When I first met him in February of 2015, Jesús Alonso Gamiño Torres, or “Father Chuy,” as he was commonly known, was awaiting trial at the Brockhurst Super-Maximum Security Prison in Littlefield, New York. The reader is almost certainly already acquainted with the principal details of Chuy Gamiño’s life. He was thought to be responsible for some 35,000 murders, including the assassination of dozens of Mexican politicians, during his tenure as head of the Sagrada Familia (a name, incidentally, that manages to evoke both the Biblical holy family and the Italian mafia). He had amassed a well-organized army from among the nation’s disenfranchised and disaffected: indigenous guerilla fighters formerly under the command of Subcomandante Marcos in the south, jobless youth, and, surprisingly, a number of women. Victor Rodriguez Romo, one of the old guard of the previous leadership (then known as the Moderno Cartel), gained his own notoriety under Father Chuy when he infamously dispatched his former boss, José “the Scientist” Peredo, by disemboweling him alive.
Chuy Gamiño twice escaped police custody in his native country (the first time he was wheeled out of a maximum security institution in the lower compartment of a food cart) before at last being extradited to the United States in 2015 to stand trial. Before his capture, Forbes listed him as one of the most influential figures in the world, with a higher ranking than the presidents of several first-world countries. His net worth was estimated at more than a billion dollars.
But curiously, in the six months during which I met with Chuy Gamiño on a biweekly basis at Brockhurst, this cold-blooded assassin and drug supplier to most of the Western Hemisphere did not leave me with an impression of brutality, a characteristic I knew well from extensive contact with prisoners. There was a softness about him, a diffidence, that contrasted sharply with the stereotype of the super-max prisoner. In the particulars of his personal life, too, there was little that corresponded to the image of a drug kingpin; far from having a beauty queen wife (or wives, like other cartel bosses), Chuy Gamiño had never married, and though he kept his two sisters in luxurious mansions, by all accounts Chuy himself lived a spartan existence in spite of his tremendous wealth. Thus the moniker “Father Chuy.”
Indeed, in his country of origin Chuy Gamiño continues to inspire the type of fanatical devotion usually reserved for religious saints. The preponderance of items bearing his likeness is staggering: clothing, backpacks, coffee mugs, pens, baseball caps, Rosary beads, prayer cards, saint statues, even acrylic fingernails. In León, the city of his birth, a popular baguette sandwich formerly known as the guacamaya had been renamed the Padre Chuy for at least a decade prior to his capture. Many Mexican homes possess altars to Father Chuy where the family gathers to pray, in addition to the public shrines–the best estimates I can find number them in the thousands–erected in his honor across the country. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in Mexico, Chuy Gamiño is a bigger religious celebrity than the Pope himself.
And it’s not for nothing that his countrymen feel such reverence for the rags-to-riches cartel leader. In his home state of Guanajuato there are no fewer than twenty-seven hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and orphanages attributed to his endowment. He distributed coats to the indigent in winter and toys to children at Christmas, and testimonials abound of his having financed such disparate medical procedures as cataract removal, limb amputation, appendectomy, and chemotherapy for dozens of cancer cases. To refer to Chuy Gamiño as a Mexican Robin Hood has become something of a cliché, but given his proclivity for profiting off the rich for the sake of the poor and the number of popular songs detailing his exploits–more than three dozen in several genres and at least four languages (almost as many as are extant about Robin of Locksley)–I think the comparison is warranted. Like many following the news from abroad, I watched his extradition and subsequent events–protests in the streets, a social media revolution, and indeed, a near uprising against the Mexican government–with fascination. I doubt if any other figure of our time has inspired such devotion among an entire race of people.
As onstaff clinical psychologist at Brockhurst, I had access to all the official information, much of it still classified even now, about the prisoner’s life. I could trace the line from point A (an impoverished childhood) to point B (gang involvement as a teenager) to what I suppose can only be called point Z (the end of the line here at Brockhurst). But the records were lacking, I felt, to forming a proper understanding of how the mild creature who sat before me three hours a week could possibly be the monster of public record. Nor did Chuy himself provide any clues. Though I had known him for several months, our sessions had never been what you’d call revelatory; indeed, every effort I’d made to delve into his past had been fielded with a good-natured change of subject. Chuy’s demeanor was polite but aloof, and he seemed completely uninterested in counseling as such, though he did like to talk about topical issues in the news and seemed gratified both by my knowledge of international events and my ability to speak Spanish.
If anything, Chuy’s reticence about himself only heightened my curiosity. I couldn’t shake the conviction that there must be some event along that A-Z continuum that, once I’d discovered it, would shed a light on how such a person could have entered upon such a life. Such was my hypothesis, and, as we neared the end of our afternoon session on Thursday, August 20, 2015, I told Chuy as much. He’d been commenting on the paucity of meat substitutes among the prison fare–he’d recently had himself reclassified as a vegetarian–when apropos of nothing and rather abruptly, I burst out with the question that had been tormenting me for weeks: “But why are you even here?”
Chuy seemed taken aback but lost nothing of his habitual courtesy or restraint. He merely looked at me mildly, the hint of a smile playing about his eyes. I think it was those eyes–grave, honey-colored, with a long scar above the right one–that had first impressed upon me just how different he was from the men with whom I was accustomed to working. There was shrewdness there, intelligence, but this didn’t surprise me in the most famous Mexican autodidact since Frida Kahlo. I myself had seen him reading Shakespeare, in translation, in his free time. What caught my attention was something deeper: a haunted look of profound sadness.
“What is it that you want to know, exactly?” Chuy asked me softly, leaning forward in his chair.
“What I want to know is what got you into this life,” I began. “How it is that you came to be the head of the world’s largest criminal organization instead of a teacher or a journalist or a washing machine repairman. It just seems to me that something must have happened to you somewhere along the way that changed the course of your destiny and made you who you are today. You just… well… you don’t seem like the right man for the job,” I finished lamely.
For a moment Chuy didn’t answer, and I wondered if I had offended him. Perhaps after all, like so many others, he subscribed to an image of himself as a public benefactor. He sat in silence, lips pursed, rubbing his left temple with two fingers and looking past me, as if thinking of something far removed from his present surroundings.
“Alright,” he finally said.
“Alright?” I repeated.
“Alright,” he said again, with a slow nod of his head. “Está bien. I’ll tell you.”
I can’t deny that I felt a marked excitement at the prospect of hearing his story, but not, let me emphasize, because I sought to exploit or profit from a knowledge of Chuy Gamiño’s past. On the contrary, had events not played out as they did, I would not now be bringing this information to light. The truth is that I sought only to satisfy my own curiosity in the matter, to reconcile my cognitive dissonance between Jesús Gamiño the man and Father Chuy the legend.
Unfortunately, however, our session that day was at its end, and as I had other obligations, I knew Chuy’s story would have to wait until the following Tuesday. I took my leave of him reluctantly, recapping my pen and gathering my papers more slowly than usual. As I left the cell, I took a final look back. Chuy remained immobile in his chair, still looking–but not seeing–in front of him. Those eyes, clear and brown, always soulful, had taken on a look of great suffering. It reminded me of nothing so much as Foret’s Crucified Jesus.
That was the last time I ever saw Chuy Gamiño alive.
I did not learn of his death upon my return to work on Monday morning. Like the rest of the country, and perhaps the world, I learned about it via the national news within an hour of its having taken place. Jesús Alonso Gamiño Torres–Father Chuy of the Sagrada Familia–had taken his own life on Sunday, August 23 at approximately 5 o’clock p.m. He’d fashioned a makeshift noose from a bandage he’d been given for back pain and hanged himself with it in his cell. My sadness and disappointment were acute.
It wasn’t until several days later, near the end of that black week, that I received the folder from one of the day wardens. Across the top, in neat black letters, I saw my own name, and inside I found a collection of ragged-edged notebook papers in the same deliberate hand. I reproduce them here with no alteration beyond their translation into English. As to a final assessment of the infamous drug lord Chuy Gamiño, I’ll leave that to the reader. For my part I can only say that I wept to read these pages.
Littlefield, New York
December 26, 2015