The first step entailed finding a secure location for the diamonds. Juan’s mom’s sister introduced him to her Banamex bank manager, who helped Juan open a new checking account. In the Mexican naming system, people used a first name, and a second name when they had one, followed by a paternal last name and a maternal last name. Juan Luis Merlo Rodriguez did not match the name on Juan’s US driver’s license, which was Juan Merlo Rodriguez. The US system continually made various accounts of Juan as Juan M. Rodriguez, and this made him furious, but not now. His Banamex account was under the name Juan Luis Merlo, and it didn’t match his US driver’s license or US passport. Without anyone knowing, he went back to the bank and rented a safe-deposit box, then returned again that afternoon with a zipped plastic bag full of diamonds. That evening, his head felt heavy, and a deep sense of peace and well-being enveloped him, giving him that night his best, most restful sleep in weeks. He slept on the couch of his aunt’s home; his mom was in a spare bedroom left empty by his college-age cousin. His mom was not happy about staying there more than three evenings, and Juan felt pressured by her concern.
“Ya sabes que los muertos y los invitados apestan a los tres días” (You know that corpses and guests stink in three days), Virginia kept saying.
So Juan spent every minute of his time doing what needed to be done. He soon found a decent apartment in the swanky and cosmopolitan neighborhood of Polanco. By Mexico City standards, it was fantastic, and it cost about one thousand five hundred dollars a month. But the owner demanded two months’ rent as a security deposit. So Juan needed more money than he had available in cash. His mom had to stay put with her sister while he saw about renting a place for them. Virginia was worried that Juan might not be able to support them and feared for the future. But Juan’s confidence eventually rubbed off on her, and she believed in him as never before.
Juan rented a motel room near his aunt’s house and entered carrying one of his suitcases, which contained all the things he needed to disguise his appearance. He exited the motel room dressed in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie, his hair curled like a dancer’s in a movie. He wore large sunglasses and moved with an effeminate walk. He did this even while he waited for a public bus, knowing he annoyed the gay haters, who in Mexico City were notoriously more loudspoken and violent from those in San Diego. He rode the bus south to the famous Mexico City flea market with a presence worthy of a surreal painting. He walked strangely along stalls decorated in old tapestries next to Japanese Manga cartoon stands and followed by one after another tiny plot of old trinkets and used possessions. The market was called La Lagunilla, which means the small lagoon. Juan was amused that the flea market had a name that required the article to sound like a repetition of the name itself. If one just said “lagunilla,” people would not be sure of the reference. But as soon as one qualified it as La Lagunilla, they immediately recognized it. Of course, having been founded in the 1560s helped the market’s fame as a place for buying and selling goods. Now, 456 years later, the market had a reputation for being the place to go when one is looking for all sorts of antiques, art, electronics, and other valuables. Adding to its prestige was the fact that you could always find recently stolen articles there. For decades, families in Mexico City had repurchased recently burglarized family heirlooms there.
Juan left a wake of comments behind him as he moved around. If anybody remembered anything, it was not that a man bought a ring setting, but rather that a strange, effeminate man drew comments and laughter behind his back. Juan looked for a ring with a fake two-carat diamond. He needed the setting to look old and to be real gold or platinum, not false. An heirloom of a real diamond is never set in a fake setting, and he was determined to look hard for one. The job proved simple enough, however, and for one thousand five hundred pesos or a little under a hundred dollars, he bought a corny setting for a two-carat diamond holding a cubic zirconia. He called a street cab and jumped into the back of a small VW bug with no passenger front seat. On the way to the motel, he reminded himself of Rule #3—Never return to your safe place in disguise.
Juan stopped the cab a few blocks before reaching his motel and entered a Vips coffee shop dressed like an effeminate and stylized man, proceeded to the bathroom, and, in a stall, transformed to a regular guy. It was not hard. He took off the large sunglasses, jacket, tie, and black shirt and put them into a folded black bag he had carried with him. Underneath, he wore a clean white T-shirt that immediately changed his appearance. Then using the sink, he quickly rinsed his hair with water. Just like that, Juan was back. He dropped the effeminate movements and quickly left Vips, walking back to the motel, the ring hidden in his pocket.
Perhaps he had inherited his skills from his father, or maybe he had an old watchmaker ancestor he did not know about, but metallurgy came easy to him, in this case, bending without breaking the setting in order to substitute the real diamond. Using two sets of pliers held with both hands, he pried the upside-down ring gently until the zirconia fell out. Then he reversed the maneuver. To accomplish this, he used a little roll of two-sided tape on a Q-tip that he held between his teeth. Essentially, he needed three hands, and the Q-tip in his lips became the third hand. The tape held the diamond gently, and he inserted it where the zirconia had been. As soon as he released the pressure on the metal, the stone was trapped perfectly in the ring. Small gaps were easily adjusted with pressure on the soft gold. He planned to buy better equipment, but always generic stuff. The last thing he needed was to have professional jewelry equipment with him that might cause unnecessary questions or suspicion and could become circumstantial evidence.
The first fence is always the highest, Juan thought.
He needed support, and therefore he planned to enlist Virginia. She was not an accomplice, and Juan knew she didn’t suspect anything. It was unimaginable that she even knew of the diamond heist, because she never read the newspaper and rarely watched the news. In Tijuana her concept of news was limited to local events and even more to local gossip. Also, because of the move, the TV was packed away, which meant she had no chance of seeing or hearing about the heist. Juan desperately needed the working capital to continue his liquidity plan, but he was not going to take chances. Virginia, therefore, was the ticket. He took the newly set ring back to his aunt’s home, hoping to find his mom alone. His timing was just right—his Aunt Esmeralda had left for work, and Virginia was alone except for the maid. Esmeralda worked as secretary for an important chief executive who ran a private medical device company.
Juan rang the bell outside the modest home, which had a small grass garden used as a parking lot, with stones placed in rows to identify parking spaces. It was an old home in the San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City, bordering the Roma neighborhood. Juan knew that Esmeralda actually disputed which of the two neighborhoods her house belonged in, since it had a San Miguel Chapultepec address but she had to explain to visitors that it was in the Roma neighborhood so that they could find it. Mexico City was arcane and complex, its signage even more so. In this city there were continual changes to street direction, street names, and numbers. Many homes display two numbers, the new one and another with “formerly” displayed beside it. It was almost as if the authorities were trying to create more confusion and more traffic, rather than alleviating it.
Juan waited for the aging maid to open the lock the chain holding together the steel doors. It was almost comical that the entire safety of the house depended on a chain that could be bolt-cut by any amateur thief. The maid moved as if in slow motion, mimicking most of what happened in Mexico City as compared to San Diego. Juan was almost ready to trample her in his haste.
“Ma. Ma,” Juan called.
“¡No vas a creer lo que me encontre!” (You won’t believe what I found!) Juan exclaimed.
“Espera, estoy viendo las noticias. Este robo paso en San Diego. Ve.” (Wait, I am watching the news. This theft happened in San Diego. Look.)
Images of the flying pigeons leaving the Quayles Jewels building and passing in front of the camera were showing on the old Sony, which was almost identical to Virginia’s but larger. Juan felt his blood rush. This he hadn’t expected. The crime was notable due to the use of the birds, and it was making worldwide news. Now everybody in the world would hear of the flying diamond heist! Juan could only hope that the news cycle would have a very short life span and some shark attack or NASCAR crash would supplant it in viewers’ memories. But the mind of a person who has just done something as bold as Juan can play tricks. Virginia could easily connect his pigeons to the pigeon theft, and this made him extra nervous.
Juan was caught in a mental trap; he craved recognition for having pulled off the crime, but he knew that it could be his downfall. He knew that the desire to achieve respect as the result of getting away with a crime was perhaps the number one reason most criminals were caught. Juan panicked and went to his room, abandoning the plan to ask Virginia to be his first fence.
“Estoy muerto, ma. Voy a descansar un poco en tu cuarto.” (I’m beat, Mom. I am going to rest a bit in your room.)
“OK,” Virginia said.
Lying in the small bedroom and smelling the recently watered ivy on the fence directly across from the open window, Juan was reminded of other times he had spent in Mexico City. It was a distinctive smell, mixed with the feeling of the home itself, made of cold bricks and mortar, a contrast with the sheetrock and stud houses of America. Juan wondered if such feelings were normal; did everybody sense such things? He was de-stressing from having his mom learn about the diamond heist in San Diego. He relaxed completely when an idea struck him. Keeping Virginia out of his plan was the best possible solution. If she ever asked him about the pigeon theft he would deny any involvement. Keeping Virginia ignorant was the best way of protecting her. Now he felt he had a solution in impersonating a typical middle-aged widow. Having played a heavyset white man and a gay Mexican dandy emboldened him to take this next step. He knew that being in Aunt Esmeralda’s home was uncomfortable for his mom. Moving to Polanco would be perfect, because it would be a clear step up from Esmeralda’s mediocre house and give his mom the added status she yearned for. He fell into a slumber and relaxed on the bed while smelling Mexico City.
Juan woke up to the abrupt noise of a car horn. Even the side streets weren’t immune to noisy traffic. He went into his aunt’s bedroom and rifled through her clothing, feeling once more like a thief. She was a little smaller than he was, but there must be something he could use. On the upper shelf in a box, he found some dresses that were from a time when she was heavier. It was just perfect, because they wouldn’t be missed. This wasn’t theft; he would return them later. Juan placed the dresses in his backpack without anyone noticing.
That evening the family sat for dinner in the small home that belonged to Roberto and Esmeralda Espinaza. Esmeralda was married to an aging history expert with a desire to retire and live off his pension. Professor Roberto Espinaza’s life had been a constant commute and process of repetition that left him tired and broken. He was bitter, but quirky enough to throw in a stinging comment every now and then. Esmeralda was a working mother, and her three kids had now left home to start their own lives through marriage or work. Today two of her daughters would come to see their cousin and aunt, Juan and Virginia Merlo. Family reunions were not common for Juan and Virginia, but they welcomed the experience. The missing cousin was the male son, who had moved to Cancun in search of a better life. He was now assistant manager at the Kristal Hotel and doing well for himself.
“¿Qué tal San Diego, Juan?” (Tell us about San Diego, Juan?) Esmeralda asked.
“Muy duro. La vida en los Estados Unidos no es lo que parece. Sin educación no te dan buenas chambas. Yo me la paso trabajando y apenas salimos adelante” (Life is hard in the States. Without a college degree, you can’t get a good job. I work all day, and we barely get by), Juan said.
“Suenas amargado” (You sound bitter), Cousin Mariel said.
“Sí. Estoy, bueno estaba” (Yes. I am, well, was), Juan replied.
“¿Estabas? En el pasado. ¿Qué paso?” (You were? In the past. What happened?) Mariel asked again.
“¡Me siento en la inquisición! Pero te cuento. Finalmente tome las riendas de mi vida. Por eso la amargura se va a quedará atrás.” (I feel as if I am in the Inquisition. But I’ll tell you. Finally I took control of my life. That is why all the bitterness will be left behind.)
“Ujule. Que bien, ¿y qué quiere decir eso?” (Wow. Good, and what does that mean?) Mariel sarcastically asked.
“Primita, yo ya no voy a tratar de medio hacerla en los Estados Unidos. Voy a abrir un negocio aquí y hacerla en grande. Veras” (Little cousin, I am no longer going to try to make it in the United States. I am opening a business here and will make it big. You will see), Juan responded.
“¿Un negocio de que tipo?” (What kind of business?) Mariel’s husband, Rodrigo, asked.
“Una tienda de antigüedades y consignación” (An antique and consignment shop), Juan calmly said.
“¿Desde cuando?” (Since when?) Virginia said.
“Lo he estado planeando desde hace mucho, Ma” (I’ve been planning it for a long time, Mom), Juan said, even though it was a very recent idea.
“No sabia” (I had no idea), Virginia said.
“¿Pero no necesitas capital y una clientela para hacer eso? Digo, acabas de llegar” (But don’t you need capital and a clientele to do that? I mean, you just got here), Rodrigo asked.
“Pato. No molestes a Juanito” (Pato. Don’t bother Juan), Mariel told her husband Rodrigo, using his nickname.
“No queria molestar” (I didn’t mean to bother), Pato said.
“No es molestia. Yo se que es difícil pero tengo mis ahorros y los Dalís de mamá van a ayudar a jalar gente. No pienso venderlos sólo usarlos de gancho para comenzar” (It’s no bother. I know it is hard, but I have some savings, and I plan to use my mom’s Dalís to showcase the shop. I don’t intend to sell them, just use them as magnets), Juan said.
“Parece que lo tienes bien planeado” (You seem to have it all figured out), Aunt Esmeralda said.
“Lo tengo” (I do), Juan said.
“Sabias que hay un nuevo museo de Carlos Slim” (You know there is a new museum donated by Carlos Slim?) Mariel said, changing the subject.
“Sí. Me encantaría ir” (Yes. I’d love to go), Juan said.
“¿Sí puedo te llevo la semana que entra, vale?” (If I can, I will take you next week, OK?)
“Hecho” (It’s a fact), Juan responded.
“¿No por molestar, pero qué sabes de antigüedades y de arte?” (Not to be a pest, but what do you know of antiques and art?) Rodrigo pestered.
“Rodrigo, no se más ni menos que muchos, pero es un sentimiento realmente. Es cuestión de gustos. Ademas voy a estudiar la carrera de historia del arte en un instituto en Las Lomas” (Rodrigo, I don’t claim to know more than others, but it is about feelings and taste. On top of that, I have plans to do the art history major at a school in Las Lomas), Juan said.
“Ya no hablemos de eso. ¿Oyeme, Juan, que paso con la novia que tenias? Mi tía decía que era muy bonita.” (Let’s change the subject. Hey, Juan, what about your girlfriend? My aunt said she was very beautiful). Mariel looked at Virginia when she said aunt.
“Sí, estaba guapa, pero las gringas no sirven para largo plazo” (Yes, she was pretty. But American girls do not work out in the long run), Juan said.
“Estaba preciosa” (She was gorgeous), Virginia interjected.
“¿Como esta eso?” (How’s that?) Mariel asked.
“Para resumir. Los gringos ven a los mexicanos como una sola cosa. Básicamente jardineros” (To make a long story short, Americans see all Mexicans as gardeners), Juan said, and Pato laughed out loud.
Professor Espinaza, listening, made humming noises, a habit he had when he wanted to quiet the table. When they all looked at him, he said, “Los Americanos son simples y no entienden que en México escuchabamos la ópera antes de que ellos mataran a los indios.” (Americans are simple and don’t understand that in Mexico we were listening to the opera before they crudely killed the Indians.)
They all looked at one another with the familiar here-we-go-again look. Professor Espinaza detected this and didn’t say another word on that topic.
Dinner continued, and the conversation turned to many topics. Nobody talked about Juan’s plans anymore. Virginia didn’t recognize her son. He was so secure and strong in his opinions. She felt good about living in Mexico City.
Eventually the conversation flowed to politics, and they all agreed the new government was returning to the corrupt antics of the past. The general lack of safety of the city was again the main complaint of all of them. Professor Espinaza hummed again and everyone listened. He summarized the issue. “La inseguridad es un problema mientras los criminales vayan impunes. Si el gobierno averiguara bien y encarcelara a los criminales no habría inseguridad. Punto.” (Social safety is a problem as long as there is impunity. If the government investigated crimes and jailed the criminals, there would be no problem. Period.)
Juan couldn’t help but smile. Impunity is what he needed most at this point. He had no fear of the Mexican authorities—they had their hands full. The US authorities would be the ones to come calling, but only if he made a mistake. He needed to get rid of all the diamonds and shelter his money. Voicing his design of a business in the form of a consignment store made it a possibility. Having the backing of three to four million dollars after fencing the diamonds made it a reality.