The 3,000-kilometer border between the United States and Mexico has long been the scene of nefarious activities, with drug and immigrant smuggling the most pressing concerns. The lure of illicit profits can lead all kinds of people into lives of crime. VOA's Greg Flakus has the story of a Texas cowboy's experiences in the dangerous world of drug-smuggling.
He is tall and lean. He wears boots and a big cowboy hat, and his language and manner of speaking leave no doubt that Don Henry Ford, Jr., is a real cowboy. He spends most days raising and training horses, or tending to the cattle on his family's ranch near Seguin, Texas, about 50 kilometers east of San Antonio.
But in a recently published book, Don Ford tells the story of another life he once led, that of a drug smuggler and fugitive from justice, hiding out in the wild desert mountains of northern Mexico. The book, published by Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, Texas, is called Contrabando, Confessions of a Drug Smuggling Texas Cowboy.
In a VOA interview at his ranch, Mr. Ford explains why he turned to drug smuggling in the early 1980s
"We were in the process of farming and ranching down in southwest Texas, and I had picked up a habit of smoking marijuana," he explained. "We had hands [workers] who came over from Mexico and they became my suppliers. They told me they had family down in Mexico in the business, so when our farm began to suffer, and it was obvious we were going broke, I came up with the idea of how to save the farm."
Don Ford soon discovered how easy it could be to carry loads of marijuana across remote sections of the border. He says he dealt mainly at first with poor Mexican farmers who had also turned to the drug business to survive.
"I started out with people who were mid-size smugglers, intermediaries of the big guys who worked the border region," he said. "They were poor farmers themselves, who had gone broke, and they tied into the Mexican supply, and I tied into the market on the American side."
He says it was not long, however, before he became involved with large criminal organizations.
"The guy that I met originally, a man by the name of Oscar Cabello, and others along the border, were pretty decent people, really," he said. "It is possible for good people to be involved in bad business, and that was the situation where they were concerned. But they took me to meet others that were really violent and dangerous."
Once in, Don Ford says, it was almost impossible to get out.
"They knew what I did and I knew what they did. As long as we were all working together, we all shared the same risk, but someone quits and you are no longer sharing that risk, you become suspect," he explained. "That knowledge that you have is a danger to them. Very few people ever quit this business, unless they are busted [arrested], and go to prison, or are killed."
Don Henry Ford's life of crime came to an end after he was arrested on the U.S. side of the border in December 1986. Since that time, U.S. officials say, cooperation with Mexico in the drug war has improved, and the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox has created special new units to fight drug traffickers.
As for Don Ford, he says, his arrest and the five years he spent in a federal prison may have saved his life.
"It was almost a relief to be taken back into custody after the things that I had experienced in Mexico. I reached a point where I just did not think I was going to survive," he said.
He credits his family for supporting his rehabilitation, and today, Don Henry Ford, Jr., lives a life free of drugs and alcohol. He has returned to his roots, breathing the fresh air and doing the hard, but honest work of a Texas cowboy.