<i> El Bordo </i> Is Aliens’ New Jumping Off Place Into U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Times are changing in the soccer field, and Genoveva Sanchez is not happy. For four years, Sanchez has been walking from her Tijuana home and setting up her small food stand in the broad canyon that has been the primary staging area for millions of people entering the United States illegally.

But the almost-mythical soccer field--for years a magnet for journalists, officials, academics and others interested in the historic movement--has lost some of its allure.

“There are very few people; business is way down,” Sanchez said, pointing to her unsold piles of fried chicken and roasted meats arrayed below a blue plastic canopy.


The border-crossers are still coming. But most are embarking on this riskiest part of their journey--where the spotlights, binoculars, Ford Broncos and helicopters of the U.S. Border Patrol are most plentiful--from a point about three miles west of the soccer field. The new jumping off place of choice has become a half-mile stretch of the Tijuana River called el bordo (literally, the edge).

Each day, hundreds, sometimes more than 1,000, of those heading illegally to the United States from Tijuana mass at the raised concrete levees on either side of the river. There, just to the west of the busy border checkpoint for tourists and others, they await nightfall and the opportunity to slip through gaping holes in the tattered border fence and enter the adjoining San Diego community of San Ysidro.

Though the soccer field is still an important entry point for the illegal aliens--200 or so people were observed over several hours passing through on a recent evening--the levees are now clearly the preferred crossing zone. There is universal agreement that the movement through the river zone has surged in recent months.

Precisely why remains unclear. Border Patrol officials tend to characterize the new gathering pattern as a natural evolution toward a more direct entry point. While those traversing the soccer field must hike for hours over rough terrain before arriving at the commercial hub, people using the levee step directly into the largely Latino community of San Ysidro. It is there that taxis, public transportation and smuggling vehicles await the pollos (chickens), as the migrants are known, to take them to downtown San Diego, Los Angeles or beyond.

“It’s more direct here; it’s a lot easier,” explained Guillermo Vasquez, 25, one of a group of men from Mexico City who were found waiting recently on the southern levee. Several said they had made the crossing on various occasions, both via the levee and the soccer field. “You don’t have to walk so far. You can jump in the trolley and you’re gone.”

Echoed Sentiment

The sentiment was echoed by others along the crowded levee, both pollos and polleros, as the smugglers and guides are known.

“It can take four hours to cross over there (the soccer field),” said Diego, a fast-talking 30-year-old smuggler who, like others in his trade, is known by a sobriquet, in his case El Licensiado, a title normally reserved for lawyers and scholars.

Others say people began gathering at el bordo in response to a Border Patrol buildup that at first was concentrated on the soccer field.

“The people crossing in Tijuana are going to look for the place of least resistance,” said Jorge Bustamante, president of the Tijuana-based College of the Northern Frontier, a Mexican research institution. “It’s a very fluid movement. The shift from the canyon to el bordo (the levee area) was because of the resistance of the Border Patrol.”

Whatever the reason, the traffic through the levees and into the maze of potential hiding places in San Ysidro poses special enforcement problems compared to the relatively open soccer field region.


“It’s so cluttered with trucks, fences, ditches, houses, whatever, that it can be very hard to work,” said Michael Gregg, spokesman for the Border Patrol, the enforcement arm of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

To respond to the challenge, the Border Patrol has concentrated its added strength away from the soccer field and toward the el bordo area. On two evenings last week, more than a dozen enforcement vehicles were in the levee area, while only a handful appeared to be keeping watch over the soccer field.

“We shift our personnel to meet the need,” Gregg said. “We see the alien traffic moving periodically from area to area, and now most of it has shifted to the levee.”

Hiring Outlawed

The change has taken place at a time when U.S. authorities say fewer people are attempting to enter the United States illegally from Mexico. Officials trace the decline to the 1986 immigration law and its provisions outlawing the hiring of illegal aliens and the granting of legal status to many one-time undocumented foreigners.

However, the illegal alien traffic is still massive: Immigration agents in San Diego, the single-busiest crossing point along the U.S.-Mexico border, recorded more than 430,000 apprehensions of illegal aliens in the most recent fiscal year--almost 1,200 arrests a day.

The levee area is teeming with life, particularly after dark. The tableau is much like it used to be in the soccer field, adjusted to the new topography.

The people begin arriving shortly after midday, mostly scattered groups of young men toting their belongings in ubiquitous white plastic grocery bags. As dusk approaches, entire families join the growing throngs assembling on the concrete levee to the north and south of the narrow river, its meager flow clogged with raw sewage.

Vendors hawk food and drink, sharp-eyed guides peddle their services and lean, angular men scan the crowds for victims. Many drug users, thieves and neighborhood toughs frequent the levee area.

“It’s scary here, but one risks it for the possibility of improvement,” explained Guadalupe Morales, who guesses she must be 45, but appears at least 60, and is accompanied by her bright-eyed 11-year-old son, Apolinar.

Racy Neighborhood

The levee area sits on the northern fringe of Tijuana’s Zona Norte, a racy neighborhood long known for its good-time cantinas and plethora of prostitutes. In recent years, the zone’s many hotels have been largely occupied by emigrants on the way north. Alien smugglers frequent the establishments, seeking recruits. Migrants pay $300 or more to go to Los Angeles.

The concrete levees slope up about 25 feet from the river bottom. The channel winds northward, from Mexican to U.S. territory. At one point, the border line crosses the river.

Migrants generally mass atop the concrete barriers in Mexican territory, although many also wait in the river-bottom area, which is basically a broad ditch about 50 yards wide with a trickle of water in the middle.

Entrepreneurs have placed boards across the river, charging people 1,000 pesos (about 40 cents) to cross without getting wet. The unappetizing alternative is to walk through the fetid water. Many take off their shoes and trudge on through, bypassing the toll.

On the U.S. side, Border Patrol vehicles dash up and down the concrete embankments, flashing lights on the traffic of humanity. Often it is a standoff between the ever-patient border-crossers and the patrol agents.

Drug activity and crime are widespread in the area, according to authorities. On a recent evening, a man was seen alongside the river shooting up with a hypodermic needle, using light from a burning tire; others sniffed glue nearby. The aroma of marijuana was everywhere. A week later, a migrant was stabbed to death in the area just inside the U.S. border; authorities knew of no motive.

Bribes Sought

Although fearing the thieves, migrants interviewed said they were more concerned about another hazard: Mexican police seeking bribes. One after another, men and women told tales of being shaken down by assorted Mexican authorities who frequent the area.

The Tijuana chief of police, Jose Francisco Mora Rodarte, has said that such claims are exaggerated. He has vowed to cut down on corruption within the department.

“The police will take whatever you have,” said Guillermo Maciel, 36, who was one of scores of people huddled atop the northern levee on a recent evening, waiting for a Border Patrol vehicle to leave so that they might dash off to el norte .

U.S. authorities have been involved in a number of recent shootings in the area. During a two-week period in December and January, a special unit of Border Patrol agents and San Diego police shot and killed four Mexican men who allegedly attacked the officers near the levees. The unit was taken out of operation after the second incident after charges by a lawyer that two victims were shot while running back to Mexico. U. S. officials denied the charges and say the unit will be redeployed.

More recently, a Border Patrol agent shot a Mexican man two times after the man allegedly attacked him with a rock. The man survived and is facing charges of assault against an officer. His lawyer claims he was wrongly shot.

Once across the river channel, the migrants wait for an opportunity to slip through the flimsy fence and into San Ysidro. Among those waiting at the hole recently were Javier and Juanita Padilla, residents of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, who held their 10-month old son, Omar, swaddled in a blue blanket. He was seemingly fascinated by all the commotion.

‘Decent Life’

“The pay in Mexico isn’t enough to live a decent life,” Padilla explained as he stood at the hole in the fence, just inside Mexican territory, clutching his son as a light from a nearby Border Patrol vehicle illuminated him and his companions. Later, a low-flying Border Patrol helicopter flashed its 1.2-million candlepower light on the assembled group, imparting an eerie aura to the spectacle.

The next evening, at the soccer field, many were still setting forth from the once-teeming canyon, known in Mexico as Canon Zapata. In the distant high ground, Border Patrol officers could occasionally be seen keeping watch with binoculars. On nearby hilltops, guides acting as sentries directed groups of border-crossers, alerting them to the presence of patrol agents.

Crossing via the soccer field was a three-member mariachi band from the northern state of Sinaloa. The band set out on the dirt paths of the canyon near sunset, lugging its instruments and occasionally stopping to sing a song.

“We sing so that people have no sad moments and remember what they left behind,” explained the accordionist, Antonio Perez y Perez, 50, as he resumed his journey north, his instrument strapped on his back.