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?
It’s anyone’s guess.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!