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Contrabando

Austin-American Statesman

Tales of a drug-smuggling cowboy

These days theres a barbecue joint near the intersection of two rural roads between Seguin and Gonzales where, the story goes, highwaymen used to lie in wait for travelers to rob.
“Now,” Don Henry Ford Jr., says with a dusty chuckle, “it’s the highway patrol.”

With all due respect to Texas’ law enforcement community, Ford sees the roles of cops and robbers as much more nuanced than white hats and black hats. Moral absolutes are at times hard to come by in the real, complicated world. Temptation is a chronic tap on the shoulder, good guys can get compromised and outlaws have at least the potential for noble and generous acts. Whether it’s yesterday’s highwaymen or today’s speed-trap highway patrol, somebody’s taking tolls.

Ford is 48 years old. With his hat and Wranglers and sun-cured neck, he looks like a cowboy, which he is. He does not look like a former dope smuggler who says he did business with Amado Carrillo Fuentes—the biggest drug lord in the world until his death on a plastic-surgery table in Mexico in 1997—and tells tales of trading shots with notorious narcotrafficker Pablo Acosta’s men. Tens of millions of dollars and tons of marijuana passed through Ford’s hands. He says he extravagantly entertained prostitutes, once gave a pretty girl $3,000 in cash for looking at him in just the right way, broke out of prison, lived underground in Mexico, grew his own dope crop and very nearly got away with it.

The sometimes-bronco rider grew up mostly in West Texas and spent much of the ‘80s riding an even wilder and more deadly beast, a worldwide drug economy estimated these days at close to half a trillion dollars every year.

“This business kills just about everybody in it,” he says, sitting in his family’s 600-acre spread near Belmont and that infamous highway intersection, where he runs cattle and raises hay. “But it doesn’t kill the business.”

And that, Ford says, is the bitter and unlearned lesson in the two-decade war on drugs. He sees that continuing war as a farce, a squandering of tax dollars and human lives. That, Ford says, is why he’s speaking out about his experiences. That, Ford says, is why he wrote “Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy,” published by El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press.
The book is an unflinching document of high times and high terror in the dope trade, of getting caught just after Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984—the opening shot in the war on drugs—but before that act was implemented. State laws followed. The cumulative effect was “three strikes and you’re out,” a sharp curtailing of judges’ discretion—some of it since restored—and mandatory federal sentencing minimums.

The result: The United States now has not only the largest prison population in the world but the largest per-capita prison population. At any given time, more than half of that population is in for drug offenses.

I witnessed the front line of this War on Drugs we fight—a place where the difference between the good and the bad guys ceases to exist—where all who enter are victims—a place where nothing heard can be believed, nothing seen can be trusted—a place where the only goal becomes survival. A place where no one wins the war.
—from Contrabando


Such relativist rhetoric offers a kind of convenient blanket absolution.
Except. Especially in dangerously smart and headstrong youth, there oftentimes comes, rightly or wrongly, a eureka moment: They’ve been lying to me. Schools and law and organized religion exist to produce the next generation of good little unquestioning conformists.
Maybe it happened in the eighth grade, in 1970, when Ford’s geologist father moved the family to Quito, Ecuador, where his family ran with the ruling class.

“I didn’t like the rich people,” Ford says. “The oligarchy that runs the world down there are really sorry SOBs.”

Instead, he began to empathize with the poor Indians, the children who’d been disfigured by their own parents and sent out to beg in the streets. Ford’s father became wealthy in oil and other investments, which “shamed” Ford, he writes.

Or maybe it happened during Ford’s brief bout with Texas A&M and the U.S. Marines branch of Navy ROTC. He managed to shake loose from College Station in the fall of 1975 after about a semester of skipping classes and earning all Fs.

It surely happened when, around 1980, his father’s farming and ranching operation in the Bakersfield Valley along the Pecos River in West Texas was about to go bust, along with most of his other investments.

The bank had them on the hook for $800,000 at 14 percent interest. Harvest time came. The contract cotton strippers didn’t. Rain, hail and wind did. The crop—450 acres of tall plants, bursting with bolls, and uninsured—was lost.

A rebel becomes an outlaw in stages. First, married and with a family, he grows a little dope indoors for extra cash. Then he drives to Del Rio and crosses to Ciudad Acuña with $2,000 in cash “borrowed” from the farm. He attempts to buy dope from men who turn out to be plainclothes Mexican cops. Conveniently, the fine, if paid on the spot, is $2,000.

Then, this: On a Sunday morning after the crop is lost, he drives his Suburban behind a pickup driven by José, one of his dad’s hands who’s going to lose his job because the family can’t afford to pay him. José was once convicted of smuggling dope. The rebel has empty suitcases and camping gear. José crosses the border and comes back with 25 pounds of Mexican weed, enough to fill the bathtub at the motel the rebel rents back in Fort Stockton.

Then Ford sells the load in Plainview, leaving with as much cash as he would have earned in a year’s toil on the ranch. He’ll save the ranch and stay high. He’s an outlaw.
Let’s get the party started.

There is wild partying, cavorting with prostitutes, early casualties—ODs, drug-crazed violence—and deals that go south. There is also a young man sitting on a load in a motel somewhere, compulsively, anxiously smoking joint after joint, stinking up the cheap bedspread and drapes with fragrant herb, waiting to close another deal. When there’s no money, there’s less than no money.
Why didn’t he make a big score and get out?

“I wanted to get a farm and run it,” Ford allows, his tone indicating that he now realizes that never would have happened. “But there were always things that happened. Somebody got busted or somebody didn’t pay me. I was trying like hell to beat the system. Everybody almost makes it—that’s why they keep trying. There were times when we were rolling in money and times when I was trying to come up with gas money. People think it’s easy money. It’s some of the toughest money I ever made.”

And now for a different opinion:
“The drug business is a good business. Easy money.”
This is one Presiliano Torrez, who, like Ford, is a battle-scarred veteran of the drug wars. An assistant U.S. attorney, Torrez made Ford’s acquaintance in December 1986.

A U.S. Customs plane had gotten word of a Cessna 206 turbo coming out of Piedritas, Coahuila, with a load of marijuana. The pilot was David McCasland; along for the ride were Ford in the co-pilot seat and just short of 200 pounds of dope Ford had been growing with the blessing of the local boss in Piedritas. The load was worth maybe $150,000 on American streets.

The Customs’ King Air appeared right in front of the Cessna’s prop. The wake turbulence “almost ripped the wings off our plane,” Ford writes, and they were forced to land.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.

**

Earlier, Ford had been sent to prison by the late, legendary West Texas federal judge Lucius D. Bunton III. He pleaded guilty to two marijuana-smuggling charges and drew seven years and was sent to a dormitorylike federal facility in Texarkana. This was August 1985.

I hadn’t smoked any marijuana for the three months I’d been at the prison camp. I finally broke down and smoked a joint. The next day, I got called in for a urine test. . . . A dirty urinalysis would mean more time before I got paroled. It also meant I would be transferred to La Luna, a real prison where people get shot trying to escape. If I was going to leave, it had to be done before the results to that test came back.

On a Sunday night at 7, Ford and a fellow inmate made a run for the fence, over and into a car driven by McCasland and headed for Piedritas.

Ford had been in business with the town’s nominal mayor, Oscar Cabello, earlier. Cabello, who had 600 head of cattle and hired locals to help tend them, had used some of his dope profits to provide for a desperately poor community, a place where children went blind because nobody had a dollar’s worth of medicine to save their sight, a paisano community with no sewer, no toilets, not even toilet paper.

Ford and his fellow fugitive approached Cabello, whom he still greatly admires, with the idea of growing a crop of their own. Ford had grown pot, and he had experience tending crops in the desert. Cabello—who in 1989 would plead guilty to marijuana and cocaine charges in Bunton’s court—agreed and said he’d get the permission of those in charge of the trade.
They lived in a shack five or six miles from town, existing on rice and beans, fixing the well, preparing the soil and then watering, removing the male plants from the maybe 2-acre field to produce coveted sinsemilla, seedless marijuana.
Of course, they almost made it.

Well into his near-year as a fugitive, Ford’s wife and family were visiting when the soldiers came shooting as the gringos watched from a safe remove. Some people were beaten and abused, and the soldiers stole some goods, Ford says, but no one was hit by the gunfire.
“In effect,” he says now, “I destroyed these people by my actions.”

**

Ford had harvested the crop early. He guarded two stashes in a pair of remote caves, at one point sleeping on 16,000 pounds of Colombian dope, separate from Ford’s crop.

After the soldiers left, even more trouble arrived. There was some unpleasantness involving exchanging shots with drug lord Acosta’s men (who weren’t hit or hurt, to Ford’s knowledge), and a terrifying encounter with a man Ford is almost sure was Acosta himself.
McCasland finally came with the plane.

Then, after about a year underground, it was over when the Cessna was forced to land. Truth was, Ford felt safer in jail. He drew eight years this time on top of the previous seven, to be served in sequence.

**

We have come to what Don Ford really wants to talk about: the politics of narcotrafficking.
“Not one single person quit smoking pot because I went to prison,” he says. “They just found another supplier.”

Human ingenuity for seeking chemically altered states is as old as the species itself. That resourcefulness will not go away. The key, Ford says, is not to treat people sick with addiction as criminals. Not to lock up small-time offenders for long periods. To take a hard look at which substances we build industries around—alcohol and cigarettes are every bit as bad as pot, he maintains. (Hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin should remain against the law, he says.)
Quite naturally, assistant U.S. attorney Torrez disagrees with Ford.

“We’ve been successful,” Torrez says. “Have we stopped it? No. It’s hard to get a handle on what the percentage (of illegal drugs) would be if we were not actively fighting this war. . . . If you have people negatively impacting society, punishing them is one of the reasons to send them to prison. I don’t know if Mr. Ford and his co-defendant could have been helped if we’d put them in a counseling session.”

Ford was paroled in late 1991, after serving about one-third of his sentence. Under the old laws, a portion of an inmate’s sentence could be served with supervised release. For two years he took a urinalysis three times a week. After five years of behaving, his parole was terminated five years early. He says he hasn’t smoked pot since he turned it down his last night in a New Mexico jail in December 1986.

“It wasn’t prison that saved me,” he says. “It was the love of my family.”
Now divorced and remarried, the reformed smuggler acknowledges his seven children bear scars from his absence and neglect. One of them—the youngest, conceived while Ford was a fugitive—has had a small-time marijuana-related run-in with the law already.
He sighs and says, “There’s times where you can’t say anything but ‘guilty as charged.’ “
He’s not going back to the drug business, he says. But:
“Being an outlaw still has an allure to this day. There’s a thrill to it. If you’ve got $100,000 in cash, you can go buy any woman. You can do anything you want to. There was some freedom to the lifestyle. To say that wasn’t attractive would be to lie.”

He’s still a congenital rebel if no longer an outlaw. His mud-caked Chevy 3500 pickup with 400,000 miles on it has a bumper sticker that proclaims, “We are not all sheep.” Another says, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

He knew he had a story or two to tell. In prison he wrote two fictionalized accounts of stories he’d lived or known about. “Contrabando” began as a list of the people he’d known in the old days. When he realized that most of them were dead or in jail, he figured he didn’t have any reason not to get the real story out. For this reason, portions of his tale—the shootout, for example—are impossible to independently verify. But the book is forceful and clear-eyed, as Ford himself is in person.

Meanwhile, Ford’s father’s fortunes have risen yet again. He’s got a big operation going in Ecuador and has bought ranches here and there. After being locked up in close quarters for so long, Ford spent his first year out chopping wood on his dad’s place near Luling. The family was always disappointed but always forgave.

Ford met Leah, who was working in his father’s office, and told her almost everything almost immediately. She married him anyway.

These days, when there aren’t chores to do, Ford sits in a horse sales barn in Seguin, an investment he says he talked his dad into making. There’s an office with a computer where Ford sits, writing about the old days. Out the window, right across the road, sits the Guadalupe County sheriff’s office.
- By Patrick Beach, April 2, 2005 

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