Peace, Love and Trafficking
Peace, Love and Trafficking
If you can believe it, drug trafficking wasn’t always the grim, billion-dollar hemispheric battle that it is today.
Once upon a time, running drugs from Mexico was a surprisingly innocent affair, undertaken by industrious hippy kids who trekked across the border in the late '60s and early '70s. There were no machete–wielding psychopaths, dangling corpses, or vicious human traffickers. The Nogales-Phoenix corridor described recently as a ”killing fields” was once a far more peaceful place.
This tale of drugs and death begins and ends far from Nogales—in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, probably the last place you’d expect to find a former drug smuggler. The small park is ringed by high-rise apartment and condo complexes filled with old-money blue hairs, baby-boomer corporate execs and U. Penn kids whose rich parents happily shell out for luxury off-campus housing. Nestled among the city’s elite is a woman with a secret past that includes having moved almost a half-ton of weed from Mexico to the East Coast.
Rita (her executive-level career position makes her skittish about using her real name) met Sally in Philly in 1971; they were two 20-year-old rebellious hippy chicks with age-appropriate ache for adventure. Sally, the wild child, happened to know a Mexican drug kingpin named—no shit—Poncho Loco who would sell them as much weed as they wanted. Sally needed a sidekick, someone to roll her joints and chop her lines while she drove. Rita, the waif, was fresh off a stint bumming around London where she rubbed elbows with rock stars at the notorious Speakeasy nightclub, flopped in “cracked houses” full of squatting dopers and now needed the next thrill. They rented a blue 1970 Chevy Impala and struck out for Tucson, where Sally had a house to use as a way station.
“We were driving machines,” Rita recalls. “We made Tucson in three days.” They drove through a haze of pot smoke, blasting the Allman Brothers and tooting lines of coke.
They rolled into Tucson packing two Browning .45 pistols and $30,000 in cash. They ate some Quaaludes to get to sleep and then struck out for the border the next morning,
How did two 20-year-old hippy chicks pull off scoring huge bushels of weed from Mexican drug traffickers? The deal went down like this.
First they stuffed bundles of $100 bills in their oversized cowgirl boots. Rita was a knock-kneed skinny thing who barely fit in her boots to begin with so she carried most of the money.
“I called Sally ‘Annie Oakley,’” Rita says over coffee in her apartment with views of Rittenhouse Square. Her onetime waist-length hippy locks are now trimmed to a smart-looking bob that, along with a set of modish wire-frame glasses, complement her contemporary-arts professional persona. “We were really playing the cowgirl role to the hilt.”
They drove to Nogales and ditched the car, walking across the border into Mexico where one of Poncho Loco’s banditos was waiting to pick them up. They drove up into the hills where Poncho Loco’s ostentatious pink ranch house stood out among the shacks of the surrounding slums.
It turned out that being two swaggering, fearless young American girls strolling into the kingpin’s house kicking dust off their boots and ready to party worked in their favor.
“The Mexicans were absolutely in awe of Sally, they were blown away by her confidence, taken in by her sense of humor,” Rita says. “Poncho Loco treated us with complete respect. He cut us lines of coke and poured us shots of Mescal Tequila. Poncho’s wife cooked us dinner but we couldn’t eat much, we were so tooted.” She laughs with not a little irony. In present-day Mexico, where street killings, beheading and bombings, even massacres are current features of the War on Drugs, it would be a death wish for two young girls to saunter into El Narco's lair and throw back shooter with his henchman.
They paid for the dope and then went shopping in the local markets for rugs and other touristy-looking bullshit to use as camouflage with the border guards. Once back in Tucson they holed up, getting high and waiting for Poncho’s call.
“We thought pot was cool, it was innocent. It was the ’70s, everyone we knew was a dealer. Honestly, we thought we were doing a sort of public service.”
Back in Mexico, Poncho paid off the federales so he could move his shipments into the States without problems. He sent a car packed with 300 pound’s worth of weed to Tucson and then called the girls to come get it. They drove back to Sally’s house where they moved the goods from Poncho’s car to the Impala in the privacy of its two-car garage. They returned Poncho’s car and then hightailed it back east.
“Never drive through New Mexico—that was Sally’s only hard rule,” Rita says sternly. “The police there were always looking out for kids like us. Drive north through the Four Corners and Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado, then it’s a straight shot home on I-80.”
Back east, Sally paid Rita $1,000 for her troubles and then stashed the weed in her house in the Poconos, where she distributed it to dealers who distributed it up and down the coast.
Over the next few years they made maybe nine more trips, moving almost a half-ton of weed. As time went on, Sally’s operation expanded. She hired other drivers and was moving major weight.
“We thought pot was cool, it was innocent. We weren’t hurting anyone,” Rita says with a wry smile. “It was the ’70s, everyone we knew was a dealer. Honestly, we thought we were doing a sort of public service.”
Rita knows that the details of her story verge on the unbelievable, so she hauls out photo albums to provide the proof. The 40-year-old pictures are sepia tinted. In one, Rita’s wearing a white tank top, her skinny legs swimming in an oversized pair of blue denim bell bottoms, her hair long, bangs framing her face; in the background are tall cacti and a rugged mountain ridge. “That was taken near the house in Tucson,” she says.
There’s a high school yearbook photo of Sally, a gorgeous girl in a checked cowgirl’s shirt and brown leather vest, a long black silk sash tied around her neck. On the back of the photo is Sally’s smudged handwriting with a message for Rita: “May the rainbow’s end always fall on your shoulder.”
Another picture is of Poncho’s beautiful wife, her dark and mysterious face rimmed by close cropped black hair brilliantly backlit by the bright Mexico sun.
Toward the end of the ‘70s, Sally’s story began to take, like many an old-time druggie tale, a dark turn. She got deeper into coke, started freebasing. She pitched Rita with her next big idea: South America. A taste for cocaine was growing fast among the newly identified urban yuppie, and Sally figured to get in on the ground level and start moving keys.
Eventually freebase became crack, and the Quaalude and Tuinal pills gave way to needles of heroin. Guns were no longer props for a couple of pretend cowgirls.
“I knew that was a bad idea,” Rita says. “I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
This was a common transition at the time; many hippy pot smugglers were enticed by the bigger money cocaine brought in, never mind that bigger money came with bigger risks. Director Billy Corben’s 2006 documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, tells the story about Miami’s big coke traffickers in the drug’s ’80s heyday. The hippy pilots of the small prop plane who eventually went to work for Colombian cartels started out bringing in bricks of weed during the ’60s and ’70s just for shits and giggles. What started as fun among friends became an entanglement with murderous mobs; the Summer of Love turned into Scarface.
The advent of coke split up the dynamic duo of Rita and Sally. Rita went straight, got back into school, built a very successful career. She went to AA and got sober, putting in 12 years with the fellowship before eventually drifting away from it. She still has friends in the rooms, though she admits to drinking and popping an occasional pill.
Sally managed to complete a couple runs to South America before getting busted. After that, she dialed her dealing back to nickels and dimes just to keep her coke habit up. But being a full-blown basehead took a toll on her health, and her beloved cocaine killed her nearly a decade ago.
“Most of the people I knew back then are dead,” Rita says. “I felt sad for Sally, the lifestyle got the best of her. She would tell me, ‘You’re so successful—I’m so proud of you.’ The last time I saw her, she was on oxygen; the drugs had ruined her lungs.”
Rita laments how times have changed since the Golden Age of Getting High in America. Eventually freebase became crack, and the Quaalude and Tuinal pills gave way to needles of heroin. Guns were no longer props for a couple of pretend cowgirls on a wild ride through the Southwest.
“Back then it was about peace and love and having fun. It seems like now it’s all about gangs and guns and violence,” Rita says. “Back then it was a big party, now it’s just about addiction.” It’s all a distant memory, regardless. “Now I’m just another worker bee. My life is pretty boring. And, honestly, boring is pretty good.”
Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs biweekly in the The Fix. He is also a contributing writer for The Daily Beast.