In the early 1970's Laredo was a place of intrigue. The Laredo Chamber of Commerce promoted the title, "The Gateway to Mexico," and that's exactly what it was. A vast amount of the business endeavors between those two nations funneled through Laredo, and much of it flowed across The Old Laredo Airport. Some of this activity was legal, some was not. Some was within the limits of the laws of one nation, but not the other. Some was clandestine, some was open.
Into the U.S. came liquor, gold, narcotics, illegal aliens, mercury, lime oil, and exotic game. Into Mexico went guns, T.V. sets, VCR's, calculators, computers, radios, ballpoint pens, auto parts, kitchen utensils, ladies underwear, and any number of other consumer items.
It was against U.S. law to import liquor (taxes were unpaid), gold, and illegal aliens. It was against Mexican law to export mercury and lime oil. But once the mercury or lime oil was on U.S. soil, it was no longer against the law. Once in America, the mercury was readily marketable for medical and industrial use.
Lime oil was taken from citrus fruits of some kind. I don't think it was taken from limes. In fact, I'm not sure I am pronouncing the name correctly. It was often referred to as "line oil." It was used in the manufacture of perfume, and perhaps other things. I don't know why it was against the laws of Mexico to export it from their country. I never learned very much about this business, although I have seen it many times unloaded from an airplane parked on The Old Laredo Airport. It was usually shipped in 30-gallon drums. Although I never learned much about it, I did have a standing offer to haul it across the border in a Cessna 206. I was told that this was about a two-hour flight, round-trip, and paid the pilot $500 per load.
It was against everybody's laws to ship guns into Mexico. I never saw a shipment of guns. But I know that from time to time they moved across The Old Laredo Airport.
It was against Mexican law to import TVs, computers, VCR's, clothing, and countless other consumer goods without paying import taxes that often ran as high as 100 percent. The ability to buy goods at one price, fly them into Mexico without paying the import taxes, and sell them for double that price, made a mighty fine living for quite a few pilots wanting to engage in a little free enterprise.
Over the years, I had numerous offers to fly these goods deep into Mexico. I would loved to have done it. Those trips flying into Aguascanlientes, Guadalajara, the mountains of central Mexico, and as far south as the Yucatan, would have made wonderful adventures, and paid many times more than I ever made as a crop-duster pilot. But I never did it.
This activity was locally known as "The Mexican Export Trade", and it had existed for many years prior to the arrival of America's "drug problem" that exploded in the 1960s.
Although I never got into the "Mexican Export Trade," about half my pilot friends were. This was a natural occupation for men who had been engaged in high-risk flying elsewhere, and it was just a matter of time until several of my old friends from S. E. Asia began to show up. These were pilots from Air America, Continental Air Service, and USAF Air Commando units who had made a career flying in CIA-sponsored clandestine operations. Very few of these ex-military pilots became involved in the drug trade, nor were they tolerant of those who did.
The arrival of the drug trade rankled the old border hands. They were angered that the drug trade had given a bad name to the "honest smugglers".
Bob had done a little smuggling for several years. Anytime things got slow in the crop-dusting business, he'd load up a Cessna 180 or an old Twin Beech and head for some dirt landing strip deep in Mexico.
When I said that I did not get involved in illegal flying in Mexico, I wasn't being strictly accurate. I did do a little flying down there that wasn't legal, but it wasn't hauling consumer goods, or moving dope, or transporting illegal aliens. It was just plain old crop-dusting.
It wasn't uncommon for some Mexican farmer to show up on The Old Laredo Airport in search of a pilot to spray his crops. It was a simple matter to load up a load of insecticide, fly over the river, and follow a map to the farmer's field. I would spray the crop, usually cotton or grain, without a flagman, and fly right back to Laredo without landing.
On a couple of occasions I picked out a landing strip down there and made several loads without returning back across the river. But I didn't like doing that. I was fully aware that if I ever had difficulties of any kind, even a simple flat tire, the Mexican authorities could pick me up and I might never be able to get my airplane back home. I might have had difficulties getting myself back home.
After a couple of minor scrapes I quit making landings across the river and just made the long ferry flights out of the Old Laredo Airport. The biggest problem I had with these flights was with the U.S. Customs Service. I had made the mistake of flying across the river within sight of the airport, and customs agents were soon all upset about my "exporting" farm chemicals into Mexico without the proper export license, customs declaration, or international flight plan.
Soon they were wanting me to submit my aircraft for inspection before every take-off, and fill out elaborate customs declaration forms. They also wanted me to give them "at least one hour' advanced notification prior to re-entry into American airspace, and to "taxi the aircraft directly to the U.S. Customs Inspection Area immediately upon landing."
I solved this problem by doing all my Mexico spraying out of a little dirt strip outside of Zapata, and crossing the river well out of sight of anybody but an occasional wetback walking along the river.
But there really wasn't much money in those little trips into Mexico, and there was much to lose if I got caught. I never really tried to get this business, and for the most part, I only sprayed as a favor to some Mexican farmer who was about to be put out of business by the boll worms or aphids.
I always looked forward to spending a little time each year at The Old Laredo Airport. But I was always glad when it was time for me to leave. I liked it better out in the brush country, or in one of the little farming communities up along the Nueces, or the Frio, or the Atasacosa. I felt more at home in those little towns just taking care of my own business, and without a lot of people around wanting to recruit me into some "lead-pipe-cinch" enterprise that was guaranteed to make us all rich. I just liked being out by myself, and doing the job that I really liked best of all, even if it never did make me a pot of money.
So each year I came to Laredo to fly the brush, or to do some spraying on the farms out along the river, but I never stayed for long. I would soon grow tired of sitting around in the back of an old hangar, living on Bar-B-Q and beer, and listening to wild stories and faded dreams until the small hours of the morning. It was a life I grew weary of when I was there, and grew homesick for when I stayed away too long.
An old pilot once told me that The Old Laredo Airport had entirely "too much dreaming, too much drinking, too much smuggling, and too much lying."
I guess he was right.