In the U.S. the idea of a military checkpoint is foreign, and comes with images of men walking around with machine guns dressed in camo. We were afraid. We wondered what the experience would be like. As gringos, would they give us a hard time? Would they want something from us?
We hit our first military checkpoint just outside of Tijuana when we first crossed the border four weeks ago. There were signs to let us know to slow down and that we were entering a checkpoint area. A short line of cars was stopped and we joined at the back of it. My heart rate went up just a little as we got closer to the guards. It is a formidable scene to see a pack of strong, young Mexican men dressed from head to toe in tan camouflage, some with artillery helmets and many of them carrying machine guns and other weapons.
In our time here, we’ve learned that there is a wide range in how each checkpoint is set up. Some are very simple with barely more than orange construction cones to announce them. Others are elaborate fortresses with bunkers built into the sand banks. One of them even has a spike strip on a length of rope which, if needed, could be pulled across the road abruptly to stop a run-away vehicle.
There has also been a wide range in the level of questioning and searching we have received from the officers. Mexico has a mandatory military service for young men and typically these are the guys that are operating the checkpoints. In all of our checkpoints so far (I would guess around 15 of them) we have had absolutely no issues. On the drive south we were not even asked to get out of our car; that practice is saved for those traveling north on Baja Highway 1. With drug trafficking, the illegal contraband flows from south to north into the U.S. so that is where the effort is focused.
Typically heading north they ask where we have come from, where we are going that day, and if we are on vacation. The search consists of them opening the glove box, our cooler, searching under the seats, and occasionally in a bag if it’s open and convenient and easy to look at. They also tap on the insides of our doors sometimes looking for audio clues of perhaps some contraband stored in hidden compartments. We have been welcome to stay and watch them do the whole search and the mood is typically very casual. The whole process takes 3-5 minutes and so far we haven’t had to wait more than ten minutes in a line.
For the most part, the military personnel are very smiley and are drawn to Terra, with her big, beautiful blue eyes. So far we are typically flagged through with kindness and well wishes. I have no fears of the military checkpoints anymore.