The border crossing between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California is one of the biggest and busiest spots in the world. The region has a combined population of five million people, making it one of the most populated borders in the globe, too. And Tijuana itself is known for being the city with the most American citizens living outside the US—over 100,000 of them.
Most of these American residents are Mexican Americans with family ties in Tijuana. They usually live on the Mexican side and commute across the border to go to work every day. Because of traffic at the border, many of them cross on foot and use the Metropolitan Transportation Service (MTS) to get around San Diego. The blood red trains of the Blue Line move from the center of the city to the San Ysidro border pass, making it the most used train line in the whole system, usually by Mexican American workers commuting to and from work.
In this kind of geo-cultural mess, there's bound to be some confusion, and confusion is a ripe setting for business. There is plenty of less-than-legal stuff going on here, the kind of crap that inevitably happens when cultures clash. Shady deals, corruption, and the general push to try to make a buck out of everything are universally in reach, and you can see them in full bloom on the San Diego trolley Blue Line.
A prime example of human nature in motion is the Blue Line's own illegal cheese trade, built around the free cheese opportunity that the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system represents.
What in sweet baby Jesus's name are people buying on the trolley? In order to answer this question, I rode it going south at rush hour to figure it out.
The EBT system is supposed to work, in part, allowing welfare recipients to purchase food items in almost any supermarket with cards filled with government money. The Blue Line hustle is very simple: buy things that are comparatively more expensive in Mexico with EBT cards and then sell this merchandise for nothing-but-profit to Mexicans and Mexican Americans who are on their way to Tijuana.
The train is stupidly packed at rush hour, so business is good.
So what in sweet baby Jesus's name are people buying on the San Diego trolley? In order to answer this question, I rode on the Blue Line trolley going south at rush hour to figure it out.
"Kay-so, kay-so" yells an American woman, murdering the pronunciation as she holds a block of Monterey Jack cheese with both hands. "Kay-so, kay-so barato barato" ("Cheese! Cheap cheese!"), she yells again. Monterey Jack cheese is king in the Mexican North (followed in popularity by mozzarella), but it's a gringo cheese and is expensive to buy in supermarkets south of the border. Even though Mexican cheese is damn good and dirt cheap, many prefer to buy the American product. Traitors? Perhaps, but the premium that people are willing to pay is what makes the EBT cheese train hustle work.
Plus, it is practically impossible for these cheese banditos to get caught. There are police on the train, but not in all train cars. There are cameras everywhere, but the vendors are swift. They switch cars at every stop, and every damn time they get in one, someone buys cheese from them. Of all my trips back and forth on the Blue Line, I have never seen a cheese vendor get arrested.
There are other things in this trade beyond the mouth-melting, fat-packed Wisconsin Monterey Jack cheese that is used all around Tijuana for quesadillas. Some are hawking huge instant coffee cans for $1.50. Sure, the coffee is not good, but the price is unbeatable. Coming back to Tijuana and need to get chocolate for your hyna? That'll be a dollar, and she will love you forever. Smell bad? Don't worry, you can pick some deodorant up on the train, too. But what about shampoo? The Herbal Essence line is on display on the car floor for a fraction of the price. This is no 99 cent store BS merchandise. This is the real stuff you find in US supermarkets, but it's basically free.
I quickly discovered that it's not easy to find someone who wants to talk about the illegal cheese trade. Though it is rare for the police to arrest any of the cheese vendors, they do get kicked out of the trains and fined. Luckily enough, one of them finally agreed to talk to me, a white dude all tatted up and dressed in the San Diego cool-hip-guy customary way. He told me to call him Alex, "for anything you need." Alex doesn't have an EBT card, but his partner does, so they usually meet in a train station parking lot and divide the merchandise before getting to work the trains separately. On a good day, Alex can sell 20 blocks of cheese for a healthy $100 profit. It takes a little over an hour to sell all of it and, according to him, what he makes is enough to live "somewhere in downtown Tijuana."
Alex is half Mexican and one of the few white dudes working the cheese trade. He says he's not afraid of the San Diego Police, but is terrified of the Tijuana Municipal Police. Since he's white, tattooed, and generally looks like a drug pusher, he gets messed with a lot. He never goes around with drugs or anything illegal on him, but it is not unusual for the Tijuana Police to detain him without a reason and take his earnings for the day. That's why he keeps his money in his socks now; balls are—apparently—a known hiding place.
American cheese companies should hire these highly-motivated vendors and make them heads of their international marketing divisions. They know the market better than anyone else does, and their sales numbers are off the charts.
Alex told me that not too long ago, he was going back to Tijuana with some unsold cheese on him. At the customs control, they asked for receipts on the cheese, which Alex didn't have, so they took his cheese. Even the Mexican customs agents get a ride on the EBT cheese train.
Many might think that the cheese trade is a travesty and a drag on the welfare system, but let's not get all Donald Trump'd about this. The EBT system was created to help people in need, and people on the EBT cheese trade are exactly that: they are in real need. If anything, I think people with this kind of vision, initiative, and balls deserve to get some extra points. I think American cheese companies should hire these highly-motivated cheese vendors and make them heads of their international marketing divisions. They know the market better than anyone else does and their sales numbers are off the charts.
Are they wasting the taxpayer's money? I don't think so. Cheese knows no borders.
That day, I bought a piece of Monterey Jack cheese from Alex. On the way to my Tijuana apartment, I passed through the supermarket to do a little price comparison. Alex's cheese was almost two dollars cheaper. I bought some tortillas and went home to make myself some delicious quesadillas, courtesy of the American Government.
No one died, everybody won, and the border remained a wonderful place where there's cheap cheese for everybody.