Let me shoot straight on this (no pun intended) — Juarez was never on my bucket list of places I absolutely needed to visit before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Paris, The City of Light? Most definitely!

Bangkok, Sin City of Asia? Hell yeah!

Amsterdam, Venice of the North? You’re damn skippy!

But Juarez, Murder Capital of the World? Hell to the no! Maybe it’s just my personal preference, but I never believed that safe return from international travel should have coin-flip odds. And yet there I was, driving across the Bridge of the Americas, journeying from the relative safety of El Paso (consistently ranked as one of the Top 10 Metro Cities) to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s macabrely monikered “City of Death” for, of all things, a freakin’ golf game. Crazy, right? 

What turned up the volume from the first notch of crazy to complete fucking insanity was my designated playing partner — none other than one of the city’s most ruthless cartel bosses. My wife said I should have my head examined for going. In this case, I think they could have easily skipped the examination and taken me straight to the rubber room. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to the beginning, and then we can get into what very nearly became my end.

In Warren Zevon’s 1978 hit, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” the adventure begins when Warren goes home with a waitress. My adventure began with a poker game at the Bellagio, with someone who was decidedly NOT a biscuit of a waitress. In retrospect, I’m guessing Warren had more fun than I did. But such is the disparity between rock stars and writers. Life just ain’t fair!

“Hey, you’re that writer guy from Maxim,” the guy across the poker table said to me. He looked like a cheap version of Pitbull. The shaved head, mustache and goatee were all in place, but he lacked Latin machismo and that all-important “Mr. International” aura. No custom suit, either. Just a cheap black T-shirt that looked like he’d been living in it for a week, with a few buffet visits staining the front. Judging a book by its cover, I guessed him for a TV repairman, short order cook, or petroleum distribution technician. Someone who came to Sin City on a weekend voucher for $49.95.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I replied with an eye roll. I knew exactly where this was headed. When people learn you’re a writer, they’ve always got a story to tell you — a story they’re absofuckinglutely convinced you need to write about.

“Man, have I got a story for you,” the Pitbull wannabe continued.

Of course, you do, I thought.

“Let me buy you a drink and I’ll — ”

I cut him off at the pass. “I appreciate the offer, but this is a pleasure trip. No work involved.”

Not-the-Pitbull shrugged. “Alright man, I get it.”

“Thanks for understanding.”

“Too bad, though, because I know you would have loved hearing about how I was a drug-runner for the most notorious cartel in Juarez, until I got pinched with a huge fucking load, and then my American boss threatened to kill me and my family if I cooperated with the authorities, so I had to flip and become a confidential informant for the DEA to take his ass down, all the while keeping the real power brokers happy so they didn’t take me out.”

My jaw was literally resting on the table. After enough drool had slickened my poker chips to the point they resembled rocks at the bottom of a cascading waterfall, I motioned to the bar. “About that drink … ”

Two hours and many single malt scotches later, Chris Heifner put the bow on what was legitimately the most amazing true crime story I had ever heard. Either he was a better storyteller than Hemingway, or there was real truth to his tale. The latter won out; significant follow-up research resulted in a book — Mule: My Dangerous Life as a Drug Smuggler Turned DEA Informant, published by Globe Pequot/Lyons Press — and a slew of Hollywood meetings to discuss possible development deals for a scripted TV series or feature film. That connection also expanded my Rolodex considerably, adding in characters who, full disclosure, had more felonies than a barrel of M&M’s has W’s. But from a literary standpoint, those are the kinds of people you need in your life because they ultimately yield a great story or three — even if that story very nearly gets you killed.

Like this one.

When I arrived at Club Campestre Juarez, designed by famed architect Percy Clifford, where the “Supermex” himself, Lee Trevino, used to play, I initially thought I had gotten the date of our meeting wrong. It was just after 9 o’clock in the morning, the weather was postcard-perfect, and yet there was no one to be seen. There wasn’t a single car in the lot, just three old buses with fading paint. For all I knew, they had been parked there for a decade. What’s more, no one was coming or going from the golf shop. Surely, someone would be up and around, taking advantage of the pristine conditions. I was told the private course (some refer to it as semi-private) had more than 600 members. But there was no activity, not even crickets chirping.

Not sure if any of you readers are into spearfishing, but there’s an eerie quiet that descends on the deep whenever a big predator (like a man-eating shark) is around. That’s exactly what this scene reminded me of, I felt like a wounded sea lion, just waiting to be devoured. Not exactly the best vibe before a round of golf. Hell, not the best vibe before anything.

About 30 seconds after I parked, a mid-40s woman looking like a Latina Lizzo emerged from the facility, waving animatedly to get my attention.

“Mr. Adam! Mr. Adam! Desayuno! You come now!”

She disappeared back inside and, idiot that I am, I followed. What’s that saying about lambs to the slaughter? Unfortunately for the rest of my body, this was one of those moments when the stomach takes over and forces the human it’s attached to to do what it wants. So while I’m hardly fluent in any language besides English (and those who know me would swear I’ve got a lot to learn about my native tongue), I was reasonably conversational enough in Spanish to know that desayuno means breakfast.

Walking inside, the aroma hit me like a wrecking ball — the most pleasant wrecking ball imaginable — of cooked meats and freshly baked goods. The visual that followed was nothing short of spectacular. Cruise ships and Vegas buffets would have to work overtime to rival the feast laid out before me. There was even an omelette station, with two chefs accommodating the long line of shabbily dressed people. None of what I was seeing made any sense, especially considering the entire setup looked like it had been thrown together haphazard. As I was still taking in the impromptu “gourmet soup kitchen on steroids,” a man handed me a plate.

“Welcome,” he said with barely a hint of an accent. “I’m very glad you could make it. It’s important that American journalists see us narcos for what we really are, rather than what many make us out to be.”

As I would later learn, what I was seeing was a weekly event — a traveling culinary roadshow of sorts that served a weekly breakfast to those who couldn’t afford a plate of frijoles, let alone the high-end foodstuffs on tap. Just one of the many charitable acts of a man who, by all accounts, had as much power as God. Maybe more. And at that exact moment, “God” was handing me a plate.

“Loco,” the aforementioned ruthless cartel boss, whose real name I wasn’t given (although it was fairly easy to extrapolate who he was, to a reasonable degree of certainty) was nothing like his fictional namesake suggested. Looking like a combination of actor Michael Peña and Jimmy Kimmel sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez, wearing golf slacks, a pink Nike golf shirt, and a gold watch of unknown origin adorned with more diamonds than the Kardashians own collectively, he had the charm of an English gentleman, and the presence of a Saudi sheik. But it was his eyes that impressed me the most. Not how they looked, mind you, but how they took everything in, like observational data vacuums, missing nothing, processing everything. He struck me as the most wholly present individual I had ever met.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Loco asked.

“I mean no disrespect. I just … I feel like you’re looking through me. Looking through everyone.”

Loco laughed. More cackle than a chuckle. “My gift. Since I was little, I could see everything, even when everything could not be seen. My abuela — my grandmother — called me niño psíquico. Psychic child. And that has served me well over the years.”

“If you’re really psychic, tell me who’s going to win our golf match today.”

“I will not lose,” Loco said with certainty. Then he smiled. A shark among baitfish. “Even if I lose, I will not lose.”

Point taken.

Turns out Loco knew what he was talking about. After four holes, I was already down six strokes. I double-bogeyed the 1st, a 431-yard par 4, largely because I topped my drive, then worm-burned the second shot. A good putt of nearly 20 feet saved me from a 7.

Loco, to his credit, was an exceptional golfer. Despite taking to it later in life, he had become obsessed with the game and said he did his best thinking out on the golf course. No distractions, not even playing partners — he preferred to play alone — allowed him to fully concentrate on his game, and the only opponent he viewed as worthwhile was the golf course, itself. Often, when he wanted to play, he would call ahead and have the course closed for the duration of his round, which explained the absence of golfers that morning. I noticed some other people walking ahead of us, on the fringes of the fairway, but Loco explained that they were just out there for our protection. Which meant his protection — I doubted they gave two shits about some gringo journalist.

After narrowly missing a birdie on the 1st when his short putt lipped out, Loco atoned for that miscue on the next two holes, also par 4’s, with crushing drives, dart-like approach shots and a pair of beautifully rolled birdie putts.

I, on the other hand, had to work my ass off to make par on 2; a chip-in from the dirt patch fringe would have gone way off the green had it not hit the center of the flag stick and dropped into the cup. I recovered my wits on the 3rd, hit a decent drive, a decent approach shot and two decent putts for a decent par.

At the 4th hole, the first par-5 of the day, I absolutely crushed my drive, but it landed strangely on the sun-baked course and got no roll. Loco, who knew the course as well as his drug routes, teed his ball a fraction above the dirt and purposely hit a low burner that seemed to roll forever across the scorched terrain, leaving him with a pitching wedge to the green.

I hit a solid 3-iron for my second shot, barely missing the green to the left. An OK chip and two putts later gave me a par that I felt pretty good about.

“Pars are for puntas,” Loco ribbed.

He hit a beautiful wedge shot out of a dirt crater lie that would have made Phil Mickelson sweat, and barely breathed on his tap-in for eagle.

“Do you think Trump would play me?” he asked. “I would bet him his wall. If I lost, Mexico really would pay for it.”

“Do you think you’d win?”

Loco suddenly turned deathly serious, giving me the kind of look I’m certain he had given many others over the course of his life, undoubtedly under very different circumstances than what I thought was a friendly golf game.

“Do you think I’d win?” he asked.

“I think you’d kick his ass.”

Loco grinned. Apparently no further discussion on the matter was required.

He teed up his ball for the 398-yard par 4 5th when suddenly two of his men were at his side, whispering in his ear. Whatever they told him, his entire demeanor seemed to have changed. Gone was the golfer. The narco businessman was now in full bloom.

“Our game is over. Some matters require my attention.”

I went to shake his hand, but he was already on the golf cart — his golf cart; the club didn’t have any that I noticed — and blitzing toward the clubhouse. The cart had my bag on it, but I opted to keep my mouth shut.

I walked back without saying a word, flanked by two of the men who had acted as recon scouts while we played. When I arrived at the clubhouse, my golf bag was waiting along with the smiling Lizzo look-alike I’d met earlier in the day.

“For your trip home,” she said, handing me a large bag of homemade Mexican pastries.

“Just a second. I have a gift for Mr. Loco.” I hurried over to my car, opened the trunk, and took out a bottle of Jack Daniels that I had wrapped in two beach towels for safekeeping. I brought it back to the woman.

“For Mr. Loco,” I said. “Please thank him for me for his hospitality.”

The woman’s face screwed up into an angry prune. She took the bottle from me and threw it as far as she could. It shattered on the path.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked.

“Poison,” she said.

“Poison? I wouldn’t try to poison him.”

“Many have tried. Maybe you’re DEA.”

“DEA?” I said with a laugh. “I’m a journalist. El periodista.”

She shrugged. “All men lie. All Americans lie. You are American man … you lie.”

“Then how do I know you’re not trying to poison me?” I said, shaking the bag of baked goods she had given me.

“I am Mexican woman,” she stated matter-of-factly. And with that, she turned and walked back into the clubhouse.

What just happened? I asked myself.

This was easily the strangest golf outing in the history of strange golf outings.

Four months later, my cell phone rang. The number was one I didn’t recognize; it wasn’t in my list of contacts.


“When are you coming back for another round?” Loco asked.

“How’d you get this number?” I asked. It was a new phone, with a number I didn’t have when I was last in Mexico.

“Anything can be found,” Loco said. “Especially that which is not lost.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means we should play again. I feel bad we never got to finish.”

“You were kicking my ass,” I said.

“Nothing will change when we play again. I will just kick it longer.”

“How about I pick the course this time?”

“Fine, as long as it’s in Mexico,” Loco replied. “Coming to the States can be problematic for me. You can reach me on this number.”

He hung up.

Unfortunately, that golf game will have to wait.

For eternity.

I heard a rumor that about a month after our conversation, a so-called “changing of the guard” took place among the Juarez cartel’s leadership. Don’t know if that’s true or not — as I said, I heard a rumor — but when I dialed the number, it was no longer in service. The journalist that I am, I guess I could have explored further, but some rocks simply should not be turned over. After all, golf is awesome, but ain’t worth dying for — at least, not with my handicap, it ain’t!

Adam Rocke

Adam has dived for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, hunted for poachers in Africa, played poker with cartel kingpins in Juarez, scouted for UFOs in the Sonora Desert, raced in the Baja 1000 and the original Gumball Rally, swam with great white sharks sans cage, jumped out of planes sans parachute, and taken part in Sasquatch safaris, Chupacabra expeditions and many other “crypto-quests” around the world. Or so he says.