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5. Were you ever robbed?

Yes, on several occasions. But, mostly it happened when we brought in booze legally, years later with permits, etc. The cops and border officials operate as a team. They see a truck coming across the border with things of value and they radio gangs down the road to hit you. Sometimes it is just the cops looking for a mordida (a bribe), and other times everything you have gets jacked. It’s not a joke.

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7. Is it true that you once dressed as a priest to bring mezcal across the border?

Yes. I have a lot of bad ideas and when I’ve been drinking they seem like great ideas and I do them. Not always the wisest option. The sign outside the office door to my bar reads “Bad Idea Factory.” So yeah, one day, very early on, I was trying to bring 60 bottles or so across the border under a bus with a friend of mine, Lucas, and I dressed up like a priest. It happened like this. Lucas is a painter and a musician and a drinker. He’s a romantic mad man who looks like a cross between Salvador Dali, Pepe Le Pew, and Zorro. He has a pencil moustache twisted at the ends and slicked back hair. He also has a predilection for porno, which I was unaware of until the day in question.  

Any way, we had managed to get the mezcal as far as Tapachula, but now the trick was to get it out of Mexico. It was early in the morning and we had just taken an 11-hour bus ride from Oaxaca. During that ride Lucas had imbibed a bit, say a bottle or so of good mezcal. He was a bit sloppy. So I had a drunken Zorro on my hands as my partner in crime transporting mezcal. I was kind of fucked, in other words.

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7. (continued)

We also needed to buy some duffle bags to put the mezcal in and some cheap shirts and rags to wrap around the bottles. So at 7 a.m. we went to the market and bought bags. While there we came across a priest’s shirt hanging amidst the used clothing for sale. It’s a long story, but to cut to the chase Lucas encouraged me to buy the shirt and dress as priest when crossing the border. The more I thought about it the more it seemed like a good idea. I figured if I got questioned at the border and asked what was in my bags I’d just smile and say “Regalos para mis amigos and libros para los niños,” which means “Gifts for my friends and books for the children.”

Leaving Mexico was not a problem, but on the Guatemalan side, things went a bit sideways. Lucas, drunk off his ass, looking like Zorro, passed though no problemo. I on the other hand was stopped. Probably because I had so many duffel bags. The immigration official said, “Padre, que tiene en sus maletas?” (What do you have in your bags?) I responded with, “Regalos para mis amigos and libros para los niños.” He stared me down and said, “Abra su maleta.” (Open your bag.)

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7. (continued II)

I opened the bag he was pointing at figuring I’d have no real problem as we stuffed the bags with a lot of clothing and books at the top. Unfortunately, Lucas had packed this bag and had placed on top some pretty hardcore porn that he had purchased in Mexico. Actually it was not pretty hardcore it was very hardcore. The official was kind of shocked and I was too. My legs started shaking and I felt sweat pour down my back. “Que es eso?”(What is this?) the Official asked. I repeated, “Regalos para mis amigos and libros para los niños,” and then I realized the absurdity of it. The official just looked at me. “Esta bien?” I asked. He stared at me for another second and said very slowly, “Esta bien, Padre. Esta bien. Pasale. Pasale.”

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8. So this is where the name Ilegal Mezcal comes from?

Not entirely. I thought long and hard about the name, and yes the history of the early days made sense. But I also thought the name had significance on other levels. Many of the people we came to work with in Oaxaca had loved ones living illegally in the states because there was no work in Oaxaca. Some of the palenqueros were guys who lived in the states for years undocumented and then came back home to work. In Matatlan the dream of every teenager back in the 90s was to find their way to the states because you could not make money on a palenque. We worked with guys who had been “illegal.” So there was that connection, and it is one that drives at bigger issues that concern a lot of us: immigration reform, borders, surveillance, freedom, etc.