The Black Minutes - By Martin Solares


The first time he saw the journalist, he reckoned him to be twenty years old and he was wrong. The journalist, from his perspective, reckoned the plaid-shirted rancher to be around fifty, and he guessed right. They were both traveling south. The journalist was on his way from the United States, after quitting his job; the man in the plaid shirt was coming back from a job in the northern part of the state, but he didn’t say what it was. They knew they were getting into Mexico because the air on the bus was too thick to breathe.

When they crossed the Río Muerto, they saw a two-jeep convoy. As they got to Dos Cruces a pickup full of judiciales passed them, and at Seis Marias they ran into a checkpoint inspection by the Eighth Military Zone. A soldier with a lantern signaled the driver to pull over; the driver took the bus down a dirt road and stopped it in the beam of a huge floodlight, between two walls of sandbags. On the other side of the highway was a big canvas tent with a set of radar machines, and farther down three dozen soldiers were doing calisthenics. During the search of the bus, the journalist turned on his reading light and tried to read the only book he had with him, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, but just a minute into it he felt deeply uncomfortable and looked in the direction of the trenches. Just beneath him, behind the sandbags and the thicket of palm trees, two soldiers stared at him, full of resentment. He wouldn’t have cared, if it weren’t for the high-caliber machine guns they had trained on him. The rancher said he’d probably look the same, if he had to spend the night at the mercy of the mosquitoes, in hundred-degree heat, crouched behind a bunch of sandbags.

The inspection was carried out without incident. The sergeant who looked them over did it only out of duty and scrutinized the luggage lazily. Meanwhile, the young journalist took advantage of the wait to drink a yogurt, and he offered another to the rancher. In exchange, the fifty-year-old offered him some pemoles, the cornmeal cookies they eat in the Huasteca. The rancher asked if he was a student, the young man said no, he’d already finished his studies, in fact had even quit his first job, as a reporter for the San Antonio Herald. He was thinking of taking a year off and living down at the port; perhaps later he’d go back to Texas. He showed the rancher a picture of a blonde woman with her hair pulled back. The rancher remarked that she was very beautiful and said he shouldn’t have left such a job. The journalist responded that he had his reasons.

The young man examined his fellow travelers: they looked to him like rough, uncultured types. There was the plaid- shirted rancher, shirttail untucked to hide his gun; a somber smoker, who traveled with a machete wrapped in newspaper; and, toward the back, one who seemed worst of all: a mustachioed giant who was eating oranges without peeling them. The young man was still looking them over when it came time for the second inspection.

Ever since he saw the pickups parked on the broken white line of the highway, he’d had the conviction that they would be rude and arrogant, but he hadn’t guessed the half of it. They were pulled over by an officer with a walrus mustache, who raised his badge and his gun in the same hand. Behind him, the whole squadron was drinking beer, leaning against the trucks. They all wore dark glasses, even though it was not yet morning, and were dressed in black, despite the oppressive heat. For some reason their poise troubled him more than the arrival of the soldiers had. Keeping his devotional readings to himself, he thought merely, The world is so round and has so much room, and in it there are so many and such varied people. Soon enough he’d realize that the only thing pure about these souls was the white initials of the judicial police printed on their shirts.

The chief gave instructions, and a fat fellow climbed into the bus. He was followed by a kid with an AK-47. Neither of them was older than he was; the second didn’t even shave yet. The journalist got the impression that this was the first bus they’d searched in their lifetime. The