It was a Saturday and the day dawned clear, which was good because I had some errands to run. One of them was to buy a new mobile telephone. After completing a few of the errands and without a particular intention to be there, in the early afternoon I found myself on a part of eje central, a main thoroughfare in the downtown, where a large number of vendors sell second-hand telephones from makeshift street side stalls. It is common knowledge that most, if not all, of them are illicitly acquired. The variety is wide and prices are cheaper than any bricks and mortar store.
Buying goods, which you suspect are most probably stolen, of course, is never particularly wise. It is certainly a deterrent. Yet, I reasoned that making a few enquires to get a feel for the market would do no harm. However, it proved to be a temptation. M, accompanying me on the mission, and I got talking to a vendor. Lets call him R.
R wore long, baggy, denim shorts, a tight t-shirt not particularly flattering to his frame and an American baseball hat with a stiff flat brim. He had the customary tattoos, bleached tips, a golden chain and an earring. I´d bet money that he has spent time on the other side – in the states (gabacho) -, perhaps even done time there. It should go without saying that he was a smooth talker. R talked through his range. An iphone 5 for $2000 pesos ($135 USD approx.) Was I being persuaded? It seemed that I was, ……ready to take a walk on the dark side.
M noticed a small scratch on the body of the phone and brought it to R´s attention. You want a different one then?´he quickly retorted, ´I´ll send someone to the bodega´ (storeroom). A sidekick was quickly summoned and sent off to retrieve another iphone 5. M and I took a few steps away and wondered out loud whether the bodega was in fact a euphemism for café and restaurant tables of swanky Polanco where plenty of expensive phones are sometimes away from the usually attentive gaze of their owners.
Not too much time passed before R´s pimply runner returned with another phone. The battery was dead but I´d made up my mind and felt that there was no backing out. We made the deal. I handed over the cash. We headed home. I plugged the phone in to charge and after a short while it came to life. The first thing that appeared on the screen was ´pinche ratero de celulares. Chinga tu madre´ which translates more or less as ¨fuckin´ cell phone thief. Fuck your mother!¨ It wasn´t an excellent start.
So, it seemed that the phone couldn´t be used. The previous owner and victim to theft had locked the phone and a code was needed in order to use it. Being far from any kind of technological wizard, I had no idea how to unlock it and felt a sense of guilt as well. M and I decided to check back in with R.
We walked back down the clogged Saturday afternoon streets and located R, still eagerly seeking another sale from the passing throngs. R and a new accomplice, seemingly his superior, assured us that the phone would work, that I just had to go through a series of steps online in order to reactivate the phone. I remained skeptical, at least to the ease at which they claimed it could be done. I requested a refund but, unsurprisingly, was told that it was not possible. He offered me another iphone and reluctantly I accepted it and we walked away. Further down eje central M consulted with a kid who specializes in unblocking phones. He assured her that the phone couldn´t be unblocked.
Convinced that this phone would also be useless, M counselled me to return to R once again and try to trade the phone for something that would at least work and thus not completely waste my money. We returned to R and managed to trade the phone for an early model nokia smart phone. I had been well and truly duped, worked over by the street smart R. Normally alert to swindles I couldn´t deny that this time I had been deceived…., defeated.
The ordeal, however, wasn´t over yet. In order to check that the phone was working M removed the sim card from her phone and handed it over to R. In retrospect this was foolish. R inserted it into the phone and quickly announced that this phone also need to be reactivated but that he could have it done straight away in their workshop, that we should sit tight and he´d have it back to us soon. He walked away with the phone.
15 minutes passed and R returned to tell us that the phone would be ready soon. He began some small talk with us and incongruently, in the flow of conversation, asked us what our names were. We replied honestly and shortly after R said that the phone should be ready now and that he would go and get it.
I mentioned to M how strange it seemed for him to suddenly ask our names the way he did. We soon realized the error. R and whoever was back in the workshop was in possession of M´s sim card with access to all of her contacts. Extortion is common in Mexico. Mexicans never save their parents numbers as mom and dad for fear that, if a phone is stolen for example, threats will be made for financial gain. Now our names were known and M´s contacts were at their disposal. M grew paranoid. We discussed the situation, really there was nothing we could do and M grew more paranoid that friends of R – we were just meters from his stall – were listening. We changed the subject and waited.
Eventually, R returned with the phone. I took it and we hightailed it, eager to put the whole episode behind us and forget it. We drifted off into the still crowded streets. M was certain we were being followed. Her paranoia grew on me too. We ducked into a comida corrida restaurant for a meal, to shake off any possible pursuer and also because we hadn´t thought to eat amidst the events of the day. We ate and headed for home. M replaced the sim in her phone and contacted family members, explaining the situation and asking whether they had received any strange or sinister calls. Fortunately nobody confirmed that they had been contacted. Seemingly we had been left unscathed. M vowed to change her number. A lesson had been learnt – how to probably not buy a mobile telephone in Mexico City
POSTSCRIPT: I used the shitty nokia phone for a month or two but it never grew on me. I now have a new phone. It was bought in a bricks and mortar store.