Goin' South

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.

After just a few hours with the Gulf Coast team, one thing is obvious: bounty hunting is a stressful occupation. By 5 a.m. Friday, the 4-Runner's ashtrays are overflowing with the remains of the bounty hunters' Marlboros, and we're nowhere near Ynocente Cruz yet. But we've been making good time since clearing Houston and are finally approaching McAllen on U.S. Highway 83 as it parallels the Rio Grande.

During the previous few months, Tracey and Gulf Coast Bounty Hunters have made several day trips to Reynosa, just across the river from McAllen, as well as to other border towns. About 80 percent of their business requires only quick jaunts across the Rio Grande, where a fugitive is nabbed -- sometimes thrown in the trunk of a car -- and then hustled back across the border.

This trip, though, is planned to be different. Bounty hunters, to put it charitably, are not universally admired by authorities on either side of the border, and are sometimes known to skirt the line of the law themselves. But Tracey has vowed to be aboveboard and play by the rules in the search for Ynocente Cruz, and besides, she may not have a choice in the matter.

Cruz is such a major pain in the butt -- dealing drugs, raising hell and living off his parents -- that relatives of his in Mexico telephoned her in Houston with his location -- Octolan de Morelos, a village southwest of Cuernavaca -- and requested that she please come get him, Tracey explains. But there are quite a few checkpoints between the border and Cuernavaca. It will take the cooperation of Mexican authorities to snag Cruz, then further cooperation to either get him past those checkpoints or on a plane back to Texas.

Tracey uses her computer extensively in her work, and before setting out had searched the Internet for the latest information about travel in Mexico. She was especially interested in checking for the sites of the most recent kidnappings of American tourists by Mexican outlaws, so we could steer clear of those hot spots. She also obtained information about the documents Americans traveling in their own vehicles are required to have before being allowed across the border. From what she had gleaned from the Net, Tracey is under the impression that all she'll need is her driver's license and proof of her ownership of the vehicle.

As the sun begins to rise over Reynosa, the 4-Runner pulls into the parking lot of a blue-and-white stucco building. Behind it are a half-dozen sheet-metal sheds where people are lined up four and five deep. As Tracey is passed from one shed and one official to the next, it becomes obvious that she needs additional documentation, such as a birth certificate. With Tony translating, an immigration official explains that we'll need to go back to McAllen and have Tracey swear to a notary public that she is a legal Texas resident.

It's now after 6 a.m., and we've been up for close to 24 hours. Even if we find a notary at this hour, there's no guarantee that what we bring back will satisfy the Mexican immigration official. Over breakfast at Denny's, the bounty hunters decide to forgo scaring up a notary and instead contact the commandant of a Reynosa law enforcement agency with whom they have done business in the past. (The bounty hunters will use this agency many times on this trip, and I had agreed before leaving Houston not to identify it.) After a phone call, Tony says the commandant will meet him at his headquarters. He'll do what he can do.

We cross the international bridge and begin searching for Saltillo Street, which, we hope, will lead us to the commandant's office. We are lost as soon as we exit the toll booth.

"Make a fucking left," Tony bellows at Tom, though he is gesturing for him to make a right. As Tom tries to interpret Tony's conflicting directions, Tony suddenly decides we should proceed straight. "Go, Tom! Keep going!"

"Maybe we should stop and ask the little birds," growls Tracey.
It's close to 8 a.m. by the time we locate the commandant's office. Inside the block-long building, a half-dozen tired-looking men are crammed into a small, dirty office. They have no official uniforms but are all clad in a sort of standard attire -- shirt sleeves, blue jeans, boots and a 9mm automatic pistol stuck in the waistband.

The officers don't seem especially glad to see us. We walk in uninvited, and Tony begins speaking in Spanish to the possessor of a pearl-handled pistol who has several tiny medical patches plastered inside his left ear. He says little, but suggests that our problems getting into Mexico might be due to the official-looking badge pinned on Tom's belt, which identifies him as a Gulf Coast Bounty Hunter. Many Mexicans are outraged over the beating of the two illegal immigrants by sheriff's deputies in Riverside, California, and probably aren't feeling too hospitable toward U.S. authorities, the officer explains. Tom puts the badge away for the moment.

Without much further discussion, the officer agrees to go back to the port of entry with us and walk us through. Cutting ahead of dozens of unamused tourists awaiting their travel documents, Tracey has her papers within 15 minutes. Our new friend even draws us a crude map on a piece of cardboard. He says it's the best route to avoid bandits along the way to Mexico City, where we hope to be by sundown.

After gassing up and exchanging some dollars for pesos, we are finally on the road again. For 15 minutes.

Twenty-two kilometers south of Reynosa is a checkpoint manned by more Mexican immigration officials. A soldier at the station waves us off onto the side of the road. We are all asked for our travel documents. After we explain that we thought that only Tracey needed the papers, he tells us to turn around and head back to Reynosa.

Serious depression is beginning to grip our little entourage. I suggest that perhaps we actually were in a terrible car accident on the trip down the night before, that we were all killed and that we've all gone to hell. No one laughs.

Back in Reynosa, the bounty hunters again turn to their Levi's-wearing, pistol-packing friends for help. But since we were last at their headquarters, there has been a change of shift and a whole new crew is on duty. Our story has to be retold from the beginning. Amazingly, two of the officers accompany us back to immigration and walk each of us through the documentation. (All we have are our Texas driver's licenses, and according to the Mexican consulate in Houston, we should have had our birth certificates, too.)

By 11 a.m., we're back at the 22-kilometer checkpoint. This time we are told to proceed. Six hours behind schedule, we are finally rolling. For about 60 seconds.

Behind us we see a patrol car in hot pursuit. We pull over. An armed and angry officer approaches the 4-Runner and explains to Tony that we have ignored a second checkpoint. He must now search our vehicle before taking us to jail. Tony kicks his Spanish into overdrive, and after poking around in a couple of our suitcases, the officer reluctantly sends us on our way.

For the next 11 hours we follow our homemade road map. I find out later that the three bounty hunters didn't bring a real map.

After being awake for close to 40 hours straight, I begin to feel sick. Tony and Tom switch off behind the wheel every few hours. The 4-Runner's shocks are no match for the Mexican highway, but I still catch occasional ten-minute naps that help ease my nausea. The cooler temperatures while driving through the Sierra Madres bring some added relief.

Day Two: Tony Has A Plan
"This is my city, mon!" howls Tony. He's got his Malcolm X cap turned backward as he guides the 4-Runner at 100 mph out of the hills and down into the polluted valley that is Mexico City. It's 3 a.m. Saturday.

Tracey and Tom are asleep in the back, but Tony's enthusiasm gets them stirring. All they want to do is get to the nearest cheap hotel. But as usual, they are pretty much at Tony's mercy, and he has other ideas. So we're given a 30-minute tour of his favorite spots around La Zona Rosa and the clubs where he used to perform.

Finally, Tony pulls into the driveway of Hotel El Cid, which is more expensive than Tom and Tracey had in mind. But at 280 pesos (about $40) each, it seems pretty reasonable, especially after you've been on the road for 28 straight hours without any real sleep. Tracey finally agrees that we'll check in, but says we have to be up in four hours.

And four hours later, Tom is knocking at my door. Over breakfast, it's agreed that Tony will try to locate an old friend who is some sort of director with the agency that helped us back in Reynosa.

The problem is, this is Easter weekend. By normal standards, the city is deserted. Not surprisingly, after two hours of phone calls and driving around in circles, Tony is unable to locate his old buddy.

Yesterday, Tracey had written off the problems and frustrations we encountered in trying to cross the border as part of the price of doing business as a bounty hunter. Today, it is becoming apparent that dealing with delusional jerks like Tony is also a part of that built-in overhead.

By now, the bounty hunters are way behind schedule. They had hoped to pick up one other fugitive besides Cruz before returning to Houston by Tuesday for a court appearance. No Cruz means no reward, and that means the trip will have cost Gulf Coast Bounty Hunters money, since they must foot their own expenses. Rather than waste more time looking for Tony's friend, Tracey decides we'll drive to Cuernavaca in the neighboring state of Morelos and try to persuade local officials there to help us.

Cuernavaca is about an hour south of Mexico City. The modern tollway between the two cities is smooth and cuts through hills covered with pine trees and igneous rock. Along the way, Tony hatches another plan. Just as I was getting the impression that Tracey and Tom were through listening to Tony, they actually agree to let him try to find another old friend -- someone who knows someone who knows the head of the Cuernavaca branch of the agency that helped them in Reynosa.

We arrive in Cuernavaca around 1 p.m. Saturday, but it takes about another hour to locate the home of Tony's friend Louis, which sits on a hill between a baseball park and a cemetery.

"If I wasn't already bald," says Tom, "Tony would cause me to lose my hair."
Tracey remains silent.
Another hour passes before the arrival of Louis' friend, a local radio talk show host. No one is surprised to hear the broadcaster doesn't know the official whom the bounty hunters need to meet. Tracey decides that our best bet is to pay a cold visit to the commandant's office. "We still have a position open for a Spanish-speaking interpreter," she mutters out of Tony's earshot.

Mercifully, the commandant's headquarters are easier to locate than Louis' house. Inside the first-floor office, several men sit at desks with Tandy computers taking statements from witnesses and crime victims. With Tony in the lead and doing all the talking, the four of us soon move to the head of the line of people waiting to talk to an officer. Leaning across a desk and gesturing with his hands, Tony explains the purpose of our visit. Surprisingly, given Tony's track record thus far, the officer escorts Tony to another office, where a dark-haired man in sunglasses and a flowered shirt shakes Tony's hand and offers him a seat. They shut the door.

Just outside the door is a cardboard box designed to hold 360 eggs but crammed instead with hard-packed kilo bricks of marijuana. A purple Tupperware bowl, a set of rusted scales and two crude rifles sit atop the box.

While I'm staring at the dope, Tony reappears and motions us to follow him and the guy with the sunglasses around the corner to yet another office, where we're introduced to a hard-looking, red-haired woman wearing a white lace dress. She sits behind a metal desk, rubbing her hands with lotion. The woman is the director of something, but of what we're not sure. Like my companions, she, too, is a devotee of Marlboros. Tony leans across her desk and lights her cigarette as he repeats to her the same story he has told the first two officials:

We are agents from Gulf Coast Bounty Hunters. (I am identified as a trainee.) We are here to find Ynocente Cruz, a Mexican national who was arrested for selling drugs in Houston but who has since fled back home and is now hiding out -- and possibly still selling drugs -- in her territory. Why not, Tony asks, help us arrest this man? Instead of incarcerating Cruz in a Cuernavaca jail at Mexican taxpayers' expense, why not help us get Cruz back to Houston? That way, Tony continues, Mexico gets rid of an undesirable at no cost. Everybody wins, he emphasizes, without going into detail about what's in it for the bounty hunters.

After a little more back and forth, the director smiles and then laughs. Tony winks at Tracey to let her know we're in business. At least we think we are. The director calls for one of her assistants, who returns with a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and the obligatory automatic pistol stuffed in the waistband of his faded Levi's. He is identified as the weekend commandant and motions us to follow him upstairs.

We take a seat, he takes a seat. Next to his desk is a scratched wooden gun rack holding eight Uzis, six automatic rifles, two tear gas guns and several canisters of tear gas. This is a man who's ready for something.

"What can I do for you?" he asks, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head. From the officer's body language, it's obvious that we still have some more explaining to do. For the fourth time in the past two and a half hours, Tony makes our pitch.

Thirty minutes later, the director nods his head in affirmation. But he has reservations: Tony later explains that the weekend commandant, like his counterparts in Reynosa, is upset over the beatings in California. He's also harboring some resentment over what he describes as a recent kidnapping by FBI agents of a Mexican citizen in Guadalajara. (Spokesmen for both the FBI and the Mexican consulate in Houston were unaware of any such incident.)

Even so, the commandant beckons to his assistant to bring in a set a files. He wants to help us catch Cruz, but wants our help in return. It seems that a wheelchair-bound man shot and killed a woman in Cuernavaca last year, then fled to Houston. The paraplegic is now suspected in another similar killing. If we'll help them, they'll help us. There are handshakes all around.

"The Mexican authorities love this kind of stuff," boasts Tony, confident now that his credibility has been restored. "They have people we want. We have people they want. There are no other bounty hunters that can come in here and do this!"

But as Tracey and Tom start planning to snag Cruz that evening, the commandant mentions just one more minor detail that must be addressed. Somewhat apologetically, he explains that he only has control over officers in Cuernavaca proper. Octolan de Morelos, where Cruz is thought to be hiding, is out of his jurisdiction. So, there is one more official we must see. But that should be no problem, he assures us. Tracey seems deflated, but stands by her decision to deal with the Mexican authorities in an aboveboard fashion, instead of just snatching the fugitive and making a run for the border.

"This far into the country, without their cooperation we ain't gonna get him out," she says. "Too many checkpoints. We'd end up in jail ourselves -- just like some other bounty hunters do."

It's now about 5 p.m. Our friend picks up the phone and places a call to the next official up in the Mexican law enforcement administration. Our consternation rises when we're told the district commandant is out on a mission but has agreed to meet with us at 8 o'clock that evening. By now, both Tom and Tony are ready to head to the village without any backup, but Tracey decides we'll wait. In the meantime, we have the first real meal we've had in about 18 hours and check the local maps.

Back at the commandant's office, we sit to plot a route to the village where Ynocente Cruz is supposed to have taken refuge. But on the map we consult, there is no Octolan de Morelos. Tracey says she located the village in an atlas before leaving Houston. She didn't bring the atlas with her.

No problem, says the commandant. Just give him the phone number that she has used to contact Cruz's relatives and he can have it traced to the right village. Since there is usually only one phone in each village, the number won't lead us directly to Cruz, but it will put us in his vicinity.

Unfortunately, the atlas wasn't the only item Tracey forgot to pack: she didn't bring the phone number, either. In a panic, she makes a flurry of collect long-distance calls back to Houston. But by now, it's close to 8 p.m. and time to meet with the district commandant.

Considering our luck thus far, it's hardly surprising that the district commandant is nowhere to be found when we arrive. Instead, we are greeted by his assistant, who bears a strong resemblance to the actor John Turturro. Here, Tony is required to explain our request twice more -- once to the assistant and then again as the assistant relays the information over the phone to his boss.

Through his assistant, the district commandant agrees to help us, but only if the bounty hunters let his men arrest Cruz. Basically, he wants what information we have and then for us to stay completely out of the picture. The commandant says to call him back when we pinpoint a better location on our prey.

The arrangement is not quite what she had hoped for, but Tracey has little choice other than to agree. Around 10 p.m. we head back to the local commandant's office -- where we felt a little more welcome -- to make more phone calls. The municipal commandant seems embarrassed when Tony tells him of how we never actually met with his cross-town counterpart. But he does have good news. While we were gone, one of Tracey's operatives in Houston called with Cruz's location. The operative said that he had let himself into the vacant apartment of Cruz's former common-law wife, where he found a letter from Cruz bearing an address that appears to be in Miacatlan -- not Octolan -- about an hour southwest of Cuernavaca.

While the bounty hunters check the map and make more calls, the local commandant is on the phone to the woman director we had met earlier in the day. Neither of them are pleased about the lack of reception we had received from the other commandant. In fact, the woman director has now called the other commandant to voice her displeasure. Another meeting has now been scheduled. We are to be back at his office at 10 a.m. Sunday.

It's now after midnight. We check into a cheap hotel, the Suites Zapata. The bounty hunters fear they are running out of time and have no desire for yet another meeting. Over a couple of beers by the pool, the first time since leaving Houston they've really taken a break, the trio decides to take matters into their own hands. Instead of meeting the next morning with the commandant, they decide that Tracey and Tony -- who will attract less attention than the four of us together -- will rise early and head to the village, locate Cruz, return in time for the 10 a.m. meeting, then head back to Miacatlan with the authorities from Cuernavaca.

Day Three: Coatlan, Not Miacatlan
We awake at 8 a.m. to the sound of church bells beckoning the faithful on Easter. Everyone has overslept. Tracey and Tony get dressed quickly and head for the door of our two-bedroom suite.

"Hey, Tom," yells Tony on his way out. "Don't smoke five packs of cigarettes while we're gone."

"I don't have five packs," replies Tom, in what sounds like an indirect acknowledgment of his concern over his wife's imminent departure for Miacatlan without him.

Three hours pass with no sign of Tracey and Tony. Tom smokes all the cigarettes he has, then goes out for more.

Tracey and Tony return to the hotel at noon. They were delayed by a flat tire. For all his macho and braggadocio, Tony apparently doesn't know how to fix a flat. Neither does Tracey.

Instead of trying to contact the commandant they were supposed to have met two hours ago, the bounty hunters return to Miacatlan, thinking that it might be better to deal with the authorities there rather than waste any more time in Cuernavaca. Or so they thought.

Preparations are under way for the evening's Easter fiesta when we get to Miacatlan, a village that doesn't seem to have progressed much beyond the 19th century when it comes to technological innovation. At the police station, a pudgy officer rises sleepily from one of three cots. Cowboy boots and duffel bags line the walls. Even Tony, who never seems to tire of talking, suddenly seems wearied by the thought of explaining our mission one more time. He should have saved his breath. The 90-minute meeting proves fruitless. This is Easter, the officer reminds us. It will not be possible to look for Ynocente Cruz today. Perhaps we could come back tomorrow.

"This country is so slow I could scream," Tracey says as we clamber back into the 4-Runner. There is now serious debate among the three bounty hunters. Each has a different plan. Tom wants to abandon trying to apprehend Cruz and head west to Morelia, where another bond jumper from Harris County reportedly is now residing. Tony wants to go back to Mexico City to find the friend he couldn't find yesterday.

Over the strong objections of Tom and Tony, Tracey decides we will go back to Cuernavaca and see if the commandant we were scheduled to meet with this morning would still be willing to help us.

"This trip is going to hell in hand basket," she says dejectedly. "At some point you have to cut your losses."

Then, strangely, things start to come together.
Back in Cuernavaca, Tracey checks by phone with one of her operatives in Houston and is given an update: Cruz, according to one of his friends in Houston, is living not in Miacatlan but in Coatlan del Rio, a village about ten miles from Miacatlan. Then the commandant says he will meet with us at 8 p.m. And after two hours of discussion with him, it finally seems as if we're going to get the support we have been seeking for the past three days.

The commandant assigns two men -- an armed prosecutor and an agent -- to accompany us to Coatlan. After 72 frustrating hours, we are actually going after the guy. The six of us squeeze into the 4-Runner, with me back in the cargo area with our bags.

Coatlan is much like Miacatlan. The police station is housed in a large white building that overlooks the town square, where an Easter celebration is in full swing. The police station is staffed by two young men carrying automatic rifles.

Inside the office, Tracey pulls out her manila envelope file on Ynocente Cruz. The locals claim to recognize Cruz and have the vague notion that he is trouble. They also like the idea of us taking him off their hands.

"This is the 5 percent of the time where things get interesting," says Tracey.

The only problem, explain the two young lawmen, is they aren't sure where Cruz lives. Tracey says she's been told he resides in a large ranch house not far from a pay phone. In a two-car caravan we go off in search of the phone.

The first pay phone we find is on the edge of another square, where several people are congregated. We park the cars in the shadows up the street. Tony walks back down the road with the officers while Tom, Tracey and I wait in the 4-Runner. They return within a few minutes. The area does not match the description.

Five miles up the road, we stop in front of a small, wood-frame grocery. The store is closed, but a sign indicates there is a phone inside. Near the store is a stone fence, and behind the fence, the policemen say, is a large house. On several occasions they've noticed armed men walking the grounds. Although they offer no proof, the local officers say they have always suspected that the inhabitants were members of the Mexican Mafia.

During a brief conference along the side of the road, it's decided that before we make our move we'll need further verification that Cruz does indeed live behind the stone wall.

After dropping the locals off at their headquarters, we start back to Cuernavaca. But just before we get to the main road, a car with flashing blue and red lights approaches us from behind. I can only wonder what trouble now awaits us. But as they emerge from the patrol car, we see that it's the two young rifle-toting amigos we had left behind in Coatlan.

Shortly after we left, the officers had picked up one of their snitches, who told them that, yes, Ynocente Cruz does live in the big house behind the fence and gave them the names of others who live there as well. The officers check their list of names against Tracey's. It's a match. They ask us to come back to headquarters with them so they can show Cruz's mug shot -- something Tracey remembered to bring with her -- to the informant.

Tom, Tracey and I are again asked to wait a half-block down the street. For entertainment, we watch as a friend of the informant's raises hell outside the station over the detainment of his buddy. People in the square eye us suspiciously. Each time a car passes by slowly, I find myself wondering if Cruz really is a member of the Mexican Mafia and knows that we are in town.

Tony and the officials from Cuernavaca emerge from the police station after 30 minutes and climb back in the Toyota with us. The informant has positively identified the man in the mug shot as Ynocente Cruz.

The house will be kept under surveillance for the evening. We will drive back to Cuernavaca tonight, and in the morning, the officers from Cuernavaca and Coatlan del Rio, along with Tony and Tracey, will go and take Cruz into custody. Tom and I must stay behind. I'm not exactly happy about the arrangement, but I don't have a vote. For some reason, I still have my doubts.

Tracey is optimistic. Obviously, we need the Mexican officials more than they need us. But she thinks they want to prove that they can do the job, that they want to show they have the wherewithal even if they don't have a lot of sophisticated equipment. She is also amazed by the time and energy they've devoted to helping us.

"Can you image three bounty hunters from Mexico going to the United States?" she says. "They'd have gotten the door slammed in their face and kicked in the ass."

The commandant is there to greet us when we arrive at the Cuernavaca headquarters at ten. His boss -- the director general -- is now back from Easter vacation. The director general, explains the commandant, would like to meet with us and hear our story before signing off on Cruz's arrest.

The commandant ushers us into the director general's office. Behind him is an unlabeled bottle of mescal, which for some reason he passes around for our inspection.

After some other initial pleasantries, Tony once again recites who we are, why we are here and what we want. By now Tony has learned to emphasize that we have no ties to U.S. officialdom. The information seems to please the director general, and he indicates that he really wants to help us. But what he needs is a request in writing -- something that looks official.

Tracey attempts to contact her office in Houston. No one answers, so she rings up bondsman Blackwood and explains that she needs him to send some sort of written request for assistance on his company's letterhead. Blackwood suggests that since I often write letters requesting information, Tracey should have me write something up, then fax it back to him. He'll put it on his stationary and fax it back to Cuernavaca.

On an old manual Underwood, I bang out about four paragraphs humbly requesting the Mexican government's assistance in helping us capture Ynocente Cruz. After Blackwood's fax arrives 45 minutes later, I can't help but laugh as Tony reads to the commandant the same words I wrote in the commandant's office an hour ago. But I don't laugh long.

After listening to Tony's interpretation of my words on paper, the commandant explains that the director general now believes it would be best if we lay out our plan to his boss, who is basically the head of the Mexican FBI back in Mexico City.

The bounty hunters are stunned. Instead of going after Ynocente Cruz, they are now facing the prospect of going back the way we came. Tom comes unglued.

"Don't you understand that people's lives are at stake?" Tom yells at the commandant, referring to alleged threats that have been made on people in Houston who informed on Cruz before his arrest. "People are going to get killed." Tom looks as if he is either going to cry or take a swing at the commandant. Tony tries to stay between the two.

"Times have changed in Mexico," explains the commandant. "Fifteen years ago, I could have done this without asking anyone. It's different now."

Paranoia strikes deep. Was he telling the truth? Or just covering his behind? Were he and the others protecting Cruz? Or were they just getting even, in their own small way, for the beatings in California and what may or may not have happened in Guadalajara?

Tracey slumps in a chair, too upset to talk. It's suddenly clear to all of us that -- for whatever reason -- Ynocente Cruz will not be accompanying us back to Houston. For all intents and purposes, this doomed trip is over. The Gulf Coast Bounty Hunters had tried something different. They had tried to do the right thing, to play by the rules, and they had failed.

"We should have just gone in there and got him, thrown his ass in the trunk and headed back for the border," declares Tracey. "Give me a border town any day."

I refrain from pointing out that the 4-Runner doesn't have a trunk.

Although they knew they were wasting their time, the bounty hunters actually went back to Mexico City that afternoon and managed to wrangle a 45-minute meeting with the Mexican jefe, who directed us to someone at the U.S. Embassy. That someone turned out to be on vacation.

The next morning, we finally did meet a guy who Tony had contacted. It wasn't the man he originally intended to find, but a friend of a friend. After hearing the sorry details of our four-day ordeal, that official expressed interest in helping us on this and future missions -- on one condition. To make sure we understood, he wrote it down on a piece of paper. "No FBI," it read.

And that pretty much was the end of our road. I caught a plane for home, the bounty hunters began the long drive back. Ynocente Cruz was still a free man.

But perhaps my faith should have been a little stronger.
Last Friday night, shortly after Continental flight 762 touched down at Intercontinental Airport, several armed men boarded the 737 and took away one of the passengers before the plane reached the Leland terminal. The man in their custody was Ynocente Cruz, who today is being held without bond at the Harris County Jail.

It seems that crazy trip did pay off in the end for Tracey, Edd Blackwood and the citizens of Harris County. About two weeks after we called it quits in Mexico City, Tracey got a call from one of the Mexican law enforcement contacts she'd made along our way, and soon thereafter, she and two of her employees were on their way back to Coatlan del Rio to help with the capture and transfer of her quarry.

"I was told that I couldn't do it this way," Tracey said after Cruz was back in jail. "Well, I did it anyway."



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