September 13, 2008
TIJUANA, Mexico -- There is a moment each evening, as the sun melts into the Pacific, when Colonia Libertad is at peace.
The dimming light blurs the hilltop slum's rough edges, camouflaging piles of trash in long shadows and making it difficult to tell that some of the tightly packed homes clinging to vertical canyonsides are made of old packing crates and cast-off plastic tarps.
The stadium lighting that towers over the corrugated metal wall marking the U.S.-Mexico border is dark, permitting residents a bird's eye view of Tijuana, where lights are blinking on, blanketing hills that lead toward the ocean. Farther inland, the dark shadows of mountains are sketched across the sky.
There are no helicopters reverberating overhead, no drone of all-terrain vehicles. Even the bony guard dogs chained outside their homes respect the silence. Fathers stroll lazily behind children who steer beat-up tricycles along the rutted dirt paths that serve as streets.
For a moment, residents are reminded of what it was like before the wall, when children ducked under a barbed wire fence to play soccer in U.S. territory and returned home for dinner. When smuggling meant giving directions to migrants who simply outran border agents and melted into the crowds of tourists.
But it is only a moment.
The floodlights click on, bathing the neighborhood in a blinding light. The helicopters return, clattering past. And the smugglers arrive with their ladders and blow torches and groups of people desperate to escape a fate similar to the one residents of Colonia Libertad long ago accepted.
As the U.S. government battles environmentalists and residents to build hundreds more miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, both sides would be well served to take a long look at Colonia Libertad _ Freedom Neighborhood.
In the early 1990s, Colonia Libertad became one of the first places to coexist with the recycled, corrugated-iron barrier that has become a symbol of the conflicted relationship between a first-world superpower and the developing nation that lives in its shadow.
The fence didn't stop the migrants. It didn't stop the drugs. It merely pared down the hopeful crowds that used to flood San Diego hillsides, diverted the drugs underground and into the mountains, and helped create a ruthless smuggling industry dedicated to beating the U.S. Border Patrol at its own game.
But that's not to say the sections of fence that have been built haven't been successful. The barriers, combined with high-tech security measures such as surveillance cameras and ground sensors, have made getting into the U.S. extremely difficult. And as security has increased in recent years, the number of people trying to cross has fallen dramatically.
The downside, residents on both sides say, is that the border has become a violent battleground, shattering a shared American and Mexican history that is blind to things such as fences and borders.
Once, the only barrier between Colonia Libertad and San Diego was a barbed-wire fence.
Residents would squeeze between its rusty spikes, escaping the crowded barrio for the open hillsides of U.S. territory. Adults roasted meat in barbecue pits while children ran free.
"It used to be fun, because we'd cross and play soccer or baseball or volleyball," says Jaime Boites, 35, whose home is steps from the border. "Nobody cared. When we were done, we'd just go back to our houses in Mexico."
U.S. Border Patrol agents left the picnickers alone. Sometimes they even strolled over and shared a taco.
They were more concerned with the other side of Colonia Libertad, the smugglers who used the neighborhood as a staging ground for vanloads of people or drugs or some other kind of contraband that the gringos legally didn't want but were always willing to pay for.
It wasn't hard to get to the United States, which had few agents and little security. Sometimes migrants gathered at the border in large groups to rush past outnumbered guards, like a crude game of sharks and minnows. Others packed into vans that raced drugs or people across the hills.
"Back then, there used to be vans going through U.S. territory, just like nothing," Boites says. "Vans full of people, any time of day."
Boites was 8 when one van struck and killed a 5-year-old girl.
That was the main reason the wall went up: to stop the vehicles.
When the first stretch of wall went up, made of material recycled from landing strips left over from Vietnam, Boites was a teenager living in San Diego. Back at his family home, the fence cut off the view of the United States.
Little changed in Colonia Libertad. Smugglers cut holes in the fence and drove their vans through. Migrants scrambled over the wall, using the corrugated ridges like the steps of a ladder.
But to people in Colonia Libertad, it was still a slap in the face, proof the gringos weren't willing to acknowledge that they needed Mexicans to cut their lawns and take care of their kids.
"Sometimes we get the feeling that we aren't wanted over there," Boites says, gazing at the graffiti-covered wall.
Americans saw the fence as a necessity because millions of undocumented workers and tons of illegal drugs were streaming into their cities.
But it had consequences they never intended: Seasonal workers unable to easily go back and forth built permanent lives north of the border. Migrants were pushed into the searing desert of Arizona, and more than 1,600 have died, often of thirst and exposure.
In Tijuana, the United States kept increasing security, using the area to test new anti-smuggling methods and expanding the ones that worked. It added a second layer of fencing at some points, redesigning each barrier to make it more difficult to overcome.
Smugglers responded by charging migrants more money and becoming more violent. They used slingshots to launch rocks, bottles, nail-studded planks, Molotov cocktails. Sometimes they wanted to hurt border agents, but mostly they were trying to create diversions while they moved people or drugs across at another point.
Since last October, there have been 340 assaults on Border Patrol agents patrolling the California border. The Border Patrol says it doesn't know whether any agents were injured in those attacks.
The response, however, has taken a toll. In 2005, an 18-year-old Mexican boy was fatally shot by the Border Patrol. In August, a Mexican man was shot and wounded by an agent trying to disperse a group of rock throwers at a dry, concrete-lined gulley near Colonia Libertad.
During one assault, agents fired pepper and tear gas across the border into Colonia Libertad.
In a ramshackle house that uses the border fence as its back wall, Esther Arias' eyes began to water, her throat burned and she couldn't catch her breath. Her 3-week-old grandson screamed in pain, confused by the air that singed his tiny lungs.
A tear gas canister punched a hole in her father's house across the street and landed on the floor.
"Soccer field" is written on the U.S. side of the fence facing Colonia Libertad.
That's the only reminder that Mexican children once played here. Now it's a marker for the Border Patrol.
High-powered cameras look in every direction from atop towering poles. Ground sensors let agents know when someone is moving through the fields.
"We've got bodies," a voice crackles over James Jacques' walkie-talkie.
In the distance, a few people dressed in black jump from lightweight handmade ladders they used to scale the second layer of fencing. They run into a ditch, but agents catch them within seconds. A van pulls up, and they are loaded inside to be driven back to Mexico.
Those are the easy ones. Jacques says many smugglers have become violent, once stringing a nearly invisible wire across a path to knock agents off all-terrain vehicles. One took out a camera tower with a shotgun.
"Before, they wouldn't fight back if caught," Jacques says. "Now it's military-style tactics."
He defends the use of tear gas and pepper balls, saying the alternative is worse.
Studying Colonia Libertad through binoculars, Jacques sees not a neighborhood of families, but a smugglers' den.
"That's a lookout tower," he says, pointing to a small room built on top of a house. "You'll see them all along the border."
Drug smugglers have gotten more sophisticated as well. They have built more than two dozen tunnels under the border since 1994. One opened into a warehouse steps from the border, and drug dealers posing as businessmen quietly shipped their wares across the U.S. until agents shut them down.
Other drug runners have taken to the mountains, using blowtorches to cut large doors in the fence and then taking four-wheel-drive vehicles across the rugged terrain.
In one of the new subdivisions carpeting the hills north of the border, Alma Beltran, 42, turns her sport utility Volvo into her two-car garage and carries groceries into the kitchen for dinner.
She and her husband, both Mexicans, own a factory that makes packaging labels in the beach resort of Ensenada, but they moved to the U.S. a few years ago so that their daughter could go to American schools and speak fluent English.
But they didn't go far: Their home is two miles from the border.
"If we go on a walk _ and we like to go on walks _ every time we try to do that, we are stopped by border patrollers," Beltran says. "They are always pleasant and say, 'Ma'am, you shouldn't be walking here. It is dangerous.'"
Beltran says she is polite, but rarely turns back. Having grown up in both Mexico City and the U.S., she's not frightened by the increased security in the U.S. or the violence in Mexico.
"It's the same problem: People trying to cross. Agents chasing people home," she says. "There's nothing new."
Her neighborhood is a sprawling collection of cavernous terra-cotta homes that sell for double what most Mexicans will make in a lifetime. Spanish is the predominant language, and most of her neighbors are upper-class Mexicans driven north by a wave of kidnappings and drug violence south of the border.
But even in the carefully groomed suburbs of San Diego, it is impossible to escape Mexico.
Beltran has only to look out her kitchen window to be reminded that she is caught between two worlds.
As she makes dinner, she can see the hillsides worn bald by the Border Patrol, the fences dividing the San Diego suburbs' neat grid from the jumbled streets of Tijuana. In the distance, the stadium lights flooding Colonia Libertad flicker on.