The bologna arrives in darkness. Hundreds of pounds cross into the U.S. from Mexico at once. Rolls are stuffed into the backs of SUVs, sewn into car seats, shoved into spare tires, or hidden in suitcases beneath heaps of shirts and socks. Once, in El Paso, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer drilled into a car’s bumper and the bit came out pink, covered in the slimy residue of lunch meat. The illicit Mexican bologna trade is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Stephen Colbert did a segment on it in 2012, and in the past decade it’s been covered by the Wall Street Journal and Time, among other outlets. Still, it persists at a steady clip—a busy, consistent form of commerce that raises the question Why bologna? The enterprising meat merchants smuggling these massive, plastic-wrapped sausages—known colloquially as “chubs”—face fines of $1,000 or more if caught. The Department of Agriculture prohibits travelers from bringing most pork products into the U.S. because they can carry maladies such as foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever. But the fines are chump change when weighed against the potential profits. In Mexico, a nine-pound roll of Chimex, the most popular brand of smuggled chubs, costs $10 to $15. In the U.S., the same roll can be sold for anywhere from $80 to $120—a huge markup for a basic lunch meat that Weird Al once wrote a spoof song about.
The quantities of intercepted bologna are so large that it’s hard to believe that there are any pigs left in the world. One day in September 2021, CBP agents found 320 pounds of bologna that had been concealed in a 2012 Honda Odyssey. Months later, in January 2022, officials seized 243 pounds of bologna during two busts, first from a man who had hidden 55 pounds of it under the seats and in the trunk of an SUV, and then from a woman who had hidden nineteen sausages under her back seat, in some luggage, and inside a duvet cover.
After the meat is confiscated, it is incinerated, a process that CBP officials told me results in fragrant, hot dog–scented plumes of smoke that waft through the area.
The meat that is not detected travels far and (somewhat) wide. On Facebook Marketplace, I was able to find rolls of Chimex across Colorado, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. As of this writing, there weren’t any Facebook Marketplace sellers on the East Coast, but several of the vendors in western states expressed a willingness in their listings to ship their products elsewhere. CBP officials said some rolls are posted on Craigslist and others are sold at community markets or fairs.
“As long as there has been a border, there have been people bringing contraband both ways,” said Steven Alvarez, associate professor of English at St. John’s University and the writer behind the website Taco Literacy. Alvarez recalled his family’s frying up bologna with scrambled eggs and putting it in tacos and buying white-bread bologna sandwiches from the Mexican convenience store Oxxo. He suspects much of the demand for Mexican bologna is driven by nostalgia. “There’s a fondness. Everybody at some point has a great bologna sandwich.”
As he spoke, I scoured the deepest, meatiest recesses of my brain, but I couldn’t come up with a single memory of a “great bologna sandwich.” Alvarez explained that the flavor of Mexican bologna is different from the pallid slabs of Oscar Mayer we get in the U.S.: it’s richer and “more porky” whereas the American version is typically blended with other meats such as beef or chicken. Perhaps I had simply been eating a lesser bologna.
Chefs have been advocating for years for the humble lunch meat to receive the respect it deserves. In a 2014 column for GQ, celebrity chef David Chang wrote: “The problem right now is that there is no such thing as artisanal bologna. This blows my mind—we have craft doughnuts, beet pickles, beef jerky . . . but no bologna? This needs to change.”
Per the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council’s “Guide to Bologna” webpage, “U.S. government regulations require American bologna to be finely ground and without the visible pieces of fat”—unlike its older Italian cousin, mortadella. In these fractious political times, I found it moving to see that the U.S. government had at some point come to an agreement on something, even if that something was just the fat content of lunch meat: our bologna would be homogenous and neutral.
And less porky. Chef Iliana de la Vega owns the Austin restaurant El Naranjo and recently won a prestigious James Beard award. Like Alvarez, she said the higher pork content in Mexican bologna is what differentiates it from its U.S. counterpart. De la Vega grew up eating the former at friends’ houses and at parties. Some families would cut it into big slices, bread it, and fry it. Others sautéed it with onions or diced it into large cubes they threw into salads.
“It’s not my favorite thing, to be honest with you,” de la Vega admitted. But while bologna may not be to her taste, she said, she understands the emotional draw of products consumers grew up eating and the willingness to pay big money for them. (For de la Vega, it’s mayonnaise. “There’s no way I can use Hellmann’s or an American one,” she said. “I have to get the Mexican one.”)
Part of the draw of Chimex bologna and similar products, de la Vega suggested, may be that big companies are able to maintain consistent flavor profiles over the years. So the bologna you have as an adult will taste just like the Chimex you had as a kid. “You grow up with certain things, and you don’t want to miss them,” de la Vega said. “It brings home back to you.”
Some Chimex pork products are available in the U.S., but only those that come from packing houses that have been certified by USDA inspectors. Travelers can get a permit to bring approved pork products into the country, though the cost of the permit can cut into potential profits. Or smugglers can sew some up into their vehicle and hope for the best.
I wanted to see how the sausage gets, uh, made. But before I could visit CBP in El Paso, I had to go to the El Paso Zoo; I was told that it’s much easier to find parking there.
I was collected in the zoo parking lot by Landon Hutchens, a former major in the Marines who works in the Office of Public Affairs at the CBP El Paso sector. Hutchens looks like Jesse Plemons, if Jesse Plemons were prepping for a role as a special ops guy—tall, with floppy blond hair and the Oakley-esque sports sunglasses of someone who’s comfortable around automatic weapons. Before we drove to the office, Hutchens gallantly cleared out the passenger seat of his truck for me, which was covered in papers and a thirty-pound bulletproof vest. He said he had not been inside the zoo before but he’d heard it was nice.
At the CBP El Paso field office, I found myself sucked into a U.S. government press operation that was slicker than a drill bit covered in bumper bologna. There would be no dawdling on this visit. Hutchens guided me from stop to stop on our tour, never lingering in one spot for too long. Immediately after our interview, he later explained, he’d had to go pick up a producer who was scouting the area for an upcoming Dolph Lundgren film.
After leading me through a series of locked beige doors and down several gray hallways, Hutchens introduced me to agricultural specialists Nicole Miller and Katherine Vasquez. We chatted briefly about various pork-borne illnesses before being whisked out of the building and onto the Bridge of the Americas to watch a canine demonstration by Keela, a seven-year-old federally employed Labrador retriever whose portrait hangs in one of the hallways we had raced through.
The Bridge of the Americas actually comprises two huge bridges with fourteen lanes that run from Juárez to El Paso. While we waited for Keela to arrive, her colleague, a sleek Malinois, patrolled the rows of vehicles with a ferocious intensity. He was not looking for lunch meats, Miller explained. Different dogs have different jobs. “You’ve got a narcotics dog, a currency dog, a firearms dog, and then agriculture.”
Right now agriculture is Keela’s domain alone, though she’ll soon be joined by three more dogs. Keela has been trained to detect the scent of, among other things, pork, poultry, apples, oranges, peaches, pears, kiwis, and mangoes. When she smells one of these items in a car or a suitcase, she’ll sit and scratch at the offending spot until she is rewarded with a treat. Though generally an honest and diligent worker, Keela occasionally tries to game the system by pointing out the same scent multiple times. “As many times as she sits, she assumes I’m going to give her a cookie, so after a while I have to move her along,” explained Keela’s handler, Daniel Anaya, as he tugged her past a food-scented suitcase that had been put out for our demonstration.
Back inside, Anaya regretfully admitted that he had missed the most recent major bologna seizure, a couple of weeks earlier.
“A lot of times, these guys will give the call: ‘We just got twenty rolls of bologna!’ And I’m like, ‘Ugh, why did I take annual leave today?’ ” he said. “Anytime you get a large quantity of anything, whether it’s bologna or five hundred mangoes or something hidden where it shouldn’t be, it’s a big event for us.”
The tour sped on. After watching Keela at work, I was herded back through the gray hallways. We entered what would have been a comfortable and well-equipped break room, if not for the large metal sink in the middle piled high with bootleg fruit.
“This is where we bring prohibited items,” Miller explained cheerfully, gesturing at the embarrassment of seized riches around her. To the left, a large row of wooden shelves displayed dozens of dusty bottles of scorpion tequila (scorpions are wildlife and can’t be brought into the country), a stately stuffed rooster (improperly taxidermied), cheerfully painted eggs (could potentially carry avian influenza), and cans of goulash (prohibited meat item).
Past the shelves, a row of luscious, confiscated houseplants sat on a desk above a three-foot-tall wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ, whose head was bowed mournfully, as if aware of his surroundings. “We’ll pick up wood products from Mexico because different bugs can live inside the wood. Wood-boring pests,” said Miller, when I pointed questioningly at the Savior. Indeed, the wood under the left edge of Jesus’s bottom lip appeared to have been feasted upon by tiny, hungry mouths; it looked as if he had a nasty cold sore.
Finally, the meat. In the back of the room, past a couple of desks, stood a pair of freezers whose contents looked as if they belonged to a crazed weight lifter doing a major bulk. Rows and rows of frozen meats lined the shelves. There were enormous rolls of Chimex, sliced and unsliced; containers of raw chicken breasts; a bag full of what appeared to be, by my initial estimate, 40,000 hot dogs. (A diligent fact checker later put that number closer to 100.) On one shelf, a zipped-up teal lunch box had a paper tag dangling from it that read, simply, “Pork.”
Miller handed me a large Chimex chub, a term that doesn’t quite do justice to the gargantuan object that I was suddenly holding. “The hull of a Boeing 727 but made entirely of flesh” might be more appropriate.
Bologna is an easy punch line, but there are serious potential costs associated with a breakthrough disease in livestock. According to a 2008 government report, the U.S. lost almost $11 billion in beef exports between 2004 and 2007, after mad cow disease was detected in Washington State; the swine flu outbreak in 2009 sent the global economy into a panic. And now, agricultural officials are on high alert after pork samples in the Dominican Republic and Haiti tested positive for African swine fever in 2021. “There’s a lot of connection between Haiti and ports in Florida and Puerto Rico,” Vasquez said. “It’s a very significant disease.”
Still, there was a bleakness to seeing items that had clearly been intended for celebration being frozen in bureaucratic limbo. Imagine promising your friends and family their favorite lunch meat from home, or a beautiful taxidermied rooster, and showing up empty-handed.
As my tour came to a close, I was surprised to receive CBP merch—a blue tote bag with “dontpackapest.com” emblazoned on the side, containing stress balls that looked like oranges. Hutchens drove me back to the zoo; Dolph Lundgren’s producer would be arriving at any moment. In the parking lot I surveyed my small rental car and determined that it probably could conceal no more than five or six chubs, max.
The CBP agricultural team’s busy season is the holidays, I was told. Travelers crisscross the border with gifts for their families, sometimes with proper permits, sometimes without.
As Alvarez explained later, “The lengths people will go to have the taste of something that transports them back to where they have fond memories, or a place that’s far away in distance and time . . . People will pay as much as they can.”
Madeleine Aggeler is a writer who lives in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Bunch of Bologna.” Subscribe today.