September 15, 2008
TIJUANA, Mexico — There is a moment each evening, as the sun melts into the Pacific, when Colonia Libertad is at peace.
The dimming light blurs the hilltop slum’s rough edges, camouflaging piles of trash in long shadows and making it difficult to tell that some of the tightly packed homes clinging to vertical canyonsides are made of old packing crates and cast-off plastic tarps.
The stadium lighting that towers over the corrugated metal wall marking the U.S.-Mexico border is dark, permitting residents a bird’s eye view of Tijuana, where lights are blinking on, blanketing hills that lead toward the ocean. Farther inland, the dark shadows of mountains are sketched across the sky.
There are no helicopters reverberating overhead, no drone of all-terrain vehicles. Even the bony guard dogs chained outside their homes respect the silence. Fathers stroll lazily behind children who steer beat-up tricycles along the rutted dirt paths that serve as streets.
For a moment, residents are reminded of what it was like before the wall, when children ducked under a barbed wire fence to play soccer in U.S. territory and returned home for dinner. When smuggling meant giving directions to migrants who simply outran border agents and melted into the crowds of tourists.
But it is only a moment.
The floodlights click on, bathing the neighborhood in a blinding light. The helicopters return, clattering past. And the smugglers arrive with their ladders and blow torches and groups of people desperate to escape a fate similar to the one residents of Colonia Libertad long ago accepted.
As the U.S. government battles environmentalists and residents to build hundreds more miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, both sides would be well served to take a long look at Colonia Libertad — Freedom Neighborhood.
In the early 1990s, Colonia Libertad became one of the first places to coexist with the recycled, corrugated-iron barrier that has become a symbol of the conflicted relationship between a first-world superpower and the developing nation that lives in its shadow.
The fence didn’t stop the migrants. It didn’t stop the drugs. It merely pared down the hopeful crowds that used to flood San Diego hillsides, diverted the drugs underground and into the mountains, and helped create a ruthless smuggling industry dedicated to beating the U.S. Border Patrol at its own game.
But that’s not to say the sections of fence that have been built haven’t been successful. The barriers, combined with high-tech security measures such as surveillance cameras and ground sensors, have made getting into the United States extremely difficult. And as security has increased in recent years, the number of people trying to cross has fallen dramatically.
The downside, residents on both sides say, is that the border has become a violent battleground, shattering a shared American and Mexican history that is blind to things such as fences and borders.
Once, the only barrier between Colonia Libertad and San Diego was a barbed-wire fence.
Residents would squeeze between its rusty spikes, escaping the crowded barrio for the open hillsides of U.S. territory. Adults roasted meat in barbecue pits while children ran free.
“It used to be fun, because we’d cross and play soccer or baseball or volleyball,” says Jaime Boites, 35, whose home is steps from the border. “Nobody cared. When we were done, we’d just go back to our houses in Mexico.”
U.S. Border Patrol agents left the picnickers alone. Sometimes they even strolled over and shared a taco.
They were more concerned with the other side of Colonia Libertad, the smugglers who used the neighborhood as a staging ground for vanloads of people or drugs or some other kind of contraband that the gringos legally didn’t want but were always willing to pay for.
It wasn’t hard to get to the United States, which had few agents and little security. Sometimes migrants gathered at the border in large groups to rush past outnumbered guards, like a crude game of sharks and minnows. Others packed into vans that raced drugs or people across the hills.
“Back then, there used to be vans going through U.S. territory, just like nothing,” Boites says. “Vans full of people, any time of day.”