Marijuana smoke clings to the beams of the ceiling. A red light pulses through the room, revealing fleeting glimpses of the men at the bar who stand without drinks in their hands. The music is loud so Mercado draws in close, ‘Those guys at the bar, they’re the coyotes (people smugglers).’ I look up briefly and catch the eye of a thickset man in denim. I scoop up my drink and he holds my gaze, though he loses interest as a dishevelled man with a backpack on his shoulder approaches.
I am on the western edge of the United States–Mexico border to understand more about the most publicised and most crossed border in the world. I want to understand how 11 million unlawful immigrants, at a conservative estimate, have passed into the United States, crossing the line in the dirt that separates the developing from the developed world. In 2011 that line saw 340,000 apprehensions along the border, a mere fraction of those who make it across—a number it is impossible to know. I want to see how one of the world’s most notorious borders handles this situation and to gain some perspective on our own frontier issues in Australia, as we deal with the hysteria surrounding refugee arrivals, with constant claims of a ‘detainee deluge’ and the thousands ‘invading’ our country as boat people and asylum seekers.
In 2012, 8684 asylum seekers (or ‘irregular maritime arrivals’) came to Australia by boat, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This is less than half the number of people who show up to watch Sydney FC and Alessandro Del Piero play in the A-League each weekend, though it is still the issue that divides opinion and understanding politically and culturally in Australia.
The San Diego trolley trundles through the flat outer suburbs. Discount clothing outlets, Jack in the Box restaurants and Walgreens drift past the scratched windows of the carriage. The fences here are painted with graffiti and strewn with bags of clandestine rubbish thrown next to the tracks—it’s not the blond-haired, carefree San Diego of the brochures. This is the Tijuana trolley that takes us from the business district of the United States’ eighth largest city to the frontier with what was known as recently as 2009 as one of the most dangerous places on earth for drug-related violence and murder.
At the Imperial Junction stop all the signs are now in Spanish and English—there’s an advertisement for 1 per cent commission on cashed cheques and another for a Taqueria. As the doors of the trolley begin to close a man scrambles on board and takes the seat across from me. He heaves two large grey duffel bags onto the seats and breathes heavily. He is looking my way—I’m the only other gringo in the cabin.
‘This goes to Tijuana?’ he asks. I nod and he seems encouraged by a familiar face. ‘Name’s Teddy. I’m from Michigan,’ he extends his hand and continues, not waiting for my prompt. ‘What’s it like there? In Tijuana?’ he adds. ‘It depends on what you’re looking for,’ I say. There is a long moment of silence between us. ‘I’m running away,’ he says without offering more. We sit in silence as the Tijuana hills appear in front of us. Teddy checks his watch. The chatter increases around us and I note the foreign feel of the trolley now. ‘I’m gonna look for work … or something.’ I nod again, not sure how to respond. ‘Do they check your documents when you cross?’ I tell him that the crossing into Tijuana, the busiest land border crossing in the world, is nothing more than an unmanned turnstile. As the frontier looms closer we see the Mexican flag flapping on the edge of the Tijuana canal. ‘Do you have a phone?’ I shake my head. He taps his leg and looks at his watch again. ‘I can’t do this,’ he exhales, before scrambling off the trolley at H Street with his two grey duffel bags. I watch Teddy recede into the distance, but I don’t have time to dwell because the end of the line is ahead.I’m not crossing now, that’ll come later. Instead I walk across to an outlet mall in the suburb of San Ysidro where a white suburban four-wheel drive is waiting for me. Jacopo Bruni meets me; he is dressed in soldier green with a gun at his side. Bruni, an officer for the US Customs and Border Patrol, will be allowing me a rare view of the Mexican frontier from the US side. The San Diego sector is 100 linear kilometres, much of that is urban and we’ll be crossing into the ‘no man’s land’ that separates the two countries.
In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 42,411 ‘captures’ in the San Diego sector and Bruni says that numbers increased in 2012. To put this into perspective, in 1986, the year Mexico hosted the World Cup, there were 628,000 captures in the San Diego sector alone. That’s an average of 1720 people being caught and detained per day. As Bruni tells me this I can’t help but think of the Department of Immigration statistics that put the unlawful arrivals by air and sea for all of 2012 in Australia at 8759. This is a sobering statistic and I wonder if it’s the sort of perspective we need to understand in Australia when we move people to Manus Island and Nauru because we can’t manage the influx.
As Bruni and I drive through the first gate I ask what the basic job of a patrol officer is. He looks across at the fence and the Mexican flag in the distance and says, ‘Consequence delivery,’ with a note of finality as the gate closes behind us.
The 1986 figures show that this used to be the Wild West, but now it’s a ‘model sector’ according to Bruni. Once upon a time, when their personnel and equipment were lacking, ‘people used to just run along the highway and through the checkpoints in big groups—they knew that we couldn’t catch them all. We called them Banzai runs.’
Now there are two barriers in the urban zone: a primary fence (taken from Vietnam War stocks) and a five-metre secondary fence lined with barbed wire. This complements the ground sensors, cameras, stadium lights and the 2600 officers in the San Diego sector. When people are caught trying to get across they are processed and interviewed by Border Patrol and the Mexican consulate. If they don’t have a criminal record in the United States they are sent back within two hours.
We drive to the edge of the Tijuana canal. Fifty metres across the murky water we see men standing against the fence. ‘This is where much of the drug trafficking happens,’ he tells me as we note the Border Patrol car looking out to the Mexican side. ‘It’s here twenty-four hours a day,’ he adds.
We drive along the access road only metres from Mexico and approach the enormous ‘Jurassic Park’ gate, as Bruni calls it. He radios in and the gate opens, allowing us to drive right below the main highway in Tijuana. The Mexican city is colourful and ramshackle, with the slums pressing up against the manicured town that we can see from here.
We stop at a twist in the road and look out, San Diego on our right and Tijuana below us on the left. In between is a rocky gully that falls away underneath the apartments on the Mexican side. Bruni points to a collection of rubbish on the hillside and an abandoned shanty. As I snap a photo he tells me to look closer. There are men inside, ‘Smugglers,’ he says. ‘This is all a game of cat and mouse. They watch us twenty-four hours a day to see our patterns and to find any holes in our system. We’d be naive for thinking that their technology isn’t as advanced as ours,’ he says.
This stretch of rocks and brush is called ‘smugglers gulch’ and it is still a hot zone where smugglers bring in contraband. ‘When we built the road here we had an outside construction company doing the work—they had orange and white trucks.’ We get back into the four-wheel drive and he continues: ‘The smugglers cloned a work truck from the company and got through the checkpoints. They would have gotten into the US if an agent didn’t notice that there were like twenty-five “workers” in the back of the truck.’
As with those attempting to come to Australia, people smuggling here is big business. I ask if people ever just decide to cross over by themselves and try their luck ‘There aren’t many Mom and Pop crossings,’ Bruni tells me as we drive towards the ocean. ‘The cartels will tax people who want to cross. Otherwise they’ll rob, rape and even murder them. Aside from that there are border bandits [who] hide out and wait for people who get separated,’ he says, hinting at a side of the story we don’t know.
As we drive towards Bunker Hill and the Tijuana bullring, Bruni says that often officers on night patrol will see smugglers literally fighting each other for business.
Bruni grew up in Florence and came here when his father got work as a chef. He tells me that it is compulsory to speak Spanish with the Customs and Border Protection. He’d had an Ecuadorian girlfriend and spent a lot of time in Latin America before he signed up ‘to be one of the good guys’.
We arrive at Friendship Circle, where there are two doors allowing people from Mexico and the United States to meet for a few hours on the weekends. While this seems like a humane allowance, it has created its own problems. For example, many of the people who want to see friends and family are in the United States without papers.
Through the fence I can see the towering bullring, which still features exhibitions in summer. A Mexican family sit on the grass on the other side of the fence, only metres from me, having a picnic. I walk away from my minder and follow the fence line. It extends out into the ocean for thirty metres or so, just to make sure.
Bruni arrives at my side as I look across to the vacant grey beaches of Tijuana. ‘When we started getting a handle on land crossings people started crossing in the ocean.’ In 2011 there were 108 vessel seizures here and initially the boats carrying people would only go out a few kilometres, but now they travel as far as 500 kilometres out to attempt an undetected crossing.Just because the CBP has a good handle on things doesn’t mean that all is under control. As we drive back the other way, through Tijuana’s outskirts, Bruni shows me the ‘breaches’ in the fences: scars and squares the size of a man have been cut out. The scars stretch for kilometres, showing where people have tried to force their way into the United States using saws and wire cutters. Bruni says that they still get people throwing mattresses over the wire, trying to cross, and they have uncovered many complex tunnel systems between Tijuana and San Ysidro. Recently the CBP found a tunnel in suburbs bordering the United States that was twenty-seven metres deep. Smugglers had tunnelled 250 metres from a warehouse in Mexico into another warehouse in the United States; ‘There were lights, ventilation and an elevator—it looked like a bathroom in a small apartment.’
We drive along the straight dirt road. There is open grassland on one side and three-storey slums on the other. This is Colonia Libertad (Freedom Colony) and according to Bruni it is ground zero. ‘This is where a lot of the cartel activity comes from,’ he says as I take a photo through the open window. Bruni makes a point of winding it up from his side. ‘We get lots of “rock ins” here—people in the slums throw rocks and bricks at us when we’re this close.’This area also used to be known as Las Canchas. When the Border Patrol wasn’t as well equipped, smugglers and their passengers used to stop here for games of football between the groups. There were drink stands and sweets stalls for people to stop at along the way.
As we continue to the edge of the city, a mountain looms in front of us and the fence abruptly veers around it. In the corner of the fence we see a man crouched and hiding. Bruni quickly radios a colleague and spins the vehicle—he’ll let another officer escort this guy back across while he returns me to civilisation.
I want to see what the border is like outside the city, where the ‘Jurassic Park’ gates and fences aren’t used to keep the crossers out. The next day I drive east along Highway Eight to El Centro, a farming community 200 kilometres away. The landscape is lunar, full of burned rocks against a treeless horizon. I drive and watch mirages shimmer across the road and I understand the natural barrier separating the countries out here.
Meeting me at the Border Patrol Headquarters is Jores Peters, who has been a ranger here for five years. El Centro isn’t on the border so we head out across the flat fields to the base of Mount Signal ten kilometres away. There are spiked iron crosses on the left side of the road that stand to about chest height and on the other side of them is Mexico. Peters tells me that a few years ago he saw a car get bogged in the sand as it tried to cross the spikes, using a ramp. As he approached, ‘Twenty people scrambled up from the sand and pulled the car off the ramp and back into Mexico.’
I ask what he did. ‘Nothing. I was outnumbered, so I just had to stand and watch.’ He tells me he has only pulled his gun once on active duty and has never used it. ‘We haven’t had a shooting here for a couple of months,’ he adds matter-of-factly.
There is a water tower halfway up Mount Signal and Peters tells me that there are Mexican scouts at the tower base monitoring them constantly. The first sign of cover after the mountain is a line of scrub on the edge of a dirt road, so that’s where we drive. Within a minute of leaving the car Peters finds and shows me a ‘lay up’ spot where the people crossing will rest and collect supplies. In the branches of a dead tree we find empty water bottles, a life jacket for crossing the Colorado River, and sponges. Peters picks up a sponge and stands on it with his boot, ‘step in the sand over here,’ he tells me. I leave a clear footprint and he steps next to me with the sponge underneath his foot, leaving a smudged and soft print next to the clear diamond design of my own.‘We use whatever we can to track them, and they use whatever they can to cover it up. With clear footprints we’ll radio between the officers to track the shoe patterns—that’s why they use the sponges, to make it harder.’
Peters motions to the other side of the road and shows me a contraption called a ‘drag’ that hooks onto the back of a truck. A ‘drag’ is four tyres weighed down with blocks of wood. The officers drag this around the sandy roads so that any footprint left will show up clearly. It’s not all action and captures, though. Peters says that much of the job is just ‘watching the fence rust’.
We drive through the fields and out onto the highway. This is a major pick-up zone because it runs close to the border. We pull in to the edge of the Colorado River canal that separates Mexicali and the US city of Calexico, where the runners use life vests, like those we found earlier. Peters says that the Sinaloa cartel runs things here and they’ve got bars and places to lay low all along the fence. I creep closer to take a photo and notice two boys poking their heads through a hole in the fence to wave at me.
‘Scouts,’ says Peters without surprise.
It all happens quickly. Suddenly I see a puff of dust and a man running. He jumps the fence and is trying to disappear into Calexico. The scouts aren’t out by accident, it seems. In such a congested area he doesn’t get far before he runs into a border officer. We’re allowed to chat with him briefly before he’s taken away; he has travelled from central Mexico and is looking for work. ‘He’ll be back in Mexico in two hours in time for dinner before he tries again tonight,’ Peters says as we walk away.
This provides another stark contrast: the average detention in Australia for ‘unlawful’ arrivals is ninety-five days as of December 2012, and the stigma attached to those trying to get to Australia in a boat, who risk more than just a barbed-wire cut, is absent here. Peters has no problem with the people he prevents entering, they are only crossing to find a better life. It’s not quite compassion, though the human element of this problem is much more apparent here than the ‘queue jumping’ image we get in Australia.
‘It’s a shade of grey and it all blends together in the end,’ Peters says as we drive along the fence line. The Mexicali and Calexico border shows me how closely these places coexist. We cruise along a suburban street that fronts right onto the fence, and from their porches the houses look straight into suburban Mexico. Up ahead we see a family on the US side standing and talking to another family on the Mexican side. They pass notes to one another while the Border Patrol car parked twenty metres away makes sure they don’t pass anything more. If I think this is strange, Peters tells me that the local Calexico Mission School is right next to the fence and they get jumpers running through the playground on nearly a daily basis.
The people smuggling is one issue, and the one that allows me to consider this from the Australian ‘boat people’ perspective, though one of the biggest problems they have on the border now is drug smuggling; this area is third in the United States for seizures of cocaine and methamphetamine. We intercept a truck that has been flagged for cocaine and Peters tells me the latest thing is light aircraft crossings.
‘They have these motorised hang gliders with pilots. They attach a basket full of drugs to the bottom and head out in the middle of the night. In the fields on the US side they’ll have someone waiting with a candle in a coffee can so they can see the place to drop it.’
As we drive through Calexico Peters tells me that many Mexicans see the Border Patrol officers as bogey men. He says that Spanish is the first language here and he’d be made to feel pretty uncomfortable if we walked the streets while he was in uniform, ‘I’m not sure if I’ll stick with it,’ he says as we drive past a sign saying Hoy! Ofertas! ‘I’m not sure if I want to live on a border for the rest of my life.’ The Border Patrol officers I met said they would be reluctant to cross into Tijuana because of what they’ve seen the cartel do, and because they know that the scouts watch them every day.
The time has come to experience the other side; I take the trolley once again and cross into Mexico. I expected three things from Tijuana before arriving—gleaned from Manu Chao’s 1998 song ‘Welcome to Tijuana’: ‘Tequila, sexo, marijuana’. Another line in Manu Chao’s song is more telling, ‘Con el coyote no hay aduana’—With a people smuggler, there’s no customs.This border is like many the world over, busy and just a little edgy. I walk through the turnstile that admits me into Mexico without so much as a second glance from the armed guards with machine guns.
Showing me around his city is Izauro Mercado, a local filmmaker and activist who runs the migration organisation Espacio Migrante with his partner Paulina. We drive through the upmarket Zona Rio with its shopping arcades, museums and tree lined streets. Where is the Tijuana of legend? I ask
‘Three years ago we couldn’t go out in public after dark because of the assassinations on the street, though things have calmed down here now. Tijuana has a reputation for gourmet food and for industry, especially carpet,’ he says as we weave between the cars and buses to the centre of the city.
While the violence is now a thing of the past, Mercado points out that part of Tijuana is still desenfrenada—out of control. ‘The police abuse their positions here and just look for bribes and shortcuts. This is a real problem for people with no identification.’
I ask what can be done and he shrugs, ‘It’s the dynamic of the migration here … at the moment anyway.’
We drive through La Rev, the main drag of Tijuana that was once the centre for US college students indulging in debauched weekends. It was Tijuana’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road before the violence. The strip is still full of bars and tacky stalls selling ponchos and lucha libre masks, but now there are restaurants and mariachis on corners with guitars in hand waiting to be hired for the evening. Our route takes us back to the Tijuana canal that separates the two countries, this time approaching from the Mexican side. It is where many of the most desperate and destitute congregate—looking for drugs, prostitutes and coyotes. I was here only days ago with the Border Patrol and the contrast is not lost on me. The highway in Tijuana runs along the edge of the canal and Mercado tells me that people are killed here often when they cross to buy drugs or look for a place to sleep. To give me a taste of their experience, Mercado parks the car in a side street. Then we play ‘frogger’ with the six lanes of traffic to get to the canal. As we run between cars, Mercado says that it’s important to understand what the people here go through on a daily basis.
We climb the banks and on our left we see people shooting heroin in the tunnel and buying vials for later. Further along, the high-heel strut of women under the watchful eyes of their minders indicates that this area belongs to the prostitutas and their pimps.
‘The regular people who live in Tijuana aren’t border crossers like this,’ Mercado says as we walk along the empty bowl at the bottom. We see a couple walking their dog by the water and a man on his knees washing his shirts in the flow. ‘The border is something we live with. My father used to cross, legally, every day to work in San Diego. “Life in the line”, we called it. The people who cross illegally come from the south—Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, we even get people from Korea crossing here.’
For all its reputation Tijuana feels secure and vibrant, if a little scruffy around the edges. I didn’t expect a tour of the red light district of Tijuana, though Mercado insists that it’s an important place to see, in order to understand the scope of what happens on the frontier.
We walk through the Zona Rosa and the first thing I notice is the noise. Music escapes from the gentlemen’s clubs, women lean on the corners of alleys and doorways, hissing to capture the curious eyes of people walking past. As the women pout and wink, men with slicked hair and chains approach and speak to me in American-accented English: ‘You want a massage?’; ‘Do whatever you want for $40’; ‘How ’bout a blow job?’
I haven’t seen another foreigner in Tijuana before now. As Mercado and I walk we notice American men, some in suits and others in thongs, walking into the clubs to take the pimps up on their offers. As we walk past locals eating tacos and corn on the cob from street stalls, Mercado pauses at the entrance to a dimly lit alley with green-painted doors in a row, ‘There are dormitories and tiny rooms here, many of the prostitutes live here with their children and go out to work in the evenings.’ I’m wondering how the city fits together and Mercado tells me, ‘None of these women are from Tijuana. They come from southern Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala hoping to cross. The pimps get them hooked on drugs and then they can’t escape the cycle.’
As we walk through the dark streets of Tijuana it makes me wonder what sort of situations must prompt people to board boats for Australia, when the possibility for success is much more remote than even here.
Next Mercado and I go to an underground bar where coyotes find clients. It is also a local student bar so it’s more about the beer and weed here than the ‘specialisations’ of the other establishments on the strip. The bar is dark and loud. The smell of marijuana drifts in from the hidden corners. Mercado tells me that the fee is US$3000 for a coyote and his network to take you across. If they are true to their word it will involve guides, provisions and a safe house on the other side. ‘For some coyotes it’s just a job and they treat the people well. For others they take people’s money and leave them in the desert alone. It’s like anything—there are good people and bad people.’ Mercado also tells me that many of the coyotes are regular members of the community, and they’ll just do a bit of people smuggling on the side.
The next morning we head out early to one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city. We are visiting El Desayunador del Padre Chava, a breakfast centre run by the local Salesian church catering to people who have little hope of eating without the church’s charity. As we arrive I see that the line stretches around the corner. ‘People come here for some food, a shower and maybe a phone call if they’re lucky,’ says Mercado. A volunteer walks along the line of people and draws a number with texta on each of their hands so they can’t cheat the system.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, people are friendly towards me as I ask questions and take photos. I realise that something as simple as seeing the fence from two sides, as I have done, is impossible for many of the people on this side of it. The opportunity to see the people, from both sides, allows a closer look at what is behind this tension on the fence. Australia is famously ‘girt by sea’ and this prevents any sort of close interaction and understanding with those outside the borders, though I wonder if understanding better the reasons people attempt to cross, rather than just running commercials to inform asylum seekers that Australia will take them to an offshore processing facility, could help foster a sense of understanding and maybe even empathy with what is behind these actions.‘All they want is someone to listen to them,’ Abraham, a Mexican who volunteers at the centre, tells me. ‘Most people just want to be treated like a human being. If you say hello, how are you … you’ll see their faces light up.’ There are probably thirty volunteers serving food, cleaning, cutting vegetables and handing out clothes. I ask Abraham what the purpose of this place is. ‘We’re a trampoline for something better … we hope.’
We’re interrupted by commotion outside. The police have arrived and they’re trying to take away a man who has no documents. ‘This happens nearly every day, all they want is a pay off,’ Mercado tells me. After fifteen minutes of arguments and negotiations the man is still taken away, though a volunteer gives him the equivalent of $20 to pay the bribe.
Out in the courtyard I meet a recent arrival, Jorge, from Honduras. He has travelled more than 4000 kilometres from Puerto Cortes in Honduras on the roofs of cargo trains through El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Jorge has the severe look of someone at the end of the line.
He came with his neighbour, Johnny, looking for work to provide for his four children at home. Jorge has tried three times to get across: first in the deserts outside Laredo in Texas where he and Johnny walked by themselves for four days before the CBP picked them up; second, with the help of a coyote in Nogales after which they were kept in Pinal County jail, Arizona; and only a few days ago they were captured in California and returned after their mandatory two-hour processing. Jorge and Johnny have run out of money and Padre Ernesto is giving them food and a place to sleep while they work as volunteers here and wait for what comes next. ‘I don’t want to try again. I just want to go home now,’ he says. ‘It’s not about luck, it’s always a question of money.’Just this morning at the desayunador, Padre Ernesto welcomed 1200 people for breakfast and a shower—this was a quiet day, he tells me, as usually they’ll have 3000 looking for some help before they try either to cross again or get home to where they started from. For many, either option has become a bridge too far, as the drugs and prostitutes of the canal I witnessed yesterday with Mercado illustrate. The volunteers close the doors of the centre and clean up, ready to do it all again tomorrow.
It is time for me to make my own journey home to Australia. Mercado drops me in the alleys next to the border so I can join the line, as his father did each day for many years. The line snakes past liquor stores and currency exchange booths and it takes three hours to get through after being grilled by the Border Patrol on the purpose of my visit. When I walk back across the border I’m relieved. I remember the contrasting stories of Teddy and Jorge as I get back on the trolley for my journey back to San Diego. Jorge’s desperation to travel north, to find an opportunity for something better for his family, and Teddy from Michigan who was fleeing south, looking for a second chance, though unlike Jorge and the thousands of others crossing illegally from South to North, no-one would be there to intercept Teddy and send him home again.
I had hoped to gain an insight into the Australian border patrol experience with this issue, though a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Patrol informed me that they were ‘not interested’ in allowing me to come along to see the realities of patrolling the border from the Australian point of view.
There are issues on both sides of this frontier, as with all borders, though while there are assumptions and flaws on both sides, and the lengths the United States goes to fence themselves in are absurd, there is a notion, however small, of the human element of this crisis in the interactions between the CBP and the runners. There are broader issues here, which might be addressed when President Obama raises the possibility of an amnesty for unlawful immigrants in the United States later in 2013, though the simple fact that people are taken back over the border within hours if they don’t have a criminal record suggests that there is a level of understanding from both sides that essentially these are just people looking for something better.
All this leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. It’s possible that the Australian border patrol displays this same understanding and humanity when dealing with people trying to access Australia aboard boats, though, because they’re ‘not interested’ in allowing a portrayal of this, we can’t know for sure. One thing is certain; there were 7237 asylum seekers in Australian detention as of December 2012, including 1221 children waiting for an opportunity, for a second chance. We trade on Donald Horne’s moniker of ‘the lucky country’. Teddy from Michigan’s luck had turned and he had the option of heading south to find a new world, but Jorge from Honduras didn’t, and I wonder what our own neighbours’ responses would be if our luck ever changed in Australia.