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Revisit to: Long, long ago in Mexico . . .

While browsing recently among past postings that are available on Twitter, hoping to find fodder for additional postings, I returned to this one. It is so beautifully composed and presented, and I enjoyed reading it so much, that I decided to bring it up from the depths of the Stygian darkness where it has stagnated for eighteen months—since June of 2009—and into the bright light of today.

Please note that I praise this posting with all modesty cast aside, just as I am wont to do with all my literary efforts. Please note also that the lawless situation that exists in Mexico today is not new—it was just as prevalent and just as brutal eighteen months ago as it is now. Click here to read the original post.

If you doubt my statement that the lawless situation in Mexico is not new , read the introductory paragraph below carefully, keeping in mind that it was written in June of 2009. I firmly believe that these conditions will prevail unless—and until—Mexico is annexed by the United States and our military forces are put into action in the newly acquired territory, but only after they are withdrawn from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and rested a bit. The sovereign nations of Mexico and the United States need to acknowledge that the drug cartels—the insurgents—are in charge, and are just as dangerous—nay, more dangerous—to the United States than the insurgents in the Middle East.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!

Long, long ago in Mexico

Long, long ago in Mexico, in a time when drug lords were not spraying the streets with bullets from rapid-fire weapons purchased illegally in the United States and exported illegally to Mexico, and were not murdering Mexican police chiefs and news reporters and anyone else that might be expected to hamper their efforts to maintain control of Mexico and its citizens—long, long ago when roving gangs were not kidnapping U. S. citizens on both sides of the Mexican border and holding them for ransom and various other reasons—a time when the streets in Mexican border towns were as safe or safer than streets in our border cities—and a time when I was the supervisory Customs inspector at the Port of Roma, in the sleepy town of Roma, Texas, high on a bluff (the town was high, not I) overlooking the Rio Grande river, across from the even sleepier town of Miguel Aleman, Mexico—this was the time in which I and one of my three princesses (the one in Virginia that takes all the pretty pictures) took a brief trip to Mexico during her spring break from studies at Pan-American University in Edinburg, Texas.

In the spring of 1979, our father-and-daughter team (a college student of 18 tender years and a military-retiree father of 47 not-so-tender years) embarked on a memorable sojourn into the wilds of Mexico. We traveled in a 1978 Volkswagen diesel Rabbit, a small 4-door vehicle labeled “Panama Brown” by its maker, but its color could better be described as bright orange. It was a very small people carrier—to illustrate its smallness, I can tell you that somewhere between Monterrey, Mexico and Saltillo, Mexico, we strayed off-road into a canyon where it was necessary to navigate our auto around huge rocks, some much larger than the Rabbit. After circumventing several such rocks, with the paved highway receding in the distance and a line spoken by a Mexican bandit in a Hollywood western film ringing in our ears, reason prevailed and we returned to the pavement. That memorable line was, “We don’ take no stinkin’ prisoners!”

We began our adventure in Reynosa, Mexico, a metropolitan city on the Rio Grande river. The river marks the boundary between the U. S. and Mexico—its name in Spanish is Rio Bravo, a more appropriate and more appealing term than grand—I suppose it can be considered brave, but at no point can it be considered grand—at least not, for example, in comparison with our Mississippi river. Reynosa is directly opposite Hidalgo, Texas, a small city a few miles from McAllen, Texas.

Our first stop in Mexico was at the Office of Immigration to secure “permisos,” official documents that would authorize us to travel past the 15-kilometer check point, a distance of some 9-10 miles, beyond which is considered Mexico’s interior. Our treatment by Immigration officers began routinely, but progressed into a “situation.” The first officer we met took our vitals (name, citizenship, destination, purpose of visit, etc.), and leered knowingly when I said we were father and daughter—his thoughts were printed all over his face. He was thinking, “Yeah, sure, you are father and daughter, heh, heh, heh.” My daughter looked younger than her 18 years, and I grudgingly admit that I may have appeared a year or two older than my 47 years. After some copious stamping of various documents (our permits), the officer passed them to another officer that was apparently guarding the exit to the vehicle parking area.

The second officer gave our permits a cursory inspection, stuffed them into an envelope, laid them on the table in front of us and said in English, “Senor, anything you may wish to give.” This was a request for mordida, a very expressive Spanish noun derived from the Spanish verb “morder,” which means “to bite.” Mordida, a diminutive of that verb, is used to describe  “a little bite.” Mexican officials take “a little bite” out of everything which moves across the Mexican border, in both directions, including merchandise, produce and people. Mordida is a way of life in Mexico, so ingrained in the economy and in daily life that people expect the demand, and would be very surprised if it were not made.

The Mexico of today is a far cry from the Mexico of 1979. My response then would not be my response today, not in these trying times. This was 30 years ago, way back in 1979—times were different. I showed the officer my official identification and said, “Senor, no deseo dar. Soy el supervisor de las aduanas en el puerto de Roma, Tejas, y amplío cada cortesía a cualquier oficial del gobierno mexicano que entra en nuestro país.” What I said was, in fairly lucid Spanish, “Sir, I do not wish to give. I am the Customs supervisor at the port of Roma, Texas, and I extend every courtesy to any Mexican government official entering my country.”

The situation changed, abruptly and for the better. The officer stood, shook hands with us and escorted us to his commander. He introduced me to his commander as the Customs jefe at Roma, and introduced my daughter as my daughter. The comandante enthusiastically welcomed us into Mexico, and offered to accompany us to our vehicle and place official seals on our luggage—with those seals we would not be burdened with inspections at the 15-kilometer check point. Having nothing to hide and not wishing to call undue attention to ourselves, I politely declined the offer. We were, however, accompanied to our vehicle and were sent on our way with a hearty “Vaya con dios,” the Spanish version of “God speed.” And we sped away, at least as well as we could in a 4-cylinder diesel Volkswagen.

At the check point we barely slowed down—the officials there made us welcome and expressed their hopes that we would enjoy our visit to their country. We were reasonably certain that the station had been notified, whether by phone, radio, smoke signals or passenger pigeon, that our arrival at the check point was imminent, and that we could be identified from a distance because we would arrive in a little-bitty bright orange (Panama brown) car.

In our family we have always numbered our adventures, but the numbers are never in sequence and we never record them—someone simply picks a number and off we go. This adventure encompasses many scenarios, some foolish, some frightening, all memorable and well worth the telling. After passing the check point we took in the cities of Monterrey and Saltillo and a visit to and into Garcia’s Cave, a visit that was both foolish and frightening.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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Breakfast in Mexico . . .

The first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, English novelist (1812 – 1870):

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I began this posting with Dickens’ work to emphasize and compare some of the differences in two sovereign nations, two states of those nations and the towns on their borders. This is not an invitation for my readers to travel in Mexico to observe the differences, not in these troubled times—travel to Mexico is fraught with danger, and as a long-time observer I would suggest that until the Mexican government eliminates the drug cartels, with or without the help of the United States government, all travel to that country should be forbidden, including trips to the interior of Mexico. Twenty Mexican tourists on a commercial bus were recently kidnapped in one of Mexico’s most popular resort cities—no place in the nation is safe from the murderous drug cartels.

I will also add that no place along the Texas border with Mexico is completely safe on either side of the Rio Grande River, but especially en la frontera—on the frontier, the Mexican side of the border. People in Mexico’s border cities are being kidnapped and held for ransom, women are being kidnapped, raped and murdered, and blockades manned by heavily armed bands are being erected along main highways by criminal elements to enable them to exact tribute from travelers driving to and from vacation spots in Mexico.

This is my advice to anyone contemplating visiting or vacationing in Mexico, given in words of one syllable:

It is not safe. Do not go there—not in a plane, on a boat, in a car, on a bus or on foot. You could lose your cash and your life—stay home.

Breakfast in Mexico. . .

The United States Air Force and I entered into a sometimes tumultuous relationship on March 7, 1949 and we parted company on July 1, 1971. Before ending my 22-year-plus career with the Air Force I studied for and took the test for employment with our federal work force, and spent the first five months following retirement waiting for a suitable offer of employment from our government.

Offers were plentiful, ranging from military units to the Veterans Administration to the U.S. Treasury Department, for locations all over the southeastern quadrant of the United States. I finally responded to an offer of employment with the United States Custom Service in the lower Rio Grande Valley at the international bridge at Hidalgo, Texas, a few miles from McAllen across the river from Reynosa, Mexico.

I accepted the offer and waited for a call to arms, but when the call came I was asked if I was familiar with Progreso. I replied that I didn’t know what a Progreso was, and the caller said it was a small town downriver from Hidalgo, that it had just been declared a separate port from Hidalgo, that it needed to be staffed, that my offer of employment was now for that location, and that should I decline the change the offer for employment would be withdrawn.

Having felt then, as I do now, that I am a very slight cut above the average retired military person, I wisely accepted the change in assignment and reported for duty at the port of Progreso, Texas on Monday, December 21, 1971 to begin a tour of duty that lasted almost six years, ending with my promotion to a supervisory position at Roma, Texas.

My memories of those six years are legion and as the saying goes, would fill a book, an enterprise that one day may come to fruition with the assistance of my daughter, the one that lives, loves, labors and languishes in Northern Virginia. Click here for her blog, an adventure that will take a reader worldwide on subjects ranging from agapanthus (lily of the Nile) to zinnias, from Alaska to Antarctica and from aardvarks to porpoises to zebras. This daughter is the middle one in age of three daughters—she is a world traveler, a professional and ardent photographer, a desktop publisher, a skilled artist, a graphic designer, etc., etc., etc. I hasten to add that she is not a chip off the old block—I admit unashamedly that I possess none of her talents and very few of my own.

But I digress—as the title promises, this posting is a tale of breakfast in Mexico, of two barrels and of sewage in the drinking water in a small town  known as Nuevo Progreso—New Progreso, in reference to its sister city across the Rio Grande River in Texas. Originally known as Las Flores—Spanish for the flowers—this is probably one of the most contradictory names of any town—ever.

When I came to work at the port of Progreso, one of Las Flores’ most memorable and most photographed scenes could be observed from the U.S. side of the river. One could watch the town’s water hauler as he rumbled down the slope to the river’s edge, perched high on a wooden bench seat on a two-wheeled cart drawn by a lone burro. In addition to the driver, the cart boasted a huge wooden metal-ringed barrel. The driver filled the barrel by wading into the river and dipping two buckets into the Rio Grande, then emptying them into the barrel, a system that required many trips to fill the barrel before heading back to town for locations that used his services, locations that included small eating places and private homes.

I soon learned how the freshwater system worked. At the end of my first 4 pm to midnight shift at the port of Progreso, the toll collector for outbound traffic, a bridge employee that would become a close friend, suggested that we cross the river and have breakfast at a small café that stayed open well after other eateries had closed for the night. I agreed, and we were soon seated at a table in a small, dimly lighted room with no more than six or seven tables. In addition to the front unscreened door the room had two doors to the rear, one closed and the other open to show the kitchen area. I noticed that there were two large wooden barrels in the kitchen.

Following a short wait, the closed door opened and a woman dressed in a chenille house robe with her hair up in curlers entered the dining area, apparently coming from a sleeping area. I say this because of the robe and the hair up in curlers and because she was yawning—she was also scratching her crotch, a motion that could have meant, but did not necessarily mean, that she had been sleeping.

While we awaited her arrival I asked my friend about the two barrels in the kitchen and he readily explained their purpose. I had suspected the worst, and he confirmed my fears. He told me that the barrels were filled from the burro-drawn cart bearing the giant barrel filled from the Rio Grande River. Two barrels were needed in the cafe—one to provide water for cooking and drinking and diverse other purposes while the sediments in the recently filled barrel were settling to the bottom, and at the appropriate time the proprietor would switch barrels.

My friend ordered blanquillos con chorizo y tortillas de harina—eggs with sausage and flour tortillas—but I stated that I had suddenly been afflicted with a stomach ache and a slight bout of nausea, and felt that I shouldn’t eat at such a late hour. He accepted my declination without comment, and consumed his breakfast with obvious gusto. Our friendship blossomed over the following years, but that was the only time we went across the river for breakfast. Other invitations followed, but I always managed to decline them.

In all the years that I worked on and lived in proximity to the border Texas shares with the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, raw sewage flowed into the Rio Grande River at points all along its length, conditions that probably still exist. The little town of Las Flores sported open sewers that meandered their way through the town and spewed their contents into the river’s murky waters. That was then and this is now, and I cannot speak for the town’s sewage disposal system now—I haven’t been there for more than twenty-five years, but I can assure the reader that raw untreated sewage is still pouring into the river at various points along our border with Mexico.

Just as an afterthought—I lived with my family in Donna, Texas for twelve years before moving out of and far away from that city. Donna’s water supply came from the Rio Grande, pumped from there to an uncovered reservoir referred to locally as a settling pond, then from that point to a water-treatment plant before going into homes and restaurants in the city of Donna. As far as I know, that is still the system used in Donna. Let’s face it—Donna’s settling pond is the equivalent of the second barrel in that little café in Las Flores.

During the years I worked at the port of Progreso, the city of Nuevo Progreso just across the river in Mexico had several nice restaurants  with international cuisine, served on linen-covered tables with all the dishes and fine wines found in upscale restaurants across our nation. I am reasonably certain that their water supply came from some source other than a barrel on a donkey cart. Arturo’s Restaurant was one of the best, and my family and friends dined there frequently. I recommended it then and I would recommend it now were it not for the difficult times and dangers posed by the turmoil existing in Mexico, specifically the drug cartel wars and the government’s inability to control them and their murderous activities.

And now, at the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat myself: This is my advice to anyone contemplating visiting or vacationing in Mexico, given in words of one syllable:

It is not safe. Do not go there—not in a plane, on a boat, in a car, by bus or on foot. You could lose your cash and your life—stay home.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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Murder in Mexico on Falcon Lake . . .

Murder in Mexico on Falcon Lake . . .

Television and newspapers today are sharply focused on the recent murder of a jet-ski rider that was moving around on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake that straddles the international boundary between the U. S. and Mexico. It’s a giant reservoir, a body of water that extends some fifty miles along the Rio Grande River. The waters of the Rio Grande River are impounded by a huge dam near the city of Roma, Texas. The invisible international boundary line in the lake divides the countries of Mexico and the United States, and divides Texas and the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The murdered man was on a jet-ski, a personal watercraft, and was accompanied by his wife who was mounted on a second jet-ski. She witnessed the murder and successfully escaped with her life. Now her story is being questioned because neither the jet-ski nor a body has been found by Mexican authorities, and those worthies will not allow American law enforcement officers to participate in the search. I believe that privilege is being denied because the jet-ski and the body were recovered either by Mexican authorities, persons working for Mexican drug cartels or by members of a Mexican drug cartel. I also believe that both the jet-ski and the body, and especially the body, have been concealed or destroyed in such a manner that the odds of them being recovered or found range from slim to none. I predict that they will never be found, and without the body or the jet-ski the Mexicans will continue to deny that no criminal action occurred.

Much of this is standard procedure in relations between us and our neighbor to the south. The drug cartels control Mexico with the use of cash from their illegal operations—local and federal Mexican officials either accept the bribes or they will be killed—other citizens, with or without an offer of cash, will in either case look the other way to avoid being killed. That’s a brutal way for a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate—perhaps a trillion-dollar conglomerate—to operate, but it is quite effective.

I worked on the Texas-Mexico border as a Customs inspector for twelve years, first as a trainee and journeyman inspector at Progreso, Texas, then as a first-level supervisor at Roma and Falcon Dam for two and one-half years, and finally at the port of Brownsville, Texas for another three and one-half years. I then spent three years at Customs Headquarters in Washington, DC and later held enforcement positions in Houston and San Antonio for another ten years. Looking back on my experiences and the knowledge I gleaned over a period of twenty-six years, I feel fairly well qualified to express my opinion of that murder incident and of the area where it occurred.

One brief statement can describe the incident. It is true—it happened. The man was murdered, either by cartel members or persons supporting the cartels, and the murder is being covered up with the knowledge and assistance of Mexican federal officials. That area on both sides of the border was lawless even before it became a part of the United States in 1848 following our war with Mexico . It was lawless then, it is lawless now and it will remain lawless into the predictable future. That is the nature of the terrain and its population on both sides of the international boundary, whether on land or on the water.

It is not my intention to paint every person in the area as lawless—the population contains the usual mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly—well, perhaps more of the bad than of the other two—my neighborhood and any other neighborhood reflects a similar amalgamation of people, differing only in degree. That area along the Texas/Mexico border is lawless because of its terrain and its proximity to Mexico. Smuggling in Starr County, Texas has for centuries literally been, and to this day remains, a way of life for many of the county’s residents. Merchandise, animals and people are routinely smuggled from Texas to Mexico and from Mexico to Texas, while cash, weapons and ammunition are smuggled into Mexico and illegal narcotics are smuggled into Texas. Much of the smuggling is done to avoid paying duty and taxes on the U. S. side, and paying duty, taxes and mordida on the Mexican side. Mordida is the diminutive of the verb morder, to bite—mordida is a little bite added to the legitimate cost of importations and exportations—on the Mexican side it adds a considerable amount to the cost of doing business, whether legal or illegal business.

A case in point would be the movement of horses across the Rio Grande River in the past, and perhaps even now. The law requires that live animals be subjected to examination by proper officials, whether  going out of the U.S. or coming into the U.S. In past years quarter-horse races have been held and probably are still being held, on both sides of the Rio Grande. Rather than be bothered by quarantine laws and paying mordida, owners and trainers would take their horses to a bend in the river that would guarantee that a horse forced into the water would swim to the other side, where an accomplice would recover the animal, then off to the races– time saved, no veterinarian fees, no holding period, etc. One must necessarily view that as practical, and the odds of being detected were virtually nil. The point is that if one can smuggle a full grown horse from nation to nation in both directions, smuggling narcotics should be a snap—and it is.

Some of Starr County’s features were summed up thusly by a writer in a Playboy magazine article published in the 1970s: The author told Playboy’s readers that in order to visit Rio Grande City, the  county seat of Starr County, Texas you should fly into San Antonio, rent a car and drive to Laredo, make a left turn there and drive until you smell feces—that would be Roma, Texas—then continue straight until you step in it and you’ll be in Rio Grande City, the county seat of Starr County. I seriously doubt that the article increased tourist traffic in the area.

Mexico as a nation and Mexicans as individuals have always felt that our annexation of Texas in 1845, an act that led to our war with Mexico, was illegal and it probably was. Mexico has also always felt that the land lost to the United States in 1848 with Mexico’s defeat in the war between the nations was unwarranted and unfair. Perhaps the drug cartels will at sometime in the future reclaim much of that land, especially in the lower and upper Rio Grande Valley and in the great state of Arizona. The cartels already rule Starr County during the hours of darkness—the next step is to dominate the area during daylight hours—the way things are going now, it could happen.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2010 in bridge, law enforcement, neighbors, politics

 

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Mexico—Texas border relations . . .

In 1977 during my sixth year as a journeyman Customs inspector at the port of Progreso, Texas I was promoted to a first-level supervisory position at the port of Roma,Texas. Roma was a small port in terms of staffing, consisting of the port director, a first-level supervisor, the office manager and ten inspectors—one of the ten was a combination inspector and detector dog handler. The image at right shows the old international suspension bridge, built in 1927 and the new bridge completed in 1979. The old bridge remains as a historic structure and will only be used for pedestrian traffic.

A cursory review of enforcement records at the port presented a dismal picture of enforcement—either everyone that entered the port was scrupulously honest, or the inspection force was lax in its enforcement duties. The latter proved to be the case, and with the port director’s assistance and approval I developed and established procedures intended to improve the enforcement posture of the port. With only two exceptions the inspection staff was local, born and reared in the area with relatives on both sides of the international border. Complacency was the order of the day when I arrived, and I soon incurred the wrath of the inspectors and that of a goodly number of international travelers.

The seizures began to stack up—small amounts of various narcotics were intercepted by increasing the number of vehicles sent to the secondary inspection area, along with undeclared items such as alcoholic beverages, prohibited fruits, meats and plants. By checking vehicle serial numbers our interceptions of stolen vehicles began to rise, and Customs duties and fines collected on undeclared commercial importations and personal importations began to pour in to our cashier.

There was a new kid on the block, a supervisor that almost immediately incurred the displeasure of citizens of the local community, the inspection staff at the port, travelers from the interior of Mexico and local citizens from Miguel Aleman, Roma’s sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande River. I also incurred the wrath of our Mexican federal counterparts at the other end of the bridge spanning the river.

In the early days of my assignment at Roma, I frequently took the place of the officer at the primary inspection point, and in that position I checked vehicle interiors when traffic was light, and referred vehicles to the secondary inspection area when traffic increased. I also worked with inspectors in the secondary area, confirming declarations made at primary and searching travelers and their vehicle’s contents, and the seizures began to mount.

Miguel Aleman was the Mexican city at the other end of the suspension bridge spanning the Rio Grande River at Roma. The Mexican federal building housed a full staff of Customs, Immigration and Agriculture officers, all fully subject to United States laws when entering the country. Early one morning I checked a Mexican Customs officer and his vehicle, a Volkswagen bus, in the secondary area. The officer told the primary officer he was bringing nothing from Mexico, and repeated his declaration to me in secondary. I found two young boys hiding in the wagon, one behind the back seat and one hidden under the back seat.

The little fellow under the rear seat had crawled through a very small opening and the sliding panel was closed behind him. I slid the panel open, saw a pair of shoes and closed the panel. At that instant I realized that I had seen a pair of feet in that pair of shoes and I ordered the Mexican officer to extract his passenger—it wasn’t an easy task!

Questioning by U. S. Immigration officers determined that the boys were the officer’s nephews and neither boy had the documents necessary for entry in the United States, so the Mexican Customs officer hid them—he wanted to take them to the city of McAllen, Texas to purchase clothing and supplies for the coming school year—the small city of Roma offered very little in the way of shopping.

That stalwart representative of Mexico’s federal inspection force, regardless of his reasons, was guilty of breaking the laws of the United States. He could have easily secured a temporary pass from Immigration for the purpose, but he preferred to smuggle the boys in, just as he and others had done in the past, obviously feeling that no inspection would be made. That pretty well summarizes the enforcement posture that existed at the port of Roma prior to my assignment there. If two kids could be smuggled in without fear of detection, virtually any amount of illegal narcotics could pass with the same ease. I have no doubt that they did in the past, but I at least slowed them down during my tenure there, some two and one-half years.

The commander of Miguel Aleman’s federal Customs staff made a negative declaration to me at the primary point. I asked him to step out of the car—a late model Mark IV Lincoln—and open the trunk for inspection. With some hesitation but without protest, he opened the trunk and revealed a case of bottled alcoholic beverages purchased in Mexico. He said he was taking them to a friend in McAllen. I told him he was subject to a fine and forfeiture of the merchandise, and referred him to the Immigration office. He was allowed to continue with the importation after paying federal tax, Customs duties and Texas state tax on the liquor. The penalty in that instance should have been seizure and forfeiture of the merchandise and payment of a fine equal to the value of the merchandise. The decision to lessen the penalty was not mine—that was the decision of the Customs and Immigration chiefs—they felt that a more severe penalty would strain relations between U. S. and Mexican federal officers—go figure!

At that time I drove a Panama brown diesel Volkswagen Rabbit, and diesel in Mexico was only $.12 a gallon, a bargain that was not easily ignored. A few days after referring the Mexican commandante for possible seizure and forfeiture of the liquor I crossed the river for a diesel fill-up. I was in my official uniform, and prior to my encounter with the Mexican officer with the liquor I would have been passed with a friendly smile with no questions asked. Not this time—I was ordered to remain in line while the officer returned with the commandante. That worthy approached my car, stopped by the driver’s side and unsmilingly stared down at me—he was tall and my little Rabbit was not—with some trepidation I stared back at him. Neither of us spoke, and after an agonizingly long moment he motioned me to proceed. I continued to the gas station a few blocks from the bridge, filled up with diesel and returned to the United States without further incident.

That long silent moment before I was allowed to proceed was obviously meant to show me that he had the power to refer me for inspection, with or without a valid reason. His action was prompted by my referring him for questioning by Customs and Immigration officers. The obvious question to ask me at this point would be whether I was intimidated. The answer is a resounding yes—to use a time-worn analogy, my nerves were drawn so tight that my posterior was cutting washers out of the seat cover of that Rabbit.

Yes, I was intimidated—horror tales abound concerning detentions of Americans by Mexican officials, ranging from local police up to federal officers. In fact, a DEA officer, an official of our Drug Enforcement Administration, had recently been kidnapped and killed in Mexico. His murder was attributed to Mexico’s drug cartels rather than by Mexican federal officers but then, as now, the line between the two is often blurred.

Yes, I was intimidated, but it did not affect my duties as a supervisory U. S. Customs officer. I continued in the same vein for the rest of my stay at Roma, right up to the day that I transferred following my promotion to a second-level supervisory position at the international bridge at Brownsville, Texas. I continued to buy diesel for my Rabbit in Mexico, but I shunned Miguel Aleman’s theaters and restaurants—my diesel buying ended when the station pumped gasoline into the tank instead of diesel—they drained the tank and replaced the gasoline with diesel, explaining that a new employee made the mistake—yeah, right!

Suffice it to say that I made few friends and many enemies in the early days of my assignment to Roma, and that applied to our cadre of Customs, Immigration and Agriculture inspectors—they resented my treatment of their long-time friends and family members and their counterparts in Mexico. I accepted that as a hazard peculiar to my occupation—mine was a lonely job, but the pay was good and there was no heavy lifting, and I thrived on the rancor.

Speaking frankly, I didn’t like them any better than they liked me. Both I and they were pleased when two and one-half years later in 1980 I was promoted and transferred to the port of Brownsville, Texas. My promotion was based in large part on the improvements made in Roma’s enforcement posture—upper level management felt that a similar situation existed at Brownsville. In a meeting with an upper level official prior to the final selection to fill the vacancy at Brownsville, I was told that a strong enforcement-oriented supervisor was needed—actually the expression used was that a hard-ass supervisor was needed. Among other problems, enforcement was lax, and misuse of overtime was the order of the day. Evidently the selection board felt that I had the necessary qualifications including the hard-ass, because I was selected for the position. And yes, you guessed it—shortly after my arrival at Brownsville, with the assistance of the newly assigned chief inspector, inspection overtime was cut drastically and seizures and arrests rose dramatically. The majority of inspectors was not impressed, neither with me nor the chief inspector—they did not view the changes as improvements.

As the result of pressure from the ranks and from my supervisors, in the final few months at that station I stood alone against the cadre of five lower ranking supervisors, my equal rank counterpart, my immediate supervisor, the top level manager at the port and the National Treasury Employees Union. That pressure was terminated only following my promotion to U. S. Customs Headquarters in Washington, DC.

My contributions to the Customs mission during my three and one-half years at that station are well documented, as are my trials and tribulations. However, I can state honestly that I hold no animosity for the three officers that stood against me in the final months of my service there. To hold a grudge against dead people would be an exercise in futility. All three have since passed from this vale of tears, trials and tribulations, either to that shining international port of entry in the sky, or to a climate warmer even than that of South Texas. I cannot be certain, but I would suspect that some of the older inspectors have also dodged their last non-overtime job assignment. More than a few were at or past retirement age when I left the station 27 years ago. Whatever their official status now and their location, regardless of whatever sphere in which they dwell, I wish them well.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

Postscript: I must acknowledge the fact that my immediate supervisor rated my final performance as outstanding, a rating that was reduced to just barely acceptable by his supervisor. That fact, however, cannot be confirmed. Shortly after the revised rating was submitted for entry into my records, I requested a copy—in the oft-used words by Gomer Pyle of Mayberry fame, surprise, surprise! The evaluation could not be located—it somehow had been lost between submission by the port and acceptance by Headquarters, either lost, misplaced or deliberately removed and destroyed. Who knows, and who cares? At this point in my life, not I!



 
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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in bridge, law enforcement

 

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A smuggler’s greeting . . .

A personal message from a smuggler . . .

I began my career with U.S. Customs as a trainee—GS-7—at the port of Progreso, Texas and was upgraded to the journeyman position—GS-9—after one year. During that year I learned more from one officer at the port than from all the others combined. Not that they didn’t help me learn the ins and outs of the job—they were very helpful, but the port director and I became a team, both professionally and personally. I felt that our relationship was that of brothers, each of us looking out for the other’s back.

Some ten years older than I, he took me under his wing in the way a mother hen hovers over her chick—figuratively, of course. He placed me on the right path for success in my new profession and set me straight when I strayed from that path. He raised hell when I made mistakes, and he lauded me when I managed to do something right, such as making seizures and accurately documenting our various Customs activities.

He had been recently promoted and became the port director at Progreso when it became a port separate from the larger port of Hidalgo near McAllen, Texas. His name was Paul, and he died at Christmas time in 1973, just two years after I met him. His cancer disease was diagnosed in mid-1972 and a scant eighteen months later he was dead. He was buried in Brownsville, Texas. Click here for a posting of the relationship I enjoyed with the port director—my boss, my mentor and my friend.

Sundays at the port were overtime days, and the port director shared in the overtime pay and the workload created by increased public traffic on Sundays—commercial activities were suspended. Early one Sunday morning the port director called me to the secondary area and told me to check out the driver of a Ford station wagon that had been referred for secondary inspection, with particular emphasis on the white T-shirt the driver was wearing. The Ford Country Squire station wagon one of many made over a period of some forty years—this one was from the late 1960s.

The driver was a Mexican national with a tarjeta, a local border crossing card, an official Immigration document that authorized him to enter the U.S. with certain restrictions—he must stay within 25 miles of the international border and return to Mexico within three days. On the surface the driver seemed calm, but he was wearing a white T-shirt stretched tightly across his chest, and with each beat of his heart the area over his pectus excavatum—the depression in one’s chest—fluttered. He was probably thinking, be still, dear heart! Yes, I learned the term for a sunken chest from Wikipedia—three cheers for Wikipedia and the Internet!

I escorted him to the Customhouse and asked another officer to detain him in case he decided to return to Mexico—to make a run for the border, so to speak. I felt reasonably certain that he had something to hide in that station wagon, and in fact he did.

From Wikipedia: The Ford Country Squire was a full-size station wagon built by the Ford Motor Company from 1950 until 1991; it was based on the Ford full-size car line available in each year. The Country Squire was the premium station wagon in the Ford range, and always featured imitation-wood trim on the doors and tailgate. As a full-size wagon, it could carry up to 9 passengers with the unique side-facing seats.

The station wagon exuded a strong smell of glue when I opened the rear swinging door, and the cargo area appeared to be freshly carpeted. A cursory examination showed that the carpeting was glued down, restricting access to the storage area beneath. I removed the carpet and opened the area. The vinyl-covered cushioned seats and back rests had been removed from the steel panels and the storage area was neatly filled with marijuana compressed into blocks—smugglers used commercial trash compacters to process the weed, then wrapped it in foil and plastic hoping to conceal the odor of drying marijuana from detector dogs and inspectors.

One can always find humor in a situation if one looks hard enough and long enough—I didn’t have to look very long, and I started laughing when I raised the seat panels. Atop the load of marijuana was a large piece of cardboard with a phrase in Spanish written with a felt-tip marker. This was the printed phrase:

Chinga tu madre, Mike!

The tu madre means your mother, and the Mike is my middle name. Chinga is the imperative form of the Spanish verb chingar, a crude form of a verb meaning to have sexual intercourse with, a term extensively used in Mexico and particularly along la frontera—the border. It has many meanings, but in this case it was directed to a person named Mike, telling him to do the dirty with his mother.

I had no doubt then, and no doubt exists now, as to the author of the message. Unknown to anyone at the time, an employee of a local Customs broker was moving contraband across the border, and in due time would be caught, arrested, charged and convicted and would serve time in a Texas prison. His arrest and subsequent incarceration will be covered in a future posting.

Although I was the new kid on the block, I had compiled an unusual series of arrests and seizures—I say that in all modesty, but I have the letters of commendation and the in-grade pay raises to prove it. I have no doubt that the broker employee set up the illegal importation of a prohibited substance and left the message in case I intercepted the load.

I wanted to keep the cardboard message as a souvenir, but it was kept with the seizure and was destroyed with the other marijuana. As the junior member of our inspectional force at the port of Progreso, I was privileged—well, not exactly privileged—I was ordered to destroy marijuana seizures by open-air burning when the case was closed. That task is the subject for a future posting. In that posting I will either confirm or refute that smelling the smoke from burning marijuana—other than from a pipe or a hookah or a joint—will give one a high.

Stay tuned!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
 

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My first port director—my friend and my mentor . . .

I began my career with U.S. Customs as a GS-7 trainee at the port of Progreso, Texas and I was upgraded to the GS-9 journeyman position after one year. During that year I learned more from one officer at the port than from all the others combined. Not that they didn’t help me learn the ins and outs of the job—they were very helpful, but the port director and I became a team, both professionally and personally. Almost from the beginning we were like brothers, respectful of each other and each always looking out for the other’s back.

As a measure of how well the port director taught me, I was awarded an in-grade pay increase in my second year and another in my third year, both based on my duty performance, particularly on my arrest and seizure record. An in-grade pay increase is a pay raise given for outstanding performance, and is in addition to the normal longevity raises given to federal employees based purely on successful duty performances. In-grade pay increases are the gifts that keep on giving!

Some ten years older than I, the port director took me under his wing like a mother hen protects a chick—figuratively, of course. He placed me on the right path for success in my new profession and set me straight when I strayed from that path. He raised hell when I made mistakes, and he lauded me when I managed to do something right, such as making seizures and accurately documenting our various Customs activities. I also was brash enough to submit several suggestions that I felt would improve port operations, and upper headquarters felt impelled to implement my suggestions and provide remuneration for my ideas. How about that!

His most recent assignment was at the port of Eagle Pass, almost 300 miles upriver from Progreso. In the latter part of 1971 Progreso became a separate port from the port of Hidalgo, and he was promoted to the position of port director for the new port. His name was Paul, and he died at Christmas time in 1973. His cancer disease was diagnosed in mid-1972 and a scant eighteen months later he was dead.

Paul, my first port director and supervisor in Customs—my friend and my mentor—was buried in Brownsville, Texas some fifty miles distant from Progreso. I was unavoidably delayed at the port and the casket was closed when I arrived at the funeral home. The funeral director offered to open the casket for my viewing but I declined the offer. I figured that Paul had once again been promoted and was already on the way to his next assignment, that shining port in the hereafter, and I was reluctant to slow him down.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

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A spider tattoo—a large spider . . .

On Monday, December 20, 1971 I reported for work as a United States Customs inspector at the international bridge at Progreso, Texas just across the Rio Grande River from the small town of Las Flores, Mexico, also known as Nuevo Progreso—as opposed to old Progreso, an even smaller town on the U.S. side of the river. The image at right shows the old bridge—a larger four-lane bridge now serves the public at Progreso.

I reported for work wearing civilian garb—official uniforms would come later, purchased at a clothing store in Brownsville, an international city at the southern tip of Texas, a city that combined with the city of Matamoros formed a significant metropolitan complex.

Following a welcome briefing by the U.S. Customs port director and introductions to fellow Customs officers and officers with U.S. Immigration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I was assigned to work with the Customs officer that was checking incoming traffic. In those days Progreso had only one inbound lane, and the officer on duty there checked pedestrian traffic as well as vehicles arriving from Mexico. Vehicles were referred for secondary inspection as necessary, and pedestrians were referred to the offices of Agriculture, Immigration and Customs as circumstances dictated.

The long-time inspector I was working with—let’s call him Leo for the purpose of this posting—maintained a continuous dialogue with me, explaining all the ins and outs of the proper questioning techniques and various other requirements of a job that was completely foreign to me—no pun intended. An officer assigned to that position would work for one hour and then would be replaced, either by an Immigration officer or an inspector from the Agriculture office.

Just before our hour on the incoming lane was up, Leo referred a pedestrian to the office for a secondary inspection. He said he wanted to show me something associated with the man he referred for a personal search. We asked another inspector to take the line and we escorted the person to a room at the rear of the Customs office, a small area that provided privacy for strip searches and also boasted a barred cell for detention of suspects.

This suspect, dressed in sneakers, a T-shirt and slacks preceded us into the room, then turned and dropped his trousers as we closed the door behind us. He wore no undergarments and smilingly asked if he should “turn around and bend over.” The man was a long-time heroin addict and therefore was very familiar with personal searches. Leo replied in the negative, and asked him several questions concerning his drug habit.

When those trousers dropped I knew immediately why Leo had referred the man for a personal search. He had conducted numerous strip searches of the man in the past, and his sole reason for this search was so I could see the addict’s sole tattoo.

Yep, that was the only reason, and I saw the tattoo almost instantly as his trousers dropped to the floor. It was a tattoo of a large spider, a full-grown spider, a spider with all its limbs and antennae fully visible, a spider instantly identifiable as a spider, perched menacingly on the exposed glans of the suspect’s flaccid penis. Sorry, no penis pics in this posting—only a spider.

At this point I must apologize for the PG-14 rating I have given this story. I have a tale to tell, and I am striving desperately to maintain that rating and not let the story descend—or ascend as the case may be—into an X-rated tale. I also strove desperately during the inspection to restrict my imagination concerning the spider’s measurements should its owner become excited for one reason or another—unsuccessfully, of course—my imagination ran rampant—in fact it still does!

That’s it—that was my introduction to the process of conducting strip searches on our border with Mexico. Such searches were required because many seizures and arrests were made from strip searches. The order for a suspect to “turn around and bend over” sometimes showed a shiny substance in the anal area, indicating the use of vaseline or some other lubricant that may have been used to promote the insertion of illegal items such as pellets filled with heroin or cocaine. The contraband was first wrapped in aluminum foil, then packed into the reservoir tip of a condom. In some seizures those packets numbered one hundred and more.

Questioning of the person and search of personal articles would often show that the shiny substance was there for other reasons, thus erasing suspicions of smuggling—you can use your imagination to speculate on the nature of those other reasons.

Many such seizures have been made at ports of entry at airports, land border ports and seaports. If a traveler also possessed laxatives  and an item such as Immodium in a pocket or a purse or a suitcase, that traveler, whether male or female, was immediately a strong suspect for narcotics smuggling. Smugglers use the Immodium to restrict bowel movements until, and at the proper time, the laxatives  can be used to promote bowel movements to excrete the contraband.

Hey, it’s a nasty business, not only for the law enforcement officer but also for the smugglers themselves. Some have died because of such methods of concealment, both male and female smugglers—others have survived, but were severely damaged physically by the botched attempt to enter with the narcotics.

And as for how many people have successfully entered our country through airports, seaports and land border ports with contraband concealed in their bodies, and how many continue the practice and will continue to escape detection?

Quien sabe?

Who knows?

It’s anyone’s guess.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2010 in bridge, law enforcement

 

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