However happy you are to be in San Diego this day, Feliberto Escobedo can trump it. His previous address was La Mesa Prison in Tijuana, so as you can see, he’s got greater cause to celebrate. However, he’s got something much more challenging to accomplish before he can enjoy where he’s at or who he is. Escobedo has to become a different man.
To reclaim his life, he’s in the process of changing the way he thinks, feels, acts and even believes. A bookie would happily cover a bet against that happening, because bookies prosper by being cynical. But they can be wrong: The odds against St. Paul’s conversion working were 10-1. The Corinthians would have cleaned up.
So far, Escobedo seems headed in the right direction. He’s been in a strict, live-in Salvation Army program called S.T.E.P.S. for more than a year. He quickly got a job in a family restaurant chain, stuck with it and has been promoted to management. He’s dating one woman steadily.
It has been thus for only a small part of his life. Escobedo, 35, was born in Fallbrook into a family that was dangerous to be a part of. “My father was an alcoholic, and he would come home and beat the living crap out of me for no reason. I had to wear makeup to cover my bruises to go out in public. My mother had her own ways of abusing me, too.”
He was in foster care from age 9, which meant he moved two or three times a year and had no chance to become part of a normal family.
“Going into foster care was a real bad thing for me. I developed a long history of getting into trouble,” which included gang involvement. He finally graduated from a court-designated alternative high school, and then he was on his own.
That Escobedo gradually found a career in crime will surprise no one. And the first stop on that path was drugs: using, but mainly selling. He moved to Mexico and became a dealer there, catering to locals and tourists.
(Escobedo won’t identify who or what he was connected to in the drug trade. And I have to say, that’s probably a smart move.)
Escobedo was in the drug business in Tijuana for 10 years from 1997 on, when it seemed every cop was on the take. But several years later, the Mexican military was injected and things changed, at least a little, and certainly for him. He was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to La Mesa Prison. He served four years and three months.
“I was in a cell built for six inmates with six bunks, three on each wall.” He gestures to indicate a cell about 10 feet by 15 feet. “There were times the cell held up to 31 inmates, and we would all sleep there, if you can just imagine that.”
I can’t. Impossible.
“There was no choice. We would stretch about five hammocks from bunk to bunk and the remainder would sleep on the floor below. The boss of the cell would say who got the bunks.”
From what Escobedo describes, if Dante had visited La Mesa, he might have added a chapter to his “Inferno.”
“When you first get there, there’s no way to describe how it is. If you’re not tough enough, if you’re a weak person, you can become somebody’s, you know, woman. You have to be strong. You have to go in there fighting. For me, when I went in there I was known. A lot of people in there, they knew who I was. They knew where I come from, so I had my respect.”
Any place that jammed, even with Buddhist priests, would be tense even in the best of circumstances. But a crowd of prisoners is guaranteed violent. Escobedo says weapons such as knives and shivs were common. “Any killings would take place outside the cell. People in there doing life, they didn’t care. … Guards didn’t care.”
You could get fat on the prison food, but not healthy. Escobedo says breakfast would be green powdered eggs and a special treat would be chilaquiles (fried tortillas with a smear of tomato sauce). For dinner, “We always tried to figure what kind of meat it was. You never knew what you were eating. We got beans with rocks in them.”
I flash on the image of that diet: no Beano and 31 guys in a tiny cell. I push it from my mind like a plate of rancid frijoles.
Escobedo says Americans face heavy discrimination when jailed in Tijuana, not from the other inmates necessarily, but from officialdom. He never told anyone he was American.
He explains that Americans are commonly seen as someone to “milk,” because of the presumption of bribe money being available. I tell him that such corruption presumes complicity by the courts as well.
“Of course,” he says, “it’s a ladder — from top to bottom.”
Escobedo explains that prisoners who were favored and could be relied upon would be given “the keys to the hallway,” as he was. Not keys literally, but it was a title of sorts for the person in charge of supplies and communication, sort of a general manager. As a holder of the keys, he was also the one who held the “three bags” that contained marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, which he would sell to inmates and turn the money over to his supplier. I asked if he also made a profit.
Since all this happened after he professed faith in Christ, I asked if he could square that.
“I had already turned myself to Jesus, and I had started changing my ways and my way of thinking, and I wasn’t comfortable. I have the keys because I don’t have a choice. I was given the keys and you have to do what you have to do. I have always had a good heart, but the obstacles in life that I have faced have made me make decisions and do things that I wasn’t proud of. I’m a survivor.”
Did you do that to make money or to survive?
“Both. I always prayed to God that I wouldn’t get caught. I wouldn’t do drugs in there, even though I used to do them on the outside. When I went in there, I was a totally different person. I would use my power to help other inmates.”
I ask: “In your years in the drug business, were you violent?”
The reply: “It comes with the package.”
Did you ever kill anyone?
A long pause. “No comment.”
As I listen to him say this, it occurs to me that converting a life is not a snapshot, but a movie. The plot advances, thickens or unravels, and the ending can be predictable or a surprise.
With three months to go in his sentence, Escobedo was transferred to El Hongo prison in Tecate. He says the purpose was to extract information on how the power structure in La Mesa worked. The questioning was not gentle.
“They beat me so bad, to the point it was torture, but I wouldn’t say nothing. Because if you do, sooner or later someone will come and kill you.
They pulled my shirt over my face and poured water into my mouth and nostrils to give the feeling of drowning. They did that many times. While they’re doing that, they punch you in the kidneys so you are forced to open your mouth. My whole left leg was black from being kicked with steel-toed boots.”
After his release in early October 2011, he went back to dealing drugs in Tijuana, but only for a week. The earlier commitment he had made to Jesus gave him no peace. “So what am I going to do? The spirit kept telling me, ‘Grab your things and go across the border.’”
Finally, he locked his hotel room and called the people he did business with and told them where they could find their drugs, guns and money. He then headed for the border and home.
His brother, a year older, who was also in the drug life, refused his pleas to go with him. The brother was shot dead in Mexico six weeks ago.
Back in San Diego, Escobedo scraped out a living with help from a former teacher, and food and shelter from places that help the down-and-out. Then he heard of the Salvation Army program that helps those determined to piece their lives back together. The Army demands compliance with its rules, strict sobriety and a willingness to find a job and work at it. Escobedo says he has done all that for over a year.
“It’s hard for me to say how I feel about that program, those kind of people. It could not be a better program or better people. They help you do what you need to do to better yourself.”
He still has some catching up to do with his past. He has two teenage children in San Diego, a boy and girl, whom he has not seen for years. They live with their maternal grandparents, and he obviously is not welcome at that home.
“I write them once in a while. They don’t really write back, but I make sure I send them presents on their birthdays and at Christmas. I think that my children have their brain washed, and you can’t get close to your kids if they’ve had poison put in their minds. I never, never treated my children the way my parents treated me. I love them with all my heart. I pray every day that I will see them again.”
There have been lots more drug dealers who ended up dead rather than reformed. That gives you an idea how tough it is for Escobedo to do a 180 in his life. But he’s stayed with a dead-serious Salvation Army program and has advanced in his employment. Don’t undersell either accomplishment. Let’s clap the guy on the shoulder, then stand back and watch.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected] roadrunner.com