September 23, 2010
It was a hot summer in Laredo. True, all summers in Laredo are hot, but that one in the mid-1960s seemed exceptionally so because I was there, working day and night, as a Special Agent for U.S. Customs. The smuggling of narcotics into the U.S. was rampant, and a handful of guys like me was devoted to making this business as unprofitable as possible.
This was a tough task because most dope smugglers worked out of the U.S., traveled to Mexico to "connect" for their contraband there, and then delivered it back across the river or had it delivered to a point in the States. The policy of the Mexican government was not to permit American investigators to operate inside their republic, making it very difficult for us to know what was happening in the narcotics trade there. If Mexican rules were occasionally stretched, such stretching was for a good cause.
Just at sundown one July evening, I parked my disguised government car behind the Lincoln Bar and Restaurant in the thriving border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I hadn't eaten or slept since the previous day and was thinking in terms of a double shot and a rare steak. I entered the Lincoln and went to my favorite corner table. It was situated where I could watch other crowded tables and especially the long standup bar.
I spotted Dobe Grant lifting a glass of tequila at the far end of the bar. I sent a waiter to fetch my old friend to my table just as my own drink was delivered. We shook hands as he sat down.
"Been lookin' for you out at Turkey Track, Skeet. You busy?
"So-so," I wearily told the old rancher. "Quite a bit has been happening."
"I sure hope you been catchin' some of those dope-sellin' bastards. When you gonna get caught up enough to come out for a visit?"
"Maybe soon, Dobe. We just finished a big case this evening. I'm going home for some rest as soon as I eat."
While we were talking, a slim and neatly dressed Mexican boy entered the restaurant, looked around, then walked by my table as he headed for the bar. As he passed, a tiny slip of paper was dropped on the tablecloth. Making certain no one but Dobe was watching, I retrieved it. The message was simple: "8:00."
Dobe said nothing. He had another tequila while I finished my steak. I paid the check, and we departed, heading for my car.
"Where's your truck, Dobe?" I asked.
"Here in the Lincoln parking lot."
Well, it'll be okay there. Leave it and come with me."
The wiry, hawk-faced old man silently accepted my invitation and took a seat in my two-toned, white-sidewalled Ford. As I fiddled with the keys, he tapped the shirt pocket where I'd put the note and asked, "Where we goin' to meet your friend?"
I laughed. "Down by the railroad bridge. He'll be there before we are. He's an old informant of mine and a hell of a reliable one. As far as you're concerned, his name is Chulo."
Fingering his white moustache, Dobe said, "As far as I'm concerned, he don't even exist."
We drove over a potholed dirt street to an open area near a railroad bridge which spanned the Rio Grande. There were no streetlights and no houses. Traffic was nil. I parked by an abandoned adobe building. Within minutes, Chulo entered the car.
Glancing nervously at Dobe, Chulo spoke to me in soft Spanish. A gringo was in town, and he was trying to locate a marijuana dealer. He had talked to several locals and shown a large amount of cash to at least one, but he hadn't made a purchase. He was driving a black Chevrolet pickup bearing Texas license CSA357.
I thanked Chulo, and he disappeared into the darkness, secure in the knowledge he would be rewarded if we caught the smuggler with a load. But we had to locate him first.
"Can you remember that license number, Dobe?" I asked.
"Sure. It's Confederate States of America three fifty-seven."
"Right. The best place to start looking is out in the zone."
Like all Mexican border towns, Nuevo Laredo had a zona de toleréncia, a red-light district that was segregated from the rest of the community. In this case, it was actually contained within high concrete block walls through which there was only one exit. Inside this "walled city of sin" were buildings containing madams, prostitutes, murderers, pick-pockets, muggers, con men, and dope dealers.
Dobe grunted in disgust as we drove through the gate, which was guarded by Mexican police.
"Damn good place to stay out of," he grumbled.
The bartender at the Club 45 had occasionally furnished me with bits and pieces of information in the past, so I parked in front of that imbiber's institution. I didn't have to ask Dobe whether he was armed. As I did, he carried a Mexican gun permit provided by Arnulfo Vasques de Villareal, the local commanding general of the army. One thing the general had made us promise when he issued these credentials was that we would not carry firearms into low-class saloons.
Though I hated to do it, I slipped my Browning Hi-Power from beneath my shirt and hid it under the car seat. Eyeing me as though we were both crazy, Dobe did the same with his Colt .45 automatic. Unarmed, we walked into the Club 45 and approached the bar.
We almost made it. As I reached out to place my hand on the mahogany bartop, I was grabbed from behind, and my arms were pinioned to my side. My hat flew off, and something wet brushed my neck. I got an elbow into the ribs of my assailant, then grabbed his wrist and twisted, throwing him to the tile floor. Dobe had grabbed a bottle by the neck and was standing over the prone figure, ready to finish matters.
Holding my attacker down by twisting his arm, I looked him over. His ruddy skin and frazzled blond hair said he was Anglo. His faded Levis, one pants leg caught in a scalloped boot top, and greasy cowboy hat made him a cowboy. I let him go, and two more just like him made their way through the curious crowd to help him to his feet. The threesome stood there, obviously pleased with themselves. They had the look of rodeo hands, and as it turned out, they were. They were also three sheets to the wind.
"Why did you do that?" I politely inquired of the one who'd grappled with me.
"Well, you see, old Jim Bob an' old Roy an' I was gettin' bored. No action at all. An' they bet me the drinks that I didn't have the guts to go up to the next big, ugly sonofabitch that walked in the door and kiss him on the neck. That was you. I won--unless of course you want to buy the drinks yourself."
I gazed at the three smiling, swaying youngsters and was reminded of my own somewhat raucous youth. I retrieved my hat, put it on, and sighed, "I just believe I will." And I did.
A private visit with the bartender about the truck I was looking for was unproductive, and Dobe and I left the Club 45. Back in my Ford, we made a quick survey of the rest of the zone without results.
Clandestinely, since use of our radios in Mexico was prohibited, I radioed to ascertain if any other U.S. Customs agents were in service. There were, but they were tied up in a surveillance in another case. One officer, young Bill Sessions, broke off and crossed the river to assist Dobe and me.
We divided the list of the known narcotics dealers in Nuevo Laredo and drove by their places of business and homes, still searching for the Texas pickup. Sessions finally spotted it inside the fence at the home of Tacuache, a notorious wholesale dope merchant. He radioed that he'd made the license number, and it was on a black El Camino pickup.
Like Ford Rancheros, El Caminos were ideal vehicles for contraband. With large, paneled-off compartments in their beds and the hollow sidewalls of the beds, they could hold a lot of marijuana and keep it well concealed from a casual inspection.
Having located the El Camino at a dealer's place, we backed off, crossing into the U.S. and placing "pass and call" lookouts with the Customs inspectors at the International Bridge in Laredo. If the suspect truck arrived there, they were to let it pass with a search and call the agents. This was in case the pickup was not loaded in Mexico, and its driver had arranged to have the marijuana delivered to a point on the American side.
Dobe and I parked on a side street near the bridge. Sessions parked a block away. We settled in to wait. It was almost sunup, and Dobe saw me rubbing my tired eyes.
"I've slept since you have, old horse. Grab a few winks. I'll stay awake and listen for the radio."
I gratefully settled into the car seat and sank into oblivion. When I awoke, it was midmorning. Sparse traffic moved along our street.
Dobe saw me stir and sit erect, stretching my cramped muscles. The ashtray brimmed with the butts of cigarettes he'd smoked during the shank of the hot night. I contacted Sessions. He was still in place.
Dobe walked to a corner café and returned with two large Styrofoam containers of coffee. This revived us, and we endured our wait with wider eyes.
"If you're gonna live in this car, you ought to furnish it more comfortable," Dobe declared.
As the day wore on, Dobe entertained me with tales of his days as an officer during Prohibition, when he had worked along this same troubled stretch of river. We both reflected on how little life changed along the Mexican border, where smuggling had been a way of life for so long.
The day crept by. We changed the position of our car several times so as not to arouse the curiosity of passersby. We stayed near the port of entry in order to pick up on our suspect vehicle quickly when it came.
In the early evening, our radio crackled. My office flashed the news that our El Camino had just entered from Mexico and been passed by the inspectors. Alert now, I drove to the intersection of the main thoroughfare from the International Bridge. Two, three, four cars passed before us, and then there it was, our black Chevrolet, occupied by an Anglo man. After allowing a couple of "buffer" cars to file in between us, I entered the line of traffic behind the suspect; Sessions pulled into line behind us. Dobe sat calmly, his eyes riveted on the pickup.
Instead of leaving town on the San Antonio highway as we anticipated, the El Camino made a sudden turn into the parking lot of a large shopping center. The driver parked near the storefronts, and I passed him, taking a place near an exit about 100 yards away. Sessions took a position on the far side of the lot.
We waited for about two hours. The suspect sat in his pickup. Was a delivery to be made in a crowded parking lot?
As dusk approached, I told Dobe, "If he's loaded or is going to pick up the load down the road toward San Antonio, he'll leave here and go right down the freeway. It'll be hell trying to tail him in the dark in all that traffic."
At that moment, the suspect got out of his vehicle, locked it, and entered a drugstore.
Without a word, Dobe removed his hat, left my car, and walked briskly across the parking lot to the El Camino. I could barely see him in the lengthening shadows as he pulled his gun and used it to smash the left rear taillight of the black pickup. He returned circuitously to my car, grinning as he got in.
The driver of the El Camino left the store, looking carefully around the parking lot. After a moment's delay, he got in his truck and drove rapidly from the lot. As we followed, he entered the San Antonio freeway and headed north, staying barely within the 70-mile-per-hour speed limit. Sessions was on our bumper, and I held back, letting the suspect increase the distance between us to about a quarter of a mile.
Where the red plastic of the broken taillight had been, the white bulb glared like a lighthouse beacon. We could have picked him out in traffic if he'd been a mile ahead of us. I grinned and slapped Dobe's knobby knee.
"Do you think he's going to meet somebody, Dobe, or is he already loaded?" I asked.
His eyes never left the broken taillight as he replied, "I'm bettin' he's already loaded. How long you gonna follow him before we see?"
"Let's take him out 25 miles or so. If he hasn't met someone by then, we'll grab him."
We raced through the night for another 30 minutes, guided by the bright light. Then I radioed Sessions, "Let's take him. I'll come in from the side; you stay close on his tail."
Pulling up beside the pickup, I hit the siren as Dobe plugged the portable flashing red light into the cigarette lighter and signaled the driver to stop. As the suspect brought the El Camino to a halt, Dobe and I leaped out of the car, pistols in hand.
"Police! Gitcher hands up!" shouted the old rancher, pointing his .45 at the startled suspect. The man took one look at the cowboy-hatted, grizzled figure and did as he was told. We got him out, then spread-eagled and searched him. He was unarmed. Sessions
cuffed his hands behind his back, and we began to check out the El Camino.
It was loaded and then some. A wall of plastic-wrapped kilo bricks of marijuana was stacked behind the seat and came level to the top of it. A brightly colored blanket concealed the contraband from outside view. Using a Philips screwdriver, we opened the compartments in the bed, and they were also neatly filled with "keys" of the illicit weed. When we weighed the catch, we would find we'd captured 250 kilograms--more than 500 pounds--of marijuana.
We prepared to return to Laredo.
I was to take the prisoner, a middle-aged ex-convict, in my car, Dobe was to drive Sessions' car, and Sessions got the load vehicle. Then we found out about the missing keys to the pickup.
"There's a trick to starting it," said the prisoner. "Take the cuffs off me, and I'll reach under the dash and fix the wire."
Before I could stop him, Sessions started to comply.
"Hold on there," Dobe said gruffly. He bent under the steering wheel, reached up under the dash, and came up with a loaded and cocked .38 Super Colt automatic.
"This what you're after, partner? I'm glad you brought it. It'll get you maybe an extra couple of years."
Dobe handed me the pistol. We finally managed to start the pickup, which was stolen and hot-wired. We returned in caravan to the office.
Dobe sat near my desk as I interrogated and wrote up the prisoner. The man broke down and told us his whole story.
"It's been a hard-luck deal from the beginning," he complained. "I figured on doubling my money fast and got a few friends to invest. They'll be after me now. That Tacuache charged me almost double what I intended to pay for the grass. Then it took a whole day to round it up and load it. I had tire trouble.
"And then the damnedest thing happened," he continued. "I was parked at a shopping center, waiting for dark, and decided to buy some cigarettes. While I was in the drugstore, I looked out the window and saw a gray-headed old coot walk up to my pickup, take out a gun, smash the taillight, and walk off. I didn't want to tangle with no looney with a gun, so I just let him go and got the hell out of there. The whole world's against me."
Dobe stood up, his face reddening, and said, "If that's all you need from me, Skeet, I'll be headin' back to the Turkey Track. This city life's too fast for me."
Author's Note: I am constantly asked if Dobe Grant really exits. He does, but not as a single man. He is the essence of at least four old-timers that I know and have known.
When Dobe Grant acts out on the printed page the things that these men have done, and...with the élan, irascibility, courage, and honesty that shrouded them, then Dobe becomes alive.