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The Law of Unintended Consequences
TIJUANA, Mexico -- We drove the rental car to the end of the line, where the border fence disappears into the Pacific Ocean, and there we found a cadre of Mexican federal agents. They were just hanging, like tourists taking postcard pictures.
The beach town is called Playas de Tijuana, and it looks like a more colorful, more dodgy version of Imperial Beach to the north. The seaside neighborhood has traditionally been popular with the upper class of TJ, which includes both managers of assembly plants and some well-to-do narcos.
On the U.S. side, the Border Patrol earlier this year closed Friendship Park to make way for the new triple fence. The park plaza was dedicated by First Lady Pat Nixon back in the 1970s as a symbol of a shared reality, and its closure is symbolic too.
One thing that struck us on our reporting trip along the border was how the law of unintended consequences plays out in the region, sometimes in perverse ways.
Ciudad Juarez has become the murder capital of Mexico in part because the Mexican military is attempting to crush the cartels, which have responded with vicious fighting among themselves and against government forces.
The consumption of heroin and cocaine in Ciudad Juarez has soared because the weakened cartels are seeking cash from street sales. Heroin addicts who seek refuge in drug rehabilitation centers are attacked and killed, at the very moment when they try to rebuild their lives.
In Ascension, the local cops have their weapons taken away by the military, which does not trust them. Then during a gunfight with assassins, the police cannot return fire -- because they don’t have any bullets.
In Palomas, drug violence -- along with fears of the flu -- have scared American tourists away and ruined the the local economy, which is built on visitors seeking discount dentistry. As the dentists move away and the town loses its middle class, Palomas becomes more lawless.
When the U.S. builds a fence, the smugglers use the roads that run alongside it to move drugs. The fence may slow or stop illegal crossers, but it also stops grassland fire and the movement of migratory animals in a region that environmentalists consider one of the most vital wildlife corridors in the hemisphere.
In Mexicali, narcocorrido ballads are more popular than ever -- in part because the government has sought to ban them from the airwaves.
As Mexican migrants in Tecate find the border harder and harder to cross there, they move further out into the desert, where hundreds of illegal crossers die each year of heat stroke and thirst.
One thing was clear from our trip: The extreme violence associated with drug smuggling along the border is crushing civil society in Mexico. Helping to make the shared region more secure and prosperous is going to take smart people on both sides of the line.
Reporter Arturo Chacon contributed to the border journey.
A Dangerous Route North
TECATE, Mexico -- The migrant shelter named in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe is spotless, though the men who come are dusty. Their clothes are streaked with sweat, their hands and faces burned by sun, scratched with thorns. They look as if they have been wandering the desert.
The free meal they eat is simple but wholesome. The nuns serve beans, cactus, boiled eggs. The men take second and third helpings. The nuns console their guests, but it is not easy.
“You see them very sad, for they have with no illusions left, and I believe they feel like losers,” said Sister Maria Elena. The men are ashamed because they have failed.
A few years ago, migrants heading north would stop at the shelter in Tecate, where the big Mexican brewery is, for a night or two before they crossed illegally into the United States. They were hopeful, and they often made it across La Linea, the line.
Now most men who stay at the shelter have either been caught by the U.S. Border Patrol, processed and “voluntarily returned” to Tecate, or they have come back on their own. Mexican migrants say it is much harder to cross illegally now, with the border better secured by fences, lights and agents.
“I don’t know how, but when you jump the wall, maybe they are watching you, because they chase you and they capture you,” said Jorge Ramirez, who worked on tomato farms and shrimp boats in his native state of Nayarit before coming here. He says he has been apprehended seven times trying to go north. “Some times you can hide and you fool them, but not always, because you also get caught a lot.”
In the video, Roberto Martinez explains the crossing is more dangerous now because the workers share routes with drug smugglers. “If I see narcos out on the trail I go back or I change my way,” Martinez says, “I don’t want to see them or get close to them.”
Asked about rumors that drug smugglers and human traffickers are fighting over routes north, Martinez points to the camera and says, “If that video gets to a drug dealer, what I am saying? That could mean my life, you know. I could count my days. That is why even journalists don’t investigate the drugs dealers.”
Narcocorridos and Nightlife in Mexicali
MEXICALI, Mexico -- This used to be a swell city for binational cantina crawling, but the violence of the drug war has quieted the nightlife down. The tourists are spooked. Still, the locals are keeping the lights on.
We swing by the Plaza de Mariachis, where dozens of bands have pulled their vans up to curb to await customers looking to hire some musicians to make a party. Manuel Delgado of Los Zorros tells us “the town is dead.” We ask where we might hear some music, especially the ballads about drug lords, and he points us to La Conga.
The intersection of Mexico and Reforma in Mexicali is a lively spot. There’s El Miau-Miau (The Meow Meow), a strip joint; El Leon de Oro (The Golden Lion), an “antro” club, which is the Mexican twist on a disco; and a dubious establishment called Kaoz. The bars keep changing names as they frequently change hands. Along the border, night clubs are convenient establishments for money laundering.
We find Daniel Angulo, the friendly proprietor of La Conga, tending bar. His joint is jumping. The place is as narrow as a box car. There are Christmas tree ornaments on the ceiling, a statute of a drunk monkey and five TV sets tuned to wrestling matches or the news -- not that you can hear a thing but the music.
The patrons are swilling tequilas and drinking big glasses of cold beer mixed with Clamato juice, which is made from tomato concentrate and clam broth. Angulo’s father Pepe opened La Conga a quarter century ago. It is a classic. Angulo regrets to inform us that the area is now dangerous, but inside it is as friendly as family.
In the video, you can hear Los Villanos del Norte (The Villains of the North), a three-piece band of drum, accordion and bass, entertaining the crowd, playing the folk polka ballads known as narcocorridos. These long popular tunes are the sung myths of drug-smuggling gunslingers and their legendary duels. In the video, the Villains are singing the well known tune called “El Hijo de la Tuna,” about Chapo Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and the most wanted man in Mexico (and also one of the richest).
Some narcocorridos are sly and subtle pokes against authority, where the drug lords are portrayed as modern Robin Hoods. Other narcocorridos are as violent, lewd and taunting as the most hardcore American rap. The bands sing both.
From time to time, authorities in Mexico have sought to ban the music from the radio airwaves, which might have only made the narcocorridos more popular. Naturally, most of the people who like the music are not gangsters themselves, but young people who enjoy the outlaw stylings. It is worth noting that their popularity has faded in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, where there is so much real violence.
Back at the Plaza de Mariachis, we asked Ricardo Valenzuela, the lead singer in the band La Legión, what made the narcocorridos so hot. He said it had to do with legends of ordinary Mexicans becoming supermen. Asked how many narcocorridos his band could play, Valenzuela said, “More than 80. We play them every single night.”
Virtual Fence Gets a 'Do Over'
SASABE, Arizona -- After years of frustration, controversy and delay -- and some maddening technological glitches -- the first link in the federal government’s new $6.7 billion “virtual fence” is being erected here along the border.
We visited a newly constructed detection tower, out in the middle of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Contractors were still plugging in the off-the-shelf components. The concept is simple. The execution is not. A previous test of the virtual fence concept was so plagued with snafus that the Department of Homeland Security scrapped it and announced a “do over.”
“We created a set of expectations that were unreasonable, and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as we would have liked,” says Mark Borkowsky, director of the project in the Customs and Border Protection agency.
According to Borkowsk, this is the basic idea: In a 23-mile-long section of Arizona desert, the agency and its contractor, the Boeing Company, will erect a picket line of 17 towers -- nine towers will hold the detectors, eight will handle communications.
Atop each 80-foot-tall detection tower are a radar and two cameras -- one camera works with daylight and another detects heat signals at night. A nearby communications tower will send data back to a command center in Tucson.
Each radar will sweep back and forth 24/7, looking for movement in its viewshed. Borkowsky explains the radars are calibrated to detect over a distance of several miles an animated object 4 feet or taller moving at a walking pace or faster. When the radar pings on something intriguing, the cameras will zoom in to answer, Borkowsky hopes, the following questions: “Are you a cow, a car or a person? Are you on horse or on foot? Is it a group of persons? Are you carrying a backpack or are you carrying a weapon?”
What the cameras see will be viewed on a computer screen back in Tucson where an agent will analyze the image. If the agent at the computer concludes the cameras have identified a group of illegal migrants (versus a troop of Boy Scouts or a cowboy chasing cattle) a Border Patrol agent in the area will drive out to catch them.
Such networks of the tower-mounted motion and heat detectors have been used to thwart insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Borkowski says that the trick for the federal government is to find “the sweet spot” between expense and success.
“I can get more capability for more money or less capability for less money,” he says. “We’re not trying to buy the greatest most expensive technology available. We’re looking for the optimal mix.” Meaning: it might not be worth another billion dollars to detect every single undocumented immigrant in the bushes.
The 17 towers of the so-called Tucson-1 section are to be followed by another 30 miles of towers located south of Ajo, Arizona. The project costs around $50 million. If the virtual fence works, it could be deployed, as envisioned, along the entire southern border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a lot of 80-foot towers, one every few miles. That will certainly change the view.
Tunnel Network Sends Border Patrol Underground
NOGALES, Arizona -- Tom Pittman lifts a manhole cover open, turns on his flashlight and climbs down a ladder into a dangerous warren of drains and tunnels, a literal underworld where spooky bandits and illegal migrants and drug smugglers move around in the dark. "Hold on a second," Pittman says. "Let me see if anybody's down here first."
They call themselves the Tunnel Rats. Trained in close-quarter combat, certified to work in confined spaces and armed to the teeth, these four-person teams of Border Patrol agents have been busy lately.
In the last nine months, they discovered 16 new tunnels dug by smugglers under Nogales. The number of tunnels sets a new record. "It's swiss cheese under there," said Brooke Howells, a Border Patrol supervisor.
The digging has become so extensive beneath the streets of Nogales that the southbound traffic lane through the international port of entry recently collapsed.
Panoramic Composite: Inside the Tunnels. Click to View
The latest tunnel, found two weeks ago, was 83 feet long, had ventilation tubes, wooden beams and plywood ceilings. It traveled from a house in Mexico to a warehouse in the United States. It was located at the busiest intersection in downtown Nogales, at East International Street and North Nelson Avenue, just down the block from the port of entry manned by hundreds of U.S. agents.
"You never know what you'll find," Pittman said. One time, he stumbled upon a teenager with an AK-47 guarding a bale of marijuana. He has encountered bandits who lurk in the tunnels, armed with knives, to rob migrants who are trying to sneak into the United States.
During the monsoon rains, Mexicans have been trapped and have drowned in the drains and tunnels. Beside the storm water system is the sewage system. Drug smugglers have packaged kilos of cocaine in plastic milk crates, added some buoyancy, and sent them flushing through the raw sewage from Mexico to the United States.
"They're digging another one someplace right now," Pittman said. "I can almost guarantee it."
Show and Tell With the New U.S. Border Czar
NOGALES, Arizona -- The newly appointed border czar Alan Bersin landed at the Mariposa Port of Entry here in a Black Hawk helicopter owned by the Department of Homeland Security. Bersin was on a quick inspection tour, to rally the troops and show the locals that the feds were here to spend some serious cash money.
The helo was a nice touch.
Funds are pouring into border security these days through a fire hose of federal spending. Fear of drug violence, coupled with concerns over terrorism and illegal immigration, have sent budgets for the Customs and Border Protection agency into orbit.
Bersin was in Nogales to tout the soon-to-be remodeled port of entry, which is receiving an injection of $200 million from the Congressional economic stimulus package. Construction to begin almost immediately.
In a bus tour, Bersin listened to James Tong, assistant director of the Tucson field office for customs and border protection (CBP), as he reeled off some stats: Agents here have seized 1400 pounds of cocaine and 32,000 pounds of pot since October. They lead the nation in seizures of heroin -- 252 pounds last year. Nogales processes almost as many arrivals as LAX and JFK airports combined. On a busy day, 20,000 people and 1600 trucks pass through the port. During the winter months, more than 60 percent of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States come through Nogales.
Bersin did a fast grip and grin with alert CBP agent Glady McNamara, who fortuitously had snagged two smugglers attempting a “body carry” that very morning. One was a 14-year-old girl. A new trend by smugglers is use children to mule small loads. The two were carrying a half kilo of heroin each. Both were Americans. Nice job, Bersin said, as
McNamara was given the traditional reward for a good catch -- a couple of gift certificates to Applebees.
After the tour, we got a couple of minutes to ask Bersin some questions about what we have seen so far on our journey along the border.
Check out the video to hear his thoughts.
The End of the Road
Panoramic Composite: Click to view.
LOS CORRALES, Mexico -- The Mexican border is dotted with tiny towns at the end of the road, where Mexico meets the fence and there are no legal crossings. The dots on the maps have names. El Gato, the cat. Las Palmas, the palms. We drove over a rutted gravel road to reach Los Corrales, the corrals, just to see what is there.
Just two families are left in Los Corrales. More ranch than town, it is poor and quiet and beautiful, sitting on a rise above a desert valley. Blanca Romero greets us. She lives in a one-room adobe house with her son and husband, beside a creaking windmill and a rattlesnake skeleton dangling from a tree.
Years ago, this was the crossing where cowboys from a dozen big ranches in Mexico brought their cattle to sell to the Americans. “It was a lively spot,” Blanca said. She has spent her whole life here. As she speaks, her toddler son plays with ants in the dirt yard. Her husband is off working cattle.
Blanca points to the border fence a few hundred yards away. “That is new,” she said. The metal wall is oxidizing and has turned a pretty rusty red. She points to the old bunkhouse, abandoned. “And that is old.”
Nearby are the ruins of the Mexican customs station, where the government took its cut, the crumbling walls now marked with graffiti drawn with bits of charcoal from the camp fires migrants lit to cook a can of beans or warm the night air. The writing is mostly names and dates. The coroners in Arizona have recorded 86 migrant deaths this year in the Tucson sector, mostly from dehydration and exposure.
“We don’t see too many travelers because my husband doesn’t let them use the trail,” she said. Mostly the migrants cross closer to Naco, a border town 15 miles to the east, where the plaza is filled with polleros, the smugglers, who whistle and call out to newcomers, “Taxi? taxi?”
Restoring Natural Life on the Border
Cajon Bonito, Mexico -- The directions to the ranch are basically as follows: Leave problems of Ciudad Juarez behind. Cross Chihuahuan Desert. Climb Continental Divide. Hit Sonoran Desert. When you see some of the prettiest country in the west, slow down and watch out for the migrating hummingbirds. The ranch is on the left.
“This is as wild as you can get,” Valer Austin told us at her cattle gate, and she didn’t mean the usual kind of bad wild you could stumble into along the border -- but the good wild.
There are bear, antelope, coyote in these borderlands. There are lions and bison. There are 400 species of bees, the rare black hawk and endangered Mexican stoneroller, which is a fish.
In the video, you can meet Valer Austin, a visual artist from New York City who moved to the desert southwest with her husband Josiah, a Dallas investor. The couple bought a ranch in Arizona and a few more in Mexico. She is possessed by the challenge of restoring land degraded by a century of cattle. She’s as tenacious as a strand of barbed wire.
To revive rivers, the Austins and their ranch hands have erected tens of thousands of low rock dams along the creek beds in Mexico, to use the summer rains to bring water to the desert and recreate the wetlands that were once here.
This is a big, unpeopled place. Scientists have found jaguar here, sharing the ground with drug runners carrying AK-47s and bales of weed.
Austin and her fellow ranchers, Mexican and American, along with a coalition of binational environmentalists (cuencalosojos.org) want to protect this vital corridor for migratory animals.
“We’re trying to manage landscapes on both sides of the border as a single corridor, connected,” Austin said. “Our government put a fence right through the habitat.”
Asked what would be better than a fence, Austin said native grasses and restored rivers and flourishing wildlife. It all depends on what you think is most important. “And I think this is the most important place in the world,” she said.
Comment Box: Legalization and Life on the Border
We're about halfway through our trip, so we thought it would be a good time to go through some of the questions and comments you've left on the blog.
As with any story about drugs, there have been many questions about legalization or decriminalization. "Laheadle" and "am2233" tweeted about this topic using the #mexborder hashtag. Many others have left comments in the blog suggesting legalization is the only solution.
In Mexico, there is a similar movement among policy wonks and activists to decriminalize small amounts of drugs. People who make their money from drugs--smugglers, dealers and law enforcement--tend to be against any such plans, preferring to keep the status quo.
Drug consumption in Mexico is tiny compared to the United States, so among average people on the streets, the legalization argument doesn't come up much. In general, drug use here is viewed more as a health issue, not a legal issue.
Other commenters find the legalization argument to be an interesting concept, but didn't think it would work because addiction would increase. "bobfbell" wrote: "Even if we were to experience a temporary reduction in drug related crime, the larger question is do we, as a society, want to take the easy way out for us and condemn our children to a pretty bleak and hopeless future? Trust me, that is what drug addiction is all about."
"Utahreb" commented on our story Friday about the small town cop who lacked bullets when attacked. He, like other commenters, questioned how wisely U.S. aid is being used in Mexico. Until recently, very few American tax dollars went to Mexico to combat drug smuggling. With the Merida Initiative that went into effect this year, the U.S. is providing Mexico $400 million worth of equipment to help stem smuggling. The equipment doesn't include the types of weapons a small town police force would use. Much of the assistance goes to buying several helicopters, but also includes night vision goggles, detection technology, software and training. All of this aid would go to Mexican federal agencies. It's likely the police force we profiled in Ascension would see little of the aid.
"knjincvc" wanted to know more about how Jose Lucio Hernandez, the drug smuggler we profiled, was able to get the dope into the U.S. After a week on the border, we heard of so many different ways. In short, smugglers try every way to get drugs here. Hernandez didn't tell us exactly how he did it--we asked! Just yesterday, we heard about a smuggler putting drugs into a working car transmission. We're hearing more reports of drug smugglers using ultra-light aircraft to fly them over. We reported earlier about the increased use of submarines to haul drugs north. Traffickers also just put them in trunks of cars and hope they don't get caught; they hike them through the desert; and they pass small packages through the border fence in places. American officials have also been bribed by the cartels. There have been a few cases of Border Patrol and customs agents on the take, but small town sheriffs are more common culprits.
We've been surprised at how easy it is to cross back and forth between the two countries as we've made our way West. Several people have commented on how unique the border area is, culturally and economically. "JBC1" wrote in about this, saying "The border is not as rigid as many think. People go back and forth and families and the economy are dependent on this fluidity." We've certainly found this to be true during our time here. "walkerbert" found the opposite to be true, suggesting the only way to fix the problem is by "shutting the border for a while." This seems like an impossible proposition not only because of the wide open spaces, but because of the economic dependencies that are unique to the border region.
Thank you for following our trip. Keep your comments coming!