The late afternoon sun appeared angry as it sat down on the city. I watched it from the window of our hotel. It was bloodshot red, looking almost as if it was about to crash into our blue earth, destroying us all. Right now, I would have liked for that to have happened. With the dread of our current situation only momentarily disrupted by that hopeless prospect, my thoughts quickly focused back to that single question: How in the hell did I get myself into this? Before, I have found myself in a few situations that were extremely awkward and mildly dangerous, but this time I was certain that the end of this road would be either a jailcell – or a grave.
Three days ago, I was sitting on a front porch with two of my friends. At that time, I was working at Ralphs, a grocery store that had just endured, with two other supermarket chains, a brutal half-year union strike. There, I had befriended a fellow worker, Anthony – Tony – a semi-slow Hispanic who would become my regular beer buddy. After sitting on a picket line for nearly six months, the trip didn’t seem like such a bad idea. All laborers need some vacation time.
It was getting towards evening time in our Los Angeles suburb when Tony invited his friend Mike over, a skinny white guy about a year older than us. Although friendly, Mike thought entirely too much of himself, acting as the typical tough guy who always had the right idea about things.
“It’s gonna be a long night,” I said. “Pass me another beer.”
“Don’t drink all of them,” said Anthony. “It’s still early and we only got a 12-pack.”
“We can go get more,” said Mike.
“Kevin can’t go to that liquor store anymore. He got kicked out last time.”
“It’s true,” I confirmed. “I’ll wait outside again.”
“Fuck it man,” said Mike. “That guy is an asshole anyway.”
Boredom was bludgeoning the three of us over the head. We discussed recreational activities. “Where do you think we should go?” Mike asked. I suggested Las Vegas. It was a farther but safer suggestion than theirs. “Why don’t we go to Tijuana?” Mike said. My objections failed to echo on that porch. “Over there,” Mike said again in a more persuasive tone, “we’re old enough to buy drinks. And then we can find hookers.” Tony was immediately convinced. I was left with only my Chevy Corsica and my feeble protests, the latter sadly unable to force myself to get inside the former and head back home.
The idea of a tequila-soaked midnight tour of Tijuana did seem seductive, and so we were off on the freeway, two and a half hours until we hit the border. Aside from the standard freeway signs, there was no “Welcome to Vegas” declarations as we approached; no “Almost to Mexico” announcements. The border simply appeared before us with no such admonishing interlude.
A large parking lot exists a few hundred feet away from the turnstile gates. I parked the car. “Ready?” Mike asked. “Let’s do the damn thing,” said Anthony. “Let’s just be cool,” I said. And we started walking.
There were no security guards to be seen – nobody at all who cared who was going into Mexico. Tony pushed through them, the circular gates acting as a portal to another dimension. Then Mike. And lastly, me. We were in Mexico. Walking would have to suffice for this tour, as we had no motorized transport of our own. We also wanted to use our money for booze. The bars were open but quiet. We went into one and bought a few beers. Out of nowhere, a person who appears to be a female approaches our table. Appears. “She” came up to Tony and started to rub his shoulders.
“Hi,” said Tony excitedly.
“Eres un gran hombre fuerte,” the person said.
“Gracias,” said Tony.
And then the person took Tony’s hand and brought it to their crotch. “Oh shit!” exclaimed Tony. “It’s a dude!” Mike and I laughed heartedly as the three of us downed our drinks and made our way out of the bar. It was just about 11 PM.
Fifty dollars, thirty-three beers, and four hours later: and then we encountered a well-built, stern-looking Mexican man who was leaning against a wall. “How you guys doing tonight?” he first asked us. He also looked – what’s the colloquialism? – oh yes: shady. The only problem was that his business wasn’t selling flavored ice or spicy corn on the cobb; it was in the rather lucrative market of human trafficking. He said his name was Richie. In broken English, he asked us: “You guys wanna do a little job? Make some money?”
My impulse was to start walking away, and made a groaning expression of my disinterest. “Doing what?” Mike asked with dumb enthusiasm. “Come with me,” the man said. And the three of us followed Richie as he took us to a two-story building that was only a couple of blocks away. We climbed a stairway up to the second floor. The dark room was completely empty. Richie leaned against one of walls and said, “This is the safest place in the whole city. Nothing to worry about.” Mike soaked it up with a smile, nodding his head and stupidly repeating “Ya-Ya-Ya.” Anthony kept quiet, the buzz and the abruptness getting the best of his senses. I kept close to the balcony where the stairs were. If gunmen came, and I had to get out of here quickly, I could make a jump down below and sprint out into the streets. At this point, Richie began asking to borrow our phones – mine and Mike’s. I watched Mike hand over his phone like it was a pen and paper, the proverbial contract now signed with this doltish action. Ostensibly, it was to contact his boss and begin setting things up. But, as I was aware of, Richie was actually keeping track of our phone activity. In a way, he knew that I realized this. Anthony continued on with his frozen ineptness.
“It’s no problem. I tell you it no problem, man.” Richie kept saying it, trying to convince the three of us that nothing would go wrong. “This is the only place in TJ where you don’t have to worry,” he said again. I stood there wondering what this was; if I had fallen down some rabbit hole with no parachute and no ladder to climb back out. Maybe I would become some casualty, made only slightly more newsworthy because I was a gringo American. Hearing this human smuggler talk to three young men like we were all sitting at a bar was not as strange as my friends standing there absorbing it without a flinch. Fearing that my verbal protest would infuriate the man, possibly inducing him to pull a gun out of his pocket, I kept my mouth shut. Why did I let Mike agree to this very illegal escapade?
Eventually we left the darkroom, and walked over a few blocks to a hotel, buying some beer on the way. Richie had got us a room on the third floor. Inside, he laid down on the large bed. We laid around until morning, the three of us keeping quiet and watching TV, with Richie using our phones every half hour. Mike asked again how much we were supposed to get paid. Remaining stoic and casual, Richie’s lips curled before answering: “Four, five hundred…something like that.” We made idle conversation, mostly about Richie and how much of a gangster he was. “Yeah, I studied Karate, Ju-Jitsu, Kung-Fu…all that shit, man,” he said. He told us that he spent twenty years in prison for beating a man’s skull in with a baseball bat, which led to the man becoming braindead. “The cops told me that it would’ve been better if I had just killed him. I said, ‘man, I was trying to kill him.’” Then his sexual escapades: “I once fucked an eighteen-year-old virgin. She had the tightest pu-say I’ve ever seen.” These tales of bad-assery lasted for a few hours. Then he said he was going to “pick up the boss. I’ll get us some high and then we’ll go over to the house together.” Some “high” – which is broken Spanish shorthand for crystal meth. He left, and the question was raised once more: Why don’t we bolt out of here and sprint to the border?
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.
“Why man?” replied Mike. “We’re about to make bank.”
He kept on insisting for us to stay and do the job. “It’ll be easy…I got this,” he said. Tony remained almost catatonic.
Why did I listen to Mike? For what good reason? “When was the last time you were in Mexico smuggling illegals?” I asked.
“Calm down, man.”
“What happened?” I probed, wanting more of a motivation, “Did the stripper with the dick disappoint you? Now we have to make up for a bad experience?”
Mike said: “Tony enjoyed her…err, I mean, him.”
Tony, half propped up against the wall and half drunk, mumbled: “It wasn’t a dude…that was all female. I didn’t see no cock.”
I came up with what I thought to be a good idea. A weapon! Something needed for the inevitable moment in which I would need to defend myself against violent human smugglers. I went over to the closet and opened it. Inside was a metal coat-hanger. Just like dad used to hit me with. The silent joke amused me as I looked around the dingy hotel room and imagined a horde of Mexican assassins coming through the windows. Now, all I could think about was cold steel piercing through someone’s rib cage. They would kill me, but not before some holes were made, blood spewing over the walls. Hell, I thought, it couldn’t look worse than the paint. I bent the top of the metal coat hanger straight up, into a sharp spear, with the shoulder parts bent downwards, making a handle. Mike came into the room.
“That’s not going to do anything,” he said.
“You have your plans, and I have mine,” I said.
“Put it back in the closet and come kick back,” he said. “Come on, there’s plenty of beer left.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Fine.” And walked over to the small mini-fridge, grabbed a Corona and sat back down on the bed.
Almost an hour passed, all the while I kept trying to convince the two of them to get the hell out of Mexico. Why did I not, all by myself, just walk out the door and leave? Then we heard the footsteps outside the door. Before there was even a knock, Mike had turned the handle and thrown it wide open. In walked three Mexicans, one of whom was Richie. The second was a large man with a brushy goatee. I instantly identified him as the boss. The third was a straight goon, much larger but more reticent that the other two. “Hola,” one said. Richie was carrying a plastic bag full of beer and cigarettes. The boss had a paper bag full of tacos and burritos. And the third had the most prized possession of this long weekend: a little bag full of crystal meth. Food, beer, and meth – all the proper refreshments for an activity like human smuggling.
“I thought you forgot about us,” Mike said. I had hoped that they had.
“Nah man,” said Richie. “We had to get the stuff. We gonna get high right now…have some beer, some food, then go over to the house to get the cars.”
The other men looked even angrier and intimidating than Richie. One was a monster of a man, about the same height as me – five-seven – with arms that looked like boulders tied together by a cable. He was emotionless – neither menacing nor gleeful – which somehow personified the trademark fear that’s so prevalent in a city long known as an outpost for rebels. When recruiting college-age kids for international crimes, that’s one necessary tool in the toolbox. I wondered what their rate of success was as I ate my burrito and drank my Tecate.
Nobody brought a glass pipe to smoke the meth out of. Improvisation comes in the form of a light bulb, one that was taken from the bathroom. Richie first went into the bedroom, where he opened the closet. My god, I thought, he’s going to find it. It was irony, and maybe a little bit of fate, when he found the metal shank on the top of the counter. Richie smiled faintly and muttered something I couldn’t hear. Exactly what was needed! He came back into the living room and picked up the bulb, then used the coat-hanger to carve out the insides. Then he cracked a bit off one side, put the dope in, lit it with a lighter, and took a hit from the bulb. Then he passed it to Mike, then Tony. I passed on the offer. “Come on, man,” said Mike. “Hit this. You’ll feel better.” “No,” I said, “I’m good.” Suspicious looks came across their faces. The nervous loner would not partake; how could they trust him? Deals used to be made over a pipe of tobacco. These days, in some places, it was crystal meth, with Thomas Edison not having anticipated his invention being used like this. Actually, I had a bad experience the first time I smoked meth, which incidentally was with Mike and Tony. “It almost gave me a heart attack last time,” I said, and so I wasn’t interested at all. Mike confirmed the horrible episode. Everyone let it go.
For the next hour, we had an uncomfortable powwow. We laughed and drank and ate; they kept smoking out of the altered light bulb. “You guys are gonna make some good money,” said the boss, who’s name we learned was Poco. “This is easy work. No problem.” No problem…the two favorite words of these people. “If you get caught, they just hold you for a couple hours, then tell you to get the fuck outta here.” Why was I risking this?
“Finish up,” said Poco. “We gonna go to the house now…get the cars.”
“Will they have our money there?” Mike inquired.
“No! You’ll get it later.”
No more powwowing. After lingering around inside this dingy hotel since last night, we were finally about to execute our crime. The six of us left the room and went down to the streets. We needed to do this before the sun – looking as apocalyptic as it could in the evening – had completely gone. There was some mention of the border guards being tired at this late hour. Okay, I’ll just nod my head and keep moving like the prisoner that I am. We got in a car and drove fifteen minutes over to some suburb that had a large gulley in place of a sidewalk, with houses that were so decrepit it made me think of a warzone. Wasn’t Mexico something of a warzone? Small children ran in and out of the houses, making hard stares at our party. I suspect they were aware of what we were doing here. For a brief second I felt like a liberationist. It was no wonder people want to get out of here. Perhaps I was helping someone. Hell, I probably would have tried to do the same.
My momentary concern had vanquished the second we were told that we’d be taking separate cars. This way they could try to get more people across. “Hey, wait a minute,” Mike said in protest. “We all came here together. We we’re under the impression that we’d all be doing this together.”
The three Mexicans looked at us with trepidation. “Hey, this isn’t a party,” Poco said. “This is business.” Mike asked again when we were supposed to get paid. “This is what’s going to happen,” said the man with the muscles. “You” – pointing to me – “are going to drive this red Taurus with these two kids. Then you two” – pointing to Mike and Tony” – “are going to follow them in this white Chevy. Ok?” Muscle man then grabbed a stick and started to draw a little map in the dirt, showing the street we were supposed to get off at once we had crossed the border. “Are you listening?” he snapped. I nodded hard and said “yes.” “Palomar,” he said. “Get off at Palomar! There will be someone waiting for you right by the gas station. Follow me to the border; I’ll be driving that one,” he said, pointing to a blue Nissan.
But I was to have a partner for this mission. Riding shotgun in my vehicle was a blonde, twentysomething white woman. Her name was Tricia. She was many months into a pregnancy, which did not stop her from chain smoking. Her boyfriend, a same-age white guy, would be driving with my friends. Very few words were spoken between us, but I did ask her if she had done this before. Her answer escapes me, likely because it didn’t give me any comfort.
“Are you guys ready?” asked Poco. As we nodded, our cargo was coming out of one of the houses. There were five children in total, two of whom – a boy and a girl – would be jumping in the vehicle that I was about to drive right into customs. The three others would be Mike’s cargo. Without even saying “hola,” the two kids jumped in the back of the car. “Don’t worry,” said Poco, “this is a fold-down trunk. See?” It was a hatchback. That was all. Nothing special about it except that one flimsy piece covered over the trunk. Real ingenious. I looked at Mike from across the car roofs and said “alright.” Then I got in the driver’s seat. Tricia was already in the passenger seat. Mike and Tony, we were told, would be leaving a few minutes after I had. Now they had me where they wanted me. Although it was never verbalized, the implicit threat of their lives hung over my conscience. If I had backed out at the last minute, what would – they knew I’d wonder – happen to them?
It was too late to make a run for it. The engines started. This was it. We were going. Would I make it across, or get caught and thereafter spend years behind bars? Would they find me behind some dirty gas station with a bullet in my head, or bleeding out of my asshole in some cold prison cell? Would my partners – one a friend and the other a drug addict who I hardly knew – simply vanish from the American record books? All these outcomes appeared grim, and every light touch on the gas pedal flooded my mind with the possibility of one of them soon coming true.
The blue Nissan turned several corners. I made sure to stay no farther than thirty feet behind it; as it was, from the Nissan’s back window I could see Poco repeatedly put a device up to his ear. This was an operation. Smugglers were likely posted up at both the houses and the border itself. The white trash in the passenger seat smoked a cigarette in silence. What if I just jumped out right now and ran to the border? The border was only a few miles away. But my friends! Tony! We approached the gates, in what seemed like hours to get here. Cars got in line and waited to be waved through. The scumbag smuggler in the Nissan veered off right before getting into the line.
I stayed. About ten cars were in front of me, and the line was moving quickly. I began perking my head up and out of the window, trying to see how many cars the border patrol was ordering to pop their trucks so as to look inside. Couldn’t tell from here…but…yes…they were searching some. This is one large gamble: millions sneak across this border. I just need a little luck. The children in the back were motionless and silent, as they were no doubt instructed to be. The girl was likewise. Seven cars. My fingers tapped at the steering wheel. Stop that! Just a perfectly normal trip to Mexico with my pregnant girlfriend…who smells like cigarettes. Four cars. I keep looking. They seem to be searching some and leaving others alone. Toss that coin up in the air. It’ll land heads, as you wanted. Or was it tails? Anyway, just stop fidgeting! Put on the simulacrum smile. We were both white, after all. They’ll wave us through, they must, and then I’ll be right over there, to Freedom’s Land. The car in front of me went through without having their truck searched. This was it. Every other car? The brown-shirted border agent waved at me, and I’ll pulled up.
“How’s it goin’?” he said.
“Ok,” I replied plainly.
“Can I have both your ID’s?” he requested.
“My license and her ID,” I said, handing them.
He looked and then asked: “Got any fruits and vegetables…”
I started to shake “no” before he finished his sentence.
“…or any other passengers?”
“Ok,” the officer said. “Pop the trunk for me.”
There was a button on the dash. I knew where it was. I remember just learning about it, less than half an hour ago, but I tried to put it out of my mind, because they had assured me that it would not be needed. Somehow, I knew I would. I didn’t wait longer than a second, not long enough even to gauge the reaction of the filthy bitch sitting next to me, who remained sitting in silence. “The trunk? Sure.” All the resentment and regret poured into my index finger as I lifted my arm and pushed the damn button. The pop of the trunk sounded as one might think, but for me it could’ve been the discharge of a gun.
“Keep your hands on the steering wheel!” the officer yelled, as several more officers swarmed around the vehicle. “Do you understand?” With both hands on the wheel, I decided to play stupid: “What’s going on?” Again he told me to stay as I was and not to move. The girl had her hands on the dash. Another officer came over to my window and stared at me. In the side mirror, I could see the two kids coming out of the back of the trunk. Then I closed my eyes tightly for a full three seconds, exhaling as I opened them. The officer was opening my door. “Step out, now!” he ordered. I obeyed. “Put your hands on the roof of the car!” Whatever you want, officer.
The extraction from the car was quick. Without putting cuffs on any of us, we were taken less than thirty feet over to the two-story building. An elevator took us to the second floor, and then through a couple of doors. We walked into a large room. This was the detention area. There were two sets of chairs, about ten feet apart from each other, and arranged rectangularly with the backs facing each other. Most of the seats were filled. Smuggling really was as common as they said. The room was quasi-segregated, with women on one side and men on the other. I believe I was probably the only white guy in here. “Take a seat,” said the officer. “We’ll talk to you soon.” I walked around the room and glanced over most of the detainees. Only a few were making chit-chat. I found an empty chair and sat in it.
A clock hung on the wall. Every twenty to thirty minutes someone would be called up and taken into a backroom. Many were also getting released; whether back into Mexico or into the U.S., I could not say, as I had no window to see which way they would be walking. Did my partners witness better luck than me? Maybe they were killed. And maybe that serves them right! Almost three hours passed before I saw them come into the room. I was actually a bit happy to see them. At least they wouldn’t be spending $500 in the safer bars of San Diego. Their cargo of three scattered somewhere in the room and became indistinguishable from every other child. “Ha,” I said to my friends, “Same luck as me.” Tony nodded and quickly found a chair. Mike came over to me. I wanted to punch him.
“They told me you made it through,” he informed me.
“So they’re liars, too,” I said. “How surprising. But at least you’re not dead.”
“What do you think happens now?” Mike asked.
“They said they just hold us for a couple hours,” Tony answered from his seat.
“I’ve already been here for three,” I said. “They only said they’ll talk to me ‘soon.’”
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Mike. “Unless you think were drugs in that car.”
Horror overwhelmed me upon hearing Mike’s comment. What if he was right? Just then, a guard from behind the counter scolded us: “Hey, you three, sit down and be quiet!” We obeyed, Mike and I sitting several chairs apart. The hand on the clock kept making slow circles. I had the urge to rip it off the wall and throw it at the guards, screaming at them to let me go, that it was all a mistake, something I never wanted to be part of. What if my family never sees me again? Names were called. People were taken downstairs.
Nearly six hours after I was apprehended, I would get a hint as to my impending fate. This was in the form of two San Diego police officers – an agency that I had not seen my entire time here. They greeted their brethren and walked into the back room. I glanced at Mike and Tony. Sweat poured from my forehead as I started laboring to breathe. A half hour later: “Patten!” I stood up. A custom officer stood next to the police officers. “Come back here.” I followed the officers into a room in the back. The border agent left. “Sit down.” I did. “Now,” said one of the officers, “What are you doing here?”
No point in lying. That won’t help me. “You could have had drugs in that car,” one of the officers said. But he didn’t say there were drugs. What, then, if the border agents have the ultimate say in who stays and who goes, was local law enforcement here for? I was still trying to deduce how this system operated. Before the answer was given, I would tell them, step by step, what had happened. Then hope for the best. I turned into the sweetest teenage white kid in the world. Bored friends. Wanted to drink a beer in a state that allows it. Guy approaches us. Makes us a proposition. “I’m already afraid,” I add. “We don’t care about that,” says the cop. “Just tell us what happened.” Asshole friend – the other white guy, with the goatee – says that we should do it. I feel pressured, and what if they had hurt my friend? For the next half hour, I lay the whole thing out for them, no embellishments, no sobbing.
“Now I’m here, and I wish I wasn’t,” I say.
“If you’re in a situation like that,” the cop says, “you get out of the car and say, ‘Hey, I got kids in the car!’” The other officer lays the bombshell: “The car you were driving is stolen.” Shit. That makes it a real, local crime – not just some political racquetball that’s talked about incessantly in Congress. I ask what’s going to happen. The officers tell me to go back to the waiting area. “We’ll let you know.”
Once more, I sit down. My hands won’t stop shaking. Mike walks past, inquires quietly. “I just told them everything,” I say. “What else was I supposed to do?” I see Anthony crying from across the room. Hours keep passing by. I get up and pace around for a few minutes. When will my name get called again? And will it lead me out to my dirty, liberating Corsica? Or some rotten American courtroom?
A full 12 hours after I was apprehended: “Patten!” Happily, it would be the last time I heard it on this trip. I look at Mike and Tony, who are still seated. They also called Tricia and a few other Mexican kids. I walked up to the pudgy white border officer who’s been handling the rollcall. “I have no idea how it is that you’re getting out of here,” he says to me. They’re letting me loose. I’m ecstatic, barely able to contain myself. “If you want my advice,” the border officer said, “I’d leave Mexico and never come back.” “That’s good advice,” I say. He presents my property in a little box. I take the wallet and phone and car keys; he takes my cigarettes and lighter. “I can’t have that?” I ask. “Unless you’d like to stay here,” he responds. “You can toss it.” He does, right in the trashcan behind him.
Five of us stood single file at the door. An officer walks me downstairs. I’m looking for windows, trying to see if this is a trap; maybe there’s a few squad cars just beyond, waiting for me with the cuffs. But then they did give back my property. The officer led me out of a door that faced north. I emerged on some random sidewalk in America; no more men with cuffs, no more coy coyotes. “Don’t come back,” the border officer said. I promised to myself that I would heed the advice.
I started walking, a smile plastered on my face by the bright sun. I got about twenty feet before I heard her. “Hey Kevin!” It was Tricia, gleaming with relief and elation; a definite change of personality from the one I saw earlier. She, too, had probably been pressured into this. “Do you have a cigarette?” she asked. Still, I wanted nothing to do with her. “I do not,” I said. “Now please get the fuck away from me.” She complied, and ran off in the opposite direction. I walked a bit faster to my car, which I soon found.
I should have got in the car and left. To hell with them; it would serve them right. But my concern was not so much for Mike as it was for Anthony. A mentally slow person like him can be easily persuaded, as he was on this adventure. I decided to start the Corsica, made sure it did start, then pulled out of the parking lot and onto one of the side-streets, where I parked. I got out and stretched my legs, still enjoying the moment. About an hour later, I saw them both walking towards me on the sidewalk. “Heeeeey!” Mike said in all his arrogance. “Well,” Tony said with a huge smile, “I think we can get the fuck out of here now.”
We all jumped in the Corsica, me in the driver’s seat. I drove off as quickly as I could, and soon we were back on the freeway. “I want to go to one of the beaches,” I said. “I need to feel more freedom. We’re only about a half hour away.” Not that I required their consensus, but they agreed, and off we went. Mike wanted to talk about it. He needed a way to explain away the guilt he was feeling. I hushed him up. Tony sat smiling in silence in the backseat. The beach was vast, and beachgoers abounded. I took my shoes off, wanting to feel the sand as the three of us got closer to the water. I inhaled the surf as deeply as they had with their drugs.