By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
* * *
Chavez and Guerrero arrived together in the U.S. in 1981, when Santa Ana was still an economically strapped city in the middle of Orange County's burgeoning wealth. They had little money; Guerrero soon returned to the welding work he had done during his first stay in the States. Chavez—at 16, still too young to work many jobs—lied about his age and got his first job as a janitor at South Coast Plaza. They roomed in a house with friends in a Santa Ana neighborhood where drugs were openly bought and sold, says Guerrero. "We always said no," he says. "In Guadalajara, we didn't even know what drugs were."
It was a game of wills for Chavez, who says he relished being able to say no repeatedly. But the solicitations eventually wore on them. One day in the mid-1980s, Chavez and Guerrero decided to test themselves by sampling a morsel of heroin.
They soon became addicted. They used cocaine until their noses began to bleed in public. They then switched over to heroin full-time. "We started using syringes so our noses wouldn't bleed," says Guerrero. "It was so, so wrong."
Needle sharing in the mid-'80s would prove deadly for many drug users—a mysterious, blood-borne, immune-crippling disease was beginning to surface in hospital special-illness units across the country. Chavez and Guerrero were sharing unwashed, unsterilized needles among a group of 25 friends.
In 1994, on a trip back to Mexico, Chavez was rushed to the hospital with severe stomach pains. His gall bladder had ruptured, spreading bile throughout his abdomen. "They literally were washing his intestines out with hoses," says Guerrero.
Thin and unable to eat, Chavez was not permitted to leave the hospital. Guerrero, who had to return to work in the U.S., was forced to leave Chavez behind to be taken care of by his family. He sent money to Mexico for Chavez and got a second job. "But the worst part was that I was still using drugs," Guerrero says.
Chavez's lungs filled with water; he was forced to stay in the hospital for four months. A few days before Christmas, doctors in Guadalajara performed blood tests on the frail 29-year-old and discovered he was HIV-positive. "They didn't tell me directly; they told my mother, and I remember hearing her just cry and cry in the hallway," says Chavez. "For me, the hardest part was what my family was going through, to see how much they worried and how much suffering I was causing them."
A few weeks later, when the medical counselor in Laguna Beach told him he was HIV-positive, Guerrero sighed with deep relief and thanked God. The counselor stared at him and repeated the grim news. "I don't think you understand," Guerrero recalls the counselor telling him. "You're positive. It means you have HIV."
"I thought at the time that Manuel would last two months, maybe a year, and then die," says Guerrero. "And I thought, 'I don't want to remain here alone without him by my side.'"
Motivated to give life and their love another chance—and worried about the rumors he'd heard that Guerrero was now seeing someone else—Chavez made his way back to the U.S. as soon as he was released from the hospital. Aided by his younger brother, Chavez made a precarious trip over the mountains with a catheter still gurgling from his stomach. "I ran out of catheter bags and had to use a coke can to drain," he says. "I didn't know if I would make it."
Guerrero, who wasn't seeing anyone else, nervously awaited his arrival.
Once back together, the men decided to check themselves into a methadone rehab clinic and began antiretroviral drug treatments. They spent six months at the clinic and emerged optimistic. "It helped us get rid of the anxiety and the cravings," says Chavez, "but it didn't kick the addiction."
Soon, they had returned to work—but they also began using again. "We kept buying drugs," says Chavez. "The treatment helped us while we were there, but we kept using."
The two hit rock-bottom after Chavez had been jailed for drug possession on three occasions. The third time, he spent three months in an Irvine jail he called "el rancho." When he got out, he found Guerrero in a worse state than he had been in before: He was missing work and was beginning to spend all of his time getting high. They were spending between $900 and $1,000 per week on drugs. They even spent a couple of days homeless when they couldn't pay the $50 monthly rent for the garage where they were living.
"Manuel said, 'We have to do something. I don't want to see you like this,'" Guerrero says. So Chavez took Guerrero to Mexico for an aggressive, joint detox. A few weeks of harrowing withdrawal at a relative's house almost drove Guerrero back to using, but the two reminded each other that if they didn't fix themselves now, they would die.
They returned after several months and only relapsed once or twice. They are now sober, grateful and surprised they really made it, they say. They are among four surviving members of their old group of 25 needle-sharing friends. "Everyone has died of AIDS or of drug overdoses," says Chavez. "We're the only ones left."