San Deigo Union-Tribune
November 19, 2008
The Border Patrol is claiming success along a formerly chaotic five-mile stretch of the border between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, where fencing was raised and reinforced with razor-studded concertina wire.
Yesterday, agents in San Diego celebrated the completion of the wire project, begun in December and mostly finished about two months ago. The Border Patrol said both illegal-crossing arrests and assaults against agents in the area are down by more than 50 percent.
However, a growing number of apprehensions and assaults are occurring west of the San Ysidro port of entry, and overall arrests in San Diego County continue to rise. And while smugglers are having a harder time leading people over the fence using flexible ladders as they once did, inventive ones are now using battery-powered saws to cut through it.
Still, “if you look at incremental gains of operational control, this is one piece,” said Michael Corley, agent in charge of the Border Patrol's Imperial Beach station, which oversees the area.
The section of fence that was reinforced abuts Colonia Libertad, a Tijuana neighborhood that has long been a launching point for clandestine border crossings. In recent years, as the Border Patrol tried to gain control, smugglers grew more violent, often hurling rocks – at times covered in gasoline-soaked rags – at agents.
The Border Patrol responded with pepper spray, tear gas and occasionally bullets. A man who agents said was linked to smuggling was fatally shot in December 2005.
In February, agents discovered a thick wire strung between the primary and secondary border fences. When pulled taut, it stretched across a patrol road at about neck level, a decapitation hazard for agents on all-terrain vehicles.
Mexican officials confirmed an incident last November in which 11 Tijuana residents received medical aid after being hit by tear gas. In December, the Border Patrol began straightening the secondary fence with help from the National Guard, elevating it by about 3 feet. At the same time, contractors began installing the concertina wire.
The wire, which agents say is not used elsewhere on the border, has been met with criticism. Yesterday, the Mexican consulate in San Diego released a statement calling it a detriment to international relations.
Razor wire “is not a signal that reflects the good relationship between our countries,” the statement reads.
The statement also raised the potential for injury to immigrants. Corley said two laceration injuries have been reported, and the number of jumping-related injuries to immigrants has dropped.
There is no way to know how many people have been cut because it's likely they would return south for treatment, said Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-affiliated group that assists immigrants.
“It is completely unnecessary and barbaric,” Rios said of the wire. “Part of the reason is trying to dissuade people from coming across by creating a show of force.”
Some people have tried to throw blankets over the wire, Corley said, but overall it has discouraged crossings. In the 11 months before the first of the wire was installed in December, 7,989 apprehensions and 184 assaults against agents were reported for the area the station oversees. In the 11 months following, 3,746 apprehensions and 90 assaults were reported, respective drops of 53 percent and 51 percent.
Despite these declines, there has been a recent increase in smuggling traffic and assaults to the west. While in the past apprehensions were evenly split on either side of San Ysidro port of entry, recently the west side has seen more than 70 percent of them, Corley said.
And while smuggling from Colonia Libertad has lessened, smugglers are still working. A common method now is to gouge a hole in the steel mesh fence and then saw out an opening. That takes three or four minutes, Corley said, while “with the ladders, they would be over in 15 seconds.”
He said agents still encounter some violence and occasionally use nonlethal weapons, such as pepper-spray launchers. There are no plans to install more concertina wire.
San Diego County has experienced its third straight year of increases in border crossing arrests, with most traffic still coming through East County, according to agents. In fiscal year 2008, which ended Sept. 30, there were 162,390 apprehensions in the agency's San Diego sector, compared with 126,904 in fiscal year 2005.
Apprehensions have been down along most other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.