Goin' South

I learned many things when I accompanied a trio of bounty hunters to Mexico to fetch a fugitive drug suspect. Foremost among them: never leave your map at home...

Aside from the headlights of our Toyota 4-Runner, there is little illumination along the narrow, dusty road leading into the village of Coatlan del Rio in south-central Mexico. The hot line of a forest fire on a nearby hill, small torches keeping the crops warm in the fields and a candlelight procession of cross-bearing true believers provide the only other faint light on this Easter Sunday night.

Me, I'm beginning to have my doubts, and not about whether Jesus actually emerged from behind that rock two millennia ago. My more pressing reservations concern the ability of my spine to withstand another of the jolts that send me bouncing each time the 4-Runner crosses an unmarked traffic hump, or policia durmiendo -- the sleeping policeman -- at 60 mph.

I'm also having serious second thoughts about the wisdom of my decision to travel deep into the interior of Mexico with three tightly wound and somewhat disorganized bounty hunters who are in search of a fugitive named Ynocente Cruz.

The events that have brought us to the outskirts of Coatlan del Rio began in March of last year, when Cruz was detained for running a stop sign in the Heights and wound up arrested and charged with manufacturing and intending to deliver 400 grams of cocaine. The ex-convict was released from jail under $75,000 bond, then forfeited the bond after failing to show for a court date last July.

Considering the ocean of coke that flows through Houston, Cruz is hardly Public Enemy No. 1 for local authorities. In fact, nobody in Houston is particularly interested in seeing Cruz returned, except for bail bondsman Edd Blackwood. Although Blackwood supposedly was given some collateral for posting Cruz's bond, he stands to lose a sizable portion of the $75,000 if Cruz isn't brought back to Harris County. The bounty hunters, if they're successful, can collect 20 percent of the bond from Blackwood.

It was Blackwood who posted bond for record producer Huey P. Meaux earlier this year, after Meaux had been arrested on drug and child pornography charges. Like Meaux, Cruz is believed to have headed south of the border after taking flight. So Blackwood has employed the same bounty hunters who successfully tracked Meaux for him: an outfit called Gulf Coast Bounty Hunters, owned by a woman from La Porte named Tracey. She's agreed to take me along for the ride on the condition that I don't use last names or report details she considers too sensitive.

For three virtually sleepless days, Tracey, her husband Tom and Tony, a hyperkinetic Jamaican who serves as their muscle and interpreter, have alternately traveled at breakneck speed and endured sanity-threatening delays while attempting to circumnavigate the seemingly unfathomable ways of the Mexican law enforcement bureaucracy. Since leaving Houston, almost anything that could go wrong has. The trip has not been going as planned. But now, supposedly, Ynocente Cruz is almost within our grasp, somewhere down the dusty road into Coatlan del Rio.

Day One: Border Crossing
We are already three hours behind schedule when we finally hit the road out of Houston at 11 p.m. on Holy Thursday. For some reason -- most likely travelers trying to get a jump on the Easter weekend traffic -- U.S. Highway 59 is unusually busy at this late hour. It's foggy outside, as well as inside the 4-Runner, where Tracey, Tony and Tom are inhaling Marlboro 100s as if they're on some pre-cancerous mission to personally spite the Surgeon General.

Forty-six-year-old Tom is the heaviest smoker of the trio. Balding and with substantial sideburns, he and Tracey met in 1991 at a bar on Old Galveston Road and married two years later. Tom has worked at a chemical plant for 26 years, but he began moonlighting as a bounty hunter last year after accompanying Tracey on a couple of stakeouts.

Although he does his share of talking, Tom is an introvert next to tall, muscular Tony, who claims to have once performed as a calypso singer in Mexico under the name Tony Banana. Tony talks almost nonstop, constantly interrupting Tom and Tracey with his self-glorifying observations on the bounty hunting business -- a line of work in which he has about three months' experience.

"This Cruz," says Tony, poking me in the shoulder. "I can smell this fucking guy. He is mine, man."

From the front passenger seat, Tracey rolls her eyes in a silent suggestion that I should not put much stock in the running commentary of my back-seat companion.

Tracey is 30, but with her freckled face, pageboy haircut and tiny frame, she could pass for a high-schooler. There is, however, no question that she's the boss of this expedition. Tracey's the only member of the outfit with any real experience tracking fugitives. Wearing a blue Cowboys jersey, jeans and bone-colored boots, she blames her grandfather for both her devotion to Dallas' NFL franchise and her interest in bounty hunting.

"The original bounty hunters were the Texas Rangers," she says. "I was raised by my grandfather, and he was an Old West history buff. Plus, I've just always been a nosy person."

Good nose, bad wheels. Tracey wanted to become a cop, but couldn't meet the physical requirements because of arthritic knees. Without going into detail, she says she got an actual taste of the hunt ten years ago when military officials asked for her cooperation in locating a friend who was AWOL. After that, she did a little private investigating and freelance bounty hunting. That came to a brief end after she and Tom were married and tried to start a family. But last year, Tracey turned from trying to make babies to hunting bond jumpers.

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