On his first visit to California after taking office, President Trump stood a few yards from Mexican territory with a poster showing before-and-after photographs of the border fence.
The older image, from the early 1990s, showed a trampled, denuded hillside with throngs of people crisscrossing a flimsy barrier. In the second, the same area appears today, green after the rains, where tall steel fencing has made a sharp delineation: crowded Tijuana on one side, and a verdant, orderly American landscape on the other.
Rodney Scott, the chief of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector, pointed to the first image and began telling Trump what it was like patrolling in those days, but the president interrupted.
“It was an open wound, frankly,” Trump said, turning to the television cameras. “It was really, really bad. People just pouring across, drugs, everything else pouring across,” he said. “They reestablished law and order in San Diego when they put up a wall. And it’s not a superior wall; it’s an inferior wall. But it’s a wall.”
Once the symbol of America’s broken border, San Diego today is the place Trump and his top Homeland Security officials point to as proof that “walls work.”
The border fencing here, 15 feet tall and topped in some places by concertina wire, has made San Diego one of the most difficult places to cross for illegal migrants along the entire 2,000-mile boundary. Last year, U.S. agents made 26,086 arrests in the San Diego sector, down 96 percent from 1986, when they made 629,656.
Yet the latest Homeland Security statistics show that border walls — or tall fences — do not necessarily work in the way the president says. They have been far more effective at stopping people than at stopping drugs.
Trump has promoted a border wall as a solution to the opioid crisis, which was responsible for 42,000 American deaths last year. But U.S. seizure data indicates that San Diego, the place with America’s most formidable fencing, has become its principal gateway for hard drugs.
According to the latest figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seizures of fentanyl at San Diego border crossings increased more than sixfold last year to 782 pounds, enough for nearly 200 million lethal doses. That accounted for 60 percent of all fentanyl intercepted at U.S. border crossings in 2017. This year’s totals are on pace to be even higher.
More heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine come through the San Diego border than anywhere else, government statistics show.
Trump traveled to San Diego in March to inspect eight prototypes for the border wall, each a different attempt to realize his campaign promise for a “big, beautiful wall” spanning the Mexican border. He has threatened to shut down the government this fall if Congress doesn’t provide the money for it, and his administration has boosted its 2019 funding request for the wall from $1.6 billion to $2.5 billion.
Critics say the money would be better spent hiring more U.S. customs officers whose job it is to facilitate trade and travel while stopping narcotics and other threats.
Trump’s border enforcement proposals call for 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, but his plan would do little to address the shortage of customs officers, which has grown so acute that staff are being reassigned from U.S. airports to the Mexico border.
Most of the drugs come directly through U.S. ports of entry — the official border crossings. Smuggling engineers use constantly evolving tactics to hide the contraband in fake vehicle panels, secret compartments or deep inside engine parts. Cartel chemists have learned to liquefy meth to make it look like water. And super-potent fentanyl is so compact that pedestrian couriers can walk it through border gates hidden in clothing, shoes or body cavities.
Risk-minded Mexican traffickers view such smuggling methods as far more reliable than sending foot-bound couriers with costly loads through the desert or mountains, where they could get lost, robbed by bandits or captured by U.S. border agents.
They are also playing the odds. San Diego’s main crossing at San Ysidro, the southern terminus of U.S. Interstate 5, is the busiest land border in the Western Hemisphere, where 70,000 vehicle passengers and 20,000 pedestrians enter the United States each day. For smuggling high-value narcotics, blending in is a better bet than sneaking around.
While seizures of hard drugs are at record levels — indicating an unprecedented volume of narcotics entering the United States, experts say — arrests of illegal border crossers dropped last year to the lowest level since 1971.
According to a study published last year by the research division of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. border is more secure than ever, and the cost and difficulty of sneaking in to the United States has increased dramatically.
Nowhere is that change more evident than in San Diego.
‘A war zone’
In the late 1980s, there were so many people breezing back and forth across the U.S. border that sociologist Jorge Bustamante hired a photographer to take daily pictures of the scene at Zapata Canyon, a popular informal crossing that U.S. agents nicknamed “the soccer field.”
Bustamante’s photos show something akin to an illegal Ellis Island. Handmade signs at the top of the canyon point the way to Los Angeles. So many farmworkers would pass through in springtime and during holidays that vendors set up food stalls, selling sandwiches and beverages to men who would sometimes play soccer while waiting for rides.
U.S. Border Patrol agents appear in many of Bustamante’s photographs, milling among the crowds and appearing more like friendly traffic cops than enforcement agents to be feared. One image shows an agent in a Santa costume handing out gifts at the holidays.
At peak times, Bustamante calculated that nearly 1,000 people per day crossed illegally through the area, with a daily average of 500 during the summer. “The photographs show the degree to which this kind of migration was accepted by U.S. authorities,” he said.
“The Border Patrol was under a lot of pressure from the farm industry to let the migrants through. So they would allow them to pass during the day but arrest anyone trying to cross at night,” he said.
Scott, the Border Patrol chief, arrived in San Diego in 1992, and began working night shifts. He likened it to “a war zone.”
“We would watch 10 people go through for every one we caught,” he said. “It was a riot-type situation every night.”
Standing on the same hillside that appears in the photographs he presented to Trump, Scott pointed to the changes he’s seen as a result of the tougher fencing.
There were homes just a few hundred yards from the fence that now sell for $500,000 or more. A shopping mall adjacent to the border, with brand outlets including Coach and Ralph Lauren, that has become a destination for shoppers from San Diego and Tijuana alike, generating millions in tax revenue.
“Back then, this was a complete wasteland,” Scott said. “We never envisioned this. We never thought we could make a difference.”
The fence has been a boon to both sides, Scott said, improving safety in Tijuana neighborhoods enough that developers have been building luxury condos right along the border.
In the bushes a few feet from the fence, there were a few empty water bottles and dusty discarded clothing — signs of people still attempting to sneak through. But Scott said the area had improved so much that the county was looking at proposals to open a campground in the parkland adjacent to the border fence, something unthinkable a generation ago.
Scott pointed to the many patches in the steel mesh where border agents have repaired breaches over the years. The mesh isn’t suited to an era of battery-operated power tools, he said, including jigsaws that can slice open a hole in less than a minute. That fencing is being replaced by tall metal bollards.
Scott praised Trump’s plans for a bigger, better wall, disputing those who say the decline in illegal border crossings in San Diego means the threat has passed. “Smugglers always want to come back here because it’s so convenient for them,” he said. “This is most secure section of border now, but it’s time we do it right and put enduring infrastructure here.”
Hardening the border
Toughening the California border in the 1990s pushed illegal traffic eastward into Arizona, but lately crossings have dropped there, too. The number of Central American migrants arrested now outnumbers those from Mexico, and Central Americans mainly cross in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, often surrendering to border agents to request asylum. Much of the new border fencing the Trump administration wants to build will go along the river levees there.
The huge wave of illegal Mexican migration that came across the San Diego border is over, according to Princeton immigration scholar Douglas Massey. The number of Mexicans who leave the United States each year — either voluntarily or by deportation — now exceeds the number of new arrivals, Massey’s research shows.
But Mexico’s baby boom ended decades ago, after the government invested in family planning to reduce rural birthrates. “Now it’s 2.2 children per mother,” Massey said.
At the same time, the hardening of the U.S. border had a profound effect on migration trends, Massey’s research shows. “We made border crossing dangerous, difficult and expensive, cutting off what were once seasonal migration patterns. More people simply stayed in the United States.”
Before the 1990s, there were relatively few Mexican workers outside California, Texas and the greater Chicago area, he said. “We transformed a seasonal flow of male workers going to three places into a settled population of millions of Mexican families across 50 states.”
San Diego’s border has become the busiest drug crossing in no small part because the Sinaloa cartel controls the narcotics trade on the other side. It remains the most powerful trafficking organization in North America, despite the 2016 recapture of its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is jailed in New York and awaiting trial. The Sinaloa group defends its dominance over the lucrative Tijuana smuggling corridor, known as a “plaza,” with ruthless, lethal force.
“We know that trafficking patterns depend on what [criminal organization] controls the plaza,” said Pete Flores, the top U.S. customs official for the San Diego field office.
That leaves Flores’s officers to hunt for needle-in-haystack loads of cocaine, meth and deadly fentanyl.
The synthetic opioid is so potent that customs officers now open suspected drug packages inside a hermetic plastic box they call “the incubator” to avoid inadvertently sending particles airborne that could trigger an overdose.
The most innovative traffickers are experimenting with drones and other airborne techniques to fly smaller loads over San Diego’s border fences, and tunnels remain a constant threat. But Flores and others say the biggest challenge is still detecting drug loads hidden among the thousands of vehicles coming across round-the-clock.
The officers rely on drug dogs and tried-and-true techniques, scanning cars for suspicious alterations: screws that look too new, stitching that looks too clean, gas tanks that make a thud when they’re tapped, suggesting something solid inside.
The shortage of officers is a strain. “We have to have enough people to facilitate trade and travel, but also to do proper enforcement,” Flores said. “Balancing those two things, with our current staffing, makes it challenging for us.”
At the Otay Mesa crossing, the second-busiest in the San Diego area, customs officers have turned a small storage shed into an informal museum where trainees can see samples of smugglers’ ingenuity. There were oxygen tanks with false compartments for meth and cocaine, and modified construction equipment with hollow panels whose welds had been masked by sprayed-on dirt, as if applied by a makeup artist.
Then there were the “fish tanks,” airtight compartments built into fuel tanks. When tapped by officers’ probes, they sound normal, with liquid sloshing around. But each had room for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of narcotics, able to deliver loads across the border again and again.
Correction: A previous version of this story underreported the amount of illegal fentanyl seized by U.S. agents at San Diego border crossings last year. It has been updated with the correct figures.