The desert stretches out in all directions. It is desolate except for the military check point just ahead. A comical scarecrow soldier with rifle holds a place a few yards before the official stop. There are several cars ahead of me, so I turn up the music and watch the wind fill up a brown paper bag, dancing it over the sand and around the rocks. A soldier, holding a nasty looking rifle and wearing army camouflage, motions me forward. No one is smiling. They are going to check the inside of my car and possibly my trunk. I am never quite sure how thorough the check stops will be, but I have learned when traveling south it is less aggressive, while going north is usually a much deeper search.
The soldier's eyes are hidden by mirror lenses as he bends down, looks in the car and asks “¿De dónde vienes?” I tell him I am coming from Mulege and on my way to Ensenada. He asks me to step out of the car, begins to make notations on his clip board and then asks what year the car is. Another soldier is going through the glovebox, checking under the seats on the passenger side and thumping on the door panels. A third soldier is digging around in the trunk. Without looking up, the officer asks quite seriously, "Estás sola?" I tell him yes, I am traveling alone. I have become use to the curiosity. He looks up from his paper work and smiling says, "Usted debe tener un perro." I tell him I don't have room for a dog. "Un esposo, novio?" Now, I am laughing as it has become the good natured typical qestions. No, I tell him, I don't need the problems and this causes the soldiers over-hearing to smile knowingly. They are satisfied I am not carrying assault weapons and close everything up. I wave my goodbyes and breeze on down the road. For me, just a normal encounter at a military check point.
It is fairly easy to have a good experience when being checked. Rest easy, comply without protest, and as long as you are not carrying guns or drugs, no problema. A little Spanish helps. A smile is even better. But, of course, for the first time traveler into Baja it can be a stressful experience. A tip if you have to drive at night, when approaching a checkpoint, dim your headlights and turn on your inside overhead light. This will allow the soldiers to see you are a friendly traveler. One thing to remember is that these young men and women are part of the armed forces, just like the sons and daughters in the United States Army. They are not meant to roust citizens, but in fact are protecting anyone inside Mexico including foreign travelers.
Every male citizen is required to serve a specific amount of military service. As of 2011, all males reaching eighteen years of age must register for military service for one year. The selection is made by a lottery system. Those with a community service interest may participate in literacy campaigns as teachers or as physical education instructors. Military service for women is voluntary. There is an opportunity to leave the infantry and go on as a commissioned officer with higher ranking. Others might choose to go into "plain cloths" for more clandestine undercover work. Unlike the United States, Mexico has no foreign nation adversaries and history shows little ambition to impose itself upon other nations. While these men and women are not fighting foreign wars, they are part of a much larger and as dangerous war on guns and drug trafficking. They and their families are threatened by organized-crime and the drug cartels. They are killed in the line of duty. They put their lives on the line every time they approach a car or long-haul truck to search. If they do not appear friendly as they approach the car, there is good reason.
We are generally familiar with the checkpoints on the main road, but in a small community such as Mulege with a dirt airstrips, the Army is also responsible for checking aircraft when they land. At other times they may check incoming boats. From these outposts the men will make tours into town and on the main road. I happened upon them in town one day as they picked up supplies and asked permission to take photographs. At first I was declined and told that it is illegal in Mexico to photograph the military personnel. Certainly they would not want their pictures to get into the wrong hands. Undaunted, I began to explain why I wanted the opportunity. I went on to say that Americans tend to be apprehensive about being searched. They nodded their heads in understanding as this was their experience. I stressed that what I intended was to give more information to the traveler about how to approach the experience and especially that the army was a form of protection and not to be feared. With this explanation the Sargent graciously granted my request and offered one of his recruits as a model. It was done with a crisp military presentation.
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com