Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friends of the Devil - Reynosa to Tampico

I met Chip, and we started discussing travel plans and fitted the radio to his helmet - which turned out to be about the most important factor in our safe travel through northern Mexico. I changed the oil in the bike and, despite everything everyone told me, we headed immediately for Reynosa. Chip explained that we should cross and get all of our bike importation paperwork taken care of, as the lines the next morning could be long and delay us for long enough that we would be riding in the dark to make Tampico. He has done this crossing about 50 times with various cars and motorcycles, so he knows the system pretty well. He also knew people at the Howard Johnson in Reynosa, so we would have a secure place to rest up for the long ride the next day. We crossed the border at five with no problems, then went to get our vehicle permits - which would have been impossible without Chip! It was a strange system with three different desks you go back and forth to, and no one speaks English at all.
"Los Eligados"
So, with that out of the way Chip suggested that we go and meet up with his friends, a biker gang called "Los Eligados"' for a little while. We met up with them at an Autozone, hung out for a while, and then went for a massive cruise of about 50 bikes around Reynosa at about 10pm. I know, it's not safe at night, etc, but who would try to rob a biker gang of 50 guys? They let Chip and I ride in the second row, and then they had me lead for a while.  I guess now I can put "Mexican motorcycle gang leader" on my resume. Maybe we earned the honor of riding in the front, as non of the bikers were willing to ride to Tampico, and more than a few told us not to. So then we went to a biker bar for a couple of hours and then went to the Howard Johnson hotel where chip gets a discount (for reasons he has yet to disclose.) It was about 1am.

We headed out around 9 and it was pretty nerve racking. All of the stuff you hear about is true; burned out cars, roadside memorials, and Mexican Federal police and soldiers everywhere with the biggest guns you've ever seen. Chip explained that whether we were searched, and how thoroughly, depended on the mood of the soldiers, and how long they had been on duty that shift. Apparently they are less concerned with searches as the day wears on, and looking at them standing in the dust and heat wearing full battle gear and bullet-proof vests I can understand their position. They stand all day in 100 degree heat, searching for narco gangsters who want them dead, and the best possible outcome is that they don't get shot or blown up and get to do the same thing tomorrow. So, they were brusque, but treated us remarkably well considering their situation. I really admire these police and soldiers, as they are risking their lives to protect people from gangs - gangs who would gladly pay them ten times their salary to switch sides. We went through four checkpoints and were searched at three of them. We didn't really fit the profile of narcos, but the guns coming south from the U.S. provide fuel for the war, so they wanted to be sure we weren't gun runners. Each checkpoint was different, which was intimidating because we could never be sure if they were real until we were already in.  At one, everyone was wearing full battle gear and face masks, which made them even more intimidating. One common presence was guns. AR-15's, MP5's, .50caliber machine guns on trucks, etc. At any point in a checkpoint, you could be shot by probably 20 soldiers simultaneously, which, ironically, is a very good thing. Because of all of the firepower we didn't see anyone who looked troublesome all day, but there wasn't much other traffic and we moved along as quickly as possible. We rode right past San Fernando, and it didn't look any different than any of the other dusty little towns along the route. The roads were quite good two lane highways, and fairly straight. We had hoped to take pay highways, but there weren't any on our route. I know that none of this is what anyone wants to hear, and I apologize, but it's the truth, and now that we're in Boca del Rio it's all behind us, so there is no reason to be worried now. Being in constant contact with Chip via helmet radio was crucial, and without his support, guidance and fluency in Spanish it would have been a long and terrifying day. Thanks again Chip!
Fueling up near on Highway 101 near San Fernando, eerily quiet but not terrifying.

So, we got to Tampico and Chip warned me to watch for cars marked "Transito"' which are the local traffic cops everyone always mentions bribing. Five minutes after he mentioned them we got pulled over by a Transito on a V-Strom like ours. He told us that, in Tampico, motorcycles are only allowed in the far right lane - while locals on bikes sped by in all three lanes.  Luckily he was interested in the fact that Chip is a soldier, and I was riding a V-Strom, so we talked for a while and eventually he gave Chip his number to call if we had any other problems. No bribe! We pulled back out, and Chip saw a cute girl get into a cab, which then went to the far left lane. He decided to go over and check her out (that's Chip), and a cop car pulled up behind us and waved us over. These guys were older, and there is no polite way to describe their attitude. They made us follow them onto a side road, and then condescendingly lectured us about the same made up law. Chip wanted to call the other cop, but they wouldn't let him, so Chip showed him the pictures we took with the first cops five minutes ago. He didn't care, and made it clear that it would cost us 200 pesos to leave. Chip paid him and we were off again.

We headed for the beach area to find a hotel, and it was all kind of sketchy other than one place, so we pulled in the courtyard to find 10 Federal Police trucks, sandbag bunkers, and an armored guardpost. This hotel is their headquarters while they work security in the surrounding towns, so it was guarded like a fortress. Weird, but good. We checked in, hung out with the Federales for a while, and were surprised to see how interested they were in our riding gear and navigation equipment. These guys are fighting the most ruthless gang on the continent, and they wish they had GPS' as nice as ours. It was hard not to feel a bit stupid and spoiled, and was further evidence of the dedication these men have to their country. We went down to the beach at dusk, and met some locals who were hanging out there. After a few beers and some half English - half Spanish conversation we headed back to the hotel to rest up for the ride to Veracruz. We went into our room, where, out our window, we could see the heavily armed police standing guard at the gates, where they would be all night while we rested up for our vacation. The world will never really make sense to me.
Hotel Security courtesy of the Federales - some of the nicest guys I've ever met. There were probably 50 more around.

We need to head out for today's ride right now, so I'll post the report on Tampico to Veracruz next time we have a chance. Spoiler alert - we made it!

1 comment:

  1. Well, there it is. Glad to hear it all worked out. I hope at some point you guys end up in a place that doesn't involve gun turrets, bribes and armor, and more fun biker gangs, babes and beach. It's amazing reading a post and saying, "I liked the really heart touching part where they join the Mexican gang and toured the city at night," but then again, it wouldn't be a Ty romance any other way.