Border Patrol agent Richard Gonzales pushes a button in the shiny white Chevy Tahoe he’s driving. In response, a gate rolls open to allow entry to the no-man’s-land between the secondary fence and the old primary fence. The gate is in Otay Mesa, maybe a mile west of the port of entry.
Gonzales turns west onto a two-lane graded dirt road between the fences. The view here is striking. On the right towers a 15-foot fence made of a perforated metal similar to a front-door security screen. It’s the kind of structure that could only be built in a wealthy country. It glimmers with fresh gray paint and is topped with coils of nasty razor wire. The fence stretches 13 miles from east of the Otay Mesa port of entry to the ocean. The final section, in Border Field State Park, should be completed in May.
By contrast, on the left, the northwest corner of impoverished Latin America piles up against a ten-foot fence made of rusty corrugated-metal panels. Houses constructed of plywood, old garage doors, and bare concrete blocks cling to canyon sides, buttressed by retaining walls made from old tires stacked and filled with soil. Each 15- or 20-foot section of the primary fence bears a spray-painted number. The numbers get lower as we go west. The fence panels are Vietnam-era landing mats — they were used to make instant runways. “That was the material we had on hand when we built this fence in the early ’90s,” says Gonzales, who has spent his entire 22-year Border Patrol career in San Diego. “Before that, it was chain-link, some barbed wire.”
The old fence, Gonzales says, didn’t stop many illegal immigrants. “In fact, when I started in 1987, we didn’t even patrol this area. We waited for them about a mile north of here.”
Outnumbered Border Patrol agents in those days essentially conceded this rugged country of mesas and barrancas to the border crossers, their guides, and groups of roaming banditos who preyed upon the immigrants. “They knew these people were carrying their life savings with them. So they robbed the men, raped the women, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. It was just too dangerous for an agent to be out here alone.”
Every 300 feet or so along the road between the fences stands a light pole. Some of the poles have one-by-two-foot sheet metal signs hanging from them, emblazoned with names such as Soccer Field and Washer Woman’s. “Those are the names we called the different areas back in those days. Soccer Field was a flat area where men would gather and play soccer before they crossed. Washer Woman’s is where women would gather and make money washing clothes for the men.”
But nobody plays soccer on Soccer Field anymore, and there are no women washing clothes at Washer Woman’s. Operation Gatekeeper, the boost in manpower and border fencing launched in 1994, has put a stop to that. Not that nobody tries to cross in these areas. Jumping the landing-mat primary fence is not a difficult feat. But the 15-foot secondary fence topped with cruel razor wire is a much more formidable obstacle. “The top of the fence used to lean [southward]. We thought that would be enough. But they were making long ladders out of wood and going right over. So we added the razor wire. A few have tried going over the razor wire by putting blankets on top, but it’s dangerous and time-consuming. So mostly what we see now is people cutting through the fence with blowtorches.”
As the Tahoe slowly bounces down the rugged dirt road, Gonzales points out areas where the gray fence has been repaired. Dark gray lines indicate where the metal has been cut, then welded. “We have welders out here every day fixing the fence,” says Gonzales. As if on cue, a pickup truck festooned with toolboxes and welding equipment comes up the road from the west.
But people taking this route are not often successful, Gonzales says. Pole-mounted lights and cameras allow remote monitoring of every inch of the fence, and cutting through takes a little time. Even if they make it through, Gonzales says, they usually don’t make it far.
A hundred yards east of the San Ysidro port of entry, train tracks cross the border. The trains “get x-rayed when they come north, right in there.” Gonzales points to a small rail yard just north of the secondary fence. The numbers on the primary-fence panels go down to zero at the border crossing. They start going up again on the other side as the Tahoe rumbles down the narrow dirt road between the fences, which now stand on the crest of the Tijuana River levee. A shopping center lies over the fence to the north. After a couple of hundred yards, the fence stops. Here the Tijuana River and the border cross each other, an eternal monument to borders drawn without regard to natural landmarks. There’s no fence across the channel. Today, barely a trickle runs down the middle, but during times of heavy rain, a wall of water roars down the concrete channel through Tijuana, bearing with it raw sewage and all manner of urban runoff, before spreading out over the floodplain and meandering through a maze of natural channels five miles to the Pacific. On this early April day, the floodplain is a lake of purple, white, and yellow wildflowers. The flowers have grown up in the moist soil as the floodwaters of winter’s rain receded. The colorful carpet hides the garbage that has washed down the river, though not completely. Here and there, an old tire, a sofa, a car door stick up through the mud. Plastic grocery bags litter the low branches of surrounding eucalyptus trees.
Gonzales steers the Tahoe onto Camino de la Plaza, then crosses the floodplain via the Dairy Mart Road bridge. On the south side of the river, he turns onto Monument Road. Ahead lies the field headquarters of Kiewit Corporation, the firm building the new all-weather road west to Border Field State Park. Half a dozen or so yellow-and-black Kiewit vehicles are parked around the headquarters. A wry smile flickers on Gonzales’s face as he drives by. “Recently, we apprehended a juvenile female driving a truck painted to look like one of those Kiewit trucks. Their foreman happened to spot the truck, realized it wasn’t theirs, and called us.”