In boxing, it is said that the blow that knocks you down is the one you don’t see coming. And Mauricio Rodríguez Mireles never imagined that life would punch him as hard, causing him to spend more than 20 years in jail, five of them in a maximum security prison, for getting involved in drugs and for not “snitching” on his cohorts.
As the character played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, a film about the life of a boxer who threw his boxing career overboard, Rodríguez could have been a contender in the ring. But he chose a path that led him “to live in danger every day and watch people die, because someone dies in the penitentiary every day and nobody knows about it.”
After serving 22 years for drug trafficking — not one day more or less than what his sentence called for — Rodríguez, who had refused to name names to cut a deal, was released in February, though he has discovered that freedom comes with the stigma of being an ex-con who is not offered jobs and is looked at in a twisted way.
Rodríguez does not complain, but his story has been quite different from what he had in mind on that day in 1980 when he appeared before Cuban authorities in the Port of Mariel, tryingto get placed on one of the boats heading to Miami.
“I have never tolerated oppression, and when I learned about the Peruvian Embassy in Havana [opening its doors to those who wanted to leave the country] I hurried to get in, but it was too late. They had closed the doors,” Rodríguez said. “Then I was told that criminals, crazy people and homosexuals were being allowed to leave. So I made my best effort to look effeminate, which was very hard for me.”
Rodríguez, then 21, had grown up with a Cuban macho mentality, been involved in street fights in his native town of Guanajay, and in amateur boxing throughout the island, to the point that he made the island’s national draft team, with a chance to be placed among the best in the famous Cuban Boxing School.
Yet he endured State Security officers mocking him, until they got so tired of him that they let him get on a boat to Miami on May 27.
“That was an unforgettable day. One part of me was happy to escape, while another looked back at the world I was leaving behind, my family, my career,” Rodríguez said. “We arrived in Key West at night and were held there for 45 days in a temporary refugee camp. I was then sent to Pennsylvania before finally ending up in Tampa. It was there where I finally could begin boxing again and I thought the worst was behind me.”
In those days, Cuban high-level athletes did not escape as they do now, and none of the so-called “Generation of Mariel Boxers” won a world title, or received important recognition. The boxing business was difficult.
As an amateur, Rodríguez won the Florida Golden Gloves, and in April 1981 he made his professional debut, defeating James Averitt by knockout in the first of his 36 wins and the first of his 14 KOs with three losses.
Suddenly, Rodríguez’s name was beginning to be noticed, especially after winning a continental title that got him closer to a bout with Mexican legendary warrior Julio César Chávez Jr. or the champion Ray “Boom Boom’’ Manzini.
The Cuban boxer, however, became desperate because he was making very little money from his fights. He somehow was sure that the great match for a world title would never materialize and he began to distance himself from the ring and focus on something else.
“Who knows what would have happened if Mauricio would have held on a little longer? He had talent to accomplish a few things,” said Luis De Cubas, who was his promoter at the time. “When he focused, he turned into a great boxer, but sometimes you could tell that his mind was somewhere else.”
In the late ’80s, Rodríguez got involved with drug trafficking and, after receiving the first payment for his services, he didn’t look back. Money was gushing in easily.
Most of the time, Rodríguez said, he was the middleman between those who brought marijuana from Colombia and Mexico and those who received it in Florida to distribute throughout the U.S.
“I thought that was the shortest road to realize my dream of opening a gym and living as a trainer,” Rodríguez said. “In those days, there were a lot of people on drugs and a lot of money flowed. I was alone, with no family. I was a young man who would never be caught.”
Everything changed in the early ’90s, when the federal government began to launch raids against drugs and those in the business. One of Rodríguez’s calls was intercepted. It specified where he was supposed to receive drugs and deliver them to other people.
“The DEA arrested me in 1992, showed me the tape and everything crumbled,” Rodríguez said. “They asked me to collaborate, to give them all the names in exchange for a reduced five-year sentence. I told them no, that I was a real man who would not give anybody away. In this country, if you don’t cooperate, you serve your time. And I served until the very last day of my sentence for not turning into a snitch.”
Then came the prisons, some of them pretty light, others maximum security, totally isolated and with only one hour of sunlight a day, long stints of staying on guard and of fighting with knives, until the gangs — blacks, whites, white neo-Nazis, Mexicans, and many others — learned that Rodríguez was a man better left alone.
On several occasions, the government again tried to get him to incriminate others, but Rodríguez never opened his mouth, despite the fact that those others — who never gave him a hand while he was in jail — were living normal lives, convinced that the boxer would never betray his vow of silence.
“If I didn’t snitch on them before, I wasn’t going to do it now when I’m 56,” Rodríguez said. “I was already disgraced, so it wasn’t worth it to disgrace another family. They are also fathers, sons, have responsibilities. With one person taking the fall it’s enough.”
Since his release, life has not been easy for Rodríguez. Wherever he goes, he carries a number, 03072018, his identification as an ex-convict that turns off potential employers.
It’s only now that De Cubas is giving him work as a trainer, because Rodríguez never forgot how to throw a blow or avoid those of the opponent. Especially, after those two decades behind bars.
“As a boxer, I never became anything; we’ll see if as a trainer I can contribute to society and teach young kids that there is no easy way,” said Rodríguez, who lives in Miami with a friend from Cuba. “I regret many things I did, and if I could go back in time I would change the script of my life. But I will never regret having paid a high price for my silence. No one can point their finger at me and accuse me of anything except my own mistakes.”