South for the Marijuana

A Few Mexican Lessons About What Things Cost

South for the Marijuana
Illustration By Michael Sieben

After you cross the international bridge you turn right and follow the railroad tracks to reach the train station. One time our hero was stopped on the bridge. A Mexican immigration officer asked where he was going and he said Oaxaca and the migra said you must be going for the hongos, the mushrooms, and refused to stamp the tourist card. "Hongos!" the migra said, disgusted. The gringo pretended not to understand. "You are going to Oaxaca for the mushrooms," the Mexican officer said. He put away the unstamped card. So much for friendship across the Rio Grande.

Actually, the gringo was going south for the marijuana. He always tried to go to Mexico in time for the fall harvest, October, early November, when $10 would buy enough weed to last all winter on the beach at Escondido, or in Puerto Angel. The difference between the shit he got in Austin for $40 an ounce and what he could buy in Oaxaca for $10 a kilo was like the difference between buying fruit in a can from the supermarket and picking straight from a tree.

Normally the migras would make him fill out a tourist card and they signed it and he was gone. Five minutes in the Nuevo Laredo customs house, 10 max. The card showed a little drawing of a train and of a bus and an airplane, a car too, and you were supposed to mark one means of transportation and fill in your principle destination in la republica mexicana. He never asked for the full six months because he didn't want the Mexicans to think he would linger. Through long practice, the border guards tolerated the comings and goings of gringos, even the unwashed kind, but the unwritten rule was, spend your money and leave. The gringo always knew when his welcome was over. It inevitably coincided with the spending of that last peso.

This particular officer was an older man in a green gray uniform, sitting on a high stool behind a high counter, looking pissed, but also looking distinguished and respectable: full head of graying hair, mustache, slight paunch, stoic demeanor. Except, that day, he was pissed. The gringo was certain that had something to do with the man's family, some inscrutable Hispanic undercurrent, maybe even a more dangerous Latin undertow, but nothing related to the workload on the bridge or heavy traffic across the border, because regardless of the flow of traffic the immigration officers on both sides of the bridge always moved at the same speed. The air in the customs house was sticky. Like one fan for every 25 people. The gringo decided that if he was sitting behind the counter in this sweatbox, he'd be pissed off too. He turned around and paid 10 cents and crossed the bridge back into Texas and went to the Mexican consulate, where no one cared that Oaxaca was his destination or what he would do when he got there.

He could have told the consul, "I'm going to Oaxaca for the psychedelic mushrooms and to have sex with as many young women as possible," and the consul would have asked, "How much money will you be taking with you on your travels in Mexico?"

If the amount was sufficient, the consul would push a tourist card across the desk and say, "Sign here please." Without even being asked, this time the consul gave him the full six months. Six months! The gringo turned around and paid another 10 cents and crossed the bridge and didn't stop at immigration.

A Different Mexico

All of this was 20 years ago, more, before our hero began to lose his hair and before his dick got soft. At that time he was still a spirited young man. Often he was anxious about which path to take in life, and a little herb helped to keep him on track during the day. Now he takes meds. Or a glass of red wine. Both, more often than he cares to admit. Back then all he needed was herb.

And, a few weeks each year, he needed Mexico. For a time in his life, all roads led into and out of Mexico. It was, it seemed to him, a different Mexico then, just as he was a different gringo. It was a time before free trade, when our neighbors to the south didn't have to pretend they liked their neighbors to the north, a time when millions of people crossed the border every day, then as now, but once you crossed that bridge, especially on foot, your ass belonged to Moctezuma.

The weed was a particularly stinky variety of cannabis that could cost $50 a thimbleful in Texas, but they were practically giving it away in Oaxaca. Practically. On the beach he paid $10. Came wrapped in old newspaper, not a zip-locked plastic bag, just the newsprint, which meant the product spoiled quicker but, if it spoiled, you just bought more. He had heard a lot of stories about what happened to gringos who went to Mexico in search of herb, and the farther south they went the stranger the tales became. Oaxaca, oh shit. He had heard once about a guy who got arrested at a beach near Escondido. No, not on the beach. This guy, an American, Anglo, got popped trying to sell marijuana on the street in Puerto Angel, that was the story, which made as much sense as trying to sell wheat to farmers in Kansas.

Our hero heard about it later from a reliable source, a foreign resident of Puerto who knew the people involved. The police took the suspect to the state capital, Oaxaca de Juarez, and a few weeks later his mother showed up to throw his bail.

She went to the headquarters of the state police and sat down across from a captain and looked him in the eye. Gave him that businesslike gringa routine, which can be surprisingly effective south of the border. A visit to the embassy to complain was her hole card, but she opened the game with money -- always a smart bet. "I have brought $6,000 in cash with me," she said to the policeman, "and I will pay whatever is necessary to free my son."

Being busted was like our hero's number two fear. Number one was plunging off a mountain road, from Oaxaca de Juarez to the beach. Number two was a close second. He was 99% certain that if he got popped south of the river, or at home in Austin for that matter, his family would not be arriving at the police station with cash in hand. He had gotten busted once in college, on a semiserious rap, and they had reluctantly bailed him out. But his mother made him pay the bondsman's fee, which wiped out what had been a summer's profit from burglary. He wondered what his mother would do if she found out he was in the big house, south of the border. Would she fly down with her purse full of cash?

Not likely, he decided.

"If the police ever come looking for you," she warned him when he was a teenager and first beginning to show hoodlum tendencies, "don't try to hide under my bed." That was a big hint. He didn't want to test her love that way again.

Anyway, this captain looked back at the businesslike American lady, as they sat in the police headquarters in Oaxaca, the state capital, after she had mentioned the amount she was carrying. Six thousand dollars. Cash.

"That is a coincidence, señora," the captain said, "because your son's fine is exactly $6,000."

"Estabas Fumando Mota"

His theory about smoking dope was always to smoke in public. He held the joint like a cigarette and walked down the street or sat in the park reading the newspaper, on the theory that no one would think that anybody would have balls enough to smoke in broad daylight. (Was it a question of having balls or lacking sense? Balls, he would say, but when he mentioned it to other people no one else seemed so sure.) The weakness in his theory was the smell. The smell had gotten him in trouble once before. That was in Mexico City, coming out of Chapultepec Park, on the Reforma, near the concrete-enclosed Embassy of the Great Satan. Now in Nuevo Laredo, having gotten a tourist card and crossed the bridge, he was going to get popped again. He would never know how they knew, but they knew. The only thing he was sure of was that it wasn't the smell.

He had a ritual whenever he arrived in Nuevo Laredo. The train didn't leave until evening but you still needed to be there early enough to buy a ticket. That was the only constraint. If he had a few hours to spare, between the arrival of the big gray dog on the other side of the Rio Grande, and doing the paperwork for an extended stay in los estados unidos mexicanos, he would leave the train tracks, which can be followed from the bridge to the station, and enter the residential neighborhoods just south of the river. His direction was roughly south by southwest. In the distance on the horizon, serving as a daytime navigational aid, easier to see as night approached, a blinking red light topped a tall radio tower. The train station.

In the residential neighborhoods along the way to the station he stopped in little corner stores to buy supplies for his trip. He also smoked dope on those back streets. He smoked on the train too, if he had it, and if he had it he would take a few puffs on the vestibule in the open air between the cars or at the back railing of the caboose. He needed to be careful because of the other passengers, of course. A brakeman or a conductor could come from nowhere. Sometimes they didn't want passengers out in the open air but usually nobody cared. If the sun was setting, yellow over the Tamaulipas scrub, and the engine was making enough speed to create a breeze, which wasn't always the case, even with the inorganic Texas store-bought weed the buzz the first night on the train made the trip worthwhile. This particular afternoon, however, he was walking down the streets of Nuevo Laredo, smoking, as it turned out, his last joint of Texas toke, when a car passed going slow.

It was an older American car, big, long, riding low to the ground, the kind of vehicle that might have once belonged to a pimp -- or a successful Houston realtor. The gringo knew immediately he was in shit. Even later he couldn't explain how he knew, it was instinctive, like the instincts that must have been in operation inside the car itself. Certainly they weren't close enough to smell anything. But they knew what he was smoking, and he knew they were cops. He watched the car go up to the corner and turn, still going unnaturally slow. He ditched what was the left of the number and kept walking. There was no question of bailing out. He was carrying a duffel bag that weighed 50 pounds and had his whole roll of cash deep inside.

Didn't have long to wait. The car appeared again suddenly at his side -- against the curb, tail sticking out, like a squad car arriving at a bank robbery. Two guys stepped down. They resembled pimps. They wore pimps' socks and pimps' shirts, and may have had pimps' rings on their pimps' fingers. They looked, more than anything else, like they were headed to a disco.

First thing, in Texas, our hero would have asked to see badges. But here that would have only antagonized them, if they really were cops, which he was sure they were. Part of the game was recognizing the level of authority: in this case probably the local vice squad, certainly not the federales, who are usually more stylish in appearance.

The other part of the game was showing the proper respect.

They came to him on the sidewalk.

"Estabas fumando mota," one said. "You were smoking weed."

In his own mind, between the time the police officers spoke to him and his answer, a pair of images took shape. One was a picture of an idiot gringo being bent over in the Oaxaca jail, while a couple of dozen guys took a shot at his ass. Accurate or not, it was a sobering thought.

The second was the simple image of the two officers in front of him. The boys from the Nuevo Laredo vice squad probably hear a lot of things on any given workday, he decided in the half-second they gave him to respond, but the truth is probably not included.

"Yes," he said in Spanish, "I was smoking weed. But when I saw you I threw it away."

He knew that he had guessed right. He acted almost instinctively, although it was not necessarily his natural instinct; because if you asked anyone who knew our hero well, honesty was not the first characteristic that came to mind. The two officers looked at each other. They were expecting stories, excuses, denials, anything except what he was saying. They were impressed. By not lying, he had shown due respect.

They patted him down. No interest at all in the duffel -- he could have been carrying a couple of kilos of cocaine, for all they cared. They asked him to turn out his pockets. The contents were important. The narcs wanted closure. Was he still holding? Would it be necessary to throw his ass in jail? As it turned out, the gringo had only a few pesos and some small American change. There was a folding knife and his passport and a bottle of eye drops, a nationally advertised American brand, apparently known in Mexico as well, for its famous slogan, "Gets the red out."

One of the pimps picked up the eye drops and said, "Cabrón." Our hero just let that pass. He had already admitted to recreational drug use, and having eye drops in his pocket should have been no more surprising to these sons-of-a-bitches than a roach clip or, for that matter, a bong in his duffel. Still they called him bastard. They were just venting, he decided. Basically, on a very fundamental level, he didn't give a shit.

Next thing he knew, everything was being crammed back into his pockets and he was getting a shove down the street. There may have been some more name-calling but he wasn't sure. He was flying again. The narcs got in their car and drove away.

What Goes Around

That night on the train to Mexico City our hero reached into his pocket for his knife but it wasn't there. He could have lost it or it could have fallen in the grass when they were stuffing his things back into his pockets. He knew they hadn't given it back. They could have asked for it and he would have handed it over, as a semijudicial on-the-spot fine.

Or they could have made up some story about the blade being too long, which is what customs officers or cops tell you when they want your knife. "Illegal length," someone says. In Mexico you could find campesinos walking down the street with machetes on their shoulders but if the cops saw a gringo carving a mango with a pocketknife they could, theoretically, confiscate it. The pimps had skipped any complicated explanations and just kept what they wanted.

The knife had a varnished wooden handle and was sold in several different sizes, each one the same exact design. Pretty inexpensive, like $8. The blade oxidized in five minutes in the salt air on the Pacific coast, and sand made it progressively more difficult to open, but the blade stayed sharp, which was why he bought it in the first place. He wasn't sure he had even bought it. He did his shopping at Whole Earth Provision Company, off the Drag in River City, and sometimes that's where he had done his shoplifting too.

Seemed sometimes like things he lifted in Texas got lifted from him in Mexico. He could fall asleep on the train to the capital and wake up to discover that a piece of his gear had gotten off at the last stop. He was philosophical about that, though. Considered it kind of redistribution of wealth, with him just serving as a facilitator. In a way he was glad to see this knife gone. He was hoping for symmetry, and good karma.

Our hero didn't want to owe the cops anything. If he left Nuevo Laredo owing the narcs something, one day he'd pass through and they'd try to collect. end story

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marijuana, Mexico, la migra, Nuevo Laredo

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