Juan: Drug Smuggler Turned Therapist

I am going to tell you the story of my life. When I was five years old, my mother died. From then on, my father took charge of our family and life went on. But when I was 10 my father died too. That’s when I lost the rudder to my life. I suffered until I was 13. Then everything changed. I became friends with a man who offered to help me. He was the answer to my dreams because I was so tired of living in poverty, so tired of suffering. I thanked God for the opportunity to end my misery.

The first thing my friend did was to give me a package that weighed three and a half kilograms. He also gave me a .45 revolver. He warned me that in no case was I to lose the package; that my future depended on getting it to Mexicali. The package reached its destination and when I returned my friend was waiting for me. Not until then did I realize that the package contained cocaine. ‘You’ve passed the test,’ my friend told me. ‘Do you want to keep working for me?’ I told him I did, and he gave me some money. I felt I wouldn’t have to suffer so much anymore.
I trafficked in drugs for three years. Then one day my friend was killed by the federal police. I had learned enough about the business by then, so I decided to strike out on my own. My fortune began growing. I continued like this until I met my wife. We had a beautiful daughter together and discovered a happiness I had never felt before. I retired from the business and became a rancher. And yet I felt I was doomed because I had so many enemies. I had no fear of dying; my only concern was for my daughter. I wanted to make sure that, if I was killed, she would still be taken care of and would never suffer.
When my daughter turned two, I threw a party, never imagining that it could be dangerous. I had her in my arms when a pickup arrived and several people started shooting at us. The first shots hit my wife and killed her instantly; then they hit me. With seven bullets inside me I watched them kill my daughter. I pulled out my own gun and managed to hit the pickup’s gas tank, making it explode. I had killed my wife’s and daughter’s assassins. Then everything went blank. (Editor’s note: One of the bullets passed through Juan’s spine, paralyzing his lower body.)
I thought of killing myself after the loss of my family but I was never left alone. My brothers were beside me, sharing my suffering. I asked them to help me to find a way to walk again. We went to many different doctors. My fortune was almost gone when I finally realized it was all hopeless. All the doctors wanted was to make money. Then, one day my brothers found a disabled persons’ project called Projimo. They offered to take me there. I had nothing to lose, so I agreed. As the days and months went by, I felt myself making progress. Now I am happy because I don’t have problems, I’ve retired from the business and spend my time volunteering at Projimo. I feel happy because, even though I am paraplegic, I live in peace.’

At Projimo disabled people run their own rural rehabilitation programme. It was set up in the hills of Western Mexico in 1981 and run by disabled villagers to serve disabled children and their families. The children developed their own abilities to look after themselves, help other children, and get on with projects such as building their own disabled playground. Soon disabled children were coming from all the over the country—often travelling for days and arriving hungry and penniless.

The idea of the program is to respond to human needs as they arise—and this has brought a major change In recent years There has been an influx of physically and socially disabled young adults with spinal cord injuries caused by bullet wounds. Most are young men who come from the underworld of the cities, from the rapidly growing ‘culture of violence’ or la vida mata. After rehabilitation many chose to stay, becoming project leaders and skilled craftspeople. Meanwhile other centres based on the Projimo model are springing up for children in other parts of the country.

Juan was interviewed by David Werner, founder of the Projimo project. Werner believes that Projimo should respond to the needs of people like Juan. ‘Culprits are also victims. Even people with the most violent backgrounds turn out to be very human individuals trapped by circumstances. At their worst they seem heartless. Yet they may be surprisingly loving and tender with the loneliest people. At Projimo the same Juan that, during a drunken binge, terrorized an elderly diabetic schoolteacher gave special therapy to a six-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy. His gentle touch had a marvellous effect on the child who up to then had been fearful, whiny and crying any time anyone came near him, With Juan’s attention he became self-assured with other people and enjoyed the exercises which Juan had so imaginatively turned into games.

The root problem, Werner believes, lies not with ‘deplorable’ young people like Juan but ‘in the society that deplores them. It lies in the mushrooming city slums, mounting homelessness and unemployment, the widening gap between rich and poor. It lies in the systematic undermining of agrarian reform measures which forces more and more poor farming families off the land and into the “septic fringe” of the cities. It lies in the international forces that impose devastating “structural adjustment” and “free trade” policies on debt-ridden countries.’

Publication Information


This article appeared in “New Internationalist,” issue 223, July 1992.

A version of this article appeared in Newsletter #25 as “My Side of the Story”.