Bad Business on the Border
Lee and I moved to El Paso with our three kids in 1978. Our daughter Susie, the oldest, was seven, John was five and Andy was three. We tell people that before we moved to El Paso Susie had lived in fourteen different places—rented houses, a few apartments and even one hotel. We had moved from Alamosa west to South Fork in Colorado, then down along the Rio Grande to Albuquerque, then Las Cruces, then Radium Springs in New Mexico. Finally we came to El Paso. We were the exemplary lost citizens of the 60s that you read about in Newsweek. I was a poet, Lee was writing fiction—that will do it to you. Since then we have lived in this one house, a brick bungalow on Louisville Street. It was built in 1927. Our neighborhood, which began ITS life as a middle-class white neighborhood on the east side of the very small city of El Paso in the 1920s, has evolved into a mostly Mexican-American blue collar neighborhood that is now considered central El Paso. Many of our neighbors are first generation Americans, others were born on the other side and a few are probably illegal. Nobody cares. Spanish was the first language of probably a majority of our neighbors, but that might be changing some, although not much. We can see Juárez, Mexico from our front porch and can be across the river in 10 minutes. This is our neighborhood, our home.
I say all of this because I want to start writing some about the border on this blog. El Paso has truly become our home, although Lee was raised in New Jersey and I in Memphis. It’s the place that our children still call home, although our son Andy lives and works in San Antonio. But when we first moved here it was a place that carried a little bit of gritty fantasy and romance in our hearts. Living on the border was an idea, almost like living in Mexico. Somewhere between then and now, for a period of three or four years, I got depressed and uncomfortable living here. I felt like I was an outsider, a foreigner. But more time passed, for years we ran our business out of our home, and suddenly I realized I was truly home. If you’re interested in this evolution, read my poetry.
The import of all this is that we’ve been watching the border and El Paso change since we’ve been here. It happens slowly, much like Al Gore’s frog in the hot water. If you live here, you go about your life and you are not aware of the changes that are happening. But for folks returning to the border after a long time away, especially if they go back and forth across from Juárez to El Paso, then they might say, Holy shit, the water is boiling.
So I’ll start with this parable of the primary business along the U.S./Mexico Border—the drug trade y los narcotraficantes. I like the story because it implies the true dimensions of what’s going on. I heard three or four years ago. Supposedly, the engineer told a friend and his friend told me. Supposedly, it’s true. But maybe it’s another one of those bizarre urban legends that sprout up along the border. Strange stories that carry a nugget of truth. Not so much urban legends, but border legends.
Once upon a time—let’s say it’s 1996, 12 years ago—an industrial engineer lived in El Paso. The man was famous in certain circles for his clever and intuitive ideas. He knew how to do things creatively that saved big corporations lots of money and lots of time. Anybody who can save big corporations money and time does very, very well. This man was no different. He made very good money, and CEOs of multi-national corporations sought him out to solve their problems.
One day the engineer was leaving an office building in downtown El Paso and a couple of thugs walked up behind him. Without saying a word, they grabbed the engineer by the arms and the man on the right stuck a gun into his ribs. “Cállate,” the man holding the gun said. A black car with tinted windows and Mexican plates pulled up to the curb and the two men pushed the engineer into the backseat. They climbed in on each side of him, a gun still pressing firmly into his ribs.
The driver stomped on the gas and the car sped away to the Bride of the Americas which is known here in El Paso as “the free bridge” because no tolls are charged. The engineer was on his way to Juárez on the other side of the Rio Grande. Maybe 15 minutes away. The engineer was frightened. He asked questions, but his Spanish was lousy. It didn’t make any difference. The thugs didn’t say a word. They looked out the windows like any suburban commuter. The engineer thought he was a dead man for sure, but he didn’t know what he had done. He was innocent, he told them. “Soy inocente! Inocente!” The guy on the left lit a cigarette. The car crossed the free bridge into Mexico.
When they got into the hubbub of Juárez the thugs pushed the engineer’s face down between his legs. They wrapped duct tape around his eyes and head so he couldn’t see. The engineer didn’t want to die. He was weeping. He wished he had learned to speak Spanish when he had the chance. The car traveled for maybe 20 more minutes.
Finally it stopped. Someone yanked the engineer, still blindfolded, out of the car. They pushed him into an air-conditioned building, stopped him and with one quick snatch, they ripped the duct tape from his eyes. It hurt bad, and he was blinded by the bright light. He wobbled and dropped to his knees. The floor was cold concrete. He looked around. He was in a very large warehouse. The warehouse was crowded with bales of cotton. Except they weren’t bales of cotton. They had an odd greenish tint like they were spinach or something. Maybe they were bales of marijuana. And then he realized they were bales of money. U.S. currency. His captors had disappeared. Two other men—one tall and large, wearing a gun strapped across his t-shirt; the other, a small man in an expensive suit, a pock-marked face—were watching him.
The big one spoke to the engineer in a broken English. He told the engineer that they had a problem.
“A problem?” the engineer said. He felt better.
“What’s your problem?” He couldn’t figure. They had all of this money.
“Sí, rats. Rats eat the money. Like thieves, they are eating our money. We cannot protect the money from the rats. Poison don’t work, traps don’t work, even gas don’t work. Nothing works!” The big man was pissed even thinking about the enemy of rats.
The little man looked at the engineer, and the engineer knew that the little man was the boss and that he was evil. He knew that the little man was Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies. He got his name from flying huge planes to the border filled with cocaine. He was worth billions. His pocked face glimmered, his eyes were cold. Killing was of no import to him. His motto was “Only the dead are innocent.” What was important to Amado was his money. The engineer rose to his feet and thought about the problem of the rats and the money. They watched him.
“Can I walk around and look?”
“Si. Go ahead. No way out of here.” The big man laughed. The little man only watched.
The engineer breathed in and out like a man trying to swim to the shore from a long way. He walked up and down between the rows of bales of money. He saw the rat turds, he saw a few cats. The cats, like other solutions, had proved useless against the rats. Thirty minutes passed, maybe more. And then he knew the answer. It appeared magically, rising up with his breathing. He went back to where he had left the big man and the little man. They were sitting on folding chairs waiting for him.
He said, “Pipe. PVC pipe.”
“PVC pipe. You know, the plumbing pipe? Get the pipe in three-foot diameters. Buy caps. Stuff the money into the pipe and cap it. It’s good to go.”
The big man looked at him and thought about the answer. Then he smiled. He turned to the little man. He said, “Pipa de plástica.” And he made his arms into a big O. The little man understood immediately. He turned and walked out without ever saying a word. The big man waved his hand and a man grabbed the engineer from behind and quickly wrapped more duct tape around his eyes. They loaded him in the car again, and the engineer had to wonder again if they were going to kill him and leave him out in the desert. He had read stories and heard rumors. But they didn’t. They drove him to the pay bridge at Avenida Juárez. They gave him a quarter and two nickels for the toll and pushed him out of the car, cut the tape from around his wrists but left the blindfold alone. They drove away. The engineer slowly pulled the tape away from his eyes. Then he walked back across the bridge into the United States.
He never spoke of this to the authorities. He didn’t want to die.
The Mexican government says that Amado Carrillo-Fuentes died in 1997, the victim of a botched (or planned) plastic surgery on his face. Yet, rumors persist that the man who died on that operating table was not Amado. Who knows? The doctors who performed the surgery are now dead. Murdered. The illegal drugs continue to pour into the U.S. through different hands. And now, 11 years after Carrillo-Fuentes death, just across the river from where we live, a war is being fought for control of the drug traffic. This last week, which was Holy Week, 23 people were gunned down. They were among the 59 murdered throughout Mexico in this gruesome blood-letting, most along the U.S./Mexico border.
In popular news reports, the media will blithely state that the two principle money-makers for Mexican economy are oil revenues and the money that immigrants to the U.S send back home. They all ignore the narcotics industry. They don't want to say that illegal drugs is number 1 on the list, and if it disappeared, the Mexican economy could very well tremble and splinter like Mexico City during the 1985 earthquake. That’s scary, huh?
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is totally blind to seeing how our addiction to these drugs create these problems and how our strict heartless anti-drug laws exacerbate them. Now, in the post-9/11 environment, immigrants have replaced drugs as the national bugaboo. And the federal government, like with its blindness to the U.S. addiction to the drugs that Mexico supplies, does not see that our economy is likewise addicted to the cheap labor that migrants supply. No matter. The anti-immigrant phobia has become our language-borne virus. For us who live on the border, we are told to be quiet. The U.S. Government, in particular, the Homeland Security bureaucracy--aided and abetted by its allies, the rabid talk show hosts--know best, and they are adamant about militarizing the border and building its fences.
The city that my family and I moved to in 1978 is drying up. El Paso is becoming No Paso. The border is being damned up like a river, until finally, if our future continues to unravel like this, nothing will grow on either side.
I hope to write more about this.
NOTES on the photographs:
"El Chuco" is slang for El Paso. The image was done on the side of the Marty Snortum Photography Studio down the street from where we live. I don't know who the artist was.
Bruce Berman took the photograph of the kids swimming in the Rio Grande. It must have been the early 1980s. Life is not so pastoral on this stretch of the river any more. I'll write more about that later. The original is in color and this image is cropped. I think I have it in my files from when I was an associated editor of the Bridge Review back in the day.