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Contrabando

Luis Alberto Urrea
Don Henry is a warrior; and he's the real deal. He's a wonderful writer; and he carries some secrets in his back pocket some people wish he wouldn't bring out. Bring it, Mr. Ford.
Charles Bowden
Don Ford snaps out, "I thought [the drug smuggling] was a way to break the chains. I didn't want to shoot or kill anyone or have a violent overthrow of the government. I just wanted to steal a little wealth."
Austin Chronicle
The really remarkable thing about Ford and his book isn’t so much the experiences he’s had – his stories probably aren’t all that dissimilar from those of 10,000 of his colleagues – but rather the humanity and philosophical distance he maintains while having them. His sympathy for the plight of the working poor and disenfranchised, regardless of class, color, or country; his distaste for the indifference of the rich and the laws that favor them; his ability to step back and view the larger universe of the war on drugs, and his role in it, through the lens of a class-conscious, homegrown philosophy: They all mark him as a decent man, regardless of his occupation or criminal record.
He spent seven years smuggling marijuana into the United States over the border from Mexico and somehow lived to write about it. From the dusty streets of dirt-poor mountain villages to the gleaming corruption of the American justice system, Don Henry Ford paints a picture of a business where no hands are clean – it’s that old song about the war nobody wins, only this time it’s being played out of a beat-up old truck as it heads north filled with dope. All but bankrupted after a failed attempt at cotton farming in the 1970s but in possession of an indomitable work ethic and a fierce desire for self-determination, Ford slips into the role of drug smuggler with a nonchalance (“This is too damned easy”) and an audacity you have to marvel at: He just dreams it up and does it, headfirst all the way. Temerity, Ford demonstrates time and again, is the one compulsory attribute of the drug smuggler, and the one he’s most blessed with. The really remarkable thing about Ford and his book isn’t so much the experiences he’s had – his stories probably aren’t all that dissimilar from those of 10,000 of his colleagues – but rather the humanity and philosophical distance he maintains while having them. His sympathy for the plight of the working poor and disenfranchised, regardless of class, color, or country; his distaste for the indifference of the rich and the laws that favor them; his ability to step back and view the larger universe of the war on drugs, and his role in it, through the lens of a class-conscious, homegrown philosophy: They all mark him as a decent man, regardless of his occupation or criminal record. And I’d be willing to guess this kind of sympathy and awareness is rare among those who traffic in illegal narcotics, rarer even than it is among those who don’t. Don Henry Ford’s no saint and no Robin Hood but at the same time, those expecting the self-indulgent confessions of an unrepentant outlaw will be disappointed: Ford’s harder on himself than the legal system and the drug lords ever were. And it’s to his credit that in a business built on dehumanization, he managed to retain his humanity and conscience and see beyond himself to something larger.
Austin-American Statesman
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.
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 
Dallas Morning News
"The whole history of anti-drug sweeps in Mexico is that eventually the sweepers get converted," said Charles Bowden, author of Down by the River and other acclaimed books about the drug business. "They join the traffickers. Nothing changes except there are more drugs – and they're cheaper."

Mexico's anti-drug operations usually produce short-term results. Gang members and mafia soldiers are jailed. Drugs are seized. And homes, businesses and shiny cars owned by the traffickers are confiscated. But experts say the government's efforts – such as the show of force on Sunday and Monday following the assassination last week of Nuevo Laredo's new police chief – barely make a dent in what's become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Don Henry Ford, author of Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy, said Mexico's drug economy has multiplied since the 1980s, when he smuggled marijuana. "The money is just too big now," he said. "There's no way the government's going to stop it. And they can't afford to. If all that money were to dry up, it would literally cause a wave of people trying to get out of there. It would break the nation."
Big sweeps have yielded few benefits
Long-term effect on drug trade has been virtually nil, experts say


U.S.-MEXICO BORDER – Since the 1970s, Mexican authorities have periodically launched splashy anti-drug operations like the one now being carried out in Nuevo Laredo and 13 other cities. But these high-profile raids – often involving hundreds of federal agents and soldiers – have had virtually no long-term impact, drug-trade specialists say.

"The whole history of anti-drug sweeps in Mexico is that eventually the sweepers get converted," said Charles Bowden, author of Down by the River and other acclaimed books about the drug business. "They join the traffickers. Nothing changes except there are more drugs – and they're cheaper."

Mexico's anti-drug operations usually produce short-term results. Gang members and mafia soldiers are jailed. Drugs are seized. And homes, businesses and shiny cars owned by the traffickers are confiscated. But experts say the government's efforts – such as the show of force on Sunday and Monday following the assassination last week of Nuevo Laredo's new police chief – barely make a dent in what's become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Don Henry Ford, author of Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy, said Mexico's drug economy has multiplied since the 1980s, when he smuggled marijuana. "The money is just too big now," he said. "There's no way the government's going to stop it. And they can't afford to. If all that money were to dry up, it would literally cause a wave of people trying to get out of there. It would break the nation."

Complicating matters: Many of those in law enforcement are corrupt, he said. After the Mexican army raided his marijuana plantation in the 1980s, he said, soldiers forced the field workers to finish packaging the drugs so they'd have an easier time reselling it later.

Soldiers did destroy some of his marijuana, burning "some of the inferior parts of the plants," he said. "But if you get real serious about stopping trafficking, you quickly get dead."

Political analyst Ana Maria Salazar said launching Operation Safe Mexico made sense for President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN, because the government needed to demonstrate it was active and decisive on one of the country's biggest issues, especially in a political season.
"There was a need," she said. "There have been several comments by the president and his advisers that everything was under control – despite these spectacular executions [by drug traffickers].

"They had to come out and start reacting, not only to show the public that they are in charge, but also to retake some areas of the country where they had lost control."

Phil Jordan, the former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, jointly run by the DEA and other federal agencies, applauded the Mexican crackdown and urged the Mexican government to continue pursuing the drug lords.

"The traffickers basically have a stranglehold on Mexico," he said, "and a rapid response like this one is necessary." Mr. Jordan said "pre-emptive strikes" against the traffickers are fully justified. "There's enough intelligence on both sides of the river to give the authorities probable cause to do pre-emptive strikes against the godfathers of the drug trade," he said.

"This is something that can be successful as long as President Vicente Fox is in office. He knows Mexico has a problem. And whether we like it or not, it's our problem, too, because the violence is spreading across the border."

1975-85 crackdown: One of the first high-profile drug sweeps in Mexico was Operation Condor, which lasted from 1975 to 1985. Some 10,000 soldiers under the command of Mexican Gen. José Hernández Toledo were sent to Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states to destroy the drug crops there. Gen. Hernández "predicted the end of drug trafficking in six months," Mexican sociologist Luis Astorga said. But he failed. Peasants terrified of the soldiers fled to other states along with many of the traffickers.

The drug trade spread. Prices in the U.S. went up temporarily, but the flow of marijuana and other drugs into Texas and other states continued unabated. Carlos Aguilar Garza, the attorney general's front man during Operation Condor, "became a drug trafficker himself years later and was assassinated in 1993," Mr. Astorga said.

"Hundreds of people were arrested, tortured and sent to jail" during Operation Condor, "but not a single big boss" was among them, Mr. Astorga said. And by the time it was over, most of the drug lords moved to Guadalajara and "continued their business on a bigger scale." Hoping to get trafficking under control, the Mexican government named a general to head the top anti-drug agency.
Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo carried out a crackdown of his own until he was arrested in February 1997 and charged with protecting the late Amado Carrillo Fuentes, then the country's top trafficker.

NAFTA's impact: Since then, things have only gotten worse, drug-trade experts say. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has driven many legitimate Mexican farmers out of business, and many have turned to drug cultivation, Mr. Bowden said. "It's one of the unintended consequences of NAFTA," Mr. Bowden said.

Traffickers have also gotten more sophisticated. A group of specially trained soldiers known as the Zetas are working as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, which controls trafficking along most of the Texas-Mexico border. "They're very well-organized," said Celerino "Cele" Castillo, a former 12-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and author of the book Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War. "All their kilos of coke are bar-coded, just like the UPS," he said.
The Zetas are also brutally efficient, Mr. Bowden said.

"The Zetas don't waste bullets," he said. "There's a certain elegance to what they do." Despite key arrests, experts say making meaningful progress remains an uphill battle because illicit drugs have become such an important part of the Mexican economy. Said Mr. Castillo: "We are more addicted to drug money than we are to drugs."
- Tracey Eaton, June 13, 2005 
The Monitor

In a recent e-mail interview, he reflected on the process of writing his own story and the memories it conjured. "Seeing my actions in print made it all the more apparent how irresponsible I had been. I was able to see myself like another might see me. What I saw left a lot to be desired," he wrote.

Ford persevered for a number of reasons though. "I knew most of the people involved would not like what I had to say. The thought occurred that I might endanger myself and others. But I knew all of us had been damaged from our involvement in this business and that others are now in similar situations and must know the reality of this business," he wrote.

Ford thinks his story is worth telling in light of the ever-increasing war on drugs. "To defeat your enemy you must first know and understand him. In the case of those addicted to drugs, you may discover your enemy is not so unlike you as you’d like to believe. Like the saying, ‘I have seen the enemy and it is us,’" he wrote.
Former smuggler relates personal era of drug war on wrong side of the law

Pop culture overall tends to glamorize parts of the drug trade. Movies, songs, and stories can lend a false sense of bravado to an illegal profession and few have lived to tell their tale with candor. Cinco Puntos Press has just published Contrabando, Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy by Don Henry Ford Jr.

Growing up on his father’s struggling ranch in West Texas, Don Ford looked for ways to supplement his income and support his own marijuana-smoking inclinations. He soon found contacts across the Rio Grande in Mexico and became a drug smuggler in the Big Bend region. For the next seven years, he lived the life of an outlaw, evading border patrol and the Drug Enforcement Agency and coming into contact with some of the most famous narcotraficantes of the era like Pablo Acosta and Amado Carillo Fuentes.

The law eventually caught up with Ford and he was sentenced to prison, but escaped and fled to Mexico where he lived for a year in a rural hideaway becoming a marijuana grower and hiding out from the federales. In December 1986 the feds caught Ford a second time and sentenced him to 15 years in a maximum security penitentiary. After serving his time, Ford has become a successful farmer and horse trainer in Seguin, Texas.

In a recent e-mail interview, he reflected on the process of writing his own story and the memories it conjured. "Seeing my actions in print made it all the more apparent how irresponsible I had been. I was able to see myself like another might see me. What I saw left a lot to be desired," he wrote.

Ford persevered for a number of reasons though. "I knew most of the people involved would not like what I had to say. The thought occurred that I might endanger myself and others. But I knew all of us had been damaged from our involvement in this business and that others are now in similar situations and must know the reality of this business," he wrote.

Ford thinks his story is worth telling in light of the ever-increasing war on drugs. "To defeat your enemy you must first know and understand him. In the case of those addicted to drugs, you may discover your enemy is not so unlike you as you’d like to believe. Like the saying, ‘I have seen the enemy and it is us,’" he wrote.

Commenting on today’s smuggling, Ford wrote, "I think border surveillance is much tougher. I would guess most drugs now come across the border through official checkpoints. I know the area I once smuggled through is, for all practical purposes, shut down."

As one who has seen the war on drugs from the other side, he offers his own insight into the problem. "I would like to see drug addiction treated as an illness rather than a crime, but as an illness that affects both users and those that refrain. I think marijuana should be decriminalized, but not hard drugs," he wrote.

As for those who choose his former profession, he believes in shorter prison sentences, but harsher conditions. "Dealers should go to jail for much shorter but more intense sentences served in isolation. The hole, in other words. Thirty days in the hole is more effective than years in the population of a modern prison," Ford believes.

While Ford maintains a Web site www.unrepententantcowboy, he does intimate regrets for his previous lifestyle. Yet, he’s adamant about his outlook on the problem. "I see the drug business like a field of weeds. Cutting the heads off of the weeds will not cure the problem. In order to clean the field, one must attack the roots. And the root of the problem begins with those that buy and use the drugs."

He also provides an ominous prediction. "I am and was responsible for what I did, but as sure as I now breathe air another has taken my place and another will take his."
- July 8, 2005 
Kinky Friedman
Don Henry Ford, Jr. shows us first-hand what it was like smuggling dope across the Rio Grande. Lucky he's not dead. Reading this book will make you so high, you'll need a stepladder to scratch your ass.
San Antonio Express-News
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.

...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.
'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.
El Paso Times
Don Henry Ford Jr. first smuggled small loads of marijuana out of Mexico as a young West Texas cowboy in the late '70s. He quickly got hooked on the easy money, the hot women, the sense of adventure and the availability of marijuana to feed his own addiction.

For his sins, Ford got arrested seven times in Mexico, where he was shot at and kidnapped. Later, he became a fugitive, growing weed and hiding from the federales in northern Mexico. Eventually, he spent 15 years in a U.S. prison.

"There's just no reason other than the grace of God that I'm alive today," Ford said in a phone interview from near Seguin, Texas, where he now raises cattle and breeds race horses.
Ford, 48, retraces his life as a marijuana smuggler in the Big Bend region in Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy.

Ford describes Contrabando as a story about victims and survivors in the multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade, a story about ordinary people along the border who often get squeezed into smuggling or dealing drugs in poor towns like Balmorhea, Texas.
A life gone to pot: Former drug smuggler describes highs, lows of marketing marijuana

Don Henry Ford Jr. first smuggled small loads of marijuana out of Mexico as a young West Texas cowboy in the late '70s. He quickly got hooked on the easy money, the hot women, the sense of adventure and the availability of marijuana to feed his own addiction.

For his sins, Ford got arrested seven times in Mexico, where he was shot at and kidnapped. Later, he became a fugitive, growing weed and hiding from the federales in northern Mexico. Eventually, he spent 15 years in a U.S. prison.

"There's just no reason other than the grace of God that I'm alive today," Ford said in a phone interview from near Seguin, Texas, where he now raises cattle and breeds race horses.
Ford, 48, retraces his life as a marijuana smuggler in the Big Bend region in Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy.

Ford describes Contrabando as a story about victims and survivors in the multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade, a story about ordinary people along the border who often get squeezed into smuggling or dealing drugs in poor towns like Balmorhea, Texas.

"I've done my best to tell the truth," Ford said. "I told a story that describes the story of a lot of other people that don't have the skills to tell a story."

Ford takes a whack at corrupt Texas border law officers and suggests that the blame for illegal drug trafficking should shift to the insatiable demand for drugs in the United States. He specialized in smuggling marijuana, first small loads easily concealed in trucks and later multimillion-dollar loads.

"I didn't see marijuana as being any worse than perhaps the combination of alcohol and tobacco. So I kind of justified what I did that way," he said.

While in prison, he wrote and later self-published a novel, "The Devil's Swing," in which he described some episodes of his life as a dope smuggler. He eventually hooked up with Charles Bowden, the author of Down by the River, the acclaimed narrative describing the multibillion-dollar drug industry along the border, related corruption in Mexico and the United States, and one El Paso family's entanglement in the web. Bowden persuaded Ford to publish a true account. So Ford started compiling a list of people he had encountered as a marijuana smuggler.

"Everybody that I could find had been damaged, either killed, locked up or destroyed in some fashion," Ford said.

These days, Ford advocates against social injustices and suggests that marijuana should be decriminalized and drug addiction treated as a social illness and not a crime.

"Over half of the people in prison are in for drugs. There's a lot of things you can do short of locking somebody up for the rest of their life," he said. "We want to vilify these folks. The problem is, these folks are our brothers and sisters, our cousins and moms and dads. It's us."
- Ramón Rentería, February 27, 2005 
Narco News
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.

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.
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.

From Contrabando:

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.

Outlander's Voice
Last April, I attended a panel discussion commemorating the Rio Grande: The Storied River exhibit at Texas State University-San Marcos’ Albert B. Alkek Library. The panel was made up of a veritable who’s who of writers who have written about the sometimes flowing, sometimes dry natural border between the U.S. and Mexico and included Jan Reid, Cecilia Balli, Dogoberto Gib, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, and Dick J. Reavis.

We, the attendees, were fanned out in rows of plastic chairs surrounding the raised platform where the panel sat, and we all hung on the words as each member on the dais spike briefly about a personal relationship with the river. Late in the proceeding, as questions were fielded by the panel, one f the members asked if Don Henry Ford were in the audience, since he, having written a book on drug smuggling between Texas and Mexico, could likely answer the question about border politics more adroitly. And for the first time that evening, the voice didn’t come from above us, but came from us instead. This Don Henry Ford, far to the left of stage ( I was far to the right), spoke up. His was a voice from the periphery.

Before the proceedings, I’d seen him in the bathroom. He had a paper sack with him (that I now think held copies of his book) and I remember thinking, who is this guy decked all in denim, complete with cowboy hat and belt buckle? He didn’t fit the tweed and tie image of many of the men at this kind of function.

Having now read Ford’s book, the “voice from the periphery” image I got at the panel discussion was not limited to that event. Hid book, Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-smuggling, Texas Cowboy, is just as much an outsider’s view. And that’s the main thing that makes it special.

This autobiographical account of his experience as a witness in “the front line of this War on Drugs we fight” exists about halfway between glorification and apology without ever teetering too close to either extreme. That’s what makes this a different kind of book; it’s not the amends of a twelve-stepper or the boast of a man who got away with it. As for Ford states in the “Beginning” chapter, he had to “tell the story that was” and not the story he’d “have liked it to have been.”

Telling the “story that was” does include some sweaty-palm searches, a walk-away, jailbreak, a biker-owned stripper, and the rest of the illicit, vicarious excitement found in any crime confessional, but it also includes the day-to-day, seemingly mundane details that fill the out each scene the way a good life story should. While we get the details right about life, along the border, even down to the food he ate. In his description of fajitas, he explains that, if the skirt steak from which fajitas come were “cooked the way a white man cooks a piece of meat, the resulting product is so tough it can scarcely be eaten. Mexicans got around this by marinating fajitas in acidic sauces that contain lime juice and/or vinegar and a splash of oil.” For Ford, it’s not just the how they are cooked but why they’re cooked that way that matters.

Though the writing is plaintive as he tells of the friends he lost in the scuffles between law and outlaw, the straightforward style is never plain r patronizing. His descriptions of the people of a particular ejido (a government owned, but communally governed piece of land) and the economic forces that make smuggling a certainty may make many readers reevaluate staunch positions on the drug issue.

Ford does spend some time detailing his encounters with notorious narcotraficantes like Pablo Acosta, but these aren’t the strongest portions of the book and luckily for the reader, his primary focus stays on the “little” person involved in the drug trade. After all, who doesn’t know that the drug kingpins use violence as a tool to stay on top?

All in all, I’m glad I know his story, since if I didn’t get it for Ford, from the voice on the edge, I-we- on the inside wouldn’t get it all, and this story “about a world gone mad” is one we need to know.

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