I wrote the following story as the direct result of an encounter
with a squad of Mexican Military. It is related to the thread
regarding same just below.
Guardians of the Desert
Just about everywhere you go in Baja, you encounter the Mexican
military. They seem to be peppered about the peninsula at
almost regular intervals. As I mentioned in earlier chapters,
it has always been my assumption, and many disagree, that the
Mexican government uses the military for two primary reasons:
for providing checks on the import and export of weapons and
drugs; to scatter the military amongst the citizenry is to let
them feel their presence as a guard against revolt of the
As you drive the highways and byways of Baja, you're sure to
encounter these fellows. They are usually in uniform, green
dungarees with squared field caps, they are often gruff looking
and are almost always are carrying semi or fully automatic
weapons. The first time you encounter one they will probably
scare the hell out of you. This is unfortunate, because they
are just young men, stuck at some lonely outpost far from home
and forced to interact with North Americans, of whom they have a
natural fear. Most of them are warm and engaging once you break
the ice with a smile and an indication that you are fully
understanding of what they have to do and will cooperate. What
they have to do is ask you if you are transporting drugs or
guns. No one needs to inform you of the correct answer. Once
that has been accomplished they will branch into varied
behavior. The branches are
- wave you through the checkpoint,
- ask a few other questions (usually of personal interest
rather than search related,
- ask you to open a door or two and
poke at your baggage (in this case it's a good idea to keep a
discrete eye open),
- open every door and piece of luggage,
checking through your personal clothing, etc.,
- perform a very
personal strip search, checking every body cavity for stashed
diamonds or swallowed coke
(Just kidding about #5).
You occasionally hear about a gringo being given a bad time at
one of these roadblocks. I wouldn't say it's never happened.
But I've been stopped my whole life by these fellows and never
once met with a problem. I always try and be mature (sometimes
this has been impossible!), light hearted, and, most
importantly, respectful and cooperative.
On trips that included Gonzaga bay as a destination during the
1980's and 1990's, we would encounter at least two roadblocks if
approaching over the east coast road, and two or three if using
the transpeninsular highway and then cutting east from Laguna
Chapala or El Crucero.
On a leisurely afternoon sitting on the patio at Alfonsina's we
were talking with another couple that spent time there. We
spotted dust rising in the western desert. Within a minute or
two, a pair of humvees swaggered down the dirt and mud landing
strip that also serves as a road to this resort. A lieutenant
and eight or ten enlisted men climbed out of the vehicles and
entered the restaurant, pulling up chairs at the table next to
We exchanged greetings. It was obvious they felt out of place
in a restaurant/bar frequented by gringo tourists, even if this
was the remote outpost that it was and offered the only place to
eat for many miles. One of the remarkable things at Alfonsina's
is that there is always room for everyone. I wish this concept
could be carried to the true tourist places in Mexico, where the
tourist is allowed to exercise some form of superiority over
their hosts. But I'll be content that there are these outposts
where we can remain equal. Personally, I sometimes have to
struggle just to maintain that feeling, when the host is so
giving and willing to sacrifice for the guest. It is humbling.
We did what we could to help the military fellows feel welcome
and soon they heard me speak Spanish with Alfonsina. The
lieutenant asked if I could help him with a letter he was trying
to write in English. Mary Ann and I moved with the officer and
his aide to another table where we could focus on his letter
with less noise.
"What is it you wish to write?" I asked.
"We are required to stop the people driving past our roadblock.
We must search their cars. I need to write a note in English
that explains this."
"What do you want to say? I asked. "How do you want to present
yourselves? Do you want to be forceful or passive, thoughtful
of the subjects of your search, or demanding?"
The officer's answer was immediate and spontaneous. I was also
watching the aide, an enlisted man. He answered in unison with
his officer, and in the same way.
"Oh. Always with respect. We would like to explain to them
that it is for them and their welfare we do these things." He
wanted the people he searched to know why they had to do these
I probed a little into the depths: "I can see that it would
make your job easier if you were more forceful. I think the
manner you have chosen is respectful, but... Do you understand
what I mean?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. But I feel it is not our objective to be
disrespectful. We are here only to capture the people carrying
drugs and guns."
We spent another hour working with the lieutenant and aide and
together we all created a note in English before we rejoined our
friends at out table. I have remembered this time over the
years. A Mexican military officer got a note in English that he
had his enlisted men reproduce many times. The note was
possibly handed to tourists over some period of time, until a
better one came along. Soon, though, the thin papers on which
the words had been laboriously recorded wore and fell to the
desert sands to be replaced by self-standing signs you encounter
on approach to many of the checkpoints. I was pleased to see
that the tone and many of the phrases of our original note has
passed the test of time are were included in the new signs that
are still used throughout Baja.
These lonely troops, living on a dusty plain in a desert far
from anything they have ever known had been so giving and warmly
considerate. By their answers to questions concerning their
letter and intents they had revealed an understanding of the
basic principles of respect and concern, even for a type of
people of whom they have little comprehension. And yet they
always wanted to be respectful.
I've spent a lot of time wondering how our own U.S. youth would
react to a scenario where a country wealthier than ours decides
it likes what we have and want to buy into it. This fictitious
nationality pushes through our borders and insults us with their
wealth and power and then expects us to respect them? I don't
think so! It doesn't take much to elevate these aspects of the
Mexican to a level equal to our own. When a person in power
chooses to show respect in favor of making course demands you're
dealing, I think, with a person who commands the same respect he
or she offers.