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Stories by Mike Humfreville

Regarding Military Checkpoints    ( Posted December 10, 2003 )

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 people.

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

  1. wave you through the checkpoint,
  2. ask a few other questions (usually of personal interest rather than search related,
  3. 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),
  4. open every door and piece of luggage, checking through your personal clothing, etc.,
  5. 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 ours.

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 things.

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.

Copyright 2003-2006 Mike Humfreville

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