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A Road Trip, Mexican Style, to See the Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys have attracted a devoted fan base in Mexico, a country where American football ranks second to Mexican fútbol. Travelers risk overnight bus tours on roads traversed by violent drug cartels for the chance to see a game at Cowboys Stadium.

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MONTERREY, Mexico — The convenience store was the last stop until the border on the road leading out of this industrial Mexican city, and Raúl Vargas, a tour guide, made his instructions clear: The 24 die-hard Cowboys fans on his charter bus should get their snacks and beer now, because this bus would not stop again until it reached the United States Customs checkpoint in Laredo. The sun had set an hour ago, and  Vargas did not have to say what his passengers already knew: traversing these Mexican highways — especially after dark — could mean a run-in with the country’s fiercest drug cartels.

For these travelers, who ranged from blue-collar construction laborers and freight-line managers to lawyers, professors and engineers, the chance to watch America’s Team play in the new Cowboys Stadium was worth the risk, and the $400 round-trip fare. Their weekend trip to Texas included visits to a 160-acre flea market in Grand Prairie, a giant shopping mall in Arlington and an overnight stay at a hotel with a complimentary happy hour.

But it was the final stop, to watch the Cowboys face the Giants, a division rival intent on taking the Pokes’ first-place standing, that had been marked on their calendars for months.

Other NFL teams, like the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders, have small followings in Mexico, but they do not compare to “Los Vaqueros de Dallas,” who have attracted a giant, devoted fan base in a country where American football ranks second to Mexican fútbol.

Marco Antonio Martinez, 32, an engineer who boarded the bus to Dallas in Monterrey, said that as a child he was drawn to cartoons on Sundays, not football. Then he tuned in to watch Michael Jackson perform at the halftime show during Superbowl XXVII, in which the Cowboys clobbered the Buffalo Bills, 52-17.

“There was a pass from Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin where he had to launch himself forward to make the catch. I said ‘wow,’ and since then I’ve been a Cowboy,”  Martinez said. “Sure, there’s a risk. There’s a lot of insecurity. But it’s worth it to see the game.”

Travel With Fear

As the bus ambled toward the highway, the pick-up trucks of Nuevo León’s fuerza civil, its state police, sped by, beds loaded with masked policemen wielding machine guns. The lawmen are this Mexican state’s latest attempt to quell the drug violence here, in a region once thought to be one of the last safe havens in Mexico’s ongoing war against the cartels.

But the Zeta and Gulf cartels, former allies that split more than a year ago, have instead made Nuevo León the latest staging ground in their grisly battle for control of drug routes, resulting in some of the most gruesome scenes in Mexico’s violent decade. In August, gunmen torched a famous casino in Monterrey, killing more than 50 guests, mainly women. These days, locals give friendly warnings to foreigners: do not go downtown after dark.

Jorge Millote, 26, a tax lawyer, was making his third trip to North Texas despite the warnings. For Millote, a devoted football fan, there were two options: drive his own car, or come on the bus. “I think it’s a lot safer to come on the bus,” he said. “Before we leave, one crosses himself and prays for all to go well. But to travel with fear, no, not me.”

The violence, especially on the highways, has caused  Vargas’s business — carting rabid Cowboys fans to Dallas for games — to taper off in the last few years. The Cowboys’ abysmal 2010 season, in which they were eliminated from the post season before December, did not help either.

“We have a lot of faith in the Cowboys, but right now they aren’t playing that well,”  Vargas said as the bus barreled down the dark highway. He put some of the blame at the feet of quarterback Tony Romo; he is a bigger fan of the backup Stephen McGee. Romo “walks on the field with his head down,” Vargas said. “He lacks the leadership.”

A Long Tradition

The half-hour wait to get through security at Cowboys Stadium would pale in comparison to the wait at the international port of entry in Laredo. The bus arrived at 9:30 p.m. on a recent Friday — nearly 48 hours before kickoff — and passengers sat for hours before they were asked to show their visas.

Vargas, 51, is no stranger to this wait. At times, he has been stuck for nine hours. “Have patience, people!” he called. As the bus rolled to a stop in Laredo,  Vargas regaled his passengers with tales from his journeys during the era of Coach Tom Landry.

”Sometimes our drivers didn’t even have a license,” he said, chuckling. “And sometimes we didn’t even have tickets to the game.”

He and his passengers used to show up at the stadium “with gifts, trinkets, bottles of tequila, other goods and give them to the guards.”

“If you sat in someone’s seat, you’d just move when someone asked you to,” he said.

Those days have since passed.  Vargas, in the third year of a 30-year contract with the Cowboys, now pays in advance. Each year, before the season begins, he receives an envelope filled with nearly $40,000 worth of tickets — the price for 10 games, including two in the preseason, at $80 a pop. What he does not sell in Mexico he tries to unload in Texas.

“In each business, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose,”  Vargas said, one of the many lessons he doles out on the road.

Finally, at about 11:30 p.m., the travelers grabbed their luggage and headed for the X-ray machines. Tired and groggy, they did not complain. Their smiles said it all.

For Travelers, No Regrets

For these fans, game time could not come soon enough. Nearly 600 miles from Monterrey, they wove their way through stadium traffic, donning Cowboys gear, checking and double-checking their coolers and snapping pictures of each other, beaming.

The first-timers gaped at the colossal stadium and gawked at the world-famous Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Others got down to the business of the game, talking strategy. The beers, with their hefty $8.50 price tag, passed from father to son, from new friend to old comrade.

Hours later, the highs and lows of the game would rival the fear-tinged excitement on the bus trip through Mexico. The Cowboys, who led by 12 points with five minutes left in the game, suffered yet another fourth-quarter collapse in a season filled with them. A last-second Cowboys field goal — needed to tie the game — was tipped by the Giants and fell short. As the ball hit the turf, more than 90,000 fans gave a collective sigh.

The weight of the defeat was not lost on these travelers, but to them, there were no regrets.

“Was the trip worth it? Of course,” said Carlos Gallegos, 32, a freight manager from Saltillo, Coahuila, who made the trip from Monterrey. “We’re all of the same mindset, a little sad and heartbroken. But we all agree it was worth it.”

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