Ten minutes in Mexico: An unnecessarily tense moment with Customs and Border Protection

By Matt Payne

The Border Patrol and Customs agent along the US border in the Mexican town of Mexicali was built like a bulldog puppy with suspicious eyes, a mild Mexican accent and an intense, unexpected lisp that was accentuated when, snake-like and terse, he asked me to remove my “sunglasses” and “step outside the vehicle.”


Never before had such a harsh firing of hissed “S” sounds made me so nervous. Dutifully, I removed my shades, exited my vehicle and walked toward a chain-linked cage where an armed guard then directed me to sit on a well-worn wooden bench where I would remain until a team of agents decided whether or not I could return to my motherland.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised at my temporary holding situation at the inspection station. After passing the agent my passport, he asked me where I lived. I told him Los Angeles. He then asked why I had come to Mexico. I told him I was researching a script I was writing. He asked me what it was about, which gave me pause.

The script, among other things was about0 a corrupted and inept border agent who had taken a bribe to allow ten million dollars worth of cocaine go over the Mexicali Calexico line. Probably not something he’d want to drag his family to see.

Having not prepared a more appropriate, less insulting answer, I feebly croaked “all this…”

“All what?” He said with no sign of a lisp.

“The border?”

“The ‘Border?’” he parroted with an eye roll and then continued before I could elaborate. “How long were you in Mexico?”

Upon my answer to this, he was officially suspicious. Given my half assed attempt not to offend him given the premise of my script and having only been in Mexicali for a grand total of just under ten minutes, minus the forty-five minute wait to get back into the US, I understood why.

If a lone American wanted to get their hands on recreational and illegal anything, it seemed that even a short, shallow venture into Mexicali would yield nefarious fruit of any kind. So when I said I lived in Los Angeles and had driven four hours to Mexico only to enter for fifteen minutes then leave, it was time for them to do their jobs.

(Disclaimer… I am not in any way above having fun in Mexico. I’ve been….)

With its taco stands and souvenir stores, the border town was not without its cultural appeal, but within two blocks and thirty seconds of being in the country, a disheveled man approaches my window, pantomiming first the “Popping” of a pill, followed a giant dopy toothless smile. He then gesticulates to one of five or six pharmacies that line this one particular street where said sleepy pill may be purchased.  Not deterred by my lack of interest in pharmaceuticals, he begins humping the air, rubbing his chest and tweaking imaginary nipples urging me toward a gentleman’s club impressively already open at 11:30am on a Tuesday. This event with different casts and incarnations repeated itself three times in my brief stay.

Now relegated temporarily to a well-guarded cage between two nations, I could see the wheels of homeland security spinning. Aside from a well-worn miserable bench in the holding area, there was nothing but a fifty-inch flat screen TV playing an “informational video” about the purpose of border control. Impossible to ignore given the video’s volume, it outlined each and every potential transgression that might occur whilst crossing the border and assured the viewer that if any such crime has occurred, life will change dramatically and for the worse.

The cage is also within view of your car as it is searched. And when I say searched, I don’t mean glanced over. If your car were your body, these border guards would not stop at spread your cheeks and cough. They get up in there. I make nervous chatter with the guard watching me. “Not quite as easy to get to the US as it is to get into Mexico, is it?” He pretends not to hear me.

I watched as everything from my glove box, console and my extremely cluttered trunk were inspected. Gym bags were opened and containers within gym bags were sniffed. Sniffed! Pockets of jackets emptied. Gas tank opened. Mirrors are used to look under the car. Everything under the hood is studied with the eye of a German auto engineer and the nose of a German Shepherd.

As my car was violated, I began to worry. I have many pot loving friends whom I’d driven to the golf course… Perhaps an errant nugget of weed might have fallen at some point from a pocket. Maybe a drug-dealing valet accidentally dropped a bag of a white powdery substance while parking my car. They could find anything. Like many caged before me, I began to pace.

The longer it took, the more nervous I became. Especially as I listened to the video outline the severity of such international violations. I had done nothing and yet I was squirming like a teenager who comes home to find his bong and a bag of weed on the bedside table next to his folded laundry. How anyone smuggling mass quantities of drugs could remain calm doing such a search and under the watchful eye of armed guards is beyond me. I had done nothing and felt I was about to face the executioner.

Finally it ends and I’m clear. Yet now, I felt dangerous. Like I had gotten away with something massive. So too, given the brevity of my trip, did the agents. Having come back into the US many times from many locations all over the world, I am almost always greeted with a “welcome home.” Not the case after my fifteen-minute trip to Mexicali. “Looks like you can go….” He says, still suspicious as hands me my passport.

“Got a restaurant recommendation in Calexico?” I ask. He tosses a sideways smile, as though somehow I’d won this battle and says nothing, waving forward his next suspect.

As I drive back into the US, My heart finally begins to slow down. It had been an intense hour between two borders. My car is full of nothing but water bottles, dirty gym clothes, and my waning anxiety. Even though I hadn’t even gotten out of my car,  I can’t help but think… “Suckers….”

Glad to be stateside, I crank some Springsteen and head home, glad that those guys are keeping our borders safe.