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DAUGHTER: One day I’m come home from school. I was in sixth grade. I was 12 years old.
SON: It was towards the end of third grade for me, I can kind of remember my mom telling us, like right when she picked us up from school.
DAUGHTER: And I’m just sitting at the table. My mom, we start talking and then she said, so, We’re probably gonna have to move soon.
SON: Hey, we’re moving and tomorrow’s your last day of school.
DAUGHTER: And I said, okay.
SON: Told my friends just real casual like, I’m leaving, I’m moving. Where you going? I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m, this is my last day at school.
DAUGHTER: I remember just sitting there like, I didn’t know what to say, and she sort of instructed me, this is what you have to tell people. This is what it’s gonna be like. We don’t know where we’re gonna move yet. We’re gonna have to change our last name. And we’re gonna need to do it in the next few days.
SON: I didn’t understand the full scope of what was going on at all. I understood that we were leaving. I didn’t understand, like not coming back. It didn’t hit me.
DAUGHTER: My mom explained to me that they were working for the government. She was working with the FBI.
MOTHER: The FBI was like a family to us. They knew my kids. They grew up with my kids. My kids grew up around them. It was like an uncle.
DAUGHTER: There was bad people after us, and we had to go into hiding for a while.
SON: People call it witness protection, but it’s not really known as witness protection. Officially, it’s known as Witsec, witness Security.
STEP FATHER: The FBI called Witsec. They come, they work, two or three of them. They explain things to you, your options, how it works, how it’s done.
MOTHER: We have to pick different name. We’re gonna be a new person. As long as we were as a family, the kids and us, it didn’t matter where we wanna go.
STEP FATHER: If I’m going away, we’re all going away. Not this thing where one stays behind, we’re all going. That was always my philosophy, all of us.
MOTHER: To start all over, to start new. We said, well, we’re gonna start all over. Why not? At least we have them to guide us. Right. The only thing that I didn’t like about it was thinking that it would be for the rest of our life.
SON: So, yeah, I mean, I’m still in it to this day. When you join Witsec, it’s a rule. You don’t talk to any family at all. You’re dead to them. It’s very much like one day I’m here, the next day you don’t know where I am. You just disappear.
MOTHER: The only people that I guess I told you was my brother, my youngest one. That we were gonna disappear for a little bit.
SON: At that point. I was eight years old, so I don’t think I knew how to pack a bag. I’m sure my mom packed my stuff for me.
DAUGHTER: We left all of our furniture, I packed a suitcase, put some stuffed animals in there, my diary, and the next morning we were on a plane.
SON: And all of a sudden we were taken outta Miami.
DAUGHTER: I remember getting to Washington D.C. Some Marshalls came and met us at the gate.
MOTHER: Maybe 4, 5, 6 Marshalls. They gave us tickets.
SON: And these tickets just have these fake names on them. I just remember it being like, this isn’t my name. And then I just thought, oh, cool. We’re doing something like silly.
DAUGHTER: Some Marshalls took us outside to this windowless van. We were all stuck in the back of the van and it was hot. I remember it was summer and it was hot, and my mom, she had to throw up.
SON: They had to pull over and they opened the door and my mom threw up. I remember them opening the door and I could see the Washington Monument. We got back in the van and we were driven basically like a parking garage with like no lights and going into something that felt like a hotel.
DAUGHTER: Completely windowless apartment.
SON: We were locked inside of this room. The handle didn’t do anything when you pulled it from the inside.
DAUGHTER: And I remember thinking, holy shit, this is serious. This is way serious.
SON: There was a camera, like where two walls meet. It was one of those round ones where you can’t really see the camera inside of it, but you know that there’s a camera in there. The fridge and the freezer was just filled with like microwaveable food, microwaveable hamburgers, there was nothing you could prepare. It’s probably because if you use a stove, you could cause a fire and you couldn’t get outta that room.
DAUGHTER: The reason why we were there was because they had to process us. We had to bring with us every last piece of information with our name on it. All of my report cards, my birth certificate, my passport, ballet awards, my parents’ credit history.
Anything where our name would pop up in a system they had to get rid of. So I guess that takes time. And then it takes time to get them to give us new identities. This was the most exciting part of the whole stay, was getting to choose our new identity.
SON: The marshals, they had the conversation with us about, Hey, you’re gonna get new names.
DAUGHTER: Since my mom was married to my stepdad, they would have the same last name. My brother and I got to pick our own names, and since I was the older one, I got to pick our last name. So I was reading this book, the last name of this author for this young adult novel was, it was like, ***** and I was like, oh, that’s pretty.
I just told my mom, she wrote it down and handed that paper to the marshals. And a few weeks later they came with a new passport for me and my brother, new birth certificate, all of this other stuff with our new last names. And I remember practicing my signature thinking, oh my gosh, if they catch me writing my original last name, I’m gonna blow it from my entire family.
I’ve gotta be on point, really memorize it. And this is a new me. The month to month spent in this weird apartment. For me, it was that my whole life was gonna be tucked away, that nobody was ever gonna find me again. That I couldn’t never see any of my family members again. The time went by so slowly and as soon as they said that we were gonna leave, I was excited not to move to a new place, but to get out.
SON: I don’t think they want you to stay in something like that for too long. That might be like a little too much for someone to handle.
DAUGHTER: My mom came and she told me that we were leaving the next day, and I was just so happy to be out of that sort of stupor that we were. Just day in, day out, I felt like– it really was a prison. And as soon as she told me I was inwardly rejoicing and just so happy to get out of this place. And to start living again and to eat real food and to have new clothes. Like even a walk outside. So they had to pick another place for us to go and that’s when they picked **** ****.
SON: Even at that age, I knew that **** ***** was just gonna be like very culture shock.
DAUGHTER: It’s a very segregated town. They ask you, do you speak Mexican? They have homecoming dance there and like proms, but they have a black homecoming court and a white homecoming court. And my name got put in for black homecoming court. Because I was like one of the few his– like non-white people there.
They didn’t know what to categorize me as. We were allowed to say that we came from Florida. That wasn’t off the books. The only thing that had to stay consistent was our last name. I remember telling them that my stepdad was still in the imports, exports business, and my mom was still a stay-at-home mom told them I was Hispanic. Everything was true. Nothing about my parents working for the government. That part of the family history, I didn’t share.
SON: You get used to it. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to start saying a new name. How easy? Like I’ve only had it slip once. We were at a Residence Inn cuz the US Marshals love putting you up in a Residence Inn. You can like rent equipment to like play tennis from like the front desk.
You know, you borrow it and like you have to tell ’em like your room number. So I’m nine at this point and we’re going to this desk and we’re asking to like rent like tennis equipment. The lady just asked me, what’s my name? I just go, boop and I just say my real name. The original name. Right then and there, like, I have to stop and say no, I mean, and I fix it. But that’s only happened once in, 22 years of like having to like remember to do this. After a while you get used to it.
STEP FATHER: The issue was the lies. Everyone wanted to know where we came from. What do you do? Why do you dress like that? Why do you eat potatoes? Why don’t you eat rice? Why don’t you eat the arepas? Why don’t you drink coffee? Who is your family? Everyone is curious. The circumstances were such that I’d say it wasn’t so much lying as it was surviving.
MOTHER: And we became friends with this Puerto Rican guy. He passed by my house and he sees one of the marshal, they used to come and see us like every month in the house. And he saw the car. He says, Hey, what? What you doing there? And he was in the witness protection too. And we didn’t even know it. We were both– the same Marshall for him and the same for us.
PRODUCER: Meanwhile, like what’s happening with Rodrigo at this point.
MOTHER: He was in jail.
MOTHER: Yes, he was in jail. The kids make phone calls– they arranged phone calls to talk to the father while he was in jail.
SON: Back then, I didn’t fully understand what it was that he did. They were like, he got caught trying to like bring drugs into the United States.
PRODUCER: They told you that much.
SON: Yeah, but nothing more specific than that.
DAUGHTER: So my mother and my stepdad started working for the government in the eighties. That’s how they knew through their friends and the FBI that they were tracking my father. He was trying to make a sell in New York and the FBI knew about it. So my mother warned my dad not to go to New York and he went anyways.
PRODUCER: I thought part of the reason for going to Witsec was that your father was upset that your stepfather may have ratted him out, and there was some danger possibilities there.
SON: He does believe that my mom and my stepdad had something to do with it, but like, I don’t think anyone was ever worried about my dad doing something. It was like, who does my dad know that could do something?
DAUGHTER: So, yeah, knowing some of the people that my stepfather, some of the names that pop up that he helped put in jail are pretty big guys with large networks. But we never ever felt, it was almost like we knew bad guys were after us, but it wasn’t ever like, we’re running, and they’re right behind us. And we had to like live in fear all the time. We never felt that way. It was, it was more of a huge inconvenience.
SON: They would’ve killed us.
DAUGHTER: I know, but I didn’t feel like that.
SON: We felt safe, but given the chance, these people would’ve killed us all, that’s I have no doubt about it. If they found out where we were, they would’ve killed anybody.
DAUGHTER: When my father was in prison, I was able to write him letters. But the letters had to go through the marshals first and they would open ’em and read them and then send it to him. And then he had to send the letters to the marshals.
They would read ’em and then send it to us. And then I remember thinking, did I write anything that could have given it away? I really don’t ever know. Like I really don’t know what exactly happened to force us to move away exactly. But we had to do it again.
MOTHER: Our identity was compromised and I don’t want to go into details. We just needed to move. Again, we packed a few belongings and waited for the marshes to come in and take us, and when we did it all over again. The second time it was harder. It was another blow for the kids.
SON: We started getting an idea of where we were gonna end up and then it turned out that it was gonna be *******.
MOTHER: They were crying like babies. My daughter locked up in a room being pissed cause she was going to leave behind a lot of good friends.
DAUGHTER: And so I just really didn’t even tell any of my friends that I was leaving.
SON: Like fucking for real. Why?
DAUGHTER: I remember flying in and it was the end of summer and everything looked brown and ugly. I remember just thinking, this is so weird. I’ve never– I felt very claustrophobic. You get to *******, there’s mountains surrounding you, and I felt very closed in.
This time I was so jaded and pissed off that I was like, fuck it, I’m just gonna give– I gave a payphone number, the payphone right by the grocery store, by our house, called My friends, was like, here’s a number you can reach me. Call me every Saturday night. I’ll be standing by the phone at 7:00 PM my time. Like, definitely broke the rules that time around cause I was like, this is bullshit.
We were a month late going into school, so having to be the new girl who comes late to class and everybody looked at me funny cuz I had a southern accent and really didn’t fit in and that was one of the hardest transitions for me.
STEP FATHER: Witsec pays a monthly wage, $2,100. Pay, rent, food, transportation, electricity, bills. I’m talking about leaving off of $2,100 in 1993. How can you live? You’re not gonna leave from their money from there. You gotta start doing your own thing.
Witsec sent me to an employment office and with their connections I would talk to someone. I never got a call back. I would say I want to work. I wanted to be anyone. I didn’t have to be the big guy in this office or anything like that. I just want to work. I’m not talking about going out there and living in the best house or anything like that.
All I wanted was a start. I didn’t care what I had to do. Nothing was beneath me. Once upon a time I was something, but right now I have to take care of my family. I was afraid to do something illegal because if they took me outta the program, what was I going to do?
MOTHER: When my husband was really, depressed, no experience really, only on flying. He felt useless and he felt used.
DAUGHTER: I think it really hurt him not being able to be a pilot in the United States. Not being able to do what his passion was, which was flying.
MOTHER: It was a disaster. It started going downhill, downhill, downhill.
STEP FATHER: But like the saying goes, the delinquent always comes home. Witsec gave me recommendations to call this number. That was when I made a contact again with the FBI. Well, first off, the FBI asked what you have to offer. I’d say, okay, I have contacts in the island through which we can do business. The FBI put in a request for me at their headquarters.
SON: My stepfather started doing like his informant stuff for the FBI again, which was what, like originally he was doing.
DAUGHTER: They felt like there wasn’t a lot of risk in having him come back and work for them, and he was really good at what he did. Really good at bullshitting with people, befriending them, getting them to trust him. And it had been enough time that all the people that he helped put away either died or were still in jail.
STEP FATHER: Finally, the FBI called me back again and opened an office for me. They opened an import export business. I was alone for a year in Miami. That’s where my office was. It was my job. I had secretaries, sales managers, the whole nine yards. I began to call and call and call and make contacts.
MOTHER: I stayed behind with the kids a whole year or so and he will come back and go back and forth and we decided, to go back to florida.
DAUGHTER: So right after I went to college, that’s when my mother and my stepdad and my younger brothers went back to Florida.
SON: My stepdad’s apartment was literally across the street from the old neighborhood that we used to live in, in Miami.
DAUGHTER: And I thought it was really weird because that’s going directly back into part of our life that we left behind. We had closed the door. Why were they opening it again?
STEP FATHER: I came back to this type of work because I felt proud. I felt like I was doing something productive for our society and for my kids. In fact, I went to Colombia three times in that period.
When I went back to Colombia, I used my real name because I didn’t have papers. But even if the same Narcos were no longer involved, some had disappeared, others in jail, et cetera, even if I was no longer recognized, it was still a risk.
The officers in charge of protecting me at any time I went out for a meeting, they would always be around me. I always had to check in and tell the people what I was doing, what I wasn’t doing. Aside from that, they were able to pinpoint where I was to the cell phone that I used.
SON: In 2001 he was involved in something major. It was something big. It was in the newspaper. At one point, he got really close to disappearing. And I know that it affects him cause he can’t even talk about it to this day.
STEP FATHER: Like when they kidnap me, my whole life flashed before my eyes.
SON: He’s never really talked about it. I’ve heard it as like a story that’s kind of like on the peripheral type of thing. It’s never been something that he’s just talked about openly. Like I’ve asked my mom in the past and she’s just like mentioned, talked to me about it once.
MOTHER: My husband went to Colombia with a drug dealer, with a big drug dealer. And they were going to bring a big load here to the United States. And it was arranged how much cocaine they were gonna bring, who was gonna pay for it, you know, everything was settled. They were just waiting for Carlos to give him the product.
SON: Ah, there’s so much fucking detail to go into, dude. He was doing like an his informant thing, like he, but he was in a car with somebody.
MOTHER: Was a delay with the FBI, they not coming out with, with the stuff.
SON: The guy starts getting iffy nervous and shit just starts falling apart.
MOTHER: All of a sudden, that guy came through the back and put the gun, in his ribs and put him into a van in the back and the gun pointed at him.
SON: One of the guys says matalo, which just means kill him. And basically he was seconds away from it and that’s when like hell broke loose because the feds were listening in on it. The lights start coming on and they got surrounded. The agents like swarm the vehicle, they arrest my stepdad. They have to do the whole thing.
STEP FATHER: And all I could think about was my family. What am I doing here? Who in the world told me to come here?
MOTHER: That was the last deal that my husband was involved with the government.
SON: And yeah, like, and it ended up in the newspaper.
MOTHER: The thing that hurt him the most, it was the article when it came out. The guy, the newspaper, write down that he was a snitch. When I explained what a snitch was, Carlos felt really offended.
SON: It’s one of those points of pride with him, like whatever the term is, it might be like the street term or however it is, but I mean that’s what he does. I mean, he’s like a narc, right? He’s a snitch.
DAUGHTER: I think he suffers from still, from post-traumatic stress about it and really changed him as a person. And I think that coupled with the 9-11 stuff happening, all of the money sort of re-routed from the War on drugs, which was really big in the eighties and early nineties, to terrorism and homeland security stuff. There wasn’t anything left for my stepfather to really contribute to, so they didn’t need him anymore.
SON: The guy that my stepfather worked with, he’s like, the closest thing that my dad will ever, my stepdad will ever have to a best friend. And I’ve known him since I was like a little kid. He used to gimme like a dollar for every, like A, I got on a report card type shit.
He’d come over and just be hanging out. He’d come to parties and stuff like that. But if he doesn’t need my stepdad, and he hasn’t needed him for like 13 years, I don’t think they talked to each other and it’s kind of sad. It’s work for him, you know.
STEP FATHER: No, I’m fine with everyone. I just don’t feel properly compensated. I wasn’t paid what I should have earned. But, at the end of the day, it’s material. Material is material. What’s important are the values that we’ve acquired and you value what you have.
DAUGHTER: I never liked to think too much about my dad and my mom and my stepdad doing sort of the grittier things that are involved in narco trafficking. To think of my mother having to do something that I didn’t think she was capable of doing, really hurt me. And I really didn’t like thinking, I still don’t like thinking of her in a position like that.
MOTHER: Don’t share this with anybody. Only maybe, you know, really, really close family, but besides their friends and stuff like that, no.
DAUGHTER: I bet it was more difficult for her, more than anybody, having been in a situation where she fears for the life of her children and herself. She’s so optimistic. She’s the most optimistic woman I’ve ever met. Everything’s good. Everything in life is good.
She works like a dog. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever known. But everything’s good. Everything’s gonna be okay, baby. That’s what she says.
SON: It wasn’t like an easy means to an end for her. Just so happened that she fell in love with two guys that ended up fucking around with cocaine, which is, she met my stepdad through my dad, and my dad was into it, so you can assume that my Colombian stepdad would be into it too.
When you’re Dominican and you marry one guy, that’s Colombian. I don’t see it being that hard to get caught up in that type of stuff. It just happens to be like two roads that are both crazy of like FBI informant, and like a drug king pin. That’s like my birthright.
DAUGHTER: I initially didn’t wanna talk about this because it has nothing to do with, my life in the Witness Protection Program, but I figured I would get everything out. My biological father, he’s in jail in South America. Yeah. So I talk with my father, he calls me every day, from jail. And he has the last three years or three and a half years that he’s been in.
SON: Human trafficking, drug trafficking, murder, a couple different things.
DAUGHTER: Is this true? Please tell me if it’s true. I will stick by you no matter what, but I need to know.
SON: The murder part of it is not something that like he’s accused of doing himself, but it’s more like he might have hired somebody or might have been involved in something.
DAUGHTER: Of course, he assured me that he didn’t do it and I choose to believe that. I choose to believe that he’s not capable.
SON: I don’t know the truth behind it, but if you do a Google search on him, his name comes up and it’s tied up with some crazy shit.
DAUGHTER: So we really don’t talk about it. Just, it’s really hurtful and I don’t wanna fight with my brother.
SON: To be honest with you, I just don’t think I have the capacity in me to really want to know too much about it. It’s just not interesting to me.
PRODUCER: Well, why not?
SON: Because maybe I don’t want to know the answers to it. Cuz I don’t do drugs. I’ve never done drugs. Like you guys have beers here. I don’t drink either. I don’t drink coffee. Like it’s, I just have like this thing about vices. I really am nervous about like getting into anything that like will be habit forming.
DAUGHTER: As a family. It’s not something that we sit down and talk about. To us, it’s our life. When we talk about it in a big picture, it’s like, oh, crazy. You know, having lived through it, there’s nothing much to talk about between us.
MOTHER: If I could change it, I wouldn’t have married nobody. I wouldn’t, whatever. But things are what they are, you know? And at that time when I was doing that, I felt that I was doing right. Helping stop the war on drugs. Up to this day I do feel good about that.
STEP FATHER: I think there are many people like me, many people who don’t have someone to go to for help or guidance that can teach them the values or what they have done. Everyone would be so nice with one word love.
MOTHER: I will not regret doing what I did. Those drugs that were going to come in, no matter what, if I contribute to anything, all my husband did, that’s fine. If not, well, what can you do? That’s it, the past is the past. It’s just a story to tell, you know?