Americans in Mexican Prisons

In the months immediately preceding our incarceration in a Mexican prison for bush, my buddy Win and I had successfully smuggled a few hundred pounds of it across the border into Arizona without a hitch. The trip down into Mexico was supposed to be a time out. We boarded a train down to Mazatlán, caught a ride home with three young Americans and got busted by the Mexican feds on our way back.

Go figure.

At the time, the American Feds were working hand in hand with the Mexican authorities on what was called Operation Intercept. This was Nixon’s baby. At least publicly, he appeared to have a real hard on about drugs.

Looking back now, I doubt his heart was really into it, as much as he had one, but his political instincts had always been ruthless. There was no being reelected without that “Okie from Muscogee” vote and there was no corralling their support without pressing a boot down real hard on the necks of the hippies.

In a nutshell, the American authorities had dumped a shitload of money on their Mexican counterparts, armed them up with some antiquated hardware, provided them with just enough logistics to be dangerous and told those Mexican boys, go looking for anything with long hair and a Volkswagen van.

We did not have a Volkswagen van among us but we had plenty of long hair.

Being fair, Win and I should have smelled trouble brewing a long ways back down the road. There had been plenty of warning signs. Someone we met at the beach in Guaymas actually did tell us on the morning of our bust—watch out for the checkpoint—and we should have bailed right then and there. We weren’t smuggling, but the sweet young couple from Ohio who gave us a ride up from San Blas and their “off his meds” partner from Chicago had thirty kilos of good bush hidden in the walls of their panel wagon.

I have said this many times. You start counting up all the wrong turns you’ve made along the road of life and the many ways you could have changed things and pretty soon you’re back in the womb.

I can guarantee you this much. When those bars slammed shut on Win and me, there was no end of regrets.

In my novel, The Trip Into Milky Way, about coming of age in the sixties and specifically about that prison experience, there were certain things I portrayed literally and that bust was one of them. The walls inside the old panel wagon in which Win and I were riding had been covered with carpet squares and one of them was coming loose. Our friends decided to stop at a store in search of glue. That led us to these three old men, sitting in front of a store along the side of the road. They heard glue, thought we wanted to buy some drugs and next thing you know, we’re driving up into the hills on a wild goose chase. It was on the way back down that the Mexican feds pulled us over. Not only did we look like ‘los hippies’, we were way on the wrong side of the tracks.

Having pulled us over to the side of a dirt road, and unable to find a thing, the feds weren’t satisfied and paraded us over to the local jail with one of their cars in front of us and one in back. The jail was a long, three-story stone building that doubled as a courthouse. A crescent gravel driveway bordered by white stones passed by a large, square, grim looking stone entrance. A wide concrete stairway led up to the entrance. Two cops took the van around in back for inspection. The other cop marched us up the stairs and into the jail.

Despite a couple of local cops milling around with guns at their sides, the atmosphere inside seemed entirely informal. A lady laughed and stuck her head around a corner to see whom the feds had dragged in now. We had not been charged with anything up to that point, but you rarely got that far unless you were in some kind of trouble.

Still, no one introduced us to iron bars and jail cells. The woman went back to her conversation and a cop escorted us upstairs to a room. He told us to make ourselves comfortable and closed the door.

Other than for several chairs gathered around a table, the room was empty save for one wall stacked from floor to ceiling with suitcases. The worn casement windows were flung open to the world. Below the windows, a wide plaster wall led out to the streets of Hermosillo.

I went to inspect the suitcases and found they were stuffed full of kilos.

Only in Mexico.

At that point, all of us realized simultaneously. Two of the suitcases were from that campground in San Blas, where a beach cleaner had inadvertently dug them up.

A mad scramble had ensued that day among all the hippies at the campground, during which time our friends with the panel wagon had taken their share. Now it appeared that everyone involved had fallen into the trap.

A broke off a big chunk of bush and began to chew it. That freaked out our “off his meds” host from Chicago. He was certain they had two way mirrors. I suggested that they did not even know what a two way mirror was.

Either way, that son of a bitch was the reason we were in our current mess. Never in the annuls of history has there been a worse poker face. The minute those Feds pulled us over, he lost it. They had one look at him alongside that dusty road and suspected we were guilty. Otherwise, having found nothing in our suitcases, they probably would have let us go.

Fifteen minutes later, a kindly looking old man came in and apologized for all the trouble. They had found nothing and would be letting us go soon.

We were engaged in a bit of pleasant conversation when one of the cops who had made the bust came in with a screwdriver. They had found the hidden panels. Our “off his meds” pal from Chicago freaked again. The old man saw the look on his face and hastily left with the cop. The jig was up.

Ten minutes later he came back to secure the room with two armed feds. The old man was no longer friendly. I watched as they closed the windows. I had been thinking to jump out of them a few minutes earlier but it was too late for that now.

Later on, a cop brought us food from a local restaurant. Fried chicken, deep fried potatoes and a salad. It would be too late for dinner when we arrived at the prison. The cop had added a six pack of beer for good measure.

Only in Mexico.

Eventually, we were interrogated one by one and left in a holding pen downstairs. Later that night, they gathered us together in a van and transferred us across town to the prison. A guard sat in the back with us, hands on his rifle, the rifle butt on the floor. The driver took it nice and easy driving.

After a brief interview with the warden, we were led inside. It was only then that I realized how high I was from eating that handful of grass. An otherwise wretched moment felt like a magical journey.

The word was, the prison had been built as a fort by Pancho Villa at the turn of the previous century. It was white plaster colonial, albeit less than white from all the wear and worries over the years. There were few lights. I was led down passageways, up a flight of stairs and down more passageways.

We eventually came to a balcony that ran all the way around a large open courtyard, rectangular in shape. I was led away from the balcony and down a short, dead end passageway. The guard opened the gate to a cell. A man met me there and explained the rules in broken English. I was pointed at a top bunk.

It was not until sometime later that the grass began to wear off and the regrets set in. Win and I had been advised of the checkpoint. We should have taken the train from Guaymas. The mind naturally struggled with all the ways that things might have turned out differently. Until it came back to square one. You were in a Mexican prison and there was not a goddamned thing you could do about it now.

In the morning, after they had counted us in our cells, the gates were opened and we were free to roam the prison at will. I did so and began to piece together what had been completely mysterious to me the night before. There were two levels to the prison, with a smaller, third level on the north face of the prison where the women were housed. That level adjoined a courtyard where the mentally ill prisoners were allowed to roam briefly each afternoon. As all the openings and windows in the prison were without glass, you could readily hear and see the mad people roaming around in the yard.

The prison in Hermosillo held a special distinction. Nowhere else in Mexico could you find that many gringos incarcerated in one place. There were roughly 65 of us the whole time I was there. One person would leave. Another one would fall into the trap. The main highway going north naturally funneled everyone together as it neared the border.

Aside from the shabby, rundown condition of that 19th century colonial structure, one thing stood out above all others. The prisoners ran the inside of the prison. Other than for armed guards patrolling the exterior walls, and the occasional appearance of authorities when there was undue trouble, justice was meted out by whatever regime happened to be in power. The warden did have some say in who headed a particular regime, but the prevailing wisdom was, pick the meanest SOB you could find and place him in power. He was then free to pick the members of his own team and maintain order in whatever way he saw fit, within certain reasonable guidelines, of course. You could not go about killing people, willy-nilly, though this did happen, and you had to be especially delicate when it came to the Americans. We were college students, for the most part, or young folks of that age, and thus someone’s son or daughter. Given the largesse of the American Feds, the last thing the Mexican authorities wanted was a lot of bad press from back up in the States.

This system of power structure naturally led to another curious state of affairs. Whatever you could do on the outside, you could do on the inside. The Presidentes on both floors ran the rackets, so if you had money, you could buy anything you wanted—drugs, booze, a private cell, your own food—even women.

All the contraband came in on Wednesdays and Sundays, when the prison gates were thrown open to the world. Lovers, family and friends poured in. So did the town’s prostitutes. If you owned a private cell, you could use it for the pleasure of a woman, or rent it out by the hour to others, or both. The booze we generally made ourselves. You offered a portion of it in tribute to El Presidente and all was well. The drugs were typically brought into the prison by someone’s waddling old grandmother. Everyone was supposed to be searched before entering the prison, but with a bribe in the hands of the right guard, everyone would look the other way when the courier came in.

Being that we gringos were now in the minority, and in a foreign country, and subject to the whims of an unpredictable legal system, we stuck together and someone quickly took me under his wing that first day. He introduced me to all the other Americans on my floor, gave me something decent to eat and educated me as to the situation I faced.

First and foremost, you did not fuck with El Presidente and his regime. They knocked heads if you didn’t cooperate. Get way out of line and you’d end up in the hole, which was down in the bowels of the prison.

Two, the Mexican legal system was predicated on Roman law. You were guilty until proven innocent. Any thoughts of posting bail and an early escape you could forget. One of the Americans had already been there seven years, several others for five. At a minimum, it usually took a year before there was a chance of leaving. Two years was the norm. Plus the whole court proceeding was bureaucratic in nature. Everyone had made a statement at the time of his or her arrest. You would be taken back to court at some point to make a second statement, but for the most part they went by the first one, so if you had shot off your mouth, as I later learned our “off his meds” friend had done, you were basically fucked.

In any case, it was not court as we understood it in America. You sat before a secretary at a desk while she typed up your second statement. There were no judges or juries, no lawyers, no Perry Mason moments.

In other words, settle in and get comfortable. Barring a miracle, you were in here for a spell.

I was given a glass of homemade wine to help that news go down. The wine was halfway decent. The news still didn’t go down so well.

The first few weeks, I spent a lot of time trying to make prison walls disappear. Eventually I began to accept my fate. Adaptation was the hallmark of our species.

I was there. Get used to it.

I did my best, but I was hell bent for leather at that age. Having gotten into a fight with a Mexican, I was transferred downstairs. When El Presidente down there caught me making wine without his permission, a couple of men dragged me into his cell, where they proceeded to knock the crap out of me.

As fate would have it, the warden made one of his irregular tours of the prison the next day and saw my bloodied face. That got El Presidente canned and I sent back upstairs. When a failed prison break took place in my cell, I was sent back downstairs. By then, the new Presidente on the lower level had been killed in a knife fight.

So it went. I saw various other Americans getting their heads knocked in. El Presidente upstairs killed a man in a poker game, but they covered that one up by saying it was self-defense. An old Indian, having been busted up in the mountains with his donkey, trying to smuggle some bush up to the border, threw himself off a second story balcony in despair.

The torrid summer months dragged on. Our peculiar life and death drama played out to the ever-present backdrop of mariachi music. Picture any dusty little Mexican town and that described us. Men loitered around the central courtyard at night as if it was the town square. There was a market, a tortilla maker, shoe shine boys. A cell had been set aside exclusively for the gay men. It was also the prison’s de facto bordello. There were laundry days where the courtyard was strung with laundry flapping in the breeze. There were daily volleyball and basketball games. The gringos often sat around playing chess, or hanging out together in one of the private cells, listening to the Doors and ruing the fact that we were wasting away the last convulsions of the sixties behind bars.

At one point, CBS sent a crew down to do an interview. Attempts had been made to shed a spotlight on our circumstances and great hopes abounded that this was our chance. Surely, once America realized what was happening to their sons and daughters, a great outcry would erupt and the prison gates would be thrown open. We had one legitimate smuggler among us. At thirty kilos, the folks who had given Win and I a ride were at the top end of that scale. Most of the young people had been popped for a few ounces. Weekend warriors. Meanwhile, the real smugglers were flying overhead with five tons in a Cessna.

Our hopes were soon dashed. The news crew came. The piece was aired on the nightly news a few weeks later. The consul general said that all Americans were subject to Mexican laws. The story soon died and we were forgotten.

My parents had come down to visit me early on and hired a Mexican attorney. Having denied everything from the day of our arrest, I played my only other card. The bush had been hidden away in the walls of the panel wagon. Therefore, it was feasible for me to have traveled with the folks driving and not be aware of their smuggling operation.

You want to hear the end of the story? Read the novel. It is in fact a coming of age tale; with my experiences in that Mexican prison the crucible through which the young protagonist passes into manhood.

That I passed into manhood through that experience is an accurate enough description. I came home at the end of 1971 and started a hippie cottage business with an old friend of mine from high school. My sense of rebellion and iconoclastic nature remain intact to this day, but from that experience forward, I learned to play the game while maintaining my integrity.

No matter what, I look back to those days with fondness. We saw ourselves as caught up in a great struggle between right and wrong. We thought we could change the world. I still like to think that we could.

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