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Their plane went down in Mexico. No one knows why.

THE BIG C-119L AIRCRAFT, overloaded and about as easy to control as a runaway elephant, was losing altitude and trying hard to stand on its tail.

At the controls, his features outlined vaguely in the red glow of the instrument lights, Howard Francis (Jim) Cottingham, a 48-year-old Dallas business executive and a veteran pilot with more than 6,000 hours of flying time, was battling desperately to keep the old transport on an even keel.

In the rear cargo compartment, his 25-year-old son, Thomas Wilson Cottingham of Laredo, Texas, was struggling just as desperately to lighten the load. The cargo, which only a few hours before had seemed so important, had broken loose and was threatening their lives. They jettisoned all that they could.

Despite their efforts, the plane kept dropping lower and lower. They could feel the crash coming.

IT WAS SHORTLY BEFORE 10 p.m. on Wednesday, September 30, 1981, that the C-119, still bearing the silver-and-gray colors of the U.S. Air Force, had lumbered down the runway at Laredo International Airport and slowly picked up speed.

The bulky military transport, sometimes called the “Flying Boxcar,” sometimes the “Flying Coffin,” depending on the mood and experience of the pilot, had screamed and whined as she approached the 125 miles per hour necessary to lift her into the black velvet sky over Laredo. Then, with one final shudder, she surged from the runway, and the C-119 headed south into Mexico for one last rendezvous with destiny.

There would be no survivors.

The flight -one final trip for the last C-119 off the assembly line-forever may be shrouded in secrecy, buried within the tangled, often corrupt bureaucracy of the Mexican government.

Why the plane crashed, what it was carrying and where it was headed are all subject to speculation. But circumstances surrounding the crash have focused increased attention on semilegitimate smuggling operations that account for millions (perhaps billions) of dollars in revenue each year.

The night of September 30, according to the National Weather Service office at Brownsville, was near-perfect for flying. There was virtually no wind, and the temperature was hovering in the mid-80s. In Laredo, the moon and stars were twinkling brightly and the Rio Grande sparkled like a silver ribbon as the aircraft, just 31 days shy of her 26th birthday, pointed her nose toward a 177-degree heading. She was flying directly toward the interior of Mexico.

For Jim Cottingham, the flight seemed particularly attractive. In the first place, he was flying with his son, one of the rare times they had shared such an experience. Even more significant, however, was the fact that he could relive his younger days as he gently worked the controls of the old warship that had once delivered airborne troops and supplies to combat zones in Korea and Vietnam.

Jim Cottingham was no stranger to the C-119. He had logged more than 2,500 hours in the “Boxcar,” flying her first as a U.S. Air Force captain on duty in the Far East during the Korean conflict, then again during the three years he served as a contract pilot with Air America-the CIA’s secret airline-at the height of the Vietnam War.

Tommy Cottingham, by contrast, was a relative novice in flying the plane. As a matter of fact, although he held a higher Federal Aviation Administration rating than his father, the younger Cottingham had never flown the old bird, much less been checked out on her formally, until the weekend of September 11, when he and his father had ferried the plane to Laredo from Columbus, Nebraska. Jim Cottingham had briefed his son on the basics of the plane.

THE EXACT TIME of the crash is not known and will probably never be determined.

Initial accounts in Dallas, as reported by United Press International on Monday, October 5, said only that the crash occurred “last Thursday.” Robert L. Cot-tingham of Dallas, the brother of Jim Cot-tingham and uncle of Tommy, said he was informed that the accident happened about 1 a.m. Dallas time. But Miguel Lirach, director of the office of investigations for the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, said the accident “occurred shortly before dawn, about 5 a.m. local time, nine miles northeast of Ciudad Victoria, Mexico.”

Ciudad Victoria, capital of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, is about 200 miles due south of Laredo. It is a city of approximately 85,000 people, and it roughly forms the apex of a 125-mile equilateral triangle that includes the Mexican cities of Tampico and San Luis Potosi at the base. The area around Ciudad Victoria is predominantly flat, although it does include some low-lying hills, and an imposing mountain range looms in the distance. It is also the site of Lake Vicente Guerrero, a reservoir known and recognized throughout Texas and the United States for its outstanding black-bass fishing.

The town of Ciudad Victoria has one small, ill-equipped airport 10 miles east of the city. The runway is short, about 1,400 yards long, and there is a nondescript terminal building and control tower. Lirach said the airstrip generally is used “by small planes . . . that fly during the day.” What he didn’t say, although it later was ascertained, is that the terminal and control tower are not manned after dark. What’s more, the runway lights are not turned on. At night, there is only one signal: a faint red beacon that shines at one end of the field.

The best description of what happened the night of October 1 was pieced together by five people -including a free-lance photographer who was a friend of the Cottingham family -who visited the Ciudad Victoria airport less than a week after the crash. The photographer also took pictures.

The operator of a small fruit stand near the runway was spending the night at his stand. The airplane had circled the field many times, perhaps in an effort to get the tower operator to turn on the landing lights. The plane kept circling and circling, getting lower and lower, and the noise of its engines awakened the sleeping fruit merchant. He saw a single explosion and flames erupting from one engine of the aircraft.

And then the crash.

The C-l19 came in along the edge of a maize field, just off the landing strip and directly in line with a small group of huts and farm-type outbuildings. The pilot, at the last minute, managed to swerve away from the houses (although he did clip a power pole), and the plane plowed headlong into the field of ripening, rust-red maize. The fruit seller, in every interview, praised the pilot’s skill and bravery… how he stayed with the plane and fought to miss the houses.

“He was a very brave man, senor,” the seller said repeatedly.

But for the grinding impact, the force of a 35-ton airplane slamming down in a field, there were no other explosions. The plane, except for the one engine, did not burn. Both Jim and Tommy Cottingham were thrown from the wreckage. Jim Cottingham apparently was killed instantly, but Tommy Cottingham was still alive. The operator of the fruit stand ran the 10 miles into town to summon an ambulance and the authorities. They took Tommy Cottingham to a hospital in Ciudad Victoria, where a doctor operated in an attempt to save Tommy’s life. He didn’t make it.

There was more:

The trail of impact from the plane’s right engine, later said to have been replaced at Laredo, was a straight furrow, as if the propeller had not been turning. The left propeller had been turning, however, and it chewed a massive path through the maize field. The plane broke apart and disintegrated. Still distinguishable, though, were the four main sections: the fuselage and cargo area, the twin booms that supported the engines and extended from the plane’s wings to its tail and the tail section itself.

The most astounding thing about the whole situation was noted by the photographer and supported by his pictures. There was, in one portion of the wreckage, an even spray of smooth round holes – almost in a straight line – all seemingly identical in size and virtually the same distance apart. “They looked just like bullet holes,” the photographer said. Except for a small number of tools, he also said there was no evidence in the wreckage of any cargo.

For a number of reasons, certainly including the mysterious round holes and the fact that Mexican officials don’t take too kindly to U.S. citizens disrupting their duties (the wreckage, for a time, was under armed guard), the five visitors to the crash site all asked that they not be identified by name. “I do a lot of business in Mexico,” one said. “I can’t afford to make anyone mad.”

FROM THE MOMENT it left Laredo International Airport on September 30, 1981, until it plowed into the maize field during the pre-dawn hours of October 1, the C-119 sent only two radio messages, according to other pilots flying at the time. The first, sometime around 11 p.m., indicated that everything was fine.

But the second message, and its exact transmission time was not recorded, was to the effect: “We have CG [center of gravity] problems . . . We’re jettisoning cargo . . . We think we can handle it.”

The voice was said to have been that of Jim Cottingham.

In January 1982, project engineer Russ Day of Fairchild Republic Co., provided a detailed explanation of a center-of-gravity problem in an aircraft. Fairchild manufactured the C-119 (the last model of the old twin-engine, twin-boom military airplane rolled off the assembly line in 1955 and was, in fact, the plane that was flown by the Cottinghams).

Day explained: “You get a CG problem from a shift in cargo. Either it breaks loose or it wasn’t loaded right in the first place. The cargo either moves forward or aft, out of the CG envelope. If that happens, you have no control of the aircraft.

“. . . You’d get the same effect with a two-wheel trailer and a heavy load. If you put 1,000 pounds on the tailgate, it’s going to lift the rear end of your car right off the highway. Likewise, if you put that same 1,000 pounds on the front [of the trailer], it’s going to push the rear bumper down to where it drags on the highway.”

Another veteran pilot offered more detail:

“The center of gravity in an airplane is like the balance point of a seesaw. You’d really have to work at it to get a CG problem in an aircraft as large as the C-l19. A few thousand pounds wouldn’t affect it. The entire load would have to shift… and probably to the rear. That’s the worst condition. A forward CG isn’t that big a factor, but with a shift to the rear you don’t have enough elevator [providing lift for the aircraft] to control it.

“I can just imagine what they [the Cot-tinghams] were doing. One of them was flying the plane, the other was back there [in the cargo section], kicking out every blasted thing that wasn’t nailed down.

“Something like that is damned hairy. I’ve had it happen to me.”

AT THE TIME of the crash, Isabelle Cottingham, Jim’s wife and mother of four children including Tommy, was comfortable and secure-and probably asleep – in her room at the Laredo Hilton Inn. It had been a busy day for her, and a pleasant one.

The circumstances that brought Isabelle Cottingham and her husband to Laredo that day actually began some weeks earlier. Sometime in late July or early August, back in their Highland Park home, Jim Cottingham had turned to his wife one night and said, “You’ve been talking about opening a shop to deal in Mexican crafts and fashions . . . Well, why don’t we do it? I’ll help you. I’ll keep the books . . . and we can have fun going down there on weekends. Besides, we can visit Tommy as well.”

“I said, ’Hallelujah, let’s do it!’ ” Mrs. Cottingham recalls.

They had flown to Laredo on Tuesday, September 29 and were met at the airport by Tommy Cottingham’s boss, Douglas Taylor of La Mesa Air Charter Service. Taylor had driven them to the Laredo Hilton, where Jim and Isabelle spent the night.

On Wednesday morning, while Mrs. Cottingham began making the rounds to supply her shop in Dallas, Jim and Tommy Cottingham met Taylor in his office-hangar at Laredo International Airport. Taylor was in the process of leasing or buying the airplane, and Jim Cottingham, during the flight from Nebraska two weeks earlier, had noted and reported to Taylor numerous mechanical problems and repairs that were long overdue. In the intervening two weeks, the repairs had been made, including the replacement of the entire right engine, and Jim Cottingham-at Taylor’s request – agreed to an informal test flight. Taylor, at the time, reportedly had no regular pilot for the plane, but had been planning to hire one.

The test flight, such as it was, was brief. The Cottinghams simply took off in the old Boxcar, made a couple of lazy circles and landed.

Jim Cottingham was able to rejoin his wife for lunch. They spent the afternoon shopping and going from one dusty bureaucratic office to another. There were details to be completed with customs officials of both countries and dozens of documents to be filled out and signed. Luckily, however, the Cottinghams had been able to make many of the arrangements in advance (they had lived in Laredo during the late Seventies, and Tommy, along with their friends, had helped). The paper work was in order and went smoothly. They returned to the hotel shortly after 6 p.m., dressed for dinner and were joined by their son.

Sometime during the dinner, Jim Cot-tingham briefly mentioned the old plane. “You know,” he said to Tommy, “I think Doug [Taylor] has himself a winner. That C-119 looks like a good deal for him.”

Later, as the meal was drawing to a close, Tommy Cottingham also mentioned the old transport. “Let’s go pick up the plane,” he said to his father. “Let’s go flying.”

Jim Cottingham looked at his wife of 28 years. She nodded. “I’ll see you in a little while,” he told her. “This shouldn’t take long.” It was the last time she would see him alive.

Mrs. Cottingham returned to her room, showered and snapped on the television. It was tuned to a cable channel, and the program-ironically-was Airplane!, the 1980 satire. It was, Mrs. Cottingham said, “a horrible, horrible farce” . . . and she fell asleep, the set still on, long before the movie had ended.

At 3 a.m., she awakened abruptly.

There was no question about the time, she said later, because the television was still flickering, and the hour, in bright red numerals, was flashing on the screen.

Jim Cottingham hadn’t returned. Something was terribly wrong.

It wasn’t until the next day, shortly after 1 p.m., that she learned the details. Her mother, telephoning from Dallas, reached her at the airport. The U.S. consul in Matamoros, also in the state of Tamaul-ipas, Mexico, had called Robert L. Cottingham at his office in Dallas.

Jim and Tommy Cottingham were dead. They had been killed in a plane crash near Ciudad Victoria.

THE U.S. STATE Department sent Fairchild Republic a document on the crash because its predecessor had manufactured an airplane that had been involved in an incident outside the continental United States. The document noted:

1. Aircraft number: N37483.

2. Make and model: Fairchild C-119L.

3. Name of pilot: Thomas W. Cotting-ham.

4. Owner: El Marc Air . . . ColumbusNebraska.

5. Passenger (s): Howard Francis (Jim)Cottingham.

6. Summary: Aircraft crashed while apparently making an emergency approach to the municipal airport in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, in the early morning hours of October 1, 1981. Both men on board, father and son, were killed. NOK [next of kin] notified of deaths… and bodies returned to the U.S. for burial.

7. Aircraft apparently was on a smuggling run into Mexico as it was carrying a cargo of tools at the time of the crash. Tools have been confiscated by Mexican customs as contraband. Exact cause of the crash unknown, but an American friend of the Cottingham family, who visited the crash site, speculated that the plane may have hit power lines while making final approach to the runway. Aircraft not salvageable . . .”

On October 6, however, information was far more difficult to come by. Jorge Lara-Cuellas, commander of the Federal Judicial Police at Ciudad Victoria, told a Mexican correspondent that the plane crashed and burned, and that officers searching the wreckage “found $3 million in industrial equipment that was to be sold on the Mexican black market.” He also said that shipments of black-market material to Mexico had increased dramatically in recent months because Mexico had limited the legal import of many U.S. products.

But, pointedly, Lara-Cuellas declined to specify the exact type of cargo found in the wreckage.

Miguel Lirach, whose office concentrates on fiscal matters for the state of Tamaulipas, said the plane apparently was trying to land at the airport. “We don’t know what happened,” he said, “but it crashed to the ground. It seems that one of the workers [at the nearby ranch] found the wreckage and informed the authorities.” He also said the portion of the plane in which the two men were found did not burn, and “a large amount of tools – pliers, hammers and some electronic equipment” was found.

“We don’t know whether it [the equipment] was being brought into the country legally or illegally,” Lirach said. “We’re investigating that.”

But at Laredo International Airport that day, at least among some of the workers and officials, there was speculation that the C-119 could have been shot down. The airport employees pointed out that on September 29, two days before the crash, some 80 Mexican Federal Judicial Police officers under the command of Lara-Cuellas had leveled and burned the wood-and-grass huts erected by a group of Mexican “squatters” attempting to take over government-owned land near Ciudad Victoria. The officers of the Federal Judicial Police, an agency somewhat similar to our own FBI, reportedly were still bivouacked in the area.

The theory of gunfire was a far-fetched one, airport employees admitted, but stranger things have happened in Mexico.

“Quien sabe-who knows?” one asked.

Among the more helpful sources at the Laredo International Airport was Fed-erico Pena of Aero Center, Inc., an aviation-fuel supplier. He recalled that Tommy Cottingham had purchased 500 to 600 gallons of fuel the afternoon before he and his father took off for Mexico.

“I’m not sure of the exact amount since I don’t have the invoice and the transaction was in cash,” Pena said. “I do know we fueled the plane.”

“You’ll find we have a lot of old military transports,” an airport official explained, “primarily DC-3s and DC-4s, operating out of this airport. The pilots are smuggling all kinds of electronics equipment into Mexico. It’s legal on this side of the border, but it’s not legal over there. A lot of the planes are overloaded, and the pilots are taking all kinds of wild chances. You take a television set that’s worth $400 over here, and it’s worth $1,000 over there.

“You can hear all sorts of ’war stories’ and ’combat tales’ up and down the border. Unfortunately, it seems, many of them are true.

“In the McAllen area alone this year [1981], unofficial reports indicate that 17 planes and 30 pilots have been lost. That’s just the ones who were killed. There’s no telling how many other pilots have been imprisoned and their planes impounded by the Mexican government. The trouble is that no one really keeps any statistics.

“This [smuggling] is damned risky business . . . and it doesn’t have to involve dope or guns.”

Asked about La Mesa Air Charter Services, Pena said, “They maintain a low profile over there. They don’t even have a telephone listed.”

Charles Greinke, general aviation and operations inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in San Antonio, said the FAA had not been informed of the crash. “You have to understand that we are not charged with investigating any aircraft accidents that occur in Mexico,” he said. “The only way we could go there would be if it were a military plane – one being operated by the U.S. Air Force-or if the Mexican government specifically asked that we assist in an investigation.”

He cleared up two other points: The C-l19 had not filed a flight plan and, in his words, La Mesa Air Charter Service was “not a certified air taxi.”

ROBERT (BOB) Cottingham, brother and uncle of the dead pilots, is president of Cottingham Bearing Co., a $30-mil-lion-a-year equipment-distributing firm headquartered in Dallas with more than 200 employees and 25 retail outlets across the state. The company, founded by the late Cecil C. Cottingham, father of Jim and Bob, is well-known and highly respected. Jim Cottingham had been manager of the company’s MHD (materials handling equipment) division.

The Mexican death certificates of his brother and nephew were forwarded to Bob Cottingham by a Laredo funeral home. They say that Jim Cottingham died at 6:45 a.m. on October 1 and that Tommy died at 8:10 a.m. the same day. The cause of death, in both instances, was listed as “skull fracture,” and Bob Cottingham, who had identified the bodies on their arrival in Laredo, said there had been no evidence of burns.

“There are only two things I know for sure,” he said. “One is that my brother and nephew are dead. The other thing, and of this I’m one hundred and ten percent positive, is that none of the goods [possibly found in the wreckage of the C-119] came from the Cottingham companies.

“In this business, the market value of our products is around two dollars a pound,” he continued. “If the cargo on that plane was valued at three million dollars and had consisted of our products -and it didn’t-it would have meant the plane was carrying 3.5 million pounds. That’s 750 tons . . . an absurd possibility for any airplane that I know about.

“Even at three dollars a pound, that still would have been a million pounds. Or, at five dollars a pound, it’s still a 600,000-pound load. Ten tons [20,000 pounds] is a big load for almost any airplane, and that means the stuff would have to be worth around fifty dollars a pound. If you’re getting into those kinds of dollars, you’re talking electronics, computers, oil field or medical equipment, or maybe high-precision bearings of some sort. If they’d been carrying D-9 tractors [heavy earth-moving equipment] or Cadillac automobiles that you purchase here for $20,000 and sell in Mexico for $100,000, I could buy that. That makes sense. But three million dollars in hammers? You couldn’t have gotten them out of the airport.”

THE RESIDENTS of Mexico, for a variety of reasons including quality and the advertising that originates in Los Estados Unidos (the United States), prefer the variety and quality of goods available from the United States -clothing, hand tools, appliances, furniture, cameras -to those produced in Mexico. Yet under Mexican law and tariff regulations, such goods cannot be brought into the country.

The result is predictable. By most estimates, even the more conservative ones, anywhere from 33 to 75 percent of the goods sold along the Texas border wind up going south.

How does it work? One Laredo appliance dealer, who was a friend of Tommy Cottingham, explained it. (He requested that he not be quoted by name.) “Your article, when it’s printed, will create a sensation down here. There’ll be a lot of heat, and the Mexican authorities will tighten up for a while. Our retail community is especially sensitive.

“There are two methods, actually, and the first is the most obvious,” he said. “Mexican citizens, those who live relatively close to Laredo, simply come to Nuevo Laredo [on the Mexican side], then walk or drive across the International Bridge. They bring their suitcases with them; the bags are empty when they come across, but they’re jammed full when they go back. They remove the sales tags, wrappings, anything that would identify an article as being new. Sometimes, after they take the tags off, you can see them walk back across the bridge wearing two or three layers of clothing.

“If they’re driving, the goods may be stacked in the trunk, hidden under the hood, concealed under the seat covers or behind door panels, whatever.

“It’s not unusual, if a driver is asked to open the trunk of his car at the bridge, to see him [or her] drop a wad of peso notes -the “mordida” or “bite”-on top of the portable television set or whatever else might be sitting back there.

“That first system is okay but only if the Mexican citizen doesn’t have to travel a long distance into the interior. The Mexican customs people have checkpoints all along the way, and the deeper into Mexico you go, the more expensive it becomes. There’s one checkpoint twenty-six kilometers from the border, another as you drive into Monterrey and still another before you get to Mexico City.

“At some point, it’s cheaper to make one payoff instead of many, and that introduces the second method, where the merchant agrees to make delivery to a certain point in Mexico.

“Shipping by air is the cheapest way . . . and that’s where the pilots come in. They can make anywhere from $600 to $1,000 a trip, depending upon the size of the plane, and the copilots will average $400 to $600. The merchants are using old planes; they’re not very expensive, and sometimes two or three merchants will go together and buy or lease one. They figure they can make money if the plane manages to survive more than one trip. If it doesn’t, well . . .

“And they’re not really breaking any U.S. laws.”

Asked about Jim and Tommy Cotting-ham’s cargo, he said: “It was electronics equipment . . . TVs and stereos. Tommy had been flying them about a year… He started shortly after he came back down here from Dallas.

“Most of the pilots have the soldier-of-fortune syndrome. There’s good money in what they’re doing, but there are far too many risks. It’s a high-risk, high-gain enterprise. The trouble is that most of the planes are overloaded, and all of them are old and not always in the best mechanical condition. The Mexican officials aren’t ignorant of the situation, either. They know the landing strips, and a pilot can wind up spending several years in a Mexican prison – or worse.

“In Tommy’s case, I think he got into it because of his background. He had poor eyesight . . . he used to laugh and say his glasses were as thick as Coke bottles . . . and in a way he tried to compensate. He was into sports cars, scuba diving, sky diving, everything. And you have to remember that Jim was a cargo pilot in Vietnam. Tommy grew up with that spirit of adventure all around him.”

The strain, however, apparently had affected Tommy Cottingham.

Where he once had been outgoing, Tommy Cottingham “had undergone a personality change in the last year,” his friend said. “He became a recluse; he was staying away from his old friends.”

THE OFFICE of La Mesa Air Charter Service is outside Hangar No. 128 at Laredo International Airport in a small cinder-block building. A man who worked there -but who never identified himself and was addressed only as “John” by his co-workers – sprawls at a desk and sips a beer.

Asked about the Cottingham crash, John is blunt. “You know what we do. Let’s leave it at that. Tommy Cottingham was the best friend I had . . . I used to help smuggle dynamite to the Irish Republican Army. If I had been with them [Tommy and Jim], the accident wouldn’t have happened. The plane didn’t burn; that tells me only one thing… they were out of fuel. They had mismanaged the fuel.”

What was aboard the plane?

“Welding equipment . . . I loaded it myself.”

Lanky, blue-eyed and somewhat handsome along the lines of a grease-stained and well-traveled Robert Redford, John shakes his head.

“This is heavy. There are some really heavy people involved.

“Do you realize how many kids it would cut off from Sesame Street if it weren’t for us and others like us? If you print anything, it’s going to cut off five hundred to six hundred people down there. Do you think they’re going to like it? The last person that asked so many questions around here went swimming in the Rio Grande with concrete boots.”

John was much more talkative than his boss, Douglas Taylor. Taylor, identified by Isabelle Cunningham as the owner of La Mesa is a short, stocky man with thinning blond hair. His answers generally consisted only of a “yes” or “no.” Then he said: “Everything we know is pure speculation . . . I really think the family knows more than we do.”

The family is coping with conflicting reports about the cargo, if any, aboard that C-119. Was it stereo equipment? Tools? Welding equipment?

Back in Dallas, David Rogers was more open. An international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce office in Dallas for nine years, Rogers said of the smuggling:

“It is a way of life . . . and it’s built into the [Mexican] system. It’s designed that way . . . it’s very open, the payola or the buying of influence. One thing that makes it difficult is that you don’t go by the book; it’s who you know and how you persuade them – money or a piece of action – that’s important. That’s the way it’s done.

“And, oh yes, there’s a third method of getting goods across the border. That’s where the Mexican party accepts delivery on the U.S. side, probably in the center of the bridge, Laredo. He instructs the U.S. supplier to ship the goods to a freight forwarding company, and the company has offices on both sides. The American firm is paid when the goods reach Laredo; to them it’s a domestic sale, and that leaves them clean as far as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is concerned.”

Rogers pointed out that for years the Mexican government has restricted many U.S. products from going into Mexico. “They have a limited foreign exchange, and they try to keep that for the purchase of capital goods. They also want to protect their own fledgling industries so they place a high duty rate on those goods. It’s so high they virtually prohibit them.”

He also noted that in June 1981 Mexico raised its tariffs on several hundred items and imposed new licensing restrictions on importers sending goods to Mexico. Still, he said, the illicit trade is flourishing.

He explained that while these sales are illegal in Mexico, from the standpoint of the United States, no laws are violated in this country, only a trade agreement. With no provision for penalty, that makes the smuggling semilegal.

THE IMPACT of those sales-the tremendous magnitude of the semilegal smuggling operation from Texas into Mexico – was reflected in gross retail sales figures supplied by chamber of commerce offices. In 1980, the last year for which complete figures are available, Laredo (with a population of 91,000 and an unemployment rate of approximately 10 percent) had retail sales estimated at $821 million. That means that every man, woman and child in Laredo would have had to spend nearly $9,000 to account for the total. That’s a rather unlikely prospect. Other border cities reported equally impressive figures. Even with only 33 percent of the goods going south, the figures represented a staggering amount of business with Mexico.

“It’s hard, almost impossible, to measure the amount of trade that we [residents of the United States] have with Mexico,” Rogers said. “I’ve talked with hundreds of American companies – there’s a shipping form that’s supposed to be filled out for all exports -and I run across companies all the time that say they’re exporting to Mexico but have never, never filled out one of those forms. In a way, it [trade between the United States and Mexico] sort of resembles that between the U.S. and Canada. We don’t have any license requirements with Canada . . . and Mexico, even though it officially is closed, is at least semi-open.

“Part of it is the culture, the customs and tradition – the fact that Mexican officials have manipulated the law for so many years. All levels of government have been guilty of it: There’s been the written law and the unwritten law . . . and the unwritten law seems to prevail.”

That same culture, and the concern for traditions of Mexican bureaucracy, prompted one Rio Grande Valley-area Chamber of Commerce official to say, “You know, we’re more a Mexican city . . . even though we’re as American as apple pie. We’re tied much more closely to Mexico than we are to the United States. So we’re sensitive in the way that we’re covered in the press that might get back to Mexico City. You have to understand: We live and die with Mexico.”

MEANWHILE, back in Dallas, Isa-belle Cottingham ponders the confusing and often conflicting information.

“After months of waiting, we’ve finally received an official report from the Mexican government through the U.S. Consul in Matamoros,” she says. “They’ve returned Jim’s wallet, a ring and most of Tommy’s personal effects. But for all practical purposes, we didn’t learn a thing that was new.

“I do know one thing, though,” sheadds. “I’m going to find out what happened. . .even if I have to swim the RioGrande in concrete boots.”