Contrabando

An Excerpt from

Contrabando

What they don’t teach you in business school – A memoir from West Texas

BY DON HENRY FORD, JR.

The following article is excerpted from Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy, by Don Henry Ford, Jr. Copyright © 2005 Cinco Puntos Press. All rights reserved. was born in February 1957 at a hospital in Midland, Texas—not four blocks away from the childhood home of George W. Bush. West Texas was in the middle of a drought, and huge sandstorms filled the winter sky. My dad was twenty-seven, my mom twenty-two. I was their first child. My grandmother Ford took one look at me and nicknamed me “Cowboy.” This proclamation proved prophetic. . . The following is an account of events as I lived them. Not all of the story is here. It took years for this stuff to happen and many boring days occupied the space between events. I omitted some episodes due to possible repercussions that might come to friends or me to this day. I left out other things because I knew it would be hard for anyone to believe I didn’t quit sooner—especially if I described all the times I got arrested in Mexico. But this story isn’t only about drugs or me—not entirely. It can’t be. It’s about a world gone mad—it’s about fire and smoke and sweat, blood and dirt and blisters, empty stomachs, sick children, the feel of wood, the smell of a horse, barbecue, grains and fruit—and smooth brown skin and glistening black skin and white skin burned red, and sun and freezing cold and water, and spirits and plans and sky, stars in the night—and love. We have forgotten where we came from. I have to remind myself. I can’t forget. We must not forget. But we do. ur Bakersfield farm was located in an area known as the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. The land was flat, with rich, silty loam soil. It was surrounded by flattop mesas and looked somewhat like the former floor of an ocean. A closer look at the rocks on those flattop mesas revealed evidence of sea creatures and lines that had at one time been boundaries between land and sea. Now the only water to be found in the Bakersfield valley ran underground. Minneapolis-Moline engines, which ran on natural gas also taken from the ground nearby, sucked this precious substance through wells to the surface. Without this water, the ground above—although rich in nutrients—would support little growth of any kind. With it, incredible yields were obtainable. But incredible yields didn’t necessarily mean a profit—in fact huge yields just meant you lost less money. Everyone except a few die-hards had given up farming the Bakersfield valley. The Pecos River formed the northern border of our farm, which officially meant we were west of the Pecos, where in times past it was legal to kill Mexicans without getting charged for murder. Old timers still tell stories of people who dragged a body across that river to avoid prosecution. In their day, the Pecos was said to have been a mighty river but upstream dams put an end to that. Now it’s a pitiful stream of extremely salty water moving through a thin strip of salt cedar trees—almost the only kind of tree that will tolerate the levels of salinity found there. Preparation for a cotton crop in the Bakersfield valley began in the winter. José and Inez plowed, day after day, while West Texas winds raised clouds of gritty dust. Icy wind found its way through thick layers of clothing and the constant vibration and noise from the tractor left their bodies numb and sore, but they persevered, one pass at a time, breathing through bandanas wrapped around their faces. Next came the process of cutting rows, which were made with a tool-bar armed with eight rows of listers. On either side of the tool bar, telescoping marker discs marked the ground to provide proper spacing for the next pass of the tractor. Any momentary loss of concentration would cause problems the rest of the year. After rows were laid out, Inez took a three-way blade and cut dirt ditches from which we irrigated the fields. Dams were formed using tarps, four-by-fours, pieces of sucker rod and plenty of hard labor with a shovel. Water was introduced to the ditches and then drained into individual rows with siphon tubes. Balancing the number of tubes with the output of the well was critical. Too many would draw the water down until some lost their siphon and left dry rows. Not enough tubes and the water would rise until the ditch overflowed and probably broke. Each dam had to be reset every 24 hours. We had as many as five of these setups going simultaneously, not counting those on the alfalfa and coastal fields. Irrigation engines failed and had to be replaced. We kept two spares on hand—the moment one failed, we replaced it. The disabled one went back to the shop to be overhauled or repaired. After pre-plant irrigation, seed was planted into moist earth. Once again, great concentration was needed. If the rows were improperly spaced, cultivators and harvesting equipment would later be unable to do their jobs. Once the plants emerged, the first cultivation was performed, and then the field was watered again. After each watering came another cultivation. Mexican laborers went through the rows with garden hoes to remove weeds missed by the cultivator and to make sure the plants were properly spaced. Constant vigilance was required to spot insect invaders, which could make all of the above work null and void. When bugs were found, insecticides were sprayed either by tractor or by daring aerial pilots who zoomed just feet over the crop at full throttle, shooting skyward at the end of the field, turning sharply while almost straight up and then swooping back down in the opposite direction for another pass. Watching the plants respond to all this care got into my blood. Each day the plants grew until the time came when acre after acre—450 of them to be exact—stood four foot high or better, loaded with bolls. The banker came out and surveyed the field. “Best crop I’ve seen this year,” he said. Prices were holding steady. Our family owed the bank $800,000 at 14 percent interest, meaning we had to make over a hundred grand above all costs just to pay the interest. Fall came and the bolls began to pop open. Now the once-green rows of plants sported spots of bright white cotton. In order to speed up the maturation process, we sprayed defoliant on the plants, once again from airplanes. We lined up a contract stripper to harvest the cotton. It rained. New leaves emerged. We sprayed again, this time with arsenic acid to kill the plants. The contract stripper assured us he would come on a particular day. The date arrived, but he didn’t. I drove by the fields, fighting off feelings of pride. The plants were dead but covered from top to bottom with beautiful, white pillowy bolls of cotton. Never in my life had I seen such a crop. Cotton was bringing almost a dollar a pound so we had a shot to pay down our car loan and make a nice profit. Day after day, the contract stripper came up with excuses. We got pushed further and further back on his list. Clouds began to brew in the evenings. I watched with fear and anticipation, but the storms held off. Finally the strippers arrived. The first day, they stripped 20 acres. It yielded almost three bales per acre, which meant we had close to $600,000 worth of cotton in our field. That night I watched as the clouds formed once again. Lightning raced across the sky and loud claps of thunder came closer and closer. Drops of rain turned into a steady onslaught of rain, wind, and hail, buffeting our trailer house like a boat in a storm at sea. I knew without looking what I would find the next day, but I had to look anyway. There was no difference between the rows that had been stripped and those that hadn’t. Brown stalks remained; below that was a mat of mud, leaves, and cotton, laced with arsenic acid. An entire year’s work was gone. If the cotton hadn’t been poisoned, we could have at least turned cattle in to eat it, salvaging something. José and Inez knew what else the storm meant: Their jobs were on the line. No crop meant no money—money we needed to pay their wages. Insurance companies play the odds, and they knew that there was a great risk involved in growing cotton in the Bakersfield valley. Consequently the premiums they charged to insure a cotton crop were so high that they guaranteed a loss, even when a crop was made. So we didn’t have any insurance. first met Oscar Cabello through Vicente, one of the hands who worked on my dad’s farm. Vicente was a rare breed: quiet, kind, considerate and reliable, with no discernible bad habits—he didn’t drink, smoke, swear, womanize or anything else that would have made him interesting—or like the rest of us. He showed up for work on time every day and smiled a lot. On the other hand, I had plenty of vices and wasn’t overly concerned with hiding them from the world—except for my marijuana use from my dad and a weakness for pretty women from my wife, which proved somewhat more difficult. All the hands knew I smoked pot and over time found out about my first aborted attempt to acquire marijuana in Ciudad Acuña. Shortly after José Chavez steered me toward a legitimate source in Santa Elena, Vicente told me his oldest brother also knew people in the business, who might be more honest than those José dealt with. white Chevy van pulls up to the entrance of our farm and stops. I arrive from the field in a big farm truck, covered in mud and grime from irrigating. . . . We shoot the breeze for a while, then Oscar asks me if I am interested in buying any marijuana. I tell him that I am. I have doubts about his connections, simply because Vicente is such a meek and mild kind of guy but figure it can’t hurt to check it out. Oscar does seem different—more confident and aggressive than his brother. He briefly describes where we’ll be going and where his hometown of Piedritas is in relation to the part of the river I know. I’m left with only a vague idea of its location. Oscar and I arrange to drive down to the river where he’ll sell me a small load, about twenty pounds. Sunday morning arrives. Before sunrise, I meet him at Fort Stockton. He drives the white van, and I follow in my Suburban. We drive from Fort Stockton to Alpine and then head south through the open expanses of the Big Bend region. The country around Alpine is beautiful but it’s hard to appreciate that beauty under these circumstances. I see broad grassy plains specked with cattle, presided over by brooding mountains welcoming the sun’s first light. Jackrabbits dash across the highway. I try to avoid hitting them but their movements are unpredictable. Oscar doesn’t bother trying to miss them. I hit just as many as he does. Oscar leads me all the way to La Pantera crossing, better known among gringos as Talley Crossing or at least that’s what the sign at the cut-off tells me. Midmorning finds us near our destination. We encounter a thick strip of vegetation and follow a path through a thick strand of salt cedar trees barely wide enough to allow our cars to pass. We pull up to the edge of the river and wait on an embankment overlooking the water. Waiting doesn’t come naturally for me. And knowing why I am waiting leaves me acutely uncomfortable. I watch. I listen. I smoke. After a couple of hours, the sound of a pickup reaches our ears, approaching from the Mexican side. Oscar tells me to wait and walks off into a thick stand of salt cedar trees interspersed with large patches of river cane. I never see the truck. Thirty minutes later—which seems like three hours to me—he reappears and waves, signaling me to follow. I follow the big man down a trail into a thicket where a cardboard box sits out in the open. I inspect the contents. The weed is brown and full of seed. I produce rolling papers. I break a bud, try to discard some of the seeds, and roll a joint. Oscar declines to smoke with a smile and a wave of his hand. “You don’t smoke?” I ask. “No,” he replies, grinning. Almost shyly. While I smoke the joint, a huge rattlesnake approaches. He follows the trail and we are blocking his path. He coils and begins to rattle, threatening us. This is the first and only time I’ve ever seen a rattlesnake confront a human without having first been disturbed. It proves to be a fatal mistake. Oscar calmly picks up a small tree limb and beats him to death. The marijuana isn’t great, but I think I can sell it. It’s summertime and there’s nearly always a shortage of Mexican marijuana during these months. We make our deal. I load the weed and leave. Oscar stays behind. I drive north—heart pounding, adrenaline rushing all the way home across an abandoned highway—and arrive without incident. This is too damned easy, I think to myself. his would prove to be the beginning of a long personal relationship—by dope trade standards—between Oscar Cabello and me. I would meet nearly all of his immediate family and come to know them like brothers. Most white Americans have little justification for entering the drug business. While we many claim we do so to save the farm or our business or because no other options are available, the truth is it represents what we think will be easy money and a convenient way to stay high. We have other opportunities. Some Mexicans have real reasons for getting into the dope business. Oscar was one of those. I won’t say he used all the money he made for good things, because he didn’t, but he did do some good for a hopelessly poor community with few or no realistic options for survival. The fact that his eventual arrest led to the collapse and demise of his community lends credence to this opinion. When I look back at the early life of Oscar Cabello, the line between what is right and wrong is hard to discern. Oscar’s father, Celerino, a little man with a huge smile, originally showed up in Piedritas—a small ejido in the desert mountains of Northern Mexico—after having done something illegal in another part of his country. A good many of the residents in the region arrived under similar circumstances. The area in which Piedritas lies is known as the despoblado or “badlands.” Piedritas is probably the most remote of all the villages there—several hours of rough dirt roads separate it from the nearest pavement. Celerino married a woman from an influential family in Piedritas—the Villarreal family. Oscar was the first child of the union and the oldest of three boys and several sisters who would follow. Unlike Celerino, Oscar grew to be a big man, favoring the European blood of his mother. When I met him, he stood several inches over six feet tall and weighed close to three hundred pounds. Celerino, like others, tried to raise his family around Piedritas and discovered the impossibility of doing so by any legal means available to him. He ran a few cows and goats, grew corn, beans, tomatoes, chilies, melons, a little sorghum and alfalfa—and almost starved. Needing money, he decided to try his hand at selling an illegal product to the gringos—can
elilla wax. This valuable wax is derived from candelilla, a spineless, fibrous succulent that grows in clumps of pencil thin, greenish-gray protrusions. The plants dot the hills surrounding Piedritas. Locals take burros to these hills and pull the clumps from the ground by hand, stack them on the backs of their trusty beasts of burden and haul them back to a paila. Pulling these clumps from the soil is difficult, leaving both back and hands sore from exertion. Finding good sources of candelilla requires a lot of walking over rough terrain. The paila is a large, rectangular metal vat placed in the ground and filled with water. It has to be placed near a source of water, which are few and far between in that part of the world. A space is left open under the paila where a fire is started. Clumps of the candelilla are added to the hot water along with a quantity of acid. This causes the waxy coating of the plants to separate and float to the top of the vat where it is skimmed off and accumulated. The wax then dries into hard, light brown chunks with special inherent properties that give it value. Candelilla wax could not be sold without a permit from the Mexican government and no permits were available to those around Piedritas. Celerino harvested the plants and produced the wax in spite of this, made money, and soon found himself in a position of leadership in the community. Then one day, forestales, the Mexican equivalent to our game warden or park ranger, showed up and intercepted Celerino and some of his men with a large pack train of around fifty burros laden with candelilla wax. The load represented six months of backbreaking work. Shots were exchanged and one of the forestales lay dead. Celerino and his men took off with the load and evaded capture. He was blamed for the killing. For five years, he lived in the city ejido and successfully avoided all attempts by the Mexican government to apprehend him. At some point, the crime was either forgotten or forgiven and Celerino became the president of the ejido. He built a church and took it upon himself to care for those who could not care for themselves, using profits from the illegal candelilla wax trade. The day came when candelilla lost most of its value—an entire day’s worth of backbreaking labor scarcely yielded five dollars. The once-profitable business of selling sotol and tequila died as Americans found easier ways to obtain alcohol legally. People around Piedritas dug fluorite by hand out of the mountains, earning in the vicinity of five bucks a day for a brutal day’s effort. More than one man remains buried in a deep mineshaft which collapsed and crushed him. Others poisoned themselves digging cinnabar and extracting mercury destined for the United States, a practice which also yielded little money. Children suffered with curable diseases like a virulent form of conjunctivitis which leads to blindness, where a dollar’s worth of antibiotic ointment would have saved their eyes. They suffered and died from dysentery from drinking out of contaminated water sources, due to the lack of sewer systems. And nobody on either side of the river cared. This is the world Oscar was raised in. Maybe because his dad did a better job of feeding him as a child, Oscar was more intelligent than his peers or even than his own father. Not only was he more intelligent, but he was bigger, stronger and more compassionate. Because of this, he inherited the burden of taking care of the needs of his community at an early age. He was elected their representative in the state legislative body ruling the area but that did little to bring aid to the community. Piedritas had nothing those in power wanted, and consequently they had nothing to offer Piedritas. A few aborted attempts to help did take place. A water tower was built but the water system that should have accompanied it was not. So the tower stood rusting off in the distance, like some huge monument to the good will of the Mexican government, while women and kids pulled water to the surface from a well in the center of town, using ropes and buckets. A large dam and gravity flow system was built to collect rainwater for irrigation purposes and a lake-full of water accumulated. For a few years crops flourished, but the government screwed the farmers out of what they should have received. The people had no machinery to work the soil or harvest their crops. The Mexican government provided these things. Then, when the crops were harvested, they paid the people with a few sacks of flour and kept the money. The ejiditarios became disillusioned and quit. Celerino had reservations about entering the marijuana business. He had heard all the propaganda. Oscar entered the business nonetheless and gained his father’s favor by investing profits into legitimate businesses for the community: cattle, horses, pickup trucks, and a limited amount of farm equipment. In time, nearly the entire village worked for the Cabello family—farming, ranching, and smuggling marijuana. Those who didn’t, starved trying to make a living collecting candelilla or digging fluorite. Celerino fed the old, retarded, and incapacitated of the town and paid a traveling doctor to come by on occasion. Oscar began to move larger and larger loads through the region, and he made more and more money. Then came setbacks. One man, who had always been reliable, simply drove off with a ton of marijuana—bought on credit—and disappeared, never to be seen again. Oscar had to make good on the debt, probably to Amado Carrillo or another supplier of his type. Then came an ill-fated shootout described in Terrence Poppa’s biography of Pablo Acosta, Druglord. An American narc set up a deal to buy a load of marijuana. The van to be used to haul the load concealed American drug agents. The agents jumped out after the Mexican vehicle containing the load arrived. Shots were exchanged during the attempt to arrest the men. The Mexicans fled, leaving the marijuana behind. While this may be attributed to Acosta, it happened on Oscar’s turf, and he suffered much of the financial loss since most of the marijuana was his. But Oscar had nothing to do with any shooting that day. Perhaps Acosta’s people did. In any event, Acosta was inclined to take credit for what happened, and smarter men were more than glad to let him. It was about this time that Oscar began to look for new buyers. He needed someone he could trust in the United States. And I needed someone I could trust in Mexico. Vicente connected us. I had no money to speak of, but Oscar was willing to front me the dope. And a man with dope will soon find those willing to pay for it in this country. Matter of fact, they’ll find him. I did not want to sell to West Texas locals. To me it seemed like shitting in my own bed—besides, no one out there had any money. Instead I approached Arnold Kersh and his crew in Plainview, who could supply the Lubbock area. Later I also contacted a cousin of mine who lived in Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I got the marijuana into the country. They collected everybody’s paychecks. All of this wealth eventually took its toll on Oscar. While he did continue to turn over healthy amounts to his dad for distribution into the poor community of Piedritas, he also developed a liking for cocaine and whores. It seems to go with the business. Oscar moved his family to Fort Stockton and bought a small conservative home. His children learned English and enjoyed the privileges of most Americans. Oscar began to spend more and more time gone from home, in the company of people like Amado Carrillo and high ups in the Mexican government—drinking brandy, snorting lines, and screwing. No matter how much money a man makes, there’s never enough for that lifestyle. Maybe there are days when, to him, the cash seems unlimited, but mark my words—the day comes when he’ll look up and it’s gone. Don Henry Ford, Jr. began writing while incarcerated in federal prison. His 2003 novel, The Devil’s Swing, is also set in West Texas and northern Mexico. He now lives in Seguin, where he raises and trains thoroughbred horses. ____________________________________________________________________________ NO ONE EVER GETS OUT OF THEIR OWN LIFE- AN INTRODUCTION TO CONTRABANDO By Charles Bowden e knows things they don’t teach in business school. He looks up and asks, “Do you know what $200 million weighs in twenty dollar bills? Ten thousand kilos.” The village sleepwalks past him as he speaks. Children in uniforms moving down dirt lanes to a tiny school, young girls eye boys out of the corner of their hungry eyes. He suddenly remembers losing twenty-six pounds to a punk in Dallas. “I was fucking angry,” Ford recalls, his anger still acid on his tongue. “I sent out word don’t nobody buy from this guy. After about two weeks, he calls and I say, ‘Listen, you motherfucker. I know where your mother lives, your family, and I’ll waste them all if you don’t get that shit back here.’ And the punk did what I told him to do. But I thought, what in the fuck has become of me. I’m willing to kill some asshole over this shit.” Business is never easy. Rising always takes a toll. Freedom is never free. And the market, well, the market is never predictable. And it is always all about money and then when the money comes it is never enough and when the money comes it don’t mean shit. Money is how we explain our actions to others, but it never explains them to ourselves. That is the fact of business. Make it a story and kill it—a story of drugs, a story of espionage, a story of crime. Or make it money. One man Ford deals with winds up taking in $200 million a week. His friend in the village reaches out and joins a global combine. Ford himself clears ten million or more. He can’t say for sure, he can’t recall it all. It comes and it goes. But it is business. Get in, get out, retire, buy that mansion, have those pleasures. Live free. The same thing, whether a dirt lane in a forgotten village or Wall Street. Money can’t buy you love. But it can doom anyone. Years ago, the government came to the village, built a dam and laid out fields. The campesinos worked like dogs, brought in almost fifteen hundred acres of wheat, threshed the crop by driving trucks back and forth over the sieves. Then the government took the crop and gave them no money, just a little flour. They gave up. That is the legend of the village. And then, just a few years later, Ford comes and plants a field and the crop is green and soars to the sky. And a plane lands and the cargo goes into a cave and suddenly there is money for meat and beans and maybe even a beer now and then and the women smile and the children skip down the dirt lanes. And then the army came, men went to prison, the village began to die and now only a few families remain. And one day, Ford returns trying to understand how he made it and how he lost it and everyone’s face lights up because his face makes them remember when they were men and stood on their own two feet during that brief holiday from their doomed lives. Ford comes out of the canyon, down the hill, back to the village, past the vultures roosting in the burying ground. And the men say, come back, plant again, it was good then. Ford’s eyes survey the abandoned fields and a gleam appears, just for the flicker of a second, but it appears as brilliant as a marijuana plant racing toward the sun. He was born to make things grow. Ford wrote this book. He thinks he learned things others should know. He thinks what he has learned is not about drugs, not about prison, not about crime. He thinks he is lucky to be alive and must pay some debt for being alive. So he struggles to get it down . . . Once upon a time, there was big money, hot women, and a whiff of freedom. After seventeen years, he finally revisits what he lusts for and what he dreads. It is late afternoon now, Beto’s woman is making fresh tortillas, bowls of beans and rice and stew rest on the table in the mud house with three-foot thick walls. Dogs laze by the door. Don Henry Ford is part of a generation that tasted the big money and lost it. He’s part of his country’s endless lost generations that stumble into a boom and think such moments are reality. He drives as the sun sinks. Twenty miles down the dirt track he comes upon a small building in the desert where they sell him gasoline from a barrel. He says he once worked here as a drug smuggler. The little brown man filling his tank lights up. He remembers those days. Then, when the Colombians were here, he sold 250 cases of beer a week. Now there is nothing. Don Henry Ford smiles. No one ever gets out of their own life. This article is an abridged version of the introduction to Contrabando. Charles Bowden is the author of Down by the River: Drugs, Murder, and Family. His new book, A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior, will be published in July by Harcourt.

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