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After almost half a year of struggling to survive, our focus changed from trying to get ahead to just trying to get back home. It wasn’t a matter of packing and heading north. The move required first month’s rent, a deposit, and a job, and we had none of those things. We had trapped ourselves in Mexico. Our unemployment had run out, and with it went money for gas and electricity. For a couple of weeks, we cooked meals over scrap wood in the BBQ grill, always leaving a small fire going to warm middle-of-the-night bottles for the baby. We went to sleep right after the sun went down.

Looking for chofers

One day at the sobre rueda, Maria heard about a man who hires people who can cross legally into the States. They’re called chofers, which is slang for delivery driver, and a chofer could earn 60 dollars per trip by delivering groceries. This sounded too good to be true. We were reluctant, at first, but desperate people lose their inhibitions, and so, in the end, we called the man. He explained that it was, in fact, only groceries that could be brought legally into the U.S., mostly in the form of homemade food sent up from families in the interior of Mexico to relatives in the States. It would never be drugs, people, or anything else illegal. Still skeptical, we asked point-blank why he was willing to pay someone to drive groceries across. Why not do it himself? “It’s the volume!” he said. He had a lot of groceries.

After considering our options and realizing that we were running out of them fast, we decided there was no harm in checking it out. Plus, the people from our neighborhood spoke highly of Manuel and his wife, Linda, assuring us that they were “good people.” In Mexico, this is a big deal.

Food orders from Mexico’s interior 
are flown to Tijuana in wrapped cardboard boxes.  Then they’re sorted and transferred to black plastic bags 
for each customer, then smuggled 
across the border by drivers.

Food orders from Mexico’s interior are flown to Tijuana in wrapped cardboard boxes. Then they’re sorted and transferred to black plastic bags for each customer, then smuggled across the border by drivers.

We agreed to meet Manuel the next morning at his small warehouse near the airport. We arrived to find four other cars already waiting. There were two couples with small children, a young guy who looked like a college student, and a chubby girl in a sports car — not at all what we were expecting. We learned that Manuel was usually late because he had to pick up “merchandise” at the airport. The plane was the unreliable part. Only in Mexico, I thought. While we waited, we all sat around talking. The kids ran up and down the sidewalk in front of the empty warehouse. It looked like any other day in that neighborhood, until an hour later, when a man — not Manuel — finally arrived. When he opened the rear doors of his van, I saw three cardboard boxes bursting at the seams. I watched closely as he and a helper carried the heavy boxes inside, cut them open, and began tossing out bags of tostadas, sweet breads, chilies, salted fish, chocolate, and cheese — lots and lots of cheese.


"Kinda, sorta like FedEx"

It took about half an hour for them to transfer the contents of the big boxes into tightly tied small black plastic bags. They passed these out to the people waiting outside. Once handed off, the chofers shuffled the bags to their cars. It was obvious they were all familiar with how things worked.

When the warehouse was nearly empty, except for the ceiling-high pile of collapsed boxes from previous runs, the man introduced himself as Rolando. He asked if we intended to carry some merchandise across. He was a young guy, the son of the man on the phone, we assumed, calm and collected. He didn’t apply any pressure, just asked matter-of-factly whether we wanted to “work.” My wife and I looked at each other. Without needing to discuss it, we agreed. Why the hell not?

We’d been told that, even if you were caught, the only punishment was a fine, which Rolando said he would help pay. As one of the regular chofers put it: “The Border Patrol is looking for illegals and drugs; they don’t care about food.” We were just desperate enough to hear that as unqualified permission.

Ratpacking

You never know what the load’s going to be, only that it’s homemade food from places like Michoacán or Oaxaca, and maybe some personal items and mail. Apparently, it’s cheaper and more trustworthy to send these things along the food network instead of the Mexican mail system: this import-export circuit is a direct pathway for all items traveling from family to family. One week, I noticed a cardboard cutout of a child’s foot in one of the bags headed north; a week or so later, new shoes that would fit that child might be headed south. For a small fee, you could toss almost anything in with the sweet bread and cheese, and it would make its way through the network, into a family member’s hands in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or wherever along the way.

When the merchandise arrives in Tijuana, it’s divided between five, six, and sometimes as many as ten chofers, each earning around $60 per trip. Sometimes, there’s so much that each chofer transports two or even three loads in a day. That was plenty of incentive to my wife and I to take risks. Where else were we going to make that kind of money?

Before loading the merchandise, you have an opportunity to inspect every item to make sure it’s not drugs, cash, or contraband. You can refuse anything you don’t like, but the size of the load determines its value. Everything sent north is legal, except for the amount of goods — it’s the volume that’s the problem. A van full of food and personal items must be pressed through to the other side, and the chofers are how they get it done. Refuse to carry things too many times, and you will find yourself off the phone list in a hurry.

Sometimes, we were concerned with the amount of goods we were transporting, but never concerned enough to stop doing it. We had moved to Mexico to try and get ahead in America, and we weren’t alone. This wasn’t a smuggling operation of desperados hiding behind huge mustaches. It was mostly average Americans forced to choose between surviving and not. Moreover, it would be our ticket home. We felt we had to do it.

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Comments

David Dodd Dec. 19, 2012 @ 6:43 p.m.

I didn't think I would like this story, but I did, it was great. And the account on how the border Nazi's treat you is quite accurate, at least by my experiences there, which have been thousands of times. You are allowed to bring cheese into the U.S. so long as it's a cheese that doesn't contain meat products. Kind of weird, seeing as how most cheese is made from cow's milk and meat comes from cows and stuff. But whatever.

The main thing? They want to scare you. And it works. The truth is, there is NOTHING illegal about bringing food over the border that is approved by their regulations. Great stuff, hope things work out well for you in the ol' U.S. of A.

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Javajoe25 Dec. 19, 2012 @ 11:14 p.m.

I didn't know what to make of this story at first. I thought sure there must be more than meets the eye going on. I mean who smuggles groceries? I thought the organizers must be stashing some drugs in the cheese, or putting them in the car without the driver knowing-- but the dogs would have caught it.

Plus, what is so special about this food? Yea, I know-- there's nothing like real Oaxaca cheese. But I'm under the impression that tons of it are legally shipped in regularly. You mean to tell me that Mexican folk in the US are willing to pay primo prices for home made? It just doesn't seem to make sense on the face of it.

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trathsack Dec. 20, 2012 @ 9:23 a.m.

I don't think they're paying "primo" prices - I think they're paying a lower cost to have the foods they want. If they were truly paying primo it wouldnt make sense.

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Javajoe25 Dec. 20, 2012 @ 11:31 a.m.

Well, it appears to me like it would add up to primo prices, but the fact is we don't actually know what they're paying so it is hard to judge. It just strikes me as an odd and pricey way to get groceries. I'm curious to know what is being purchased that can't be had at a good, local mercado.

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David Dodd Dec. 20, 2012 @ 1:39 p.m.

They aren't bringing in a block or two of cheese here, it's a lot of cheese and stuff. These are items you can't get in the U.S. and are intrinsic to true Mexican cooking. The buyers are selling it off in small chunks for a profit or else they run restaurants. And believe me, you can taste the difference in some of these ingredients.

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maryellen1952 Dec. 20, 2012 @ 6:18 p.m.

Everything in life has a price and a sacrifice. I have lived as a single 60-something female in Mexico (Tijuana and Rosarito) for the past 2 years and I definitely have more $$ in my pocket than when living in the U.S. (I have never lived in the San Diego area due to low paying jobs and high rent). I don't have Sentri and I have adjusted my mental state to accept the fact that it might take me 3 hours to cross at times. Because the San Diego area continues to have continuing low employment opportunities my job prospects have actually been worse this year 2012 than the past 4 years. Due to the fact that I am paying only $300/month for rent at a Rosarito beachfront property apartment, I have been able to survive on the occasional temporary job; I would not be able to survive anywhere in the U.S. much less San Diego. I have 3 small dogs in my apartment without paying a pet deposit and dogs can walk on any beach here in Mexico; that would never happen in the U.S. I feel I have more freedom here in Mexico without the excessive rules and regulations and laws that plague the U.S. And we don't know everything about this couple's lifestyle in terms of how much they spend on things other than rent. Most Americans I know who have adjusted to life here don't attempt to maintain their American lifestyle here in Mexico and shop at Mexican stores rather than stores such as Walmart (which is expensive in terms of Mexican prices). And the younger Americans seem to have the most difficult in adjusting compared with those age 50+ perhaps because they are too impatient. Also the border area has always been the most expensive part of Mexico to live due to proximity. Once I start Social Security in a year I definitely am moving on the Mexican mainland where it is cheaper and not so Americanized. All the retired Americans have caused the Baja peninsula to be more expensive and for me Baja is comparable to Florida in terms of the elderly population.

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delmaracer Dec. 21, 2012 @ 6:37 a.m.

The U.S. is in a world of hurt. We don’t seem to be able to employ the good people who want an honest & decent job, who then have to go to extremes to keep their family from going on the street. Then, after some creative thinking manages its way up, Immigration throws the holy s**t scare into ya. Don’t we live in the greatest country in the world, LOLOLOL.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but this ain’t a country I can be proud to say I'm from.

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Javajoe25 Dec. 21, 2012 @ 9:44 p.m.

I wouldn't quite go that far. I mean, the country is going to hell in a handbasket, but in a very peculiar way. I think there is reason to believe things can get better. I'm more interested in hearing more from anyone living south of the border.

Maryellen52, I take it you are fluent in Spanish?

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Javajoe25 Dec. 22, 2012 @ 8:06 a.m.

And Refried, I know you are down there. Is it really worth the savings? Don't you get tired waiting to cross? Are there things you miss?

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maria52 Dec. 22, 2012 @ 2:12 p.m.

a very touching article. how something so earnest: just trying to make some money smuggling legal things in order to feed the kids, can be warped into something illegal and wrong is stupefying to me. those dastardly border patrol agents. i deal with them frequently. many of them have inflated egos the size of a bloated burrrito! no pun intended. my heart goes out to you, family. hope you can find your way.

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sandiegosunriser Dec. 23, 2012 @ 9:54 a.m.

Regarding living in the Baja area and the mainland, I'd like to know what Gringos do about water...Do they all stick to drinking bottled water or using filter systems? And what about cooking with water and eating in the restaurants? Are there any problems?

Back in the 1970s, I did a road trip into interior Mexico and ate some cereal with leche (milk). I got really sick (probably the infamous Montezuma's Revenge). Don't know if anything has changed in the way of sanitation since then...

None

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Javajoe25 Dec. 23, 2012 @ 11:11 p.m.

I believe the water in mainland Mexico is dangerous for the uninitiated, but Baja is supposedly safe. I have not heard of any cases of intestinal problems for anyone eating or drinking (with ice) down there.

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