Anecdote – Mexican Borders – a tale of drugs and bribes

Tales from the past

Mexican borders.

We were heading for Mexico City by van. I’d sorted the route. It was left at the top of our road.

We were going to travel from Los Angeles to San Diego and then straight along the main pan Mexican highway to Mexico City. We had three kids in tow and a tent but that van was going to be our home for a couple of weeks. It was a thousand five hundred miles.

The Mexican border was the first spot of interest. We went in on a six lane highway and out on a dirt road.

At the customs hut we were pulled over by three surly guards. The first guard told us that he might have to search the van for drugs. I protested. I was hardly likely to be smuggling drugs into Mexico, was I? The guard was unmoved. He pointed to a bunch of cars and vans that had been previously subjected to a similar procedure. They had been ripped to shreds. All the seats, upholstery, roof, panels had been ripped out and slashed to pieces. They had even had their engines removed. It did not bode well. I was imagining what I was going to say to the American teacher we had borrowed the van off.

But then the guard suggested that for a small fee he could make us exempt. I slipped him twenty dollars. He told me that there were three of them. I passed the others notes across.

Petrol in Mexico was half the price of the US so we’d come across with an empty tank. When we’d exchanged our dollars the miserable Mexican exchanger had refused to give us any small notes. We had been given large denomination notes worth fifty pounds. I thought that we would get some change from the garage. We filled up with petrol and I handed one of the notes over. A full tank had only set us back about ten dollars. He gave me around five dollars’ worth of change in a bunch of small currency notes. I protested vehemently. I couldn’t speak Spanish and he pretended not to understand English. I pointed to the price on the pump and demanded the rest of the change. Unrepentant and without a hint of embarrassment he handed me a few more notes. It took another three protests and a lot of angry exchanges before he finally coughed up the right money. He was totally unfazed by the whole scam.

The road, the main arterial road through Mexico to Central America, was a two lane job. It was the major highway for all commerce. There were big trucks roaring up and down it. But it was lousy. You would be driving along at full pelt, round a bend and it would disappear into a dirt track. We would bump and career along for a while before the tarmac would reappear. Obviously some municipal council had not paid their taxes. It was no wonder the whole road was punctuated with shrines to dead motorists. The drivers using that death-trap of a thoroughfare were crazy.

In way of illustration, one day we’d stopped at the side of the road to grab some lunch. A car travelling at high speed, swerved off the road, careered through the undergrowth right to the side of us without slowing and then scuttled back on to the road in a screech of wheel-spin, enveloping us in a cloud of dust. We were in shock.

But hey, much to the amazement of our neighbours, who were sure we would be killed by bandits or smashed to pulp on the road, we made it to Mexico City and back in one piece.

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