I am in a poor and forgotten neighborhood in eastern Tijuana. I negotiate my way through a small walkway littered with garbage and flanked by houses made out of plywood, tarps and whatever else was on hand. Illegal electrical wire connections (locally called “diablitos”) are sprouting from every electrical pole, like errant vines climbing trees in the jungle, clamoring for light — a very dangerous way of powering these sad homes, but the only way the impoverished people here can get electricity.
I am here to talk to two brothers with unique life stories. For the purposes of this article, I will call them Romulus and Remus — the names of the mythological twin brothers whose legend tells of the events that led to the founding of Rome.
Romulus is in his forties, slim and very athletic. Since he was a kid, he had always dreamed of becoming a police officer. He joined the Mexican military as soon as he could, and after leaving the service, he signed on to wear the badge. He has since served with distinction, and he is highly regarded by those who work with him.
Remus, on the other hand, is in his fifties and looks like he has been in one too many brawls. His buzz cut reveals scars and lines that look like something that might have come from a rather severe car accident. The tattoos on his neck and hands have a distinctly primitive look and are indicative of the many correctional facilities in which he has been housed. Their faded blue lines create an intricate tapestry against his dark skin — sometimes becoming lost in his deep wrinkles, to the point that the narrative that these tattoos once communicated about him has been forever lost in the chasms of a life hard lived.
I set down an old tape recorder on the makeshift plywood table and start the interview.
EC: You are on opposite sides of an old war. Do you consider each other enemies?
Romulus: I have always told my brother that if he was standing in the way of me doing my job, I would not be happy about it, but I would not hesitate to do what had to be done. We are both grown-ups and have made our life choices. I have picked a life of service, and my fellow officers are like family to me. I would die for them. I would also die for this idiot here beside me.
Remus: I would never do my brother harm. Never, no matter what. Blood is blood. My people would understand, and if they didn’t, then I guess I would find a way to kill them before they killed me. (He takes a drag off his cigarette and laughs.)
This war you talk about is a mess. The government fosters it and brainwashes dumb people like my brother. He thinks he is serving the people. He is serving the corrupt government that doesn’t want this war to end.
EC: How do you separate family life from work?
Romulus: I never see him outside of this house. It would be too much risk for me. We go through background investigations at work, and they haven’t yet made the connection. If they did, that would be enough to fire me.
Remus: I have no family outside of my brother and mother. I can’t turn off my work. It’s not like I wear a uniform and clock in. I am always on. If I get a call, I leave on a job. I’m always waiting for the sound of people at the door. I go to the store once and don’t go back to the same one until I run out of other options in the area. I am never predictable.
EC: What do you guys carry as far as everyday gear, weapons, etc.?
Romulus: I carry a Glock 17 service pistol and a Colt AR-15, along with three magazines for each, handcuffs, flashlight — the normal stuff cops carry everywhere.
EC: What about you?
Remus: I carry what I can get. I like revolvers — small and snub-nosed — and a good AK. We use and dump, so you get to know a variety of guns and rifles.
EC: No gold-plated AK?
Remus: No. That is something only a boss would have. Someone with a gun like that usually isn’t using it. That’s a status symbol.
EC: Romulus, do you ever feel outgunned with what you carry?
Romulus: More than being outgunned, I feel like I am at a constant disadvantage. I am in uniform and my car is marked. They are not. So, I am always exposed. They don’t even give us bullets sometimes. I have to buy them from other officers who probably get them from irregular sources. If I use a round that isn’t the type I’m supposed to be carrying, I could be in big trouble.
EC: Why go out there every day if it is that dangerous and hopeless?
Romulus: I really have no choice. I should have gone to school. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I’m not about to go work at a factory. At least here, I’m doing something that I think matters.
EC: (to Remus) What about you?
Remus: I know no other life than this, and, to be honest, I enjoy it like nothing else. When I am doing what I do, I am free. Do you know what true freedom is? Of course not; you would be dead, in jail or on the run. I do, however. Freedom is better than any drug. I guess my brother has a little bit of that on his end, even if he is a puerco (pig).
EC: What happens when you get caught?
Remus: I’d rather die. But I don’t really know. I will have to deal with it when I get there. I wake up every day with a clear understanding that all of this will end. There are no happy endings.
EC: What happens if you get killed out there, Romulus?
Romulus: I try and have everything in order if that happens. I put my faith in God and his plan for me. (He removes a rosary from his neck and set it on the table; his brother does the same.)
EC: So, you are both good Catholics?
Romulus: My brother was the altar boy, believe it or not. I was not really into it back then, but I got closer to God, and he got a bit more distant. He stopped going to church. Our mother always asks for him on Sunday services.
Remus: I didn’t become distant. In fact, I think I’m closer to him than you are — like the Penitent Thief crucified next to Jesus. I feel like a sinner has a deeper relationship to him. I mean, if anyone really needs salvation, it’s me, right? I’m the better Christian. I make it a point to pray every night, even if I do live the life I lead.
(Their mother comes into the room. A wonderful woman in her late seventies dressed in her Sunday best, she comes over and sits between her two sons. They both change postures. The boss is here.)
EC: Ma’am, can you share something about your sons?
Mother: I tried to give them what they needed to be good men. Their father went over the border to look for work and never came back. I am very proud of them, even if I’d rather they were doing anything other than their chosen professions. God put them where they are for a reason. I truly believe they are where he wants them to be. I pray for them every night. Every time I hear that some policeman got killed or a body got found on the news, I pray it’s not them.
EC: Since you are all being so open, I want to ask you something very hard. Do you ever think about the lives your sons have affected, both in positive or negative ways?
Mother: (tears forming) Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I’m their mother, bad or good; I will always be that to them. They will always be my sons. I will always forgive. I will …
(Her voice cracks and she raises her hand, taking a moment to compose herself. The weight of it all is clearly too much for her, and her sons quickly move to embrace her. Comforting words are whispered by both brothers, and the tears begin to flow. I don’t have the heart to open this wound any further, so I stop the tape, slip it into my bag and say my goodbyes.)
As I head for the door, they are all crying together, as a family.