April 2013 on the Mexican Border
We thought we had run the gauntlet and the rest was easy. After 1,600 kilometers of potholes and topes (speed bumps), several near accidents and numerous Mexican army drug checkpoints, we were close to the U.S. border. And then things got interesting.
As we rounded a bend on a flyover bridge a backup of Mexican trucks stopped us. We were mired in a 4-mile back-up stretching to the border at Nogales, AZ. All trucks must go through the Mariposa border station just west of downtown Nogales. At Mariposa, U.S. custom agents laboriously search the trucks for drugs and smuggled humans. Passenger cars can enter the U.S. at Mariposa as well as downtown Nogales, Mexico, but we wanted to avoid that drug turf zone. In the last 12 months three drug tunnels had been exposed by border guards and gunfire in the city is frequent.
Going south we breezed through Mariposa, with no one on either side paying us any attention, but going north we obviously made the wrong border crossing choice. We were looking at an all day/night wait to cross at Mariposa. But we had the Nogales option if we could turn around. We saw several passenger cars backing up doing 360s directly into oncoming traffic. I got out and asked the frustrated truck driver behind us if the Nogales checkpoint was better for us and he said, “Si, es mas rapido.” My wife Juliet saw a break in the concrete highway divider wall just big enough for us to squeeze through and we escaped the truck quagmire and headed for downtown Nogales, Mexico.
Green signage funneled us through Nogales’ narrow streets to the border. When we got in sight of Uncle Sam’s hulking concrete and barb wired border compound an army of beggars and roving salesmen offering newspapers, Chiclets, piñatas and wildly colored lucha libre wrestling masks were walking between cars. Every inch of real estate leading to the checkpoint was taken by Mexican storefronts offering medical services, ice cream and cell phones. All serve those bored motorists stuck in the backup. A father and his young daughter walked through the traffic licking ice cream cones. A beggar in a wheel chair wheeled between cars. Young men with squeegees washed windshields. We patiently stewed.
After crawling for 90 minutes we got to the checkpoint and when we told the agent we had been in Mexico six weeks he motioned us to the inspection station within the compound. The agricultural agent came over after ten minutes and asked if we were bringing back any fruit or vegetables from Mexico. “Even if a mango or tomato has rolled under your seats you will be fined $300. Are you sure there is nothing in your vehicle?” I said there wasn’t, nothing was found but in the stall next to us, agents were tapping with metal pipes an SUV whose four Mexican occupants were being interrogated.
As I waited in line I realized that crossing an international border puts travelers in the crosshairs of the socio-politico-economic pressures impacting countries that straddle a border. It can be a cauldron where distrust between countries boils to the surface. Our experience was shaped by NAFTA and all the maquiladora factories trucking their product to the U.S. Throw in Mexico’s drug war and the U.S. debate over illegal immigration and it’s no surprise travelers have to sweat it at many of the 58 U.S.-Mexico border crossings.
Trying to cross a border with something valuable puts a whole different spin on the border experience. In the mid-1990s, my wife’s parents relocated to Belize and needed someone to drive their Buick Regal from L.A. to Belize. I volunteered along with a photographer buddy of mine and we had an amazing 5,000 mile trip through Mexico hitting every beach and archaeological site between Tijuana and the Belize border at Chetumal. We had all the proper documentation when we reached Belize’s border and didn’t foresee any issues. We had avoided a shorter route going through Guatemala because Guatemala didn’t regard Belize as a country and we didn’t want to get in the middle of that ongoing spat.
My wife’s father, Russell had worked at the customs department in Belize and we had a folder full of documents for importing his car. What we didn’t realize was the brisk illegal business of selling stolen cars in Belize. Many entrepreneurial Mexicans were driving into Belize and selling cars for high profits without paying import duties. At the Belize border we showed our documents and offered to pay the requisite duty on the car. The customs inspector had other ideas. After thoroughly going through our stuff which included a month’s worth of funky camping gear and laundry, he was satisfied we weren’t trying to smuggle booze or drugs into his peaceful nation. He assigned one of his young employees to accompany us into Belize City to make sure the vehicle would be impounded in the customs yard where Russell would have to fetch it and pay the duties.
For the next four hours we traded life stories with our passenger who sat in the back seat patiently listening to our travel tales. In effect he was a traveling border. By the time we hit the impound yard we had made a new friend. A small country like Belize derives big revenues from imported vehicles and was not about to let us slip through without a chaperon.
Tea, Lentils, Bribes
Glenn Mallory has seen his share of border crossings. He has been deported twice from Mexico and has become an expert in navigating borders in far flung places with his cargo, large translucent panels and skylights. Mallory’s company, New Mexico based Iluminacion Natural Inc. installs walls and ceilings that allow light, but not heat, to enter buildings.
Mallory’s border peak performance might have been on a hospital project in Kathmandu, Nepal. The project required panels to be shipped to India then trucked into Nepal at the Birgunj border crossing. Most CEOs would hire a local customs broker to oversee the border crossing into Nepal but Mallory traveled to Rexhall, the Indian customs outpost on the Nepal border. He drank tea with customs officials and waited in a lineup with oxen and other exotic trade items to assure his shipment would make it smoothly into Nepal intact and on time.
“My customs broker said it should take a day but I should pack for three; things never happen quickly. It’s a mud hole kind of place where people eat with their hands, and I was told I would die if I ate the local food. I had hot lentils for lunch and I’m still here,” Mallory recounted. “Our panels have aluminum and could be valuable there and recycled on the spot. If one screw is missing from the container, we have big problems.”
The customs officials broke off the truck’s seal, inspected the cargo, and after a long discussion about whether the parts were new or used, pulled Mallory into a small office. “They did not name a price, but I refused to hand over a bribe and they backed off. From there things went smoothly and we got through that day.”
The big problems would come down the road, getting his panels into Katmandu. “The truck was too tall, and it couldn’t make it under the phone lines. We put a guy on top of the truck with a pole, and he lifted the wires high enough for us to pass through. It took us five hours to go two kilometers on the ring road outside Katmandu in the pouring rain.” Telephone service was interrupted in the area and irate people followed the truck screaming. Mallory had to diplomatically tell them phone service would soon be back.
Fall into the Gap
At the world’s toughest overland border crossing there is nobody checking your docs. There is no border checkpoint. It’s a no-go zone unless you’re a Colombian FARC rebel, a drug/gun smuggler or looking to illegally log Panama’s rainforest. There are no roads through Panama’s Darien Gap that borders Colombia and is the only land connection between Central and South America. You can’t get across the Panama/Colombia border by road without risking life, limb and vehicle. Those foolhardy travelers who attempt it get lost in the swamps or kidnapped. Robert Young Pelton’s publicity pandering attempt ended in a ten day kidnapping in 2003. “Everything that’s bad for you is in there,” Pelton said after his rescue.
Less impossible border crossings but extremely challenging include going from Mongolia to China via train, going overland into Uzbekistan and crossing the Latvia-Russian border. You have to love train travel to ride the Trans-Mongolian Express into China. At the border expect massive heat, sand and tedium. The railroad track gauges vary slightly in each country and necessitate the carriages being lifted and having their bogies changed at the border. That operation combined with passport and customs control will take hours.
In December 2007, there were 2,200 trucks waiting to cross the Latvian-Russian border. Wait times there continue to be measured in days and weeks not hours. It’s not unusual for 400 trucks to get stuck crossing there. Have a weighty book, plenty of petrol and an empty can handy for bathroom breaks. If you’re looking to get into Uzbekistan make sure your immigration forms are airtight. Anything less results in fines and plan for a five to six hour hassle that will likely include a thorough body search. Once immigration gets through with you there is a 30 minute walk across the searing desert to get into Kazakhstan.
Beauty on the Border
The best border experiences often come at the national parks that spill over countries and are deemed international peace parks. Maybe it’s the mountain air or the spray of the waterfalls that makes border guards more amicable. It’s more the smell of money that countries sniff as they make it easier for tourists to spend their money in these spectacular places. Among the world’s great natural border crossings include areas around Victoria Falls (Zambia/Zimbabwe), Iguaçu Falls (Brazil, Argentina Paraguay), Niagara Falls, (U.S./Canada) and Glacier/Waterton National Parks (U.S./Canada). Southern Africa alone has nine peace parks that straddle borders.
Crossing peace park borders in rural areas often presents different kinds of challenges. Driving through rural Montana to get to the Canadian border can be problematic especially at night as moose and other wildlife abound. The border stations close at 11 p.m. nightly from May 15 on when they seasonally open and the snow is cleared. Plan ahead and carry camping gear if the border crossing is closed.
Remember crossing any border is not the time to be on automatic pilot. Always do your pre-trip homework, have the proper docs and Plan B in your back pocket.