Matt Mendoza / Addiction Unscripted
A three-part journey of addiction, solitary confinement, and the Secret Service.
Story based upon actual events. Some names have been changed to protect certain identities
June 26, 2009 / 6:00 a.m. / U.S.–Mexico Border
At 6:00 am I was jolted awake by a loud banging on the door.
“Mendoza! Get up!”
My body still shivering from the coldest night of my life, I slowly lifted my face off the flattened roll of toilet paper I’d been using as a makeshift pillow.
“This can’t be real, this just can’t be real,” I kept thinking, over and over. “Please don’t let this be real.”
I looked down at the ice-cold concrete floor that also served as my bed. Everything in this place was made of cold steel or freezing concrete, with the exception of a small wooden bench that was off to the side, not quite wide enough to sleep on but too wide to sit upon comfortably. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was by design.
“He paused, looking me in the eyes to make sure what he was about to say would really set in.”
Examining my surroundings, reality began to set in. This was not a bad dream. Apparently I wasn’t processing this reality quickly enough for the guards.
BAM* *BAM* *BAM*
“Mendoza, show us your face!” yelled an officer from the US Department of Homeland Security.
I did as I was told, because really, what the fuck else was I going to do? Turning my face toward the small double paned window on the cell door, I was blinded by the stinging light from his military grade flashlight.
The pain from the light sensitivity was intense. As luck would have it, my pupils were already dilated from the onset of early stage opiate withdrawal, meaning the pain from this officer’s flashlight felt like somebody was sticking a needle through my eyeball.
“Yep, that’s my guy.” I heard someone say in a new voice. “Matt, how are you doing? Are you all right?”
Whoever this was, he spoke in a kinder tone than the others, so I took an immediate liking to him. It felt surprisingly good to be referred to by my first name. I began to show signs of hope, thinking this just might be a defense attorney.
“My name is Agent Peterson,” he continued, “and this is Agent Monroe.”
He paused, looking me in the eyes to make sure what he was about to say would really set in.
“We are from the United States Secret Service.”
JUNE 25, 2009 / 8:00 P.M. / TIJUANA, MEXICO
Rewind… 10 Hours Earlier
Seated at a table in the sportsbook of the Hotel Pueblo Amigo, in Tijuana, Mexico, I didn’t have a care in the world. Pueblo Amigo sits within a five minute walk of the U.S. border and contrary to what you might expect to find in TJ, it’s actually a very nice hotel. I’d compare it to a Marriott of sorts, here in the States.
Pueblo Amigo was more than a hotel to me. It was my home. I leased out a junior suite for over a year, paid by the month, and while I still spent a couple nights each week back at my parent’s house in Orange County, Tijuana was my home. Tijuana is where I felt free. Tijuana was where I could be me.
So what takes a kid from Southern California and turns him into a Tijuana native?
Drugs, of course.
I am a drug addict, a five time alumni of various rehabs and sober living homes. I lied, cheated, and stole trying to maintain an $800 per-day addiction to OxyContin.
Needless to say, I burnt nearly every bridge I crossed as the selfishness of my addiction took over. As the ones who loved me attempted to squeeze me out, cut me off, help me hit something resembling a bottom more quickly, Tijuana came along and fucked up their whole program.
Addiction is a disease notorious for its ability to obliterate the true version of one’s self. Selfishness and insanity consume the heart and soul of what was once an entirely different person. It’s remarkable to see the power of addiction, and it’s ability to overcome even the most sensible and strong-willed person.
No relationship is strong enough to come between the bond of an addict and his or her addiction. It’s an extremely difficult concept to digest, especially for friends and family of the addict.
I make no excuses for my behavior while I was active in my addiction. At some point, if an addict is going to overcome their condition, they must face the consequences for the damage they’ve caused. They must take accountability for what they’ve done, make changes in their life, and begin mending the relationships with those they’ve hurt.
I must however assert, that addiction is not something I developed. I was always an addict, pre-programmed in a sense. After my very first experience with opiates (Vicodin to be exact), it felt like I had found the piece of me that I had always been searching for.
Going to rehab or getting help or surrendering to the realization that I’m an addict who cannot use drugs responsibly — these things all sound reasonable when you’re isolated and broke. In Tijuana I wasn’t isolated. And I sure as hell wasn’t broke.
Walking across the border from San Diego into Mexico, problems miraculously evaporated and my net worth gained a few zeroes. The employees at the hotel and sportsbook replaced my friends who I’d abandoned back home, with my drug dealer elevated to the echelon normally reserved for Best Friend status. These people knew how fucked up I really was, and I felt a sense of relief in being able to be myself.
The real me.
Mo’ Pesos, Mo’ Problems
“It’d be sort of like calling 911 and reporting the theft of your mass stockpile of cocaine.”
I’ve been an entrepreneur of sorts since before I can remember. It’s always come really naturally to me. In elementary school I went door to door with a wagon full of car washing materials to make money with my amatuer auto detail service. In middle school I used to trade and sell baseball cards online, buying packs of cards at wholesale rates, and reselling them for a higher price on some new website called Ebay.
Money was my first real addiction, in that I obsessed over it and the drive for more made my life unmanageable. Whatever I had wasn’t enough. It was never enough. As I got older, my financial endeavours (some would call them schemes) became more lucrative. They had to. Toward the end of high school, drugs were introduced into the picture, and no longer was my addiction to money simply feeding a desire for money. Now, it was feeding a drug addiction.
One addiction feeding another. Go figure.
For a few months I began producing fake IDs, but this turned out to have an inverted risk-reward ratio, so I quickly lost interest. That was followed by a scam where I created bots to spend 24 hours per-day clicking on ads for a multi-level marketing company, a company which paid me for each click I could “generate.” They eventually caught on, but not before I’d done a little financial damage to them.
One of my more lucrative ventures was ripping off Central American casinos for large amounts of money. Technically, it was more of a “loophole,” but shit, at this point it’s all semantics anyway. At the time, the tiny island-country of Antigua had a plethora of online sportsbooks, but only had one money-wiring service, and it closed at 7 pm. Of course, the casinos and sportsbooks of Antigua needed to be able to take bets after 7 o’clock, so since they were unable to pick the money up after 7, they simply called to verify that it was there. I discovered that up until the time the money was picked up, I could take my wired money back. This essentially meant that any bets placed after 7 o’clock Antigua time, I couldn’t lose. If I won, I got paid. If I lost, I just cancelled the wire. Using a fake name and profile for each bet, there was no way the sportsbooks could catch me.
“As it turned out, the Antiguan government was no longer a fan of these online betting establishments”
It was the perfect scheme, because the casinos weren’t legally supposed to accept money for bets via wire transfer. Thus, they couldn’t go to the authorities, because they weren’t legally supposed to take my money in the first place. It’d be sort of like calling 911 and reporting the theft of your mass stockpile of cocaine.
My knack for making money and my six-figure per-year drug habit proved to be a bad combination. It enabled me to keep using, and the more I used, the more numb I became. The more numb I became, the more willing I was to rip off any and everybody. This just further financed an ever-increasing drug habit, completing a vicious, destructive cycle.
I’ll never forget the evening that one of the sportsbooks asked me to send my deposit to them in Costa Rica and not to Antigua. My scheme only worked in Antigua, so this was somewhat disconcerting.
Still, I had a dozen or so sportsbooks I would rotate using, so I figured I’d just call and use the next on my list. One by one, I was told that all banking services for these offshore sportsbooks were moving, all in the same night! I was told to send money to Costa Rica, the Philippines, Chile, Panama; everywhere but freakin Antigua.
As it turned out, the Antiguan government was no longer a fan of these online betting establishments. Just like that, in one evening, my income was no more.
I had no more money coming in, but my body didn’t give a shit about petty things like finances. It just wanted the drugs and fast. Opiate withdrawls are no joke, and I only had about two weeks worth of pills. After that I’d be broke, without my antidote to a debilitating sickness.
So I devised yet another plan, and it worked well for a few months. It worked, of course, until it gained the attention of the United States Secret Service.
For legal reasons, I cannot go too much into what the Secret Service arrested me for. But it had to do with a large scam I was running, for large amounts of money. I’d walk across the border, collect my money, then return to Tijuana.
I was in a good mood. It was a Thursday evening and I ordered the filet mignon from the hotel restaurant, had it sent to my table in the sportsbook and browsed through my many fictitious email addresses with one of my many throw-away “burner” phones. Suddenly my phone notified me that there was a few thousand dollars waiting for me just on the other side of the border, on the US side.
I checked and there was virtually no wait at the San Ysidro pedestrian crossing, so I figured I’d pounce on the opportunity and get it over with. With no wait, I could walk across, get my money, and be back in less than 30 minutes. I began jogging toward the border, which took about three minutes. A little out of breath — in the shape of a drug addict living in Tijuana — I reached the custom gates to enter the U.S.
The pedestrian border crossing from Tijuana to the USA, this is where I was apprehended.
I crossed this line a thousand times before, and it normally consisted of me showing my passport and being waived right through. Trip number 1001 was going to be different. You know that little voice in your head, that feeling in your stomach, that tells you when something just doesn’t feel right? When your subconscious is telling you to get the fuck away and run? Well, I’d numbed that out for years with OxyContin, so I couldn’t hear it. I like to think it was doing its job that day, but I’ll never know. What I do know is when I crossed the border, the agent handling my passport took longer than usual. He also appeared to hit some sort of button while acting like there wasn’t shit wrong. And out of nowhere, a host of US Homeland Security Agents swarmed me, taking me to the ground and placing me in cuffs.
That’s the thing about government and law enforcement agents. They don’t discriminate. You could be Osama bin Laden, or you could be some kid running a money scheme out of a Tijuana hotel. They are only trained to swarm and apprehend one way, and that’s with full force, overwhelming and intimidating. To the casual observer that day, I might as well have been wearing a 3-piece Canali laced with explosives from Gaza. It didn’t matter. All they saw was a kid trying to cross the border, taken to the ground by the United States Department of Homeland Security.
“You got the wrong guy,” I begged, realizing as soon as I said it how guilty it made me sound.
“Right,” said one of the agents, lifting me up and pushing me toward a holding cell. “We’ve never heard that before.”
“No, seriously,” I protested, “I’m innocent!”
Placing me inside a freezing cell, they slammed the door shut. For the first few hours I was in there, I actually thought that they had detained the wrong guy. As an ignorant kid, I thought I was invincible. I thought I did enough to cover my tracks. About three hours into my ordeal, an officer came through the cell door, and told me that they had confirmed the warrant for my arrest.
“What’s the warrant for?” I asked, stupidly thinking that maybe it was for a traffic ticket I never payed.
And then the words that would change the entire course of my life were uttered by the officer.
“I don’t know, all I can tell you is that it’s from the Secret Service, so unless you threatened the president, it probably has something to do with a scam that involves a lot of money.”
I’ll never forget the physical feeling that took over my body at that very second. A warm sensation burst through my veins, my face became beet red.
What followed was the realization that not only was I in custody, about to be the property of the US Secret Service, but that my freedom was gone, and I wasn’t going to get it back any time soon.
This also meant my body would soon be demanding I deliver OxyContin to avoid the most painful physical experience an opiate addict can go through: withdrawal.
And that just wasn’t going to happen.
End, Part I.
This post originally appeared with a different title in a slightly different format on what is now AddictionUnscripted.com
Matt Mendoza is a recovering addict and a life-long entrepreneur with an irrational sense of optimism for both. Following an 8 year battle with opiates, Matt's life was saved on the same day the secret service arrested him, which consequently lead to his current 5 and a half years of sobriety from any kind of narcotic.
Matt is the founder of Addiction Unscripted (previously, The Real Edition) and producer/co-host of the narrative podcast by the same name. He is also an outspoken advocate for finding new forms of treatment beyond that of 12-step based programs. Matt is also open about his occasional drinking—which some seem to have a major problem with.