Fish Story

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Ruiz made his debut with the adult Municipal squad at the unheard-of age of 16. It was a dizzying rise. Suddenly he was making $2,000 a month in a country where people live on $200--and he hadn't yet learned to drive. "You always dream of playing soccer first of all," Ruiz says. "Then you dream of playing for one of the big teams in Guatemala. Then you dream of playing for the national team. And for me it all happened so fast." When Ruiz went to the MLS, an entire country shifted its sporting attention northward. "Whenever Los Angeles had an important game, it was like the national team was playing," says his mother. "And when Los Angeles won the championship, it was like it was Christmas."

Outside Gutierrez's new house in a much nicer section of the city, the children still play soccer in the streets, but now she can hear them yell out to each other, "Look, look, I'm Carlos Ruiz! I'm El Pescadito!" Her walls, she says, are covered with pictures of Ruiz, and her coworkers at the Colgate factory always ask her for the latest news from El Pescadito. "They tell me, 'If you had had three Carloses we would have made it to the World Cup for sure,'" she says.

Grill is well known for his connection to Ruiz as well. "People come up to him in the street and say, 'Oh, you're the father of El Pescado,'" Ruiz says. "'Please tell him good luck in the U.S. and that we're counting on him in the World Cup,'" Ruiz says. Grill has visited Ruiz in Los Angeles and Dallas. "Sometimes he cries when he sees me because he says he sees reflected in me everything he knows."

When Ruiz talks about his two daughters, his normally brooding expression lightens noticeably. "Andrea is 6 and Samantha is 4. I talk to them every other day, but I miss them a lot," he says. "Andrea can't sit still--she's got to be running around or doing something. Samantha is a little more tranquil. When we went to Disney World at the end of the year, Andrea was lost for 45 minutes. My mother and I were looking everywhere, but it's because she's like that and she can't stay in one place." The affection in his voice is a stark contrast to the current headline on a Guatemalan expatriate Web site proclaiming, "Daughters of El Pescadito in Guatemala without lights."

"Carlos Ruiz is a player with a lot of responsibility, and unfortunately his life is a mess," says Byron Vasquez, editor of Guatemala en USA, a small Los Angeles-based paper and Web site. "This came to our attention when his wife called us and said she didn't have electricity at her house in Guatemala, and it's true. I was there. And the way he has mistreated her, the way he has abused her--we have video as well." Vasquez hastens to make clear that the video is not of Ruiz abusing his estranged wife, Laura Mendez, but rather of her detailing a long history of the financial and emotional difficulties she says she has suffered.

Vasquez has converted his publication into something of a Ruiz watchdog. It was his site that first alerted the public to a paternity suit filed against Ruiz last summer by a California woman. That suit was dismissed last week, though neither Ruiz nor his lawyer in Los Angeles would discuss whether there had been a settlement. "In fact, we put the [paternity] story aside," Vasquez says, "because when he was here in California at the hearing, he said that he loved his family and wanted to devote himself to that--but we didn't know that he wasn't providing food for his children."

Mendez has never claimed she was starving, but Vasquez's exaggeration could be chalked up to simple righteous indignation. After all, here is Guatemala's principal role model refusing to provide his wife and two young daughters with the basic necessities of life. And there is a precedent, the 2003 charge of domestic violence. The problem is, in both cases there is ample room for doubt.

Gabriela Barrios, sports editor for Prensa Libre, Guatemala's largest daily newspaper, says that her paper followed up on Vasquez's story and found it was full of holes. "His wife comes out and says she doesn't have money to pay for electricity--but the story doesn't say that she lives in the most expensive housing area in the country," Barrios says. "She also says she is two months behind paying for the [daughters'] school--but she doesn't say that he took them all, her included, to Disney World at New Year's." Barrios says Ruiz's lawyers have receipts for ample deposits made to Mendez's account. "What happened was that he gave her the money and she spent it on something else." Prensa Libre didn't publish a story.

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Rick Kennedy