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Contrabando

San Antonio Express-News

'Contrabando' is well-told tale of an ugly business

As Don Henry Ford Jr., tells it, his first attempt to break into the lucrative field of drug smuggling came when he crossed the Rio Grande to Ciudad Acuña with $2,000 in his pocket and nary a clue.
After ordering up 10 pounds of marijuana from a pool player he met at a cantina, Ford was busted by Mexican police posing as drug salesmen. After arresting him, they offered him an out.

“If you plead guilty to possession of marijuana, I have been given authority by the judge to let you go with a fine. Otherwise you go to jail,” the cop told Ford.
By happy coincidence the fine was $2,000.

A decade and many tons of smuggled marijuana later, Ford was again busted, this time as a federal fugitive, caught flying back from Mexico with 200 pounds of dope. Attempts to flee were checked by pursuit planes.

"Our plane lurched upward, feeling like a launched rocket. A second later a King Air appeared in front of us, shooting skyward, right in front of our prop. When we hit the dead air left in the wake of this King Air, we fell. The fall almost ripped the wings off the plane,” he writes in his recent memoir published by El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press.

Forced to land, Ford and the pilot soon found themselves pinned to a frozen runway tarmac. Ford's six-year career as a drug smuggler was over. His 15-year federal prison sentence was about to begin.

Not many drug smugglers write books. Fewer still write good books, like “Contrabando.” As a roster of players in the book’s glossary suggests, many don't live long enough to do much of anything.

But Ford, after being released from prison in 1986, decided to put it all down on paper, perhaps to salvage something from an enterprise that cost him his freedom, his family and his good name.
Raised on a failing farm in West Texas, Ford resorted to drug smuggling at first to pay the bills, and later to fuel a penchant for marijuana and an addiction to the outlaw lifestyle.

If one is to believe the tale, which recounts numerous forays into Mexico through Big Bend to buy drugs for resale as far away as Oregon, Ford was either really good at it, or it was just too easy.
Border inspectors are routinely duped, cops on both sides outwitted. And always there was the thrill of easy money and beating the system.

“When we got back into the car, Jeff was ecstatic. We turned around and headed for home with smoke billowing out of the windows and wearing illegal smiles,” writes Ford of one dope-buying trip to Durango, Mexico.

“Our journey back was not without difficulties. Nearly all our money was gone. Before we made it back to Ojinaga, I had to trade my pocketknife for enough gasoline to get home, and Jeff spent several hours trying to make a burnt set of points work by sanding them with the striker on a book of matches,” he writes.

Compared to that, getting the dope across the river was a breeze.
And it was dangerous. Ford describes harrowing encounters with everyone from Mexican drug lord Pablo Acosta to members of the Bandito motorcycle club. And then there was that well-armed crazy man he met south of Marathon...

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the year Ford spent in Piedritas, Mexico, a small town south of the Big Bend Park, hiding out after escaping from federal prison. Macho adventures aside, Ford also describes a life of double-crosses and dead friends, of battered whores and dirty cops, of ruined marriages and lost kids.

Unlike the over-the-top introduction to "Contrabando" by drug author Charles Bowden, Ford doesn’t romanticize any part of it. In the end, he writes with remorse, loss and sadness.

After visiting Piedritas and finding the town in ruins, he retraces another step.
"I pass through another small community, the tiny town of Balmorhea, but here the story is even more tragic. An entire generation is gone, either in jail or dead,” he writes.

The next day, Ford appears in court to observe his own son being sentenced.
"Contrabando" is the real thing, a drug book by a smuggler who lived to tell the tale. For anyone familiar with the culture and small towns of the Big Bend, it will strike very close to home.

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