La Luz Roja (the Red Light)

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Larry Landwehr

On Monday morning, the 13th of November, we picked up the permit to import our household goods into Mexico from the Mexican consulate in Dallas. The drive down to Laredo was uneventful except that we noticed several pickup trucks towing a second truck behind them ­ all headed south. One truck was even pulling two other trucks! We spent the night at a grungy Motel 6 whose parking lot was full of semi trailer trucks that were left idling all night long.

We got up at 8:30 the next morning and had a quick breakfast at a McDonalds. Mary remarked that she was glad that it was a Tuesday the 14th ­ Mexicans believe that a Tuesday the 13th is equivalent in bad luck to an American Friday the 13th. Little did she know that we were about to experience “the border crossing from hell”.

We bought Mexican car insurance at Sanborns just a few blocks from the border (US car insurance is not valid in Mexico). Then we paid the $1.75 toll and crossed international bridge #1 into Mexico. The Mexican border guards told us that we had crossed the wrong bridge ­ they were not able to process imported goods. They advised us to cross at international bridge #2. So we turned around, paid the toll and crossed back into the US.

Knowing how paranoid the US is about drugs I expected that we would have to unload everything in our trailer, in the car trunk, and in the full back seat of our car. Instead, the US customs agent just asked me to unlock the trailer, and with a quick peek inside, told us to go on.

We drove to the nearby international bridge #2, paid the toll, and once again entered Mexico. This time we were told that things were so backed up that we would have to wait until 9:00 pm to get our stuff checked. However, they helpfully pointed out that we could cross at international bridge #3 with no wait, so we turned around, paid the toll, and went back into the US. This time customs didn’t even ask to look in the trailer! I was amazed!

Anyway, we went looking for bridge #3, but got lost and wound up at the Colombia international bridge about twenty miles outside of Laredo. We paid the toll and crossed over to Mexico. This time they told us that we needed to hire an import company to bring our goods in. Fortunately there was one close by, within walking distance, which was a good thing as we were forbidden to move our car.

We walked to the import company, only to be told that they were not in that business. They directed us to another nearby company. We walked there, and were told that the company only handled semi-trailer size loads. Mary and I were at our wits end. We walked back to the bridge. While we were waiting to talk to the customs agent Mary overheard someone else being denied entry into Mexico. He was pulling a car to El Salvador and he had no credit card. In order to bring a car into Mexico, you have to use a credit card to post a bond that you will not sell the car in Mexico.

Mary talked to the customs guy. She pleaded with him, appearing ready to cry, and when that didn’t work she offered him a two hundred dollar bribe. No go.

By now you should know our next move. Yeah, that’s right. We turned around and re-entered the US. Once again we entered without any search! The customs guy mentioned that he knew we had just crossed into Mexico an hour and a half earlier. Apparently they take a photo of your license plate as you pay the toll.

We trudged back to Laredo and stopped in at a freight forwarding company that the Mexican customs guy had told us about. Bertha, the woman we talked to could not understand why we were having so many problems. She suggested that we try international bridge #2 once again. By this time it was 2:30 pm, so a wait until 9:00 pm didn’t seem so bad any more.

Paying the toll, we crossed into Mexico for the fourth time. Once again we were stymied, but this time Mary talked with a man named Hugo, the owner of bonded warehouse, who knew how to get us across. He told us to return to the US and go to his office where his son would help us. So once more it was: turn around, pay the toll (we could have owned the damn bridge by now!), and return to the US. Once again no search by customs ­ maybe they were enjoying watching us on their computer screens ­ kind of like an early version of the computer game “Pong”.

It was getting late in the day, but we hurried to Hugo’s warehouse where we meet Hugo’s son, Hugo. He had some of his employees unload everything in our trailer and car, open all the boxes, and verify every serial number on every electrical appliance. They told us that if Mexican customs checks our stuff, and if any serial number is wrong by just one letter or digit, the company is fined by the Mexican government.

We were curious about how the Mexican government would know if we added anything to the trailer after the bonding company listed our stuff. Would the bonding company seal the boxes or even seal the entire trailer? Nope, they just piled everything back into the trailer.

We walked into the office after everything was loaded and waited while Hugo junior had the list of goods typed up. While we were waiting, Hugo typed up another document that required the zip code of our address in Guadalajara. Mary and I both suggested that he just make one up, but he said that was a big no-no, everything had to be accurate. We had to pay $275 for his services.

It seemed curious that we had to go through this additional procedure. We had already paid $125 to the Mexican consulate in Laredo for a letter of permission to bring our stuff into Mexico. Now we had to have our stuff checked by an American bonding company as well? All I can say is this is how Mexico wants it done, and this is what you have to do if you want to import household goods into Mexico.

While we were there, Hugo told us that a Mexican woman who had been living in Dallas had a similar experience, but she had only crossed the bridge twice before she caught on and came to the bonding company.

After all the papers had been typed up and signed, Mary and I left for international bridge #3 with Miguel, one of Hugo’s employees to show us the way (Miguel spoke no English). It was about 6:00 pm, and darkness was rapidly setting in. We came to the bridge and joined the stream of semi trucks crossing into Mexico. Like the old saying goes, “The fifth time is the charm”!

International bridge #3 handles 13000 trucks every 24 hours, but relatively few cars. We were completely surrounded by massive semis. It was like being the only zebra in a herd of shuffling elephants. We could see no lane markings. The truckers were in a hurry. They jockeyed with each other, each truck trying to elbow their way to the front of the herd. Our little rig was puny by comparison. We didn’t know if they could even see us. They were inches away from us. We were scared. I did manage to cut off one truck, though, that was trying to cut us off.

We finally reached a line of booths, similar to a line of booths on a toll road. There was one difference, however. The window where you talk to the customs agent was seven feet up from the ground. They were built to deal with trucks. Miguel got out of the car and handed our papers up to the agent.

In Mexico, when you go through customs, you have to push a button. If the green light goes on, you get into Mexico without having your possessions searched. If the red light goes on, you get searched. This even happens at airports. This system seems contrary to common sense because you would think that an experienced agent would be able to catch more contraband if they could choose whom to search. But, this system eliminates all profiling, all charges of discrimination, and hopefully prevents bribing of customs agents. It works.

Since the window was so high, Miguel couldn’t reach the button, so the customs agent supposedly pushed the button for him. We got a red light, a “luz roja”. The agent directed us to pull over for inspection. We asked Miguel how long the search would take. “Two hours”, he replied. Little did we know that it would take us 4 hours.

We drove up to this huge cement slab. Hundreds of trucks and cars were backed up to the slab. A few forklifts were driving into the backs of the semis, unloading the truck’s contents out onto the slab. Overhead lights shined harshly down onto the slab, illuminating everything resting on the slab, but leaving the rest of the area around the slab in semi darkness.

Miguel took off to look for an inspector while Mary and I waited near the car. It was cold, but watching how things were done was interesting. First, a truck’s back doors were opened. One truck was padlocked shut, and the driver did not have the key. No problem – a bolt cutter made short work of that. A forklift was used to place a heavy steel plate between the slab and the truck, bridging any gap and height difference. Then the forklift operator started unloading the truck, whipping his machine around with the casual ease of a matador.

How long can you watch a forklift, though? After a while it wasn’t so interesting. I started watching the line of booths that we had passed through. Watching the lucky trucks that had gotten a green light speed away made me jealous. But then I noticed a curious thing. All cars and pickup trucks were being waved over for their 4-hour long wait and search. Only a few of the semis were getting searched. Another thing, all semi trucks without trailers went through a special lane. They went through without even slowing down.

Why? I don’t know.

Mary noticed one old man wearing a cowboy hat who was driving a pickup truck. He had two small cardboard boxes on the slab – hours of waiting because he had two small boxes. We felt sorry for him.

Mary and I got into the car to get out of the cold. Miguel finally came back with an inspector. He told us to move our trailer to a new spot a few feet away and wandered off. We moved the trailer while Miguel went off to find the inspector again. Finally Miguel reappeared again with the inspector and his helper. They unloaded the trailer and the truck of the car, inspecting every serial number. Mexico has a thing about electrical appliances. The television in the back seat of the car was inspected, but thankfully we didn’t have to unload it. Every thing was loaded back into the trailer. The inspector and his helper wandered off again with Miguel in tow.

Finally Miguel came back with our stamped paper and we were free to go. Free to go to the next light.

I’m not kidding. We had to go through a second line of booths. This time I got out to hand up our papers. The customs agent said we had gotten a green light. When I told Miguel that we had gotten a green light, his face just lit up. We were finally through customs. Miguel explained that if we had gotten a red light, we would have gone through an inspection even more rigorous than the first one. The second inspection supposedly keeps customs agents from accepting bribes. Miguel told us that it had once taken him 10 hours to get a truck through customs. Mary and I were pretty shell shocked by this time, but we were still grateful to get out of the gruesome clutches of Mexican customs.

Miguel directed us to the town of Nuevo Laredo where we hoped to find a room for the night. Along the way, we passed a line of pickup trucks, close to three miles long, parked along the side of the opposite frontage road heading toward the US. Most of them had their lights turned off. Miguel explained that the bridge crossing was over capacity, so only semi trucks were being processed. Everyone else had to wait until morning, so people were sleeping in their vehicles. And we thought that we had had a bad time. Governments put people through hell because they can.

The road to Nuevo Laredo was very rough. Miguel kept warning me to slow down. Mary and I agreed that there was no way we could have made it without Miguel. We finally got to the hotel. They had no rooms. Miguel called for a ride back to the US. Mary gave him a $30 tip for his help (plus his company would pay for his time). He was happy.

Mary and I tried several hotels, but everything was booked solid. There were no rooms. So I decided, what the heck, there can’t be that much of a line at 10:00 pm, let’s get our car papers and head for Monterey. We sailed through the car permit procedure almost flawlessly. There was a slight holdup because we had not canceled our car permit from our previous drive into Mexico, but I was able to find our old papers in the glove compartment ­ apparently Mexico’s computer system works.

As we drove out of the car permit office we spotted a taco stand next to a traffic island. Not having eaten for 15 hours, we stopped next to the cart. Mary got out to buy some food. While we were waiting for our food, a police car pulled up next to our car. One of the cops told Mary that we were illegally parked. Mary just kept on waiting for the food. When her purchase was complete she brought the food to the car and handed it to me. Then she went over to the police car and started jabbering in Spanish. Finally, after a few minutes she came back and the police car took off. It turned out that the cops had demanded money for the parking violation. Mary gave them the $4 change she had gotten from the taco vendor.

Mexican border towns suck. Anyone who thinks the rest of Mexico is like the border towns does Mexico a big injustice. After our encounter with the sleazy police we couldn’t wait to get out of Nuevo Laredo, so we headed out of town toward Monterey.

Mexico has a curious system. You can visit Mexican border towns as a tourist without any documentation, but 16 miles inside the country there is a secondary line of checkpoints. To go deeper into Mexico you need at least a tourist card. But you can only get the tourist card back at the border. It would be nice if they put up signs about this system.

We got stopped at one of these checkpoints. I had visions of unloading the trailer again, but Mary just had to go into a building to get our papers stamped. It only took a few minutes and we were on our way again.

It’s generally a bad idea to drive at night in Mexico, but we hooked up with a cuota (toll road) and sailed down to Monterey in just a couple of hours. Mary looked for a hotel in the tourist book that Sanborns had given us with our car insurance. We found one and flopped into bed at 2:30 am. It had been quite a day ­ the border crossing from hell.

The next morning we realized that we had slept in what Mary calls “a fuck hotel”. The room rented at 260 pesos per 6 hours. Instead of a headboard, our bed had mirror tiles. The room’s window was mirrored ­ you could look out, but no one could look in. There were no rooms near the front of the hotel where people on the street could see you entering or leaving your room. There were even garages attached to some of the rooms so you could hide your car. Mary said the routine was the man stayed in the car until the woman was in the room. She also said that Mexicans even brought their wives to these types of hotels.

It took us an hour and a half to get out of Monterey because I was too stubborn to retrace our route a couple of miles and use the cuota around town. Instead we tried to drive through the heart of the town and only got lost a couple of times.

The road outside of Monterey was in good condition except for a few animals grazing along the highway. I remarked to Mary that in the US, fences were used to keep animals away from the road, but in Mexico, fences are used to keep livestock from straying too far away from the road. Mexican logic is indeed different. We made it to San Luis Potosi just as night arrived. We checked out several hotels, but everything was booked. One hotel had a room, but they wanted us to pay for two rooms because of our trailer. We turned that offer down, and finally found a room at another hotel for $80.

In some ways, Mexico is like the US was in the 1950’s. There are no motels on outskirts of towns. You have to drive into the heart of a city to find a room, which is inconvenient for travelers, especially for someone pulling a trailer. A smart entrepreneur could make a lot of money giving Mexicans something they don’t even know they need.

The next morning we headed out on the final leg of our trip to Guadalajara. The continental divide runs north to south just a little west of San Luis Potosi. The road to Guadalajara crossed the divide, so it was narrow, steep, and winding. We were making pretty good time until we came up on a line of semi-trucks that were going in low gear. The lead one was a yellow double trailer semi, and it was just barely able to make the grade. We puttered along at 5 to 10 miles per hour.

Suddenly, traffic stopped. We could see the yellow semi continuing up the road, but nothing behind it was moving, and there was no oncoming traffic coming through. People started getting out of their cars. A few people walked up the road and brought back the news that two double semi-trailers, one from each direction, had gotten their wheels tangled up and no traffic could get through.

It was obvious that the semi-trucks weren’t going to be able to turn around on this narrow road. Therefore the blockage would have to be removed. It was also obvious this wasn’t going to happen very quickly. So people started getting out baby strollers, soda, and snacks. No one got mad. No one honked his horn. People just accepted the inevitable ­ a characteristic Mexican response.

Mary got to talking with some guy from Ecuador. He told us that his hometown was Guayaquil, but he had been living in Buffalo, New York since he left Ecuador in 1979 when he was 15. He really liked living in the US, but now that he was getting older (in his mid 30’s!) his fingers and joints hurt in the winter cold. Mary had the brass to tell him that she had been in Guayaquil more than once in her job as a tour director and that his hometown was dirty and dangerous. He pretty much agreed with her. He also mentioned that that day was the last day to transit Mexico with a towed truck.

Finally, after an hour and a half wait, the army showed up, followed in rapid succession by the police and two wrecker trucks. The two semis were quickly untangled and traffic started moving again.

We got to Guadalajara and unloaded our stuff. Then we went to a nearby store at 8:00 pm, bought a bed, and had it delivered and set up in less than two hours. We unpacked some sheets and made up the bed. Then we slept like the dead.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2000 by Larry Landwehr © 2008


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