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Naive Gringo Pill Popped Below Border Phoenix New Times


12.29.2018 | Alexis Lewin

This was Wednesday night, and he informed his family that he wouldn't be allowed by police to see them until Saturday, at which time Burkhart traveled to Nogales to meet the lawyer he had hired over the phone and paid a $2,500 retainer for Lindell's defense.

Much of it is because of Chris Burkhart and his family. Burkhart's 66-year-old stepfather, Ray Lindell, says he didn't know he was breaking the law when he purchased 270 Valium pills without a required Mexican prescription on May 19. Last week, the Phoenix man was released from an eight-week stay in a Mexican federal prison where he could have faced a 10- to 25-year sentence.

Photography by Jackie Mercandetti.

Later in the day, a dazed man carrying a plastic sack full of discarded soda cans will stop him on the street and tenderly touch the white spot while closing his eyes and murmuring something under his breath.

And what do the people whom Oscar meets want?

Fifteen years ago, Raymond Lindell lost his daughter in an accident at a church camp. The deaths weighed heavily on his wife, Norma, and resulted in a nervous condition, Lindell explains, which she has been treating with Valium for years. Ten years ago, his son was murdered by an acquaintance.

This is one of several ways into underground Nogales, the filthy drainage system that keeps the city from flooding. Oscar will move drugs through these tunnels for his U.S. It's a netherworld highway with several exits north of the border, most notably in the parking lot of a Church's Chicken in Nogales, Arizona. clients, he says.

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Naive Gringo Pill Popped Below Border Phoenix New Times

For a tip, and the commission he gets from the pharmacies he works for, Oscar can make getting drugs in Nogales trouble-free -- that is, with no hassles from Mexican police or customs, he boasts.

So why all the hype?

On January 1, the Lindells' insurance carrier decided it would no longer pay for prescriptions for brand-name Valium, and Norma was convinced that the generic equivalent was substandard.

Nogales is more of a party town, a cleaner, smaller version of Tijuana, where men like Oscar, 32, are part of the economic engine that drives the bustling place.

"Two different countries, two different sets of laws.". "It's no excuse for Americans not to know the law when they are in Mexico, just as it's not an excuse for Mexicans not to know the law in the U.S.," Feinman says.

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"Pills and titty bars" are Oscar's professed areas of expertise. Each strip club customer nets him $2, and certain restaurants pay him 50 cents for each table of gringos he directs their way. For each tourist he delivers to a pharmacy, he receives $5.

He has worn many hats since leaving his home for the north. Oscar hails from Ciudad Obregon, an agricultural town in Sonora. Today he wears none; his black hair is buzzed, the left side of his head notable for a large patch of pure white about the size of a baby-jar lid. "A birthmark," he explains.

He was charged with illegal possession of drugs, possession with intent to transport and possession of drugs in a quantity for sale.

In an interview before Lindell was let go on July 13, Bob Feinman, a member of the Board of Directors of the Nogales, Sonora's Chamber of Commerce, affirmed that "businesses of all kinds are off because of this issue.".

As for Burkhart, he launched a very public campaign aimed at pressuring the Mexican government to drop the charges against Lindell. Members of the Phoenix family spent weekends in Nogales handing out fliers to tourists with information about Lindell's arrest. He spoke to news media, senators and congressmen.

Burkhart says he scrambled to put the records together that weekend, but was informed in court on Monday that it was too late to present such information and that Lindell would be formally charged on Thursday.

Lindell left the pharmacy and walked down the street, pausing at another store to look for a wallet for himself and a necklace for his wife. She offered to walk it across herself, for $150, and he recoiled. The young woman approached him, ling him she knew he had Valium in the bag and that it was illegal for him to carry very much across the border.

They looked inside and inquired, "Is this for you?". When Lindell exited the store a short while later, two plainclothes policemen stopped him and asked what was in the bag.

Recreational drug users (like Martin's Percodan-seeking clients) have "burned" Nogales, he explains, meaning they have exploited the system to the point where authorities have been forced to react.

The bottom line is, the laws haven't changed in Mexico.

He'd get swamped by people begging. When he out in the general population, he'd be the American, the new guy, and they knew he had money, at least $2 for the phone. "Everything down there has to do with money. "The inmates have to buy their own water, and they have to pay the guards $2 for phone access," says Burkhart. When we'd go to visit -- these are cattle stalls with bars -- there was so much noise and confusion we barely hear him.".

Lindell had neglected to obtain a prescription from a Mexican doctor for the controlled substance, and minutes after dismissing the woman, Lindell was arrested.

Many gringos come in search of cheaper drugs -- which they need for their medical conditions, and can little afford in Phoenix drugstores. Prescription drugs just south of the border are often 50 to 70 percent cheaper than in Arizona, and with HMOs refusing to cover certain pharmaceuticals and brands, many frugal retirees and lower-income patients find treating what ails them more affordable in Nogales.

Oscar navigates through Nogales quickly, crossing in the middle of the street at times without looking up, jumping off road obstacles with abandon.

Most of the nearly two million tourists a year coming to the town to do business are in their 50s or older, most savvy enough to know the law, and have had less use for Martin's services than the young people who are starting to arrive. Los Algodones (population 5,000) is a swap meet of goods and services, mainly pharmacies, and optical and dental clinics.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think he would be in prison," says Chris Burkhart, his stepson.

The fact that it's a country Americans tend to love for its bargains and lax regulations didn't play into Burkhart's media campaign. And while Lindell went to Mexico because he could make a Valium purchase that wouldn't be available in the Valley, he apparently didn't bother to find out the Mexican modus operandi used by countless thousands of others who had done it before him without much of a problem. But the truth is somewhere south of that notion, though nobody's saying Mexico isn't wildly different from the United States. The comfortable American didn't bother to follow the rules in another country.

"Since happened, she's become a recluse. "There's a good reason my mom takes Valium," Burkhart insists. We pretty much take care of her.".

Naturally, Lindell appealed. The latter could take two to three months for a court to consider, at which point Lindell would be allowed to present the evidence the judge refused to hear at his arraignment. Lindell was given a choice: either accept the charge and wait one to two years for a trial, or appeal. At that time, a judge threw out the two counts of possession of narcotics and possession with intent to sell, but kept the count of possession with intent to transport across an international border.

The family soon found out they could bring him supplies, went to Wal-Mart on the American side of the border and bought food, a sleeping bag, a cot and some stomach medication, since Lindell had become ill from eating prison food. At first, Lindell had slept on the floor of his jail cell using his shoes as a pillow.

Oscar's what is known in Nogales as a "fixer," and, like Martin, he swears he can get "anything you want -- anything!" Most people come to him looking for narcotics and strippers, usually both.

The narrow calle that visitors are funneled into as they make their way into Mexico is lined with farmacias. Men in white coats stand outside and shout over one another to everyone who passes: "Pharmacy?! Pharmacy?! Pharmacy?!".

"He had been incarcerated with the general population for four days," Burkhart says, "until we learned we could move him into a better area for $600 -- that is, a pod where he has room to set up his cot in a hallway.".

He means that the white in Oscar's hair is a symbol that he has been touched by God. It happens all the time.". "It's a benediction," Oscar says, somewhat shyly. "They think it is a blessing I am giving them.

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Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, Burkhart agrees, although it seemed to be the very excuse that he used to pique the mainstream Arizona media's interest in his stepfather's case. The story became:.

He made his way to a pharmacy just across the line, although he couldn't say which one. Lindell could only recall seeing the word "discount" on the storefront, but most every pharmacy in Nogales advertises discount medicines. On May 19, Lindell took his wife's prescription, left his beautiful Moon Valley home and headed south in his gleaming white Cadillac for his second pharmacy run.

An elderly Phoenix man intent on nothing more than helping his sick, elderly wife went to corrupt Mexico to buy pills -- because her cheapskate insurance company insisted she get a cheaper generic version that she felt was less effective -- and he was arrested by venal Nogales authorities and thrown into a jail that makes Sheriff Joe Arpaio's hellish Tent City look like the Phoenician. What a travesty!.

It's true that recent events in Nogales have been good for Algodones street rats like Martin, 26. But in Algodones, Martin is one of a hopeful handful of such "tour guides," and he's banking on the scare in Nogales bringing him more business. Nogales is full of young men who latch onto American tourists and help them find whatever they are looking for.

He turns off Obregon Street to Vasquez and begins to climb, ling a story along the way of an adventure last week.

Each Saturday, Lindell's family visited him, bringing supplies, money and mousetraps to keep rodents away from his small cache of victuals.

"Lowest prices in town," they assure the steadily flowing crowd. You want Viagra? I give you free samples," they call to an Anglo woman who smiles and walks quickly toward the colored blankets and silver bobbles on the corner. "Señora, whatever you want.

Lindell says he was approached at a curio shop by a Mexican woman who wanted to mule the $200 worth of Valium he had just purchased across the border -- for a fee. He hadn't. He refused the offer, convinced that he had bought the 270 tablets legally.

Dressed in an oversize purple jersey, shorts and spotless running shoes, Oscar's face is somewhat pinched, his eyes everywhere at once. It appears there's more than just hustle in his bloodstream. He's been up for a few days and looks it, but he's more wired than tired.

Which forced Lindell, Burkhart's earnestly told every media outlet that would listen, to do what lots of senior citizens on limited incomes do. Out of pocket, the cost of the premium narcotic was about $600 a month.

"Everything," he says, as he winks both eyes in quick succession.

"Some of the information is factual, and other information is quite negative. It doesn't take much to scare people when you talk about Mexico.".

In other words, when buying drugs in this border town, wise gringos play the game.

He didn't get a receipt for the 270 pills. Lindell presented his wife's Arizona prescription and handed over the $200 in cash.

When they got to the hosry, the man asked Oscar to find him a girl. But the guy didn't answer repeated knocks on his ho room door. Oscar met a man from New York and, for a price, helped him find an out-of-the-way ho where he could hole up and shoot heroin. Oscar obliged and returned shortly with the man's date. Oscar was concerned, he says, and opened the door to find the man blue on the floor, not breathing. Oscar says he quickly began performing CPR, and as soon as the guy was breathing again, he called for help.

He spent the next 56 days in prison. There is no bond for this kind of crime in Mexico, and many arrested on similar charges spend nearly a year in prison just awaiting trial.

I don't want any more trouble.". He's more of a broker for sex and drugs than a partaker these days. He doesn't do that anymore, he says. "I don't drink. Oscar was a coyote in '92, he says, and brags of a daring run across the border in plain sight of immigration authorities, with him leading a group of 48 migrants at $20 a head. If I want to smoke a joint or do a line or two, I do that at home, alone.

It was all to be presented to the court on Monday. Lindell's arraignment was set for the following Monday, and the attorney made a flurry of requests. He wanted medical records that would document Norma Lindell's nervous condition, a letter from her doctor, even a marriage certificate.

Store windows and walls are plastered with signs for popular drugs such as Soma, Valium or Premarin.

"Too much partying, too many problems. We don't have that here in Algodones," he says, smiling. "Yet!".

Oscar swears he didn't, quickly wiping his dripping nose. "I saved his life, and for this they kick and punch me?" he asks, holding his hands up to the sky as if he's expecting an answer. And what did he get for his trouble? He says police confronted him a few days later and beat him up, suspecting he had provided the heroin to the New Yorker.

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Mexican authorities released Lindell without comment, but it's believed in Nogales, Sonora, that because the publicity cut into the town's economy, business officials were finally able to pressure police into dropping the matter.

Pharmacy owners in Nogales are hurting. There are reports that tourists feel safer journeying to Los Algodones, about a three-hour drive from Phoenix, just south of Yuma, where there may be less heat from Mexican police.

It was later that night that he was allowed to use the phone and called home with the names of a few Mexican attorneys he had been told about.

A few steps from the metal turnstile gates that spin you from one country to another, the banter begins.

"You give me the prescription and the money, and I will fill it for you and meet you somewhere. Or, if you are nervous, I can meet you in a bathroom and pass it under the stall," he says.

Ray Lindell's arrest and that of several teenagers last spring -- who were dealing large quantities of Mexican-bought Soma in Valley high schools -- has hurt Nogales' image north of the border.

"But if you want, I can buy the pills and meet you right before you cross la linea.

Although Burkhart says he knows generic and brand-name medications are exactly the same, his mother couldn't be convinced. People who take prescriptions for nervous conditions are often hesitant to switch to a generic equivalent, contends Burkhart, as he begins to l his stepfather's story. The Lindells informed their physician they would be going south of the border to purchase the medication, he says, and the doctor wrote her a prescription for three months' worth of the narcotic.

"And if you are really nervous, on the other side. I can walk into one of those tunnels and come out anywhere. No one can catch me.". I am smart, I think about things before they happen. It's easy for me.

Despite the mainstream-media-fed scare, the number of Americans incarcerated in Nogales for purchasing controlled medications and related charges is about 12 (most in their 30s or younger) -- which American consular officials in that city insist is status quo.

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Lindell, whom his relatives maintain is painfully honest, said no and was arrested and taken to jail. He believes the situation would have been better for him if he had answered that he was purchasing the narcotic for personal use.

He started traveling to Mexico to get the medication for his wife. Lindell made his first visit to Nogales and picked up a two-month supply for $120. No problem. Same m.o. as the time he got caught, he says.

The river of humanity flows both ways in border towns, and economics drives inhabitants of each side of the international dividing line to look to the other country for what they cannot get at home.

The area around and inside the tunnel entrance is a pungent sea of garbage. He has arrived at the first stop on a tour he's giving. Oscar stops a moment in front of his sister's house and quickly ducks into an alley, pointing to a cavernous opening about two feet off the street.

But an equal number come to Nogales for the drugs they know they can score either on the street or after a quick trip to a doctor who sells them a prescription for narcotics like Valium or Xanax for about $20.

Commerce on the border can be simple and safe, Feinman says, and he emphasizes that it remains so for those whose business in Nogales is legitimate. But, he explains, "you have to know what the laws are! Lindell did not know what the laws are.".

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A former electrician at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Lindell is an unlikely criminal.

"People want things, and I get them.". He did some prison time north of the border, was deported and now is happy working the streets.

The sidewalk merchants he passes are greeted with a handshake or a quick " Que onda 'mano, " as Oscar cruises along the narrow sidewalks headed for the first stop on his "tour.".

Lindell slowly learned the system.

Ray Lindell claims he encountered a young woman on May 19 who offered him one of the same services that Oscar advertises.

The availability seems a little overwhelming at first, a little like Pinocchio taking his first steps onto Pleasure Island -- before he indulges in the decadence around him and turns into a jackass.

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The recent arrests of Americans purchasing controlled substances in Nogales without bothering to jump through the hoops required by Mexican law have been big news in Phoenix and Tucson, yet what the press labeled a crackdown is more aptly business as usual for Mexican authorities.

Martin can provide tourists with everything from Soma to marijuana -- 48 kilos of it, he brags, just waiting for a buyer.

On a recent weekday afternoon, he leads a young couple past sidewalk souvenir stands to a back-street pharmacy where no prescription is necessary, no receipt is given and prices are double the amount imprinted on the box of "Neo-Percodan" -- which, it turns out, is not Percodan but a form of Darvon in a deceiving package.

They're here to buy drugs. Traditionally, however, most people don't walk away. Although numbers are uncertain, enough tourists cross the border looking for "prescription medications" to support an estimated 100 pharmacies in Nogales, Sonora, a town of 200,000 people.

An accident with a sand blaster. In 1994, Oscar says he worked for Cox Cable in Phoenix and rolls up his sleeve to show a nasty scar over his entire forearm. He was working with false papers at the time, and says even though he had been with the company for six months, he had no medical insurance. "I talked with many lawyers and wanted to sue, but they said I couldn't because I'm Mexican.".

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