Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the Mexican Border

Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the Mexican Border

by Sebastian Rotella
Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the Mexican Border

Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the Mexican Border

by Sebastian Rotella


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Drugs, smuggling, gangs, corruption, heroes, martyrs, and assassins on the Tijuana-San Diego border.

It would seem the stuff of a fevered thriller if it were not all true: Street gang members from San Diego recruited by a drug cartel are embroiled in the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal at the Guadalajara airport. Border guards struggle to resist the relentless temptation, despair, and lawlessness at the international line, while Mexican federal police ride shotgun for drug lords in Chevy Suburbans stolen in San Diego. A tunnel is dug under the U.S.-Mexico border to a cannery where cocaine is to be hidden in cans of jalapeno peppers. An alliance of Asian and Mexican racketeers smuggle hundreds of Chinese immigrants. A factory worker assassinates the probable next president of Mexico during a campaign rally, and the bosses of his own party are suspected of being the masterminds. And in a surreal penal village, inmates live with their wives and children, entrepreneurs run businesses, and gangsters live in luxury.

This is the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1990s, in the age of NAFTA-a microcosm of porous borders everywhere between the worlds of wealth and poverty, legal and illegal business, power and corruption, democracy and authoritarianism, hope and despair. Sebastian Rotella's masterful portrait of the border is one you will not easily forget.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393337594
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/17/1998
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sebastian Rotella is Los Angeles Times bureau chief for South America. He covered the U.S.-Mexico border for the Los Angeles Times from 1991 to 1996, and won the Bartolome Mitre prize for distinguished reporting on narcotics issues from the Inter-American Press Association in 1996.

Read an Excerpt


The View from Big Boy

In the movie Casablanca, everybody went to Rick's Cafe Americain.

In Tijuana, the Mexican border city that has taken on a cinematic air of intrigue, everybody goes to Bob's Big Boy (El Big).

Cops, journalists, spies, lawyers, gangsters, entrepreneurs, political bosses, human rights activists, former, current and future government officials—they all haunt the diner with the statue of the short fat guy in front. El Big serves around-the-clock coffee, burgers, enchiladas, the classic trans-border menu. But the hottest item is the conversation about news and politics, crime and conspiracy: a web of whispers as labyrinthine and melodramatic as the reality of the border itself.

Big Boy occupies a prime location on Agua Caliente Boulevard, Tijuana's main drag. Agua Caliente Boulevard starts near the border in the old downtown, the fabled Avenida Revolucion tourist district, and extends across this city of about 1.5 million, the biggest Mexican metropolis on the international line. The boulevard runs past the bullring, past the Agua Caliente racetrack owned by Jorge Hank Rhon, a flamboyant tycoon from one of Mexico's wealthiest political clans. His racetrack security guards assassinated Hector (Gato) Felix, columnist and co-editor of the crusading magazine Zeta, in 1988. Although journalists accused Jorge Hank of ordering the murder, he denied guilt and was never charged. On a side street near his racetrack are the offices of Zeta, whose editor, Jesus Blancornelas, still prints an accusatory page every week, white block letters on a funereal black background, in which theslain columnist demands justice from the grave: "Hank: Why Did Your Bodyguards Kill Me?"

Agua Caliente Boulevard curls southeast below the hills topped by the mansions of the Tijuana elite, mansions built with border money of the clean, dirty and ambiguous variety: construction, manufacturing, tourism, gambling, exports, imports, smuggling, drugs, political thievery. Periodically, federal police hunting for the Arellano Felix brothers, the elusive barons of Tijuana's narco-underworld, raid the hilltop palaces. The police blow open doors with explosives, roust families and confiscate empty safes, luxury cars and sophisticated eavesdropping equipment. But the Arellanos are always one step ahead. At a busy intersection farther down the boulevard, the walls of a corner market are scarred by bullet holes from an epic gun battle in which the Arellanos' corrupt state police bodyguards fought off federal police so that the gangsters could escape.

Changing names, the boulevard becomes Diaz Ordaz. It slants through the fast-food joints and mini-malls of the middle-class flatlands. It empties finally into the industrial belt of low-wage, multinational factories and junkyards surrounded by dusty, sprawling shacktowns where the factory workers live. The workers keep arriving from the south. The city keeps expanding, squatter colonies sprouting in the parched foothills. The migrants build their shacks and save their money, many of them hoping to go north across the border one day.

Big Boy is in the center of town, just across Agua Caliente Boulevard from the bullring and a few blocks from the police stations and the courthouse. The all-night diner with the low red roof has been an institution for twenty years. Its gravel parking lot is invariably filled with Tijuana's most characteristic forms of transport: shiny Jeep Cherokees, Chevrolet Suburbans, aging battleship Caprices and Impalas from Detroit's glory days, relics of a time before auto industry jobs started migrating south of the border. Tijuana's movers and shakers hang out at Big Boy, and Denny's, and VIPS, the roomy, brightly lit, U.S.-style coffee shops that are preferred meeting places in urban Mexico. The crowd at Big Boy thins out around lunchtime, suggesting that the appeal is more social than culinary. Otherwise, the diner is thick with talk about sinister topics: after the latest scandal, shootout or gangland murder, reporters hit Big Boy to work their sources, sift through versions, swap theories. If someone draws on a napkin, it usually involves homicide scenes, angles of gunfire or the kind of diagram used to chart mob hierarchies. Often the regulars knew the victim: a prosecutor, a police commander. Sometimes it is just another story to chase; sometimes it hurts. Poor bastard, they mutter. He was in here just the other night. I interviewed him a couple of days ago and he told me to get back to him, he might have a tip for me.

The grim and speculative litany begins. Drug trafficking is usually to blame, but there might be other motives: political feuds, corruption debts, smuggling of immigrants or guns or contraband, a deadly cocktail of the above. Did they kill him because he took the money or because he didn't? Is it riskier to do business with the bad guys or to stand up to them? These are years of living dangerously in Tijuana. To the chagrin of the hardworking citizenry, who point out that the average pedestrian is safer on the streets of Tijuana than in Los Angeles or Washington, Tijuana has become synonymous with bloodshed and corruption.

Nonetheless, in a juxtaposition typical of Tijuana, Big Boy is also homey and wholesome. Parents bring their children; it is not unusual to see a family slurping milk shakes at one table and agents of National Security, the federal espionage service, looking vaguely furtive in sunglasses at the next table. A group of ganaderos, grizzled and dignified men who make their living in the livestock trade, use the diner as an unofficial office: in the morning they slide behind the tables by the front windows, unholster cellular phones, snap open briefcases. They do business casually, deliberately, paced by coffee and conversation. Big Boy's green-uniformed waitresses are pleasant and efficient. The simple facade, circular booths and laminated tables invite you to linger. Big Boy evokes the feeling of shelter that Ernest Hemingway described in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the story about an old man who sits at night in a cafe in Madrid because he is alone and in despair.

Especially at night, Big Boy exudes a whiff of the milieu where politics, police, and the press intertwine. Mexican and U.S. reporters spend hours here in a haze of nicotine, caffeine, rumors, body counts, conspiracy theories. Dora Elena Cortes and Manuel Cordero, the Tijuana correspondents for the national newspaper El Universal, are day-and-night denizens. They occupy a strategically located booth by the front entrance—she sips coffee, he stirs a cup of tea. Cordero is the consummate Tijuana police reporter. He has prematurely white hair, a rasping laugh and a hard-boiled habit of referring to newsmakers as "monkeys," as in: "That monkey is going to give a press conference at one o'clock." Cordero is a martial-arts expert who moves easily through the swamps of Tijuana law enforcement. He once taught self-defense at the police academy, so the police respect him: some know from experience that he can beat them up.

Cortes, El Universal's chief correspondent, is relentlessly cheerful and cheerfully relentless. She talks at the speed of an assault rifle. She has billowing curls and a vivacious, down-to-earth charm. Her legion of sources includes relatives, high school chums, political insiders and a large percentage of the regulars at El Big. "Instead of chasing around town after the news, you go to Big Boy," Cortes says. "And the news comes to you."

Neither Cortes nor Cordero has a university degree, but they won Mexico's National Journalism Prize for their coverage in 1994 of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. In their forties, with a combined four decades of experience, they are quintessential representatives of the Tijuana press corps: a band of fast and fearless warriors whose swagger and stark working conditions recall the 1930s Chicago style that has faded away north of the border. Journalism in Mexico has become increasingly independent; publications such as Proceso, Reforma and Zeta have led the fight for democracy. Computers and cellular phones are tools of the trade. But it is still a world of danger and drudgery where survival depends on instincts, contacts and hustle, where you assume that the phones are tapped by the security forces and the mafias, where you do business face-to-face in a public place. Like Big Boy.

"It is a refuge of police and politicians," says Manuel Valenzuela Arce, a sociologist who studies the popular culture of the border. "Probably some of the best and worst things that have happened to us in Tijuana were planned there."

Some of the best and worst things that ever happened to Tijuana happened during the 1990s. The stories at the border got bigger and crazier. Mexico came to resemble a detective novel; Tijuana was the heart of the mystery.

The action never stops at the border. There is no other place like it on the globe. The international boundary stretches for almost two thousand miles, from the Pacific Ocean through the mountains, the deserts, the valleys of the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. The region is a vast world unto itself. And the westernmost, fourteen-mile strip between San Diego and Tijuana, the border's biggest and richest cities, is the most intense microcosm of that world. The U.S. Border Patrol records half a million yearly arrests of illegal immigrants here, accounting for almost half of all its arrests. This is the corridor for billions of dollars worth of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana smuggled by the international drug cartels that have converted Mexico into the supply route to the United States, the world's hungriest consumer of narcotics. And Tijuana has historically served as a hub for gambling and money laundering, as well as southbound guns, stolen vehicles and trunkloads of drug profits.

Simultaneously, this is the busiest international border crossing in the world, the commercial crossroads of the United States, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, a hotbed of investment and industry. The region is the border's biggest media market and the portal between California, a state with the economy and personality of a nation, and Baja California, one of Mexico's most prosperous and politically modern states. Baja's recent history of simultaneous democratization and violence represents the progress and the calamities that are remaking Mexico. The best and the worst of the two societies collide and blend here: the border is the future in the making.

"At the border," says Javier Valenzuela, the psychologist-turned-cop who founded Grupo Beta, an elite Tijuana police unit designed to protect migrants, "you always have the sensation that something is about to happen."

The last decade of the century has been an extraordinary time in this extraordinary place. Profound political, economic and cultural forces converged at the international line. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, old borders blurred and new ones materialized around the world. Political revolutions combined with revolutions in communications and transportation to spur migration to developed nations from Latin America, Asia, Africa. These revolutions put most places on the map within a twenty-four-hour, $1,000-journey from First World capitals. Electronic media created an equality of aspiration, bombarding the populations of developing countries with images of the United States, Europe, Japan. Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California at Davis, told an economic conference in San Diego in 1995: "During the last thirty to forty-five years, nations have removed many of the barriers to trade and capital flows. There has been a drastic reduction of prices and interest rates. But the labor wage gap has increased.... This simultaneous narrowing and broadening spurs migration."

While the global surge in migration was a recent phenomenon, immigration from Mexico to the United States had flourished along routes that dated back to midcentury and earlier. The migrants were pushed by poverty and aspiration and pulled by the evolving labor demands of the global economy, which in the 1990s produced a historic free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico. Crime also became increasingly globalized: international mafias expanded, confronting and infiltrating governments. As a result, corruption and organized crime posed one of the most urgent threats of the post-Cold War period to fragile and established democracies alike: Russia, Colombia, Italy, Mexico. In some nations, the disintegration of authoritarian dynasties raised hopes for democracy. But often the immediate price was a suddenly chaotic landscape littered with the wreckage of political systems that, as in the case of Mexico, had preserved stability for decades.

All those fuses ignited a series of crises in Mexico in 1994. The Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais called it "the year in which it was impossible to be bored in Mexico." There was political and drug violence, kidnappings of tycoons, a guerrilla uprising, monumental scandals and the economic collapse of December, which sent aftershocks as far as Tierra del Fuego and raised fears in the United States of ever more desperate immigration. Continuing a tradition of alternately ignoring or misunderstanding Mexico, the Bush and Clinton administrations had accepted the image promoted by the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It was a mirage of a modernizing, stable democracy whose neoliberal economic renaissance would be crowned by the ultimate continental partnership: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The collapse of the mirage caught policymakers, journalists and other observers off guard.

Much of the violence was concentrated in Tijuana; Big Boy was buzzing. From the vantage point of the border, particularly street-level outposts such as El Big, Mexico's crisis was less surprising. It was the logical outcome of the economic and political injustice that had spawned illegal immigration, drug smuggling and political corruption. It was a consequence of the power of the border mafias that had corroded the economy and politics. And it was the self-destruction of an authoritarian system that, as the rest of the society opened up, had tried to stay closed, leading to internal feuds and external attack. The contradictions that reached the breaking point in Mexico—between modernization and corruption, reformers and gangsters, urban north and rural south, international commerce and migratory misery-were especially evident at the border.

At the border, enormous legal and illegal flows of goods, people, cultures and ideas overlap, generating energy that is constructive, destructive and overwhelming. It happens out in the open at the San Ysidro port of entry, the world's busiest border crossing. On a busy summer day in the concrete arena of the U.S. inspection station, a thousand engines grumble in the heat. The lines of cars bound for San Diego stretch like steel serpents in the northbound lanes, inching under ramps and over bridges toward the concrete hulk of the port of entry. Wisps of sound drift from car radios—rock music, classical, ranchera, news reports describing how bad the border traffic is. Their faces glazed behind sun-spattered windshields, the drivers yawn, read newspapers, gulp cold drinks. They snarl and honk at an obnoxious Buick Regal, 1970s funk blasting from the sunroof, that tries to cut into line. And they wait. The caravan crawls through a motley bazaar boiling with motion and free enterprise. Wading on foot through the herky-jerk traffic are travelers, commuters, tourists (Tijuana calls itself "the most visited city in the world"), taxi drivers, vendors, shawled indigenous women selling crucifix necklaces knit from black thread, haunting indigenous children who chew on the paper cups with which they beg for coins. The stalls fining the traffic islands sell a global village of iconography: plastic figurines of Bart Simpson, Jesus Christ, the Power Rangers, St. Francis of Assisi, Michelangelo's David, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mickey Mouse.

The San Ysidro port of entry records more than 40 million legal crossings a year, mostly by law-abiding, middle-class Mexicans like the families that go to Big Boy. While hundreds of thousands of Mexicans risk their lives sneaking across the line, hundreds of thousands of others cross legally and casually. They either meet the modest financial criteria required for a border-crossing card, which permits trips in the immediate area, or they have U.S. resident status because they were born or have lived north of the line. They go to San Diego to work, shop, see a movie (the proximity of San Diego multiplexes has all but wiped out movie theaters in Tijuana), visit Sea World, meet friends and relatives. On weekends, in suburban shopping centers and diners north of the line, journalists from Tijuana run into the Mexican government officials and human rights advocates they cover during the week. Mexicans spend an estimated $2.6 billion a year in San Diego. Mexican executives and politicos own condominums in the genteel coastal resorts of La Jolla and Coronado. So do gangsters: in 1993, shortly after the Catholic cardinal of Guadalajara died in a mysterious shoot-out involving the Arellanos of Tijuana, the wife of one of the fugitive drug lords was spotted in a department store in San Diego's Fashion Valley mall. Designer boutiques and discount stores depend on business from south of the border. But for years, the long lines at the San Ysidro port of entry have symbolized the lack of trust between the United States and Mexico.

Politicians may talk about free trade and economic partnership, but things are different out here on the concrete, says Lalo, a veteran border vendor leaning on a cart fun of newspapers for sale. Lalo is a sawed-off street pundit with a solid gut in a blue sweatshirt, a baseball cap, sunglasses; he has the chunky look of a panda bear. He says: "On weekends, when you get all the tourists coming back and the people who went drinking, whoof"—Lalo gestures skyward with a stubby arm—"it's disorder. Pure disorder."

As is often the case at the international line, though, it is more orderly than it looks. The border vendors are required to carry municipal permits and membership cards in a labor union controlled by the ubiquitous Institutional Revolutionary Party. And the area around the port of entry is a headquarters of the smuggling underworld, which has boomed as the buildup of U.S. defenses makes crossing over open land more difficult. The smuggling artists can be slick and secretive, but at the port of entry they perform in public: U.S. inspectors have a videotape of a uniformed Tijuana municipal police officer—who was assigned to direct the legal traffic—selling fake documents to vehicle passengers on the U.S. turf that begins a few hundred yards south of the inspection booths. Smuggling recruiters in the crowd hawk fraudulent documents to families, who prefer using fake papers to hiking through the dark and forbidding canyons. Arrests of women outnumber those of men at the port of entry, while accounting for only about 20 percent of the arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol on open land. Smuggling "packages" at the port cost as much as $1,000: you can rent a fake or stolen "green card" (residency permit) or buy a contorted ride in the hollowed-out stereo speaker of a van.

Sometimes the brash smugglers merely give their clients a quick lesson in how to bluff a harried inspector who screens 120 entrants an hour; then they lead the way through the indoor pedestrian lanes. Veteran border-crossers float back and forth with ease—like the homeless street kids and boy prostitutes who frequent Balboa Park in San Diego and who became the tragic stars of news reports and a song by Bruce Springsteen. Some of the boys pride themselves on being able to fake their way into the United States without papers. Carlitos, an angelic-looking, husky-voiced fourteen-year-old with bangs over his forehead swaggers up to the inspector and proclaims "U.S. citizen" with a dead-on California accent and emphatic eye contact. U.S. citizens rarely have to produce documents at the port; most of the time the inspectors just wave Carlitos on. If they are suspicious, he has a rapid-fire answer for every question.

"Usually they just send me through to shut me up," Carlitos says.

The inspectors are on guard for smugglers trying to blend in with commerce, but corruption and disarray weaken the defenses. Smuggling spotters use cellular phones and binoculars to direct vehicles loaded with drugs and people to U.S. border inspectors selected because they are lax or on the take. One gang deployed youths on bicycles to spot three notoriously unenthusiastic inspectors on whom they bestowed nicknames: Spock, an inspector resembling the Star Trek character; Tequila, who unfailingly inquired if tourists were bringing back tequila from Tijuana; and Nails, who did her nails in the booth. The smugglers sent carloads of clients with fraudulent documents past the three inspectors, six at a time.

Until 1996, when U.S. border authorities made a concerted effort to add inspectors and reduce waiting times, the intersection of the visible and invisible crossing flows was too much for the inspection station to handle. The wait for legal crossers sometimes lasted two hours: a nerve-wrenching, brake-grinding, carbon-monoxide-sucking, fistfight-provoking nightmare. Gustavo Guzman, thirty-one, a genial father of three, commuted across the line every day to a maintenance job in a San Diego office tower. He entered the slow steel river of traffic at dawn, part of a trans-border workforce of about forty thousand. He passed the time with prayer and cumbia music. "I pray the Rosary and then I turn on the radio," he said. "The closer you get, the more aggravated you get, because you can see how slow they are going."

The loudest voices at the border don't talk much about economic interdependence because they are the most polarized. Border politics produces mainly antagonistic rhetoric or polite generalities. The border remains mysterious for many Southern Californians, let alone the leaders and bureaucrats in Washington and Mexico City. San Diego and Tijuana seem dissimilar neighbors. Elsewhere—in Calexico and Mexicali, or in the twin towns named Nogales on the Arizona line—the U.S. and Mexican communities flow together almost without interruption; the population on the U.S. side is heavily Mexican-American, connected by kinship ties to the southern side. Alone among U.S. border cities, San Diego remains resolutely Anglo. San Diego has sleek skyscrapers, a water wonderland of bays and beaches, a conservative suburban landscape and mentality. For many years, the city did its best to ignore the proximity of Latin America; the colors, sounds, and crowds of the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles resemble Tijuana more than San Diego does. And Tijuana retains the stereotypical image of the garish, lawless border town: the front door to the Third World.

But headlong growth has transformed Tijuana—and the rest of Baja California—into an industrial powerhouse. Assembly plants, known as maquiladoras, make televisions, toys, trucks, garments and plastic goods for export. The U.S. and Asian manufacturing corporations often house their executives and administrative offices in San Diego. Together the cities market a logical partnership—white-collar and high-tech in the north, blue-collar and labor-intensive in the south. Tijuana's levels of income, education, car ownership and employment are among the highest in Mexico. The migrant shantytowns are squalid; the enclaves above the Agua Caliente racetrack are typically ostentatious. But the real story of Tijuana is all the people in between—professionals, managers, entrepreneurs. Tijuana is a bastion of the middle class that has taken root in northern and urban Mexico and fostered political change.

Historically, leaders in Mexico City have regarded the border cities as Americanized beachheads vulnerable to their northern neighbor's penchant for invasions. After a two-year war ending in 1848, the United States wrested away the northern half of Mexico: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo created the border and seared another painful memory of conquest into the Mexican consciousness. In the following decades, wealthy Southern Californians joined in periodic armed conspiracies with U.S. and Mexican adventurers and political activists trying to colonize Baja California. Tijuana was viewed with particular suspicion by Mexico City because Baja's deserts and mountains cut Tijuana off from the rest of Mexico. The only way to reach the city was to cross into the United States and approach from the north. In this century, Tijuana's economy depended on its northern neighbors' appetites for vice: gambling, prostitution, liquor during Prohibition. U.S. dollars were the dominant currency until the 1970s and are still ubiquitous. The Mexican government has tried to defend Mexican identity with cultural programs that have fed border states a diet of mariachi music, charros (cowboys) and other icons of the interior. This seems to have been a waste of time. Tijuana's population is a mix of migrants from all over Mexico. Although they might regard natives of Mexico City, or chilangos, as imperious, Tijuanans are just as patriotic as other Mexicans. Perhaps more so, scholars have suggested, because the border defines their sense of national identity more sharply. They are culturally agile, moving between the two sides and making the most of each.

So Tijuana and San Diego are closer than they appear; they share an economic horizon. And the very walls tell a story about an evolving hybrid culture. The teenage graffiti artists of Tijuana took the border by storm in the early 1990s, splattering bilingual graffiti across the port of entry, the shopping centers on Agua Caliente Boulevard, the trolley that runs from San Ysidro to downtown San Diego. Contradicting the complaints in California that social ills ooze north from Mexico, "los taggers" were mostly English-speaking, middle-class youths who commuted to schools in San Diego or former immigrants who brought back the hip-hop/graffiti craze with them. An enterprising Tijuana youth from a wealthy family that owned a garment factory in Los Angeles tapped a curious and lucrative market. He opened a corner store on Agua Caliente Boulevard called Madness. It was a paint-drenched clubhouse for taggers which sold the tools and regalia of the trade: baseball caps, baggy jeans, ski masks, backpacks for toting spray-paint cans on clandestine "bombing" runs in which the youths taunted police by adorning their scrawled monikers with the number 1036, the police code for "fleeing suspect." When the officers of the elite Special Tactical Group caught the taggers, they administered street justice by spraying them head to foot with their own confiscated paint cans.

"All of the fashions of the United States arrive sooner or later," said Federico Benitez, the bespectacled, reformist police chief who in early 1994 organized an antigraffiti campaign by police and social workers. "The movement of people back and forth is large. It brings these influences."

The graffiti craze burst the confines of working-class neighborhoods in Tijuana, catching on with children of Mexican millionaires and with nonconformists in their thirties—"what in other times would have been called hippies," Chief Benitez said. In fact, the taggers were the latest in a procession of defiant trans-border subcultures: the zoot-suited pachucos of the 1940s, the hippies of the 1960s, and the cholo gang members of today. A more destructive form of this cultural ferment swallowed up a group of Mexican-American gang members from the Logan Heights barrio of San Diego in 1993. Recruited as traveling gunmen by the Arellano drug lords, the young men of the Thirtieth Street gang ended up in the middle of the murder of the cardinal of Guadalajara; they were hunted down while their bosses disappeared and the mysteries of drugs and politics went unsolved.

In comparison to the young narco-soldiers, the graffiti "crews" were mere nuisances. But they caused a lot of indignation and discussion in Tijuana about insidious foreign influences on local youth. The crews were hundreds strong and had names like Fool Krew, Homeless Altamira Punks and HEM, the Spanish acronym for Made in Mexico. "I like the name HEM because it's 100 percent Mexican," declared Bens, seventeen, a rebellious rich kid sitting cross-legged on the counter of the Madness store. His tag adorned a giant HEM insignia on a white wall across the boulevard from Madness dated 1993, the year of the tagger invasion. Bens (as in Mercedes) had lived for two years in Southern California with cousins who were avid taggers. He did not work or go to school, and he spent nights at a time without seeing his family, whom he described sourly as "muy stuckup." Bens and his crew spoke a rollicking Spanglish patois full of terms like lonche (lunch), raite (ride), underground, wannabes, get-a-life.

"What do I have to do with Mexico City or Sinaloa, if I spent my life shopping here in San Ysidro at Ralph's and Safeway?" growled another graffiti artist, eighteen-year-old Fran Ilich, slurping a Coke at a Jack-in-the-Box a quick walk north of the San Ysidro port of entry. Ilich was edgy and skinny with short disheveled hair, an appropriately bohemian-looking leader of Tijuana's guerrilla counterculture. He was also an aspiring novelist, journalist and filmmaker. "Before being Mexican, I am from Tijuana. Taggers, raves, techno—those are words you can't translate. I have to like this transculturation, this hybrid language: that's what I am."

The beauty of Tijuana lies in this cheerfully eclectic vitality, which U.S. visitors do not always see. The Cultural Center of Tijuana, whose globe-shaped edifice dominates the downtown landscape, offers Picasso exhibits, Tito Puente concerts, a classical orchestra made up of Russian expatriate musicians and paintings inspired both by Baja California indigenous folk drawings and the murals of East Los Angeles barrios. Young writers frequent the cantinas of the red-light district, scribbling ideas on paper napkins, soaking up material. One playwright wrote a drama entitled The Journey of the Minstrels, based on the true story of eighteen illegal immigrants who suffocated to death in a railroad boxcar. "Me stereotype of the city does not necessarily bother us; if fact, we take it as a point of thematic departure," says Leonardo Saravia, a magazine editor who oversaw the translation of a Dashiell Hammett story set in 1920s Tijuana. And Miguel Escobar, a novelist from the northern state of Sonora and consular press attache in Southern California, says: "The border has its own very healthy culture based precisely on the clash, the disparity of the two cultures, which in a way end up complementing each other. It is a cultural phenomenon that has a certain appeal."

In the United States, the border appeals mainly to political instincts for exploiting the fear and anger of the voters. The border is an irresistible stage for political theater, as more and more politicians have discovered. Although it seemed marginally significant at the time, the visit by Patrick Buchanan to San Diego during the 1992 presidential campaign turned out to be prophetic. Buchanan, who was running a maverick protest campaign against President George Bush, held a press conference on a plateau above Smugglers Canyon. The canyon, a popular entry point for illegal immigrants, overlooked a panorama of boulders, brush, farmland, the ocean shimmering on the west. At a gap in the border fence, vendors manning a makeshift tabletop stand sold soft drinks and sandwiches to migrants on the Mexican side waiting to sneak across. Buchanan's bodyguards chatted with the migrants; the press turned out in modest numbers; no one was holding space on the front page.

His shoes and suit dusty, Buchanan grinned pugnaciously and tore into President Bush on the immigration issue. Buchanan demanded that the line be reinforced with ditches, fences, checkpoints, agents and troops. He proposed charging a fee to legal border-crossers to pay for the buildup. He thundered about what he called "a national disgrace: the failure of the national government of the United States to protect the borders of the United States from an illegal invasion that involves at least a million aliens a year. As a result, we have social problems and economic problems. And drug problems."

Behind the candidate, the migrants on the Mexican side of the line tried to make sense of the pin-striped invasion of Smugglers Canyon. They had heard only vaguely of Buchanan.

"He's a presidential candidate?" asked a man named Guillermo, squinting behind thick tinted glasses. "Does he speak Spanish? Ask him if he can pull the Migra out of here for twenty-four hours, then he can do whatever he wants. Ask him if he can give me a ride to Los Angeles."

Next to Guillermo, Filoberto was not impressed with Buchanan's tough talk. The seventeen-year-old Filoberto had a greyhound's build and wore a single black racing glove. He leaned slightly forward, loose-limbed, like a sprinter about to crouch into the blocks.

"They have all kinds of technology," said Filoberto. "But we are smarter. People are smarter than machines. We are still going to cross. In fact, as soon as all you people get out of here, we are going to go for it."

Filoberto and Buchanan's aides reacted with displeasure to a raucous handful of extremists who showed up on the U.S. side to yell insults about immigrants, Republicans and Democrats. One protestor wore a hard hat that depicted running immigrants crossed out by the international "No" slash. He spoke with a thick East European accent and distributed leaflets advertising a video telling the "truth" about illegal immigrants: "They are coming by the millions, and they are all pregnant!"

Buchanan's candidacy fizzled. But during the next few years, the illegal immigration story got very hot. And just about every proposal Buchanan made in the seeming political isolation of Smugglers Canyon was espoused by leaders across the ideological spectrum, from Governor Pete Wilson to Senator Dianne Feinstein to Attorney General Janet Reno: imposing border-crossing fees, doubling the Border Patrol, calling in the National Guard, erecting fences and high-tech fortifications. Liberals and conservatives elbowed each other aside to glare across Smugglers Canyon and declare war on illegal immigration. Rhetoric about an immigration crisis crescendoed during the successful campaigns by Governor Wilson and the proponents of Proposition 187, the California ballot measure denying social services to immigrants, leading up to the 1994 elections in California. The border press corps covered stories that dramatized the urgency of the problem: In the summer of 1993, an onslaught of smuggling ships from China displayed the global might of the mafias that trade in humans and sent the regulars at Big Boy chasing Chinese illegal immigrants back and forth across Baja and the border.

California was key to winning the presidency; and the immigration issue was perceived as the key to winning California. During the 1996 presidential campaign, a chorus of Republicans—Buchanan gleefully leading the way again—denounced the hydra of illegal immigration, drugs and corruption, bashed Mexico and accused President Clinton of failing to defend the border. The Clinton administration responded with an industrious public relations campaign about how it had fortified the line with unprecedented expenditure. Visits to the San Diego border by the attorney general and the immigration commissioner-infrequent safaris in the past—became routine media events drumming home a message that was part hype, but also part fact: It was getting more difficult for illegal immigrants to cross the line.

(CHAPTER ONE continues...)


By Graham Robb


Copyright © 1997 Graham Robb. All rights reserved.

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