Around 1989, I was turning left from North Mesa unto Executive Center, pretty much what I did every other day. But, unlike every other day, I soon learned that corrupt police officers were just as prevalent in El Paso as they were in Cd. Juárez. That is when I realized the big lie that El Pasoans live each day. Here’s my story.
I remember it as if it were yesterday.
As I entered Executive Center from Mesa, I was pulled over by an El Paso police officer. He was Hispanic, as if that made a difference. I was driving a VW Rabbit – fun car – with Front Chih plates. For those of you who are not aware, México issues two types of plates, nacionales and frontera plates. The frontera plates are for U.S. cars imported into México under a special program for Mexicans living on the U.S. border. Border cars paid less in Mexican taxes and import restrictions were more relaxed. But the border cars were limited to those living on the border with the U.S. and could not be legally owned past the border region. In my case, the plates were Front Chih plates because I lived in the state of Chihuahua.
I pulled into the parking lot of what was then an empty building that later became a Baker Glass.
In halting Spanish, the officer told me that he pulled me over because the VIN plate on my car was missing. How he saw that is beyond me. As most everyone knew, when a vehicle is imported into México, the VIN plate is removed from the dashboard and used by Mexican officials to process the importation documents. It was common at the time to have frontera plated vehicles missing the VIN plate.
Either the officer played dumb or didn’t know, but I explained to him in English that this was normal practice. He told me, insisting on speaking Spanish, although I obviously knew English, that he had to inspect the vehicle by locating the “hidden VIN plate” to ascertain that my Rabbit wasn’t stolen.
I knew it was a ruse but as a Mexican I knew I had no choice to refuse his request to “inspect” my vehicle.
As I waited in the hot sun, the officer proceeded to take all my belongings out of my car and drop them on the hot pavement looking for the illusive “secret” VIN number inside the car. He rummaged through my belongings before discarding them as trash on the concrete.
I kept thinking to myself, just be patient, and let it happen, I can just pick up my stuff and go about my day.
But things went from bad to worse quickly. I knew the officer was looking for drugs, after all, most Mexicans carry drugs with them was the attitude in El Paso. The officer tried to take out the backseat to look under it, but the seat needed to be unscrewed to be removed. But one just needed to look under the seats to look for hidden compartments. Looking under the seat it was easy to see up into where the foam made the seat.
I, like most border crossers, made sure to keep our cars clear of anything that looked like a hidden compartment to avoid long waits when a border inspector wanted to inspect the car for contraband.
The officer insisted that the “secret” VIN plate was under the hump in the middle of the car where the transmission resided. But he needed to do is to pull the carpet out to find it.
Neither of us had the tools to remove the back seat but the officer was not satisfied. He gave me a choice, detain me and impound the car until a proper investigation was conducted, or cut the carpet to let him pull it back to reveal the hidden VIN number.
As a Mexican I knew better than to go to a police station with a police officer intent on making my life miserable. I chose to cut into my own carpet so that he could pull it back to look under it.
Of course, there was nothing there, much less a “secret” VIN plate.
The officer seemed to be frustrated, or maybe that is how I perceived it, but he suddenly announced that I was free to go. He left me there in the hot sun to put my car back together as best as I could as well as putting my belongings, that were haphazardly strewn all over the hot pavement, back into my car.
To say I was angry is an understatement. But I had little choice. Abuse of power under the color of authority was as common in El Paso as it was in Juárez. The only difference was that I knew where I stood in Juárez. In El Paso it was easy to be met with violence for looking at a cop the wrong way. Traffic cops in Juárez did not carry guns at the time. El Paso police were armed and resorted to violence regularly.
Years later, I purchased a used Ford Aerostar van for my business from a local dealership. As I lived in Juárez and my business was in that city, I needed to legally import my van, title it in Juárez and put Front Chih plates on it.
At that time, to import a vehicle into México, one needed to drive to the Córdova bridge, also known as the “free bridge,” and line up on a special lane to have U.S. border inspectors inspect the paperwork and then cross the car into México, where Mexican border inspectors finished processing the paperwork. Imagine that, Mexican and American officials, working together on paperwork.
The problem was that importing vehicles into Juárez was a lucrative business with many cars being imported daily. Bureaucracy on both sides of the border limited the importation time to a short morning window. Any cars who had not made it into the inspection windows when the time ran out were stuck on the U.S. side of the border. Those of us who lived in Juárez faced a difficult situation.
We had to find a place to store our vehicle in El Paso until we could try again the next morning or rent a hotel room and spend the night in El Paso. Additionally, our vehicles were in limbo. They were not titled in the U.S. meaning we had no insurance and thus we had to hope that an El Paso police officer didn’t pull us over and ticket us for not having automobile insurance. Contrary to popular belief most Mexicans paid their traffic fines because we didn’t know at the time whether our traffic violations were reported to immigration officials and many of us did not want to lose our border crossing privileges over tickets.
To make the cutoff time, many of us started to line up early in the morning, before the aduaneros starting processing import vehicles. Because of the way the traffic pattern was laid out, by who, I don’t know, our cars lined up on East Paisano drive. The cars waiting to be imported soon impeded the flow of traffic.
I had spent the night in a hotel because by the time I had purchased the van, I knew it was too late to attempt to import my van. The next morning, before the sun rose, I drove to Paisano and lined up my van behind the other cars waiting for the import process to begin. Soon enough, the line grew long and an El Paso police officer on a motorcycle arrived as the sun began to crest over the horizon.
He motioned for us to move our cars. We asked where to, and he just continued to motion that we needed to move our cars. We had nowhere to go, except lose our place in line and be stuck in El Paso another day. Being an English speaker, I tried to explain the situation but he just ignored me.
Finally, I guess he got annoyed, angry or whatever, he suddenly ran up to the car in front of me and ordered the driver to move. He refused and the officer reached into the car, forcefully opened the door and grabbed the driver by the arm and slammed him onto the pavement.
Rather than handcuff him, the policeman stepped over him, got into the driver’s seat and drove the car out of the line a few feet, further blocking Paisano, stopped and walked over to the driver still on the floor and threw the keys at him, motioning for him to get into his vehicle and leave.
By then, most of us were driving away from the scene.
I paid for another hotel room that night. The next morning, I drove down to the bridge a little after midnight and lined up again. This time, I made sure to be one of the first drivers there as that would put me on federal land where the local police had little, to no jurisdiction. I imported the car successfully that day. But the violence that I witnessed that day remains engrained in my brain today.
I am not new to violence having seen my share of it over the years, but the violence under the color of the law made an impact on me.
In future posts I will be bringing to you a complete history of El Paso Police corruption and misconduct. We are living amidst a reckoning, a time of reflection between right and wrong. From racism, to the meaning of symbology to piercing through the fog of whitewashed history, it is time to come to a reckoning in El Paso.