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and full ui 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 northheart pounding, adrenaline rushing all the way home across an abandoned highwayand arrive without incident. This is too damned easy, I think to myself. This would prove to be the beginning of a long personal relationshipby dope trade standardsbetween 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 Piedritasa small ejido in the desert mountains of Northern Mexicoafter 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 thereseveral hours of rough dirt roads separate it from the nearest pavement. Celerino married a woman from an influential family in Piedritasthe 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 alfalfaand almost starved. Needing money, he decided to try his hand at selling an illegal product to the gringoscandelilla wax. This valuable wax is derived from candelilla, a spineless, fibrous succulent that grows in clumps of pencil thin, greenishgray protrusions. The plants dot the hills surrounding Piedritas. continued on page 36 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. 1/7/05 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7