All the Dead Heroes: The Border Trilogy, Part II
Rosarito’s day of death in 2006 — ending with the slayings of three cops in the small town south of Tijuana — hammered home the personal costs of the increasingly violent drug wars raging across Mexico
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On a sunny Rosarito morning in the first week of June 2006, little Hayndel Torres-Arellano awoke before his parents. He nudged awake his father, Ismael, and then his eight-months-pregnant mother, Negrita (Little Dark One, so nicknamed for the jet-black hair and deep brown eyes offsetting her broad, pretty face). Then he washed up for school. The smell of eggs soon filled the house, and with an hour before the start of kindergarten, the family sat down to eat.
Not yet in primary school, and sporting a gaping hole where a front tooth should be, Hayndel already knew what he was going to be when he grew up — a policeman, just like his dad. Ismael was the best officer in the history of the department, according to his chief, and Hayndel followed him around like an imprinted duckling. That morning, the boy had a strange notion in his head, as 6-year-olds are wont to do.
“Papi,” he said to Ismael, “who’s going to die first — you or Mom or me?”
Ismael paused, discomfited. “I don’t know, little man,” he replied. “I just know I love you both. Goodness only knows who goes first and who follows. It could be me or your mother, even your little brother.”
“Because God wants it that way,” Ismael said.
Hayndel considered the remark while chewing his eggs, his little head tilted to the side.
“I’m going to ask you a favor,” Ismael said after another pause. “If I die first, don’t cry — because I’m going to be with you. I won’t be walking next to you, but I’ll be at your side. You’ll be the man of the house, and you’ll have to care for your mother and little brother.”
Ismael had grown up in Mexico City, the oldest of four children. He became the man of the house before he was 5, when his own father died. His dream had been to go to military school, but he gave that up to provide for his family. At 17, he took a job as a cop. He met Negrita years later in central Mexico. By the time of the unsettling talk with Hayndel, the most pressing concern on his mind was his weight. Out of action and on disability, his waistline was growing.
Five months earlier, the 31-year-old had taken a spill while on patrol on one of the department’s off-road bikes. When he called Negrita that night and calmly explained he was in the hospital, she went into a panic. She didn’t relax until seeing him, surrounded by other officers, in a bed at the Red Cross. It wasn’t the shy smile on his face that eased her nerves but the chortling of his fellow cops. As it turned out, the fall he’d taken wasn’t serious. Ismael didn’t tear the ligaments in his knee until after the crash, as he attempted to extricate his pinned leg from beneath the bike — and his cop buddies weren’t going to let him live it down.
In the months that followed, he became something of a househusband. In the morning he would wake with Negrita and eat a quick breakfast with Hayndel. Then he’d take the boy to school. Though he was the kind of cop eager for action, he was also fawningly proud of his young family.
“Both of us were eating for two,” Negrita remembers. “With me pregnant and him incapacitated, we were gaining weight. It was cute, though. When he’d come back from the school, he’d say, ‘Do you want to go for tamales?’ I’d say, ‘Okay,’ and we’d go out. Then we’d come back and clean up the house. He helped me a lot, which surprised everybody; they just couldn’t believe it. Then we’d watch TV until the end of kindergarten and go for our son.”