All Roads Lead From Roma
Down the dusty streets of the state’s poorest county move almost two million tons of marijuana each year.
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Starr County is a barren chunk of brushland in the southern tip of Texas, an area early Texans once called the Wild Horse Desert. In a state that loves to tote up its firsts and its biggests, the county has never been able to muster more than a first in poverty and unemployment. A good statistical case can be made that it is the poorest county in the entire nation. Until recently, Starr was best known as the spot where Texas Rangers stomped a farmworkers strike into the caliche in 1967. News from this dusty down-and-out county, with its 98 per cent Spanish-surname population, usually concerns a new case of leprosy or a covey of wetbacks flushed from the Rio Grande.
Despite the fact that the Rio Grande Valley has a flourishing tourist trade, the snowbirds shun Starr County. It isn’t on the road to anywhere—except a few of the less popular Mexican border towns. Starr has remained in dismal isolation, visited only by a few architecture buffs come to admire the century-old brickwork in Roma, or an occasional Indian in search of mescalito among the peyote hills.
But there’s an economic boom in Starr. Shiny wide-wheeled full-optioned pickups with push-button windows hog U.S. 83 between Rio Grande City and Roma. A frequent visitor insists he sees more Continentals with Bill Blass interiors in Starr County than in Westchester County, New York. Three hundred dollar anteater boots are a big consumer item at Rio Grande City’s dry goods store. Blond brick houses with burglar bars are popping up like toadstools along the bumpy, unpaved streets of Roma. A new bank has just been chartered there. And land prices have zoomed into the stratosphere.
The Texas Almanac will tell you that the county’s main businesses are truck farming and oil production, but it has overlooked the biggest industry of all: Starr is a major pipeline, a veritable free trade zone, for Mexican marijuana. A state grand jury impaneled to investigate the situation estimated that somewhere between 10 and 35 per cent of the county’s 200,000 residents are engaged in drug trafficking.
Smuggling is nothing new to Starr County—or any border county, for that matter. Residents will name families who have been moving contraband both directions across the border for five generations. Into Texas they’ve trundled illegal aliens, wax, parrots, sugar—whatever will turn a profit. Going the other direction they’ve taken American appliances, electronic parts, guns, ammunition. During Prohibition, the biggest illegal import item was booze, and the smugglers were called tequileros. Now the profit is marijuana (and heroin to a lesser degree, although little has been confiscated in the county), and the dealers are called “mafiosos.” That’s with a little “m.” These folks aren’t associated with the Cosa Nostra. Their heritage is Mexican rather than Italian, but like the real Mafia, their strength lies in a tight family system. The trade is facilitated by the fact that many families have members living in both Texas and Mexico. Some families even own land on opposite banks of the Rio Grande.
The marijuana trade in Starr County and elsewhere along the border was small potatoes until about 1966, when middle-class college kids started experimenting with drugs. One major Texas smuggling operation was conceived inside fraternity houses at the University of Texas in Austin. These first dealers were the privileged sons of wealthy professional people from the major Texas cities. It was these more sophisticated city boys who introduced their fraternity brothers from the border towns to the pleasures of marijuana and peyote. Until then, the South Texans had thought of peyote as just another cactus to step over, and marijuana as a crudely rolled cigarette smoked by poor Mexicans and a handful of hoods.
Soon the South Texans were bringing their fraternity brothers a couple of lids (ounces) of marijuana every time they went home for a visit. Since they were bilingual and had acquaintances on both sides of the border, there seemed little risk in obtaining the weed. Besides, those from influential families knew they could rely on legal and political protection.
The friends were not among the self-anointed campus revolutionaries of the sixties. As fraternity men, they didn’t have much credibility out on the streets. But they wanted to do their part for the cultural revolution, and providing a good steady supply of marijuana was an important service for the tribe. Smuggling marijuana seemed to be the most exciting, demanding, and romantic pursuit open to them. With their boundless self-confidence and considerable managerial abilities, they set up an efficient operation that became a model for smugglers all along the Texas border. The methods they used to get the weed across the river and out of the state in 1968 are essentially the same used by most border smugglers today.
Like good entrepreneurs, they always strove to eliminate the middleman and maximize their profits. They were one of the first groups out of Texas to transport their product to its best market—New York, where it would pull down the highest price. As the old saw from the dope trade goes, they found that money does grow on trees, or at least on tall bushes in the mountains west of Mexico City.
The Mexican angle is a story in itself. Suffice it to say that any smart U.S. operator relies on Mexican contacts to bring the marijuana at least as far as Mexico City or Monterrey. A South Texas Chicano or a North Mexican who is related to someone in a Texas border town will transport the load to the Rio Grande.
At the border, a Mexican landowner has been bribed with money or marijuana to allow access to his land. Across the river on the Texas side, a close business associate or relation is waiting to receive the load. He has made arrangements with a Texas landowner for access to the river, which the smugglers call the DMZ. The actual transfer usually takes place at night on a prearranged signal passed by walkie-talkie or blinking lights. The load can come across by plane, by boat, by bearers, on rafts, in trash bags linked together by ropes and pulled like a trotline across the river.
The common method is to bring it across—a ton at the most—by motorboat. The water is deep and the banks of the Rio Grande are high, muffling the sound of the motor. Chaparral provides shelter from prying eyes. The marijuana may also take a speedboat ride across mammoth Falcon Reservoir, an eerie isolated lake that straddles Texas and Mexico. If the load is going to someone who lives in the county or has kin there, the dealer may stash the marijuana somewhere until daylight, when a truck on the highway does not arouse so much interest.
The most dangerous part of the Texas operation is moving the load out of the Valley north along U.S. 281 to Falfurrias and Alice, up U.S. 77 through Kingsville, or along Farm Road 649 toward Hebbronville. Occasionally a load may go north by plane, but most Starr County operations aren’t that sophisticated. The ton might be broken up into smaller portions for transport by car or pickup or the whole thing may be concealed inside a commercialized truckload of something legitimate—bricks, produce, furniture, whatever. Since marijuana has a distinctive odor, it must be placed in some type of odor-concealing container.
The Austin group most often brought their loads out of the Valley in a convoy linked by CB radios. The CBs were quite an innovation in 1968; now all the dealers use them. A typical convoy has five vehicles. Twenty miles ahead of the load is a car that is completely clean—no dope, no CB, nothing to link the driver to the load back down the road. The lead car must ascertain whether the checkpoints operated intermittently by the immigration service and border patrol are open. If a checkpoint is operating, the lead car simply turns around and heads back toward the load. The mere presence of this car heading south is a signal for the entire convoy to turn around and make for a safe house in the Valley.
In addition to the lead car, other vehicles with CB radios are spaced at ten and five miles in front of the load and five miles behind. Each is on the lookout for law officers or any other potential trouble. Even the best plans, of course, can be torpedoed by fate. One Starr County smuggler got popped when a drunk weaved off the highway and plowed into his parked camper loaded down with 800 pounds of weed.
Most marijuana that moves up from South Texas is warehoused in Austin. Cooler than Dallas or Houston and more entertaining than the Valley towns, Austin is a favorite spot for wholesalers and brokers to gather and check out the product. High-quality dope is cheap and abundant in Austin. People there don’t care what the stuff looks like or what it is called; they just want it to get them good and high. In New York and California, however, consumers expect a little hype from their dealers. They want to hear that the weed was grown in the soil on the side of a mountain where virgin Mayan maidens once spilled their blood on the sacrificial altar, or some such nonsense.
One group that worked out of Starr County in the late sixties became known as the Armadillo Gang because they graded their weed by the number of armadillos on the package. One armadillo sencillo (simple) indicated the top of the line; two armadillos meant second-level quality; three armadillos indicated the commercial grade or pot ordinaire. For a time in New York, any dope with an armadillo on it brought $10 to $15 extra a lid. The group’s greatest triumph in packaging was their Oro de Jalisco, a golden-hued weed that customers were informed was grown between 4000 and 6000 feet in the Jalisco area. The three-pound bricks were wrapped in lavender tissue and gold cellophane, colors chosen to bring out the color of the marijuana.
The members of the Armadillo Gang hit upon the idea of transporting marijuana in water trucks. Water is such a precious commodity in South Texas that the smugglers figured lawmen would think twice before emptying a truck, and that was the only way to get to the dope. It worked for awhile, but they were eventually caught in Starr County in 1970 in what became known as the “tank truck bust.”
A number of different smuggling coalitions evolved from the original members of the Armadillo Gang. Some of the group have since served time in U.S. jails. One member recently engaged in a hunger strike in a Mexican prison. At least one is dead and others are fugitives. A few have returned to straight life.
The tank truck bust received much publicity in South Texas, but, far from acting as a deterrent to potential smugglers, it is credited with inspiring a number of Starr County residents to try their hand at marijuana smuggling. Some working-class Chicanos began to think to themselves, “Man, I drive a truck. Why should I be busting my ass hauling lettuce when I could be hauling weed?” Poor folks had been smuggling for generations along Starr’s fifty-mile border with Mexico. It just took them a little longer than the college kids to realize that the marijuana trade could be the biggest economic boom since Captain Kenedy brought the steamboat up the Rio Grande.
The Viet Nam War was an important element in the development of the marijuana trade. Young Chicanos who had never been out of South Texas found themselves smoking dope in Saigon with GIs from all over the United States. Later those old army buddies were more than happy to find northern markets for Mexican weed. It wasn’t so much organized as organic crime.
Many of the county’s Chicanos had other contacts in the outside world because they had spent much of their lives following the crops as migrant laborers. Approximately 7000 migrants live in Starr, and they’re constantly moving in and out of the county in trucks. Picking the smuggler out of that mass of humanity is like trying to find a pearl in a hailstorm.
So about 1970 a new breed of marijuana smuggler was born in Starr. The top man is typically between the ages of 25 and 40, with a high school education at most: a trucker or a laborer or a migrant. He comes from a large, poor family with relations on both sides of the border, the kind of Starr family nobody ever paid any attention to before.
The Starr County grand jury’s estimate that between a tenth and a third of the populace smuggles drugs is probably accurate, but it is important to understand that these folks aren’t smuggling full time. The grand jury is talking about thousands of people who once or twice a year drive a motorboat across the river, stash a load in their barn, or drive in a convoy north. The smuggler is anybody in Starr County.
One of the major reasons the marijuana trade has thrived in Starr is because there is virtually no local law enforcement. Rio Grande City, the county seat with approximately 7000 inhabitants, is one of the largest unincorporated towns in the United States. It does not have a police department. Roma-Los Saenz, the largest incorporated area (population 2500), has a police force of two. A new police chief, who has been on the job since January, said he is primarily concentrating on traffic control around the high school. The old chief, who made not a single narcotics-related arrest in 1975 and 1976, resigned the day after he was called before the grand jury.
The Starr County Sheriffs Department has a staff of about fifteen, but the grand jury was very critical of their work. The first state grand jury impaneled specifically to look into drug smuggling in Starr issued a report in January. While not going so far as to accuse any member of the department with complicity in the smuggling trade, the jury directed Sheriff Raymundo Alvarez to (1) get rid of “ineffective or unqualified personnel,” (2) start enforcing the narcotics laws, (3) cooperate with other law enforcement agencies in apprehending smugglers, (4) start keeping good records on confiscated drugs, and (5) “destroy narcotic drugs only under proper court order” and in the presence of reliable witnesses.
Being a deputy sheriff in Starr is not a very rewarding job, and it could be downright dangerous. As one grand jury member pointed out, “It’s not like you can call in the big city cops for backup. Where will you go for help?” Some of the deputies who went before the grand jury expressed the sentiment that they are not being paid enough to risk their lives by getting involved in drug enforcement. Some of them earn only $350 or $400 a month as full-time deputy sheriffs. The department made only 22 narcotics arrests last year, and nary a one of them involved a major seizure or a major dealer. The culprits were often local kids with a couple of joints or some hapless UT student picked up on the highway carrying a backpack bulging with peyote.
There haven’t been many cases tried in Starr County, either. From 1971 until 1975, the infamous George Parr associate O. P. Carillo was the presiding district judge. During that period, says State Assistant Attorney General Neal Duvall, Carrillo tried only one contested criminal case. Duvall has been stationed in Starr County for a year helping process the staggering load of long-ignored cases left over from Carrillo’s tenure. It was Carrillo’s practice to give probated terms to those who pled guilty to criminal offenses and simply not try those who insisted upon their innocence. Since there are no probation officers in Starr, probation is tantamount to acquittal. (Carrillo was found guilty in 1975 of income tax evasion, and in 1976 he was impeached and removed from office by the Texas Legislature.)
For what it’s worth, which is probably not much, law enforcement officials estimate that between 20,000 and 40,000 pounds of marijuana cross the river into Starr County each week. Last year, federal agents confiscated 44,000 pounds of the stuff—or one to two weeks’ worth of hauls—in Starr, but a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokeswoman hastened to point out that lots of loads are seized farther north.
The enforcement folks insist that the smugglers have the upper hand. “They have more equipment and more funds,” said Herman Railey, agent-in-charge of the Rio Grande City Border Patrol and foreman of the grand jury. “Yeah,” added a former investigator for the district attorney, “we’re out-classed, outgunned, and out-gutted.”
The smugglers naturally disagree. One maintains that any federal agent has more resources at his disposal than the best-organized smuggler. But one thing seems certain: the war is escalating on both sides. The Texas-Mexico border is a violent place, in part because both the law officers and the smugglers see themselves as playing a real-life game of cowboys and Indians. The Starr County smuggler, whether he is a rich kid or a migrant worker, is a dangerous blend of Latin machismo and redneck independence. Most Texas smugglers do not want to use a gun. They know that armed contact with the government causes the risks to soar and the profits to drop. But arms are an integral part of the business in Mexico. A Mexican dealer just won’t take an unarmed man (or any woman) seriously. And the armed Texan had better be willing to use his weapon in a crunch. More than one naive gringo smuggler has been buried in Mexico because he didn’t approach the macho myth with sufficient seriousness.
Most of the drug-related killings are the result of internecine disputes between rival entrepreneurs. Such murders occur with alarming regularity on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, and they’re becoming more common in Texas. Last August the bodies of three Starr County men were found stashed in car trunks in neighboring Hidalgo County. One of them was 28-year-old Humberto (Teddy Bear) Vela, shot twice in the head and once in the back at close range. Scrawled on his right hand were fresh ballpoint pen figures reading $24,000. The numbers seemed a clear indication that the murders resulted from a bad dope deal.
A source close to the drug business explained, “The myth has to be, ‘If you steal my load I’ll kill you.’ ” It’s all tied in to the Mexican concepts of honor y dignidad. The more experienced Anglo dealers, on the other hand, will almost always resolve a bad deal without resorting to violence. If a mule (a hired hand) loses a load, the boss may come in and repossess his stereo. The boss has to do something to save face.
The trunk murders were the last straw for Arnulfo Guerra, at that time the overworked district attorney for Starr, Jim Hogg, and Duval counties. Federal and state investigations into political corruption had already resulted in convictions of a district judge, two county judges, three county commissioners, a county treasurer, a justice of the peace, two high school superintendents, and other members of the Duval County duchy. Guerra, politically ambitious and adept with the media, was ready to turn his attention to Starr, his home county.
Guerra, who is known as “Mighty Mouse” to his friends, owns The South Texas Reporter, a weekly paper published in Roma. He issued a challenge to county residents in a front-page editorial in September 1976:
How can a community permit a complete breakdown of law and order where it concerns drugs? The drug traffic is here because we as a community allow it. And why do we allow it? Well, it’s very simple—MONEY, PROFIT, AND LACK OF MORALS.
The lawyers don’t complain—hell, who would turn down the massive fees which lawyers get when they chase all over the country at the bidding of the mafia leaders or their mules?
And the politicians—who is going to turn his back on “unreported” campaign contributions and the controlled vote of the “mafiosos”?
And the automobile dealers, why, who is going to ignore that new customer who pays cash for any big car, or for the customized pick-ups, vans, and fleets of sleek tractor-trailers?
And the jewelers, are they happy? You never saw so many diamonds in one area except maybe the mines of South Africa—and all paid for with cash…
Yes, we turn our heads the other way when bodies with shotgun holes all over them are found stinking and rotting in car trunks. . . . Maybe the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs, Immigration, Texas Rangers, Department of Public Safety, IRS, and other outsiders can turn time back for us and give us another chance.
But not until we quit turning our heads and chasing after that filthy and now bloodstained dirty dollar. Not until we as a community really mean “enough is enough.”
“I wake up in the morning and I say, ‘Ramos, get up. The world needs you.’ ”
For prosecutors in Starr County Sam Ramos must have been a godsend. They needed law-abiding citizens with no fear of the mafiosos to serve on the grand jury, and Ramos was perfect. At the age of 37 he has a secure niche as office manager of Central Power and Light in Rio Grande City. He’s a Rotarian, a Jaycee, a Little League sponsor, a member of the Chamber of Commerce and every other civic organization in the county.
What’s more, he’s tough, as wrapped up in the macho mystique as any Starr smuggler. He fondly remembers his renown as a street fighter before he turned to more socially acceptable pursuits as a four-sport athlete for the Rio Grande City High School Rattlers and later as a Green Beret in Viet Nam.
“I’m probably what you’d call a right-wing conservative,” he confides. He’s also a snitch. From his desk at the light company he’s in a perfect position to know who’s in the chips and who is not. For some years, he says, it has been his policy to supply the Internal Revenue Service and law enforcement agencies with the names of electricity customers whose lifestyles show dramatic and inexplicable improvement—among them, he says, the names of some of his relatives he suspects are involved with drugs. (“But that’s different from some outsider screwing with my family. If somebody hurts me or a member of my family, then that involves a matter of honor.”)
Ramos and other members of the grand jury have been very hospitable to the press in an effort, as they are the first to concede, to get statewide support and government subsidies to beef up law enforcement in the county. Ramos says the grand jury pinpointed half a dozen prominent dope-smuggling clans. He names a lot of Garzas and a few less-common Spanish surnames. One bunch of Garzas: “They’re a large, well-organized, self-contained family, so big they don’t have to use mules.” Another bunch of Garzas: “The father is a damn yo-yo, really, but his family stretches from Guadalajara to Monterrey.
“These families have lived here for years, man. They have their own little systems and they’re the boss. You can’t infiltrate them. Even if you brought a Mexican in, he won’t speak our lingo. Man, these families are real tight. Some of the marriages are arranged to keep the business going.”
Ramos doesn’t just tell reporters about the drug scene, he takes them on a stately homes tour of the county. Gullible outlanders must beware. One Houston television crew was shown a sumptuous brick ranchette as a typical dope dealer’s abode. The house they filmed turned out to belong to one of the county’s leading citizens, who is threatening to sue the station for libel. Of course, not every Cadillac or new brick home belongs to a smuggler, but the new cars and new construction in a county where 74.2 per cent of the population is supposed to have incomes below the poverty level leads a visitor to accept the inference that he is seeing a harvest of ill-gotten gains. Whether Ramos is in fact pinpointing dealers or in his zeal lumping in hardworking, honest citizens is impossible to tell. But in this underdeveloped county, any cash infusion stands out.
Ramos calls the thirteen-mile stretch of highway between Rio Grande City and Roma “mafiasville.” Flanking the highway is a random and motley assortment of businesses, homesteads, and junk piles. Small compounds of doublewide mobile homes enclosed with cyclone fences. Blond brick homes with burglar bars. A few big ranch houses. A drive-in movie screen onto which some enterprising soul is building a three-story structure. Graveyards for old equipment. Many, many convenience stores.
Ramos pulls up near an impressive brick home with a large swimming pool. “The lady who lives here, she came in to pay her light bill this morning,” he says. “We used to work in the fields together picking watermelon. She never would date me. Now I know why. She came into the office and she’s got a diamond on her hand she paid $18,000 for. She’s got two Lincoln Continentals. She didn’t go to school. She told me that three years ago she had to get a $200 note at the bank. ‘Now I can reach into any pocket and get $200,’ she said. I told her, ‘Someday you’ll fail.’ ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘but until then I’m gonna live high.’ ”
Back on Highway 83, driving past more new houses and a reservoir. “Look at this ass here. He’s just a kid and he builds himself a great big private lake. His brother just got busted in Maryland.”
Farther on toward Roma, two suburban-style brick homes with the requisite burglar bars. Pointing to the first house, Ramos says, “This guy is in prison now.” The second house: “That guy is locked up in the county jail.” Ramos points across a field to a barnlike structure. He’s irate. “Just last week we ran power to that stable so this crud can have air conditioning for his quarter horses.”
We turn onto a dirt road that is marked private. “We don’t have any business bein’ here, but they know not to mess with me. By yourself this would be like takin’ a one-way trip to Hanoi in 1966.” On a grid of four rutted dirt roads within sight of the river are a cluster of mobile homes and modest frame houses, each one enclosed by a cyclone fence. The dogs are penned up but the chickens roam free. If these are dope dealers they’re not the ostentatious type. The community looks only a cut above the unincorporated colonias that house migrant workers throughout the Rio Grande Valley. But the stretch of riverbank would be a handy place to land a load of marijuana.
On to Roma-Los Saenz, founded as a Spanish mission in 1751. The old part of town, on a high bluff overlooking the river, looks like a set out of a Clint Eastwood Western. One expects to find Mexican banditos among the ruins.
North of the highway, however, the atmosphere is radically different—a new low- to middle-income, poorly planned suburb. Lots of construction. Lots of pickups and tractor-trailer rigs in the driveways. “We called a lot of the guys who live here before the grand jury,” Ramos says. “ ‘How do you make a living?’ ” we asked. “ ‘I have a truck.’ Hell. Two months from now when all the migrants are gone, that’s when these drug people stand out. You see ’em walking around in their leisure suits watering the lawn. They all ‘drive trucks.’ ”
Ramos has worked himself into a state of moral outrage that occasionally betrays a taint of envy. “I used to lease some land to feed a few head of cattle. The land was just bought out from under me for $680 an acre cash, it was probably worth $80. The boy who bought it was fixin’ flats eight months ago.
“My thirteen-year-old son asked me, ‘Did you ever consider getting into drugs? Why don’t you do it just once so we can buy a new truck?’ Who do you hold up as an example? You can starve to death bein’ proud, baby. I’ve got a solution. I’m gonna send a bus into Rio Grande City and pick up the twenty-three honest people. Then I’m gonna build a wall around the county and make the whole county do thirty years.”
Former DA Arnulfo Guerra (he ran for District Judge Carrillo’s old seat and lost) has a different solution to the drug problem. After two years of uphill fighting against the drug traffic, he concludes: “There is a breakdown of all types of law here. The profit motive is being applied to what the law says is illegal. We need a complete reevaluation of where we are and where we’re going. We should decriminalize marijuana. Do we go after the distillers of liquor? No, we arrest the guy who is making a menace of himself on the highway. Maybe we should even decriminalize hard drugs.”
What Starr County is getting, of course, is not a reevaluation of the drug laws but rather an infusion of additional law officers and equipment. Compliments of the governor’s Criminal Justice Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) got a million dollars to string two-dozen or so highway patrolmen, some fancy communications equipment, and eleven undercover agents from Del Rio to Brownsville. The DPS narcs have $400,000 in “flash,” or buy money, an amount that dealers say won’t go very far in that vast territory.
No one in Starr seems to take the new task force or the grand jury investigations very seriously. The grand jury on which Sam Ramos served (a second is now impaneled) generated a lot of publicity but returned not a single drug-related indictment. Assistant Attorney General Duvall explains that grand juries usually don’t make many drug cases. The cases are made by undercover agents. But some people close to the drug business say that Duvall and the grand jury are full of chalupas. As for the DPS task force, one dealer said, “They’re just showin’ the flag.” More highway patrolmen are cruising the highways, and they will probably luck onto a few more loads. But it takes years to know the territory. The real threat to the drug business still comes from the federal DEA, which has ten years of experience along the border and some savvy undercover agents. But the DEA is making no special effort in Starr.
As the DPS piles on money, men, and equipment in search of an enemy who, for the most part, is indistinguishable from the general population, one can’t help but be reminded of the American presence in Viet Nam. One smuggler predicts: “More agents will just escalate the level of violence.”
The dope dealer has become part of the fabric of Starr County life. Go into any cantina and listen to the most popular Spanish ballads or corridos. The lead song on Los Tigres del Norte’s recent album, La Banda del Carro Rojo (The Red Car Gang), is about some Chicano cocaine smugglers who get into a shootout with Texas Rangers (los Rinches) outside of San Antonio. All the smugglers die except the narrator who is sorry for los Rinches because he’ll never sing (inform) on his compadres. On the flip side is Camilia la Tejana, about a Chicana double agent who kills somebody on a dark street and in turn is murdered by a gang of Mexican smugglers. Camilia la Tejana is a rare, if fictional, instance of a woman being given a leadership role in the drug business.
A designer from McAllen says that the nouveau riche smugglers of Starr are making some of his colleagues wealthy: “If it’s a consumer good and they’ve seen it in a magazine, they won’t rest until they get it—for cash, great gobs of it that they carry in Safeway sacks. They go in for loud and primary colors. Your basic red, black, and yellow blending into green, brown, and orange. I have a friend who sold so much indoor-outdoor carpeting in Starr County that he won not one but two national contests last year. He got two different trips to Europe, a week each.”
The designer has seen transactions of Starr County deals involving fortunes in cash. “I once watched dealers count out half a million in small bills, your basic twenties, my dear.”
The heat from the authorities and the press is forcing some smugglers to consider a less flamboyant lifestyle. While a rich Anglo dealer might blow hundreds of thousands of dollars living it up in the East or in California, far from his smuggling route, the Chicano dealer is inclined to stay home and buy houses for his family. Houses are an intelligent investment, but it’s hard for a South Texas “trucker” to explain to the IRS how he managed to save enough money to build brick homes for himself and his parents, buy mobile homes for various cousins, and still keep his wife in Cadillacs and diamonds.
A Starr County attorney said he used to prepare income tax statements for a middle-aged trucker who hauled bricks from Mexico in a rattletrap rig. Now the trucker has a new $40,000 semi and a big brick house. At tax time, the attorney asked him how much income he had to declare. “What would sound good?” the trucker asked. “Why don’t you put down $145 a week?” The attorney explained that he couldn’t just “put down” something. It had to be the truth. “Well, then, put down $250 a week,” the trucker suggested. The attorney declined to complete the tax form. “That guy couldn’t cover his expenses now for a thousand a week,” he said.
“Some of the dealers are getting more sophisticated,” the attorney said. “They’re buying beer joints, car washes, opening little convenience stores next to their houses—anything to justify the money that is coming in. A nineteen-year-old kid came to me the other day because he wants to set up a go-cart track. Now I can do the paperwork for him on that. It’s legal.”
Straight businessmen, like everyone else in the community, are ambivalent about the dope trade. Marco Garza, a Rio Grande City retailer who says he’s never even gotten drunk, let alone stoned on marijuana, is resentful of the grand jury and the publicity about the county. He thinks the blame is being unjustly placed on local Chicano smugglers who are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder and who are simply supplying a product to decadent gringos. “I feel the drug problem is created by parents in the North who ignore their children,” he says. “This is a spinoff of the American problem. Marijuana is available down here, but I’m going to keep my kids away from it by spending time with them.”
Sam Ramos thinks the community’s attitude toward dealers is: “If my kid smokes marijuana, you’re gonna pay for it. You make damn sure it passes out of this county and the niggers and the gringos get it.” Ramos says, “That’s what’s wrong with our system—we only look out for our own.”
Garza, in his mid-thirties, is a pillar of the community. He sports what is commonly called a “mafioso” hat, a high-brimmed cowboy number with a deep dip in the front, set off by an expensive feather band. Mafioso hats are selling so well that his store can’t keep them stocked. Still, the joy ride could end at any time. “I don’t know where it will lead to, but it’s rough on the merchant who has to order his stock six months in advance,” he says.
“The rest of the country went through a recession in the past three years, but there has been a building boom along the border. The mules from Mexico and the United States are making ten times more than they ever made before. I’ll be honest with you, if it wasn’t for that commerce in the Valley, my business would be cut by half. Stiff drug enforcement down here would hit the Valley harder than peso devaluation.”