You've probably heard the stories about Mexican bordertowns and steroids. Just cross the border and, like a kid in a candy store, you can buy anything your enlarged heart desires. But you've probably heard the dark side of the story, too; stories about getting popped at the border, ratted out by the pharmacist, jumped in alleys, and robbed by the cops. Which is true? We sent Chris Shugart across the border to check it out.
"Where I go I just don't know, I might end up somewhere in Mexico." Red Hot Chili Peppers
Staring at the pool of dried blood on the sidewalk, the title of this article came to me as if whispered in my ear by someone else: Juarez has two faces.
Here, like in many third-world countries, the reflective tourist has a sense of duality, a feeling of playing two roles at once. On one hand, he's a king, a Caucasian conqueror that's waited on hand and foot. On the other, he's prey, the naïve traveler with a camera that's worth three month's salary to some bordertown resident who can't decide whether to help him with directions or cut him.
On the street called 16 De Septiembre, the two faces of the city are readily apparent. One minute you're in the slums – burned out buildings, graffiti, poverty, and yes, even a large pool of coagulated blood – but walk a hundred feet farther down the street and you'll see mirrored high rises, malls, stunning museums and schools full of uniformed students.
Beautiful Mexican women in fine clothes, begging children, shiny new Land Rovers, and half-naked, mentally disturbed drunks begging for a sip out of your water bottle... You see this in every city of course, but here you can see it all on one street, all at the same time.
Bienvenidos a Ciudad de Juarez.
When the skinny Mexican with the silver tooth knocked on my window, I thought he was either going to rob the four of us or try to sell us cigarettes. He may have been contemplating both. The traffic was ugly, horns were blaring, and venders were everywhere hawking their goods and services. We'd been in Mexico only thirty seconds and already I regretted driving across. The silver-toothed man knocked on my window again. I just mouthed "no thanks" and tried to ignore him. He kept knocking.
Crossing the border into Mexico from El Paso, Texas, is so fast you're left a bit shell-shocked. The contrast is immediate. One minute you're in the US, the next you're in a foreign country. The laws are not the same, there is no Bill of Rights, and you can never say, "This can't be happening to me! This is America!" No, it's not. And in case you don't realize this, you'll pass under a huge sign that reads, "YOU ARE LEAVING THE UNITED STATES. NO FIREARMS." It's a bit abrupt for the first timer.
Before we left, we'd decided to walk into Mexico and just park the Yukon in the States. Juarez, like all Mexican bordertowns, has a bad reputation. When I told people I was planning on driving into Mexico, I received the same dire warnings:
"Chris, you'll get that thing stolen. Don't even think of driving across!"
"Better check with your insurance company and see how they handle theft cases in foreign countries."
"If the citizens don't steal your car, the police will!"
Yep, just like in the movie Traffic. I wondered if this were true or just a stereotype based on racist views of Mexican culture. Still, it had me worried and I thought it better to park in the US and walk across. But after taking the exit to the bridge, missing a couple of turns and having to work our way back, we didn't see any parking areas near the border. I'm sure they were there, but given the traffic and the snarl of twisting overpasses and roads, we just said "screw it" and drove on into Mexico...
...where we met Hilario. Knocking on my window. Persistently. Finally, I gave up and rolled it down. His English was broken but pretty good.
"Where you go?" he asked with the enthusiasm of a drug addict needing a hit.
"Hotel Lucerna," I said.
"I show you!"
"No, that's okay. We can find it."
"No! I show you! Follow me!" And off he went on his ten speed bike, waving us on. We'd been in Mexico under a minute and we had a tour guide. Great. We followed him across the city, a huge black Yukon XL tailing a 95-pound grifter on a ratty bike. It was almost funny.
We arrived at the hotel and gave Hilario three US dollars for his services, equivalent to about 30 pesos. He immediately asked for two more in a not-so-polite manner. We gave it to him.
"What else you need? I help you!" he says, polite again.
"No, we're fine. Thank you for your help," I told him.
"Where you want to go? What you want to do?" he persists. Then, sticking his head in the window and spotting 230 pound T-mag contributor Cy Willson in the passenger seat, his face breaks into a huge grin, revealing an ornate star carved into his silver tooth.
"Ah, you work out?" He flexes his nonexistent muscles and mimes a "most muscular" pose. "You want steroids? What you want? Sustenon 250? Deca? Winstrol? I take you there! You want to go to veterinaria? Pharmacia? I show you!"
Less than ten minutes into Mexico and we had a source for gear. But we'd already passed several pharmacies on the way in so Hilario's services really weren't needed. Paying someone to help you find gear in Mexico is like paying someone to point out the naked women in a strip club. So we dismissed Hilario, checked into the hotel, and prepared to do a little shopping.
Into the Streets
Juarez contains almost two-million people. This makes it the fourth largest city in Mexico. It sits in the state of Chihuahua, the largest of Mexico's thirty-one states, though most of it is desolate. The city itself is pretty spread out, so you'd think El Paso was larger just driving through, but actually, Juarez has twice the population of its sister city in the US.
As it turned out, Hotel Lucerna was in a great location. Close by were several of the nicer restaurants, some American fast food places like KFC and McDonald's, the hottest nightclubs, movie theatres, and a couple of pharmacies. There was even a bullfighting ring nearby, though there were no fights the weekend we were there.
At 79 bucks a night, Hotel Lucerna was a pretty good deal since it was a five star, mints-on-your-pillows hotel. A similar hotel in the states would run you at least 200 a night. (The mints come in handy, too, especially if members of your party happen to be drinking Reforvit-B.) The parking lot looked pretty safe. There was only one exit and you had to pass through a guard's station to get out. I felt a little better about leaving my truck in Mexico for three days. We decided to walk and taxi everywhere we wanted to go.
To really get into the thick of things, it's best to get a taxi (trust me, they'll find you before you find them) and tell the driver to take you downtown or to the Cathedral. Ten minute taxi rides cost the four of us eight bucks a pop, though I have a feeling that in many cases we were getting the "gringo price."
In the Cathedral area you'll find yourself in the beating heart of the city, surrounded by venders, markets, the smell of cooking food, and of course, pharmacias galore. My assignment on this trip was simple: look around, check out the drug scene, have fun. It was time to get to work.
Tylenol, Tampons, and Testosterone
This was my first trip into Mexico as an adult and although we were only a stone's throw away from the US, I experienced a little culture shock as soon as we walked into a pharmacy. Most of them had signs advertising the usual stuff like Centrum, Bufferin, and baby food, but right there among them were signs for Humatrope, Halotestin, Primobolan, Deca and Sostenon 250. It was like being in some weird alternative universe for juicing bodybuilders where Advil and Anavar were sitting together on the same shelf.
The roids are actually kept behind the counter along with the other pharmaceuticals, but all you have to do is ask for what you want. Usually you can just look over the counter and read labels. Most places have everything in alphabetical order. Very convenient.
We learned a couple of things immediately. First, you may have heard that sometimes the pharmacist will ask for a prescription. As the story goes, if you don't have one, you'll be sent to a nearby doctor who'll write one for a small fee. Well, these days, in Juarez at least, that's total bullshit. We entered dozens of pharmacies, from nice high-end ones to ratty discount stores that smelled funny, and were never asked for a prescription. Getting roids was as easy as buying condoms and breath mints.
I admit I was a little nervous the first time we walked into a pharmacy. It was like the first time I purchased insulin syringes back in Texas. I knew it was legal, I knew there was nothing wrong with it, but I felt nervous and shifty, like I was going to be grilled and interrogated. In the case of buying syringes, I've been grilled a few times by pharmacists, but as I soon learned, there was no need to be embarrassed or nervous about buying gear in Mexico.
We waited in line and when it was our turn Cy asked for Sostenon 250. The worker had him write it down and she went into the back room. She was obviously calling the cops! And alerting border patrol! And calling our moms! No, of course she wasn't. She came back with a couple of boxes of Sostenon 250. We paid for a box with American dollars and walked out. I was shocked. Just like with buying syringes back in Texas!
Soon though, it became easy. Shyly asking for steroids in a low voice soon became, "Hola! Sostenon 250, por favor! Gracias!"
Sometimes the pharmacy workers spoke great English; sometimes they couldn't speak a word. But they all spoke steroids. The easiest thing to do is write down everything that you want. Cy finally just made a list and handed it to them as soon as we walked in. Within five minutes, the counter would be covered with Deca, clenbuterol, Lasix, Clomid, Andriol, Stenox, Nolvadex, and Testoprim-D. We asked for everything, just to see what we could get.
It took a while to get used to, especially in the family owned pharmacies where kids under the age of ten would go get your gear for you and make more suggestions. One little girl, who had to be around nine years old, was quick to offer us Deca when they didn't have what we asked for. Trust me, when a couple of big American guys walk into their stores, they know you aren't there for the vanilla extract.
We did have a hard time finding vet stores. We only found one true vet-supply place during our trip, although we saw several more listed in the phone book. The vet store we found was just that, a true vet supply shop with saddles, tack, and vaccines. But there was also a shelf full of veterinary steroids. The owner sold us everything we wanted without blinking an eye. Much like the manufacturers of many "vet" roids, this guy knew exactly how to play the game.
Then we made an interesting discovery. Many of the pharmacies that carried human gear also carried vet products. These were not kept on the shelf in open view and this made us wonder if this practice was legal for Mexican pharmacies. Still, all you had to do was ask for "vet" brands (wink, wink) like Ttokkyo, Loeffler, Denkal, or Brovel, and the pharmacist would usually go into a back room and bring out armloads of gear to keep your "pet" strong and healthy.
Comparing prices to those in Tijuana, we figure that human gear sells for about the same. For example, in Juarez, Sostenon 250 will cost anywhere from $10 to $14. In Tijuana, it's about the same. However, we're told that vet gear can be significantly cheaper in Tijuana and vet pharmacies are also easier to find. In Juarez, Ttokkyo Stanol V (10 mg tabs) went from $175 up to $250 for the same amount of tabs! The well known domestic dealers sell it cheaper than that (the "king" has it for $126) and there's little risk in receiving it through the mail. Why smuggle it back from Mexico when you can get it cheaper from a relatively safe US dealer?
But remember, most of the vet gear we priced came from under the counter in human pharmacies. We're guessing these guys jack up the price a little compared to a legit veterinaria, again making us wonder if these regular pharmacies are supposed to be carrying vet gear.
Grubbing, Clubbing, and Cutting
Shopping for steroids really worked up our appetites, so we set out to get our grub on. Eating in Juarez can be cheap or expensive; it's up to you. If you want to eat at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants on the street, you can do so cheaply. The owners would often come out in the street and invite us in, promising to cook us whatever we wanted and make us strawberry milkshakes. Given the 100-degree temperatures, we took them up on the milkshakes.
Sticking to your diet in Juarez is tough, though every vender seemed to be selling whole roasted chickens for next to nothing in US dollars. (Still, we packed protein bars and two cases of bottled water for the trip.) There are several nice restaurants that rival anything in the US. Don't expect any bargains, though, as meals ran around 12 to 15 dollars a plate at these nicer places. The restaurant pictured below was expensive, but the food was good, and the entertainment was, well, entertaining. While we ate we watched dancers, vaqueros doing rope tricks, mariachi bands and yes, even cock fights (that's what's going on in the pic below, though it's a little hard to see.)
When we saw people carrying these birds up on stage we were a little worried. I mean, watching a cock fight while eating chicken fajitas? Not very appetizing. Luckily for us, these weren't fights to the death as the birds didn't have the traditional knives or razors strapped to their feet as they do in blood matches. All in all, it was pretty entertaining. And if you're lucky, you got picked from the audience and had the chance to throw a bird into a fight. Needless to say, this did not help cure my culture shock.
Later, Cy and I decided to get that American bodybuilder favorite, McDonald's grilled chicken sandwiches (no mayo, ditch one of the buns). This proved to be quite a challenge. Our translator had decided to evaluate the quality of a nearby gentleman's establishment (i.e. he went to a strip club and drank eight dollar beers), so we were on our own. We knew that "pollo" was chicken, so we had to decide between the pollo and the macropollo sandwich. No one there understood the word "grilled."
As it turns out, McDonald's in Mexico doesn't have all the same menu items as it does in America. We were served these nasty breaded chicken sandwiches that were probably more unhealthy than a Big Mac. Our drinks weren't diet either. (Later we found out you had to order "Coke Light" to get a diet soda.) We were exhausted and starving. We ate them anyway while constantly fending off little kids trying to sell us gum and pieces of cake.
After a seven-hour drive and a day full of pharmacies and cock fights, we decided to see what the Juarez nightlife was all about. (It was a long first day; thank God for MD6.) A helpful pharmacist who spoke excellent English told us which clubs to go to and which to avoid. In fact, he told us to stay out of the downtown clubs or we'd likely end up robbed or dead. He also advised us to stay off the streets at night, especially downtown, because the cops would rob you blind. Very comforting. No wonder you can't have firearms in Mexico; the cops don't want you to be able to fight back!
We decided to stick to the safe clubs near the hotel. These turned out to be the coolest ones anyway. The best club in Juarez as far as I'm concerned is Vertigo. This is a three level dance club with an incredible industrial theme. This joint had video screens, a great DJ mixing techno and house music, smoke and laser effects, and, on the Friday night we were there, a bikini contest at midnight. The club even provided the thong bikinis for any girl who wanted to enter the contest.
The place was filled with some of the best looking chicas I'd ever seen, most of them in their early 20s. There were a few Americans there, but not many. We saw one American guy (about 250 pounds and ripped to the bone; hmm, I wonder why he was in Juarez?) and several American girls. A couple of them were nursing students from New Mexico who'd driven into Juarez to party. Party they did.
After we talked to them for a while and bought them drinks, the club owner approached them and asked them to enter the bikini contest. He told them they could have free drinks all night if they entered. They took advantage of it. The last time we saw them, they were staggering away with the club owner wrapped around both of them. We immediately decided to open up our own damn club someday.
The bikini contest turned into more of a strip show and while I'm not sure what the locals were chanting as the girls danced, I'm guessing it was something like "Skin you win! Skin you win!" If you grabbed the girls, you got shot with a giant Super Soaker. One guy, while flinging beer on one of the bikini contestants grinding away in front of him, either accidentally or on purpose, chucked the bottle on stage. The bouncers jumped on him immediately and he was roughed up a little and tossed from the club.
We'd seen one other fight that night, this one between two of the club's bouncers! Lesson: don't fuck with the bouncers at Vertigo. If they'll fight each other, they'll damned sure fight a few Americans. We almost fought a few bouncers ourselves when leaving the club at 1AM. It was a tense scene and could have gotten ugly.
When we first arrived, we were frisked by security. This happened at every club we entered. The first club found our big folding blades (two of us Texas boys were packing tactical fighting knives), but they didn't say anything. At Vertigo, they told us we couldn't enter packing steel. We were advised to give our knives to the front office and we could get them back when we left. That didn't sound too good, but we didn't want to walk back to the hotel so we passed over our blades.
We went back to retrieve them when we left. Suddenly, no one there could speak English, even the guys that confiscated our knives to begin with. My training partner, Bobby, began to turn red and shake. I'd seen this happen to him before and usually someone nearby swallows a few teeth when this happens. To prevent Bobby from going to a Mexican jail for whupping up on a bouncer, I found one of the head honchos and explained the situation. He looked around, nodded to Senior "No hablo Ingles" and produced my Spyderco from his back pocket. The other bouncer brought out Bobby's Timberline "assisted opener" from his front pocket. We visualized spilling their guts on the floor with one quick flash of serrated steel, decided better of it, of course, and left the club.
• Don't pack steel into Mexican nightclubs, or at least store your knife in your underwear where they don't frisk you.
• He who scores with hot nursing students is usually the one who buys them the most drinks. It also helps to own the club.
• Juarez girls are way hot. Learn how to say, "I love you. Wanna get naked?" in Spanish before you go.
End of Day One
Finally, we walked back to the hotel and crashed. It had been an eventful first day, but there was more work to be done on Saturday. We had to hit a few more pharmacies, find a gym, and most importantly, score a connection and see if we could get a peek inside a Mexican 'roid smuggling operation.
We accomplished all of that and more, but I'll save those stories for part two. Stay tuned, compadres.