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At the border, U.S. customs agents battle against Mexican bologna smugglers

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Smuggling attempts at the U.S.-Mexico border during the COVID-19 pandemic include more than drugs. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at international bridges are also finding a popular contraband comfort food stashed in vehicles — Mexican bologna.

Miriam Ortiz, a shopper at La Mejor Texas Meat shop in West El Paso understands the popularity of the lunchmeat from Mexico. While picking up steaks and short ribs for her family, she lamented she can’t buy Mexican bologna, too. She grew up eating the best-known brand in Ciudad Juarez. “I love Chimex and it’s very frustrating because we can’t cross it either,” she said.

The bologna is not allowed across the border because it’s made with pork and could introduce a foreign animal disease into the United States.  But that doesn’t stop people from trying to bring the meat from Mexico.

“It’s loved and they crave it for the most part. They smuggle it across because they’re able to sell it per se under the table,” said CBP Supervisory Agriculture Specialist Katherine Vasquez.

In the more than 20 years Vasquez has inspected food products at border crossings, Mexican bologna has persisted as one of the most popular prohibited food items. The contraband in the form of red-colored rolls, called chubs, turn up time and again.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized a large load of Mexican bologna hidden in the back of an SUV at the Ysleta port of entry in El Paso. (Photo courtesy of CBP)

The chubs weigh about 10 pounds each. While some are for personal consumption, larger quantities carefully concealed in cars and trucks are smuggled for profit. The price of a roll at least doubles once it crosses the border. “Say anywhere from $30-40 to say further north up to $80 for one single roll,” according to Vasquez.

Mexican bologna has turned up across Texas and the rest of the country. Some of those trying to sneak the sausages across the border these days are people who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic, Vasquez said. “People who normally wouldn’t do it are engaging in this type of smuggling activity,” she explained.

Since mid-May, CBP officers at border crossings in El Paso have seized at least 1,000 pounds of bologna. One man had 35 rolls hidden under blankets in the backseat of his SUV, along with nine rolls of another illegal lunchmeat.

Though the border is closed to essential travel, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents cross back and forth since CBP cannot stop them from returning home to the United States from Mexico.  The penalty for not declaring a commercial amount of bologna is a $1,000 fine. 

So has Vasquez tasted the bologna?  “No, she said, chuckling. “I know that it takes forever to burn.” CBP officers destroy the bologna by incinerating it at ports of entry and it does smell like a big hot dog roast.

Back at the La Mejor Texas Meat Shop, manager Raul Burrell takes pride in his store. He said customers come for quality, freshness and prices.” The style of the cuts of beef, house marinades and ranchera music playing in the market also offer a taste of Mexico. 

Customers at La Mejor Texas Meat Shop in El Paso select their cuts of meat. The El Paso market offers a taste of Mexico in cuts of beef, house marinades and ranchera music it plays. Customers who crave bologna from Mexico though can’t buy it in U.S. stores because it is not allowed across the border. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)

Burrell points out his store also carries Chimex bologna distributed by the FUD brand. The bologna, produced in the United States, is made with poultry, not pork from Mexico. Ortiz says it does not taste the same. “It doesn’t have the same flavor. I don’t know if it’s because it’s Americanized. I don’t know if it has the same ingredients,” Ortiz said. 

The U.S. bologna is lighter in color than the Mexican version, too.

“Over there it’s kind of a reddish color. I really don’t know what’s in there but it’s really good,” Ortiz said.

Cover photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized a large load of illegal bologna from Mexico at the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso. (Photo courtesy of CBP)

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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