At the time, Nogales was basically one city with one part on the Arizona side of the American-Mexican border and the other part on the Mexico side. The Nogales in Sonora, Mexico was six times larger than its twin American city. In 1997 the United States began erecting the wall that now splits the twin cities. Back then there was no wall.
I got a ride to Tucson easily enough. Then I went through Tucson and started out the other side, headed for Nogales and the border. I was outside Tucson waiting on the side of the road and I looked up and coming towards me was a hitchhiker's dream. It was a 1949 Ford two-door hardtop painted black, shiny, and absolutely beautiful. And, lo and behold, the guy stops and picks me up. I got in the car.
So we rode along chatting for about twenty minutes. Then he said, "There's some pot under the front seat of the car. I'd like to smoke a joint. Can you get it out and roll one?"
I said, "Oh, yeah…okay."
I thought that I was going to reach under there and find some little baggie. There was a pound-and-a-half of pot, a big fat bag, wedged under the front seat on the passenger's side. I was surprised. I pulled it out, made a joint which we both smoked as we headed for Nogales.
After a while he told me, "I really like you. I want to tell you something."
I asked, "What's that?"
He said, "I own Nogales. It's my town. I own it outright. In Nogales, I can do anything."
I said, "Yeah, sure, right, buddy." I thought to myself: Wow, this is one bullshit guy! I stuffed the pot back under the front seat and he kept on driving. It must have been pretty obvious to him that I did not believe him.
We pulled up to the Customs on the American side of the border and he parked the car in front of the Customs building there. "Come on," he said, "I'm going to take you in and introduce you to my friends."
So we hopped out of the Ford and walked in through the front door. Everybody seemed ecstatic to see this guy. (I can't really remember his name…I'll call him "Chancho" because it's close, but I can't remember exactly what his name was.)
We wandered around in the Customs office and he showed me around in the different rooms and we chatted with the people that are there. They treated him like he was their best friend and they apparently got along well.
Then he said, "Okay, well, that's the American side."
We went back out, got into the Ford and he drove through the Customs checkpoint. The guys that were checking the cars just waved us on through…we hardly even slowed down. They were hollering his name and going, "Hey, Chancho! Eh-hey, great to see you!", "Coming back home?" They all seemed to know him well.
We got out on the Mexican side of the border and talked with Mexican border guards too. On the Mexican side, the same thing happened as on the American side. Everybody was excited to see him as we walked around in the Customs office. Far from being checked, we were welcomed as old brothers on a homecoming party or something. We got back in the car and headed for the town of Nogales.
(I was definitely beginning to believe this was not as much crap as I thought it was. The people in both of the buildings at the border crossing were really sincerely glad to see this guy!)
We rolled into Nogales and he told me, "I want to show you something else." And he took me to the local jail. We pulled up in front of the jail, we got out, and walked to the front door. All the cops gave this guy exactly the same routine as the border people: "Eh, Chancho, great to see ya!" "Eh, I haven't seen ya in a while. Thanks for stopping by…." "Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah."
On the wall there was a big iron ring with keys on it. He walked over to the iron ring, took it off the hook on the wall and said, "Come on." We walked over to a great big iron-bar door which leads to a hallway with cells on both sides and people in all the cells. At the end of the hallway was one cell that ran from one side to the other.
He cranked open the door with one of the keys. Apparently he knew exactly which key to use to open the door. Through the door we went.
As we walked between the occupied cells, all of the prisoners in this jail were apparently every bit as happy to see him as the cops and the border guards on both sides had been. By this time, I was really believing this.
The prisoners are going, "Eh, Chancho. Eh…thanks for coming in here!" "Hey, how's it going?" "Can you get me a job when I get out?" And we walked…we sallied forth, really…and the guy greeted all of the guys in those cells. By this time I was starting to feel more than a little confused just looking at all of these prisoners showing this man respect. I was just a hitchhiker. Why was it important for him to show me this?
We got down to the last cell, the, the one that went across, and he turned around and put his back up against the bars. He was talking to the guys like he was an orator. He stuck one of his hands behind his back and shoved it between the bars. He stood there for about two or three minutes talking to all the people and then he pulled his hand out from behind the bars. I could see that he had palmed something, but I didn't know what.
We walked back out down the corridor between the cells and he locked the door, then walked over and hung up the keys on the wall. We said,goodbye to all the cops, walked back out of the jail, and got back in the shiny black Ford.
When we were sitting in the car, he opened up his hand to show me what he had. It was full of joints. They had all been rolled by prisoners in brown-paper-bag papers and they just handed them to him when he stuck his hand through the bars. He had maybe ten joints in his hand that were all completely rolled up, ready to smoke. He put them up on the dashboard and off we went.
Apparently he wasn't done showing me "things." We drove through the town of Nogales, out to a bumpy dirt country road. We bumped down this thing for about 20 minutes. Up on one side was a kind of a tall hill -- say, 200 feet high -- and up on top of it was one little house sitting alone. There were no other buildings on this hill.
We drove up the bumpy road to the little house and walked inside. The whole inside of the house was taken up by a giant table that must have had 20 kilos of marijuana on it. All around the table were women with bags, weighing it and loading it into bags.
There were the same greetings and accolades, one more round. Everybody was delighted to see him. It was apparent that he was the boss, he owned this. It felt like he was telling me, This is my stuff, these are my girls, they work for me… the same as the cops and the border guards.
"Okay," I said. "Got it,"
We marched back down out to Ford and headed down the hill back towards town. We got down to the main street of Nogales and he started driving very slowly up the street. As we drove along, the people in the bars and restaurants started running out into the street with trays with drinks on them and tacos and stuff. They were shoving the stuff up to the window obviously hoping Chancho would be benevolent and accept one of these drinks or some of this food. There were people sticking their hands in through the window, trying to pat him on the back. They all seemed to want to do whatever they could to endear themselves to this guy.
I was, by this time, completely amazed. I thought, He was telling me the truth! This guy truly owns this town.
We drove down this street and after about 20 minutes or so of this, he said, "Well, I'm going to let you out. Now you believe me."
I told him, "Yeah, I believe ya."
Then he continued, "Listen. Anywhere in Mexico, if you get in trouble, doing anything -- I don't care -- you tell those people…whoever…the jailers…to call Chancho in Nogales. I don't care what the crime is, I will come and get you out!"
I stammered, "Wow, that's…that's an amazing offer." (By this point, I truly believed him.)
We drove up to a bar that was on the side of the road and he told me, "When you left Phoenix, you were with two friends. Those two guys made it to town while we've been driving around and they went into this bar. They're sitting in the bar now having a beer. So I'm going to let you out there and you can rejoin your friends."
I said, "Oh-kay." I was amazed and even a bit stunned that he was aware of what my friends and I had been doing.
I got out of the car and shook hands with the guy and thanked him. I walked through the front door of the bar, and, lo and behold, there were my two friends sitting at the bar having a beer. Jim and Steve had made it into town without any incident. Their journey to Nogales had not been as eventful as mine.
And that's the end of the story. To this day I have no idea why I got the special guided tour and was given a glimpse of the driver's life.