With a jolt I awoke to the sudden change of speed. In the middle of the night the bus I was riding in from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas braked to a stop. The lights over the narrow aisle blinked on as the driver turned in his seat to make an announcement in Spanish, that he repeated in a struggling English.
Men will be coming on, he said. They will only take a moment. After that, we will continue on our way.
My neighbor in the next seat, a man in his 50s I’d made the evaluation earlier, separated the curtains. We were quiet looking out at the small canopied station of logs and canvas, with a desk a soldier with a camouflage cap on his head sat at. Next to it, two green jeeps and a transport vehicle were parked. More soldiers, I counted six of them, with helmets on their heads and black automatic weapons trained at the ground, stood around a man wearing a white shirt that was tight over his shoulders and pants that had a fine crease in them. Further ahead, a swell in the road had the fluorescent name of the state we were about to enter spray-painted on it.
Chiapas was on the other side and we needed military clearance to pass into it. It was another amendment to my travel guide I’d mention in my notes, a guide that was more like a gloss of reality compared to what I’d been seeing with my eyes. This was one of the checkpoints set up after the 1994 armed uprising that had the intention of stemming the flow of arms and Zapatista sympathizers into the state. Plan Sur was an immigration control program that advanced military occupation along the border.
With an air-compressed whoosh-splash sound the door opened and the man in the white shirt stepped up. He was heavy but not fat, a bulk that exuded strength. Someone, it appeared, who wouldn’t be shy about using the authority he’d been given to prove there was reason his superiors had entrusted him with it. In the third row of seats I read the photo ID hanging from his neck. The General de Inspector seemed alert despite the early hour, as if he was some extraordinary being who didn’t need sleep. Two young soldiers with rifles came up behind him.
A burst of Spanish with the driver ended with a smile and a laugh. Then the Inspector General started down the aisle in a slow, menacing way, his gaze penetrating the eyes that looked up at him long enough to build a paperless dossier on what he saw in each. He was a believer, I was sure, that eyes would tell you everything. The lawbreakers and anti-government rebels carried a look that would show you they’re covering up the thing you’re looking for. It was his job to find those people wherever they were. Everyone was under suspicion until they weren’t.
The Inspector General checked a few IDs, but not mine. I was a tourist, not a threat, and he must have seen that affiliation on my face. The affiliations of my fellow riders showed they weren’t rebels or lawbreakers either.
Reaching the back, the soldiers about-faced and came up the aisle. The Inspector General came up behind them. He was done with our bus. And that was the meaning of Plan Sur, to get the word moving around: Don’t dare fuck with us or you’ll be caught and arrested.
At the front, the Inspector General and the driver exchanged another burst of Spanish. After that, the Inspector General nodded and stepped down. The driver waved. The door closed, the lights went off and there was a shift of gears. The bus continued along the dark highway toward San Cristobal.
I did as my neighbors. I closed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep.