As I sit in the dark cell, there is a pervasive odor of feces and urine from a toilet that did not flush, and I have a claustrophobic feeling that the walls are about to cave in on me. Twenty people share six cold, bare-metal bunks, and the man sitting next to me says he will die from leukemia if he does not get medication soon.
I close my eyes and try to convince myself that worse things could happen to me than being locked up in a Tijuana jail cell with 18 other people. But not much worse. And for some peculiar reason, I ask myself again and again: What would I be doing right now if I were leading a normal life? Breathing the fresh air of San Diego, maybe. Dodging seaweed while swimming at Imperial Beach. Taking a stroll through Balboa Park after dark, perhaps. But it does little to assuage the feelings of rage that I have for the police who locked me in here because I had no money to bribe them.
Until you have been incarcerated in a foreign jail, you have no idea how important it is to behave yourself properly when visiting another country. I am and always have been an obedient man by nature, but there is a point at which tolerance becomes extremely difficult to muster, and patience is an almost laughable virtue.
San Diegans’ desire to travel across the border is a peculiar one, especially the desire to make a second trip. Curiosity pulls us down the first time. For me the first time was in 1985, when I was in the Navy and was conned into going by two of my shipmates. I had no real desire to see the place; I had heard plenty about it from friends and acquaintances. Eventually I learned from bitter experience that all of the horror stories they shared with me were quite true.
I can handle the trash in the gutters, the odor, and even the aggressive shopkeepers, and I can certainly tolerate the groping women in the sleazy cantinas, but it is difficult for me to bear seeing the begging mothers with their sad-faced infants. It’s not that I couldn’t afford to give them some money — a dollar could probably buy them enough food for a day or so. But I know that I cannot play savior for all of them, and any charity would only help for that day; tomorrow they would be just as destitute.
So why did I return? I went down there to buy a leather jacket, which costs about $200 here and about $45 over the border. I had my plans carefully detailed in my mind: First I would haggle some shop owner out of a decent leather jacket for a ridiculously low price, then eat lunch, have a couple of Coronas, and make it out of there before nightfall, laughing all the way back to the border. The entire schedule shouldn’t take more than an hour, I thought. At least that was the plan.
However, while sitting in a saloon cooling down with a Corona, I became involved in a conversation with a stranger, an American, who called himself a political liberal. And since I am a conservative, we discussed the notion of writing duet columns, like a print version of CNN’s Crossfire.
Later, after searching about the city for something to catch our attention, we ended up at a bar where we met the class of ’89, celebrating in a festive manner that is legal here and illegal north of the border. Because I had graduated with the class of ’79, I felt it was my duty to impart all of the wisdom I had accumulated during the ten years since I left high school.
That, of course, took several hours, and it was well past nightfall by the time I realized they were preoccupied with their own futures and totally uninterested in my failures. Now, I have heard the horror stories about being incarcerated in a foreign jail, both in the Navy and as a civilian. But these warnings were not too clear to me at this juncture. Had we but taken a taxi to the border, I might not have spent the night in the bote.
My companion and I had very nearly made it to the border when we ran into Tijuana’s Finest. The officers grilled us in great detail about what we had been doing in Tijuana and our destination. All of the talking, however, was in Spanish, and this Total Stranger/Good Friend I was with was trying very hard to keep up with them. I was learning my first real lesson in foreign justice: it really didn’t matter if we understood what was going on or what it was they were accusing us of; they only wanted money. I had placed $40 in my shoe earlier that evening, but of course, I could not find it by this time.
When we both were unable to produce any cash, they accused us of being drunk and disorderly. Right as they were about the first half, the last was a total invention on their parts. In fact, I had never been so cooperative with any cop in my life.
The interrogation continued for a disquieting length of time, and through all of it, I honestly believed they were only going to give us a hard time, then let us go. But when they handcuffed us and threw us into the back of their car, I began to get just a little bit nervous. We were never read any rights (presumably because we didn’t have any), nor were we officially informed of the charges against us. We were simply put into the police car and sped off to the jail. But even as we were driven around the city by the police, I was still certain this was all some sort of scare tactic.
As we were escorted into the jail in Tijuana, I was prepared to remove every item from my pockets, items I was sure I would never see again. When I was arrested once in Michigan, the police had even taken the laces from my shoes. The reason, they said, was to prevent people from hanging themselves, though I had great difficulty trying to visualize a corpse dangling from a shoestring. Rather than take any of my belongings, the Mexican officials only asked me my name and address, and the address I gave them was contrived. I was between apartments and was actually sleeping in my car, but I saw no reason to tell them this. Then we were told to follow one of the guards.