CARNIVAL IN VERA CRUZ
Unlike Felix, our most unreliable receiver, there was one
individual who was very well connected politically with a powerful cadre of
friends. He was by far our most reliable receiver. We on the border just
called him Mr. C. Almost every operator on the border flew trips for him
at one time or another.
Mr. C's base of operations was in Vera Cruz, where he had a
palatial home that took up what must have been a city block. It was huge
by any standards; but a rather plain residence looking more like a
warehouse than a home from the outside. But from the inside, it was a
fabulous mansion with flowing waterfalls, fountains and green plants
everywhere. It was large enough to accommodate a central courtyard that
almost looked like tropical jungle; a large natural rainforest watering hole in
its center surrounded by lush tropical foliage. This unique courtyard was
viewed by all the windows in the mansion which only faced inward.
The entire western side of the residence at ground level was taken
up by the garage and carriage entrance to the courtyard, barricaded by a
heavy wrought-iron, electrically controlled gate. The upper two floors
above the garage consisted of only the hallways that completely surrounded
the house. There were no outside windows facing any street, probably to
increase security and hide this surreal display of wealth and luxury from the
outside world. This gave the house a fortress-like look from the outside
with only an occasional rifle slit every ten feet or so along the two upper
floors all the way around the house. I could well imagine the exterior walls
were bulletproof. With excellent fields of crossfire and a commanding view
of the surrounding narrow streets, an armed assault on this property would
have been difficult if not suicidal.
The eastern side of the house contained a first-floor living room
with the ceiling removed from the second floor to produce a large open-air
room, the ceiling of which actually belonged to the third floor. There was a
balcony on each side each with a curving grand staircase flowing into the
living room which allowed access from both the north and the south second
floor sections of the house. Next to the huge living area there were the
dining area and kitchen completing the eastern section, with bedrooms and
offices on both the north and south sides, most with inward facing, floor-
length plate glass windows. Each section of the courtyard was landscaped a
little differently to give each window its own unique view.
Inside, the house was decorated with soft pastels and living room
colors very pleasing to the eye. Heavy, expensive carved wood and leather
furniture complemented the fine art on the walls and the beautiful crafts that
adorned the walls in a most relaxed pleasing manner.
Mr. C always treated those who worked for him with decency
and respect, at least that is the appearance he created for us pilots.
Whenever one of us was in trouble, it was usually Mr. C who got us out of
it. Whenever one of us crashed and needed rescuing, it was usually Mr. C
who arranged for our escape or medical attention. While I had not yet
learned the lengths to which Mr. C would go to impress those who worked
for him, his obvious power was the main reason I would never cross him.
He never bragged and was never noisy, letting what he accomplished send
the message. It was sent very clearly to us all.
It was February, 1982 when our whole outfit was invited by Mr.
C to Vera Cruz to celebrate Carnival for a week at his expense. Mr. C was
our best client. He was very well connected in Vera Cruz, probably due to
his immense wealth derived from his importing activities. Mr. C, on
average, had us fly between three and five trips for him each week. That's a
lot of TV's. For a load of 375 color TV's, the customs duty alone was
$187,500. For one DC- 3 load he would pay Gus $10,000, ($1.00 per
pound). It didn't take many loads for him to make an immense amount of
money. To show his appreciation for our efforts, we were to be treated to a
week of Carnival; the whole outfit, all seventeen of us.
News of our invitation to Vera Cruz for Carnival celebration, a
celebration much like that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, roared through
the company grapevine like wildfire. Being a small outfit, soon everyone
knew of our plans to put the 28 seats back into our best DC-3 and prepare
it for transporting the whole company to Vera Cruz. Having been on the
border now for some eight months, I was very much cognizant of the
power of Mr. C, but I was also somewhat apprehensive of tweaking the
Mexican establishment's nose by such a daring, law-breaking flight in broad
All hands came out to help prepare the aircraft and a festive mood
developed, the more jovial the closer we came to our departure time. With
luggage stowed, everyone piled onboard through the rear airstair door with
partying on their minds. There was much laughter and kidding going on as
everyone took their seats. I made a few airline pilot wisecracks to
everyone's glee and we headed south over the border. It was a beautiful
sunny day and the visibility was unrestricted. You could see clearly for
miles which most of our passengers did, moving about to look at the
coastline out one side of the aircraft or the Gulf out the other.
Less than an hour into our flight, I was passing a small group of
mountains that encompassed several small valleys opening into the Gulf.
Gus came up to the cockpit to ask me if we could circle the tallest mountain
in the center of the group and check out the valleys which radiated from it
for any sign of our Navajo N3WN which had disappeared just a couple of
weeks before. We had not yet found out anything about it since its
disappearance and we were holding out hope that it might still be found.
Gus made an announcement of our intentions and I began circling the
mountain with its peak and ridges close off the right wing. We hadn't even
completed a full circle when I heard cries of alarm and distress coming from
the cabin. It seems some of our non-flying employees were terrified of
getting that close to the mountain so we called off the search. Gus realized
his mistake of reminding everyone of our recent loss and tried to restore
everyone's enthusiasm for our trip without much luck. The rest of the trip
was a quiet one, as much from the inactivity and the drone of the engines I
suppose as from any sense of doom or gloom. Everyone was a little
worried about our reception in Vera Cruz, however.
We were told to simply come to Vera Cruz on a certain date.
Mr. C was to meet us at the airport at three o'clock. We were to park our
DC-3 on the tarmac right in front of the passenger terminal and await him
in the aircraft. This took a great deal of trust on our part. We were in a
known smuggler aircraft, flown directly to Vera Cruz in violation of
Mexican law that required us to land at the first point of entry and clear
customs. When we arrived and parked the airplane, we were very relieved
to see Mr. C walking across the ramp to greet us. After piling out of the
airplane, we were given a hearty hello and instructed to go as a group to the
customs office inside the terminal. After a short discussion with Mr. C,
Gus told us all to have our passports ready for inspection as we filed single-
file past the customs inspector's desk. We were to hand him our passport
and, at the same time, surreptitiously drop a twenty dollar bill into the open
drawer of his desk.
For those of us who had not been with the company very long,
bribing a federal customs agent of a foreign country took a lot of trust.
Such an act is unthinkable in the U.S. and would undoubtedly result in very
serious charges. But this was obviously standard procedure where Mr. C
was concerned. Fulfilling this nervous chore, we exited the customs office
with a collective sigh of relief and the group began splitting up into several
sedans and pickup trucks that had been brought by Mr. C's employees to
transport us downtown.
We arrived in the center of Vera Cruz at the main city square.
Right off the square was the Plaza hotel in which Mr. C had reserved
enough rooms for everyone. We were instructed to relax for the afternoon
and prepare for an evening on the town.
Dressed to the nines, we all assembled at the appointed hour to
begin an odyssey that may happen only once in a lifetime. We were
chauffeured from restaurants to night clubs, to after-hours clubs, one right
after another. Counting our Mexican compadres, our entourage consisted
of about twenty five people. To get that many seats in a crowded
restaurant or night club must have taken some pull. We watched parades,
joined parties in celebrations on the square, running up what must have
been an enormous bill at each establishment.
Upon arising for breakfast somewhat late the next day, we found
that any meals we took in the hotel restaurant would be on Mr. C. For the
next five nights the same scenario was repeated to excess. We were
chauffeured to a resort south of Vera Cruz to spend the day in rented boats
and a fabulous lunch of a seafood buffet.
Another day we were taken to a village near Herreras, one of our
dirt strips we used for landings of contraband, and treated to a barbecue in
which the whole town turned out. A goat was slaughtered and cooked on a
spit over an open fire. The huge meal was accompanied by all sorts of
strange but tasty dishes. The afternoon was capped off with a softball
game; the villagers against the contrabanditos. We would have fared much
better in the game if our third base coach and umpire hadn't fallen down in
a drunken stupor.
Charlotte was a big hit with all the kids what with her natural long
blonde hair and her Rolling Stones T-shirt. As she rode around the field on
a donkey, she had a faithful mob of screaming little girls and not so little
boys following her everywhere. That night we were treated to a town party
the whole village put on for us at which we danced outside on the town's
cement slab basketball court to music from a large stereo system. I never
tried to calculate the cost to Mr. C of this extravaganza, but it must have
been a lot of money.
To Mr. C, words alone could not impart to us the appreciation
he felt for our efforts. Seeing the power he wielded also gave us an uneasy
feeling that we should stay on his good side. I'm sure that was a part of this
whole deal. The side of him we were permitted to see was always cheerful,
friendly, and gracious. But it was important for him to have us see the
power at his command.
We were on the verge of burnout when our week ended.
Satiation in drink, food, and merriment had been attained by all and it felt
good to be heading home. Mr. C probably did not know specifically how
his expression of gratitude would serve him in the future or how it had
served him in the past. But he probably had some idea.
Copyright 1998, BUSHPILOT, all rights reserved.
[Return to Index] [Go to Smuggler's Photo Album]