We transferred the food into grocery-store canvas bags, then spread the bags throughout the car, hiding most of it. We used spots that wouldn’t be seen at first glance, but where it wouldn’t be obvious that we were hiding something if the agent decided to poke around. It was right before noon, which we’d been told was the ideal time to cross. It’s usually around an hour-and-a-half wait, not so long that it’s complete hell on the nerves, but not so short that it allows border agents extra time with each car. As it turned out, it took 45 minutes in all, the longest three quarters of an hour of our lives.
We learned from other chofers that it was important to look like just another American family taking advantage of cheap prices in Tijuana, not desperate fools hiding 30 kilos of “bathtub cheese” stuffed every-which-a-where in our car. While we waited to cross, I read each sign two or three times, and Maria edited the same page on her laptop over and over. We never spoke of the load or used words such as “illegal,” “smuggling,” or “secondary”; that would have felt like tempting fate. We were careful to sit properly, to pay attention to the Border Patrol agents’ activities, and to pick the lane that was moving the fastest — all without appearing as if we were giving the slightest care to any of it.
When we finally arrived at the booth, the agent asked what we were bringing back from Mexico. “Oh,” I said, acting surprised at the question. “We did some grocery shopping.” The agent asked what sort of groceries. He glanced into the back of our car. “Well,” I said, “there’s some sweet bread, tortillas, cheese…uh…chocolate, and some formula for the baby. Oh, yeah, and we filled up with gas. It’s all much cheaper down there.” I didn’t mention the 30 kilos of cheese hidden under the sweet bread.
“Okay, then, here’s your paperwork,” the agent curtly replied. “Have a good day.” With that, we were beyond the only hurdle. Once past the gate, it was only a couple of miles to the meeting point, where we handed the food over and collected our money. We were thrilled that the process was clean and simple. All the people we’d dealt with were families with their own kids in tow. No one had gotten hurt, and we’d finally made some money. Things were looking up.
"No passport and no drugs, Officer!"
Into the flow of ratpacking
After making several trips, we came to understand that the first officer we’d dealt with was typical: most don’t ask anything beyond that first question, “What are you bringing back from Mexico?” If they do ask anything else, I learned to answer in general terms and to take my time doing it: agents aren’t interested in long conversations. Rarely do they even let you finish your grocery list before handing you back your credentials and telling you to have a good day. Nabbing someone over groceries isn’t a priority — it’s the illegal alien stuffed in the dashboard or the trunk full of drugs that gives them bragging rights in the locker room. No one wants to pop off about five bags of groceries, not when a buddy has scooped up ten bandidos or a load of dope.
Occasionally, you get a hardass who does one of two things: sends you to “secondary” for further inspection or reads you the riot act about how you’re going to get caught eventually and wind up with a $5000 fine and five years in jail. Which is pretty much bullshit. You declared the items — that’s required — and you weren’t asked about amounts. At worst, they might fine you and confiscate the food.
Chofers came and went so often that, within a few weeks, we were the senior chofers. We understood how the line moved and we had the right answers to keep the agents from paying too much attention. We understood how to duck and weave through the lanes, entering on the left side and working our way over to the right, because this was the fastest way to the front. We even got to know the vendors on the line. The wait became social. Maria and our daughter were regulars for the singing tostada salesman; I was partial to the tamale vendor who looked like a chunky Eva Mendes. It seemed that, for once, things were working out. We were paying our bills and putting money away to move back to the States.
But it wasn’t without its moments. We were sent to secondary inspection on a few occasions. This was usually a nerve-wracking hourlong wait before an agent would come over, poke around, then tell us we could go. Most seemed indifferent to the groceries, though the angry ones did want to yell. Going through secondary the first couple of times was scary, but by the third and fourth time, it was comforting to realize we weren’t that important to them.
However, one morning, things went off-script before we even got close to the booth. We were driving a different car; our old one had died earlier in the week. The new car needed a fuel pump, which I’d replaced with a shiny new one. I didn’t know that freshly cleaned, altered, or repaired surfaces were catnip for Border Patrol agents, indicating a possible hidden compartment for drugs.
The agents called for a drug-sniffing dog to check out the car. At first, we weren’t particularly nervous, since we never carried drugs, though I wasn’t thrilled with the 12 sets of agent eyeballs looking all around. But when the dog arrived, everything changed in a hurry. He alerted on the back end of the car, like a cartoon dog with a board-straight tail and bulging eyeballs, right at the spot where I’d installed the new fuel pump.
Within minutes, the Border Patrol surrounded our car with hands on pistols. First, I was removed and handcuffed, then Maria. Another agent took our daughter from her car seat; no handcuffs for her. We were perp-walked the rest of the way across the border and into a holding cell, where we sat stunned, wondering, What the hell was in the cheese?