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Getting Away With Smuggling 800 Pounds Of Pot

Two weeks ago, This American Life featured a story at the U.S.-Mexico Border. It followed a boy, his family and tractor trailer full of marijuana.

The theme was “ Getting Away With It” with “stories of people breaking the rules fully, completely and with no bad consequences.” But, Domingo Martinez’s tale (taken from his memoir, a finalist for the National Book Award) was as much about “getting away with it” as it was about morality and the changing America landscape.

The skinny: Boy finds himself with his mother driving to the Texas side of the U.S. Border from Mexico. And miles behind them are his older brother and father towing a tractor trailer of twenty 40-pound blocks (800 pounds) of pot. The mission is to smuggle it into the U.S.

“This was back in the 1980s, before the Patriot Act, when there were two U.S. Customs checkpoints blocking the migration of drugs, fruit, people, reptiles, and parrots on the roads between the United States and Mexico, both about 100 miles north of the Mexican border at highway choke points. The station on Highway 77 in Sarita was the busier and the better financed. The checkpoint at Hebbronville though, was an airstream trailer with an attached carport to protect the agents from the sun, and it would often close for breakfast or lunch. So we were headed towards that one this morning, going north on Highway 281, driving through the scenery of asthmatic plants and stunted trees.

Drug smuggling, of course, is the root cause of many of the modern problems plaguing the southwest: the rise of horrific and powerful cartels; billions of dollars spent on border security; border shootings, etc.

The reality is never as romantic as dramatized fiction, (see: Blow). But what I respect about Martinez's narrative is how real it feels.

They get away with it. Let through by a guard more concerned with his lunch than checking their trailer, the family is free. They drive off into the sunset with 800 pounds of pot to hand off, without consequence.

But it’s not really liberation at all. It’s a painful memory made up of moments questioning self-worth and family. The seventh-grade narrator watches in horror as his father and older brother slowly creep toward the checkpoint, and their doomed fate. He thinks:

No sir, not trafficking in drugs. Just driving through, to Houston probably, looking for work. Oh yes, we're American citizens. That's not why we're nervous. We can prove that-- that's nothing. We're nervous because of the pot we're hiding, and because we're only getting $2,000 for risking upwards of 10 years in prison. Isn't that funny? Isn't that just hysterical?

It’s a reminder that all these characters along the border are hard to define in themes or headlines. The smugglers and the agents, the cartel and the government, the undocumented immigrants and the unemployed citizens are all woven into the same fabric. We all want success, happiness and a better life.

In radio, they got away with it. But in life, there is never getting away with anything. Every choice has a consequence. Sometimes it just doesn't reveal itself until later.