Saturday, September 17, 2005

Running for the Border

At our weekly conference call today, the subject of traveling to Mexico came up as two members of our team were preparing for an orientation trip to our manufacturing facilities down there within the next couple of weeks. As none of them had initiated their working visas yet, I was forced to recount my last trip down there as the story had become legend among my old team members, two of which are now colleagues of mine at my current assignment as well.

In the summer of 1999, I had accepted a position working in competitive intelligence and was rounding out my last couple of weeks as a customer quality engineer. My Mexican working visa had expired and rather than renew it, knowing that this was to be my last trip south of the border for a few years, I opted to turn it in and enter with a temporary visa that I could obtain at the border crossing. The procedure for doing this is you go to the crossing, fill out a single page form that only takes a few minutes and hand it to the border guard along with your passport. The border guard then stamps both the visa and your passport with your entry date. When you finish your visit, you are required to turn in everything again so that it can be cancelled by another date stamp in your passport. By 1999, I had gone through that process so many times that one could find more ink on the pages of my passport than at the tattoo kiosk at a Hell’s Angels convention.

The plant that I had to visit in Mexico was located in Matamoros, just over the border from Brownsville Texas and I typically spent three days there. On my last trip however, it was pretty slow so on the day I was to return to Detroit, I left the plant by nine in the morning and took off towards the border early, hoping to drive to Harlingen to see if I could catch an earlier flight back home. Things looked good at first, as traffic was light and the backup on the bridge crossing the Rio Grande did not look all that bad. I found myself in a pretty good mood as I pulled into the immigration parking lot thinking that I would be in the airport lounge throwing back bottles of Lone Star beer before my plane to Dallas even pulled into the gate.

When I walked into Immigration, I found the two border guards, the same two I had dealt with for a few years, seated behind the same desk they always occupied engaging in small talk as they processed business visitors through the transit protocol. Even though I saw these people once a month for going on four years I had never once, as far as I can remember, ever conversed with them. They just took my paperwork, made a few cursory bureaucratic glances at it, stamped it and sent me on my way. The process was so automated that I just assumed that they didn’t even speak English. That was why I was so surprised when, on my very last trip to Mexico, the guard looked up at me after scanning my passport and said, “You didn’t turn in your visa on your last visit.”

Now, from my very first trip to Mexico on business, I had heard stories about what happened to people that didn’t turn in their work visas, none of them pleasant. So, from my very first trip to Mexico on business, I was religious about turning them in. There were a few instances where I had to turn them in to the Logistics people at the customer’s plant because I was running late, but I ALWAYS turned them in. “There has to be some mistake. I turn in all my visas, all the time. The missing stamps are probably because I turned them in to my customer’s broker and not here.”

The guy behind the desk then took my passport back and started doing something with his computer. After a few minutes of painstakingly awkward typing, he shook his head and said, “No, this one is missing. There is no record of a broker turning them in either.”

For all of times I dealt with authority figures in Tijuana, I should have known that I was not going to win this debate. Still, I knew that if I got nailed for not turning in a visa there was no way I was going to be able to make it back to the US in time to bump up my flight. So, while projecting far more confidence than was good for me I retorted, “No, its not. I have turned absolutely everything in.”

The border guy flashed me an irritated look and opened up my passport once more. He then went through it page by page, taking notes on a piece of scrap paper that was on the desk while periodically screwing with the computer again. When he was finished, he tucked my passport into his breast pocket and stood up. “You’re missing three visas. You need to come with me.” He then added something to the end of that statement in Spanish that I did not understand but could tell by the tone that it was some Latin-derived euphemism for “smartass”.

The office where you have to fill out your visa forms is a Spartan affair. It is white, clean, devoid of decoration and lightly air-conditioned. The place they take foreigners suspected of violating Mexican border crossing regulations is not. It is cluttered, dingy and as far as I can remember, not even equipped with a ceiling fan to move the stagnant air around. The Brownsville / Matamoros border area is brutally hot in the middle of summer and the very moment I stepped into that stifling detention center, my sweat glands kicked into overdrive. I was turned over to another uniformed official who got the rundown on my situation by his counterpart working the front desk. The new officer was a big guy, athletically built, younger than his desk-jockeying colleague and overall, a much more intimidating presence. As he received the rundown on my situation, he eyed me suspiciously out of the corners of his eyes and started rolling up his sleeves as if he was going to beat a confession out of me. I have to admit that at that point I was getting a little nervous, not so much because I believed that I was going to get worked over because of a visa inconsistency, but because I was beginning to wonder whether I had an outstanding warrant or something stemming from my youthful excursions to Tijuana a few years before. Had those come to light of the Mexican customs authorities, I’m sure they could have found something in there that they would have deemed beating worthy.

My new antagonist strolled over to where I was sitting after receiving his briefing and pulled a chair up to me far closer than I was really comfortable with. He then held up my passport and fired off his first question. I tried to give him an explanation, but I was interrupted with another question, followed by a long diatribe that I assume was meant to cause me to slip up and incriminate myself somehow. I refused to fall for it which seemed to irritate him slightly. He grew steadily more animated as the interrogation went on and after an hour of him giving me the third degree, his face had gone red and he was practically shouting at me, gesturing menacingly and appearing to be on the verge of getting out of his chair, lifting it up over his head and batting me up across the lower jaw with it. Still, I refused to talk. Not so much because I harder and tougher than he was, it was just that his English was so poor and his accent so thick that for the most part I had not the slightest clue what the hell he was questioning me about. If I had the ability to answer him in Spanish I would have but I as I’ve mentioned before, my Latin American conversational abilities were pretty much limited to the phrases, “You have beautiful eyes” and “Do you want to dance?” both of which I deemed far too inappropriate for the situation at hand. I didn’t think those would prove very useful unless things really went downhill and I needed food money six months after my formal sentencing.

By the time the officer finally gave up and retreated back into an area of the office that I could not see into, any chance I had of catching an earlier flight had pretty much evaporated. By the time my next interrogator entered the picture, my ability to make my scheduled flight was in jeopardy as well.

The second person to take on my case was the opposite of the officer I had dealt with a couple of hours before. He was short, plump, un-uniformed and greeted me with an outstretched hand and a toothy smile that peeked out from behind a bushy mustache. He kind reminded me of a Hispanic version Danny DeVito. Outwardly, he was a very cordial individual and he seemed to take great pains to make sure his mannerisms broadcast that he was there to help. His smile however seemed to broadcast his internal glee at having a hapless gringo by the balls. It was fairly obvious that he was the individual that would be playing the good cop in this interrogation scheme.

Despite his milder demeanor and good English, I was under no illusions that my new interrogator had my best interests at heart. Still, I went along with his charade. He was motivated to prove that the fault for the inconsistent visa stamps lay on my shoulders, otherwise he would not get a fine out of me. I was motivated to prove my passport was not stamped out due to their incompetence, otherwise I would not be getting out of there. With both of us pouring over my passport, we looked over all three of the entrance stamps that did not possess corresponding exit marks. He then took me over to a computer at the front desk and showed me the digital record of me entering Mexico and how it correlated to corresponding lines that showed that I had never checked out, smugly pointing out this proof of my negligence by saying, “See, it is all on computer now. The computer does not make mistakes, no?” The man had obviously never had his laptop crash on him while he was in the middle of a truly awesome game of Minesweeper.

“Computers make just as many mistakes as the people who program them do. I’m telling you right now, I have turned in all of my visas. As I told your people before, my missing stamps are probably due to the fact that I turned them in to a broker.”

We went back and forth on this subject repeatedly, my interrogator insisting that if a broker turned in any visas, they would be on the computer. Finally, at right about the time I should have been checking my luggage onto my ride home, he decided that he would call my customer’s broker.

Though I was not privy to the conversation my bureaucrat was having with the broker, as it took place out of earshot and in a language that I did not speak, I could tell that someone was definitely taking up my cause on the other end of the line. The conversation drew a large amount of animated physical responses from my inquisitor and many irritated shrugs of frustration and grimaced repeatedly as if he was being personally offended. Finally, he hung up the phone and walked back over to me, saying that someone from the broker’s office would be there shortly.

At right about the time my flight was taking off, the representative from the broker arrived. Her name was Lupe and she was a petite little thing, at least a head shorter than Senor DeVito, drop-dead gorgeous, provocatively dressed and the last person I wanted to be in my corner in a brutal brawl with a team of unscrupulous Mexican border bureaucrats. She zeroed in on me immediately upon entering my detention area, flashed a heartbreakingly sweet smile towards my direction and then walked over to introduce herself. After making a little small talk, she asked me for my side of the story and after taking a few notes she held up the folder she had brought in with her and told me that she had all the information she needed to get me sprung. She then walked up to the counter my antagonist had stationed himself behind and underwent the most complete personality transformation I had ever witnessed in my life.

There were no formal introductions between the broker’s representative and the immigration official. Just the immediate launching of an angry tirade from my representative that knocked Senor DeVito off balance. The verbal assault was so sudden and vicious that I don’t think the immigration official got a single word in for at least fifteen minutes. Even the hulking uniformed officer that took the first shot at me excused himself from the back of the office and went outside to the relative safety offered by the heavy traffic of the inspection checkpoints just beyond the door. That little girl was unrelenting and savage and, for the most part, had that little office troll jumping through hoops like a decidedly uncoordinated circus poodle. Forty-five minutes after she arrived, Senor DeVito’s face had permanently flushed an uncomfortable looking shade of deep crimson and his posture had developed the hunched arc of someone who was suffering a particularly humiliating defeat. Then he saw something that rejuvenated his fighting spirit and tried to go on the offensive. He got beaten down pretty bad for his efforts but whatever he had discovered strengthened his resolve and he turned his back on the broker and walked away from the battle, unable to face her anymore.

Lupe walked back to me flushed with exasperation. After loudly berated the bureaucrat in English and plenty loud enough for him to hear her clearly, she explained to me that she had incontrovertible proof that I had turned in two of my visas, but was unable to prove a third. She had cleared me of two-thirds of the counts against me, but it looked as if I was going to get stuck with the third. This time I walked up to the counter and confronted Senor DeVito. “Look, you said that you were sure I did not turn in my visas because your infallible computer could not be wrong.” I said as I crossed the room. “She just proved that your computer makes mistakes. I! TURNED! IN! MY! VISAS! (I punctuated each word by pounding my fist down upon the counter). Now, you have already made me miss my flights so I would like to get out of here so that I can book another. I want to go home. NOW!”

“I can’t let you go yet.” the bureaucrat stammered sheepishly, unable to make eye contact with me and not even able to consider looking in Lupe’s direction. “The computer says you have violated our immigration policy and we have to take action.”

“What kind of action?”

“I have to check.” The troll then turned his back on us and disappeared into a secluded office in the back.

I looked over at Lupe and asked, “What do you think I should do now?”

She handed me a cell phone and said that I had better call my company and see if they had any lawyers around that they could muster.

I thanked her for the phone and called my boss, the quality department director back in Michigan and told him I was in a little trouble. “How much trouble?” he asked.

“Well, I think I need a lawyer.”

“Of course,” he answered with a complete lack of surprise that I really should have taken offence to. “What kind of lawyer are we talking about here? One that specializes in drunk driving cases? Paternity suits? Gun smuggling?”

“Immigration and visas.”

“Really? I never would have guessed that one. What happened?” I relayed my entire predicament and he promised he would get someone from our plant in Juarez, on the opposite end of the Texan border, involved.

After I hung the phone up and handed it back to Lupe, she informed me that there was really nothing else she could do there but would be more effective back at the office. She asked if I would be all right if she left and I lied, saying that I would. I knew though that as soon as she disappeared, Senor DeVito would regain his confidence. On the bright side though, she left me the phone with instructions to leave it at my hotel’s front desk “if” I made it back there. She didn’t bother leaving instructions on what to do with it “if” I didn’t. She probably figured I could barter it for cigarettes or something while I was waiting for trial.

At least an hour had passed before the customs official emerged from behind the desk again and summoned me over. He explained the charges involved and the fines that would be levied in the confusing legalese that accompanies any kind of governmental transaction. I cut him off after about ten minutes and asked, “What’s the bottom line? How much are you trying to get out of me?”




I reached for my wallet and pulled out my credit card. I was not sure how I was going to note that particular item on my expense report but at that point I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there and get to the side of the border with paved roads. As I tried to pass it over to him however, he shook his head in refusal. “We do not take credit cards. Fines are only accepted in cash or certified check.”

“What kind of idiot comes down to Mexico with $700 dollars in his wallet? I don’t even walk around Detroit with that kind of cash.”

“Maybe you can get someone to wire the money here.”

“How do I manage that?”

Senor DeVito then launched into a lengthy explanation about how to go about the process of paying my fine. It involved a money transfer, stops at a couple of different offices and overall, it proved to be a complicated affair. After he finished I leaned over and asked him, in a conspiratorially hushed tone, “Can I pay a smaller fine right here for saving the Mexican government all of those administration costs?”

His eyes narrowed to mere slits as his face registered insult and disapproval. “Are you trying to bribe me?”

“Not if you’re going to get all pissy about it.” It was on the tip of my tongue but luckily, I didn’t have the balls to let it pass my lips. Instead, I stammered something about just wondering if there was a shortened procedure for paying the fine. Something like pleading No Contest on the US side of the border. He assured me that there wasn’t and said he would let me try to contact someone to get me out of immigration.

By that point, I had spent about eight hours in immigration and needed a cigarette while I called back to Michigan. He tried to stop me as I stepped out the side door but I turned to him and said, “Where do you think I’m going? You’ve got my freakin’ passport.” Remembering that he did, he then let me go light up in the back parking lot.

The parking lot of the customs complex ends at a deteriorating barbed wire fence at the top of an embankment leading to the Rio Grande, the liquid border between the US and Mexico. A US Border Patrol SUV was parked on the opposite embankment, maybe 100 yards away, watching a small group of aspiring menial laborers standing waist deep in the brown water, right in the middle of the river. There were two soldiers meandering around the parking lot providing security, armed with fully automatic assault rifles carried with that blasé attitude towards weapons safety that seems to be epidemic among Third World military services. I figured that if I made a break for it, the soldiers were more likely to shoot themselves than manage to draw a bead on the small of my back and I could clear the fence and be getting tackled by good old American authorities before anyone in immigration even figured out that I was gone. I told myself that I would be doing exactly that if I was still in that building come sundown. I was not going to waste away down there while waiting for my company to bail me out. It took them three weeks to process a thirty dollar bar tab rung up during the course of entertaining customers. I could only imagine how long it would take them to process a seven hundred dollar cash advance to spring a mathematically challenged engineer from a Hispanic hoosegow.

When I told my boss how much it was going to cost to get me back, he asked me if I was interested in taking a new position in one of our facilities south of the border, an offer that I enthusiastically declined. He then assured me that they would get the money down there as soon as humanly possible, which meant two to three days in my experience. I hung up with him very disappointed and walked back inside to tell Senor DeVito what was going on. After a lot of haranguing, he agreed to let me go as long as I promised to pay the fine by the end of the week with the understanding that it would be increased $175 dollars a day after that until it was settled. I agreed, took my passport and fled from Mexico as fast as I could.

Of course, the payment was late and of course, it was short since no one figured in the late fees. In the end, I spent five extra days down there but I really didn’t mind much once I was out from under immigration’s spotlight. In fact I had checked into a hotel on South Padre Island and, since I couldn’t cross into Mexico to work and had nothing else I could do, I hung out at the beach, played in the Gulf of Mexico, drank excessively, went on a fishing trip and enjoyed nightly tequila binges back in Matamoros. I kind of thought it funny how I was barred from going there as an honest businessman, but no one seemed to have any problem with me crossing the border as an inveterate drunkard.


Anonymous GrabEm said...

Hehe I liked that Jep. I'm glad that you made it back allright. I had a similar experience around Christmas time at the American/Canadian boarder when there were no judges working for 3 days and I was in handcuffs. I'm still nervous crossing any boarder,I don't think I would work a job I had to do it every day.
I always enjoy the long stories, you have quite a talent. I think that you need a good trip to Vegas or some other haven of debauchery in your near future.

8:23 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Glad you liked it GrabEm, but I did not appreciate that little teaser you through in there. We need the whole story on your detention adventure there, especially if it involved alcohol!

Anyone else out there want to hear the details on this one?

11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

“Not if you’re going to get all pissy about it.”

Yeah, better that line stayed in your head. Though it's probably the best answer to that question there has ever been.

And Grabem, make with the story! Please?

Loved it as usual, Jep.


12:19 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Thanks Hannah! Always a pleasure!

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Jasco said...

AWESOME!! Well, for us readers sitting comfortably in our lounge rooms.

That was excellent Jep, another fine literary product as usual.


11:50 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Thanks Jasco and welcome aboard!

5:11 AM  

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