Mexico Issues Formal Protest of Border Ditch

Times Staff Writer

The Mexican government formally demanded Monday that the United States cancel plans to build a highly controversial 4-mile-long ditch on the border between San Diego and Tijuana aimed at reducing the smuggling of immigrants into the United States by vehicle.

"In the spirit of cooperation and friendship that characterizes the relation between the two nations, that option (the ditch) must be discarded," the Mexican Foreign Ministry said in a communique late Monday.

"Solutions to bilateral problems must be found through mutual decisions and not taken unilaterally."

The plan, which U.S. officials claim is necessary to prevent an estimated 300 to 400 vehicles from driving across the flat border terrain every month, has sparked intense opposition in Mexico's congress and the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who took office in December.

However, the communique issued Monday is believed to be the first time the Mexican government has formally demanded that the U.S. government rescind its proposal. The Foreign Ministry said it had instructed its embassy in Washington to deliver a "diplomatic note" to the State Department communicating Mexico's opposition to the project.

The communique said its demand was prompted by recent statements from U.S. immigration officials that the ditch was designed to prevent illegal immigration--not merely to dispose of rainwater, as it said a joint border commission had suggested last year. To find a solution to the rainwater runoff, the communique added, "new alternatives must be considered."

In the most definitive statement yet by U.S. officials on the project, U.S. Immigration Commissioner Alan C. Nelson said at an annual conference of border state governors in Mexico on Friday that construction on the project would go ahead within 60 days and be finished by the end of summer.

"We obviously don't ask Mexico's permission to build a ditch on our side to stop vehicles," Nelson said. "It's on the U.S. side; obviously we have the right to do things, just as they do on their side."

Nelson said the purpose of the project was two-fold: first, to divert runoff water that has been flowing into Mexico, and second, to block vehicles from driving into San Diego carrying illegal immigrants, and drugs and other contraband.

News of the proposed ditch, called "La Zanja" in Mexico, leaked out a few days after President Bush's inauguration, when U.S. officials let it be known that they hoped to build a 4-mile excavation on flat Otay Mesa just east of San Ysidro. The ditch would be roughly 4 miles long, 5 feet deep and 14 feet wide at the top, sloping at a 45-degree angle to just 6 feet at the bottom.

The ditch represents the second major controversy that has arisen between the two countries in the past few weeks. The other was Bush's appointment of John D. Negroponte as ambassador to Mexico. Negroponte, a veteran State Department official, was ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, when the Reagan Administration was using that country as a home base for U.S.-funded Contra operations against the Nicaraguan government. Mexico opposed the Contra operations.

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