Border area mirrors U.S.-Mexican relations Presidents to discuss NAFTA, immigration


CALEXICO, Calif. -- Ten days ago, Senovio Gonzalez Birrueta drove north out of Mexico to the United States' port of entry in this sleepy California farm town. Marijuana, 125 pounds of it, was stashed in his van. A loaded revolver was jammed in his belt.

When U.S. Customs officials tried to frisk him, Gonzalez Birrueta drew his gun and shot two of them. One agent, although hit in the face, returned fire, killing Gonzalez Birrueta.

Along the border -- at least on the U.S. side -- this brief but bloody incident neatly illuminates the United States' chief complaints against its neighbor to the south: the continuing flow northward of illegal immigrants, drugs and violence.

Those issues, along with the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, will be on the table this week when President Clinton meets Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. All, in some way, relate to conditions along the border.

Starting at Tijuana on the Pacific, hard by the Plaza de Toros Monumento bullring, the rugged international frontier runs east for 2,000 miles to Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico.

"Treated traditionally by Washington and Mexico City as a no man's land -- or, at most, a stepchild -- the border increasingly has become a thermostat for bilateral relations," says Alan D. Bersin, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of California.

Mexicans have called the border area "El Tercer Pais" (the Third Country). Americans have called it "MexAmerica." Both sides distinguish the border country practically as a nation unto itself with a hybrid culture, a growing economy and complex rules of engagement developed among its 20 million residents.

"People in the border country live with rules of the game that have evolved over many years," says Jorge Bustamante, president of the Research Institute of the Northern Border in Baja California. "These are workable agreements that can be disturbed grossly by federal -- or even state -- governments."

For example, U.S. politicians complain about the porousness of the border, but those who live here stress that the flow of goods, contraband and people across that border travels in both directions.

Last year, at the port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, there were 75 million legal crossings, more than at any border in the world. A small fraction were breaking the law by carrying drugs or illegal firearms or using phony papers. The vast majority who crossed the border were going shopping or visiting or sightseeing -- or even to work -- crossing over almost as easily as Marylanders go from Howard County to Baltimore County.

There is little dispute, however, that Mexico has become the primary staging ground for traffickers bringing cocaine,

marijuana and other narcotics into the United States -- and that Mexico's law enforcement and government officials have been deeply compromised by traffickers' bribes.

In arguing recently that Mexico be "decertified" as a cooperative partner in the drug war, Sen. Dianne Feinstein warned Clinton that no serious effort had been made to crack down on the Tijuana and Juarez cartels that have replaced Colombian drug lords as the most dangerous in the world.

"Not a single U.S. extradition request for a Mexican national wanted on drug charges has been honored," the California Democrat wrote. "Cooperation with U.S. drug enforcement agents on the border is at an all-time low. Cocaine seizures are half what they were in 1993."

Even those who think the whole idea of decertification is idiotic agree with this blunt assessment.

"Feinstein is unhelpful, because she creates obstacles even with [Mexican officials] who are predisposed to help us," said Mark Falcoff, a Latin America specialist with the American Enterprise Institute. "But she is not inaccurate."

To many people on the border, however, it seems that Washington-based officials may be overlooking some important factors in the drug wars.

Corruption and demand

The first is that the primary impetus for the drug trade is not Mexican corruption, but an insatiable American appetite for narcotics.

"We have not done enough to deter drug use among our nation's children," freshman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat and 26-year veteran of the Border Patrol, told his House colleagues recently. "Would you be as willing to decertify the United States?"

The second factor largely ignored in Washington is the huge price that Mexican officials have paid with their own lives in the war against drugs. On Wednesday, when Mexican Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar disbanded Mexico's entire 1,200-officer anti-drug force for corruption, that was front-page news in the United States. But the day before, when two Mexican officers who had been tailing notorious trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes were found tortured and murdered in a car trunk, it was barely noted in America.

In an interview last week in Tijuana, one Mexican police officer, who asked not to be quoted by name, pointed out that Justice Department officials still invoke the case of murdered DEA agent Kiki Camarena, who was kidnapped and killed by Mexican traffickers in 1985.

"That was sad," the officer said. "But it's a daily occurrence for us."

He was exaggerating, but not by a lot. An estimated 65 Mexican law enforcement officials have been killed by traffickers in the past two years. The day after the interview, in fact, a Tijuana municipal police officer was shot and killed after a traffic stop. The suspects were identified as U.S. teen-agers believed to be involved in gun-running.

This is a recurring problem at the border. Guns, an indispensable tool of the drug trade, are illegal in Mexico, but plentiful. There is no mystery where most of them come from.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has traced thousands of guns used in crimes in Mexico back to the United States. Included in that number is the firearm used in 1994 to kill presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, purchased at a gun shop in Texas.

And it's not just the guns; sometimes it's the trigger men, too. Several of the young gunmen jailed in the 1993 contract killing of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara, were members of a Latino street gang from San Diego.

Efforts launched in Washington or Mexico City to stem such violence have tended to shift the problem somewhere else -- or even made it worse.

Many observers believe that the United States' unrelenting war on the Colombians created a vacuum filled by Mexican drug lords, whose very proximity to the United States poses new kinds of law enforcement problems peculiar to the border.

One suspected Mexican trafficker, Juan Garcia Abrego, went back and forth across the border with impunity. His ties in the United States included a cousin who was a Texas sheriff.

"The adage that 'blood is thicker than water' is true along the border," says Georgetown University Professor Roy Godson. "It is a region where the good and the bad of both countries become intertwined. For generations, families have intermarried on both sides, moved from one side to the other for business or convenience, to the point where sometimes they have difficulty identifying themselves as Mexican or American."

A second example of how solutions generated from Washington don't always work is the recent push to seal off the United States' borders to illegal immigrants.

At first glance, this policy seems to be a smashing success. Five years ago, the international border at Tijuana was a joke. The fence had huge gaps in it, and on any given Friday night, hundreds of Mexicans, far outnumbering the Border Patrol, could be seen scurrying across the freeways, beaches, estuaries and unpatrolled fields.

Today that's changed. Armed with a new 10-foot-high steel fence, stadium floodlights, infrared scopes, 11 modern helicopters and a thousand new agents, Border Patrol officers sit in their new Ford Explorers guarding a seemingly impregnable border.

Last week, when a couple walked through a drainage pipe to the U.S. side in Smugglers Cove, three Border Patrol agents met them when they emerged. Hand in hand, they walked disconsolately back to Tijuana.

"At this point, we feel we've got a pretty good handle on the border," Agent Wayne L. Preston Jr. said as he toured the sector. One 31-year-old man, who gave his name as Faustino, lingered last week behind the fence at the top of a canyon gazing into the United States. When Preston asked him what he was doing, he said he'd just come to look around. "Some of my friends came out here," he told the agent wistfully. "I don't know ++ if they made it north or you got 'em."

Yet new agents and fancy equipment have not dampened the desire of Mexicans to emigrate for the simple reason that they haven't alleviated the motivation driving people north -- jobs.

Unintended consequences

And so immigration routes have moved eastward, to the arid mountains of East San Diego County and the vast desert beyond. The new trails can mean a three-day walk. The unintended consequences of this policy include putting aliens at the mercy of bandits, directing them into high country they are not equipped to traverse and raising the price charged by the smugglers, known as "coyotes."

"Fourteen people died in January alone, most from exposure," Preston said. "The smugglers took them through the mountains -- it was snowing -- and abandoned them when they couldn't keep up."

Alarmed by such carnage, U.S. attorney Bersin announced last week that his office would seek stiffer prison sentences against smugglers who endanger aliens. But the week before, Bersin told Congress about another unforeseen result of Operation Gatekeeper: Coyotes have raised their prices -- and when the aliens can't pay, they are given backpacks of drugs to bring into the United States.

For years, officials on both sides of the border said that the only rTC way to keep Mexicans from leaving their country was for Mexico to have enough jobs to offer its young people. This was one of the arguments used by free-trade forces during the NAFTA debate.

Impact of NAFTA

Passage of the treaty has meant new plants and factories on the Mexican side of the border and increased exports in both directions. But wages have not risen in Mexico, and labor organizers on both sides of the border say the treaty itself has made it more difficult to form unions and win good contracts.

Moreover, a little-known feature of the treaty -- insisted on by the United States -- liberalized Mexico's land ownership laws. Designed to improve Mexican agribusiness, the provision has made it easier to nudge campesinos off the land. Many have flocked to the border, to the plants known as maquiladoras -- poised there on the border, many looking to the United States.

Paula Sillas, 21, is one such pilgrim. She came to Tijuana from the state of Sinaloa, a 27-hour bus ride from the border. She misses her parents, she says, but is living with a sister who made the trek north before her. She works on an assembly line making computer power packs.

Does she ever think of moving to the United States? "Si," she replies. "A lot of my friends tell me you can earn more money there than here. More opportunities."

Is that the appeal? "Claro," she answers. Of course.

Pub Date: 5/04/97

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