|My father, John Bédard, retired from US Customs in 1990 after a twenty year career and a nine-year stint working for Canadian Immigration. He made Time Magazine. This is John’s advice to a new US Customs officer on how to survive the San Ysidro / Tijuana border port of entry.
No one ever accused my father of suffering fools. One of the victims (yes victims) of Trump’s actions is the actual personnel on the ground who have to implement the law. Law enforcement personnel want to come home after their shift. This short story, comes from a book written by John, Border Guards . This is the second in a series of stories I’ve published inspired by Border Guards.
San Ysidro, California
Some people are born to climb mountains – others to make the climbing tools. Me?
I am a US Customs Senior Inspector in the employ of the US Department of the Treasury – a GS-11. I assure you that, after a Supervisor reads this, I will retire a GS-11 (or even a GS-9).
I’ve disarmed more bad asses than I care to remember. I’ve been punched, chased with knives and scissors, had rocks and God knows what other projectiles thrown at me.
I’ve stuck my fingers on needles a half dozen times in the last ten years, patting down addicts. (I’ve felt cold sweat bead on my spine when later told, sometimes in jest, that the works I stuck myself on belonged to someone later found to be infected with AIDS.)
As for the times I’ve been insulted, those don’t count anymore. What verbal abuse I’ve heard has only equipped me with a choice repertoire of sophisticated insults. I use these “as moved by the spirit,” as my long dead father used to say.
The Line at San Ysidro – Primary
Everyone asks why the Line is so slow. It’s not unheard of to wait for two, even three hours getting through from Tijuana to San Ysidro across the Line. It’s a busy port of entry, the busiest on the west coast.
Cars jockey in and out of their lanes, playing inspector lotto, hoping that another Primary inspection booth will be opening, driving into San Ysidro. The car backup creates a carbon monoxide cloud that hangs everywhere, continually replenished by more idling cars, queuing by the minute. Vendors, some established, others street urchins fresh from the Mexican interior or points south, go from car to car, offering whatever they can to the turistas on their way home.
Questions for the traveler
“What kind of traveler are you, Mister? It would save us both time if you would just give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ to the following questions. I know the odds are that you are one of the honest 95% going through the Line today, but you will agree that someone has to take care of the other 5% who might be up to no good.
“Don’t take offense – understand that I am just doing my job.
“Were you in Mexico for a few hours only ‘Just looking,’ or are you coming back from the Tijuana Airport and other points south?
“Are you in the business of bringing in food items, clothing, for the big family you have at home or are you making four, six, or eight trips a day, stockpiling the items locally, pending your next run north to LA?
“Do you have anyone in the trunk? And will you try to tell me in a few minutes that you ‘just don’t know how they got there’ and that ‘the bastards are using your blankets, too?’
“Are you a reported narcotics user? A dealer? Or are you just a mule with the two or three hundred dollar bills in your pocket you got paid to carry the contraband across?
“Are you hauling a load under the hood, driving a stolen car or have you been reported as ‘Armed and Dangerous?’”
Do you see now, why the Primary Line is slow? It’s a constant search for the few who need to be triaged and sent to Secondary Inspection.
I learned young to communicate with anyone; prince or pauper. I learned how to see eye to eye, or at the very least, get some glimmer of comprehension out of someone, quickly.
I don’t mind doing business with the honest crook, the ex con, the type who knows that I know the con, the sort that tells me that he is clean and shows me his parole or jail release slip to prove the point.
Treat people with respect and keep everything safe until you know where you stand. Crooks are always more predictable than the amateurs.
I don’t believe in using physical force on anyone, as such is considered unacceptable, whether one is dealing with a guilty party or not. Violence on someone in general leaves marks and the simplest complaint, the bending of a drunk’s arm, or the restraining of an asshole under the influence of angel dust calls for endless reports, pictures, even lawsuits.
Circumstances permitting, I am never above using mental cruelty, if it helps the cause.
Today, I’m the man who has to size everyone up and decide who might be part of the small minority, the less than 5% sent on to Secondary.
California attracts people who are on the lam. Whether running from a bad marriage in Chicago, or a bank heist in Montréal they make it to Southern California. They figure they are close to Tijuana and they decide to drive down from LA and experience the so-called hot Mexican action everyone talks about back home. They are compelled to drive down and see for themselves.
Wish to God people would think more about the benefits of Hawaii before insisting on Tijuana. When our customer returns to the US side from Mexico, having been frequently taken for a good part (or all) of his money, often under the influence of alcohol, drugs, if not both, and in a fine mood, I am the man who greets him coming back into the USA.
An Inspector has to be able to quickly sort out the hard-core criminal from the eccentric. He has to be smarter or at least as clever as his clients or he (or she) courts trouble.
Bad asses are out there waiting to size you up, to take advantage of any weakness, real or perceived, if given any chance. If you have the capacity for the job you will survive, but if you feel you don’t, either find a way to get it fast or get out now. You can’t operate here without the proper tuning.
You can decide to wave everyone right through your station and into the US if you wish. Some inspectors have been doing it for years, never getting complaint letters, yet never accomplishing a thing, either.
One of the inspectors, while working the Primary Line was always using the same vehicle license plate number to query the TECS system. Why? Because having found a clean plate number, he no longer had to worry about confronting any known smugglers, National Crime Information Center (NCIC) fugitives, armed and dangerous persons, and others.
He was doing great for himself and working easy shifts. No one locally at the port of entry smoked him out, until the TECS folks downtown began to wonder why a particular vehicle was making an unprecedented number of entries into the United States.
This caused an issue at the District level, spawning a problem desperately in need of a solution. Promoting the man to supervisor solved the problem.
To become a supervisor, be useless as an inspector, at least that seems the way to go. It’s also a great way to end your career, with a triple or quadruple bypass, as a supervisor.
Supervisors are great at reminding us what we can and cannot do, but remember, they seem to go missing when things to wrong. If they offer advice, don’t listen to what they have to say because so many are clearly on the job for the paycheck, and the paycheck only.
Few of our leaders have stared down our problems.
Me? I deal with armed and dangerous at least once a month. My superiors are never short of paper, writing fancy guidelines on when I can and cannot draw my gun, but I don’t take their say too seriously. They are just covering their you-know-what, in case something goes wrong. When it comes down to brass tacks, it is between the subject and I, and I will do it my way.
You know the old saying about being carried by six or judged by twelve? In my case, it is said behind my back, that the number would be seven. I will let you guess what number seven would be doing.
You may find Mister Supervisor missing when things go wrong. He will be in hiding somewhere. I have caught one hiding in a stall, standing on a toilet bowl.
Another Supervisor characterized his sudden exit while one of his inspectors was lying on his back in the secondary lot getting thumped by two customers, as “running for help.”
Coming back on what you can do and cannot do, just remember this. Never bring others into your little drama. Simply stated, you can do anything you want as long as there are no witnesses.
The fact that your best pal is next to you does not count here. Just forget it. It is not fair to put him (or her) in a situation where he will have to swear that “Yes, he did,” or “No, he did not” do or say this or that. Your coworkers deserve better.
Internal Affairs agents, doing their investigating, will give you the old jazz about a fair shake but you should take what they say with two large grains of rock salt. All things being equal, management signs their paychecks, not your union.
You must not show fear.
I can be someone I’m not. I can lie like a thief when I must. I can exceed the craziness of the craziest on command.
The only way you pull this off is by convincing yourself that you do not fear. Once you get to that certain point where you believe that you do not fear, you have it made. Until you find that talent within you, you are just like everybody else.
You fear, and when you fear, people, like animals, smell these odors emanating from your body. When they do, just remember that they have the up on you.
You are facing an irate customer, a psycho, a madman, a really bad hombre looking for trouble. What choices do you have now? You back off and unless you move away, and fast at that, you are going to get hurt. So what do you have to lose by listening to me, my man?
You must be an actor, able to switch and cope in three seconds flat, from a normal to an explosive situation, and back and forth as needed, as the job requires.
I learned long ago that the only thing a mentally impaired person fears, is an encounter with another person who is crazier.
Armed and dangerous
Working Primary, nothing gets my juices flowing more than entering a license plate number and having the words “armed and dangerous” pop up on my computer screen.
It is the moment of truth, the same one you read about in bullfighting or on the battlefield. You handle it wrong once and it’s your last inspection. It’s time for the show.
There he sits, hands on the wheel of his car, motor idling and ready to give it the gas and run me over if he smells anything wrong. Will he pull a pistol from the glove box? From under the driver’s seat?
Me? I’m scared, but I can’t show it. If any aspect of my behavior or tone changes, he picks up on it and what then? This is when I talk sweet and fast, going at it overtime, trying to give my man no time to think.
He has not finished answering my first question when I ask him to please turn off his engine and take the keys out of the ignition. I am making double sure to ask if he is complying with the various liquor, agricultural, customs, San Diego municipal . . . any kind of law I can blurt out and carry on about, anything to stall and get him to the next step.
I ask him at some unexpected moment to flip open the glove box and then the car trunk, and to please get out of the car. As soon as he steps out of the car, he is mine, if he steps out.
He opens the door and gets out.
I have him and am wasting no time in letting him know it. From being a Mister a minute ago he is something else now, about to be spread-eagled against his car.
“Hands on the hood and keep them there or you are f’ing dead,” I scream at him, my pistol drawn.
He gets the idea. Pretty much everyone does.
My procedure is not exactly what the man in Washington has put down on paper for us to follow, and what my local supervisors have passed on, but my way seems to work.
I’m still alive.
 This was written well before the predominance of closed circuit TV in throughout the Port facilities. Angel dust, also known as PCP was sprinkled on or rolled into a tobacco or marijuana cigarette.
 John Bédard worked for both Canada and the United States in places like the Port of Montréal, Lacolle, Québec, Windsor, Port of San Diego, San Ysidro, and Otay Mesa. He appeared in Time Magazine in 1981 as a result of his investigation into counterfeit Cartier watches being routed through the Port of San Diego.
 The Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS) was the system US Customs inspectors used to check on car and truck license plates as they came up to the Line.
 I’m guessing that the seventh would be supervising the other six.
 All the people brought up by my father are long retired from the US Customs or US Immigration Service. My father always had a hate / hate relationship with the supervisors on the job. He had their grudging respect because of his US Customs chops, but I’m not sure he ever knew (or met) one he liked.
 John carried a .38 caliber service revolver. He kept it loaded with hollow point bullets, which were not sanctioned. He used to have five regular bullets handy in case of a pending inspection. His rationale was that a regular load would do nothing to stop a crazed 300lb person charging at you. To my knowledge, he never had to discharge his gun on the job but he must have drawn down a few dozen times in his career on the border.
About the Author
John Bédard served in the Royal Canadian Merchant Navy from 1942 to 1950 and the Royal Canadian Armed Forces from 1950 to 1953. He worked with Canadian Immigration for ten years before immigrating to the US in 1964. From 1964 to 1969 he worked as a janitor in a juice factory, a women’s shoe salesman, and a grocery store security guard. As soon as he became an American citizen (and eligible to carry a gun) he was accepted into the US Customs Service, where he retired as a Senior Inspector after 20 years of service, including a 2.5 year tour in Laos as an advisor starting in 1972. The majority of his time with US Customs was spent at the Port of San Diego and the San Ysidro Port of Entry. John retired in 1990 and passed away in 2012 at the age of 87.