A Nuclear Republic of Chiapas?
© by Bohdan O. Szuprowicz
1. Unexpected Margaritas
I never thought that a meeting with an old friend could turn out to be a threat to my life.
It all began when I completed a consulting assignment at Los Alamos and began the long drive back home to Florida. I stopped for the night in Las Cruces. After dinner I called Armando Delacour, whom I knew since student days at London School of Economics. He was the scion of a wealthy Mexican family with a large hacienda outside Ciudad Juarez just across the Mexican border.
“Hola compadre!” he cried with joy when I invited him to throw down a few tequilas with me when I arrive in El Paso the following day. “But, Texas. No amigo. I cannot come across the border.”
“Why?” I asked.
Armando hesitated. After a few moments of uneasy silence, he spoke slowly and distinctly. “I often think about you. In fact, we should get together as soon as possible, but you must come to see me in Mexico.”
This I was not very keen to do. The Delacour hacienda lies in the foothills far from the city. Besides unpredictable delays at the border, it’s a long, dusty drive with numerous cattle gates that you have to open and close as you go along.
Armando anticipated my apprehensions.
“ I don’t expect you to come out to the hacienda,” he said. “No. It’s better you just wander across the border like another gringo. Yeah. Take the bus. They leave the Cielo Vista Shopping Mall every hour and visit several tourist traps in Juarez. Ignore all stops until you reach the Asombra Cantina. If you leave El Paso at noon we can have lunch…I shall explain all…Hasta manana, amigo.”
Armando hung up and did not wait for my answer. I was somewhat taken aback, but what the hell. I had time on my hands and nothing to lose. He made it easy for me.
The next morning I reached El Paso well before noon, parked my car at the shopping center and boarded the midday bus to Juarez. The Mexicans just waived us across the border, and after a few stops I got off at the Asombra. From the dusty street ornate double doors led to a beautiful courtyard with a lot of empty tables. Through another passage, I entered the inner restaurant with a very dark interior.
It was a cavernous place, two or three stories high, with a huge bar in the center. A bandstand with a dance floor at one end extended into numerous niches, terraces, balconies and booths, with tables and chairs all around the place. Burgundy red predominated with flashes of orange and green on some nude statuary and floodlights. A group of mariachi musicians serenaded a party of tourists at a distant table, but you could hardly hear them across the vastness of the hall.
Armando was nowhere to be seen. I moved towards the bar, which looked almost deserted. As I approached the barman prepared a cocktail and placed it in front of me.
“I didn’t order a margarita,” I said somewhat surprised.
“Complements of the house, senor,” he responded. “It’s our custom. Anyone who visits the Asombra gets a free margarita. Everything else you pay.”
“I see what you mean,” I said as I turned around.
While we talked, several figures emerged from the surrounding shadows. They were like giant spiders gathering to assess the human fly. I realized I found myself under false pretences in a typical Mexican sex bar with several mini-skirted, brightly painted, well-endowed senoritas closing in on me.
I was pondering my next move when the telephone rang. The barman picked up the receiver, listened for a while and replaced it. He waved the girls away and clapped his hands. A waiter appeared to whom he spoke rapidly in Spanish. Then he turned to me.
“Follow this boy,” he said. “He will take you to your friend.”
The girls, who went back to their booths, giggled and made disgusted faces at each other. As for me, I didn’t like this bordello setup one bit and could not understand why Armando would play such a stupid game with me.
I recalled our joint adventures in Europe as I followed the waiter up a dark stairway. For some reason a demonstration near the Soviet embassy in London came to mind. Armando, myself and others of our group circulated across adjacent pedestrian zebra crossings on Bayswater Road tying up the traffic of central London. The police called for us to disperse but we persisted. Soon a detachment of mounted officers emerged from a side street and formed two lines of a dozen horsemen facing us across the road. A few minutes later the sergeant major got up in his stirrups and simply said, “forward slow.” They moved at a light trot towards us. The horse’s hooves made a very loud clattering noise on the hard surface of the road. As they neared us we just scattered… In a few seconds it was all over and the road was clear. The traffic moved to the joyful honks of frustrated motorists and bus drivers. But that was the Cold War and a long time ago.
2. Huevos Rancheros for Lunch
We reached the third floor of the building and walked along a corridor with doors leading
to various suites. He stopped at one with a nameplate that said “Make Love and War.” The door
flung open before we had a chance to knock. Armando stood there smiling with arms outstretched.
“You silly Mexican cunt…” I started but he raised his hand. We embraced like brothers.
“I know, I know…Forgive me,” he shouted. “It was necessary. For your sake and mine. You will understand as soon as we talk.”
The suite turned out to be a luxury apartment with a terrace overlooking the huge restaurant below. Armando went behind the built-in bar and picked up a bottle of tequila.
“Here is your health,” he said. “How do you want it? Straight, a sour margarita… I recommend a Bloody Maria because I serve Huevos Rancheros for lunch.”
Armando was famous for his Rancheros Delacour so I gladly settled for his choice of drinks.
“You made me look like…” I began to say sipping his tequila concoction.
“Un pederasto,” he interrupted. “So what? No one knows you here. Who cares anyway? Believe me. It’s safer this way.”
“OK Armando. What the fuck is going on? You bursting out of some closet in your old age or something?”
He looked at me for a while. “You might say that. Indeed. But there’s nothing gay about it. No. It’s all political. You recall our arguments at El Cubano in the old days. Café Borgia on the menu with a dash of strychnine on request and all that rot? Freedom or death!”
“That was centuries ago. Now it’s a new millennium. A new era.”
“You’ve said it. That’s it. It’s no good demonstrating anymore. Now you’ve got to show them some balls.”
“Like 9/11, like Israel, Palestine, Saddam, India, Pakistan. Now Iran.”
“You’re barking up the nuclear weapons tree again.”
“Like we used to do way back. Remember. We agreed… we predicted proliferation. The shabbier the nation, the more eager they are to go nuclear. Now it’s time for assorted terrorists and third world beggar states to go after this stuff…”
Armando prepared lunch on hot plates like a master chef. He expertly combined fried eggs with salsa, chorizo, cheese, chilies and sour cream into a fantastic dish that would keep a cowboy going for a day. He also refilled our glasses. I switched to Dos Equuis beer with spicy vegetable juice and café latino for a chaser.
“ You mean Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and who else… “ I suggested.
“Sure, and more. Look, South Africa and Ukraine claim to have destroyed their nuclear arsenals and what did they get? A pat on the back from Uncle Sam. Otherwise they are being ridiculed by all the others.”
“You’ve got something on your mind, Armando.”
“Chiapas,” he answered. “The state of Chiapas. The Zapatista revolt against Mexican government has been going on for a dozen years. Now it’s getting ugly…”
Now I remembered. Once we celebrated New Year’s Eve together at a fancy dress ball in London. Yes. The world famous Chelsea Arts affair where the only colors allowed are black and white. Armando showed up as Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican insurgent, in our motley group of gauchos, cowboys and outlaws all sporting huge black sombreros.
At midnight we began to “ring in” the New Year with our six-shooters and were promptly pounced upon by the security guards and the police. They carted us off to the Kensington Police Station where we were charged with inciting a riot. Luckily we could prove that the rounds we shot were blanks and the guns were rented props from a theatrical agency.
“But you’re a French aristocrat…Armando. What’s all this truck with the peasants?” I observed.
“Good in Europe, amigo, but not in Mexico. Yes my noble ancestors were conquerors in Napoleon’s army occupying Mexico, but they did not manage to escape after the Juarez revolt disposed of Emperor Maximilian. They went underground and lived with the Indians until a pardon allowed them to come out in the open. By then their children were of mixed blood. The powers that be of Mexico have a long memory, and as far as they’re concerned I am not only an Indian half-breed but a descendant of traitors and enemies of the state.”
“But your name, your wealth, your social standing.”
“Yes, I have a good life and family, we lack for nothing. But the Zapatistas feel I am one of them. I help as I can. Many work in my haciendas. Others I smuggle in an out of the States for special jobs.
“Aha! So our immigration guys are after you,” I ventured.
“And the FBI, and who knows who else within the new Homeland Security operation.”
“That’s why you would not meet me in El Paso.”
“Well… actually I can go in and out of the States as I wish. I have various papers, money and secret crossings. But when you called, I could not take a chance. Had to make sure you came alone.”
“Why is that so important?”
“Because things are getting out of hand. Reconquista. Some militant factions of Chicano organizations are plotting to take back California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. They think of nuclear blackmail North Korea style. To avert attention they make it appear that Zapatistas in Chiapas are after nuclear weapons to wrest independence from Mexico. In fact, it is all being planned within the States. One idea is to deliver and explode a nuclear device as a demonstration at the secret weapons test range of Area 51 in Nevada. They think they can use one of those pilotless planes flying under the radar.”
“Why are you telling me all that?”
“I think it’s a dangerous idea. Doomed to failure with a lot of repercussions to all parties. I want to bring all this to the attention of the proper authorities. But if I make any direct contacts, I am a dead burrito in no time flat. The corruption in our bureaucracies is incredible. No. I want you to be my go between. You I trust. We swore loyalty and friendship till death do us part. We poured champagne on bloody knives when we became blood brothers. And…! You understand the nuclear game and you have access…”
“Hell, Armando, I have no beef with anybody. Things are just fine.”
“Not for long. All your attention is focused on the Middle East while the greatest threat is lurking in your own backyard. I have names, places, and insights that you would not believe. Like our old friend Boris from the Soviet Nuclear Institute. He is now peddling know-how and equipment to produce terror-nukes and he was seen with Zapatista leaders in San Cristobal. Al Qeada types are also consorting with some Brown Berets extremistas. I know…”
“I’ll have to think about it Armando,” I said meekly.
“Don’t waste any time though,” he added and raised his glass in a last toast. “Salute! To the gay caballeros! I’m so happy we met amigo. It’s a load off my chest.”
3. Back Across Rio Bravo
I left the apartment and went out of the Asombra through a back door. When the bus showed up I got in and twenty minutes later we were lined up at the border in a massive traffic jam on the bridge across the Rio Grande. Border guards moved between the vehicles with submachine guns at the ready. An endless stream of people walked over the bridge. The guards, to give immigration officers a chance to examine the crowds, stopped them from time to time. Some were turned away and had to walk back to Mexico against the flow.
It took the best part of two hours before our bus reached the checkpoint. Two immigration inspectors came aboard and asked everyone to produce some ID and declare their purchases. The bus was half full of tourists with bags of souvenirs, medications and bottles of alcohol. They offered driver’s licenses, credit cards and other documents as IDs and argued with the inspectors. I was the only passenger with a passport but without any goods to declare.
“What was the purpose of your visit?” one officer asked me. He only glanced at my passport from a distance without any attempt to examine it.
I did not expect that question. Ideas like confession, detention and federal protection flashed through my mind. I thought I better come clean right away so as not to complicate my life in the future and take care of Armando.
“Met with some Zapatistas to discuss their nuclear weapons program,” I replied in a quiet and bored manner.
The inspector either did not hear or decided to ignore my answer. He spotted some bottles of liquor on a seat of a passenger behind me.
“You have more than two bottles here,” he said. “You’ll have to pay excess import duty to the Texas Liquor Commission.”
When the IDs of all the passengers were checked, one inspector got off while the other directed the bus driver to pull up to a side bay with an office. He accompanied the man with four bottles off the bus into the building while we waited. It was not long before the man reemerged with his bottles.
“All this fuss for a total of fifty cents excess import tax, “ he commented.
A few minutes later we reached the Cielo Vista area in El Paso where I parked my car. Soon after I joined the traffic on Interstate 10 on my way to Houston and points east. I was still under the shock of Armando’s revelations and could not decide what to do about it. I glanced into the rear-view mirror often and wondered whether I was followed but did not see any signs of that.
I have driven about a hundred miles or so when the highway gently climbed the crest of a hill. As I reached the top I saw that the road was barricaded and all traffic shunted to several booths operated by armed guards of the border patrol.
“This is it,” I thought. “How clever. They ignored me at the border to avoid any incidents in that massive traffic jam. Here we can discuss the issues at leisure without undue pressure or interference.”
The vehicles ahead of me were stopped and searched. Customs and immigration inspectors questioned the drivers. They even used angled mirrors attached to long poles to look under the cars. I waited patiently for my turn and tried to figure out how to tell them what they needed to know. Finally an officer waved me on. I slowly rolled up to the booth and leaned out of the window.
“OK, OK, keep going,” he said and kept waving me on. “Keep going, Florida,” he repeated when I hesitated. Then he turned to the car behind me and shouted: “Next!”