WALL OF ILLUSIONS


In the past few years, the U.S. has been fortifying its border with Mexico – much of it for show. Here´s a closer look at the wall.
 

Published in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE

 

 

"Hello my friend! “, Dan Watman calls to a young man on the other side of the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana. A gust of wind from the sea carries away the answer, and Watman cups his hand around his ear to hear better. Just a few months ago he could have shaken the other´s hand at Friendship Park, a small area surrounding a white obelisk. The stone was placed here in 1849, marking the new border between the United States and Mexico after the Mexican-American war. Just few feet north from the rock, a natural reserve stretches toward the skyline of San Diego: California´s Border Field State Park. To the south lies Tijuana´s beach and a brand new housing development in the hills behind it. For thirty-eight years,  FriendshipPark was a meeting point for families from both sides of the border. People came to touch each other through the chain link fence, gossip, kiss babies and pass letters back and forth.

 

Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, helped initiate the park in 1971. Sixteen years later Reagan would, as president of the United States, famously appeal to Soviet president Mikail Gorbatchev in Berlin to “tear down this wall”. The Berlin wall and the iron curtain dividing Europe would indeed fall. But in San Diego they started to build a new wall. Where a simple fence had been marking the border between Mexico and the United States for nearly 150 years, the Border Patrol erected a metal blockade in the 1990s, sparing only the mesh wire section atFriendship Park. “We held binational picnics, yoga lessons and salsa dance-parties here,” recounts Dan Watman, who formed the organization Border Encuentro to organize these exchanges. On Sunday afternoons, a priest celebrated catholic mass at Friendship Park and handed wafers and wine through the mesh.

But in late 2008 theU.S.Border Patrol built a second fence to reinforce the border and Friendship Park became inaccessible, a no man´s land between two fences. Now, words and glances between the two nations have to cross fifty yards. People no longer exchange hugs and wafers. Every so often, someone makes an angry gesture at the men from the Border Patrol. And Dan Watman now organizes sign language lessons.

 

On the beach, the tide is low enough to simply walk around the iron bars in the sand. Here, the border teeters out into the Pacific Ocean. But suddenly a Border Patrol Jeep appears, a megaphone vioce warns us to go no further. No, the Border Patrol agent tells us, we may not stroll across the beach to Mexico, we would have to use the official ports of entry. Within a few minutes, half a dozen agents appear on dune buggies to see what´s going on.

 

From the other side, the fence is a little more permeable. On the weekends, when Tijuanians flock to the beaches, kids play between the leisurely spaced bars. Sometimes entire families picnic on the American side, a gesture of defiance. We let them, say the border guards. Only when someone from the south suddenly starts sprinting towards the San Diego skyline do they take up the chase. Some escapees simply run along the beach, the men in the bullet-proof vests tell us, others paddle across on surf boards. Sometimes the tide brings in a dead body. Once, one of the men tells us,  they rescued a guy hugging a basketball. “Many Mexicans can´t swim”, he says, “when they get caught in an undertow at night, they´re done.” Night is the busiest time for the Border Patrol, even with the second fence. But the fortification was necessary, they say, because there had been a busy drug trade going on at the fence. Some Mexicans, says a guard, even handed babies across.

 

TheU.S.Border Patrol apprehended 162 390 illegal Immigrants during  the past fiscal year in the San Diego District, which is the smallest along the U.S.-Mexican border, a mere sixty miles long. And the secondary fence, the men tell us, has already caused those numbers to dwindle. But even a second wall won´t stop the refugees. “Yes, the wall has gotten taller”, says theTijuana taxi driver as he glances at the new blockade stretching along the highway to the coast. “But so have the ladders.” He takes us to Tijuanas suburb Las Playas, where small, colorful restaurants line the beach. Their wooden terraces offer an unobstructed view of the bars in the sand, and the porous fence seems to exude an overwhelming temptation.

 

Omar Rodas spots border crossers almost daily from here. “Some are on foot, some try it on a motorbike”, he says. Rodas owns the Arcoeidis Taverna, and he has been to the other side himself. As a teenager, he defected from a class trip to Disneyland and lived in Los Angeles for six years before returning south in 2005 and opening his beach restaurant. The golden north, Rodas says, is an illusion. “Yeah, you earn dollars, but you pay  dollars, too. And all you do anymore is work." Rodas estimates that twenty percent of those who cross make it - the others eventually return, disappointed. But the lure is powerful nonetheless. Twelve million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Entire branches of the economy, like the hotel sector and the meat industry, depend on the cheap laborers from the south who work hard and are easily intimidated. When George W. Bush´s planned Immigration reform failed in 2007, many pointed to the powerful lobbyists from certain economic sectors.

 

The push is strong as well. In 2008, fifteen percent of the Mexican population lived in poverty, and widespread corruption and the escalation of the drug war took their toll on the quality of life. Omar Rodas currently shelters three young men who have been trying for weeks to get into the US. Again and again, they have been caught and sent back. But they will try again. “TJ is the easy way”, Rodas says about his town. The border runs right through two large cities here, he explains. You can cross without having to pay thousands of dollars to a coyote, a smuggler, or risking your life on long marches through the desert. And you can easily disappear into a crowd on the other side.

 

A few hundred miles inland, life on the border has changed as well. A few years ago, the border was marked by barbwire fence,  meant primarily to keep the ranchers´ cattle herds apart. Now aband of brand new concrete pylons, fifteen feet high, have been installed to slow down the border traffic. But some say they actually spur it on.

 

Karl Hoffman came to the border from Colorado five years ago with his wife, three dogs and two horses. They now live in Arivaca, a sleepy little border town in the middle of the Sonoran desert, thirty miles west of Nogales. Arivaca has two hundred souls, a catholic and two protestant churches, an artists´ coop and a bar with a hitching post for patrons who come on a horse. For more than a hundred years, Hoffman says, glancing out of his kitchen window, this area had been home to the open exchange between different cultures. “But then, two years ago, they built a wall – right through ranches, gardens, and families.”

 

Hoffman has been documenting the goings-on on the border with his Nikon for the past four years. His photographs show Mexican vaqueros and American cowboys jointly branding calves. They show fiestas and parades, Mexican moms in front of American billboards advertising beauty products. They show piles of pylons waiting to become a wall, watch towers, children in hand cuffs.

 

"The Sonoran desert", Hoffman says, "is the focal point of America´s border debacle". He has been patrolling this area on his horse and in his diesel truck since 2004, and nobody other than the Border Patrol guys knows it as well as he does.

“Out here,” he says while fixing a fantastic Mexican breakfast with Chorizos, Beans and Tortillas, “different cultures have coexisted for generations.  But then came nine-eleven and the whole country changed.” Karl Hoffman was a goldsmith in New York, a bouncer in San Diego and a cop in Denver before he sold his ranch in Colorado and came to Arivaca to document the “disappearance of the border”, as he says. He also runs a small bed and breakfast and offers visitors tours along the border. “Living on the border”, he calls his project. His wife Audrey makes jam and wine from the prickley pear cactus fruit that grows abundantly on their property, and when they go to the bar, they take the horses.

 

Now, Hoffman steers his Ford F-250 from the narrow blacktop that runs to the border port onto a bumpy little dirt road winding into the desert. Mesquite trees and acacia bushes scratch the truck´s doors. Dry washes which during the summer carry the scarce but heavy rains from the rocky hills to the lowlands scar the landscape. Every so often, a simple wire fence delineates the outliers of a ranch. "Out here, you´re in the middle of nowhere. We have our own laws here.”

Ahead, a tall tower comes into view, one of nine installed here in 2007. They are part of a twenty million dollar program dubbed “Project 28” with which George W. Bush intended to fortify his immigration reform. For without control over the 1969 mile long border with Mexico, a reform at whose core stood an amnesty for undocumented US-residents would be doomed to failure. So the Boeing company lobbied the government to install a series of hightech towers along a twenty eight mile-stretch of the border, equipped with highly sensitive electronic monitors. The data collected by these towers was to be relayed directly to the Border Patrol agents, who could then move swiftly and precisely to apprehend illegal border crossers. But when one of those towers was erected directly outside of Arivaca, the sleepy little town turned into a pocket of resistance. “People here value their privacy very much”, Karl Hoffman explains, “and they were livid”. An unlikely coalition formed: drug runners, illegal immigrants, civil rights activists protested the towers. But they didn´t work anyways, Hoffman says. “Now they´re building new towers, for even more money”.

 

The fortification of America´s southern border has assigned a new role to the border crossers: They are now pawns of the drug cartels. Human trafficking has turned out to be a lucrative – and strategically advantageous - business for the cartel bosses. Groups of refugees can tie up border patrol efforts while the drug runners go undetected. “A whole new market opened up here for the cartels”, says Karl Hoffman. “They came up to the border, and now the violence spills across”. His house has been broken into three times since he moved into the hot zone of border traffic. Among the things the burglars took were two of Hoffman´s guns.

 

Every few miles on our tour of the rugged Sonoran desert we encounter the traces of refugee groups: Sweatshirts, tarps, plastic bottles lie abandoned in arroyos and under mesquite trees. The desert out here, Hoffman explains, can be quite the busy spot. Human rights groups operate alongside drug runners and human traffickers, placing water bottles for refugees along the known trails. But the water is also used by the drug runners, and the border patrol agents are frustrated by such well-meant subversion of their efforts. Instead of cooperating, Hoffman says, the different interest groups on the border sabotage each others work by narrow-mindedly concentrating on their own agenda.

 

He stops his truck to collect something from underneath a prickly pear cactus, a water canister sewed into a jute bag. “Some of the things I find out here,” Hoffman says, “I take home as museum pieces. Sometimes it´s heartbreaking. My most gruesome find so far was a rape tree, decorated with the victims´ underwear by coyotes to show off to other smugglers”. The fortification of the border, says Hoffman,  has made matters worse all around. “People used to come over on a bus. Today they are forced into dangerous terrain and into the hands of unscrupulous traffickers”.

 

We bounce back onto the blacktop and stop a few minutes later at the Sasabe store. Sasabe is a tiny border port with a population of eleven. The local school has twenty-three students, most of them from south of the border. Alice Knagge runs Sasabe´s small grocery store, it has been in the family for three generations. Until a few years ago, this perky old lady tells us, the Mexicans just hopped across the fence to earn a few dollars with day jobs. “They repaired tires, helped unload our trucks and did yard work”, she recounts. “And then they went back home.” Many of them shopped in her store, but since the reinforcement of the border, her sales have taken a hit. “As you see”, she says, waving her arm through the empty store, “I don´t have too many customers.”. Her daughter Debra runs a small bar in the back room of the store to help with the family income. Debra named the cocktails she makes after drug runners, traffickers and the border police – El Burrero, El Pollero, La Migra. Alice used to visit Mexico frequently, but these days, she says, it is too dangerous. “Many of the old timers are gone, “Knagge says, “and you don´t know most of the younger ones. Now I only go across to collect money from debtors.” The bell over the door suddenly chimes, and a young woman enters. But she only wants to use the bathroom. Alice Knagge lifts her eyebrows and turns her palms upward in amused resignation.

 

The whole area suffers from the new impenetrability of the border, says Alice Knagge. “Just a few years ago, the Mexicans didn´t have to sneak around. But now they´re being driven through in the dark of night in huge refugee groups, and they trash everything.” In the past year, the old wire fence stretching away from the small port was replaced with imposing 15-foot-pylons. But a mere few miles into the desert,  low metal barriers welded from old train tracks must suffice to block unauthorized  crossings. The barriers lead up a rugged hillside where soon nothing but an old rusty wire marks the border line between the United States and Mexico. The new wall is less a real barricade than a very expensive political showpiece.

 

A big hole gapes in the metal wall separating Tijuana from San Diego as well. “Look”, says Greg Abbott, a U.S. Park Service biologist, and points to a hilltop above Border Field State Park. “The wall just stops up there”. Abbott battles invasive plants around the Tijuana River estuary, and his finger aims at a spot ridiculing all efforts at securing the border. A mere half-mile from the beach, the metal fence ends suddenly; beyond it lays open countryside. Every so often, Greg Abbott sees people coming down that hillside. Sometimes they wave to him, and he waves back. Some are illegal border crossers, some are Border Patrol agents. Abbott shrugs and says with a wide grin: “We all do absurd things here. I kill invasive plants, knowing that they will always grow back. The border patrol catches refugees, but there will always be more. Which of us is engaged in the more paradoxical project?”

 

Ó Nina Rehfeld

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