Finding Freedom in a K Mart Lot
May 30, 1989
TIJUANA — Scrambling up the steep slope, you reach El Bordo, or the ledge, across the top of a concrete-lined flood control levee. Against a hot, dusty afternoon sun, you can make out the red K Mart no more than a football field away.
Although the official border gateway is to the east, with its flags and customs queues, in the world of el bordo the K Mart sign is the Statue of Liberty, the beacon of safe haven for many of the illegal aliens who cross into the United States along the San Diego border each year.
Journalists and other political tourists come from far away to see el bordo. Some say it’s the Wall, some see it as the DMZ. Others say it is a new version of the Maginot line.
El Bordo begins a few blocks from the levee in Tijuana’s red-light district, where immigrants, or pollos (chickens), on their way from the despair of the Mexican interior or the wars in Central America, stop for the night in one of the cheap hotels to meet coyotes (guides) who will take them north to relatives in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.
Here — amid the broken-down cars, families having dinner on the sidewalk, and, wonder of wonders, the teenage Vietnamese whores — in a hole-in-the-wall cantina, can be found El Salado, the unlucky one. He’s a big, burly fellow, 46 years old, who picked cotton and peaches in the U.S. before becoming a coyote four years ago.
Salado is one of several hundred coyotes operating out of Tijuana. Every two weeks he gathers up a covey of 15 pollos and heads north for Los Angeles. Some of the pollos find him on their own. Others, most likely the Central Americans, already will have been picked up and shaken down by the Mexican police, then sold to him for $30 each. The coyotes themselves enjoy a tenuous relationship with the police, who extort bribes from the smugglers whenever they get a chance. Salado gets along with the police because he always pays them off. Still, he tries to avoid them when crossing the street, anticipating yet another shakedown.
Salado charges Mexicans $300 a head for the trip from Tijuana to Los Angeles. Pollos from Central America or the Middle East must pay $500. While the Mexicans still outnumber Central Americans two to one in Salado’s operation, the number of people from south of the isthmus is fast increasing. Still more exotic immigrants are charged according to what the market will bear. A group of Germans recently paid $1500 each for the trip to San Francisco.
For those who can’t afford the cost, a coyote will guide you from el bordo to the K Mart parking lot for anything from $70 to $120. Since most pollos are poor, already extorted many times over by the police or by train and bus drivers, Salado, like other coyotes, will accept payment on delivery from relatives in the United States.
Led by Salado and accompanied by two experienced scouts, the convoy will set out to cross at the westernmost and of el bordo, taking its chance during a change in Border Patrol shifts or at a moment when the patrol is occupied elsewhere. They plan to run down the levee, cross the dry bottom, and clamber up the other side into the K Mart parking lot. Some may cross the freeway’s speeding traffic to be picked up by a car, which was likely stolen in San Diego, for a quick drive deep into safer territory.
Salado himself never drives, to avoid prosecution if caught. Tonight, the car proceeds up Route 5 through San Diego, stopping one-hour north, just outside Oceanside, where the Border Patrol has a checkpoint. While the pollos wait in the brush beside the road, a scout drives through. If it is manned, then the group will walk around it, to be picked up again farther along the road.
In Los Angeles, Salado delivers the pollos to their relatives and receives his money. If the relatives don’t pay, Salado claims to be philosophical, writing it off as a routine cost of doing business. Other coyotes hound their pollos, putting them on a payment plan, threatening to turn them in. Still others strip the embarrassed pollos nude and dump them in the middle of the Los Angeles freeway.
Salado says he makes $1500 for each trip north. He doesn’t carry drugs because, “I don’t want to go to jail,” although some of his friends do traffic in cocaine. In general, coyotes trafficking in aliens seem to be a separate breed from those dealing drugs.
About a mile from Tijuana’s red-light district, in the hills on the U.S. side of the border, half a dozen men wearing radio headsets hunch over wildly blinking computer screens in the Border Patrol command center. They watch as groups of immigrants set off Vietnam War–era impact sensors buried in the ground. When a sensor goes off, they radio the news to one of the 700 Border Patrol agents stationed along the San Diego sector, a 66-mile-long stretch of border. Outside, a by-now ancient Vietnam War–era artillery spotter steadily circles the area, watching for a break in the defenses. At night, the command center dispatches an innocuous-looking van into the hills, where it takes up station, sliding back the roof to send up an infrared scope for surveying the border.
The Border Patrol is the most visible arm of a mixed and largely uncoordinated police operation set to mimic here at home the futile forms of counterinsurgency warfare tried unsuccessfully in Asia and Central America. The components of low intensity conflict are scattered around the border for anyone to see.
In addition to its uniformed force of officers, the Border Patrol maintains its own tactical squad — which has been sent on missions as far away as Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America as part of Washington’s war on drugs. Undercover agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service have operated inside Mexico, penetrating major coyote mafias that smuggle aliens into the United States. Recent changes in federal law have made it possible for police on the border to receive intelligence and surveillance data from the military.
In recent years there have been efforts to combine the competing local, state, and federal police into a coherent force. Thus, Border Patrol agents joined with members of the San Diego police force in a special tactical group called the Border Crimes Prevention Unit, ostensibly aimed at protecting illegal immigrants from gangs of bandits hiding in the brush-filled canyons that groove the terrain hereabouts. The Border Patrol has worked with the California Highway Patrol, stopping cars and searching for illegals all across the state. In recent months Border Patrol agents have been stopping individuals they think might be illegals from Latin America or Europe or Asia at San Francisco– Bay Area BART subway stations.
A few years ago the pretext for heightened police power along the border was the threat of terrorism — every illegal immigrant was a potential communist agent. Now it’s drugs, even though in San Diego drugs from across the border can’t begin to compete with the area’s own homegrown methamphetamine industry — and even though it’s widely agreed that the coyotes guiding immigrants don’t mule drugs. Border Patrol agents double as Drug Enforcement Administration officers, and they are linked together with customs, the DEA, and the Coast Guard in Operation Alliance, which purports to be a unified police command aimed at cracking drug smuggling along the border.
Units from the California National Guard, which have picked up experience flying air missions and conducting maneuvers in Central America over the last decade, are now helping U.S. Customs agents inspect vehicles at border crossings. In an effort to help law enforcement throughout the nation, state National Guards will provide radar, aerial photography, equipment, and transportation. In addition to California, Guardsmen have been assigned to points of entry in Texas and Arizona as well.
The current deployment breathes new life into Operation Border Ranger, an air surveillance program scotched last fall after a Guard chopper crashed, killing five sheriff’s deputies and three Guardsmen. The original plan called for the National Guard to work with local police and the Coast Guard in searching abandoned landing strips and ships for drugs.
While federal law bans the use of the military as local police, conservatives in Congress want to amend the Posse Comitatus Act to permit use of Special Forces A-teams for drug interdiction. Since the state, Army, and air National Guards are increasingly regarded by the Pentagon as active duty components of the nation’s armed forces, their current deployment is an end run around the law. The California Air National Guard, for example, has plans that make the counterinsurgency in El Salvador seem almost restrained. It wants to equip three C-130 transports with advanced radars so they fly up and down the coast providing aerial surveillance. Then it wants to obtain 20 of the Army’s most advanced Apache attack helicopters, equipped with low-light TVs, that can sweep up and down the border. Once they locate a potential drug operation, the Guard would dispatch double-rotor Blackhawk choppers loaded with officers for the hit. “We are not trying to take over the law enforcement agencies’ role,” a National Guard spokesman told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Our job is simply to assist them. Say, for example, a drug-smuggling Cessna darts under our Apache, we can get a Blackhawk — loaded with law enforcement officers — up in the air safely, quickly, and in pursuit.”
In addition to the troops, the U.S. is also digging in. A line of fortifications, including a long ditch along a mesa top — to block the cars that until recently barreled straight through to the land of opportunity — is still on the drawing boards.
This hodgepodge of American cops is more than equaled on the Mexican side, where seven different police forces vie with one another in shaking down the arriving immigrants.
Along with the police buildup on the border comes a hint of nascent paramilitarism, most visibly in two young white supremacists who took matters into their own hands earlier this year, shooting two Mexicans as they walked along a highway outside San Diego.
On the top of both sides of the levee, small knots of people drift back and forth, cutting deals with coyotes, buying pork rinds and sopes from vendors, doing drugs. Below, in the dry, concrete-lined riverbed itself, banditos lie around a small fire. Four kids stoned on glue wander along the ditch. Down the middle of the channel runs a shallow, surging stream of human and industrial sewage, crossed by means of a plank — after paying a toll of 40 cents to its owner.
On the American side, the hills are scarred with trails made by the aliens. Off in the distance, you can make out the artillery pieces of this war, the pale green vans of the la Migra, as the INS cops are known, strategically placed at vital intersections, their occupants watching the scene through high-powered binoculars.
Some days more than 500 people will fill the ditch, hanging out at the edges of the fence, taunting the migra, trying to feint them into making a move, waiting for the shifts to change so they can make a run for it. At night, choppers with light arrays hover overhead.
As the police and military operations along the border have grown, so too has the violence. There have been 44 shooting incidents over the last two years. Eighteen people have died.
Violence is random. In early January, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Border Crimes Prevention Unit shot and killed from behind two coyotes who were 500 feet over the border. Efforts by the dead men’s attorneys to seek prosecution of the officers were rejected by both the San Diego D.A. and state attorney general.
According to the mythology of the U.S. government, aliens carry dope. So a few weeks later the Border Patrol and Mexican police engaged in a joint pincer operation at el bordo, rounding up more than 400 individuals. No one found any dope. Most of the prisoners were turned over to the Mexican officials, who removed them to a private lot to shake them down.
Everyone remembers the time four years ago when 12-year-old Humberto Carrillo went to the aid of his brother, Eduardo, who had gone over the border to buy a hamburger at a Jack ‘n’ the Box. On his way back, a Border Patrolman accosted Eduardo and began to beat him with his truncheon. Humberto yelled at him to cut it out, and grabbed a stone to throw at the cop. The migra promptly shot Humberto, who by some miracle lived. As with every other case, his attorneys asked the San Diego district attorney and then the California attorney general to prosecute the Border Patrol agent for shooting Humberto. They refused.
When Jim Bates, the San Diego congressman, sponsored legislation in 1985 to make federal law enforcement officers (including members of the Border Patrol) more strictly accountable for their actions, he ran into a wall of protest from the police lobby and the amendment was dropped. Still, Marco Lopez, Humberto’s attorney, persevered, and in 1987 a federal judge awarded the boy $574,000 from the government for the incident.
Since Humberto’s shooting, things have gotten worse on el bordo.
On March 28, Evelyn Castaneda de Ruiz , 21, left home in Tijuana for a quick trip across the border to the K Mart to get some candies for her two daughters. Leaving her husband Francisco on the Mexican side, she walked across the drainage ditch and up the side of the levee with a small knot of Mexicans toward the K Mart. A Border Patrol van, which had just pulled away, suddenly made a U-turn and came toward the group. The members of the group began to run, but Evelyn, six months pregnant, lagged behind and was cornered as the van pulled to a stop. Getting out, the Border Patrolman grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the ground. Alarmed, Francisco, still on the other side of the border, began to run to his wife’s aid, yelling at the officer to let go of Evelyn. Instead, the Border Patrol agent placed his foot on her stomach and warned Francisco to get back. Thoroughly enraged, Francisco picked up a rock. The migra went for his gun. The first slug hit Francisco in the stomach, spinning him around so that the second entered his buttocks.
Both of these Mexicans were brought to justice: a federal judge in San Diego sentenced Evelyn Ruiz to six months in prison for illegal entry, but dismissed the charge of resisting arrest. She served three months in an Arizona prison, and was released; her baby is due any day. After a lengthy recuperation from his wounds in jail, Francisco is being held on $15,000 bond in San Diego, awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer. The sentence could be as much as three years.
The growing tension along the border has led to the creation of a special human rights commission of peace and religious leaders from both sides. The violence has gotten so bad that even the legislators of Mexico and the U.S. have created a bi-national commission to improve human rights.
El Bordo absorbs despair. It’s 1 a.m., and a bandito in the ditch has just stabbed another, slashing his jugular. This time the migra watched, .357 magnums in their holsters. After it was over, the Border Patrol called their Mexican counterparts, who in due course hauled the dying man off.
A member of the Border Patrol stands by his van at the end of a road that abuts the border fence, its headlights aimed at the small clumps of people perched on the levee behind the fence. Fires dance across the concrete causeway, their flames lighting the constantly shifting groups of people like a flag rippling in the wind.
The migra won’t say his name, but he’s plenty pissed. Sensors are going off all over the place. Sensor 54, sensor 55. Everyone knows these are trails for dope. But nobody moves off to make a bust. His orders are to hold the levee.
In a stroke of luck, Border Patrol agents caught nine men muling 900 pounds of cocaine in burlap sacks just the night before.
Operation Alliance is a joke. They only go out one night a week. Everyone knows where the dope comes through. But the chief won’t let the agent move. Hold the levee. What’s he supposed to do?
Look, he gestures at the dark. You can just make out silhouettes of three men moving through the border. He can’t do anything. There’s no agent in the K Mart parking lot, or for that matter, to the north of it. If he sees a family, well, he looks the other way. Wouldn’t you? That’s how his family got here. Didn’t yours? ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 11, 2019