July 6, 2009
by Thomas Watkins
SAN DIEGO—A scrub-filled gorge historically used as a staging area for immigrants to gather by the hundred before dashing illegally into the U.S. has been all but sealed off by a massive berm topped with a steel-meshed fence and bright lighting.
The finished Smuggler's Gulch project was unveiled Monday. It involved moving 1.3 million cubic yards of dirt to fill in part of the canyon, which straddles the border just inland from the Pacific Ocean and alongside the Tijuana River estuary.
At a cost of about $59 million, and 12 years of planning, environmental reviews and legal challenges, the project has transformed the look of the westernmost edge of the border, an environmentally sensitive area that is a key stopover for migratory birds.
Gone are the precarious switchback roads that once zigzagged up either side of the canyon. It now is filled in with dirt and spanned by the light-brown berm that has a smooth asphalt road running along its top.
Gone too are the crowds of would-be immigrants and the vendors that catered to them on the Mexican side of the gorge.
"This is night and day compared to what it used to be," U.S. Border Patrol supervisory agent Daryl Reed said, recalling a period in the '90s when an agent could arrest dozens of people in a single shift.
The project is part of an older plan dating back to 1996, when Congress approved a 14-mile stretch of fence inland from the ocean. Filling in the gorge and work on the surrounding area proved highly contentious as environmentalists worried about potential damage to sensitive habitats in the estuary.
The Border Patrol says changes in the area will actually help the environment, because fewer people will be trampling on sensitive habitat and the asphalt roads have reduced the amount of dust in the air.
Border Patrol agents said the fencing means they now have full "operational control" of the area. In 1986, there were 600,000 apprehensions of immigrants along San Diego County's border with Mexico, Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Conlin said. The number has dropped dramatically since then, with 162,000 arrests last year.
But critics say people are simply being forced farther east into more treacherous conditions in the desert.
Conlin said the Smuggler's Gulch project means agents can now safely zip across the rolling terrain in minutes, whereas it would perviously have taken up to an hour.
Local lore says the gulch got its name from bootleggers bringing alcohol into the U.S. during Prohibition.
The project has spelled the end for a transnational park on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Friendship Park drew crowds from both sides, and people would chat through a chain-link fence separating Imperial Beach and Tijuana. Now it lies abandoned behind a towering new fence.http://www.mercurynews.com/news/ci_12764623?source=email&nclick_check=1