In the beginning...
Securing our borders today is a hot topic that’s extremely close to my heart as the Mexican border is smack up against my home state of Texas. That said, this piece, although involving our border problem, is about one of the most interesting and flat out exciting books (a true story) I’ve ever read – and I read it the first time years ago – probably three or four times since. I’ve met/know some of the folks involved in the book and laid eyes on others. Again, it’s my brother’s “come on – let’s go” way of life that caused me to be in the right (or wrong) place in time and have personal knowledge of the events reflected in a fascinating book. A little back ground will help:
My brother, Steven Fromholz, when not pickin’ and grinnin’ is a white water river guide. Fact is, he’s a pretty good one as a few years ago Paddler Magazine (the bible of boaters) named him one of the 10 best river guides in the U.S. He may be prouder of that honor than any he’s ever received – and he’s got a bunch of them. Brother is the reason I began trekking out to the Big Bend area of Texas as he headquartered in Terlingua, Texas. It was from there his boat/rafting trips originated and when he invited me to come out and run the Rio Grande it didn’t take me long to pack up my gear and head West.
One trip and I was forevermore hooked on rafting. At that time the river was low (Mexico releases the water – or not) and we spent a lot of time pulling rafts over gravel sandbars when the water was too low to float. The small town of Lajitas, Texas is where we’d put in the river and at that time folks could cross to Lajitas, Mexico very easily (it was too deep to wade across but not by much). A rowboat was busily engaged in taking folks into Mexico and back to the U.S. 24/7.
The Terlingua/Lajitas, Texas folks had built a good school and welcomed kids from the Mexican side as students; so right there was a lot of border traffic from Mexico. It was a welcome exchange from both sides and the Lajitas, Mexico folks and the Lajitas, Texas folks pretty much operated as one community – sharing, trading, and coming and going when and if they pleased. That was soon to come to a screeching halt.
The Big Bend National Park was just down the road from both Terlingua and Lajitas so tourist trade – folks taking rafting trips, hiking, sight-seeing, etc. – was quite a lucrative business. Fact is, other than a few restaurants and convenience stores tourist business was about all the business in that part of Texas. It was definitely flat-out desert country and summers were hottern’ hell and then some so one had to want to be there pretty badly to even go.
It wasn’t long until the peace and tranquility of this little scenario changed. Why? Well, the drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico had finally reached a point that it had to be addressed. This all took place in the early-to-late 1980’s. Brother was guiding a three-day river trip, with all his customers in rafts and on the water when gunfire rang out. He got the rafts (and the folks in them) off the main river and into a little area protected by rock cliffs. They waited it out – several hours -- and when no more gunfire was heard they hooked it out of there. No, no one was shooting at them personally but there’s always the possibility of getting caught in a cross-fire situation and Brother was responsible for all those folks. That was the first of several occasions and it was a constant heads-up at all times from then on. The drug battles had ensued and times they were-a-changing (they’d actually been going on for years but this was about the time they began blossoming in full bloom and drawing the attention of the American press).
"Drug Lord" is an exciting book -- written by a very brave man!
Which brings us to the book I’d like to recommend for those interested in the bottom-line, absolute and simple truth about some of the illegal aliens entering the United States from Mexico, how the drug business works in that country (the simple, unvarnished truth) and what transpires due to both. Not all illegals are dangerous but those that are – well, they’re incredibly dangerous and although I’m reporting from some years back it doesn’t appear to me much has changed.
The book I’m referring to is Drug Lord, The Life and Death of a Mexican Kingpin by Terrence E. Poppa published by Demand Publications. You may read more about the book at www.druglord.com. Mr. Poppa began his career as a newspaper reporter and became an undercover agent for the United States Government. The book appears to cover a period of time from the early-to-late 1980’s. His cover was as an employee of the Park Service in the Big Bend National Park. He actually did park ranger work and although I’d met him – just howdy-do -- had no idea about his real purpose in the Big Bend. He was just a nice, friendly guy that seemed to fit into the community and worked really hard. His book, about his experiences during this period of time, was yet to come.
The book explains how the drug business in Mexico works in vivid and believable detail and it’s a frightening scenario. The main character in Mr. Poppa’s book is a man named Pablo Acosta out of Ojinaga, Mexico. Pablo rose from a life of extreme poverty to being one of the most notorious and wealthy drug lords ever known on either side of the border – and one of the most dangerous men that ever lived. He was implicated in the murders of two people in Hobbs, New Mexico and four in Mexico. His drug organization was linked to at least 20 murders and the number may have been twice that.
Whether things have changed since then is up for conjecture as the drug business in Mexico seems to still be alive and well. All things considered, Poppa’s explanation of how the whole deal works is probably as timely today as it was then although Mexico’s current president is supposedly doing all he can to alleviate it – or maybe at least slow it down.
Author Poppa goes into great detail about how Pablo Acosta rose to incredible heights in the drug business and there’s nothing left to the imagination. Seems Pablo engaged in some small time drug running as a young man, served time in the U.S. and high-tailed it back to Mexico when he got out of the pen. By then he was “connected” and his peers decided he should “own the plaza” in Ojinaga, Mexico – where he was living at the time – when the plaza suddenly became available.
In Mexican towns, no matter how big or how small, there’s usually an area in the main business district – like the “town square” here in the U.S. – that’s called “the plaza” by the townsfolk. What “owning the plaza” means in Mexico refers to the top guy in the drug business in a town or area. He is the “padrino” of the community and more or less calls the shots for the area. He donates enormous sums of money to community charities, schools, etc., is known to give private citizens money or help and is awarded hero status by the populace.
In exchange for helping everyone the owner of the plaza is protected and kept informed of all that’s going on – good or bad – by the community at large. It’s a designation meaning great power and influence -- it also means you’ve cut a deal with the Mexican government, from the bottom rung up -- to pay them a percentage of all the money you make in the drug business.
If you “own the plaza” it’s your first, and most critically important obligation to keep the government happy and satisfied. Failing to adhere to the established rules you’ll very quickly not “own the plaza” but in all probability wind up dead – and you can’t run far enough to prevent it. No one in Mexico “owned the plaza” back in those days without the blessing – and participation -- of the Mexican government according to Poppa.
His book brings an in-depth look as to how drug lords operate, their day-to-day lives, their sorrows, their families and their fears. Seems fear and apprehension is on the scene every hour of every day – which is understandable and to be expected. It’s not a pretty or pleasant way of life for even the most hardened criminal or tough guy but goes back to greed. Greed is the driving and dangerous force. You have to be greedy enough to enter into a business that doesn’t allow you to leave it or back out at any time. Once in the drug lord business you’re in the drug lord business until you die – and death waits for you every second you breathe air.
I’ve read the book probably three or four times as there’s some folks mentioned therein that I know from having hung out in the desert and river rafting. The Big Bend area is home to some of the most interesting and delightful folks I’ve ever met. You have to really want to be in the Big Bend country – it has to touch your heart and draw you to it – to even consider living there. It’s drawn both my brother and me and always has -- whether because of the majestic scenery, way of life or refreshingly real people that live there. It isn’t hard to understand how the events described in Poppa’s book took place as the country is vast, easy to disappear in and totally enchanting.
Mr. Poppa’s experiences, including his personal association with Pablo Acosta, is a tale that’s often goes beyond comprehension. It takes a very brave man with a daredevil soul to carry on within the ranks of drug dealers, cut throats, murderers, thieves and deviates. He not only made their acquaintance but was trusted and included in their inner circle. He interacted with many of them, including Pablo Acosta, on a first name, come-on-in basis and they shared mutual friends (well, however friendship is defined under such brutal circumstances).
The book is indeed one of the most definitive reads pertaining to the international drug business ever written and Poppa is a skillful and interesting storyteller/reporter. Again, the folks I know who were actually included in Poppa’s story enjoyed some great good times during those years and also some tremendous sorrow and heartbreak because of them. One doesn’t dip a toe in the puddle wherein international drug dealers swim and come out unscathed – one just goes on with life carrying a full suitcase of harsh memories.
Poppa himself, due to the revelations in his book, has for years – and will probably continue to be – very secluded. There’s no doubt in my mind there’s still folks on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border that would take his life in a heartbeat if they could find him. There’s no mercy for anything or anybody in the drug hierarchy and a smart man knows that. Poppa is obviously very smart, very aware of his situation and brave beyond comprehension or he’d never have written the book.
There’s a marvelously unique – and famous – restaurant and bar “The Starlight” in the “Old Town” of Terlingua, Texas, that’s been the local watering hole for umpteen years. It’s the gathering place not only for locals but river rafters and trail riders returning from their trips. Brother and I had just gotten off the river and decided to step into “The Starlight” for a quick drink before going on to the motel and cleaning up for a dinner party.
We were sitting at the bar and totally enjoying a cold beer when four or five Mexican guys appeared at the front door. They were pretty much dressed alike – cowboy shirts, jeans, expensive boots and western, straw hats. What was most noticeable about them were the huge, silver, oval belt buckles they all wore. A couple of the men came in, looked around a bit and one of them sat down at the other end of the bar from us. Not a word was exchanged between the bartender and the Mexican guy as the bartender sat a beer down in front of his newest customer. Obviously, the guy had been in the bar before. His partner returned to the front porch and joined the rest of the little group he’d arrived with.
The guy at the bar returned greetings from a couple of patrons (with a slight nod) but made no effort to visit or become involved with other drinkers. He chain smoked, was very quiet and I remember thinking he was probably the most ominous looking man I’d ever seen. He was short, muscular, had a bad eye, facial scars and a heavy mustache. He was one of those people that seemed aware of everything going on around him and could, without doubt, personally handle anything that came along. He was one tough looking dude.
We finished our beer, paid up and had to pass the swarthy looking, quiet Mexican man at the end of the bar as we made our way to the door. My brother, being gregarious by nature and always speaking to everyone, said “How ya doin’ my friend?”
Pablo Acosta nodded, nearly imperceptibly, diverted his gaze away from us and continued drinking his beer.
AngelaBlair©2012 All Rights Reserved.
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on October 23, 2012:
fpherj48 -- Wow -- thanks for the kind words -- you certainly started this old lady's morning off with a bang. You know when one lives as long as I have it's inevitable there's been a few exciting events. I admit, however, that I've always been in the right place at the wrong time OR the wrong place at the right time. Gotta admit, it's been fun all the way (although I wasn't always sure of that at the time!) The book is fantastic -- particularly if one has any interest at all in what makes the border drug wars rage. Again, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Best/Sis
Suzie from Carson City on October 22, 2012:
Are you for real, girl? This small town, homebody, girl-less-travled is holding on to the top of her head! Sis....How in the HELL do you manage to "be there"....know someone....where ever you go....when something outrageous is going on....You astound me. What an exciting, interesting, CRAZY life you've had.
I have a feeling I could sit and listen to your stories for days and never tire of hearing them!
Now, you have me getting out first thing in the morning for this book. I absolutely HAVE to read it.......You are SO not your average Texan sitting on the porch!!!!....I almost feel I should get your autograph.
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on April 10, 2012:
Thanks for commenting Roberto -- and the nice compliment. I only saw him the one time but my brother said he used to come into the Starlight and listen when he was performing there. A most interesting and dangerous man for sure. Best/Sis
Roberto on April 10, 2012:
Great Read!!! I am so impressed you got to see the man in person!!!
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on February 11, 2012:
Hi Phillydreamer -- the drug wars have only escalated since this time and yes, Mr. Poppa sure stuck his neck out to tell a story that should be told. I didn't really have a lot of insight into the drug wars until I read the book -- it's very complicated and yet very simple. Thanks so much for commenting. Best/Sis
Jose Velasquez from Lodi, New Jersey on February 10, 2012:
This was a great read. Pablo Acosta sounds like a dangerous man, and the author of this book must have had a very good reason to expose all of this dirt.
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on February 06, 2012:
Thanks, Will -- that was the one and only time I ever saw Pablo and he was indeed a tough looking guy. I'd become aware of his true notoriety much later -- but have never forgotten that day in the bar. Thanks for commenting - and yes, here we are again! Best, Sis
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on February 06, 2012:
It takes us back a hundred years, when the Mexican bandits used to work both sides of the border, and here we are again. Threy now operate freely up to 70 miles inside Arizona, and the Feds do little to nothing about it!
Great story, and very chilling, Angela.
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on February 03, 2012:
Frog - I'm talking about the little river crossing between Lajitas, Texas and Lajitas, Mexico. My friends tell me there's still a bit of traffic back and forth but nothing like it used to be. I can't say about other border crossings although I know everything tightened up after 9/11. Best, Sis
The Frog Prince from Arlington, TX on February 03, 2012:
Sis - I'm not sure about the border crossing issues but I'll check with Fred and see :)
Angela Blair (author) from Central Texas on February 03, 2012:
Hey Frog -- haven't been to the Big Bend in a couple of years now and definitely miss it. As the border crossings are now shut down tight I think a lot has changed for the great folks that live and work out there. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Best, Sis
The Frog Prince from Arlington, TX on February 03, 2012:
Awesome writing Angela. I think I'd steer clear of The Big Bend area right at the present time myself. Rafting sounds fun though.