San Diego The chiefs of Mexican narcotics cartels get the headlines, but they couldn't make a nickel without burros or mulas -- donkeys or mules -- who smuggle the contraband across the border. A Customs department spokeswoman in San Diego believes there are hundreds of these smugglers in action, most of them young men from the border cities who crave money and adventure.
For nine months in the early 1990s, a young Tijuanan named Victor worked as a burro; marijuana was his specialty. In the living room of the same modest house in which he lived as a drug smuggler, he tells his story while chiding or cuddling one of his three children. He is tall, wiry, and animated. As he speaks he slides between Spanish to English, which he says he learned by watching hours of American cartoons.
What got him into the drug trade was a conversation he'd heard between relatives; they discussed how easy it would be to bring drugs into San Diego each time they crossed the border by car. Victor realized that he had driven over the line may times without being pulled into the secondary inspection area for an automobile search.
Victor was 19 then, in his last year of high school. (He'd been held back a year for too many fistfights, an activity he admits he enjoyed as much as playing high school basketball; he was one of the city's top scorers.) School bored him, and he was working part-time as a carpenter in a shop near his house, in a colonia a few miles from downtown. He wasn't earning enough to get married or to party.
A guy in the colonia, about ten years older than Victor, was known to be a drug smuggler. Victor went to this acquaintance and told him he wanted to go to work, to make some real money. This acquaintance arranged a meeting with his boss, who was a rung higher on the narcotics-trafficking ladder. "The boss waited for me in front of the racetrack," Victor recalls. "I told him I needed some help, that I wanted to work. He asked me when I could start. 'Right away,' I told him." (Victor didn't want to reveal this man's name or to which cartel he belonged. He also requested that I change his own name and a few minor details.)
Two days later, by arrangement, Victor met this boss again at a strip mall parking lot in the city's 5-10 section, a few miles past the track. The boss said he'd been told that Victor enjoyed fighting. That was a good sign, the boss noted. This sort of work took huevos (balls).
Victor was told to leave his own vehicle there, an old 4 x 4 Blazer, and take home a car the boss had parked in the lot, a new Cavalier, a car to be used to transport the dope from the meeting spot to Victor's house. Then the boss handed him a paper bag. Inside was $10,000, American money. It was to buy another vehicle, the actual car used for smuggling, and to pay for any modifications necessary to pack the dope. "When I got home I opened the trunk of the Cavalier. There was 250 pounds of dope, marijuana." It was compacted into more than 100 one-kilo bricks, he says, each 2.2 pounds.
"My job was to bring the dope to my house, package it, put it in my car, and take it to the United States." For this, Victor was to receive $2500 a week. All financial transactions in the Tijuana drug underworld were done in dollars.
His neighborhood friend explained how he would do the work. Each brick was to be wrapped in plastic (with the same device used to package grocery store meats), taped, wrapped again in foil, covered with grease to hide the aroma, and placed inside the automobile tires. With part of the ten grand Victor bought another old utility vehicle, a '78 Blazer. He removed all the inside vinyl paneling, "so that at the border they wouldn't want to do a search."
Before making his first run, he told an old friend from school what he was planning. His friend was alarmed and outraged. "He asked me if money meant so much to me. He took all the money out of his wallet. He said, 'Here, take it. If you're going to do this for money, I'll give you my money.' "
Three days after he'd taken home the pot he was ready for his first crossing. Most of the bricks were packed inside the tires, but those that wouldn't fit were stuffed into a couple of gym bags and placed on the floor of the rear seat. Victor's fellow smuggler and mentor went with him the first time. He offered as advice a Mexican maxim: Usa la cabeza y usa el colmillo. Use your head and your eyetooth, or, be smart, be sharp, be smooth. Victor figured he could handle that.
He got to the border at 11:00 a.m., when the boss had told him to arrive. When he pulled up to the gate he was asked where he was going. To Chula Vista, he said, to get some new tires for his car. He was passed through.
What he told the agent was true. As instructed, he drove to a Chula Vista shopping mall and parked near a tire store. Soon, four men showed up (two Latinos and two gringos), jacked up the car, and put on different tires. "It didn't seem unusual in that area, with a store right there that sold tires," says Victor.
After that, it was always the same routine. He'd go over every day to meet the boss, get the Cavalier with the mota in the trunk, then return to the same meeting place to get his own car, drive home, package, grease, and stuff the bricks into the tires. As ordered, he always arrived at the border before noon, except when he'd make two trips a day into Chula Vista, as he often did the first few months. He'd heard from other burros he'd gotten to know that the first time you were caught smuggling marijuana, if you had less than 100 pounds, it would only be a misdemeanor, not a felony, and you'd be out of the gringo jail in a month or two at most. This information gave Victor more confidence. After the first trip he never packed much more than 40 kilos.
Starting with his second smuggling trip the boss gave him a cell phone. Victor was to call when he arrived at the border so the boss could alert his people on the U.S. side. He never, he says, had a problem crossing. There weren't then as many dope dogs sniffing at waiting cars as there are now, although he claims that dogs on several occasions passed by his car without incident.
He'd always drive to a mall in the South Bay, park close to a tire or auto parts store, and wait for the tire changers. At the gate, he says, "I'd tell them I'm going over to buy tires or clothes. That kind of shit." A few times he said he was going over to play in a basketball game. Victor has a wide-eyed nonchalance; he could play these border games.
He recalls when the California Highway Patrol once made it easier for him. Heading back to Tijuana, he'd been stopped and ticketed for a minor vehicle infraction. He was required to fix the problem and then take the car to a police station for verification. He postponed this by phone several times but would show the violation notice at the Customs gate, an excuse for having to cross. "I did that for a month and a half."
After a few weeks in the burro business, he and his older associate rented a house in the hills of Tijuana. He lived with his mother and soon would marry and have his wife move in. He needed privacy and more room for packing and storing.
Victor wrapped and smuggled only pot; his friend, only cocaine. They divided the house into two work areas and paid a buddy $800 a week to guard the house night and day. "My friend said, 'If you touch my stuff [cocaine], I'll kick your ass. And if I touch your stuff, you can kick my ass.' "
There would be, Victor says, two to three thousand bricks at the safe house at any time. It took about three minutes per brick to package and place each brick into the tires. Victor did the work himself, not trusting anyone to get near the commodity.
He insists that the boss never gave him a weekly quota, only to get the stuff over while it was still fresh, so buyers on the U.S. side wouldn't complain.
"My friend taught me a trick. You soak some mota overnight in a tub of water, maybe half a kilo. Then you spray that water on the stuff that looked too dried out." This would revive the weed, make it appear fresh. But, he explains, it also made it heavier, so he would have to remove some product from each sprayed marijuana brick. This excess he tossed out. He was not a user of mota, except for a few times at a big party attended by some of the other burros. (The bosses never came to these burro shindigs, nor did the burros go to any parties thrown by their higher-ups.)
One day, he relates, while working in the safe house, Mexican federal police knocked on the door. " 'Hey, what you got inside?' I said, 'You really want to know? Okay, I got dope.' They looked inside and said, 'Hey, you're a major dealer.' I said, 'No, I'm just a burro. And they said, 'We want a lot of green paper.' " Victor laughs. "You know, dollars. That's what they wanted." Victor told the federales he'd have to talk to his boss. The boss agreed to pay them, through Victor, $1000 a week. "And they came over on time, every week, for the money."
Victor wasn't doing too badly either. After he'd reached a pre-set goal established by his boss -- smuggling three tons of marijuana into the U.S. -- he was given a raise to $5000 a week. It seems a lot, but Victor was something more than just a burro; as he explains it, "I was my own burro, my own packager, my own delivery guy."
What did he do with all that money? A little went to his mother; he told her he was doing a lot of carpentry work for rich people. But for the bulk of it, his laconic reply: "Got drunk. Closed bars. Everybody naked. Girls dancing." He and some friends would march twice or three times a week into a bar in Tijuana's red-light district. He'd fork over to the club owner enough to close the place down for all but Victor and his buddies. The prostitutes would be paid generously to provide the evening's entertainment.
With other burros and a few bar girls he'd sometimes drive all the way to Cabo or San Felipe, drunk all the way down and back. This, even though he had married a neighborhood girl not long after becoming a smuggler. He shrugs about the money-burning parties and admits to handing over large amounts to prostitutes who hit him with hard-luck stories, such as needing money for beloved relatives' life-saving operations.
While on these overnight jaunts, to keep the product moving north to California, he says he paid former high school classmates $50 or $100 to drive his car over the border and do some shopping. He doesn't want to say if they were told there was dope in the tires.
Victor was arrested at the border crossing around Christmas, about nine months after he became a burro. As his car neared the gate, the agent on duty, seeing the license plate number flash up on his computer screen, closed his gate, walked up to Victor's car, and slipped a handcuff over his left wrist.
He says he knows who turned him in. One of the other burros, a relative of the guy who had initiated him into the trade. "The guy owed me money," he says. (The arrest report on Victor stated only that he was taken to the secondary checkpoint after showing signs of nervousness at primary.)
He was taken to the secondary inspection area where, he says, one of the Customs agents shoved him after the handcuffs were removed. He shoved back, and soon he, the agent, and a soldier on duty at the border were brawling. "I stopped when I saw all those guns pointing at me."
He recounts that he was stripped to his underwear and marched to various offices for interrogation. Victor stuck to his story; he was on an errand for a friend, although he suspected there was dope in the car. He was poor and had to feed his family, and the friend had offered him $200.
He was appointed a public defender after being booked into the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC). To hire an attorney would have made nonsense of his cover story.
The other burros locked up in MCC advised him to put off trial as long as possible. "They'd say, 'Postpone it, postpone it. You stay in jail here three months, then they let you go.' I heard of one guy who had a big trailer full of dope, a lot more than I got caught with, and they let him go after 15 days. That was it, as long as he was willing to go back to Mexico."
According to Victor, "everyone" in the MCC was smoking dope, and there were amenities like air conditioning and carpets. "But I was dying there. I wanted my day in court, no matter what happened." Bail was denied, even though his boss in Tijuana was willing to post bond.
His fellow burros behind bars gave him some final advice. "A lot of the guys told me to cry before the judge. Even my lawyer told me to do that. But I didn't cry. I got too much balls." His attorney had informed his parents that he'd be let off with time served. (His pregnant wife never visited him or attended the trial; her mother felt she would be tarnished by the association.)
Despite the fact that he'd been apprehended with a few ounces more than 100 pounds, he was charged only with a misdemeanor. (Shortly after Victor's arrest, the new U.S. Attorney in San Diego, Alan Bersin, had all drug-smuggling cases prosecuted as felonies, regardless of the quantity seized or the defendant's prior arrests.) Victor told his story without tears to the U.S. magistrate: he was an innocent dupe of friends. He was found guilty and handed six months in a federal jail in Northern California, in addition to the two and a half months he'd served at the MCC. He thinks the longer sentence and the denial of bail was because of the fight he'd had in secondary. Customs was teaching him a lesson.
Victor was deported after his release from prison. Today he works odd jobs doing carpentry for neighbors and friends, barely making ends meet most weeks. He's still in his old colonia, but a long way from his high times as a pot burro.
He thinks he has a chance to get his passport back. "I just have to send a forgiveness letter," he says, to the INS in Washington asking for another chance. But on bad days, when the money is especially short, he plays with the idea of getting back into the dope business.