From the ridge atop Smugglers Canyon, it looked recently as if the afternoon wind gusting off the Pacific had somehow swept away the crowds of migrants.
Only two men--a newly arrived carpenter and a veteran food vendor--surveyed the steep and barren expanse, a prime crossing corridor where northbound Mexican migrants assemble after descending from buses on a frenetic border highway.
Carpenter Herbi Sosa Bravo, 35, his airline ticket from Guadalajara to Tijuana still tucked in the pocket of his hooded Los Angeles Kings jacket, inquired about the big U.S. Border Patrol operation he had been hearing about. Ramon, the streetwise vendor crouching by a cooler of soft drinks, gave him an earful.
“It’s hurting business. The migrants are going other places to cross,” he said. “And the agents are really aggressive. If they keep mistreating people, the people are going to rebel. It’s going to get ugly.”
Two weeks after the Border Patrol launched Operation Gatekeeper amid a flurry of vigilance and hype, the early results are taking shape. Although triumphant declarations by some U.S. officials seem premature, the doubling of U.S. border forces in San Diego has achieved some successes. It has discouraged some illegal crossers and pushed others east into open land and mountain areas, as predicted.
“It’s still early, but we’ve had a good start,” said Ray Ortega, the chief agent of the Chula Vista station. “The agents are excited and enthusiastic.”
There also have been more ominous repercussions. Immigrant smugglers are thriving, and state officials in Baja California are faced with a growing, sometimes desperate migrant population. Tensions have risen accordingly: Border Patrol agents have been pelted with rocks, officials say, while migrants and Mexican authorities charge that overzealous U.S. agents are meting out insults and blows.
But the latest chapter in the epic drama of illegal immigration at the border is still in flux. The real showdown will probably come when the Border Patrol deployment reaches full strength early next year at the very time illegal crossing traditionally surges. For now, the impact on the migratory flow manifests itself in myriad daily ripples affecting communities on both sides--especially the immigrants caught between two nations that do not want them.
Antonio Garcia Sanchez, Baja California’s human rights prosecutor, described a litany of hardship during the past two weeks: opportunistic smugglers jacking up fees, families separated by arrests, migrants stranded without money after multiple crossing attempts.
“We are determining how we can help them,” said Garcia, whose agency is interviewing returning detainees. “Operation Gatekeeper is an extraordinary action that is going to have extraordinary impacts in Mexico and must receive a special response from Mexican authorities. One of them is that the border cities must provide resources for the migrants, principally food and shelter.”
Since launching the operation Oct. 1, the Border Patrol has transported captured male immigrants to Mexicali instead of Tijuana. The tactic seems to have slowed down repeat crossers. Migrant hostels in Mexicali have been overwhelmed as demand has more than doubled. Social service agencies have asked for donations for migrants, some of whom are sleeping in bus and train stations and other improvised shelters.
“We have found a mood of desperation and anger,” said Blanca Villasenor, director of a youth shelter. “Some of the migrants ask for money in the streets. We are getting organized to try to prevent that and provide economic aid.”
But most migrants would rather pay the bus fare to Tijuana to try their luck again than brave the forbidding deserts of the Mexicali-Calexico region.
“There are scorpions, snakes, the desert is too tough,” said Raymundo Encinas, 34, a barrel-chested, mustachioed hotel worker from Sonora interviewed on the Tijuana River levee. He said he had just arrived after being released to Mexicali and had been arrested repeatedly during the past weeks.
“It’s better to cross here,” Encinas said. “My money is running out. With the grace of God, I will make it.”
By concentrating the bulk of a 200-agent force in the busy Imperial Beach station area that encompasses Smugglers Canyon, the Border Patrol has forced smugglers eastward into sparsely populated industrial and commercial land, fields and mountains. Arrests declined from an initial surge in Imperial Beach and rose in other San Diego stations to the east. Agents have encountered more clandestine groups hiking through rugged areas preferred by sophisticated smugglers, who traffic in non-Mexican immigrants and rendezvous with accomplices in vehicles on mountain roads.
T.J. Bonner, the president of the national Border Patrol union, said action has picked up in the remote Campo station where he works. Arrests there jumped to 241 in the first 13 days of October, compared to 96 during the same period last year.
“Campo had been lucky to catch 100 in a month before Gatekeeper,” he said. “And there’s more traffic than that, we just don’t have the agents to stop it.”
Bonner said agents are skeptical about optimistic pronouncements by top brass; a deputy attorney general this week declared the operation a success and said the Southwest border is being brought under control.
“That’s naive,” Bonner said. “We are not stopping anything. As long as people are drawn to the United States, they will get in. The factors driving illegal immigration are social and political.”
But Gustavo De La Vina, the western regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the apparent shift fits into a strategy of pushing the flow into rural terrain where agents and motion sensors can better detect illegal entries.
“Our window of apprehension is greater,” he said. “All I have to do is saturate the area with sensors. The advantage is clearly in our favor.”
De La Vina plans to continue busing captured immigrants to Calexico and said the agency will probably begin repatriating them further east to Yuma and other international crossings. The smuggling business will inevitably boom as fewer border crossers succeed on their own and smugglers experiment with riskier routes and tactics, he said. Already, border denizens report cases in which the standard fee of $300 to $350 has risen as much as $100.
“You are going to see more specialized smuggling and an increase in prices,” De La Vina said. “The hard-core smugglers are going to be looking for other avenues.”
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno announced Friday in San Diego that border states will receive 15 new prosecutors assigned to cracking down on smuggling and other immigration crimes.
Another emerging phenomenon: Tijuana’s “floating” population--migrants who stay for days or weeks on their way north--is growing. The Tijuana municipal police chief this week blamed a 10% increase in petty crime in border neighborhoods on the increased migrant presence--including thefts of food from sidewalk eateries. He said the stranded population could grow to 15,000, and the police will respond by starting downtown holiday sweeps earlier than usual.
But immigrant advocates say migrants should not be branded as criminals.
“Illegal immigration is a social problem, not a law enforcement problem,” said Garcia, the human rights prosecutor.
Garcia accuses the Border Patrol of stoking cross-border tensions. Officers in Grupo Beta, the Mexican border police unit, and migrants interviewed in Tijuana echoed his charge that some U.S. agents have gotten carried away. They accuse agents of taunting immigrants during arrests, brandishing guns, throwing rocks and otherwise using excessive force.
Would-be crossers gathered around a plainclothes Grupo Beta officer on the river levee to complain about mistreatment on a recent evening. As her barefoot daughter scampered up and down the dirty concrete embankment, Estela Hernandez--whose family was headed for South-Central Los Angeles--alleged that her husband had been handcuffed and kicked in the stomach by agents the previous night.
“They said he was a smuggler,” Hernandez said. “He told them he wasn’t. He told them to check the files, he doesn’t have a record. Finally they checked and let him go. They didn’t have to treat him like that.”
Afterward, the Mexican officer said Hernandez seemed credible, unlike a young man with shaggy hair and baggy shorts who was also complaining--a known troublemaker.
“We’ve arrested him before,” the officer said. “But I’ve never seen that lady before in my years in this job. We are getting more reports like that. It seems that the agents have a more aggressive attitude.”
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating several abuse complaints made through the Mexican Consulate since Oct. 1. Border Patrol agents, however, say there is another side to the familiar and murky issue of alleged abuse. They point out the hazards of confronting smugglers and aggressive suspects, particularly at night, and cite at least three incidents this month in which agents were barraged with rocks.
Asserting that no evidence of misconduct has emerged, De La Vina suspects that some complaints are aimed at discrediting the operation. “So far we haven’t received a hard-core allegation. There’s a frustration level, and the allegations might be a tactic to deal with what we are doing.”
A complete evaluation of Operation Gatekeeper will have to wait because the buildup is evolving during the least active time of the year, De La Vina said. He cited encouraging indications that the tide is being stemmed: The Border Patrol has received fewer phone reports and more compliments from border neighborhoods whose streets and yards are usually overrun by illegal immigrants.
Officials expect crossings in California to decline, continuing a two-year trend that suggests a shift to Arizona. Meanwhile, the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol has experienced an increase in arrests--a 51% rise last year. San Diego and El Paso--which together account for three-quarters of all illegal crossings--bolstered defenses, and arrests have fallen.
The true test of the Border Patrol’s mettle, however, will come in January when the yearly onslaught of border crossing usually materializes. U.S. and Mexican officials say the crackdown, and accompanying press coverage, may persuade some illegal immigrants in the United States to forgo traditional holiday trips home and thereby reduce crossings compared to previous years.
Others insist that the Tijuana-San Diego corridor will retain its powerful attraction because of ingrained migration patterns and an urban sprawl that is unique on the U.S.-Mexico line.
From his perch high above the battleground of Smugglers Canyon, the fast-talking vendor named Ramon has watched innumerable countrymen go north during the past seven years. In January, he said, they will sweep over the Border Patrol deployment like the winter floods that periodically wash across the canyon floor.
“If they do this when there are lots of migrants, they are not going to stop it,” the vendor said. “The people are many. Hunger is a powerful thing.”