A Den of Outcasts in the Shadow of the Wall
Sunday, October 19, 2008
TIJUANA, Mexico -- The United States is just across the yellow stripe painted down the concrete bed of the dry Tijuana River.
North of the line, Border Patrol agents in shiny white pickups keep permanent vigil. South of the line, the riverbed's lost souls pass restless nights in the glare of stadium lights guarding the American Dream.
Cutting right through the U.S.-Mexico border fence, Tijuana's main drainage canal collects a rogues' gallery of deportees and drifters, smugglers and junkies cast out from the other side.
Most are illegal immigrants sent back to Mexico after serving time up north, deemed "criminal aliens" by U.S. law -- a group including busboys picked up for one drunken misdemeanor and hardened criminals released after years in prison.
"Almost all of us are here because they threw us out over there," says Juan Saucedo, 29, sharing a bag of Coco Krispies cereal with other river dwellers. His nickname here is "Zacatecas," after the central Mexican state he left at age 14 for Long Beach, Calif.
Deported seven years ago, he washes car windshields at stoplights and earns just enough to keep heroin withdrawal at bay. Sometimes he picks up a little more from smugglers who pay him to distract the Border Patrol while their clients climb over.
Sweeps by Tijuana city police have thinned the crowd lately, but a few dozen people shuffle through the river's concrete no-man's-land on any given night. Those who have recently arrived clutch creased deportation orders. Old-timers bum smokes and grumble about the local cops.
And cut-rate migrant smugglers sell anyone a chance -- but no guarantee -- to rejoin the lovers, kids and jobs they left on the other side.
"Many of these individuals have significant ties in the community and that always provides a powerful pull," says Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Los Angeles region, from whose county jails many of the riverbed regulars have been deported.
"They may have family here -- or if they're involved in ongoing criminal activity, that's going to be a potential enticement as well."
The magnetic pull from south to north is sometimes strong enough to spark violence.
Last month, Border Patrol agents clashed with a group throwing rocks at them over the fence, a common diversion orchestrated by smugglers. Most were dispersed with pepper spray. One man refused to run, so an agent drew his rifle and shot him in the behind.