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A smuggler’s greeting . . .

15 Sep

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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