I was a small-business manager, and she was an executive assistant, and, financially, we always seemed to be just getting by. I was raised in a workaday Midwestern steel town, steeped in the idea that you were your job, which, of course, I resented. She was a San Diego native born to a cross-border Mexican family; by 30, she had experienced half a lifetime of just getting by on menial jobs.
We were together for several years before we found ourselves struggling against a downturn in the economy, unemployment, rising debts, and a new baby. Facing pending financial ruin, and with an eviction notice pinned to our door, our world and relationship began to fall apart. To be honest, our financial lives had been in decline for a few years before the economy tanked, but now all our time became consumed with being new parents and trying to survive.
Maria’s pregnancy hadn’t been easy, which made things more difficult for us both. By the time the baby arrived, she was deep into postpartum depression and I was trying, and failing, to keep it all together for our new family. For the first time in either of our lives, the possibility of homelessness was part of our daily conversation.
One night, over frozen pot-pie dinners, I suggested something I was sure she would reject out of hand. “Let’s move to Tijuana.” Maria replied without pause, “I was thinking the same thing.”
Maybe the cheap rent and cost of living south of the border would give us some room to breathe, along with a chance of putting money back in our pockets. Because our American reality was that we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, and moving to a different apartment was out of the question. I had about two-thirds of the current amount due in my pocket. In San Diego, all that would get us was evicted. In Tijuana, we reasoned, that money was equal to about six months’ rent. As we were out of options, it was settled: we were moving to Mexico.
The next morning, we began to sell off possessions we hadn’t already sold or pawned. Within a week, we were loading everything that remained into the car and heading down to Tijuana.
South of the border
Living in Mexico is a lot different than living in the States, in a lot more ways than you might think. First, the obvious: it’s less worrisome, financially. In Mexico, most rental agreements are verbal, and deposits are usually very low, if required at all.
After four months of searching, we rented a large, American-style house for a fraction of what our one-bedroom apartment in San Diego had cost. There was a flip side, however. In Mexico, if you default on your rent, the landlord may well walk into the house and start grabbing your things, to sell or keep in lieu of funds owed. Still, with prices this low, and the border crossing less than five minutes away, I figured I’d find a job on the American side, after which things would surely pick up. In Tijuana, this is one of the most sought-after living scenarios: American job, Mexican cost of living.
The author’s two-story 3300-square-foot house in Tijuana rented for just $500 per month, $300 less than the one-bedroom San Diego apartment from which he’d been evicted.
It didn’t take long to realize that moving to TJ wouldn’t improve our lives as much as we thought. Living in Mexico posed challenges, chief among them the fact that, even with the border so close, the wait to cross could be as much as three hours. It turns out that having a job in the States — if you can find one — means crossing in the U.S. before 6:00 a.m. and crossing back into Mexico after 6:00 p.m., regardless of your working hours. And American employers are notoriously unsympathetic to cross-border dilemmas. You need to maintain an American address so that they don’t know that you reside in Mexico; otherwise, with most of them, your application goes to the bottom of the list. It was soon clear that we’d need to make money south of the border. With biting poverty and an overabundance of poorly paid local labor available, that would be difficult — especially for gringos.
We did our best for a while. We tried a lot of different things, including selling homemade food — a common business in Mexico — and gathering up free or inexpensive things from Craigslist and yard sales around San Diego, even items abandoned in alleys. We crossed these things into Mexico to sell at neighborhood sobre ruedas (swap meets).
Within a few months, we were working longer, harder hours than if we’d had regular jobs, but for a fraction of the money. Most days, we did only a little better than break even. On one occasion, after being on the road with the baby the entire day, we were fleeced of the last of our gas money by Mexican border inspectors. We ran out on the side of a dark Tijuana road, three miles from home, and wound up trading a pair of boots, a rocking chair, and some tools for a gallon of gas. That misadventure cost twice what we’d earned from the day’s haul. Taking so many steps backward was frustrating, but we tried to remember that, because of this effort, we weren’t homeless. We were taking care of our child.
In addition to the difficulty of obtaining items to sell, people who buy at the sobre ruedas are muy tocano (as the locals complain while tapping their elbows) — meaning, really cheap. They’re a frugal people, accustomed to doing without, so it’s difficult to sell things unless you can get the items inexpensively. It’s a tough life in Tijuana. Most of our neighbors wondered why “those Americans” would do it willingly.
Among people with options — especially an ability to cross the border — it’s understood that you can live nicely in Tijuana if you have American income: a job in the States, unemployment benefits, Social Security, or welfare. But you can’t make it on Mexican money alone.
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.
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.
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.
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?
We sat in holding for what seemed like forever, listening to the sounds of the agents dismantling our car piece by piece. No one said a word to us. We both knew the dog was mistaken, but maybe someone at some point had snorted some toot off the rear bumper. Surely nothing would come of the search; it was routine. The goods stuffed under the seats were a different matter entirely.
After an hour and a half in custody, an agent came in, handed me the car keys, and said we were free to go. On the way out, I asked, “What was that all about?” The agent couldn’t answer. We got in the car with our daughter and casually buckled ourselves in. We waved good-bye to the agent as we headed out of secondary. Later, we noticed that every bag had been gone through. Evidently, they weren’t interested in the groceries. After all the excitement, those agents must have thought us a profound letdown.
My first solo
Maria wasn’t feeling well. So I decided to make a run by myself. That’s when I got my first “official” warning. The agent was very young and excited. He told me he knew what I was up to, and it would be better if I were honest with him about it. The hell it would, I thought. If the agent really had me, he wouldn’t be asking for an admission of guilt. So I stuck to my story. Finally, he relented. He gave me a stern warning that he was putting me into the computer as a potential smuggler of contraband. He said I would be going to secondary every time I crossed. And, the next time I brought groceries, I’d receive a fine and jail time. At that moment I realized something important: a lot of agents are so frustrated, they say things they know are bullshit.
After crossing the border enough times, you see the same guards. Luckily, for smugglers, the guards see so many people — thousands each week — that it takes them much longer to recognize you. You’re an average couple, in an average car, with average groceries. Every so often, however, you run into the same agent more frequently. In our case, it was a grouchy older agent, a man who seemed to have an excellent memory and a low tolerance for me.
At our second encounter, I was nervous that he would remember me. Rightfully so. After asking if I had anything to declare and then hearing my grocery list, the agent asked, “Another party for your aunt?” Without hesitation, I said, “Excuse me, sir?” as if the agent were speaking Chinese. He said, “You were ratpacking food last week, telling me this same story. So, is she having another party, your aunt?” I said, “I’m not sure what you mean, sir. I think you have me mixed up with another guy.” I could almost hear Maria’s blood pressure rising, her anxiety breaking out of the top of her head like a steam-whistle. The officer chuckled under his breath, handed back our credentials. “You have a great party, sir.”
Back at the warehouse, I told Ramón, another chofer, about the experience with the drug-sniffing dog and also the agent we kept running into. I was seriously considering giving up ratpacking, though I had no way to replace the income. Ramón said something that shook me because of its brutal honesty: “The great thing about America is that you’re innocent until proven guilty. These guys might know you’re ratpacking, but proving it is a different matter. Unless you flat-out admit what you’re doing, they aren’t going to bother with you.”
His logic was undeniable. So I grabbed another bag of food.
Getting back into the American stream
Within a few months, we managed to save enough money to put a deposit down on an apartment in San Diego, but we still didn’t have jobs or other income to support ourselves in the States. We were caught up on bills — thanks to ratpacking, and also from continuing to sell items at the sobre ruedas — but this was only possible because we lived in Mexico for a fraction of the cost. We were at another crossroads. This time, we had some breathing room to think about the idea of moving back for longer than it takes to eat a pot pie. There was no eviction pending, and the baby was here now and doing well. Over the next couple of weeks, we talked about moving a lot, and we decided that we couldn’t be desperados forever. We needed to get back to “the real world.”
It’s easy to move to Tijuana, with no credit check or income verification required. San Diego, on the other hand, requires that and more. With deposit and rent in hand, I searched for weeks, but since smugglers can’t provide income verification, I hit a dead end. Being driven to the brink of destruction causes one to become creative, and I was determined that we weren’t going to be stuck in Mexico. I picked a big, multi-department business in San Diego, typed up an “employment verification” letter that was supposed to be from them — signed by a generically named functionary — and, bingo, We were in. That letter was all we needed. Once again, we would be living in America.
Beginning of the end
We weren’t done with ratpacking. We’d need to continue until we found work in San Diego: there was no way to get by without that income. For about eight weeks, agents scarcely questioned us when we crossed the border. I began to think that, since we’d been crossing with such consistent ease, we were no longer of interest. We had indeed become that typical American family taking advantage of cheap prices in Mexico. Because of this lack of official interest, I came to view the ratpacking as a regular job, something I could rely on as steady income. And then came a warning.
We were going through secondary inspection again, but this time was different. The agent inspecting our cargo said outright that he believed we were ratpacking, and, again, he said it would be better for us if we were honest with him. Which, of course, we weren’t going to do. He cajoled us for about 20 minutes — in between his trips back to the office — and then he was over trying to get us to ’fess up. He signed off on the orange paper border agents write on and stuck it under my windshield wiper, and then he said, “I’ve made remarks on your file. Sooner or later, you are going to get caught. It’s not worth the $20 those guys are paying you.” I thanked him and headed out of secondary, thinking, It’s not 20 bucks, it’s 60, and it is worth it. Because we need to survive.
A few weeks later, on what would be the night of our final trip, it was just me and my daughter doing the run. We arrived at the gate right after sunset. Everything seemed normal. The agent didn’t pay much attention at first, but then his interest was piqued by something. I wasn’t sure what. The agent said I had more in the car than what I needed for personal use: secondary needed a look. In secondary, a cursory inspection was done by a young agent I hadn’t seen before. He disagreed with the first agent’s assessment. He told me he was going to let us pass. He headed to the office with our paperwork but returned with two other agents, one in plainclothes. They opened the back of the car again. This time, the plainclothes agent inspected the bags of groceries. He dumped one bag out onto the floor of the car, something they’d never done before. The agent picked up three or four smaller bags and pointed out something inside them to the newer agent. Then I heard the undercover agent say: “This guy’s definitely smuggling. Don’t let him go.” The trunk lid slammed shut. All the agents walked away, back toward their office. I sat there, pretending to be oblivious to their activities, exactly like someone who wasn’t lugging cheese. After a short wait, a different agent, much older and apparently the supervisor, appeared with the undercover agent in my window.
“Okay, sir,” he said. “I need you to exit the vehicle.”
He signaled for me to follow him to the back of the car. He opened the trunk. “This food isn’t for personal use. You know it. We know it. Are you going to tell us about it, or are you sticking with your story?”
I thought I was done for. Now, it seemed, it was just a matter of degree. I shifted my child up onto my shoulder and measured out a response. “Sir,” I said calmly, “I don’t know what to tell you. You’re telling me I’m lying. And when a federal officer tells you he thinks you’re lying, there really isn’t much else to say.”
Both officers, along with a third who had joined them, looked dissatisfied with my response. The undercover agent picked up one of the bags he’d dumped out, flipped it over, and pointed to a tiny piece of paper inside. The name Veracruz was written on it. He pointed out another piece of paper in a different bag. That one said V. Mendez. A third said Roberto Costas.
Shit, I thought. I didn’t know they’d put names in the bags.
“If you bought this at the market, why are there people’s names on them?” the plainclothes agent asked.
I didn’t have a pre-made answer for this. “Maybe that’s the guy who made it,” I said.
The agent dropped the bag on the floor and walked away, saying, “Get back in your car, sir.” The supervisor followed as the other agents went back to the office. For the first time during this whole cheese-smuggling business, I was genuinely worried, and I was thinking that I should have quit while I was ahead.
Finally, the supervisor returned to the car, this time with a paper in his hand. He said, “I have too much shit to deal with tonight, and I don’t have time for you. I’m going to let you go because of your kid. I don’t want to make you and her have to walk home. But the next time you cross this border with more than a couple of tortillas, I’m taking the food, giving you a fine, and seizing your car. You and your baby will be walking home. Do you understand me?”
“Clearly,” I said.
“You were warned in February, and I’m giving you your final warning tonight. This is it. You’re done with all this. Do you understand me?”
“Clearly,” I said again. I made sure to look him right in the eyes.
He pushed my ID through the window. “Get out of here before I change my mind.”
And that was enough of a reality check. I drove out of secondary, reflecting on how lucky I’d been. What had once been a necessary risk had become an easy way to make money, and it was not worth the risk anymore.
I took the agent’s advice and brought our ratpacking days to an end. Rolando still needs chofers, and every once in a while, we get a text from him saying, “¿Quieres trabajo?” Want some work?