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Tijuana’s Checkpoint Charlie

Has the Berlin Wall been resurrected between Mexico and the United States?

August 15, 2000

Has the Berlin Wall been resurrected between Mexico and the United States?

Just like most other baby-boomers, I grew up with the Berlin Wall as perhaps the most prominent symbol of the Cold War. I can still vividly recall its bleak, gray images of barbed wire, concrete walls, soldiers in watch towers peering through binoculars, and bodies of failed border-crossers draped across the no man’s land between East and West. Today, in my corner of the world, the no man’s land is called the Mexico-U.S. border.

Nations celebrate globalization, and dream of a borderless planet. But the reality is much different as I stand among the hundreds of migrants who have just arrived at the border’s great immigrant reception hall, the Central Camionera, Tijuana’s main bus station. Workers from central and southern Mexico arrive here by the thousands each month — and most are hoping to sneak across this border illegally.

They crowd onto city buses for the short ride up the plateau through one of the border’s largest and booming global factory districts — Mesa de Otay — finally arriving at the international boundary. There, they await darkness, and a “coyote” (a smuggler) to guide them across the heavily guarded frontier. The barriers they face are truly Berlinesque.

The Berlin Wall ran 66 miles in 12-foot high concrete block, 35 miles in wire-and-mesh fencing. It had over 200 watchtowers and blinding yellow night lights mounted on tall poles.

The San Diego-Tijuana “wall” is 47 miles long, and built from corrugated metal landing mats recycled from the Persian Gulf War. Migrants have punched it full of holes, so a second parallel wall is under construction a few hundred feet north. The new wall includes 18-foot high concrete “bollard” pilings topped with tilted metal mesh screens, and an experimental cantilevered wire mesh style fence being developed by the Sandia National Laboratories.

The wall runs toward the Pacific Ocean, where it becomes a ziggurat of eight, six and four-foot high metal tube fence knifing into the sea. It is buttressed by six miles of stadium night-lights, 1200 seismic sensors and numerous infra red sensors used to detect the movement of people after dark.

Meanwhile, Vicente Fox, the first alternative-party president in modern Mexican history, has an ambitious vision of future U.S. and Mexican relations. He has said that the U.S.-Mexican boundary should be an open border, facilitating a European-style free labor market.

But that is quite a stretch seen through the eyes of thousands of Mexican and Central American migrants, who are forced to hide from the fleets of high speed U.S. Border Patrol vans and jeeps that monitor the hilly terrain separating the two nations. Nearly a million apprehensions of aliens have occurred here in years past.

This multi-billion dollar U.S. border security system is based on over a century of U.S.-Mexican immigration policy and drug interdiction efforts. Fox’s reinvented boundary will run head-first into a reluctant U.S. Congress, which remains suspicious of breaches across America’s southern borders.

Meanwhile, the governments on either side of this line speak glowingly of NAFTA, and the billions of dollars the trade agreement will bring. The two nations can’t move fast enough to build more freeways, ports, airports, rail systems, and improved border gates — launch pads for the free trade future.

In San Diego-Tijuana, five million inhabitants share an economy with $6 billion of annual exports and $8 billion in cross-border trade. Tourism is booming. Billions will be invested in mega-resorts, luxury marinas, and vacation homes along the coast of nearby Baja California. Some 1,000 international assembly plants, employing perhaps 250,000 workers, are expected to be located here by 2010. This could be the next Hong Kong.

Yet, to poor immigrants huddling at the taco stands along the boundary fence, these dreams lie thousands of miles away in the national capitals. The walls and barriers evoke the same negative image that has plagued this region since the emergence of “border towns” as centers of gambling and prostitution in the roaring twenties.

Mark Steele, chairman of the City of San Diego Planning Commission, says, “The border entrance is a very seedy kind of place. There’s no elegance to it. When you cross the border into Mexico, you feel like you are entering a second-rate place. And it really shouldn’t be.”

Here on the edge of Mexico, the border wall is alive and well. At dusk, Border Patrol helicopters emerge, like mosquitoes, buzzing the skies above and beaming laser spotlights down into the canyons and migrant footpaths.

The landscape of a 21st century global business center? Vicente Fox’s open border may be the right idea. Whether the U.S. Congress and its constituents who live far from the boundary will figure this out is anybody’s guess.