Close Encounter of the Cartel Kind

Author: Jérôme Pilette.
First Mexican dirt road, first encounter with Mexican cartel members.

This is not the kind of road you would normally take with your car. This is not the kind of road you would think leads somewhere. For some reason, both Google Maps and my GPS know about this dirt road veering South on top of a hill on a main route East bound and out of Aldama.

After 32 kilometres of dirt, rocks, mud, sand and a few remains of asphalt I was about to take a turn for the last stretch of that road when I saw a couple cars parked a little way ahead. “Is this where I die?” I thought. I don’t know why. I came across a few trucks and tractors, a guy told me there was a nice little creek by a bridge, there was even a school on this lost road, but for some reason, seeing these cars facing each other on the sides of the road made me feel weird.

While I was still approaching they started to leave in my direction. A truck passed me then the second one stopped. A guy dressed in a military outfit asked me a few questions to know if I was lost, but my understanding of Spanish is still very limited. My nose understand smells though, and it was definitely weed. He talked to someone on the phone then left. Another car passed, then when I thought I was done, another truck appeared from up the opposite hill.

He stops. The driver’s got tattoos, a stoned guy sleeps on the back seat and there’s another guy up front with sunglasses and a beanie. The driver asks me a few questions: where I’m going, if I’m lost. I try to explain, show my GPS.

He tells me to follow him, that he’s gonna lead me back to the main road that goes to Tampico. I’m thinking “just leave me alone, I know my way”, but since he’s turning exactly where I was going to turn, I go after them. We ride for a little while, everything is fine: people working, fields, horses, an old building and a well, then suddenly he stops and the beanie guy gets out of the truck with a M16 in his hands. “Oh fuck!” I think. The guy waves at me and tells me to stop, pointing the area behind the truck. The driver and another guy get out. I stop, of course. There’s not running away on a dirt road. There’s no running away anywhere with a 100 pounds bike.

The beanie guy hands the gun to the 4th guy and they start asking questions, the other one is still sleeping in the truck. They fuck around a little. “What do you carry in the bags? Bomba? Boom! Hahaha!” The driver says they’re cartel and shows me his cap with the name of the Cartel on it.

I show them a couple of my things, spare parts and tubes. They don’t insist on my bags. The guy who now has the gun asks me “Te gusta la fuma?” and offers me a reefer. I try to explain that I stopped smoking weed years ago, but he insists so I just take the joint and the lighter he hands me and smoke the thing. The driver then asks if I’m a police officer. Now I’m glad I’m smoking because that was probably a test. The driver takes a picture of me. I don’t know if it’s for security purposes or just for fun and, frankly, he can photoshop my face in a gay orgy with Dr. Phil and Justin Bieber if he wants, I don’t care as long as he lets me go.

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Truly, if all the weed that I smoked in my life, all the days of wandering around without a purpose only served me not to look like an amateur choking on that joint at that very single moment and convinced them that I wasn’t a cop, then maybe it was worth wasting a couple years getting stoned.

A delivery truck appears in the distance. The cartel guys tell me I’m good to go. They get in their truck and lead me to the road then the driver points the way to Tampico. I thank them.

It’s a nice paved road with large shoulders, trees on the sides, the Gulf to the East. I ride as fast as I can until I can’t see their truck anymore. They probably went the other way. I find an entrance where I can stop, sit down and breathe. I’m definitely gonna get a beer tonight. Definitely.

It was very scary at first to see the guy with his gun, but when I figured he wasn’t pointing it at me or threatening me, then it was only sheer stress and adrenaline. In the end it went as Walt had said: cartel members won’t care about a guy riding a bicycle and they might even think it’s funny.

Am I gonna meet cartel members again? I don’t know. I’m not an idiot I’m not seeking it. Am I gonna take a Mexican dirt road again ? I think it comes down to this: as powerful as the sight of a gun might be, on highways there’s probably two or three dozen cars that came way closer to kill me than these guy ever intended to. There’s sometimes too much traffic for me to look in the mirror every single second and it’s safer to look forward, make sure my wheel don’t get stuck in a crack and makes me fall in front of a van while a guy passes too close texting and driving. That road gave me 35 km free of traffic. I might run into a paranoid stoned cartel guy who could kill me for no reason, but the vast majority of cartel members probably just wouldn’t care. That’s one threat after 5000 km, while cars have been a constant danger since Day 1.

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I got to Tampico on time, ate tacos and a fried platano in a restaurant that could have been your grandma’s kitchen in the 60’s and got myself a couple beers. It’s time to rest my body and my mind.

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