By Jim Evans from the November 2010 Edition
Recently on a typically bright sunny Mexican morning, the kind that crackles with expectation; I was driving my Nissan Pathfinder on the second leg of a journey from Manzanillo to visit an old friend in West Texas. Having enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the company of fellow American travelers, I had departed Saltillo, on what was expected to be a three hour drive to the border between Nuevo Laredo, MX and Laredo Texas. The sun reflected off the stunningly magnificent hills that mark the center of Saltillo, the shimmering waves of heat creating a near ephemeral scene. I noticed the time, it was 8:30 a.m., “hmmm,” I sighed laughingly, ” running a little late. “
(At this point being almost totally acclimated to my adopted country’s special relationship with all that is temporal, I had all but completely weaned myself from the obsession with time that marks most productive peoples of western cultures.. am I ever late, not if I can help it, it is a matter of courtesy, but do I lose track, of course).
Just past the hills of Saltillo, the Autopista, (toll road) winds into the mountains south of Nuevo Laredo. The mountains were spectacular as the morning mists wafted in and out of every crevice, valley and crag. My mind wandered, provoked by Jimmy Buffett’s “Changes in latitude, Changes in attitude”, I was pondering and arranging the orts and jewels of a future article about the unfair treatment of Mexico, my adopted country, by the
American media. Mexico, was of late being unfairly portrayed, even , God forbid, by the likes of Bill “ fair and balanced “ O’Reilly. After all Manzanillo, my home, was considered safe, according to the real Estate agent who sold me my condo. She touted it proudly as in a “safe zone”, and as she had explained it, “the drug people and the Governor have an understanding that foreign visitors are safe here….”. How dare those fools in the U.S. make so much about so little. After all, I should know having driven back and forth between Manzanillo and the U.S. five times in the last three years.
My friend Chicken Leo, yes the infamous “Chicken Man of Ajjijic“, and I even drove to the Guatemala border and spent several weeks in Oaxaca. We also spent several nights in a couple of “dangerous“ states….nobody got shot, killed maimed or abducted.. the only excitement except for the fresh Atun for breakfast, and the rollers and tubes of Puerto Escondido is detailed in my previous Manzanillo Sun article “ Perilous Journey”. Danger INDEED !!!
North of Monterrey, after the mountains, the road is basically straight and could be mistaken for many four lane divided roads in the U.S. and Canada. There are a few villages but no major cities of note. Is it desolate, not really when compared to prairies or deserts in Canada and the U.S. We were travelling, Jimmy Buffet and I, at about 70 mph, kind of slow but the scenery was amazing. I spent at least an hour counting the many different species of cactus.
A small black car, possibly a Dodge Neon with the right rear bumper hanging askew passed us and then slowed down, its smiling rear seat passengers waving and laughing.. I waved back and took up the challenge , as any red blooded male raised in the muscle car culture would and immediately passed them, waving and smiling. I pushed the pathfinder up to 90 mph and lost in my previous ruminations continued on my way, never gave it a second thought.
The Free Zone which extends 26 kilometers south of Nuevo Laredo is a free travel area in which foreign plated vehicles are not stopped with expired tags, and travel within this zone is unrestricted either to foreigners or Mexicanos. This area has many problems and hardships, too numerous to go into here, suffice to say it is considered very dangerous by those who traffic here, be they legal or not. Poverty juxtaposed by opulence is everywhere, one only has to see the crosses on the chain link fence that skirts the Rio Grande( Rio Bravo to indigenous peoples) marking the deaths of those who drowned trying to get to the U.S. I barreled down the Autopista with not a care in the world, life was great and my article was forming. I would really unleash my satirical scalpel on the ignorance of the media.
The owner of Schooners Restaurant, in Manzanillo, suggested that the Columbia Bridge crossing, west of Nuevo Laredo, as the most expedient way to travel. As the turn off approached, I went back and forth in my mind as to which route to take… I chose Columbia.
The Big Surprise…
The Columbia Bridge road is not desolate. Traffic that morning was steady with trucks or other vehicles every 50 to 100 meters apart. It was 11:15 a.m., and we were approx 20 kilometers west of the Autopista when they struck. The small black car passed me and immediately attempted to slow me down… travelling at over 80 mph we were locked in a battle, they wanted me to stop and I wanted them to #$ ^^#$@* … suffice to say I was having none of this. They were deadly serious and determined to stop us. It may have been minutes or even just a few seconds, time was not a concern, suddenly I noticed a second vehicle, a white Ford F-150 on my tail, they now had me sandwiched between them. We were locked together careening, no, flying down the highway. The three vehicles locked together swerved back and forth across the road. We jockeyed for position passing each other again and again. Each time they got in front they slammed on their brakes in an attempt to stop their prize. We were dangerously close to disaster.
Approximately 30-35 kilometers travelling westerly, unable to corral us, the pick up pulled alongside on the right just as the black car slammed on its brakes in front of us.. all I saw was smiles, and tire smoke, maybe my instincts took over, because I immediately slammed on the brakes, (thanks for great ABS), and made a u-turn to the left, crossing to the lanes in the opposite direction… off we sped, J.B., my trusty Nissan and I .. at speeds over 115 mph, several times the governor shut down the engine… soon, I was steady at 115+mph, they seemed to have faded back, the white truck was fading.. whew!! I turned the radio up as J.B. sang “I know enough about ammunition to know when to duck”.
We raced back towards the autopista and the relative safety of the Pemex station there. I was honking my horn and flashing the lights at the traffic travelling in the other direction, my pursuers, were still fading, getting further and further behind safety was close, only five or six Kilometers ahead. There are those that believe when it is your time there is nothing you can do about it, I on the other hand believe that luck comes to those who woo her, but she is a whimsical mistress, sometimes even a bitch, she takes our best with such untimely and merciless abandon, tearing at parts of our being for no reason we can fathom. Of course we have no real control, but if you want me be prepared for a tussle of epic proportions… right !!… the fact is, we are powerless in the face of disaster, so we might as well face it with all the dignity we can muster. To be sure that dignity is as subjectively individual as fingerprints.
It turns out my freedom was an illusion. Sometime later I remembered thinking as I was walking towards the Pemex, “the friggin’ traffic going west had stopped”. It was around 11:20 that morning, the trucks, busses and cars just disappeared. Did my pursuers call ahead, and if so who helped them? I guess we will never know the answer.
Back to careening down the highway. All of a sudden the black car appeared from behind the truck and quickly closed the gap between us. After several attempts they managed to pass. He slammed on his brakes in front of us and at that moment the white truck pulled even, this time on my left. That is when smiling clean shaved passenger in a NY baseball cap brandished “the canon”. I think it was an AK – 47, but who’s quibbling over technicalities… We shut ‘er down JB, my Nissan and me. I don’t think they ever actually pointed the weapon at me, but no matter, they opened my door and indicated I should “ passale” and with no roughness at all had me raise my hands and lay face first against the side of their truck. They smiled the whole time, one of them jumped in my Pathfinder, and as I exhorted, no, no, no, they all sped off in the direction of the main highway. The traffic going westbound resumed, almost immediately. Imagine my chagrin when I realized as I walked towards the autopista I was within one, that’s right one kilometer of the Pemex and safety.
A True Caballero.. Buena Gente
The rest of the day was a blur of reports, with the Federal Policia and the Ministerio de Publico. Roberto Maldanado Siller, the Ministry director, a 40ish English speaking “Buena Gente”, (one of the good guys), took care of me. He called my daughter in Las Vegas the only really emotional moment that day, the insurance company, and put most of his enormous staff to work preparing the multitude of documents which are a part of the many agency reports required. When their copy machine broke down Roberto gave up his lunch hour to personally take said documents to another building and make the 13 copies required. Roberto even had the Federal Police escort me to the border. He instructed me to go thru the back door and get an immigration permit to use to exit the free zone on my return to Manzanillo.
There is much more to this story, many problems were created by the loss of my FM-3, and of course the theft of my vehicle and its import permit. The good news, I still can’t find any bullet holes in my person.
Of course there are many opinions as to the wisdom of travelling to the border by personal vehicle. Some with more cojones than brains want to carry weapons, some use the “you were in the wrong place at the wrong time” rationalization, some have even left Mexico never to return, some just wonder at the wisdom and some just blame it all on drugs … is it worth it ? That is your decision, but before you go I have some suggestions:
1. Read the warnings. Not just US Consular warnings but Texas has some pretty explicit warnings as do Arizona and
2. DO NOT travel alone, especially with an SUV or truck.
3. If stopped cooperate completely.. There is a case where a person sometime after my robbery ran from his pursuers, wrecked his SUV, and was shot in the head, probably as retaliation for wrecking the vehicle, they left the passenger unharmed.
4. Quit blaming just drugs , it is much more complicated, in the last two years attacks have increased partly because of poverty and a terrible economy. Don’t flaunt your possessions, to some less fortunate they are worth stealing. You have but to spend some time as I did in Nuevo Laredo, it will bring tears to your eyes, or scare the hell out of you .. Maybe both.
Above all be aware of your surroundings, for example, I for one won’t be frequenting the Kiosko behind my condo here in Manzanillo at 4 a.m. to have coffee with my buddies in the police department. Just last week I awoke to the sound of ricocheting AK-47 fire, as several hit men attempted to extract vengeance on members the local police. Finally, talk to people, listen to their experiences. In a conversation just last Friday at Schooners some very nice folks from up North told me stories of how every time they have crossed the border recently they have been propositioned for Mordida. Just yesterday, a long time friend related how she and her travelling companion were stopped on the Periferico Sud in Guadalajara; the policeman took all their money and sent them on their way.
As for me, First Class air machine rides are far cheaper, and so far Alaska Airlines hasn’t been pulled over by bandidos brandishing “Canon Grande”. If you have questions regarding the rest of the story contact me:
Jim Evans, at firstname.lastname@example.org