U.S. smooths away an illegal border crossing wrinkle

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Smuggler’s Gulch lived up to its infamous name.

For a century, the narrow canyon leading into California from Mexico provided cover for cattle thieves and opium dealers, bandits and booze runners. More recently, it has hidden thousands of illegal immigrants on their journey north, sealing its place in border lore.

Now, it’s a fading memory.

The canyon has been all but wiped off the landscape, its steep walls carved into gentle slopes, its depths filled with 35,000 truckloads of dirt as the federal government nears completion of an extensive border reinforcement project at the southwesternmost point of the United States.

In 2005, the Bush administration waived state and federal environmental laws to overcome stiff opposition to the massive earth-moving effort, which entails cutting the tops off nearby hills and pushing about 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt into the gulch and neighboring Goat Canyon.


Environmentalists and conservation groups fear that the project, scheduled to be completed in May, will harm the Tijuana River estuary, threaten endangered species and destroy culturally sensitive Native American sites. With construction well underway, it’s clear that few of the 500 miles of new border fencing projects are transforming the environment as radically as the three miles from the Smuggler’s Gulch area to the coast.

Once a breach in the coastal hills, the gulch is now more like a dam than a passage. Anyone attempting to cross confronts a 150-foot-high berm that will soon be topped with stadium lighting, video surveillance cameras and 15-foot-high fencing. Eventually, an all-weather road will run atop the filled-in canyons and smoothed-out hills and mesas all the way to the ocean.

For those who see the canyon border as blight, the gulch is a victim of its notorious past and deserves to be buried forever. “Good riddance,” said Donald McDermott, a former U.S. Border Patrol assistant chief who once patrolled the area. “Anything that makes it easier to control the border is a good thing.”

The canyon figured in some of California’s earliest history. Charles W. Hughes, a local historian, said many of California’s earliest settlers came through the pass. “It’s very discouraging. We talk about trying to preserve our history . . . and yet they can come in and do this,” he said.

Father Junipero Serra, on his first journey to what was then called Nueva California, probably passed through the area in 1769, according to historians who have studied the missionary’s journals.

“Serra described going over the hills in Tijuana and saying he could see the sails of the ships in San Diego Harbor. The only place you could possibly do that . . . comes out at Goat Canyon or that immediate area,” said Harry Crosby, a historian who wrote a book on Baja California’s history.


Smuggler’s Gulch started earning its nickname in the 1880s after the U.S. government established customs duties at the port of entry at San Ysidro a few miles east. Ranchers took to the hills, leading their herds of cattle, horses and sheep through the canyon.

Later, to avoid paying duties, people smuggled cigars and even Mexican-produced lace undergarments through the gulch.

In the 1980s, the canyon became a symbol of illegal immigration run amok as tens of thousands of immigrants funneled through the pass into California. It became a dangerous no-man’s land, filled with bandits who raped and robbed immigrants and charged tolls for safe passage. The occasional sniper targeted Border Patrol agents. For many years, agents were not allowed to venture alone into the gulch, where their radios didn’t work.

Rampant crime in the area prompted the formation of a daring San Diego police unit that was featured in the Joseph Wambaugh book “Lines and Shadows.” They dressed as bedraggled illegal immigrants and pounced on bandits who tried to assault them.

Border Patrol Agent Jim Swanson, who was not part of the team but patrolled the area, remembers hiding in a bush and jumping on suspected robbers, one of whom turned out to be a Tijuana police lieutenant. “That whole area was very chaotic,” he said.

Foot chases on the steep slopes caused numerous ankle and leg injuries for agents. One agent died in 2002 when her car toppled into the canyon.


In the mid-1990s, increased enforcement in the San Diego area pushed immigrant flows farther east, to other border areas. Smuggling has continued through the gulch, but at much-reduced levels.

Environmentalists for years stalled the $60-million plan to double-fence the three miles of border canyons and mesas. They pushed for projects that would improve border enforcement without harming the environment. In 2004, the California Coastal Commission refused to grant permits to complete the fence, saying the harm to sensitive habitats outweighed the security benefits.

But the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 waived all environment laws, the first time it had done so since Congress granted it the authority. Border Patrol officials argued that thousands of people every year still tried crossing through that stretch of the border, and that the rugged terrain prevented agents from accessing the area.

When the project is finished, Border Patrol officials say, agents will be able to cut valuable minutes off the time it takes to get from the gulch to the coast, and some of them will be freed up to patrol other areas. They also say the project includes measures that will safeguard the environment, including retaining walls and other erosion-control measures to protect the Tijuana River estuary.

Environmental groups monitoring the construction say the recent floods in the Tijuana River Valley suggest that sediment from erosion is already filling the estuary. They plan to seek federal and state money to fix the problem.

“We’ve lost sensitive habitat, and the estuary is now threatened,” said Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society. “I’m really disappointed that our system wasn’t allowed to work the way it has historically and is required to by law.”


One thing appears certain: Smuggler’s Gulch won’t live up to its name anymore.

Though smugglers still live on the Mexican side, camping under tarps and charging tolls to cross or be guided across the border, the walls of dirt and the fencing will probably block most incursions, Swanson said. “It’s logistically impossible,” he said. “It’ll be pretty much in a lockdown state.”