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|Portrait of a dope-smuggling cowboy|
Don Henry Ford Jr. is a polite fellow. He’s likely to end most sentences with “sir” or “ma’am” and has all the mannerisms of a down-to-earth Texas cowboy. And like many cowboys I’ve run across, Ford has a knack for telling stories. But in this cowboy’s case, the stories are true.
Ford has a love for nature, for ranching, for growing crops, herding cattle and tending to horses. He’s ridden bucking broncos that can break your back, stared down bulls that will rip open your abdomen and delivered folds in the open range. Ford also can make refried beans from scratch, serve up a mouth-watering plate of Texas barbeque, raise crops on the scorched earth of West Texas and find water in the parched desert of northern Mexico.
Yes, he is a true cowboy, who spent a good part of his youth on a ranch in West Texas along the Pecos River, where he learned that the only cash crop in that part of the world is the one that takes money out of a rancher’s pockets.
That economic reality helped drag Ford into the heart of the drug war. That is Ford’s story, which he tells from the heart in his new book: Contrabando, Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy.
The book opens a window on Ford’s life as a smuggler in the late 1970s and early 1980s, from his exploits with cowboy bandits along the Texas border and with old hippies in the mountains of Oregon to his travails along the back roads of Mexico’s interior, where he made the contacts that helped him move tons of marijuana from the fields to the streets. His journey brought him face-to-face with notorious narcobanditos like Pablo Acosta and Amado Carrillo Fuentes and thrust him into the seedy world of strip-club prostitutes, motorcycle-gang outlaws and gun-wielding misanthropes and lost souls who, like Ford, had been sucked into the vortex of America’s drug war.
But Ford is a special cowboy, a kicker hippie if you will, a man who sought to avoid violence, who viewed marijuana much like any other crop, only it was a crop that actually made money for the farmer. Slowly, though, as his new book reveals, the smuggling business over the course of the late 1970s and into the 1980s became increasingly deadly, fraught with paranoia, and enveloped by tragic consequences that colored everyone involved -- growers, smugglers, dealers, law enforcement -- with shades of gray. It is a world where right and wrong is defined by survival, where most of the people Ford dealt with, friends and foes, wound up dead or in jail.
That’s what Ford writes about in his book, the gray realities of the war on drugs, his world for much of his adult life, including his stint in prison at the end of his journey.
He puts it this way in Contrabando:
I received a total of fifteen years for my crimes. Under current law, it would have been much more, perhaps in the neighborhood of twenty years, and I would not be eligible for parole. My children grew up without a father and bear the scars even today.
I think it fair to say that none of us emerged from this business unscathed.
I think it is also fair to say that we all – the smugglers, the dealers and the whores – have been replaced, and that a similar or worse fate awaits the present day crowd involved in the business. And then they will be replaced.
Contrabando is a brutally honest portrayal of life on the edge as a smuggler. Ford doesn’t pull punches, with himself or with the people he dealt with in his journey. His characters are flawed, portraits of human loss, but equally, they are people who lived life in the moment and in search of their Holy Grail, the mother-load that would set them up for life.
Ford’s tale takes the reader on a trip through a gauntlet of betrayal, guns, thievery and overdoses. He managed to survive several encounters with Mexican law enforcement over the years through wit, bribes or swift feet. But it was a U.S. Customs agent who finally busted the cowboy smuggler -- after the agent extended an offer to do business with Ford.
Was he a crooked cop? Ford can’t say for sure, but he knows it all went down on a very thin gray line. That is the reality of the war on drugs. Nearly everyone on the inside is tempted to play the odds, because that mother-load is always just around the corner. And once you buy into the game, once your chips are in the pot, you can’t pull out -- until you get run off the board permanently, or go directly to jail.
Ford’s fate was the latter. But many of his friends and contacts did get run off the board on the wrong end of a gun. Ford was too much of a cowboy, however, to be locked down in a cement cell during his first stint in the slammer. So he carried out a bold jailbreak and spent a year hiding out in a northern Mexico village that is nestled between mountain ranges just south of the Big Bend National Park.
There, in that Mexican village and in the surrounding rural countryside, while trying to grow his own magic field of grass, Ford found his mother-load in the ways of the indigenous people. In their world, the value of an individual is not weighed against the value of currency. In the end, they were the only people sucked into the war on drugs who embraced Ford, not as a smuggler, but as a fellow farmer and rancher, as a part of their community.
The war on drugs can never break those bonds, because they are forged in the heart, not shackled together by greed, paranoia and a lust for power. Ford describes how he was changed by that bond in recounting his return visit to the Mexican village after his release from prison:
The trip was good for me. I saw that things remain bad on both sides of the river. But I also saw a people determined to survive: a resilient, strong people, working together – unlike other places I see in my travels – a community, en commun, a Mexican might say. I brought back a little piece of that community’s spirit in my heart.
Ford was eventually caught about a year after his jailbreak and locked up again, with another eight years added to his initial seven-year sentence. The experience, which involved a run-in with Pablo Acosta, nearly cost him his life.
Ford did his time and has been out of prison for more than a decade now. Today he manages a horse ranch in South Texas and has long left the smuggling world behind him. But he still has stories to tell, and a world in his heart that he has put into words in his book, Contrabando.
That’s what I took away from Ford’s tome. Journalist Chuck Bowden, author of Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family, thought enough of Ford’s work to pen an introduction to Contrabando. So I’m not alone in my high regard for Ford’s 316-page effort. Contrabando is not written in the erudite prose of a commercial-media slickster who observes life from a perch. But it is a gritty work of nonfiction drawn from the gut of a cowboy who has lived his story.
I walked out of Davila’s Barbecue in Seguin where I go to eat real food – the food of the poor – ribs, brisket and sausage – all the poor-quality leftover pieces the rich don’t want. Davila’s has no prime marbled cuts of loin or ground round beef, yet there is a richness and body to the food found lacking in the restaurant high on top of a glass building not so far away where all is silver and glass and fine linen and painted women and soft men in their loafers. At Davila’s is found smoke and dirt and boots and wood and fire – oh yes, fire – that magical stuff without which none of us would be: here is found life.
If you have the inclination to smuggle some time away for a good book, check out Contrabando for yourself when Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, Texas, releases it in March.
In the mean time, Narco News authenticos can chat with Ford first-hand about his experiences and insights into the war on drugs, as he is coming onboard as a co-publisher. Look for his reporter’s notebook on the site soon.
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