With all the drug violence in Juarez in recent years, many people have forgotten that El Paso was once the center of America's marijuana universe.
A crew of smugglers who grew up together in El Paso are now sharing their story in a new book, “Folly Cove: A Smuggler’s Tale of the Pot Rebellion”
Kermit Schweidel is the book’s author. "The book is classified as 'true crime' because I think everything has to be classified as something," Schweidel said.
But he considers his new book more of a memoir than a true crime tale.
Schweidel grew up in El Paso, where everyone knew him as Kim. He became part of what was likely America's largest marijuana smuggling ring in the 1970s. "We didn't consider ourselves to be criminals,” Schweidel said, “we considered ourselves to be outlaws and we considered that criminals were people who left behind victims and we didn't leave behind anything but satisfied customers and happy users."
He said they were rebelling against a U.S. government that kept fighting the Vietnam War while secretly acknowledging it couldn't win, and the man who started the “War on Drugs,” President Richard Nixon, who would be forced from office by the Watergate scandal. "Our government was about as corrupt as a government can be.” Schweidel said. “I mean from the President of the United States, to the Vice-President, to the Attorney General, to his chief advisors, they went to jail."
This smuggling empire began as a group of friends who grew up together in El Paso, pot heads in search of a steady supply of good weed, who just happened to be in the perfect place to make that happen.
Mike Halliday was one of the ring leaders. "My job was to acquire the pot in Mexico,” Halliday said, “get it to the border and get it crossed."
He and his buddy, Jack Stricklin, were small-time marijuana dealers who had trouble finding consistently good weed until Halliday learned about a Juarez grandmother. "La Nacha was, she was the Pablo Escobar, or whatever you want to call her. She was as big as they come, ok? nothing was bigger than La Nacha," Halliday said.
But La Nacha wasn't interested in dealing marijuana. It was too bulky and didn't have the payoff of heroin or cocaine. Her grandson Hector, however, loved to smoke pot, and soon Jack and Mike had their steady supply of good weed and soon they were flooded with business. Halliday said, “I mean we had so much money that I couldn't put on a coat or anything without money falling out of it."
Jack Stricklin was the son of an El Paso Natural Gas vice-president. But Jack used his management skills differently than Dad. "We were on a first-name basis with the D.E.A.,” Stricklin said in an interview that was taped for a possible Hollywood pitch, “I invited them to my wedding." Stricklin who died last fall, also said in the interview, "[we] were non-violent."
All the crew members said, back then, they didn't need guns because pot was about peace and love, and they trusted each other.
Schweidel said one reason for their smuggling success was Stricklin’s charm. "Jack's gift was his relationship to people,” Schweidel said, “all kinds of people from all walks of life. Everybody liked Jack Stricklin."
Jack was also a joker. At the height of his success in the marijuana business, he built a beautiful estate in the Upper Valley. It came complete with horse stables, a gazebo and a pool with a huge, green marijuana leaf painted at the bottom to greet the D.E.A. agents who often hovered above in aircraft, surveilling his property.
Billy Russell didn’t start out as a smuggler, but admits, “I had an addiction to adrenaline that was very strong."
Russell was Mike Halliday's boyhood neighbor in the Lower Valley. But their lives moved in different directions as they grew into men, with Russell becoming a decorated Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Russell said, as an Army warrant officer, “I was the type of officer then, and pilot, that if I caught you or saw you with pot, I would pull out my 45, lock and load a round and arrest you on the spot."
After flying some of the most dangerous and top secret missions of the war, Russell left the Army, returned home and married. He tried marijuana for the first time on his honeymoon. He said, "It was like somebody untied a knot that was in my spinal cord and my brain."
Soon Billy Russell found a new adrenaline rush. “Nike showed me a suitcase, or big bag, with 300 grand!” Russell said. “I looked at this kid who had no education, who was just a tagalong guy, Mike, and my whole opinion of him changed instantly! (laughs)."
But when most people think about drug smuggling in El Paso “back in the day,” two names usually come to mind, Lee and Jimmy Chagra. “They were so fixated on Lee Chagra as a kingpin that they could hardly see the forest for the trees," Schweidel said of the federal agents who were tracking the smuggling ring. But he said Lee Chagra really just a brilliant attorney with a theatrical flair who loved to stick it to the government in court. “He was making all the money he could possibly need as a drug lawyer, Schweidel said, “that was what he was."
Lee Chagra, Jr., who goes by the nickname Leader said, "My Dad, he was unbelievable in the courtroom honestly. The stuff my Dad did in a courtroom, you could never get away with today."
Leader went on to say, "He had nothing to do with the drug business, and if he had they could have busted him, I mean they would have put him in jail."
Jimmy Chagra was the spitting image of his older brother Lee, and he was part of the smuggling crew. But he drew a very different reaction from the crew, than did Lee. Schweidel put it succinctly. "Jimmy, in my opinion, was one big impulse"
I read Schweidel a quote from his book, “You said Jimmy wasn't a snake because that would be an insult to snakes." Schweidel replied, "Yeah, I was a little hard on Jimmy. But Jimmy would also say he'd kick you to the curb and not give a second thought."
Leader Chagra said of his uncle, “Jimmy was crazy, man! I mean I loved him because he was my uncle and he was funny, I mean he was a funny guy. But he was crazy man!"
Crazy though, might be just the quality you need if you believe you could successfully smuggle nearly 60,000 pounds of pot all the way from Colombia to Massachusetts and then distribute it nationwide in a matter of days.
But that's just what this group of El Paso boyhood friends managed to accomplish in the summer of 1975. I’ll bring you that part of the story in the next segment of “El Paso’s Smuggling Empire.”
“Folly Cove: A Smuggler’s Tale of the Pot Rebellion” was published by an El Paso-based company, Cinco Puntos Press, located at 701 Texas Ave. You can buy copies of the book there, or at Barnes & Noble bookstores in El Paso.
Watch Part 2 of El Paso's Smuggling Empire: http://bit.ly/2ImvDyE