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First trip

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?

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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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