After the Border Patrol van departed carrying the boys who did not run fast enough, Carlitos whistled, the sound echoing in the park beneath sun-glazed downtown office towers.
“They’re gone!” he shouted in Spanish, inhaling a blast of Octane Booster--a gasoline additive and makeshift drug--from a Coke can. “I chased them off.”
A dozen youths emerged warily from the trees: homeless illegal immigrants who earn a living in a verdant corner of Balboa Park where the cars circle day and night. Where the drivers in business suits and BMWs seek out children who survive by prostituting themselves and selling drugs.
Unfazed by the Border Patrol raid, the diminutive Carlitos, 14, led the way through the brush as he described the suburban home of a man who picked him up recently.
“He has Super-Nintendo, a video, a big television, a pool,” he exclaimed, black hair falling in his eyes. “Like the movies.”
Carlitos reached a freeway interchange that cuts through the park and gestured at a row of blankets in the dirt where he sleeps beneath a concrete bridge. “We’re from Tijuana, Sinaloa, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Honduras,” he said. “This is our new house.”
Carlitos and his friends are the children of the border.
As young as 9, they wander the streets of Tijuana and Southern California, slipping across the U.S.-Mexico boundary with ease, nomads in the limbo between societies. They move along a trans-border circuit of Border Patrol detention centers, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cheap hotels, police stations--institutions that they have learned to survive in and to manipulate.
“For them, the international line is not a dividing line,” said Oscar Escalada Hernandez, director of a Tijuana YMCA youth migrant shelter, who has studied street children in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. “It is like a street that has to be crossed, with certain dangers, certain obstacles, but nothing more than a street.”
Every day, dozens of teen-agers and children end up alone in Tijuana--recently returned or deported from the north, recently arrived from the south, with desolate pasts and uncertain prospects. Illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors has declined, officials say, peaking three years ago because of a surge in youths trying to reunite with relatives legalized under the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act.
Nonetheless, the growing number of illegal street children who are arrested repeatedly has alarmed diplomats, social workers and law enforcement officials in both nations. Abused, visibly malnourished, addicted to drugs, their families wrenched apart by poverty and migration, the children are part of the ubiquitous problem of homeless children in the urban Third World, from Manila to Lima to Tijuana.
Although statistics are elusive, experts estimate that as many as 5,000 homeless children live in Tijuana, whose population has swelled to nearly 2 million because of migration and economic growth.
“The phenomenon has overwhelmed the capacity of both public and private agencies,” Escalada said.
An unusual binational coalition--made up of the Mexican Consulate, Border Patrol, San Diego Police, a Tijuana border police unit known as Grupo Beta, and social workers in both cities--has formed to aid the youths who frequent Balboa Park.
Authorities have identified up to 50 hard-core youths for whom they say juvenile facilities do not suffice. Mexican officials send some of the children returning from the United States to the Tijuana YMCA shelter, which provides food and lodging while young migrants determine their next move or find jobs to earn travel money.
The trans-border street children tend to be disruptive and even violent, sometimes enticing newly arrived migrants into petty crime. The coalition hopes to set up a more structured residential treatment program in Tijuana geared to this deeply troubled population.
“These are very difficult children,” said Francisco Velasco, a Mexican-born doctor at a San Diego health clinic. “They have been treated like garbage. They have suffered everything you can imagine. . . . They tell me: ‘Here, I can earn $20 or $40 dollars from a (client). You bring me food, you take care of me if I’m sick. In my country, I don’t have anything.’ ”
Ending the cycle will be difficult for the ragtag residents of the “Four Winds Hotel"--a jocular nickname for the street kids’ “home” under the freeway interchange in the sprawling park north of downtown.
To get to the hide-out, the youths dodge with practiced agility through traffic on freeway ramps, clamber up embankments and navigate narrow paths. In the cave-like, graffiti-decorated refuge beneath the bridge, there are blankets and sleeping bags strewn with piles of clothes, a stuffed toy monster and textbooks. A few boys sometimes attend a San Diego elementary school for the homeless.
Empty plastic containers of Octane Booster, known as toncho , also litter the ground.
Peering from beneath a Chicago Bulls cap, a wiry 14-year-old named Martin told a visitor he wants a case of toncho for his birthday.
“You can get it anywhere,” Martin said in slurred slow motion. “Pep Boys, 7-Eleven. Only $3.99 a bottle and it lasts six guys all day. And gets them good and crazy.”
Some Latin American street children get high on glue or nail polish; Martin and his friends sniff toncho , carrying it around in ever-present soda cans. The substance bears a resemblance to fumes from a gas tank. The harsh fumes smother cold and hunger, but also corrode the lungs, kidneys, heart and brain, Velasco said.
Martin, who was born in the state of Michoacan, said he occasionally takes his earnings home to his mother in Tijuana. He will not stay because he does not get along with his stepfather. He displayed scars on his wrists where he says an older brother hit him.
Martin grew up haunting gritty neighborhoods such as the Zona Norte near the Tijuana River, a prime gathering spot for migrants and the denizens of the border nether world they attract: smugglers, vendors, robbers, drug users.
Like many other youths, Martin discovered he could make money as a small-time, free-lance guide for illegal immigrants at the border. He learned the rhythms of Border Patrol deployment, the gaps in the defenses. Migrants paid him to take them across the fence to nearby fast-food restaurants, where rides north awaited.
But Martin said an increase in Border Patrol forces made business difficult. A friend, known as “Batman,” recruited him as a rock cocaine runner on 12th Street in San Diego.
And perhaps six months ago, Martin heard that there was better money in the park. Now, he said, it will be hard to get rid of him.
“If the migra catches me, I’ll be back the next day,” he declared.
Would Martin change his ways if authorities created a shelter in Tijuana?
“Maybe,” he said absently, dropping down to do pushups. “If they let my mother live there too. If they have weights for exercise. And Super-Nintendo. And toncho !”
San Diego, along with many other U.S. cities, has its share of homelessness and runaway youths. But police and others are concerned about the plight of the children in Balboa Park and the brazenness of the prosperous-looking men who frequent the area--often during the day--seeking sex with boys. Lunchtime and the late afternoon are particularly busy. The boys say some clients take them on trips to San Francisco and Canada.
“For us, the children are victims,” said Marcela Merino, a Mexican consul in San Diego and director of a consular department that aids immigrants. “We have asked that the authorities attack this problem by focusing on the people who exploit and abuse them.”
At least two boys who engage in prostitution have been found to have AIDS. There have been two attempted rapes of the homeless youths in the park, police said.
In addition to police sweeps targeting the adults, the consulate is working with authorities to make witnesses available, perhaps by providing videotaped testimony. This will enable more aggressive prosecution, a sometimes difficult task because of transient victims and witnesses.
Despite the danger and the recurring presence of the police and Border Patrol, the youths remain.
Their attitude toward their clients is generally scornful. With singular detachment, they describe prostitution as a means of survival that provides money for impoverished relatives, meals at Burger King, and the high-top basketball shoes and other fashionable items that unite kids of all nationalities and socioeconomic classes.
Carlitos, who was born in the Los Alamos neighborhood of Tijuana, said he steals most of his clothes from department stores and showed off his jeans--"Pure Levis 501.” He visits an aunt in San Diego occasionally and speaks enough English to bluff U.S. immigration agents.
In a husky voice full of cheerful, sarcastic bluster, he switched rapidly between languages.
“I bring money to my mother so she can offer it to the virgencita , (the Virgin Mary),” he chuckled in Spanish. Then he described his father with a profane epithet in English.
When asked if he worries about AIDS, Carlitos looked down, his nonchalance diminished for a moment.
“Of course,” he said. “But the money comes first.”
Most of the young migrants whom the Border Patrol apprehends and turns over to Mexican immigration authorities tend to be timid and bewildered.
In contrast, the street children affect bored bravado and fanciful monikers--Squirrel, Little Dracula, Karate Kid, The Russian.
One boy, named Chilaquil (it refers to a tortilla dish), estimated that he has been caught by U.S. agents at least 20 times. He said he grew up on the streets of Mexico City and headed north last year.
“I was going to Laredo, but I caught the wrong train,” grinned the 16-year-old.
Upon arriving in Tijuana, he spent months sleeping outdoors near the river levee, wrapped in a blanket. Now he divides his time between Balboa Park and a San Diego shelter, taking the city trolley north after he darts across the international line.
At the Mexican immigration office at the Otay Mesa border crossing, social worker Rosa Isela Orozco interviews a forlorn parade of failed young border-crossers each morning.
On a recent day, one boy who said his name was Omar toyed with papers on her desk. As Orozco questioned the sleepy-eyed 13-year-old with the cough and bruised nose, his attention drifted to a television blaring a cartoon about a galactic cowboy.
Omar claimed not to remember his Tijuana address or neighborhood. He said: “I want to go to Storefront (a San Diego homeless shelter). I like it better there.”
“I think you are telling me pure lies,” said Orozco, her tone mixing exasperation and maternal concern.
When pressed, the youth admitted that he lied about his name and that he had done time in San Diego Juvenile Hall for shoplifting pants and gym shoes. Mexican police records show that the boy told authorities he transports cocaine across the border by swallowing small plastic bags of the drug, which he sells on the crime-ridden 12th Street corridor near the park.
The number of vulnerable migrants who could follow such a path worries social workers.
“You have the classic kid whose destination is uncertain, whose return is made difficult by problems at home,” Escalada said. “He has a cousin named Pedro who visited once from Los Angeles and drove a nice van. He says: ‘I’m going to Los Angeles too. I hear Pedro lives on Arlington Street. I’m going to find him.’ . . . These are the ones who are in great danger of becoming street children.”
Counselor America Escobar recalls a 9-year-old Nicaraguan who was separated from his father while crossing the border and was arrested. The boy claimed to be Mexican and was returned to Tijuana. He made it as far north as a San Diego shelter for teen-agers. He did not find his father; he found new friends who lured him into prostitution.
“He was very clean, a very nice kid,” Escobar said. “But then you slowly see a change. Their eyes change. They lose weight. You lose them.”
As shadows lengthened on a recent evening, Carlitos and the others huddled in their usual spot on a grassy slope half a mile from their hide-out, staring at the cars cruising by on a drive that snakes through the park.
About 100 yards away, a startlingly frail boy stood by himself in a hooded sweat shirt and jeans. The boy, who Mexican officials say has been found to be HIV-positive, approached a parked pickup truck, leaned against the side and began talking to the man at the wheel.
Meanwhile, Velasco, the doctor from the health clinic, drove up to the spot where the other youths were gathered. He started unloading bags of groceries and was greeted with cheers.
“We’re busy,” Carlitos yelled at a passing car. “Lunch. Come back later.”
But as they began preparing peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, one boy spotted what he thought was an approaching Border Patrol vehicle. The children of the border bolted upright, snatched up the bags of food and drink and sprinted away into the trees, on the run again, silhouettes fading in the dusk.