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"'Black bundles' are just this side of illegal"



Monday, January 23, 2006

'Black bundles' are just this side of illegal 
By Jesse Bogan
The San Antonio (TX) Express-News


BROWNSVILLE — The loaders, sometimes looking over their shoulders, stacked
bundles tightly bound in black plastic with clear tape into the small
airplane. 

The single-engine Cessna parked outside an airport warehouse soon would hug
the coastline until it was time to approach a clandestine runway. 

Its passenger seats stripped away to make more space for the valuable cargo,
the aircraft had just enough room for a pilot who could barely see from side
to side. The plane legally can haul 1,500 pounds. 

The engine fired. The droning prop pulled the craft down a long runway,
cutting into a 22 mph headwind until the wheels were off the ground. 

The plane grumbled as it rose higher into a cloudy sky, tilting left and
right until the contrabandista was just a faint dot humming high over the
U.S.-Mexico border. 

There was a catch to this shipment, as well as to the thousands of others
like it. It's "semi-illegal" smuggling, in a tradition that goes back
decades. 

The cargo was tennis shoes, declared with U.S. Customs and then taken south
to a landing in Mexico far from any import duty. 

The tariff for sneakers is 17 percent at the international bridges for more
than five pairs. This pilot had several hundred pairs, removed from
shoeboxes and scrunched together into bales that people in the business call
"pacas negras," black bundles. 

"Normally, we go to private landing strips because airports in Mexico are
really time-consuming," said the pilot, who asked not to be named for fear
of losing his job. 

He knows he'd face jail time in Mexico if caught. 

"Sometimes we do one trip, sometimes we do two. Sometimes we don't do any —
whatever the demand is at the time." 

A polite man in his 60s, he added that one of the destinations is a ranch
with a gravel runway. 

"To me it's just flying, it's just a job," he said. "It's a lot better for
me to fly cargo than people. There, you have to look good, even smell good.
Cargo don't complain, people do. 'Hey, it's too bumpy. All you give me is
peanuts.'" 

Derald Lary, director of aviation at the McAllen-Miller International
Airport, said he wasn't aware of anybody flying tennis shoes, although he
reminisced about smuggling stories of old. 

"Legal by our rules, but illegal as hell from the Mexican rules" is how he
summarized the practice. 

In its heyday of the 1970s and '80s, exorbitant tariffs on electronics
created an enormous demand and a boon for border aviation and trade
economies from Laredo to Brownsville. Anything from Cessnas to
doubled-propped DC-3s avoided the tariffs by flying to remote runways. 

"They were buying everything from VCRs, TVs, point-to-point radios — for
Christ's sake, Cuisinart blenders," Lary said. "It really jump-started our
economy." 

The book "On the Border" by Tom Miller estimated that in 1978, $2.8 million
worth of TV sets were smuggled from Laredo into Mexico, much of it by air. 

The pilots were and still are adventurers. Several flew Cold War missions
for the Central Intelligence Agency's mainstay carrier, Air America,
according to various sources, including a former smuggler. 

Sipping a Budweiser, the roots of his gray hair showing through brown tint,
the man sat near a parked DC-3, a mid-20th-century workhorse, at a border
airport. 

He continues to fly it for "nostalgic" purposes, but he no longer smuggles,
he said, and didn't want his name printed for fear his past flights still
could fall within the Mexican statute of limitations. 

He told of landing big two-engine planes at night on runways lit with rags
soaked in diesel fuel, guided by radios and speaking in code with people
below. 

Small Mexican communities typically were delighted to help, he said. 

"One way to do it is hire people from the village to unload," he said. "They
didn't care — it brought cash money out in a remote area." 

The risks were considerable. He was shot at by Mexican military, as were
other pilots. It's unclear how many smugglers died, but several didn't come
back, according to interviews for this article and contemporary news
reports. 

Mexican authorities, during a crackdown on the business, shot down three
aircraft in one month in 1982 and arrested the pilots, Air and Space
magazine reported. 

Lyle Shunk, a pilot, told the magazine, "We were gunning down the runway,
but they ran alongside us in a truck, standing in there with rifles, firing
at us. They disabled the right engine, flattened the tires. They put over
200 bullets in the airplane. 

"You could hear the TVs pop-pop-popping back there. I just stopped. It was
all over." 

He and a co-pilot did time in jail and ultimately bribed their way out,
according to the report. 

Coupled with several peso devaluations, the changes after 9-11 and
especially the lower duties that came with the North American Free Trade
Agreement, large operations have become unusual, if not extinct, according
to pilots and airport directors. 

The business that remains appears to be small-scale. 

A Mexican customs inspector in Matamoros, Manuel Victor Lagunes Villa,
downplayed the business. 

"There are airstrips; they can end up at ranches with hidden runways," he
said. "But it's very rare because it's easier in automobiles. It's very rare
because the Mexican army checks this." 

There are reports of daily smuggling flights out of Brownsville, and on a
recent afternoon two flew out within seven minutes of each other. 

Francis Knapp, 83, a car dealer and longtime Brownsville-based pilot, winced
when asked about the traffic. He's known many of the pilots. 

"It's hard to believe a tennis shoe would make it worthwhile," he said.
"It's got to be good business for somebody. 

"They load up so heavy that another 10 pounds might sink them," he said,
adding that he never did it, because he didn't need the money. "I don't know
how they do it. Got to be hungry, I guess." 

Roland Herwig, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman for the Southwest
Region in Oklahoma City, said he is aware of the flights. 

"I understand this has been going on for years," he said. "We have checked
people who have done this in the past, this type of operation, and they have
been in compliance." 

One former pilot, Francisco Treviño, 64, who used to fly out of Brownsville,
quit after an engine failed in 1996 with a Cessna load of tennis shoes. 

He flew contraband 10 years, a business he said started with passengers who
just wanted to bring a television every once in a while. It grew into much
more, and he partly justified the work because similar activity has been
around "since they built Brownsville and Matamoros." 

"You know it's a risk, but when you are young, you don't care," he said.
"You just do it." 

He described it as a job that pulls at the conscience and character of the
pilots, some of whom have grown families but are addicted to flying. 

"It's sentimental because I don't fly anymore," he said. 

Nearby, he had a fresh supply of painkillers for his back, which has been
reinforced with metal rods since the crash. 

"I prefer to be here (at home), wishing to be there (at the airport), than
be there, wishing to be here." 

A man who spent three years in a Mexican prison after getting caught with a
plane full of contraband waved off an interview request but noted that
pilots love to fly. 

"Probably in this business, they might like to fly a little more than your
normal pilot," he said, which helps explain why he continues to do it.


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