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At home along a daunting frontier

Alan Bersin is back at the border and on the move.

On the third day of a sprint through Texas and Arizona, a law enforcement convoy zooms into Nogales. Riding in a sport utility vehicle, Bersin scans a dusty landscape that he knows well: this desert town of 20,000 with its fast-food joints and discount shops facing the pastel facades and helter-skelter skyline of Nogales, Mexico, a city of 300,000 just south of the fence.

Bersin, a compact 63-year-old with the stride of a former star football player at Harvard, arrives at the Nogales station, the U.S. Border Patrol’s biggest. His entourage hurries into a roll call room crowded with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, many of them Latinos whose small talk is sprinkled with Spanish.

Bersin is the federal point man at the border for the second time in his career and the officers’ likely new boss, having been nominated for commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. He gives a pep talk in crisp tones tinged with his native Brooklyn.

“We will make a huge change at this border,” he says. “You are here at a moment of history being made. You will tell your grandchildren about it someday.”

The border czar has come to Arizona to assess a smuggling onslaught that generates more arrests and marijuana seizures than anywhere else on the international line. Smugglers use cranes to lift drug-laden cars over the fence; unemployed Mexican miners dig tunnels; cartel pilots fly above the oxygen limit. In Sonora state this summer, police found a Chevy Suburban containing victims of Mexico’s drug war: 11 corpses chopped into pieces.

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The two nations must seize a rare opportunity for progress, Bersin tells the officers. Encouraging questions and trying to put the group at ease, he jokes that his wife describes him as “often wrong, but never uncertain.” He paraphrases the French poet Paul Valery: “The main challenge of our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”

It’s classic Bersin. Cerebral, combative and politically connected, he’s at ease in the trenches of law enforcement. A resident and scholar of the border, he knows its extremes of squalor and beauty, hope and despair. He thrives on the singular energy of a region that others tend to fear, ignore or misunderstand.

“There is such a difference from everywhere else,” Bersin said. “It’s a place where nations begin and end in a legal and jurisdictional sense. And yet border communities live without reference to that in many ways. It’s the idea of ‘El Tercer Pais’ [the third country] that makes it enormously attractive.”

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The son of a pharmacist, Bersin went to Harvard, where he befriended future Vice President Al Gore. He met the Clintons while at Yale Law School and Oxford. In the 1990s, he served as U.S. attorney in San Diego and was given additional duties as the Clinton administration’s border czar. Then he detoured into public education, running the San Diego school district and holding the post of California education secretary.

This year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made him her special border representative based in Washington. In September, President Obama nominated him for the commissioner post. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, has about 60,000 officers guarding the nation’s air, land and sea boundaries while trying to speed the flow of legal commerce.

“He has huge credibility with law enforcement, yet he gets the trade part,” said U.S. Atty. Dennis Burke of Arizona. “With his experience, knowledge of the border, I don’t think they’ve ever had anyone like this guy.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration accelerated construction of fences, consolidated all border agencies into the new Department of Homeland Security, and expanded the Border Patrol to about 18,000 agents. Obama has promised to reform immigration laws, so Bersin will feel pressure to show results on border security.

“Him coming back to the border is like back to the future,” said Charles La Bella, who was Bersin’s deputy at the U.S. attorney’s office. “There are very similar problems, significantly more pronounced. The violence has gotten everyone on edge. . . . He thinks there are solutions, that if the stars line up right he can do something. If anyone can do it, he can. But it’s a daunting task.”

Leaving the federal prosecutor’s job in 1998, Bersin surprised friends and observers who expected him to run for public office. Instead, he became superintendent of San Diego schools.

“The quality of the public education I received in New York has been responsible for every success I’ve had in life,” he said. “School reform was just coming onto the agenda. I responded to that.”

He fired principals, overhauled the curriculum and received national attention. The Wall Street Journal called him education’s version of Rudy Giuliani.

Battles with teachers and other critics grew deafening. He left after a stormy six years, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made him state secretary of education.

“I have always served as the Democrat who Republicans hate to love,” Bersin said.

Bersin returns to the border armed with experience, a BlackBerry filled with contacts in the Obama administration and in Mexico, and a sense that the time is right. After years of struggling to overcome mutual wariness, U.S. and Mexican leaders have attained a historic level of cooperation, he tells the officers during roll call.

“President [Felipe] Calderon is acknowledging corruption in state and local law enforcement and very bravely standing up to the cartels,” he says. “We are engaging the guns and cash flow south. We are taking co-responsibility with the Mexicans.”

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Bersin declined to discuss his nomination because he has not been confirmed. But in interviews, he talked about how the border has evolved and why he’s back in the fray. He said he envisions innovative anti-drug offensives: improving intelligence, dismantling financial empires, deepening partnerships with Mexican security forces. He predicts a long fight comparable to the campaign against the mob in America.

Bersin’s next stop is the port of entry, where there is no buffer zone -- Mexico begins just south of the inspection booths. Compared with 10 years ago, the tension is palpable. Inspectors in sunglasses scan long lines of vehicles with shotguns at the ready, dogs straining against leashes.

Bersin walks amid exhaust fumes and idling motors, shaking hands, drinking in details. He watches the rusty pedestrian gate busy with people heading into Mexico, many hauling shopping bags and luggage. Hoping to intercept southbound guns and money border-wide, U.S. officers have stepped up scrutiny of departures. Inspectors question crossers; several raffish characters with bogus papers and rolls of cash are led away in handcuffs.

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In a second-floor office, inspectors show Bersin works of criminal craftsmanship: antenna-activated compartments for hiding drugs; caches concealed in fuel tanks, mufflers, tire covers, drive shafts.

“What kind of intel do we have on who makes these?” Bersin asks. “Are these mom-and-pop outfits, or a factory building these? We need to figure out who’s doing it. This is a big industry.”

He tours the lockup, where women are held in a cage-like structure and men slump on blankets in a nearby room. Bersin asks prisoners questions in solid, American-accented Spanish.

A small drama catches his eye. An 8-year-old in a black T-shirt and knee-length cutoffs sits with his head buried in his arms, whimpering as an inspector questions him.

Bersin walks over to a scruffy 17-year-old Mexican American accused of attempting to sneak in the child using someone else’s passport. Because he’s a juvenile, prosecution is unlikely.

Bersin gives the teenager a long look. He says, “Next time, we need to find a way to punish him.”

Bersin had never worked as a prosecutor before becoming U.S. attorney or as a school administrator before the job as superintendent. The lack of experience helped, he said.

“So long as you understand what you don’t know, bringing a fresh eye and an outside perspective can bring an advantage to solving old problems,” he said.

He led the Operation Gatekeeper crackdown in San Diego, then the busiest, most violent corridor, imposing order and cutting crime. But migrant advocates and Mexican officials complained that bigger deployments of agents in San Diego and El Paso pushed illegal crossers into mountains and deserts. At least 5,600 have died since 1994, though not all of them in remote areas, advocates and U.S. officials say.

“He said he was just following instructions,” said Enrique Morones of the Border Angels, a San Diego migrant advocate group. “What’s happening now and what was happening then, it’s immoral.”

Then as now, Bersin sat down regularly with critics. Morones said recent meetings suggest that “he’s a kinder, gentler Alan Bersin.” Bersin says migrant advocates seem more moderate today, more interested in dialogue than diatribes.

Bersin also launched an anti-drug campaign that weakened the vicious Arellano Felix cartel of Tijuana. He arranged for a team of Mexican investigators to operate secretly out of San Diego in order to improve intelligence and security -- a first.

“He had some tough conversations with Mexican leaders about Gatekeeper, and about corruption,” La Bella recalled. “There’s no nice way to say, ‘We can’t trust this guy.’ He was able to say it, but maintain respect. He balances toughness and openness.”

That balance is the key to his style. When a Border Patrol agent here complains about injured border runners getting free medical care, Bersin shifts away from hard-nosed rhetoric.

“It’s true people take advantage,” he says. “They do things that shock and frustrate us. There’s the classic case of the pregnant woman who crosses to give birth. But we have to see the big picture. These cases are a small proportion. The U.S. does not mistreat people.”

Wrapping up the tour in Nogales, Bersin boards an agency plane bound for Phoenix. It climbs into a sunset that bathes the desert in orange and red. Gazing out the window, Bersin says he’s confident that the rugged landscape can be tamed.

“I remain an optimist that we will see significant change,” he said. “The border was not in good shape in San Diego. We did something about it.”

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rotella@latimes.com


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