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You should defer nonessential travel to the state of Coahuila.... Transnational criminal organizations continue to compete for territory.... The cities of Torreón and Saltillo have seen an increase of violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping and armed carjacking.
—U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT WARNING ON TRAVEL IN MEXICO
Midnight in Torreón. It's eerily quiet in the streets of what one respected think tank has deemed the seventh-most dangerous city in the world. Hérculez Gómez eases his black Audi SUV with its three passengers onto the road. Life is good for Gómez these days. The 30-year-old forward is scoring goals for Santos Laguna, one of the top clubs in Mexico. He has started 10 straight games for the U.S. national team, which begins the final round of qualifying for World Cup 2014 on Feb. 6 in Honduras. And he has just left a birthday dinner at an upscale pizza restaurant for teammate Marc Crosas, a pleasant gathering that includes a few Santos players and their families.
But outside the restaurant is a different story. Torreón is on the front lines of a drug war that has killed nearly 60,000 people in Mexico since the government began deploying troops to fight the cartels six years ago. Here, even the Starbucks employ armed guards. In August 2011 a game between Santos and Monarcas Morelia at Torreón's Estadio Corona had to be suspended when a gun battle outside the stadium sent players and fans scurrying for cover.
And so Gómez takes precautions. He bypasses the city's bars and nightclubs. He lives in one of Torreón's secure gated communities. And he stays away from the local news and area papers, the better to avoid the gruesome parade of dead bodies. This siege mentality draws him closer to his teammates, a small group he knows he can trust. "Regardless of how well things are going on a personal level, you're still in a war zone," says Gómez, who joined Santos a little over a year ago. "But as crazy as it sounds, Torreón has grown on me. For all its [problems], I've never had one bad thing happen to me here, and I've met some great people."
Yet there are still moments that give Gómez pause. Like the time he was dining with friends at an outdoor eatery and the crowd scattered, taking cover inside at the sound of what turned out to be fireworks. Tonight some of Gómez's teammates were late for the pizza dinner because they'd heard shots had been fired not far from the restaurant. And now Gómez is anxiously checking his rearview mirror: A car is approaching closely, its headlights turned off. Gómez's gaze darts to the side mirror, searching for the second car that, he has been warned, often comes with carjackings. But there is none. And then he floors it.
The lurker doesn't give chase. Everyone takes a deep breath, and Gómez drops off a passenger at a nearby hotel. In the end, it was probably nothing. But that moment of not knowing is, in itself, something. "You assume the worst," he later explains. "It's a feeling I've only had falsely, but because of the situation it's a true feeling. Before I got here, it's a feeling I'd never had before."
Rescues? Mexico doesn't do rescues. "They're unheard of here, even though dogs are all over the place," Gómez says one day while driving through Torreón, the Mad Max landscape overrun with dust storms called la lluvia lagunera, or Laguna rain. But Gómez is an outsider, and over the span of a week in late December he kept spotting an emaciated stray dog—one part Akita, five parts mutt, he jokes—wandering the grounds of his team's sparkling new stadium grounds. Why not bring the dog home?
A few weeks later, after an array of shots at the vet, a healthy Ronnie—named after Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo—is a fixture at Gómez's swank four-bedroom bachelor pad. "This dog is awesome," he says, rubbing Ronnie's neck. "He must have been somebody's because he's housebroken and pretty obedient—but he was on the streets for a while."
Rejection, persistence, salvation. Ronnie's tale echoes Gómez's own unlikely Mexican rescue story: He went from being an MLS afterthought who never made more than $55,000 a year in the U.S. to a Mexican scoring champion who earns 10 times as much these days.