The police academy graduation ceremony in Tecate, Mexico, was a solemn affair.
As hundreds of family members looked on, 106 newly minted police officers and state marshals stood at attention, marched in formation on the flat, sun-baked parade grounds, and accepted diplomas from law enforcement officials and local politicians with handshakes and smiles.
Most of the police officers will be deployed to Tijuana, where the homicide rate has surged. Police attribute the rise in crime not to the type of cartel violence that depressed the city and wreaked havoc on tourism in 2008, but to turf battles between small-time drug dealers.
Perhaps those were the “bad hombres” President Trump referred to when he told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto the other day, according to the Associated Press, that if Mexico could not police itself, he could send in American troops. (The pair spoke by phone in an attempt to smooth over tensions after Peña Nieto canceled a White House meeting in response to Trump’s gratuitous Twitter needling about who will pay for a border wall.)
Sending troops is a ludicrous suggestion, even if it was made in jest, but sadly, it does not seem out of character for our commander in chief, who in his first two weeks, inflicted a travel ban penalizing (mostly) Muslim refugees and immigrants, insulted the Australian prime minister, uttered conflicting messages about Israeli settlements and threatened to yank federal funds from UC Berkeley after a protest against Breitbart agitator Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent.
I drove across the border Wednesday morning to chat with Mexicans about Trump’s persistent need to antagonize our neighbor, ally and third biggest trading partner. From the moment he announced his candidacy, denigrating Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals,” his obsession with barricading the border has shown no signs of abating.
“Trump appeals to people who don’t really understand what the border is,” said Inés García Ramos, crime and public safety reporter for the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta. García covered the police academy graduation, and invited me to tag along. “I mean there is a wall already. We have seen that wall every day since we were kids. I don’t remember when there wasn’t a wall.”
This is the crux of Trump’s ignorance, which his supporters embrace. They have no idea what our bustling border is really like. They don’t know that a third of the 2,000 miles separating our two countries is already scarred by walls and fences. Or that migration from Mexico is essentially at net zero. Or that our agricultural industry would crater without migrant workers.
Or perhaps they know and don’t care because it’s so much easier to find scapegoats than solutions.
At the busiest border crossing in the world, San Ysidro, the wall has been a blight on the landscape for many years. Despite the unsightly barrier, a rich bicultural society thrives in its shadow.
It is common for Mexicans to cross daily to attend school in the San Diego area, or to work. Americans who can’t afford American rents live in and around Tijuana and commute to work in the States. Their paychecks go so much farther in Mexico, especially now that the peso has fallen dramatically against the dollar.
García Ramos, 28, was born in Los Angeles, but has always lived in Baja. She is a dual citizen and has no trouble crossing over for work or fun. On election night, she told me, she was in San Diego, preparing to report on a Hillary Clinton victory. As soon as it became clear that Trump would prevail, she drove to a Tijuana shelter that houses deported Mexicans who are either U.S. military veterans or mothers of U.S. citizens.
“Deported Veterans and Mom Dreamers,” García Ramos said. “That’s what they call themselves. And they were in shock. They were like, ‘Oh my God, if I felt during the Obama administration that I didn’t have a chance to go back to the States and fight for my citizenship because I have lived there 20 or more years, this is total despair.’”
I caught up with her at the Zeta offices in a residential neighborhood. As we drove to Tecate, about an hour east, we passed dozens of low-slung warehouses — maquiladoras — whose boom was enabled by the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, a frequent target of Trump’s ire. In windowless buildings, Mexican workers make Samsung TVs, medical instruments, overhead compartments for passenger airplanes, mostly for export. We passed Hyundai’s massive plant. One factory had a big sign advertising work for men (“solicita personal masculino”).
“The people working there earn 200 pesos a day, which is what? Ten dollars?” García said. “I don’t see how these companies are going to say, ‘O.K., we’re going to pay someone in the U.S. 10 times more to do a job that we already have made an investment to put in Tijuana.’ I think it’s very dumb when Trump says he’s going to get all those jobs back.”
I met Garcia Ramos a couple of years ago, when we covered the sad case of former Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, who accidentally crossed the border into Mexico with loaded guns, and ended up in a jail there for seven months.
Tahmooressi was represented by Fernando Benitez, a Tijuana criminal defense attorney who frequently represents Americans. I popped in Wednesday morning to see Benitez before meeting up with García. His seventh floor office in the Zona Rio neighborhood, with floor-to-ceiling windows, has an expansive city view.
Benitez, who owns a beach house near Trump’s failed Baja resort, told me that as a teenager he was fascinated by Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal.”
“I thought, here is a guy who knows what he wants and is not ashamed to go after it,” he said. “I thought his personality was super seductive. That was the 14-year-old version of me.”
Now, he’s just perplexed.
“I don’t understand what his end game is,” Benitez told me. “I have tried to read and understand [Trump advisor] Steve Bannon because I think he is key to all this. But I can’t make heads or tails of that man. I can’t for the life of me understand what they want to achieve.”
Here on the California side of the border, neither do we.