Soldiers In The Night

It was the first day of our summer medical trip to Boquillas (6-25-14). Crossing the border had gone smoothly enough, but we hit a delay at la garrita, the check point where we get vehicle permits, tourists cards, and pass through customs for a second time before we are finally free to pass on into Mexico. La garrita is twenty-six kilometers from the Texas line, and it marks the end of the border zone in Mexico, the area that can be travelled without a vehicle permit or a tourist card.

Over the years, La Garrita was a frequent point for delays for us, for any number of reasons, including dealing with missing documents for our group members or our vehicles, officials who wanted to make us jump through more hoops than we went through at the border, an occasional international glitch with a credit card, and sometimes being told we needed to pay duty on materials or equipment we brought into Mexico.

These were mainly problems in the few years after we started crossing the border at Eagle Pass in 2001 and before we began to get the help of the Rotarians from Piedras Negras for our crossings. They gave us the kind of documentation we needed to pass both the border and the checkpoint more easily, something we gringos had never been able to get done to Mexican standards. Also, Rotary is highly respected throughout Mexico, and this connection was helpful to us for this reason as well. It had been a few years since we had any significant delays at the check point.

La garrita jutted into view as we turned a curve in the highway about a quarter mile before arriving at the structure. The first thing visible was a high metal structure that spans the entire highway, held up by heavy metal trusses. Tall pecan trees in orchards on both sides of the highway had obscured the view of la garrita until we were suddenly upon it.

There are unused booths in the center of the road, supporting the long span of the upper building, a remnant from simpler times when it was not necessary to go through as much as we do now in order to pass into Mexico.

On getting closer to la garrita, it can be seen that the road is divided into lanes labeled overhead, “DECLARE” and “NOTHING TO DECLARE,” in both Spanish and English. Later we would pull through the lanes and turn right into the customs area, going through inspection again, having done so only forty-five minutes ago at the border. Vehicles with nothing to declare simply stop at a red traffic light in the “nothing to declare” lane, and ninety per cent of the cars are given a green light to go on, the other ten percent are sent to customs for inspection. Because of our medical equipment, we would have to go through the declare lane.

But first we pulled into an expansive parking lot to the right side of the road. A large masonry building houses the vehicle permit office and the immigration station. This building is off-white in color, a contrast to the metal building that spans the road, which is a dark and dirty gray.

On the opposite side of the road is a vacant military checkpoint, previously used to inspect people coming from deeper in Mexico. It was abandoned in 2013. Now it remains a remnant of past attempts to intercept drugs on their way to the U.S.

Twelve of our group entered the vehicle permit and immigration building for our tourist cards. Only Curtis and Sara had valid cards already. The immigration official wanted to see our passports before handing us the tourist card form to complete. In the past he gave us the form first, and then wanted to see the passport only after the form was completed. Then I saw the reason he wanted the passports first. I saw him scan the first few passports before handing out the forms. This was the first time I had encountered this in all the years of going to Mexico, but I gave it little thought initially.

The Mexican government has been slow to implement computer systems to monitor people entering Mexico. Computerizing the vehicle permit system had come a number of years ago. The computer kept a record of all vehicles permitted to foreigners entering Mexico, and this meant we always had to be sure to turn in the vehicle permits when they were expired, because we couldn’t get another permit if we still had one showing in the system.

After the official scanned our passports, he checked on the completeness of the tourist card form. Then he sent each of us to the bank, conveniently located right there in the office building. We each paid twenty-two dollars for the permit, then we went back to the official with the receipt before he finally handed us the cards.

This all progressed slowly but smoothly until Michael Dennis presented his passport. This time the new scanner brought our trip to a halt for two and one-half hours. Michael was with us for the first time, a doctor who came to give me some much-needed help in the clinics that awaited us. He had lost his passport seven years earlier. He had gotten a proper replacement at the time, but somehow the Mexican computer system flagged his passport with some sort of an indication that his lost passport may have been used by someone else to cross the border at some point in the past. We never got the details, but we were told this issue had to be cleared by a higher immigration official at some remote location. For some reason, he was out of touch.

This reminded me of a time before the Rotarians began to help us at the border, a time when Curtis and I customarily visited the director of customs prior to a trip, hoping to prearrange permission to cross with our group. The director had met us and graciously agreed to allow us to come through with our medical trip, but when we got to the border with our group two weeks later, he was no where to be found. He had left no word with anyone that he had approved our coming through. After about two hours of waiting, we overheard one of the customs officers who was helping us say the director was off with his girlfriend and he might not be back in touch until the next afternoon. On overhearing that, we began to ask who else could authorize us, and we eventually got through. We didn’t overhear any such conversations this time at la garrita, but it revived my old memory.

We were simply told to wait. In the office building only the offices themselves are air-conditioned. Inside the gaping expanse of the building we were uncomfortably hot, despite high ceilings and masonry construction.

Outside was only a little better, but at least we could feel a little bit of a breeze as we took shade at the side of the building or under the metal awning that covers of a few parking spaces near the front of the building. June is the beginning of the hot season in the Chihuahuan desert, and I felt the heat as we waited and waited. The two and one-half hours of trying to stay cool finally ended and Michael got permission for a tourist card. No one in our group grew impatient and no one complained. That was my first indication that we had a very special group of people on this trip.

Then we were off to Muzquiz to gather our medications for the clinic. We also had a lovely dinner served to us by Cinthia Prado. We had helped her get life-saving brain surgery five years earlier, and she and her family have been faithful to feed us each time we pass through Musquiz. Dinner was served at the Pemex station where we fill up one last time before striking out across the desert toward Boquillas. With no delays, it would take four hours to get to Boquillas. Even with a nine pm sunset in June, we would arrive at Boquillas after dark, thanks to the delay at La Garrita.

The highway from Muzquiz has been paved now all the way past San Miguel, but the road that cuts off to go down to Boquillas is still a dirt-and-gravel affair, prone to a washboard surface that rattles our vehicles into a loud roar as we zoom down the straight stretches of this road. Some have said that Curtis, in the lead vehicle that day as usual, might drive too fast on these back-country Mexican roads. But that day the road had had a recent grading and there had not been enough time for much washboarding to develop. Curtis was flying, and the only downside in the vans was the roar inside the vehicles.

We made good time on the roads, but we couldn’t make up the lost time from la garrita. We approached Boquillas in full darkness. The road to Boquillas, like most of those in the area, was constructed in the 1960’s, in the time when most of the towns there were established. Prior to that most of the territory was comprised of huge ranches, and these had fallen prey to one of the Mexican government’s land reforms, which established the towns of the area as co-operative communities for ranching and harvesting candelilla.

At that time, none of the roads were paved, but the government of the state of Coahuila brought in big equipment and made good roads. There were cuts and fills, culverts and low-water slabs, and even an actual bridge just before getting to Boquillas. The traces of all that work seem to indicate it was well-done, but no one came back to maintain the road to Boquillas until the late 1980’s, about twenty-five years after the original construction.

That was after the time we began raveling the roads in the area in 1986. I recall that almost all of the culverts were filled in with rock and gravel by that time. Many of the fills had eroded down to barely the width of a pickup, sometimes with perilously steep washouts on the sides plunging down as much as fifty yards. There were many times in the early years when we had to stop and haul rocks by hand to fill in a washout in the road so we could go on to hold our clinics.

The bridge right before Boquillas was one of the first parts of the construction to go, washing out completely in a flash flood within a few years of its completion. The locals had taken to leaving the road at the washed-out bridge to drive down a dry river bed for a mile or more to reach the town. This route varied from time-to-time because high water would wash out the tracks and leave the river bed impassible in places. We usually just had to follow the tracks on leaving the main road to find the way into town.

It was different on this trip. Curtis had gotten word that the river bed was more treacherous than usual (we have gotten stuck there a number of times, especially when it was wet). The townspeople had been using a different route, one that went around the washed-out bridge, through the gully and up onto the road beyond the bridge. This road takes a higher route along a ridge, avoiding the treacherous river bed.

The problem is, nothing is marked, and in the dark Curtis could not find the way around the washed-out bridge. We back-tracked to go down the river bed and that’s where I had problems. Recent rains had washed in fine sand that lay in a stretch of about fifty yards in our path.  It was not possible to know the depth of the sand from inspecting it.

Curtis made it through in his pickup. I was next, with a van pulling a trailer. I didn’t hit it with enough speed, plus I felt the van begin to shudder. I took this to mean I was spinning the wheels too fast and I thought I was at risk of digging in too deeply in the sand. In retrospect, I think I was beginning to drag the heavily-laden trailer on its frame across the sand.

At any rate, I came to a stop about halfway through the sandy stretch. No amount of pushing the van or digging out the wheels was helpful. The soft, fine sand was a foot deep.

At that point we were considering options. Some thought it would be necessary to unhitch the trailer in order to be able to pull the van out, maybe with Curtis’s truck. There was also talk of unloading the trailer so it wouldn’t drag across the sand.

As this talk was just getting going, headlights suddenly appeared out of the darkness ahead. A wide, low vehicle pulled up to the front of the van, and against the headlights we could see men dropping of the side of the vehicle on either side and striding toward us. In the harsh light we could see each man had a high-powered rifle slung across a shoulder and most were helmeted.

The new people on the trip feared we had fallen into the hands of the Zetas, a paramilitary organization that has thrown in with the drug cartels, but I knew it was the Mexican soldiers who were based at Boquillas. Their barracks sits on an overlook about a half mile across the river bed on a bluff with a commanding view of the area. Their vehicle was a HumVee, donated by the U.S. government during the Clinton administration to help equip the soldiers that were then deployed to sites all along the border in an attempt to stem the flow of drugs into the U.S. Most of the soldiers were now gone from the border, but the outpost at Boquillas had been maintained. The soldiers had discerned our plight from the vantage point of the lookout, and they had come to help.

Their plan was to unhitch the trailer and use the hummer to pull the van out with a chain. The initial attempt was made with the hummer linked front-to-front with the van, backing up to try to pull us out. That didn’t work.

Then they turned the hummer around, we dug out the van wheels more effectively, and we had as many hands as possible to push the van from behind. With this effort, the van slowly began to move and the hummer pulled it onto a firm surface. I had the fun of steering the van out of the sand behind the hummer.

Next we jacked up the tongue of the trailer, hitched it to the hummer, and out it went as well. Getting stuck slowed us another hour or more, and we pulled into Boquillas at 11pm, still needing an hour to unload the vehicles and set up camp. It was much too late to make my usual visit to the hot springs for a starlight bath. At midnight, the temperature probably was still in excess of 90 degrees. I was hot, sweaty, and stinky for the entire next day until I finally got to the spring for a bath at 10:30pm after our clinic and church service.

We went on to see about 150 patients in the three days of clinics. There were no more delays or glitches. We had good cases, we had an excellent group of volunteers, we had wonderful camaraderie, and we had some excellent Mexican food. When asked about the trip later, I usually said, “It was hot, it was hard, and it was wonderful.”

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