I've seen guns in Mexico before. The military guys are always packing, the Policia too. If anybody was "dressed to kill" and could put a little fear in your heart it should be these government guys. Typically, they're decked out in full tactical gear, they've got roadblocks set up with machine gun nests and armored Hummers and most ominously, they usually have those black masks with only eye and mouth holes obscuring their faces. But, strangely, all the roadblocks, weapons and even the black masks never bothered me- I always felt like those guys were out there protecting me; keeping me watertight, keeping my head attached.
It was the casual absence of all the typical battle accoutrement that set this guy apart. When his chubby pal stepped aside to let him swing out his long legs (perfectly timed, by the way, with my passing right in front of the open door) I saw (and believe me, these details are seared into my mind) a bright white pair of tennis shoes setting off dark blue jeans, long brown arms and, like an exclamation point, a bare chest covered by a black mesh assault vest. The vest held parallel rows of horizontally stacked ammo mags. It was the ammo that got my mind buzzing and like a super computer working in nano-time my brain started putting the details together: big, clean SUV, bullets- wait, guns and ammunition are illegal in Mexico... the only people who've got that stuff are the (brain clicking down an internal checklist) 1. Army. 2. Police.... 3. Chicos malos, traficante, bad guy... cartel.
Whoever it was, this guy was obviously outside the law. I've been surfing in Mexico for at least thirty years. I've heard, second or third hand, about banditos and bad deeds but I've never come face to face with anything unsavory down south. Here, undeniably, in my face I was looking at a bad guy. The embodiment of all the sensational violence I'd heard and read about was RIGHT HERE in my sphere of being- it was undeniable and hyper-real. I felt like I was in a dream world, the curtain had been pulled back and guess what? Oz was packin'! My vested friend uncoiled himself from the back seat and stood up. I watched his machine gun (it looked like super sized, black M-16) swing out behind him, barrel down, like a black viper hanging from a string around it's tail. The whole thing looped around his neck. As he moved, the rifle clocked towards me like a pendulum and I watched him put his hand on the weapon to control its path. Then he looked up at me.
Oh shit. I snapped my head down so fast that I honestly could not describe his face- I couldn't even make up a fictional one for you if I wanted- my mind was racing, my heart pounding. Over and over, my internal klaxon was screaming, "Danger, Danger... get us the eff out of here". How easy could it have been for him or his buddy to reach out with their hand, palm down on the fender of my vehicle, and halted me right there? Could I have disappeared that easily? Thankfully, I must have looked like a stupid surfer (I've been told that both of the groups fighting for control of the highway acknowledged that tourists are "off limits") because my little piece of shit Ford rental (thank God I didn't get the SUV that I'd requested) just burped a little when my foot involuntarily kicked a little and I lurched up the road.
Now, I know that some of you seasoned mainland guys out there will undoubtedly chalk me up as a pussy with a hyper-active imagination (actually, I'm a detail guy- I remember small things) and no understanding of local politics and the benevolence of the local drug lords (they've paid hundreds of thousandths of dollars to remodel churches and schools). And, I should say, the locals went on about their day, seemingly oblivious to the big, white SUV that remained parked in front of the hardware store for the next three hours (watching, patrolling?) the occupants reshuffled and reseated inside the thing.
And what did I do? I did the obvious thing, the surfer thing. I found the mango lady, hid behind her little pyramid of bullet proof fruit and sent a kid up the road for a six pack of Indio. For the next three hours I remained very still. I figured if there was a big black viper up the road- it wouldn't see me... unless I moved.