Share this page
with your Friends on Facebook

And share with


By Hugh Holub

Have you ever felt like you’ve died and gone to Hell? Things are just so rotten and they seem like it’s gonna stay that way for eternity?

I know the truth about Hell. But it wasn’t getting sent to Nogales like I thought it was.

Let me back up a bit. I’m Special Agent John Vrabec lately a one man task force working for the Attorney General’s Office assigned to investigate public corruption cases. I’ve had a license to kill for thirty years now. A badge and a gun. So far I haven’t actually killed anyone and maybe I’ll luck out and make to retirement with no dead bodies haunting me. At least none I’m responsible for. Started out with a city police department and, depending on how you look at it, I’ve worked my way up or down the ladder. Working for the AG seemed like a good way to get to the magic day when the checks would keep coming, but I didn’t have to show up for work.

Then the boss called me in and said “you need to go down to Nogales

Fred is a nice enough guy, and I really liked working out of the capitol. Occasionally had to go down to Tucson , other parts of the state. But never Nogales .  Went there when I was in college..the usual…buy some beer and some cheap crap.

“What’s going on there?” I asked, stupidly.

“We’ve got two dead bodies in the Nogales Wash and we need you to figure out what’s going on,” Fred said.

“Since when are murder cases our jurisdiction? Isn’t that the local cops problem?”

“This one’s strange. One of the deaders is fresh. The other was embalmed. Both found in the Wash like they cam from the same place,” Fred explained.

“So how  does that come up on our radar screen? Aren’t we the public corruption unit?”

“The deaders came from the municipal cemetery,” answered.

Oh shit I’m thinking.

“I still don’t get it.”

“There was a drug tunnel that started in the city cemetery.”

I’d read about the drug tunnels of Nogales . The town is right on the border with Mexico and it seemed like they were discovering tunnels under the city every week. Like the place was being undermined by giant termites. I’d read somewhere that the local chamber of commerce was even sponsoring drug tunnel tours since the tunnels seemed to be the only thing of interest about the place that might attract tourists. I’d thought it was a joke at the time.

“OK. But why are we in this one?”

“It’s no secret that Nogales is probably the most corrupt city in the state.”

“So why haven’t we done anything about it?” I asked, getting dumber by the second.

“We’ve got a whole room full of complaints about the shit going on down there. This mayor giving that buddy a favor, that contract being awarded without a bid. The usual crap. The fibbies did a major investigation and found out everyone down there was doing favors for their buddies, but no cash was changing hands. They were doing it out of some kind of strange loyalty deal. They even had their own name for it. Compadres they called it.”


“We figured, if the people down there wanted bad government, they could have it as long as it didn’t affect the rest of the state.”

“Sort of like a quarantine?”

“Their ambitions were small. They kept their chummy dealings inside their city, and every couple of years the voters would a new bunch of compadres into office and a new bunch of cronies would get the contracts, and on and on. Sort of spreading around the wealth.”

“This isn’t in Mexico , is it?”

“Nope. Our state. Actually, we thought about seeing if we could trade the city back to Mexico and get something of value for it.”

“You’re joking.”

“The Gov actually suggested it to the governor of Sonora at one of those Arizona Mexico Commission meetings. The Mexicans declined the offer. They said they’d been trying to rid their country of corruption for the last decade, and if Nogales ended up on their side of the line, it’d set them back 100 years.”

“So why now we get involved?”

“They started killing people.”

“I just go down for a couple of days and check this out?”

“Nope. You are permanently assigned to Nogales . You are going to live there.”

That’s when I realized I’ve done something to piss the AG off. You do not go from trying to bag valley mayors to dead bodies in a border town because you’re the current wonder boy of the agency.

“OK. Who’d I piss off?”

“Let me put it like this. You are the most senior agent in our agency. You’re 2 years from retirement. And while that was a great piece of work taking down 4 elected officials in Maricopa County , you’re just a little too hot right now to be here. The boss wants you out of sight.”

I’m thinking, at least they’re not sending me up to Colorado City where all the Mormon polygamists live, or over to the river which is even hotter than Phoenix . Maybe I could actually make this Nogales thing work.

“Oh, and you’re going in under cover.”

Fred paused and then he broke out in a shit eating grin I’ll never forget.

“You’re going to be a city cemetery worker.”


Do you ever think, late at night before you finally fall asleep. About how you’re gonna kill someone. Like really go into detail about setting his house on fire. Walking up to him while he’s sitting in his car and blow his fucking brains out. And how you might actually get away with it. Over and over night after night.

 I figured it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to ask for some counseling shit since I figure a lot of people have teeth grinding dreams about killing their bosses or other people who have fucked them over. And since I wasn’t crazy enough to actually do it, I just prayed old Fred would be diagnosed with terminal dick cancer, packed up, and headed south.

  Southern Arizona is a weird place. Heading south from Phoenix you’re actually going up hill. Tucson is higher than Phoenix , and you’re still going up hill towards Nogales which is about an hour’s drive south of Tucson .  So you’re going south, but up at the same time.

 The people in Tucson talk about going up to Phoenix , north, but down hill.

 I’m thinking about this as I cross the line into Santa Cruz County which is a little postage stamped sized county south of Tucson which seems to exist solely to create lots of elected official jobs. Better than imagining drowning Fred in a toilet.

 Little did I know it at the time, but crossing that line into Santa Cruz was me being Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland that was south but up hill.

 Getting a place to live was easy. Nogales and its sister city to the north called Rio Rico which means “rich river” in Spanish but “not Nogales” in the local lingo had lots of vacant apartments and houses this time of the year. Besides drug smuggling and alien smuggling, the main income of the place is importing tomatoes, which is a winter deal, so summer there were lots of vacancies. Good for me.

 I landed in Rio Rico mostly because all the real estate people told me it was safer to live there than in the city, and anyway, most of the city workers actually lived in Rio Rico instead of the city, which…well….didn’t make much sense….but….ok…I’ll be honest with myself. I’m a gringo and people told me it was friendlier for gringos to live in Rio Rico than down in the city. This should have been my first warning that I sure as hell wasn’t in Kansas any more. Oops. Mixing my whatevers.

 Relocating was easy. I used to have a wife and a family. The kids are grown and gone. The wife bailed out a long time ago, which isn’t uncommon in my line of work. And, I just sort of got used to living alone, and not really having very much stuff. Everything I own that matters fits in my truck, and anything else I need I can buy it at a swap meet.

 You can spot guys like us in the supermarket check out lines. Two six packs of beer. A quart of milk. Ten tv dinners. And if we have a cat or a dog, more cat or dog food than people food. I don’t have either, but I keep promising myself I’ll get one, so at least something with a heart would be waiting for me to come home.

 I like to think I live lightly on the land. Breakfast at a local cafe where after a while they know what I want so I get my coffee and eggs without having to open my mouth, lunch on the fly, and dinner usually at another greasy spoon which has a nightly special in the range of chicken fried steak, spaghetti, and fried fish. You can also tell us by our cholesterol levels which haven’t been below 200 since the last time we weighed less than 200. We’re at an age where, frankly, we don’t really give a shit if we have a heart attack and die, because that probably beats dying when you’re really old with tubes up your ass.

You’re getting the picture now. I’m the guy you do not want to grow up to be. I am your nightmare. And I am totally fucked having to work in a goddamned cemetery in a border town.

My first day at work confirmed how fucked I was. My boss Juanito didn’t speak a word of English and the only Spanish I knew was Taco Bell and tequila. But I got the message being handed a shovel and pointed to a patch of grass into which a 6 foot deep hole needed to be dug. As soon as I started digging, Juanito left.

Have you ever dug a 6 foot deep hole, 6 feet long, and 3 feet wide? Trust me. You do not want to do this. I dug the fucking hole and finished it by 3 which was supposed to be quitting time. Juanito showed up just as I was done with a back hoe, laughing like a mad man. A couple of other city workers came up in a truck, and I got my back slapped a lot.

“Pinche gringo can dig a good hole,” Carlos, Juanito’s supervisor told the group. “Hey, esee, can you run a backhoe?”

Actually, I knew how. One learns strange shit being in law enforcement.

So I mounted up, and asked “what?”

“Fill the hole up,” Carlos ordered.

So I did.

Thinking of how really good it would have felt if Fred had been in the bottom of the hole.

I’m actually pretty good with a back hoe. I can’t pick up an egg or do any of the kind of shit the real guys who do this all the time can do, put I can scoop up dirt and place it where it needs to be. The guys noticed this.

“Pinche can do this better than Juanito,” Carlos told everyone.

I’m thinking, probably not smart to tell Carlos my name is real John. And wondering, what is “pinche” anyway. Obviously not something I want to walk up to a woman in a bar and say “Hi, I’m pinche…”

When I finished filling the hole up, Carlos invited me to join the gang  for a beer. I asked where.

“Right here my man,” he answered. “The cemetery is one of the favorite places to drink at night. People come to talk to their dead relatives.”

Carlos pulled a 12 pack of Bud out from the back of his city truck, and everyone walked over to a really elaborate grave site which had benches and started passing out the beer.

Now, the Nogales cemetery is not like any cemetery you’ve ever seen, unless maybe you’re from New Orleans . The place is covered with elaborate statutes, graves are fenced in with bricks and iron and stones, there are plastic flowers everywhere, and I noticed a bunch of those solar sidewalk lights on some of the graves. It is a very crazy looking place. And benches are all over the place.

“How come you got stuck with us,” Carlos asked after I popped my can.

“Lousy luck,” I answered, truthfully. “I needed a job really bad.”

“So who do you know at city hall to be sent over here,” one of the other crew members asked…Chato.

“What do you mean?” I answered.

“You don’t get cemetery duty unless you got somebody over at city hall,” Chato said, looking at me with increasing suspicion.

One does not work undercover without picking up real fast when you’re about to have your cover blown and end up getting dead. It is dawning on me I better have a friend at city hall.

“The mayor,” I answered.

Right answer.

You see, I did my homework. The night before I showed dup for work, I found a bar in Rio Rico called Ryans and got the lowdown on Nogales .

Nogales is the only city in Arizona which is run by its mayor. Every other city has a city manager type running the staff, with the mayor and council only hiring the city manager and usually the city attorney. Who wants a fair and impartial lawyer representing them in government? The AG, by contrast, is elected by the people of the state to be fair and impartial to whichever political party he belongs to. The city manager hires the rest of the city employees.

Nogales is really more like Chicago . It is a total political patronage city. The mayor hires everyone who works for the city. And every time there’s a new mayor, there’s a whole new city staff. Everyone in Nogales had worked for the city at one time or another in their lives.

Actually I’ve oversimplified the situation. A few years back, according to the guys at Ryan’s, the voters of Nogales approved a change in their city charter which is sort of like a local version of the constitution and changed the city to a city manager form of government, but the mayors ignored it and only hired city managers who would take orders from the mayor on who to hire and fire for all the city jobs.

Do you hear the sound of the tornado about to suck me off the ground and toss me into wonderland? I didn’t that night.

The guys in the cemetery talked for a while in Spanish, which I vowed to learn as fast as I could since being totally unaware of what they were saying seemed like a serious disadvantage, but I was sort of getting the drift of things with “matar el gringo” probably not meaning something to do with food.

It seeming like a good time to go home, I got up, paid my respects, and got my very tired butt out of there.

Day two Carlos informed me that I was supposed to sit in a city truck parked in the middle of the cemetery and watch for people trying to steal statues from the gravesites.

Another aspect of the cemetery is that it sprawls over several hills, and from where I was ordered to watch, I couldn’t see two-thirds of the place, and none of the other workers.

This I would learn would be standard. Four people were assigned to work in the cemetery, but the only time anyone else was actually working in the cemetery was when there was a grave to be dug and then filled after a burial. Otherwise, I was totally alone.

There are worse ways to make a living than sitting in a cemetery all day watching to see if anyone stole any statues.

One day I asked if there wasn’t something useful I could do, like cut the weeds that were overrunning parts of the place.

Carlos explained local custom was the families of the dead people were responsible for maintaining the cemetery plots, which was a serious obligation which was usually done at least once a year right before a day in November called “dia de los muertos” where everyone visits their dead relatives, having picnics at the garve sites with the dead person’s favorite food, telling stories about the departed.

Some people didn’t have any family left, which was the dead person’s problem. But the city was only responsible for maintain the areas that weren’t grave sites, all of which had been conveniently  paved, so there was nothing for the city to maintain by the four of us assigned to maintaining the cemetery. Besides making sure no one stole the statues in the cemetery, the only other job was to dig graves and fill them…which after my first hole, I was not allowed to do again. Grave digging and filling was exclusively reserved to the other 3 guys.


My first break in the case came a month later when Juanito had to go to his grandmother’s funeral in Mexico and I got to run the back hoe and dig a real grave. After the planting and closure Carlos slipped me a $50 bill and told me I had the rest of the day off.

After deciding the 50 wasn’t of any evidentiary value, I spent the evening at Ryan’s buying rounds for everyone at the bar.

Every bar in America has a regular named Buddy, and Ryan’s buddy explained the payment.

“The cemetery guys get paid by the funeral home for digging the graves which they charge to the dead person’s family,” Buddy said.

“They also hire out to families to maintain the grave sites when the family members don’t want to do it, so you guys make lots of money besides what the city pays.”

“If there’s a lot of funerals and graves to dig, you guys can make a fortune.”

Fifty bucks cash is not a fortune. Now, if everyone in Nogales died, all 22,000 of them, that would be $1 million one hundred grand at $50 a hole, but the cemetery wasn’t big enough to bury them all.

City workers getting paid on the side to dig graves in the city cemetery. A new wrinkle on privatizing governmental services I was thinking. But not the sort of corruption that merits a special agent of the Attorney General’s Office to be assigned to a cemetery to bust.

I checked into this, anyway, and found out the city was selling the grave sites for $100 each, which meant no perpetual care fund, so the city didn’t care if the workers got paid to dig the graves by the mortuaries, because the city wasn’t about to spend the money to dig graves or maintain the cemetery at all.

Which made me wonder why anyone was on the payroll to work at the cemetery in the first place.


Another night at Ryans I heard the story about the drug tunnel and bodies.

“Someone dug a tunnel from the cemetery to a city drainage pipe which ran into the big covered tunnel that runs under the city which goes into Mexico ,” Buddy said. “The dopers bring the drugs in through the covered tunnel and then through the city drains to wherever they tunnel to the surface to unload the stuff.”

My briefing said there had been 17 such tunnels discovered in just the last year. Most of them ending up in rented houses that were found filled with dirt dug from the tunneling.

“The stiff that was buried, they put him down the tunnel, then one of the smugglers got caught in a flash flood which was why two bodies turned up,” Buddy added.

Since I never saw the other guys who worked in the cemetery actually working in the cemetery except when we wee digging graves for burials, I  realized someone could easily tunnel down from the cemetery without anyone noticing the digging, and even if they did see someone digging, who would think that was unusual. Not a bad idea.


A couple of days later I had my first action in the cemetery. George Parado came at me ranting about how some stranger was buried in his family plot.

The Parados had bought 16 gravesites to bury their family members, and we’d buried a Mrs. Trejo in the Parado plot a few days earlier.

I explained I had no idea. Pretty soon some city hall officials showed up, and after an hour of  negotiations, a portion of the cemetery parking lot was staked out and became the new Parado plot.

Carlos showed up and told me it was simple, the city was selling the plots for $100 a piece, sometimes 10 or 20 at a shot. The people who bought the plots were selling them for $2000 each. And the funeral homes were selling the same plots , and no one actually knew who owned what plot in the cemetery.

This is, what I realized, a secondary market in cemetery plots.

A little investigation showed that city officials weren’t buying the plots and reselling them in that secondary market, which dried up the first possible case I thought I had. It was just stupid on the city’s part to sell the things so cheap, and not keep track of who they sold them to.

No government official has ever gone to prison for being stupid.

The funeral homes all had documents proving they had bought plots from the city, as did half a dozen other organizations whose members were buried in special sections of the cemetery.

The cemetery was actually subdivided into special sections so people could rest in peace with people of the same religion or ethnic identity or fraternal affiliation.

The next excitement was when the Jews and the Koreans started fighting about a fence they both wanted to build separating their sections of the cemetery from each other.

I had never imagined a cemetery could be such an exciting place.


Two months of sitting in the cemetery gives one a lot of time to ponder life and death, heaven and hell, the meaning of life, and routine investigative procedures, all of which are pretty much the same.

People watch too many movies and tv to understand real police work.

It is mostly dull. Like sitting in a cemetery waiting for something to happen.

Cases usually get made out of dumb luck like stopping someone on the 10 most wanted list for a broken tail light. Or more often by finding someone inside a criminal organization that you can turn into a snitch by catching them doing one crime and cutting them loose with immunity if they rat out a bigger crook. Or just flat paying them off for intel. Not the sort of stuff that makes for exciting entertainment.

Once a week I’d report into Fred telling him how little was actually happening, and he assured me it was important that I just stayed the course and be patient because this was a major investigation.

I figured they were happier than shit if I sat in that cemetery for two years and did nothing.

Towards the end of many careers, you reach a point where you get close to retirement and the outfit you work for figures out a way to fire your ass so they don’t have to make good on their pension promise.

In the private sector the companies just file for bankruptcy, but governments don’t go bankrupt even if they meet the definition of bankruptcy most of the time spending more money than they take in.

I always wondered what the real difference was between organized crime and the government, but that was way above my pay grade.

Many times, a person getting close to retirement would be demoted to some demeaning job in the hope they would quit, and forfeit their pension, saving the company or government the cost of the pension.

I figured I had landed in that position.

But I remembered Jack, who had been given an office with no phone, or assignments, and who checked in every day at 9 AM and left the office at 5 PM every day for 3 years and got his pension. He was a hero  and they even named his office after him.

We also had a “death cubical” in Phoenix …anyone assigned to that cubical either died or was fired within 6 months of being stationed there.

I figured, all things considered,  I was pretty lucky to be in the cemetery instead of stuck inside in an office with nothing to do, or worse, sent to the death cubical.

I was still alive. And still getting paid. And still clocking in time towards the magic pension in the sky.

One’s definition of the good life can really change over time.

As my dad once explained, if you set your expectations low enough, you’ll never be disappointed. If you have no expectations, you will never  have anything to be angry about. If you have no goals, you will never fail.

I think my dad must have been a zen master.

One day, I pondered the difference between a dull, meaningless life, and death.

It struck me that there is no such thing as a dull, meaningless life, unless you define what you are doing as dull and meaningless.

I mean, I could look at sitting in the cemetery day after day waiting for someone to try and steal a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe as dull and meaningless. Then again, in two months no one actually tried to steal any of the statues which probably made the families who had put them in the cemetery happy, and there were a lot of birds to watch in the trees in the cemetery, so the days passed pretty quickly and I even started a Life List of birds I’ve seen.


One day  Carlos taught me how to become invisible.

Being invisible to Anglos, it turns out, is an important thing for the people I worked with.

The first aspect of invisibility is to instantly appear menial. Blue work shirt, blue jeans, scruffy boots, and a straw hat are essential to cast your invisibility spell.

Even wearing an orange safety vest and a hard hat, you are still invisible to most people. Consider all the construction workers that get run over at road construction sites.

There’s a whole lot of invisible people in our country. Maids. Gardeners, Construction workers. No wonder no one has noticed we have 12 million illegal aliens living amongst us. They’re right out in front of us, we just don’t see them because we instantly dismiss them as real people because of the job they are doing.

But one can go even farther I learned.

Always keep your eyes down and never look anyone straight in the eye. Slouch a bit.

Complete invisibility is achieved by becoming absolutely still in the presence of other people.

Humans apparently react to movement just like hawks. If you are absolutely still, 9 times out of 10 people won’t notice you.

And if you are a municipal public works department worker, people will see a city worker not working, but will never be able to identify you as a real live person.

This is why when you drive by a city public works project, you will almost always see the workers standing around doing nothing. They are practicing their invisibility spells. Or waiting for the underground utilities location people to show up which they never do for hours and the workers can do anything until all the underground utilities are located with paint.

I learned about waiting for underground utilities to be located one day when Carlos asked me to sub for another worker at a pipeline construction site.

My job was to stand by the side of the street and wait until the gas company painted where their line was buried, the electric company painted their line, the sewer guys painted their line, the phone company identified their line, and the cable company painted where their stuff was buried.

You would not believe how much shit is buried under a street.

After all the utilities painted their lines, turning the street into something resembling modern art, I was told to start digging with a backhoe where the paint wasn’t. Five minutes later I hit a water line that wasn’t supposed to be there and everyone was hooting and laughing.

While the street was flooding, and people where trying to find a valve to shut off the flow, I was told the first lesson of underground construction…no one really knows where anything really is buried under a street. The second rule being that if you break a line outside of the painted area it isn’t your fault.

The next day I was promoted to the water utility construction team, apparently because I set some kind of record for breaking a line on my first dig.

While actually working was a real improvement in my days, I was still hadn’t found a shred of evidence of public corruption, though I had amended my will to require my body be cremated and painted onto the street in front of my ex-wife’s house.





Copyright 2007 by Hugh Holub