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— Low End of the Dope Chain By Bob Owens The chiefs of Mexican narcotics cartels get the headlines, but they couldn't make a nickel without burros or mulas -- donkeys or mules -- who smuggle the contraband across the border. A Customs department spokeswoman in San Diego believes there are hundreds of these smugglers in action, most of them young men from the border cities who crave money and adventure.

For nine months in the early 1990s, a young Tijuanan named Victor worked as a burro; marijuana was his specialty. In the living room of the same modest house in which he lived as a drug smuggler, he tells his story while chiding or cuddling one of his three children. He is tall, wiry, and animated. As he speaks he slides between Spanish to English, which he says he learned by watching hours of American cartoons.

What got him into the drug trade was a conversation he'd heard between relatives; they discussed how easy it would be to bring drugs into San Diego each time they crossed the border by car. Victor realized that he had driven over the line may times without being pulled into the secondary inspection area for an automobile search.

Victor was 19 then, in his last year of high school. (He'd been held back a year for too many fistfights, an activity he admits he enjoyed as much as playing high school basketball; he was one of the city's top scorers.) School bored him, and he was working part-time as a carpenter in a shop near his house, in a colonia a few miles from downtown. He wasn't earning enough to get married or to party.

A guy in the colonia, about ten years older than Victor, was known to be a drug smuggler. Victor went to this acquaintance and told him he wanted to go to work, to make some real money. This acquaintance arranged a meeting with his boss, who was a rung higher on the narcotics-trafficking ladder. "The boss waited for me in front of the racetrack," Victor recalls. "I told him I needed some help, that I wanted to work. He asked me when I could start. 'Right away,' I told him." (Victor didn't want to reveal this man's name or to which cartel he belonged. He also requested that I change his own name and a few minor details.)

Two days later, by arrangement, Victor met this boss again at a strip mall parking lot in the city's 5-10 section, a few miles past the track. The boss said he'd been told that Victor enjoyed fighting. That was a good sign, the boss noted. This sort of work took huevos (balls).

Victor was told to leave his own vehicle there, an old 4 x 4 Blazer, and take home a car the boss had parked in the lot, a new Cavalier, a car to be used to transport the dope from the meeting spot to Victor's house. Then the boss handed him a paper bag. Inside was $10,000, American money. It was to buy another vehicle, the actual car used for smuggling, and to pay for any modifications necessary to pack the dope. "When I got home I opened the trunk of the Cavalier. There was 250 pounds of dope, marijuana." It was compacted into more than 100 one-kilo bricks, he says, each 2.2 pounds.

"My job was to bring the dope to my house, package it, put it in my car, and take it to the United States." For this, Victor was to receive $2500 a week. All financial transactions in the Tijuana drug underworld were done in dollars.

His neighborhood friend explained how he would do the work. Each brick was to be wrapped in plastic (with the same device used to package grocery store meats), taped, wrapped again in foil, covered with grease to hide the aroma, and placed inside the automobile tires. With part of the ten grand Victor bought another old utility vehicle, a '78 Blazer. He removed all the inside vinyl paneling, "so that at the border they wouldn't want to do a search."

Before making his first run, he told an old friend from school what he was planning. His friend was alarmed and outraged. "He asked me if money meant so much to me. He took all the money out of his wallet. He said, 'Here, take it. If you're going to do this for money, I'll give you my money.' "

Three days after he'd taken home the pot he was ready for his first crossing. Most of the bricks were packed inside the tires, but those that wouldn't fit were stuffed into a couple of gym bags and placed on the floor of the rear seat. Victor's fellow smuggler and mentor went with him the first time. He offered as advice a Mexican maxim: Usa la cabeza y usa el colmillo. Use your head and your eyetooth, or, be smart, be sharp, be smooth. Victor figured he could handle that.

He got to the border at 11:00 a.m., when the boss had told him to arrive. When he pulled up to the gate he was asked where he was going. To Chula Vista, he said, to get some new tires for his car. He was passed through.

What he told the agent was true. As instructed, he drove to a Chula Vista shopping mall and parked near a tire store. Soon, four men showed up (two Latinos and two gringos), jacked up the car, and put on different tires. "It didn't seem unusual in that area, with a store right there that sold tires," says Victor.

After that, it was always the same routine. He'd go over every day to meet the boss, get the Cavalier with the mota in the trunk, then return to the same meeting place to get his own car, drive home, package, grease, and stuff the bricks into the tires. As ordered, he always arrived at the border before noon, except when he'd make two trips a day into Chula Vista, as he often did the first few months. He'd heard from other burros he'd gotten to know that the first time you were caught smuggling marijuana, if you had less than 100 pounds, it would only be a misdemeanor, not a felony, and you'd be out of the gringo jail in a month or two at most. This information gave Victor more confidence. After the first trip he never packed much more than 40 kilos.

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