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Living with a bullet in the head

Footballer Salvador Cabañas.
Footballer Salvador Cabañas. / Eduardo G. Cuasimodo
  • Ever since a drug trafficker shot him at close range, footballer Salvador Cabañas has been fighting for his life. Now, with the bullet still lodged in his brain, he has succeeded

The first things you see when he shakes your hand and looks at you are two scars, about six centimetres long, running vertically down each side of his head. Salvador Cabañas (born in Asunción, Paraguay, on 5 August 1980), had everything when he was 29: health, money, love and fame. Life had given him the status of an elite footballer, something that 99 per cent of society would love to have, but which only a very few who are selected by destiny can attain. However, not every story about the sport of kings has a happy ending.

"It happened on January 25th, 2010. I was playing for América, the most popular team in Mexico and one of the best on the continent. Everything was going fantastically and that night I decided to go out and celebrate," says Salvador Cabañas.

The Paraguayan footballer and María Lorgia Alonso, his partner since 2003 and mother of his two children (Santiago and Mía Ivonne), spent the evening in the exclusive 'Bar Bar' club in Mexico D.F. There, they drank, danced and had fun like teenagers.

At 29, Cabañas was the star of the América team and the captain of Paraguay, the team which was hoping to surprise everybody in the World Cup in South Africa; he had also just signed an agreement to play for four seasons with Manchester United (from the July, once the World Cup was over). His achievements included the Mexican League, two trophies in the Copa Libertadores (2007 and 2008) and a Golden Football of America (2007). At that time, he was earning about 2.5 million euros a year. His life sounds like a fairytale, but it then took a dramatic, unexpected and disastrous turn.

At 5am, Salvador decided to go to the toilet. It turned out to have been the worst decision of his life. "As I went in, a guy came in just behind me and left two people outside the door, making sure nobody else came in," he said. That man was José Jorge Balderas Garza, alias 'el JJ', a dangerous drug trafficker who commits his wrongdoings under the umbrella of Edgar Valdez Villareal, one of the bloodiest criminals in the USA, often known as 'The Barbie' because of his resemblance to Ken, the boyfriend of the most famous doll on the planet.

"Once we were inside, he started to insult me and accused me of robbing the Mexican people. I said that wasn't true, that I was only there because

Living with a bullet in the head

/ EFE

América had contracted me to earn my salary as a footballer with them. We argued for a couple of minutes, but he had obviously planned what he was going to do. He pulled out a gun, put it against my head and told me to make a last wish because he was going to kill me," he says. The man known as 'el JJ' then pulled the trigger and fired a 25 calibre bullet into Salvador Cabañas’ head.

"I don’t bear a grudge against him. I forgave him a long time ago. If I spent 24 hours a day planning on revenge, I wouldn’t be happy. Maybe I was more to blame than he was, because I was in a disco at 5am. That isn’t what an elite footballer is supposed to do. I’m still asking myself why I did that," he says.

'El JJ' spent some time in jail for that incident, but Salvador began a painful fight for his life. "The doctors worked a miracle on me. I was in a coma for several hours, and I was hovering between life and death when they operated on me. I couldn’t speak or move, but I was able to hear something: I heard the doctors tell my parents to start preparing for my funeral."

Salvador’s brain was destroyed by the bullet and there was little chance

Living with a bullet in the head

/ Cézaro de Luca/EFE

of him surviving. However, his age and level of fitness were in his favour. Everything else was against him, apart from one single thing, which made the miracle possible: “The bullet didn’t travel fast enough to pass through my head. If he had shot me from a distance of just five centimetres, I would have died from loss of blood. I’m only alive because the bullet stayed in my head,” he explains.

Salvador’s operation consisted of opening his cranium from one side to the other, then cleaning up after the bullet . There was no other way. It had lodged in the back of his head, just millimetres above one of the principal arteries through which blood flows to the brain, and the risk was very high. “It lodged itself there, and now it is encapsulated. It is part of my brain, but luckily it doesn’t bother me at all, during the day or at night. It will come with me to my grave,” he says.

There were, however, some important consequences which meant he had to retire prematurely from elite football. “With my left eye I can only see ahead, nothing sideways. And as the bullet affected the right side of my brain, I suffered a slight hemiplegia in the left side of my body. On that side the muscles haven’t developed as they have on the right, which means I’m weaker on one side. I did go back to playing football, but in less important teams,” he says.

His rehabilitation was extremely hard. Four intensive months, eight hours a day. There was no time to lose if he wanted to have a normal life again. “The doctors told me it would be very difficult for me to return to a normal life, but I worked really hard for more than 100 days to recover. Every day, I spent hours and hours in the swimming pool in the hope that I would be able to walk straight again and not lose my balance. I also did a great many exercises to improve my motor skills, especially on the bike, and recover the mobility in all parts of my body. Never once did I think of giving up,” he says.

Victim of robbery

Sadly, the fight to "be born again" has not been Salvador Cabañas’ only battle. During the months he was undergoing rehabilitation his then partner, his agent José María González and his lawyer, Óscar Germán Latorre, stole all his money and assets.

“They faked my signature to take the 12 million euros I had in the bank. They took a mansion in Asunción, worth five million, and another two houses I owned in Acapulco and Cancún. They also stole jewellery, some of it very expensive and some with huge sentimental value,” he says.

From the hospital, Salvador passed to the courts and has spent the past six years of his life embroiled in legal proceedings to try to recover his wealth.

“They left me ruined, but fortunately we are close to getting my properties back although the money is more complicated. Nobody knows what happened to the 12 million euros they took out of my accounts. We are continuing the legal action and it is very likely that my ex-partner will end up in jail for what she has done. My former agent went to prison for two years and they took my ex-lawyer’s licence away. To be honest, the fact that the people I loved most robbed me hurts more than the fact that someone shot me in the head,” he says.

Today, aged 36, Salvador runs the Cabañas complex, a sports centre he opened in Asunción, which is now his source of income. He has also qualified as a trainer and now coaches a team in the Paraguayan fourth division.

"I just want to get back what is mine, enjoy my children and live in peace. I don’t ask for anything more than that," he explains.