Cigar Aficionado

Back in the Land of the Free

Getting caught with two Cuban cigars crossing the border between California and Mexico can really upset officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—among other things. I found out the hard way last weekend on a road trip to Baja California with some friends.

I organized a quick trip down to the wine region of Baja, which is about an hour’s drive east of the coastal town of Ensenada. I bought a barrel of old vine Grenache in September 2008 with three friends, so I wanted to go down and get my share of the gorgeous red wine.

The wine is called El Sueno, or “the dream.” But my El Sueno turned into la pesadilla—the nightmare. I never thought I would get into so much trouble over five cases of red wine.

I was traveling with a buddy from high school and my nephew, and we decided to travel back to Southern California through the border crossing of Tecate after the 24-hour trip to a number of wineries.

The major checkpoint in Tijuana is too busy on Sundays due to the huge traffic of Mexicans traveling back to work in the states following visits to family. Sometimes the crossing can take four or five hours. So we opted for Tecate, and it was only about an hour’s drive from the town of Porvenir, where we were staying in the Valle de Guadalupe.

Once we were at the border, it only took about 10 minutes of waiting to reach the first CBP officer. She was friendly and business like. She said I could only bring into California one liter of wine. I explained to her that I was not a resident of California. So according to state law, I could bring into the state up to five cases, or 60 liters, of wine for personal consumption.

I had documents from the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control proving my point. I showed her the documents and she sent me through to the secondary inspection area.

The people working in this area were definitely not friendly. They told us to “wait in our vehicles,” which we did for about 45 minutes before anyone spoke to us. Finally, an imposing CBP officer arrived at the car and proceeded to tell me the same information about one-liter limits. I responded with my explanation as well as the documents from the ABC.

He looked annoyed, and told me that they follow federal regulations. I simply and politely reminded him that the importation of alcohol into the state of California was a state matter and not federal.

“How do you know this?” he said.

“It’s according to the 21st amendment, among other things,” I told him.

He went back into the office, and about a quarter of an hour later he came back and told us that we could take the wine but he needed to do a quick seven-point inspection.

“Please get out of the car and stand over there,” he said. We walked over to a stainless steel table off to the side in the sun.

A dog came over and went through the car and then the officer and a few of his colleagues checked it out as well. They were taking a long time. I was starting to get nervous. I was wondering if I had pissed off the CBP officer. It could be bad.

My understanding is that CBP officers can do just about anything they want if they have reason to believe you are bringing something in illegally. They are the masters in their own little world, and I was not happy that I was visiting them at that very moment.

A few minutes later he walked over to us. He looked really upset and was staring at me. “Please stand over there next to the table,” he said. He was already making us feel like criminals. “You are being filmed with cameras at this moment,” he explained. “Do you have something else you want to tell me? Were you using drugs in Mexico?”

I immediately answered him “no,” just like everyone else. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I felt like I was in a bad movie.

“Empty your pockets on the table,” he said. “Everything.” He added, in so many words, that if we didn’t, he would have to cavity search us. My nephew looked really freaked out at that point. I was in a daze.

We pulled our wallets, money, business cards, mobile phones, and everything else out of our pockets. He went through it all. And then he frisked all of us, one by one. I had forgotten to take a parking ticket out of my back pocket. ‘I thought I told you to take everything out of your pockets,” he said, taking the parking ticket and ripping it open. I assume he was looking for drugs.

He asked me questions about the rental car and where I had been and what I was doing. I don’t remember the interrogation that well. I do recall that he said that if they found traces of marijuana that I could be fined $5,000 for transporting illegal drugs into the United States. He kept on taking about “zero tolerance” and all sorts of other things. My head was spinning.

He walked back to our car and started going through the luggage. He went through my bag first. I just remembered that my travel humidor was inside with two Cuban cigars and one from Nicaragua. I thought we would have smoked them all while in Baja. I never intended to bring them to the United States. I simply forgot they were there. My heart sunk. I started to sweat. I was even a little dizzy. I knew I was screwed.

My CBP officer asked me to come to the car and he told me that I was in a lot of trouble. There were Cuban cigars. He also found three bottles of wine in my handbag that he said were concealed and I was trying to smuggle them into the states. I wished I hadn't accepted those three bottles of red from a wine merchant friend when I was loading my bag in the trunk. I didn't have time to taste them for a column on the region for our sister publication Wine Spectator. So I thought I could try them in the states.

The whole thing was going badly. It really was a nightmare. I began to wonder if I was going to spend some time in jail and how much time and money it would take to prove my innocence as well as that of my nephew and friend. I apologized a number of times to the officer for forgetting to declare the two cigars and three bottles, but he would not accept. "You seem to know a lot about the law," he said. "And you should know better considering what you do. I can't let you off on this."

The officer told me to go back to the stainless steel table and put my hands on top of the counter and don’t move. He went into the office building to apparently speak to his supervisor. About 20 minutes later he returned and told us that they were "understaffed" and that his supervisor decided to let us go, except for the two Habanos. "You are very lucky," he added. It was strange because by this time only a couple of cars were at the inspection area and a handful of officers were watching me being interrogated. But I was pleased they had come to their senses.

Outside the Tecate border crossing after the four-hour inspection.
However, I still had to destroy the three bottles of wine in front of a handful of officers. I had to open the bottles with a screwdriver and the wine gushed out like a garden hose all over my face, arms and t-shirt. They were all laughing.

I felt so humiliated. I was helpless. They could do anything they wanted with me at that point. All I wanted was the situation to go away. And they knew it.

They let me go to the bathroom and wash off. And then they made us stand for a while longer. The officer came back and told me to unload the five cases from the back of the car so he could search the trunk. I did as he said, but he never checked the car again. I went back to my position at the stainless steel table.

The officer came back to me and said that he had passed our case to a colleague who would finish it up. I couldn’t even look him in the face. My body was full of fear at that time. I just looked down at the table.

I was asked to sign a document that the cigars had been confiscated, and I paid a $60 fine for not declaring the two smokes. The CBP officers did not ask me to destroy the cigars. I didn’t care anyway. They said we could go after four hours at the secondary inspection area. So, we loaded up the car and drove into the land of the free. I was shaken. In fact, I still am as I write this.

I am not sure what happened, or why it happened. I wonder how many other people go through similar experiences each day with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Tecate border, or anywhere else for that matter? I hope the officers enjoyed what they did to me and my friends, and I hope they appreciate the cigars as well.

It’s ironic that friends and family told us not to go down to Mexico because of all the unrest there from the drug cartels, but in the sleeping wine region of Valle de Guadalupe everything was serene. The scariest part of the trip was being back in America. That I will never forget.

"You should have come across the border illegaly. I'm sure you would have had no problems." —January 20, 2010 16:59 PM
"You really got him mad. He probably got mad because you knew more than him. I have crossed thousands of times and about 10 times have I had problems. Most Customs are not in a good mood but they rarely take it that far. The worst part is you showed fear. Never ever show them fear. You made him feel dumb and he wanted to return the favor. All they can do is confiscate and a minor fine that you can fight in court. If you do have drugs that is a whole different story but cuban cigars and liquor is not a big deal (I know from expierence). Even with drugs and human trafficing they let most go the same day, so you know they just wanted to show you up. If I were you I would put in a complaint regarding their unprofessional behavior.So how was the wine and which cigars did they take?" —January 13, 2010 14:45 PM
">The worst part is you showed fear. I disagree. From my personal experience, I found that many men in positions of law enforcement chose those careers because they like to lord it over others, to show how tough they are. During my younger days, I used to make money by hawking T-shirts at concerts. When we were busted by security, if we showed any trace of challenge or attitude, we were usually locked up for a couple hours or until the concert was over. If we showed fear & humility & contrition, they got their jollies, and let us go with a warning. Sometimes we would have liked to laugh in their faces, but we learned early on to allow them the pleasure of feeling big & powerful & strong & fearsome." —January 16, 2010 13:49 PM
"Hi James, I'm a police officer here in Luxembourg and it always disgusts me to hear of any so called "uniformed professional" screwing up and abusing his authority in such a manner. Yes, his hackles probably did go up when you corrected him, but that is when the true law enforcement professional should come through... grit the teeth, remain courteous, check the info and if one is wrong... learn and don't be caught out again ! Unfortunately, standards are slipping the world over, some uniformed personnel just wear their uniform instead of believing in it and upholding it's image with pride. Should you ever visit Luxembourg... I can promise you won't have the same experience ! :-)" —January 16, 2010 08:08 AM
"And sometimes you can just run into a jerk who wants to make you as miserable as they are. Just gotta shake it off and go light up a good smoke." —January 14, 2010 13:45 PM
"You are right. I had a similar thing happening to me when I brought back about fifty Dominican cigars into Puerto Rico. To them, you look guiltier the moment you open your mouth. "I am a resident of Puerto Rico, an American Citizen and I manufacture cigars in the Dominican Republic (truly)", I told him. Even though I actually declared my cigars, he wanted to take them away but finally decided not to; after opening all my bags and questioning me about my trip to the DR, etc. It is unbelievable this happens. " —January 14, 2010 01:04 AM
"They took two Montecristo D Edicion Limitada 2005. I didn't really care about what I lost as far as cigars and wine. It was obviously taking away my dignity. That's not right." —January 13, 2010 19:09 PM
"That must have been awful James. I'm sorry you had to go through that. But it leads me to believe that you must have said something to that border patrol agent that really ticked him off. My guess is he didn't really seem to appreciate someone who had more knowledge of the law than he did! Because I have never had that much trouble coming back into the States." —January 13, 2010 12:43 PM
"Have a cigar and a glass of rum and shake it off. You are back in the greatest country in the world, among your friends. The best revenge is living well!" —January 13, 2010 23:48 PM
"Thanks for all your comments. Life is strange sometimes. A nice smoke to calm the nerves is a good thing." —January 21, 2010 12:40 PM