This article is from the May 1998 The Mexico File
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No Drogas, No Armas
by Don Merritt
Don Merritt is a spacecraft engineer living near Los Angeles, whose fascination with the Jesuit missions of Baja has led him south. He plans to travel more extensively in Mexico, and hopes to reach the city of Tequila before too long. When he isnt traveling he can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
In December of 1996, I took two weeks off from work and headed down to Baja from my home near Los Angeles. I'd been down there several times before. Most times it was just for weekend jaunts. But this trip was for one of my hobbies, the study of the old Jesuit mission churches, and I was looking forward to it immensely. I was in my Toyota pick-up truck, the shell over the bed to be my home for half a month, and I only stopped long enough in Ensenada to buy some supplies. Now I was cruising south, determined to get as far as I could before the exhaustion won out over the excitement.
I was south of Ensenada when the vision hit. The road climbs high to run across the top of a very long plateau, not very far from the Pacific Ocean but not within sight of it. With the elevation came a very heavy fog I would have associated with my native Michigan but not with Baja. The visibility dropped gradually but steadily until I was crawling along at about 25 miles per hour. As I slowly rounded a corner, before me was an eerie orange glow. Slight at first, it got brighter and brighter until I began to distinguish a few individual balls of orange light. They ran in a straight line along the middle of the road, with the last one much brighter than the other six or seven small ones. The air was a milky sea, the ground almost invisible. The only thing visible were these undulating balls of orange. I thought it might be time to get some sleep.
I slowed to a crawl and drove closer, realizing that the small glows came from what we used to call smudge pots where I grew up: coffee cans of lighted diesel fuel used as a cheap and effective road flare. And the biggest glow came from a 50 gallon barrel with a fire inside. I was relieved to find a rational explanation. But the relief lasted only until I saw the figures move slowly away from the barrel, and I could see the outline of rifles and shotguns on four or five bodies. All of a sudden, I didn't feel sleepy.
My mood swung back to relief again as one figure held up his arm to have me stop near the barrel and I saw the uniforms of the Mexican Army. There were four or five guys by the barrel, and I noticed more next to a couple of trucks slightly ahead and on the shoulder of the road. These guys looked cold, and I realized why when I rolled down my window to talk to them. The air hit my warm face like a slap, and I was happy for these guys that they had good heavy clothes and hoods. But they still looked to be slowly freezing.
A soldier in his mid-twenties started speaking in Spanish and I launched into my few phrases of the language to explain how bad my Spanish was. I also leaned into a big smile, the universal sign of a
harmless idiot. In the soldiers broken English and my much more broken Spanish, he got across that they wanted to know if I had any drugs or guns. Oh!, now I understood what he had said. "¿Drogas o armas?" "Do you have any drugs or arms?" I said that I didn't and tried to explain that I was just your basic tourist. It seemed a bit ominous when I noticed that the other four guys, shoulders slung either with shotguns or M-16 rifles, had circled around to look into the shell over the bed of my pickup truck. But given how cold it was, and how little traffic was on the road at 1:00 a.m.up there, I soon realized that they just had that great curiosity of the inane that we all get when we are really bored. Since they were looking for smuggled goods, it was worth a look at the covered bed of an American's pickup that had a tarp covering what was obviously a lot of boxes and crates.
I got out and opened the back of the truck, throwing off the tarp so that they could see my camping equipment. I've spent twenty years accumulating camping gear, and I figured it would all be useful
because most of it was there. I imagined having my stuff spread out all along the side of the road, everything turned inside out and suspiciously turned over in cold hands. But they poked a couple of crates, said that was fine and let me know that I was done. I closed the tailgate and hopped back into my warm cab, and they bade me good evening. I was on my way inside of two minutes.
In that two week trip, I ended up traveling the length of the peninsula of Baja and I must have gone through the same drill for different yet identical groups of soldiers on the order of ten times. The first few times, I was apprehensive. The stops are in remote areas, my Spanish is not great and I'm not used to being stopped and searched by groups of heavily armed teens. And given the reputation in the United States of soldiers from south of our borders, I admit that I wasn't sure what to expect.
What I got was always pretty much the same. The senior person would know just enough English to ask me if I was carrying guns or drugs, and I knew just enough Spanish to assure him that I wasn't. They were always polite and most were friendly. Because of the tarp-covered crates in the back of my truck, I always had to shut off the engine and open up the back. But no one dragged my gear out or gave me any concern about my safety, and I was always on my way in no time.
It might help that I'm a clean cut sort, around 40 years old and was taught by my mother to be unfailingly friendly and polite to anyone holding an automatic weapon. And having been in the military for a few years I could appreciate that these guys were just young guys doing a boring job and who were always either too cold or too hot. And it certainly helped that I really did have nothing to hide. Aside from the tequila and the pipe tobacco, I was drug free.
After I returned from my trip, I learned a few things about why these searches had been implemented sometime in the couple of years since my last trip to Baja. It had come to light that the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas had been receiving some weapons from the United States. How many, I couldn't say. But apparently some of them had been going through Baja, either to be airlifted further south or taken south along the coast in boats. I also learned that some drugs, particularly cocaine, have been brought into the U.S. from Baja. The peninsula has no shortage of abandoned airstrips, which are in remote areas and capable of supporting small jet aircraft with a little work. If one route into the U.S. gets closed, traffickers will try new ones, like water seeking a way down hill. And some cocaine had been landed at remote strips in Baja and then shipped across the border in trucks and cars. The Mexican version of the War On Drugs was trying to stop them.
I went down to Northern Baja again in February of this year. Not far south. Just down to Ensenada, then through the mountains via Highway 3 from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of California. There were no Army checkpoints between Tijuana and Ensenada. But I did pass two of them on Highway 3 in the interior. And south of Mexicali on Highway 5, there are a three or four checkpoints to pass through on the way down to San Felipe. In two years, the drill hasn't changed and neither have the soldiers. They are polite, and I was on my way in no time. Even more quickly this time, without the tarpaulin-covered boxes in the back of the truck.
So should you be heading south by car or truck into Baja, don't be alarmed or surprised when you come over a rise and see a group of soldiers stopping your car. Just remember to smile and say "No Drogas, No Armas" And you should have no problemos.
© 1998 Don Merritt; All Rights Reserved