RSS

Tag Archives: hidalgo

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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The view from the southern border . . .

I wrote this article during  a three-year assignment at U.S. Customs Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was published in the 1986 winter issue of Customs Today, the official magazine of the U.S. Customs Service. The Customs Service has changed dramatically since that time. The number of ports on the southern border may have changed, some added and some deleted, and staffing has been increased and titles have changed, but the mission of Customs inspectors has not changed—I made no effort to reflect the changes in the article for this posting. It is reproduced here exactly as it appeared in the 1986 winter issue of Customs Today. Click here for a similar article published in the 1984 fall issue of Customs Today.

The view from the southern border

Everything you are about to read is true. Any resemblance to actual persons, situations and locations is purely intentional and nothing has been changed to protect the innocent. On the southern border there are very few innocents. Most of the traveling public spends its time trying to find ways to outwit customs inspectors, and most customs inspectors lost their innocence when they accepted their assignment on the southern border.

This article is intended to show southern land border inspectors as they are—not just a group of people in a certain geographical location or a segment of a larger group with similar functions, but as individuals subject to the frailties, vagaries, and sublime achievements of human nature. It is meant to inform, to educate, to entertain and perhaps to amuse—to stimulate and provoke thought and action, and to show life and work on the southern border from the heart and through the eyes of the inspectors themselves.

Most inspectors are satisfied in their chosen profession, including its location. Many were born, reared and educated in or near the area in which they now live and work, and many enjoy social, economic, cultural and familial ties with people on both sides of the border. Probably few of them would change even if given their choice of assignments at an airport or seaport, or at another of the 25 ports and stations along the southern border.

Those 25 crossing points between the United States and Mexico cover some 2,000 miles, a thin blue line of customs inspectors stretching from Brownsville at the tip of Texas on the Gulf of Mexico to San Ysidro in southern California on the Pacific Ocean. Tour those ports, and travel from the old-world balustrades of Brownsville to the gleaming spires of San Diego—from the dry sub-tropic air and lush vegetation of the Rio Grande Valley to the high thin air of El Paso, through the searing heat of southwestern deserts where the giant saguaro cactus sometimes attains heights of fifty feet in its lifespan of 200 years, and across the fabled Imperial Valley of California to San Ysidro and the cooling breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

From Brownsville to Progreso and on to Hidalgo, follow U.S. Highway 8, known locally as Old Military Highway, the same route patrolled by General Zachary Taylor and his troops during the war with Mexico. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the border between Texas and Mexico was moved southward to the Rio Grande River, known to the Mexican people as Rio Bravo, or Brave River. The treaty also made California, Arizona and New Mexico part of the United States. The borders with Arizona and New Mexico were fixed by treaty at the Gila River, and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 extended them to their present limits.

At Los Ebanos watch the operation of the world’s only hand-operated international ferry—no traffic backups at Los Ebanos because the ferry will only accommodate two cars on each trip. The modern aluminum vessel now plying the waters of the Rio Grande replaced a series of wooden vessels which in their turn were replacements for the original operation, a lone boatman moving passengers and cargo across the river in a vessel made by welding two automobile hoods together.

Continue to Rio Grande City and to Roma, an area rich in history and folklore. A new concrete structure spans the Rio Grande River at Roma, just upstream from the old suspension bridge which, although condemned, stands proudly as a monument to the skills of earlier engineers and bridge builders. Some of Roma’s adobe walls still bear the scars of bullets fired by revolutionaries, renegades and Rangers, and just a stone’s throw from the Customhouse is the church plaza where Marlon Brando, as the legendary bandit Emiliano in the movie Vive Zapata, fell and died under a withering hail of rifle fire from the surrounding balconies and rooftops.

Continue the tour through District Headquarters in Laredo and on to Eagle Pass and Del Rio. En route to Del Rio spend a few moments of silence near the spot where Customs Inspector Richard Latham was murdered after being kidnapped from his post in Del Rio in February 1984, the fifth-fourth Customs officer to die in the line of duty since 1900. There can be no fault attached to the deaths of those fine officers. Their contributions to the Customs Service extended to life itself, and those sacrifices will be acknowledged when the Congress of the United States recognizes customs inspectors as true law enforcement officers, entitled to hazardous duty recognition and early retirement.

Between Del Rio and Fabens lie miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles, except for the solitary port of Presidio. En route to Presidio, visit the Lily Langtry Saloon in Langtry, Texas where Judge Roy Bean dispensed his personal and peculiar brand of frontier justice as The Only Law West of the Pecos. Langtry takes its name from the saloon that was named in honor of the celebrated actress, a lady loved by the judge from afar for many years. Miss Langtry eventually came to Texas to meet her admirer, but the judge could wait no longer—he died shortly before her visit.

From El Paso and District Headquarters to the California state line, ports and stations are suspended from the main highways by lengthy, lonely ribbons of state highways, and each port represents a major detour from the main route. Each is worthy of the detour if time permits, because each is unique and each is an integral part of the U.S. Customs Service.

On to Columbus, New Mexico and Douglas, Naco and Nogales, District Headquarters for Customs operations in Arizona—to Sasabe, to Lukeville and the federal inspection facility dewigned by the architectural firm of Frank Lloyd Wright, to the twin ports of San Luis and Andrade—the port directors are twin brothers—and on to Calexico in the heart of California’s Imperial Valley. On a recent December morning the writer stepped out on a motel balcony in El Centro for a breath of clear cool desert air, and memories of a childhood on the farm came rushing in, triggered by a strong breeze coming from the direction of El Centro’s numerous cattle feed lots. Continue to the port of Tecate, just across the border from the Mexican city of Tecat from which Mexico’s famous beer takes it name. End the tour of the Mexican border at San Ysidro, the world’s largest land border crossing point, with24 lanes of incoming vehicle traffic.

No feature on Customs could possibly be complete without statistics, and this one is no exception. However, the statistics will be limited to certain completely unbiased minimums. Land border inspectors comprise about one-third of the total inspection force of 4,500, and that group of 1,500 is fairly evenly divided between the northern and southern borders. Since only thirty million of the 300 million people that enter the United States each year come by air and sea, the remaining 270 million enter at land border ports. For those of a statistical bent, these figures mean that 33 percent of the work force processes 90 percent of the passenger and pedestrian workload.

Inspectors on the southern border live and work in proximity to, and are in daily contact with, the people of a foreign nation, a country of some 70 million struggling through a deepening economic crisis, a people those currency is today worth only one-twentieth of its value 12 years ago. The inspectors are very much aware of conditions across the border, and although they carry out their responsibilities with diligence and dedication they are sometimes reluctant witnesses to the laws that they enforce.

They understand the conditions that drive people north in search of work and a better life, fleeing an economy with an unemployment rate of forty percent—four of every ten workers—and an unemployment rate even higher in border cities. They know the people that subject their infant children to the dangers and rigors of an illegal border crossing are attempting to escape an infant mortality rate that approaches fifty percent among children up to the age of five years.

With tragic frequency the inspectors learn from a motorist or pedestrian of a floater in the river—the Rio Grande has claimed another life. Many that attempt the illegal crossing come from the arid interior of Mexico. At home they had no lakes, no river, no YMCA, no municipal pools or backyard pools, and no country swimming holes—they are victims of the deceptively tranquil waters of the Rio Grande because they cannot swim—they simply never had the opportunity to learn. Sometimes the inspectors learn that others have been found dead or dying or wandering aimlessly without food or water in the deserts of West Texas or New Mexico or Arizona or California, left there by alien smugglers that first exacted their profits for services rendered.

To work on the southern border is to bear witness to poverty, misery, despair and tragedy, and it is impossible to remain untouched or to become inured. Inspectors may mask their feelings with a veneer of cynicism, a facade of callousness or indifference but they understand—they feel, and they care.

While the southern border involves a certain amount of danger to the safety and wellbeing of the inspectors, they realize that theirs is not the only inspector positions that are fraught with peril. They have all heard the horror stories associated with airport duty—of the many close encounters with stellar figures of the entertainment industry, of heaving bosoms and violet eyes, and of the sports world, and with diplomats, senators, representatives and other high-ranking officials, all exemplifying the rigors of airport duty. They know that climate control systems at the airports sometimes malfunction, and they are aware of the constant struggle by management to keep the lid on the annual overtime pay cap.

Their awareness of overtime problems may be faintly tinged with envy because land border inspectors make their overtime money the old-fashioned way—they earn it. Virtually all overtime is non-reimbursable and each call out requires the full two hours on duty—no rollbacks, no lag time and no standby time. The four overtime periods earned on Sundays and holidays demand the full eight hours, and the eight-hour tour of duty is spent alternating between primary and secondary stations at vehicle and pedestrian checkpoints. The overtime pay cap presents very few problems for management on the southern border, because the cap is rarely within the inspectors’ reach.

Airport hardships are freely acknowledged by southern land border inspectors, just as they freely acknowledge the every-present dangers faced by airport inspectors from smugglers, fugitives from justice and from all the criminal elements of our society and other societies of the word.

They acknowledge such hardships because they face the same problems—except for the Hollywood stars, high-ranking officials, climate control and the overtime pay cap, and an almost endless array of other problems including working exposed to vicious extremes of hear and cold, precipitation in all its forms, and unremitting atmospheric pollution caused by wind and dust and dirt, and by gases and solid particles spewing from the exhausts of millions of vehicles. Our neighbor to the south has no environmental protection agency to impose and enforce pollution controls, and there are no government restrictions on lead content and other petroleum additives.

We can only speculate on the long term effects of constant exposure to concentrated amounts of nitrogen oxides, lead, sulphur, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and other toxic substances. It has been estimated that an adult inhales 30 pound of air daily. With more than one-third of their time on duty spent in highly polluted areas, land border inspectors ingest at least ten pounds of contaminated air daily. They must ultimately pay a high price for such exposure in upper respiratory infections and diseases, in kidney and liver and heart problems, in aggravated asthmatic and bronchial conditions, and in impairment of vision and psychomotor performance. In short, they must eventually pay a high price in virtually every physiological system and body function.

Inspectors on the southern land border face many dangers and enemies not covered by their position descriptions. In addition to smugglers, fugitives from justice and a representative cross-section of every criminal element known to law enforcement, they are faced with many situations that are not covered in the inspector’s manual and must be dealt with as they occur.

Consider the risk inherent in convincing a child that the candied apple on a stick purchased in Mexico is a potential threat to America’s citrus industry, and that its importation is restricted by the United States Department of Agriculture. The child neither knows nor cares about agricultural restrictions and prohibitions. If time and traffic permit, the inspector will sometimes supervise the immediate and on-site destruction of the prohibited item by the importer through internal consumption.

Even more risk is involved when the inspector is forced to tell a truck driver that the beautiful sea-turtle boots he just paid $150 for must be confiscated and held for the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife—in many instances the trucker left his old boots in Mexico and therefore is shoeless when released by the inspector.

There is risk involved in telling a lady that her five gallons of fresh mango slices, carefully separated from the seeds because she believed only the seeds are prohibited, will be held for the scalpel, microscope and food-grinders of the Agriculture inspectors. The traveler is only slightly mollified by the inspector’s explanation that the flesh of mangoes is prohibited because the pulp, not the seed, is the host for the destructive pest USDA seeks to control.

Many families supplement their limited or fixed incomes by shopping for food staples on the other side of the border, and when their fresh eggs, pork, potatoes and fruits are confiscated their reaction is far too often that of hoping that the inspectors enjoy the meal.

With the first hint of snow in the north the annual migration of snowbirds begins. These winter visitors arrive at border cities singly and in pairs, and sometimes in caravans a hundred strong. They will spend the winter foraging for food and drink, and as any land border inspector knows, their diet consists mainly of cookies, liquor, vanilla and garlic, all purchased in the markets of Mexican border cities. Of various phenomenae observed among the snowbirds these are among the most fascinating—not one has ever been to Mexico before, and a highly disproportionate number of them are sibling twins.

Inspector: Didn’t you bring a bottle of liquor from Mexico yesterday?

Snowbird: Officer, you may not believe this but I have a twin, and I’ll bet he was here yesterday.

In some areas the winter visitors stretch local tourist facilities to the breaking point, along with the tolerance and patience of most Customs inspectors. In the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, they expand the normal population of 400,000 to more than three million. Fortunately the breaking point is never reached, of facilities or of patience and tolerance, and with the advent of spring the homeward trek begins.

The annual ebb and flow of winter visitors is repeated in varying degrees at every crossing point on the Mexican border. To southern border inspectors these are the signs of changing seasons, as sure an indication as is the first snowfall or the first robin to their counterparts on the northern border.

Strong kidneys and a weak bladder were the downfall of an illegal alien one evening at Brownsville, Texas. An alert inspector noticed what he suspected to be a gasoline leak in a sedan whose occupants were in the Immigration office obtaining permits. He conducted a smell test to the liquid and determined that it was not gasoline, and a closer inspection revealed a smuggled alien concealed in a compartment behind the rear seat. The long drive from the interior of Mexico and the delay in the office was the alien’s downfall. He was promptly documented and returned to Mexico, and the driver of the vehicle was arrested for smuggling.

A check of an automobile trunk at the port of Progreso prompted by sounds of feminine giggling produced three smuggled alien females, all young and all ladies of the evening, bound for cantinas and cash transactions on the U. S. side of the border. Although Mexico and particularly the stare of Tamaulipas has made some effort to clean up border red light districts, the so-called Boy’s Town found in every border city in Mexico, but they still exist. They are variously called la zona roja—the red zone—and la zona de tolerencia—the zone of tolerance.

The red light districts contribute to the inspector’s frustration by eliciting this answer to the question of whether the person acquired anything in Mexico—Oh, God, I hope not! If every inspector had a dollar for every time he has heard that answer on Saturday night and Sunday morning the Customs Service would not need early retirement for inspectors—they could retire early just on that income.

They could retire even earlier if compensated for the number of times the same inquiry is answered by Just a belly full of good food—you can’t tax that, ha, ha, ha! Such answers highlight one of the worst aspects of the job. After a short time the inspectors have heard every possible answer or combination of answers, and find little humor in them, particularly near the end of a long tour of duty. Their inability to respond with a laugh or a smile is usually interpreted as surliness, or as indifference or dissatisfaction with their job.

And how about this one? Oh, nothing much, just a little pot. Further questioning and inspection produces a little pot, molded and fired in the clay kilns of Mexico, and evidently purchased for the express purpose of playing a trick on the Customs inspector. And this one—Oh, just some liquor, and a single bottle is held up for inspection. Search reveals one or more additional bottles, and when the declarant is questioned the response is, Well, I told you that I had some liquor—I just didn’t say how much liquor.

The question of citizenship frequently generates this response—Of course I’m an American citizen. Do I look like a frigging Mexican to you? Or this one—Yeah, I’m an American citizen—are you? The latter response is usually directed to Hispanic Customs inspectors. The varieties of questions are not endless—they are finite, and the inspectors quickly learn the entire repertoire.

The size, numbers and feeding habits of southern mosquitoes, especially those of Texas, are legendary. They are undoubtedly known to people all over the world, and this article will not attempt to expand or dispel those legends—except perhaps to advance the theory that many, perhaps most, of the unauthorized discharges of weapons by southern border inspectors are directed against mosquitoes, and the action was the last resort of the inspector in defense of his life or that of another, as required by the firearms manual. When a mosquito is the target there are usually two distinct sounds, depending on the shooter’s accuracy. The first is made by the weapon’s discharge, and the second is made when the mosquito hits the ground.

An ever-present enemy and perhaps one of the most dangerous is boredom, ranging from the frustration of starting an eight hour shift at San Ysidro facing an endless sea of vehicles and finishing the shift without ever seeing a break in the line, to the utter boredom of waiting for a vehicle to break the monotony of the night and help the inspector stay awake.

No southern border inspector will ever admit to having fallen asleep on such a shift, but almost every one of them will confess they have spent some time with their eyes closed, checking their eyelids for cracks. One inspector, whose name appears beneath the title of this article, opened his eyes after such an operation in the wee small hours of the morning to find an auto parked beside him at the primary inspection point, its engine turned off and its occupants waiting politely and patiently for the inspector to finish the inspection of his eyelids and begin his inspection of their entry into the United States. They were early morning commuters, traveling to work in the vegetable fields and citrus groves of the Rio Grande alley.

Other insidious and deadly enemies of land border inspectors are familiarity and complacency. They see the same people day after day, many of them several times during the course of a single shift, and this familiarity must inevitably color their judgment and their treatment of the traveler. Such people may attempt to break the law because their estimate of the chances of being caught are based on the superficial and cursory treatment accorded by some inspectors.

Complacency has killed more law enforcement officers than any other habit or characteristic, and Customs inspectors are particularly vulnerable. They are not in the position of street cops that know they are in a danger zone and are far more likely to govern their actions on that basis. The Customs inspector must continually be aware that in the usual crowd of migrant workers, affluent businessmen, bona fide tourists and little old ladies in tennis shoes may be, and probably is, one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitives.

Everything you have just read is true, but the observations, thoughts and opinions interspersed in the narrative are personal—they belong to the writer. They are therefore highly subjective and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or feelings of any other person or group. No offense is intended through their expression and none should be taken. Certain observations may be viewed as criticisms by some, but they are constructive in nature and intent and should be regarded in that light.

—————————————————————————————————————————

Hershel M. (Mike) Dyer is a Program Officer in the Office of Inspection Control, Office of Inspectional Liaison at Headquarters. He spent 12 years as an inspector and supervisory inspector on the Southwest Border.

 
 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,