Avimael, “El Cocho,” and his girlfriend Marta Gomez, 42, sit inside their ñongo, which Cocho dug alongside the Tijuana River canal. Photos by David Maung.
Each year, more than 30 million people flow between the US and Mexico through the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land-border crossing in the world. Situated between San Diego and Tijuana, at one time the area around San Ysidro was a prime spot to cross illegally into the US. But in 1994, Operation Gatekeeper expanded the border wall and increased the number of checkpoints. With the more recent addition of unmanned drone patrols along the border, Tijuana has become one of the most fortified border points in the Americas. Border crossers have been forced to turn to alternative sites of crossing, such as the Sonoran Desert, where hundreds of people die each year.
About 40 percent of Mexican immigrants deported from the US are sent back through Tijuana. Many of the deported border crossers have established a makeshift shantytown inside a dry, concrete riverbed where the Tijuana River once flowed – called El Bordo.
In years past, local nonprofits and shelters offered humanitarian aid to immigrants attempting to cross into the US, but today they primarily care for the deportees who have been booted back to Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (better known as ICE) reported a record 409,849 immigrants deported from the States in 2012, and a recent report published by Social Scientists on Immigration Policy states that, based on the current rates of deportation, more than two million people will have been deported by the Obama administration by 2014, more than under any president in American history.
El Bordo roughly translates as “the border” or, more grimly, “the ditch.” In the 1960s, the area around the Tijuana River was a frontier town where would-be immigrants would congregate to meet polleros (“human smugglers”), who would transport them into the US for a fee.
Micaela Saucedo runs the Casa Refugio Elvira shelter, located a block away from the dry river, and has assisted border crossers and deportees for more than 30 years. “In the 60s, it was very easy to cross. In those years, it was a different world.” Micaela led me to a public square where several hundred homeless deportees were milling about, waiting for the free meal that local humanitarian organisations dish out every day. “The deportees stay here [in Tijuana] because they think crossing again will be easy,” Micaela said, “but they don’t realise that the border is now completely secured. It’s very hard to cross.”
Later Micaela gave me a tour of El Bordo – an inhospitable concrete embankment filled with a sea of tents. The elegant Las Americas mall in San Diego is visible just over the border fence.
“Gallo!” Micaela shouted. A man emerged from a hole, crowing like a rooster. Delfino Lopez, a.k.a. El Gallo, a man in his early 30s who wore a hat with a fighting cock embroidered on it, is one of the estimated 3,000 people who reside in El Bordo year-round. Like many of his fellow inhabitants, Gallo previously resided in the US. He crossed the border illegally in 2005 and worked in construction for six years, sending most of his money to his wife and kids in Puebla.
Two years ago, Gallo’s landlord called ICE on him, and he was deported. He hasn’t seen his family since and told me he refuses to do so until he’s capable of providing for them. He tried to return to the US several times but was unsuccessful. He said the only way he knew how to make money was to return to el otro lado. “I don’t want to return as a defeated person,” he added.
Gallo welcomed me inside his improvised dwelling – a five-by-ten-foot minibunker, called a ñongo, that he dug out some time ago. It’s one of 300 along the concrete riverbed, with the rest of the deportees living in tents or inside the sewers. I crawled through a hatch fashioned out of the casing of an old TV. He told me it was safe because the dirt walls had been reinforced with recycled materials like wood, plastic tarps, and sandbags, but I couldn’t imagine sleeping in what is essentially a hole in the ground. Or, more pessimistically, a ready-made grave. Nevertheless, Gallo said, if constructed properly there are benefits to living in a subterranean abode – “the roof doesn’t leak and people can walk on top of it without it collapsing.” Still, that doesn’t mean he’s completely protected.
“I’m afraid of the cops,” Gallo said. “They come, and they burn everything. They think we are all drug addicts and thieves.”
“The first time they came in, they brought a bulldozer and destroyed houses here and then set them on fire,” Micaela added. “The second time, they got here and spread gasoline, not even checking if people were inside or not. Some people were burned. Then a third time the same thing happened.”
We walked the embankment’s perimeter, stopping at an overturned cooler. Micaela knocked, and moments later, Avimael “El Cocho” Martinez emerged from his hole, inviting us inside. His “Cochotunnel,” as he calls it, was much larger than Gallo’s and, he said, could accommodate as many as 16 guests. Cocho came to El Bordo two years ago after being deported, and like many of his neighbours, he still yearns for his former life in the States.
“I was in the US for a long time,” Cocho said. “I wanted the American dream. My family is OK, but most of my belongings are still there. I left my family and my work. I used to own my own business, an auto-body shop.” His eyes welled up while reminiscing about his former home; the luxuries of having a TV, laundry room, kitchen, and guest room. “We used to eat like regular people. This place is awful. It’s really impossible to compare. There I had happiness, good memories. Here I have sadness. This is a place full of vices. I try to stay away from them.”
Gallo and Cocho aren’t exceptions in El Bordo – many of the residents have worked in the US and even have children who are American citizens. Many were deported for infractions like drunk driving or domestic violence.
According to Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, Mexicans deported from the US fall into three loose categories: those apprehended while trying to cross the border illegally; deportees who once lived in the US and had normal lives but were deported; and former inmates sent home from overcrowded US prisons.
All of this becomes even more troubling when you consider that Mexicans living illegally in the United States have become vital to the American economy, providing cheap labour for farms, factories, restaurants, and other industries. They are also essential to the Mexican economy. Remittances sent from the US represent Mexico’s second-largest revenue source after oil.
A homeless man showers in El Bordo, the border wall separating the US and Mexico stands behind him.
“The Mexican state has a huge responsibility to provide immigrants with free food, shelter, give them IDs, and help them find work,” Victor said. “They should provide orientation about the services that the city offers. Last year, migrants sent $24 billion to Mexico, so it would only be fair, when those immigrants become deportees, that the state should give back.”
Finding work is nearly impossible for the majority of those living in El Bordo, so they come to rely on nonprofits and religious organisations for basic necessities. The most established of these organisations is the Padre Chava soup kitchen, located directly across the street from El Bordo. The kitchen serves breakfast to more than 1,000 people daily.
Father Ernesto Hernández, the priest who oversees the soup kitchen, said that deportees can go from having respectable, comfortable lives in the States to being broke and homeless in as little as ten days. He explained that recent deportees usually spend their last few dollars on cheap hotels or shelters while trying to find work. Most are unsuccessful and wind up living on the streets where the police harass them until they end up in El Bordo.
“A lot of the people that have been deported were in the US for a long time,” Father Ernesto said. “They have a family, wife and kids there. Once they are deported, they decide to stay here to feel a bit closer to their families [in the US].”
Father Ernesto introduced us to Joaquin, a man in his late 30s. He said that he had lived in the US undocumented for 22 years before he was deported in 2012 for expired license-plate tags on his truck. His wife, eight brothers, parents, and four kids (two of whom are American citizens) remain in California, where Joaquin ran a welding business. Joaquin hopes that after filing his 2012 taxes in the US (made possible by “borrowing” a friend’s Social Security number) his refund will cover the $3,000 coyote fee to get him back to the US.
Tijuana’s economy has changed drastically over the last decade. In the early 2000s, the main tourist thoroughfare, Revolución Avenue, was packed with underage gringos getting drunk and buying Viagra and Xanax over the counter at pharmacies. The debauchery came to an abrupt halt in 2006, when the Sinaloa cartel declared war on the Tijuana cartel and local police forces. In 2008 alone, there were at least 844 murders in the city. While the official death toll dwindled slightly over the next two years, the violence continued unabated. The killings have subsided in recent years, partially because of the increased presence of police and the Mexican army, and partially because the Sinaloa cartel has largely forced their enemies out of town. Restaurants are now reopening, the bar scene is booming, and the locals have reclaimed Revolución Avenue for themselves. Ruidoson, Tijuana’s brand of electronic music, is rising to prominence, and the local Baja Med cuisine is gaining international attention. Today, Tijuana is once again fun, vibrant, and for the most part, safe.
To better understand the situation on the border, I arranged to ride along with Tijuana Police Subdirector Armando Rascón on a scheduled patrol of Zona Norte, sandwiched between the tourist center and El Bordo. Zona Norte is where most of the migrant shelters are located, along with many houses that serve as heroin-shooting dens and the red-light district, which is full of cheap hotels, brothels, and massive strip clubs.
“The problem at El Bordo is serious, and it’s growing,” Armando said. “The people that live there are not worried about eating. In the morning, they eat at the Padre Chava soup kitchen, then at 4 PM, a Christian group feeds them, and then Americans feed them again at night. These people are worried about getting money to buy their drugs because most of them are addicts. And that’s why they go snatch a purse, or steal whatever they can.”
Armando continued, explaining the strategy of local law enforcement. “We go and destroy everything they build. But as soon as we destroy it, they build it back again. It’s like a game.” I asked him about Micaela’s allegations that the police sometimes torched the El Bordo encampments, and he assured us that his officers would never engage in such brutal tactics, claiming that the residents had started the fires accidentally while cooking food outside or burning tires. Most of the occupiers of El Bordo I spoke with, however, said that they are terrified of the police, and many told me that they have been abused and beaten up by officers, and some said they’ve had their homes bulldozed or burned down.
As we continued along the canal, Armando pointed out the giant sewage tunnels and said that many deportees live inside of them in total darkness. “All we want is for these people to stay in El Bordo,” Armando said. “We don’t want them to rob our tourists. We have to take care of the people that cross the border legally into the US, and those that come back into Mexico… Our job is to provide security for all the citizens of Tijuana, protect the tourists and businesses in our city. And the way to show we are doing our work is with operatives and removing people from the streets.”
Cocho peers out from his “Cochotunnel.”
When I asked him about potential solutions to the growing migrant problem in El Bordo, he said, “We would have to start with the US sending the deportees by plane to the rest of the country, instead of sending everyone through here. In the downtown area, 86 percent of the crimes are related to the people that live in El Bordo… At the same time this is a problem that has to be solved from a social perspective, and not just by putting people in jail.”
The Mexican federal government has a program to help repatriated deportees, but it is not nearly enough. The program provides a free phone call, some food and medical attention, and a temporary ID (often not recognised by cops and potential employers), but beyond that, there’s nothing else given to help them get reestablished in Mexico.
It’s painfully apparent that many of the residents of El Bordo are addicted to hard drugs like heroin and meth, which only reinforces the local police’s perceptions of the embankment’s displaced residents. A dose of heroin can be bought for as little as $2, and most users I spoke with said they shot up at least three or four times per day. Many of these addicts support their addiction by collecting scrap metal, and the police said they resort to robbery and other criminal activity to fund their habits.
Dr. Remedios Lozada, coordinator of the HIV and STD program at the Baja California health ministry, has organised a needle-exchange program in El Bordo with the goal of reducing the risk of HIV and hepatitis infection. “All of them are addicted to some substance,” she said of its residents. “Ninety percent of them do intravenous drugs like heroin. Those who don’t shoot up at least smoke meth.” Due to lack of funds, the program can only manage to conduct the exchanges every few weeks.
I accompanied Dr. Remedios to one of the exchanges. She drove me to an encampment near the river surrounded by tall bushes. We parked the car, and I watched as approximately 30 men staggered up the concrete ramp and approached a table that volunteer organisers had set up to exchange needles. Each man was clutching an assortment of used needles, and some even had syringes wedged behind their ears. Moments after receiving their clean needles, each began cooking up heroin – or chiva (“goat”) as they call it – in plastic spoons. They then proceeded to shoot into their necks, legs, and between their fingers, right in front of the volunteer table.
I approached a man after he finished injecting his dose. He told me he had been recently deported from a prison in the US. I asked him if he thought he was better off living in jail or El Bordo, and he replied that at least jail had provided him with basic sustenance and a roof over his head.
Our next stop was a bridge where around 100 people – including a few women – had gathered below. The volunteers set up their table and doled out clean needles and condoms. Ten minutes later, a guy wearing brand-new shoes and a black hoodie appeared. Our driver discreetly told us that he was a wholesale heroin supplier, dropping off a fresh batch for the local dealer. We decided it was time to leave.
Watch our new documentary about Mexican deportees living in El Bordo on VICE.com later this month.
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