Photograph by Justin Hollar.
In Colombia, Rocío Gómez marries into an empire of wealth and power. She is told the family operates a low-profile import/export business, and finds comfort in her role as wife and mother. However, she soon learns the family business is not what it seems as Rocío becomes entangled with drugs, money, and mafioso. Produced in collaboration with Everything is Stories.Playlist
Rocío Gómez + family
Producers: Brendan Baker, Nick van der Kolk, Everything is Stories
Xenia: I remember (holy shit, I haven’t thought about this in ages) I was at my dad’s house – my parents were separated and I was at my dad’s house, rooting through stuff in his bedroom, because I was being nosy. And I’m in this little walk-in closet, and in this closet I had found this box – a black box, sort of like what you would find really fancy dresses in. I open it up, and there’s all these tiny little black pouches. And I open one of the pouches out and shook it out, and it was — this is gonna sound so crazy, but it was like emeralds and jewels. Tons of black little pouches, and maybe six or seven in each pouch. The ones that I remember most clearly were emeralds.
So I put it back, and no big deal. A couple of weeks later my dad had given me a ring that had an emerald in it, and it was gold. I remember he had to put tooth floss or something around me, because it wouldn’t fit me. And I felt so proud, because it was the first jewelry my dad had ever given me (like real jewelry) that was like a little heart or Hello Kitty.
I remember being 9 or 10 and for about a year or so thinking, “Okay, my dad’s a jeweler. Maybe he imports emeralds from Columbia and sells them to jewelry places here”, and I really couldn’t tell you at that time what my parents did for work.
Jeff: He was the kind of dad that got us Power Wheels. My sister had a Lamborghini Power Wheel and I had a Jeep Cherokee Power Wheel. We had two separate rooms that were decked out with everything. He gave us everything we wanted; he pretty much spoiled us. He was a good dad.
I grew up with him up until I was about 8 years old. We didn’t live together, but he lived in the same neighborhood as my mom.
When you talk to my mom, she could be like “I was fuckin’ scared out of my mind”, but she didn’t convey it to us. When you sit with my mom, I’m gonna get a laugh from it, because I don’t know this shit. [laughs] These are the questions that you’d expect someone to have asked, but I’ve just never asked them.
* * *
Jeff: Did you wanna go over the name stuff? Remember, mom, we’re not using our names.
Rocío Gómez: But I have to change the names?
Jeff: Well, that’s what they’re gonna… I don’t know how you guys wanna do it. What’s a name, mom, that you like a lot but isn’t connected in any way to you?
Rocío Gómez: Make it Rocio, that’s my best friend from Dominican Republic. Yeah. The last name? Let’s go with Gómez, yeah.
Rocío Gómez. I’ll write it down so I can remember…
Hi, my name is Rocío Gómez. I’m the mother of…
Just say Jeff and Xenia, don’t even worry about the last name.
Rocío Gómez: Okay. My son’s name is Jeff, and my daughter’s is Xenia. I got out so early from the Dominican Republic, when I was only 11, into New York. We came here – I remember it was snowing – at my uncle and my aunt that used to live here. They came to the airport with coats – it was the first time that I wore a coat.
I skipped school… I did a lot of skipping in school. If I had a class that I didn’t like, I would skip that, and the next day I would skip… I would miss so much that they would call my father. I was always in the principal’s office. Trust me, I was a tomboy. I would fight. I had the strength, I had the ability, and I was fast. I didn’t care if I got beat up.
I became like a little gang, a little clique, maybe like eight. We use to wear our jacket, Levi’s with the name and everything, and I was the leader. We didn’t do nothing bad; I didn’t like people doing things to people that could not defend themselves. Whoever was picked on, we were there to protect them. Latinas, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans – we used to help a lot of South Americans.
I remember this girl from Ecuador… She had long, black hair, and she was going up the stairs; these black kids started putting a match in her hair. When I saw that, I just jumped and fought.
I remember smoking pot for the first time, and I remember laying down… I couldn’t move and I couldn’t see. This is pot! Then I just, you know, I didn’t wanna mess around with drugs.
Xenia: She met my father at something similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was a chicken shop.
Rocío Gómez: It was summer time, in Queens. We were painting the house, my father and I. And my father wanted some beer, so I said, “It’s okay, I’ll go over there, they have it cold.” So I went over there, and they used to sell fried chicken. The guy there who was selling the fried chicken went to my high school. I said, “Hey, hi! How are you?” this and that and whatever. And I turned around and there’s a gentleman there, and his friend.
Xenia: My dad tells the story that he saw this beautiful, elegant, tall woman in these tight jeans in front of him, and he kind of like inched his way forward in the line and started up a conversation with her.
Rocío Gómez: He asked me, “Hey, do you need any help?” You know and I says, “No, no…” and he go, “Hey I got my car here if you need a ride?” And I says “No, thank you. I live only two blocks away.” But he kept coming and said, “Come on, let me help you.” I gave him the beer and started walking home, said bye-bye to the guy, and he kept walking with me. He started asking me questions, “Where are you from? Don’t tell me… You’re Puertorican or Venezuelan” and I said, “No, I’m Dominican.” “Oh, how cool!” We were just having a conversation. He told me why he came here…
Jeff: My dad was born in Columbia and left to come to the United States. He’s in New York and he’s going to school out here…
Xenia: …to study English and business at the local community college.
Rocío Gómez: Once he’s done he’s going back to Columbia to help his father; his grandfather had a lot of land, especially rice and cattle. My family, they had cattle and they had rice — we had that in common. “We’ve got land too, in the Dominican Republican.” When I saw him for the first time, I didn’t find him — his face wasn’t beautiful… It was his ways. He would open the door for you, he was a gentleman. He’d speak a beautiful Spanish… People that come from Bogota, their Spanish is superior. It sounded so beautiful. Especially when you’re getting a girl to fall in love with you, it works like magic.
The next weekend we went to the World’s Fair and I remember the second day I kissed him. It was then the beginning of my relationship with their father, Rodrigo.
After three months or so (maybe more), we were gonna go to a little party in Queens College. It was nice, a lot of salsa… So we were gonna go all the way over there. He picked me up, I’m in his car, and he went out to get some cigarettes, or something like that, and I look down and on the rug on his side (on the mat) I see a point of an envelope. I’m like, “What’s that?” and I read… I see his name, another lady name… “What the heck?” It’s a divorce decree. So this fucking guy is married. I put it back and I didn’t say anything until we got there.
Xenia: My dad had been married to this Jewish woman so that he could get his residency to live here. My mom was pretty upset, they fought about it…
Rocío Gómez: I panicked, but he said he didn’t live with her, whatever… “You know me… It was for the Green Card.” Of course, they were marrying, they were living in the same home. He lived with her, he did fuck her, they did all that stuff. And she had three kids. The girls was ugly, that’s another thing. She was ugly and kind of old. I don’t want nothing to do with this guy. I stopped seeing him, whatever.
One day I come into the house and he’s over there… He had a cut all the way from his forehead to the top of his head. A big, huge cut. My mom was putting cold towels, and stuff like that. I walk in and I say, “What happened?” He got drunk, he had a car crash… The car was almost totaled. So I ended up taking him to the hospital. He got like, I don’t know how many stitches.
I took him home, to his house, and made up again. That was my chance to break it up, he loves me, whatever, his words, he’s good with them. I got married in 1978, then we were gonna go on our honeymoon, but we had a surprise – you grandfather wanted to come to the honeymoon, and grandmother, and aunt, and uncle. So we had to change our honeymoon plans to go to the Niagara Falls. Right there I should have walked out. In 1979 we moved to Bogota, Columbia, so he could help his father.
Xenia: My grandfather made a name for himself farming rice. He did really well for himself, bought more and more land, and started expanding into cattle. My dad came back basically to help run that.
Rocío Gómez: My husband’s brothers were getting into air force, they all wanted to become pilots – I don’t know why – and he was gonna be left alone with so much land. That was the beginning of my life there.
Once I knew that I was going to Columbia, my father made me become an American citizen, because he said that Columbia wasn’t a stable country, and at least they will take care of the Americans. I met the family, they were very nice Columbians. They were country people, they grew up in a small town. They went to the sixth, seventh, eighth grade – that was a lot.
They didn’t have the culture, they weren’t like me. I went to good schools, I knew my history, I knew where I come from… Not them. They were campesinos, they were country folk. They were just working the land.
They took me to see the land, to see the countryside… It was beautiful, everybody was nice. Everybody so nice. Now I’m gonna spend two years here? I don’t care, it’s fine. I was teaching English to little kids. My husband would go and work in the country on his father’s land, and we were beginning to see production money from the land, and life was good.
Then I got pregnant… Pregnant with Xenia. When I was around three months, I wanted to wear my maternity dress, and my husband was gonna take me out for the first time looking like a pregnant girl. I was gonna go out and eat dinner with my husband, and he said that he was gonna come back, he was gonna pick up his younger brother. And they never came back.
I waited two hours or so, and one of the sons of my neighbor came in a car, and I said, “Let me go to the center of the city”, which is where my husband’s family used to hang out. I went over there and I didn’t see him nowhere. We were passing by a little disco that usually was meant for the mosas (married guys would bring the girls that were not their wives over there to dance and have a good time). The car was right in front over there, so I went in.
He was dancing with a beautiful girl, really young, about 17 years old. I pull my husband out of the place, and he was startled; he was apologizing, he was making excuses for himself. When his brother came, I was already screaming to him. The thing that hurt me the most was because it meant so much to me to go out with a little belly.
So that happened, and I said, “Heck, I’m gonna have my girl and go to the United States.” That was my main priority. But that’s when everything started with the Columbia mafia.
* * *
Jeff: Basically, everything that happened with my dad and his brothers (my uncles) – the way that it’s always been in my head presented was that he was over here, and then one of his brothers was like, “Hey man, you know, the land and all that that mom and dad left us – we figured out something to do with it. Come back and be a part of it, because we’re making money.”
Rocío Gómez: One of my husband’s younger brothers was the first one that started dealing with illegal drugs. He was an airforce pilot. They proposed to him to do a trip to the Bahamas for marijuana, and gave him 15,000 dollars. I remember he bought a Honda, and it was an orange, beautiful car, really shiny. Everybody liked that car.
At the beginning it was all marijuana, then they started bringing cocaine. Another brother got enlisted, then the other brother… My husband’s function was mainly money laundering. He would do the money part, because he couldn’t be a pilot.
There was a corporation that used to bring flowers here from Columbia, and he would take the money to that corporation. He was the one that was in charge with these mafiosos; he was in charge of getting all the money together to send it back to Columbia.
They were using the landing strip of my father-in-law. He had cattle there, but he had a landing strip. That landing strip was being used for drug dealers to land, take off and refuel. People from the airforce would go equipped with machine guns and stuff like that, and they used to get out first and search the area before we could come out.
They were doing a flight, all the pilots, and that load was somebody very important. Two partied involved, two mafia guys. It was four planes going to Bolivia, I believe, or Peru. One of the planes got caught… My ex-husband’s youngest brother was caught by the police, so they couldn’t get out.
My ex-husband was not a pilot, so he stayed in Bogota, and he saw that his youngest brother was caught. He came out and stayed with him, giving up the drugs, and whatever. They got arrested and thrown into jail. That came up in the newspapers all over the world. In the Dominican Republic, my family saw it.
Then all the negotiations started, you know? Money speaks. They already bought all the people in the jail, and when they were there in jail, they were partying. They would bring them the best food, they’d bring them girls… They already had everything set up for them.
My apartment in Bogota was set up for all the communication, so we could talk to them from prison anytime. So all of those mafia lords used to come at night time to my house and talk to them. I think the mafia paid two million dollars to get them released. They bought a lot of politicians, and everybody. They were out in like maybe two weeks, or something. So they must have felt probably invincible.
Rocío Gómez: They were… It was very corrupted, you know? We were very well protected by the cops, by whoever… Nobody would mess around with us. They knew, especially who you work for, they would not mess around with…
Over there, at that time, being a mafioso was even better than being a doctor. Even political people, people in the bank – they used to see you like, “Oh…” Even though they knew what you were doing, you know what I mean?
When I used to go to our restaurant and one of them would walk in, it was like if a Pope came in. The respect they used to get… It was mainly the respect. And me being in there, it came to a time that I didn’t give it too much thought.
I used to go to the spa, I used to play cards in the best clubs they had… It was always the biggest celebration anywhere; the parties were so fancy… I had the best dress, I had the best…
We used to go and even be with the president of Columbia, celebrations and stuff like that, and it was never wrong. I used to go to my drawer and take out 500 dollars if I wanted, you know?
I went to a farm and saw a horse, and I wanted 15 of them. How much is a horse? These horses came from the Middle East and they cost a fortune, but we didn’t care. Do you like that plane? We’ll get that plane. Whatever I wanted, I had it. I didn’t have to work for it, I didn’t have to do anything for it.
You become in a state that is natural. It is all so freaking natural. That’s the way of making money, that’s the way of whatever… I didn’t give it a lot of thought that I wasn’t brought up the way they were. People were just fine with it. The only thought that I had was how much harm we were doing. That was always in the back of my mind. If they only knew, if they only knew, if they only knew…
The whole thing is I guess because — even though Columbia has a lot of drugs, they don’t have a lot of users. You see, and if they have users, it’s maybe you see, people may be doing cocaine, but they were of the lowest kind. You didn’t see people where you went, “Oh, he’s a drug addict. He has a habit.” You don’t see that. You see it here. It wasn’t affecting them, so I didn’t care.
When I came to my mother-in-law and my father-in-law and I said, “Hey, you’re gonna see babies shaking from addicts. Do you know how much people you guys are hurting?” I’d seen that when I was in the States. It didn’t seem to matter. My brother-in-law and husband, they bought him a beautiful apartment in Bogota. It must have been like maybe two million dollars. Also, they were giving him stuff… Everybody was fine.
His mom believed that if a woman wouldn’t be faithful or wouldn’t the thing for the man, she should be hit in the mouth. Ay que pegar en la jeta. Jeta is animal mouth. And she said it just like that to me.
My sister-in-law was there. They would follow whatever the husband wants and they didn’t mind. I wasn’t raised that way… But sometimes you just play the role, you know? You just lay back and say, “When I’ll be in the States, it’s gonna me my world.”
For me to take my kids at that time… You know, I still loved my husband, but I knew that it was wrong. I would always say that it was wrong. I was already becoming too maybe Columbian-thinking, just saying “Yes, sir/No, sir” and doing whatever they wanted. Yes, maybe I was. I don’t know.
You see, it’s different when you already have things in life. I had cars, and whatever… Now, I was raised in New York – fancy cars, I used to see everything, so it wasn’t like a big deal. But for everybody there, it was. I was never born poor. They were. That’s a big deal.
But once you’re in it, you want more and more, and I saw it. The competition was also between the brothers. If one of the brothers has something, the other one wanted it, and wanted it even better. Between them they were already fighting because of the money. He came to that family, I mean, if it is his choice, because of that.
The greed, the greed… And then as it got bigger, the bigger problems they had. I used to see Americans coming in and I’d have to translate for them. You had to be very careful… I used to see that they used to be with bodyguards, because they wanted to make phone calls and we didn’t know if they were working for the DA or they were informers, and what they were. And I began to understand and I said, “Man, I’m here playing a really huge role. I’m as involved as anybody is.” That used to make me not want to go to sleep, that used to make me really bad.
I wanted to leave this world – the drugs… Get away from that kind of life, just get away…
My hope was that I would go to the United States. I would talk to my husband about it and he’d say, “Don’t worry, we’re gonna get out. We just have to make enough money… Just some more money.” I thought we had enough. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need it, and neither did I need what came with it. Even though I had all that money, I wasn’t content. It wasn’t filling me up, it wasn’t the life that I wanted.
I wanted my kids to grow up and to be educated properly. I didn’t wanna bring my kids up with that, in that. I would tell me husband, I would fight with him. He was the same, “We’re going back, we’re going back…”, but we never did.
It is so hard to break, so hard to get out; everything was hard for my husband, because his whole family was on it, and he couldn’t break apart. I knew that that I will never break apart neither. Either he got caught maybe, or whatever… It was never gonna end.
I remember one of the mafiosos said – over there and this is Gacha, I don’t remember his name but they used to call him Gacha – “Once you start building, you wanna build more. You won’t be content with just one house, you’re gonna build more.” That’s what it’s all about – the greed, the money. The more you have, the more you want. It never stops.