By Steven Zimmerman
Over the last few months, I’ve seen arguments put forth in support of Trump’s wall, as well as arguments supporting the continued criminalization of marijuana.
Some of those arguments are laughable at best; others are downright racist and hurtful. Yet, an argument for the former had me thinking about the latter.
Can you imagine logging into Facebook one day and seeing someone using your father’s name as a reason to build a wall along the border?
That happened to Catherine Chagra, the daughter of Jimmy Chagra.
“What nonsense,” remarked Veronica Melero. “Do people think most of the illegal drugs that find their way into our communities are being driven across the border between the ports of entry? Such nonsense.”
Veronica’s mother, Brissa has a history with Jimmy Chagra.
“He was not evil,” said Brissa in a booming voice. “He was a man of the Church. He was a man who cared for those most in need.” In 1978 Jimmy Chagra helped to pay Brissa’s medical expenses at Hotel Dieu Hospital.
“When I made time for the holy sacrifice of the mass, at St Patricks,” says Brissa, “Mr. Chagra would be there.”
I thought I would reach out to Catherine Chagra and learn about her father, Jimmy, and see what kind of man he was.
Why? Because who you are with your family, is who you really are in life.
Catherine Chagra has authored a book entitled “Dirty Darlings.” The sub-title is “A Story of Big Shots, Free-Falling, and a Texas-Sized Return to Grace.”
“I came up with that title is because it’s kind of, but not really the sequel to dirty dealings,” says Catherine, in reference to a book entitled “Dirty Dealing: Drug Smuggling on the Mexican Border.”
Because of how the other book was written, without the author speaking to Jimmy, Catherine thought it was important that the other side of the story, the whole story saw the light of day.
Surprisingly, Catherine willingly admits her fathers’ actions.
“I was nine when my father and my uncle Lee was murdered, and then my dad got indicted. We were very well loved in the community of El Paso I mean, before that all happens, my family gave a lot to the community. They went to church. My grandparents are very religious. We were very close family, and we were always at each other’s houses,” says Catherine. “After everything happened, my uncle was murdered. Then the FBI went in and raided his law office and got all the evidence to indict my father.”
Then the media storm began. There were articles in the local papers, 20/20 came out and covered all the events surrounding the arrest and court process. Then, the pressure became unbearable.
“Dad jumped bail. He was scared,” Catherine says, “You have to remember, I mean, dad was 30 when he started smuggling and 35 when he got arrested. So that’s pretty young. He was like this paradox of a person who could be the most generous person, but also the most selfish. But he was more generous than anyone I’ve ever met in my whole life.”
Brissa spoke to that aspect of Jimmy Chagra when she told me that he not only helped to pay her medical bills from Hotel Dieu but paid the whole bill completely off.
“He knew me just as the woman who prayed the Rosary,” said Brissa. “In church, before the Sacrifice of the Mass, I would pray. That’s how he knew me.”
She wasn’t the only one he helped.
“It was rent,” says Olga Munoz Gomez. “I lived in downtown, close to my beloved Sacred Heart Church.”
For Olga, in 1978, she found herself behind on her rent while working on obtaining citizenship and paying legal fees.
“I was crying before the Blessed Sacrament at the church of St Patrick,” recalls Olga. “He ask me why I cry. I told him. When I return home that day, I am told by the owner’s son that my rent was paid and extra was paid for me as well!”
It was weeks later that Olga Munoz Gomez learned that it was Jimmy Chagra that paid her rent.
“It hurt me to see this man on all of the news shows. He was a nice man. A very nice man” recalled Olga.
“Money really didn’t mean anything to him,” says Catherine. “It did. And it didn’t. He had very high standards and lived in the lap of luxury. But if anybody needed anything, he didn’t hesitate to give money away.”
After Jimmy was arrested, after the legal wheels were set in motion, Jimmy and his family ended up in the witness protection program. They were removed from the familiar El Paso skyline and whisked off to the flatlands of Nebraska.
“My mom had asked and so did my dad just anywhere there’s mountains or oceans,” Catherine shared. “Omaha, Nebraska. And it was; it was wintertime.”
It was during that stay, with her father, in Omaha that Jimmy noticed that his family wasn’t happy. They were downright miserable.
“We stayed there for about six months,” recalls Catherine of the conversation her parents had. “He was like, look you guys are not in any danger, you can go home. And so, we did.”
During that time, Jimmy kept in constant contact with his family. The case progressed through the federal court system, and the day came that he was to be sentenced. Jimmy was sentenced to thirty years for smuggling marijuana into the United States. He was acquitted of the murder charge altogether.
Thirty years for marijuana is a long time. Time and again people are sentenced to decades, or even life, for marijuana charges. Yet, during his sentence, Jimmy Chagra continued to keep in touch with family and what few friends stayed by his side.
For what he was doing, for the importation of marijuana, Jimmy took the time to learn to fly a airplane. In fact, he learned to fly in one day – ONE day. I can’t even master a new camera in one day, and I’ve been taking photos for thirty-one years, and he learned how to fly in one day.
“Dad learned how to fly the plane and was then flying to Columbia and just speaking Spanish,” recalls Catherine. “Dad spoke three languages fluently. He spoke Spanish, Arabic and English.”
Then, the prison visits began.
“I went to visit my father every weekend, the whole time he was in prison, pretty much all through my 20s,” says Catherine. “Had I ever thought in the future, I would write a book, I would have asked a lot more questions. But we just talked about mom, dad and daughter stuff.”
Yet, when she began the book, she started to find transcripts of her parents’ conversations. There, in their words, was what had transpired, what had gone one from day one. These transcripts, even simple conversations with Jimmy, were missing from other manuscripts that found their way into publication.
“It’s just so fascinating. Um, he was so brave. I mean, people call it say crazy, or brave, whatever.” Catherine remembers. “First, he was bringing weed in through Mexico, and it was really bad weed. He said nobody liked that anymore. He bought it through being legal port of entry.”
That’s a key point to be made. What he was bringing in – they way he was bringing it in – was over the bridges. It wasn’t some clandestine mission, in the dead of night as the moon was hiding behind clouds. This was in a vehicle and right over the bridge and into the port of entry. It’s almost as if it really wasn’t that much of a secret.
“So then he decided to go to Columbia himself and flew to Columbia and to started speaking Spanish. Like he says, in the transcripts, that’ what I did. I made connections. That’s what I knew how to do. He connected people, and he just went there and just started randomly talking Spanish. He got a little motel room, stayed there, I think he said for about a month. Then two Colombians came knocking at his
door in the middle of the night. He opens the door, he hadn’t met them, and they were well dressed, and they’re like, come on, come with us. We’re going to take you somewhere. And my dad’s like, I don’t know, you guys not going anywhere?” says Catherine.
After what I imagine to be a back and forth conversation, Jimmy Chagra finally left with them.
“They meet up with a guy who has a key around his neck, and the guy takes the key to his shed and opens the shed door,” says Catherine of her dad’s trip to Columbia. “Dad said it was the most luscious, amazing marijuana he’d ever seen in his life. I think that was one of his biggest deals ever.”
After the deal was made, Jimmy began to load the plane. When he was done, loaded and ready to go, he flew right back here. Landed at the airport and that was the beginning of the direct flights to South America.
Fast forward to Jimmy’s prison sentence, as it was being serviced in a federal prison in Arizona. Even there, in what would later become a violent penitentiary in let 2000s, Jimmy Chagra what several knew him for – not drugs, or legal work. He was helping people in hopes of making them happy.
“He made the best of it. Like I said, he would be put on a smile he was interested in, in my life. It would seem to make it fun in prison. We would sing songs and dance. He loved to dance. She loved to sing. He kept himself busy in there and need ceramics. He did paintings for me, and the guards would bring out the painting to my car,” says Catherine of weekend visits to her father.
But Jimmy’s desire to make everyone happy wasn’t limited to his family or those he helped in El Paso. No, he even found ways to cheer the other inmates and guards up when they were not themselves or letting work or incarceration get to them.
I know quite a few people who work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A few phone calls to friends, a couple of emails, and I was talking to Robert [authors note: Robert asked I not use his last name].
“Yeah, he was a character aright,” said Robert as we talked about Jimmy Chagra. “He did his program. He had his routine like any guy in prison would. He had a prison job and then he would spend his free time in rec. He would paint, he would make things. He also would tell jokes or funny story to cheer up the other inmates when they was down.”
Then, there is the time that Jimmy asked his family if a fellow inmate’s family could stay with them so they could visit someone in the prison. Without even giving it a second thought, Catherine says they said yes.
Jimmy set it up so this one inmate, who was serving a very long sentence and had not seen his family since his incarceration would have that coveted visit. Jimmy paid the airfare for this man’s family, and it was all set.
Jimmy Chagra, according to everyone I spoke to about the idea for this article all said the same thing his daughter says. Jimmy was not a violent man. He didn’t wake up in the morning with a vendetta list he felt the need to check off. He wasn’t out to harm anyone else. What he was doing was meeting a demand by flying in the supply.
I know many of you who read this piece will say that I am trying to glorify a criminal. Others will say that I am romanticizing the life of a drug runner. I’m not.
My purpose here is twofold. First, and foremost, Jimmy Chagra was nothing more than a man, a business owner, who allowed a desire for the finer things in life get out of hand. It can happen to any of us. Hell, it’s happened to me.
The other reason is that post that came up on my Facebook wall that said Jimmy Chagra would never had been able to bring marijuana into the United States had there been a wall. Clearly overlooking his use of aircraft and cars to move the merchandise.
No matter what, when it comes right down to it, Jimmy was a husband, a father, a business owner, a man that was only doing what he thought would make people happy.
I’ll let Catherine have the final word.
“I’ve gotten hate my whole life ’cause of my dad. It’s a fight. It’s a fight. And I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting for my dad. I’m tired of fighting for my family, but I’m never going give up. This is my life. This is my entire life. My dad was my life, my mom was my life, my family and I’m not going to give up until it’s told right and that I can do some good. I remember my mom telling me when I was young; she taught me about character and she said, Cathy, she said, you’re going to be the one that makes the Chagra family look good and puts a good name back for the Chagras.
“It was just a little goal, but that’s what I strive to do. I mean, and I know it sounds a little bit egotistical. I’m not trying to sound like that. My dad was not a bad man. I will always fight for him.”
If you would like to get a digital copy of “Dirty Darlings,” by Catherine Chagra, simply click here. I’ve read it, and it is a good book.