Mauricio Cantera, a 59-year-old grandfather who sells churros to crossers, said the vans probably passed inches from his tray of sweets Tuesday afternoon, but he didn't notice anything amiss.
Having worked the crossing for decades, he said smuggling runs through the San Ysidro Port of Entry are common. What happened next, however, wasn't.
When the vans reached the inspection booths, instead of stopping, the drivers tried to storm through the crossing, triggering a brief chase that ended with blasts of gunfire, a crunch of vehicles and authorities shutting down the border crossing for the first time in 46 years.
Three suspected smugglers were arrested -- one of them caught by Mexican soldiers as he tried to flee into Tijuana, another hospitalized for a gunshot wound. On the U.S. side, two Customs and Border Protection inspectors and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent shot at one of the vans as it sped toward them trying to escape, according to San Diego police.
The brazen incident baffled U.S. authorities, who declared the port of entry a crime scene, sent helicopters aloft and closed all 24 lanesfor the first time since the assassination of President Kennedy. The closure lasted more than six hours.
Traffickers typically take a more stealthy approach at the crossing, hiding immigrants inside trunks, three or four at a time, or stuffing them in hidden compartments or the undercarriage of vehicles.
"It doesn't make any sense to us," said Michael Unzueta, the special agent in charge of ICE in San Diego. "When you have 30 or 40 people in a van, they're going to be blatantly obvious" to inspectors.
Federal agents Wednesday interrogated the 54 men, 15 women and five minors who were in the vehicles. The immigrants said they were going to be charged $2,500 to $4,200 to be smuggled across, Unzueta said.
On the Tijuana side of the vast gateway complex, port director Cesar David Montoya said port runners, as such illegal crossers are known, usually take a different approach, going late at night, against traffic, through the southbound lanes where his agents patrol.
"This clearly shows the desperation that these groups have in response to the bolstered enforcement in the U.S.," Montoya said.
The incident occurred about 3:30 p.m. as the lead van approached the inspection booth. When the agent ran the license plates, the van stormed through, followed by the other two.
Port runners face an obstacle course of zigzagging concrete barriers and clogged car lanes in the secondary inspection area. The port runner alert system sounds alarms and activates gates and metal barriers at all the exits, in effect trapping smugglers.
The three vans were trapped, but two still tried to escape -- one drawing gunfire as it headed toward agents, according to authorities. It eventually crashed into another car, injuring a passenger.
Some border observers speculated that the incident could have been part of a diversion, noting that smugglers have been known to send one or more decoy vans storming through the crossing to draw attention while another immigrant-laden vehicle passes through.
Or maybe the smugglers just panicked, said Cantera, the vendor. "Maybe they thought they could slip through," he said, "but when they saw they were going to be inspected, they decided to make a run for it."