So that was when I realized that the most serious part of my crime was being born a woman in this country and having wound up in jail.

José Luis: Rosa Julia says this had a great impact on her, but she wasn’t all that surprised.

Rosa Julia: Because I was born in a place where women aren’t worth much. Where they sell you, where you have to be quiet and listen to your husband; and your husband, when you get married, it’s like you have a stamp there that says “a piece of meat” and if you don’t have a last name, you’re not worth anything.

José Luis: As if we needed proof of the unequal treatment men and women receive in the judicial system, Rosa Julia tells me that that day there were eight people on trial…

Rosa Julia: Of which all of the women were sentenced and the men were let free.

José Luis: And it’s true. The day that Rosa Julia appeared before the court, there were also several men who had different cases. And almost all of them went free.

But not her: she was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In Mexican prisons there’s the term pagador, the one who pays: this refers to a person who belongs to an organization and who serves other people’s sentences. So they pay the time quietly and they are taken care of from the outside. They’re given money…

But the female version of that word  — pegadora — doesn’t mean the same thing. It usually refers to someone like Rosa Julia, drug mules who end up in jail. They don’t get anything. They don’t get any support, any money, any care.

The day of her sentencing, Rosa Julia met one of these pegadores. His name was Rubén.

Rosa Julia: Rubén was a born criminal. He came with a group of Colombians.

José Luis: Rosa Julia had just been sentenced, and of course, she was devastated. Rubén saw her crying.

Rosa Julia: “Why are you crying?” he yelled.

José Luis: People from our land, Rubén told her, were designed differently: they don’t cry.

Rosa Julia: I remember when he walked away from me, in the hall, he yelled at me: “What’s your name!?” And I felt his voice hit against my uniform.

José Luis: A few weeks later Rubén sent her a letter. Which of course, her fellow inmates had to read to her.

Rosa Julia: And in that letter he told me who he was and why he was there, that he realized that I was alone, that I didn’t have anyone.

José Luis: Around that time, Rosa Julia learned that her father had died. On top of that, he died a short time after learning that she had been arrested. Rosa Julia felt very guilty. It tormented her to think that she was responsible for her father’s death.

She was suffering in prison, but for a pegador like Rubén, carrying out a sentence wasn’t easy either.

Rosa Julia: I think he needed company too.

José Luis: So she responded to the letter, though, of course, the other inmates wrote it for her. And so, Rosa Jula and Rubén first became friends and then a couple. It was convenient because their jails were connected. A little later, Rubén asked her to marry him and she said yes.

Rosa Julia: And I think I wasn’t in love with him. I got married because I wanted a last name. And because I was alone.

José Luis: A little later, Rosa Julia was pregnant.

Rosa Julia: I was married when I had Manolo. It was very hard to welcome him here… To welcome someone who deserves to be free. And he was born with the right to be free, right? I had him there.

José Luis: For more than a year, she raised her son in prison. And she describes it as one of the most painful things in her life…

Rosa Julia: At night I looked at his little hands. I saw his hands and felt comforted, I felt like I had company, but I also felt like a worse criminal. Because he wasn’t free. He lived with me. He didn’t know about giraffes. He didn’t know about zoos. He didn’t know about anything because he was locked up.

José Luis: And she made one of the most difficult decisions of her life. She decided that Manolo would live on the outside, with her cousins. She handed over custody to them.

Rosa Julia: I haven’t been the same since.

José Luis: Rubén didn’t forgive her for separating him from his son. He wanted a big family, like the traditional families in Guerrero. But Rosa Julia didn’t want any more children. They started to become distant.

On top of that Rosa Julia was afraid because Rubén was still involved in drug trafficking. She had already suffered the consequences and the last thing she wanted was for her children to have contact with that world. She started to study. She got a primary education. She learned to read and the first word she wrote was “oso”, which means “bear”. For her that was striking.

Rosa Julia: Because Yolotzin used to sing “La osa y la osita” to me, “The Bear and the Little Bear. A children’s song. And she sang that song to me, so I would always remember that I was the bear and she was the little bear. So the first word I wrote was the word “O-so.”

José Luis: Rubén finished his sentence and when he got out he wrote her another letter in which he told her he was was going back to his old girlfriend. So once again, Rosa Julia was alone in prison –without her son, without her husband.

Rosa Julia: And I couldn’t bear the pain.

José Luis: The day I got the letter, she tore it to pieces.

Rosa Julia: I threw it in the blender, I added water and onion and garlic and I gulped it down. I was in the enfermery for about 5 days.

José Luis: But Rosa Julia’s story doesn’t end in prison. I visited her in her apartment in Mexico City, which is a modest home with just one bedroom. She managed to get out with the help of a lawyer who argued that since she was the victim of torture, they should reduce her sentence. And that’s what happened. On June 20, 2005, after more than 12 years of being locked in prison, Rosa Julio stepped out to freedom.  

She remembers the day she got out…

Rosa Julia: It felt like the air was hurting my ears, like too much air was going in my nose. I heard the noise of the street… It was raining and the rain bothered my ears. It was too much air for my lungs. I didn’t know how to walk down the street. I felt like everyone was looking at me. No, no, no, no it was very hard, very very hard, the first day in the street.  

José Luis: But she got used to it.

And so Rosa Julia started her third life. From there, she set out to close what she calls the circles of her life.

Today she visits prisons as a civil servant, and along with her partner, Jorge Correa, she teaches classes in theatre and public speaking to some of the most famous criminals in Mexico.  

But the most important thing she’s done has been reconnecting with Yolotzin. When she got out, one of the first things she did was go back to her town to get her daughter. The girl wasn’t five years old anymore, at that point she was about to turn 17.

Rosa Julia: It wasn’t easy, she didn’t know me, she called me “ma’am” and she was afraid of me.

José Luis: She was a quiet teenager and good student who was getting ready to go to college. The two of them moved to Mexico City, to Rosa Julia’s sister’s apartment. And, little by little, the got to know each other.

Rosa Julia: We started to get to know each other, to win each other over, to love each other.

Yolotzin: We started to realize that we have a lot of similar tastes. We talk, she teaches me things, I teach her things. I mean, our living together is really like a friendship.

José Luis: They lived together for almost nine years, until a few months ago when Yolotzin went to live on her own.

Yolotzin: Sometimes I feel like my mom is too magical to have an ordinary life.

José Luis: And to find peace, she still has Manolo… But fixing that relationship is not going to be easy.

Rosa Julia: Manolo lived with his my cousins. He has a happy life. He is a boy who plays violin. A boy who’s going to preparatory school. He’s 18. He’s a successful boy. He plays soccer. There’s no… We do have a relationship, but there are still a lot of things…

I feel like I’m in debt to Manolo, because it was very difficult for Manolo to live with me and I feel like I took away his freedom.

José Luis: Repairing that relationship…

Rosa Julia: That is going to be my last cycle.

José Luis: I’ve spent the last six years covering drug trafficking routes in Latin America, and in that time I’ve met a lot of people like Rosa Julia.

In discussions about drug trafficking, I’ve often heard different versions of this adage: that the US provides the consumers and that Latin Americans provide the deaths.

But I think that on top of providing the deaths, the victims, we also provide the killers and impunity. I don’t see the narco as the source of all problems. I see it more as the phenomenon that has made all of our problems possible: inequality, violence, corruption. In Mexico and the rest of Latin America there are a lot of people like Rosa Julia, people who’ve been stripped of what little they had by the narco.  

Daniel: José Luis Pardo is a freelance journalist and the cofounder of Dromómanos, a producer of journalistic projects. He has been reporting on topics related to drug trafficking and violence in Latin America for six years. He published the book “Narcoamérica,” in January and he started a new project about homicide in the continent.

This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and me. Mixing and sound design by Ryan Sweikert.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Luis Trelles, Else Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill, Caro Rolando, Melissa Montalvo, Désirée Bayonet, Luis Fernando Vargas, Andrés Azpiri and David Trujillo. Out intern is Andrea Betanzos. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.

Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

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