Bad Business on the Border
by Bobby Byrd
Posted on May 30, 2008
[Editor's note: The following first appeared as an essay on Bobby Byrd's blog, White Panties and Dead Friends]
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 New Mexico: Albuquerque, then Las Cruces, then Radium Springs and back to Las Cruces. 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. Our neighborhood, affectionately know as Five Points, began its life as a middle-class anglo neighborhood on the east side of the very small city of El Paso in the 1920s, but it 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.
Although Lee was raised in New Jersey and I in Memphis, this is our neighborhood, our home. 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 1978 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. A gavacho. But more time passed. We had started our business and for years we ran it 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. This place has changed drastically.
The reason for the change is not the ordinary evolution of a city. I could deal with that. No, the prime mover of our city’s and region’s devolution is terribly misguided federal laws. Below is a parable about the chief business along the U.S./Mexico Border and the capitalists who operate it -- the drug trade y los narcotraficantes. I like the story because it implies the true dimensions of what’s been going on for the last 20 or so years. I heard the story three or four years ago. Supposedly, the hero of the story told a friend and that guy told another friend and his friend told me. Supposedly, it’s true. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just 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 well-dressed 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 Bridge of the Americas, aka “the free bridge.” The engineer was on his way to the other side. 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 going home from work. 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 six-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.
In popular news reports talking about the Mexican economy, the media will chatter about state that the tourism, oil production and the money that immigrants to the U.S send back home. They all will blithely ignore the illegal drug industry. They don't want to say that the illegal drug trade 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? And, please, let’s don’t underestimate the political and economic power of the illegal drug industry. A United Nations report listed the top three industries in the world as follows --
#1. The arms trade
#2. The illegal drug trade
And in the distant #3 slot, oil and gas.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is totally blind to seeing how our country’s addiction to these drugs creates 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. No need to look into mirrors for our problems. Blame it all on the immigrants. Like the “Say No to Drugs” hysteria, the anti-immigrant phobia has become our language-borne virus. The U.S. government will continue to militarize the border, building fences and deploying its armed forces in their various guises. 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 in the media, especially the rabid talk show hosts who make their very good living as yellow journalists -- know best. They are adamant about an armed solution to their perceived beast.
The city that my family and I moved to in 1978 is drying up. El Paso is becoming No Paso. The border is being dammed up like a river, until finally, if our future continues to unravel like this, nothing will grow on either side.
NOTE 1: BOOKS TO READ. I’m a poet, so my understanding comes through story and metaphor and mythos. That said, if you’re interested in reading well-written books about El Paso, the drug trade along the border and the Mexican Diaspora, I would recommend the following:
Sam Quinones' two collections of essays about the migration of Mexicans to the U.S., True Tales from Another Mexico and Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream. Sam doesn’t talk about the Mexican diaspora as “immigration,” which infers a political situation with a governmental solution, but as “migration,” which is an anthropologic term inferring organic movement for specific reasons (e.g. climate change, famine, disease, poverty, etcetera). This may seem like a minor point, but it’s not. It allows for a much more in depth understanding of what we are witnessing. Next, Sam doesn’t write about statistics, he writes about people. And he uses these people’s stories to understand certain geographies and circumstances and cultures. His two pieces on Juárez are brilliant. His piece in True Tales, although written in 1999, still is the most insightful piece about the murdered women. He shows how the vacuum of law enforcement and city services has created an environment of violence that allows such tragedy to occur. And in Delfino’s Dream his piece documenting the black velvet painting craze that put Juárez on the map should become a definite part of our history.
Next is Charles Bowden’s Down by the River: Drugs, Murder, Money and Family. Chuck has a love/hate relationship with El Paso and Juárez. He loves it for its down-home realism and grainy streetwise truth, but he hates to see how the drug industry and the U.S. militarization are tearing at the fabric of relationship of these two cities and their two-million people. The unresolved 1995 murder of Lionel Bruno Jordan (the brother of DEA bigwig Phil Jordan) in the Bassett Center parking lot struck a match in Bowden’s imagination. He spent years coming to El Paso and Juárez to write this book. His prose gives us a revelation of the drug world that is the underside of our culture here on the border. Chuck’s book Juarez, A Laboratory of the Future, along with an article in Harper’s, first brought national attention to the terrible tragedy of young women being murdered in Juárez. The book also made famous a loose collective of photographers (aka “street shooters”) who were documenting the violence in their city. The collective splintered as organic arts communities do, but one photographer in particular, Julian Cardona, continues to document the ordeals of living just south of the border.
Cinco Puntos Press has also published a number of books that are relevant to these issues:
Gary Cartwright’s Dirty Dealing describes in page-turning prose the history of El Paso’s Chagra family and the almost romantic beginnings of the drug trade along the border. This book remains a best seller in El Paso after all these years. And the anthology of essays Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots and Grafitti from the U.S./Mexico Border. The anthology has essays by Debbie Nathan, Charles Bowden, Sam Quinones (his piece about the murdered women), David Romo, Louie Gilot, Cecilia Balli and many others. In the interest of full disclosure: these last two books were published by Cinco Puntos Press, which is our family’s publishing company. Indeed, my son John and I, along with Tijuana novelist Luis Humberto Crostwaite, edited Puro Border.
NOTE 2. THE PHOTOGRAPHS. The El Chuco image was for a long time on the wall of the Marty Snortum Studio in Five Points. Marty has always been kind enough to lend his wall to young spray paint artists in the area. I took the photo. 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.
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