Chapter 1: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico

I began traveling the entire length of the US–Mexico Border on December 17, 2002. I visited both sides of the line, starting from Tijuana–San Diego on the Pacific Ocean to Matamoros–Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico, a total of just under 4,000 miles there and back. It started before the US undertook to fortify its southern boundary, and so became an unintentional witness to the border’s closure. My binational exploration was completed on February 5, 2006, but I continued visiting up to the present, adding thousands more miles to my borderland travel log. FIG. 1.1

From the beginning, I anticipated spending most of my time on drugs, national security, and immigration issues. Instead, I quickly became absorbed in the lives of people who pursued cross-border lives: Mexicans who lived in Tijuana where the cost of living was lower while working in San Diego where wages were higher; and Americans on fixed incomes who settled in Mexico in order to stretch their retirement savings. Outside the cities there were often few fences and people constantly crossed the line without documentation to shop or visit family, graze their farm animals, or join weekend softball games.

In those first months of travel, I shared some of this freedom. So-called ‘unofficial’ crossings were easy – there was even a guide book!  At San Luis Río Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, just south of Yuma, Arizona, I walked around a free-standing boundary monument, taking photographs. Every time I crossed the imaginary line into Mexico, two old guys watching me would yell: “You’re illegal!” and then fall about laughing. After a while, I walked over and chatted with them. FIGS. 1.2, 1.3

ON FEBRUARY 2, 1848, THE TREATY OF GUADALUPE HIDALGO WAS SIGNED, ending the Mexican–American War. The Treaty required designation of a “boundary line with due precision, upon authoritative maps, and to establish upon the ground landmarks which shall show the limits of both republics.” The consequent surveys were undertaken by a joint US–Mexico commission charged with surveying the 2,000-mile border line and marking it with monuments. Just over 0ne-third that distance ran along the land boundary from the Pacific Ocean to the junction with the Rio Grande/Río Bravo River at a town called Paso del Norte, and from thence to the Gulf of Mexico. The water boundary was defined as the deepest point in the river channel.

The first survey took eight years to complete: the terrain and climate were often difficult and life-threatening in mountain and desert; the survey crews were not always welcome by indigenous people; and the surveyors had to contend with a handful of maps from different sources, none of which were entirely accurate (the map marking the location of Paso del Norte, for example, was 100 miles off true). Uncertainties were exacerbated as the two nations continued squabbling about the boundary’s exact location. The most consequential dispute led to the 1853 Gadsden Purchase (known as the Treaty of Mesilla in Mexico) whereby the US delivered $10 million to Mexico and in return acquired a coveted corridor connecting Paso del Norte to Baja California, thus enabling access for a rail link to the Pacific coast. The first survey placed only fifty-two monuments along the entire length of the line, almost all on the land boundary. After the war, military bases and ‘twin towns’ were established on each side of the line to consolidate the territorial holdings of each natio

A second boundary survey was undertaken between 1892 and 1894 on the land boundary alone, primarily because the precise location of the line had been masked by population growth in the borderlands. Also, many boundary markers had been stolen, moved, or damaged beyond repair. By century’s end, the number of monuments was increased to 258, but in many places the precise location of the line remained vague. In one 1893 dispute, a Texas Ranger inadvertently strayed into Mexican territory in pursuit of an alleged criminal. After Mexico protested the incursion, the US Department of State responded that the lawman had entered an ill-defined boundary zone and that “The boundary line between the United States and Mexico has never been so settled as to be known except by citizens of long residence on the border.” The lawman claimed that he encountered no markers indicating the line and that the boundary line lay in a river channel that was known to have migrated to a different location. 

ON THE PACIFIC OCEAN LIES TIJUANA, the largest border city in Mexico. It began as a scattering of indigenous tribes that later fell under the thrall of Spanish missionizing. By the time that the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the Rancho de la Tía Juana was the largest cattle-ranching settlement in the Tijuana River Valley. Indeed it was the only settlement marked on maps created by boundary surveyor after the war.  A small customs house was built in 1874, attracting a few modest residences. The region’s ranching economy was tied to California, supplying food and other products required by the booming gold and silver mines to the north. After the mid-1880s, Baja was caught up in the speculative land and property boom in southern California. Sales did not match expectations, but a formal urban plan for Tijuana was published in 1889 with the intention of guiding city growth and promoting development.

By 1900, Tijuana had a population of about 200 people, but then the world accelerated around it. San Diego rose as a commercial and military port, and Tijuana began to attract tourists from California. In 1916 a horse-racing track called Agua Caliente was built in Tijuana a quarter-mile from the international boundary. The town emerged as a popular playground for visitors, including Hollywood film stars. Innovations in irrigation technology, improved rail connections, and US and Canadian investments began the transformation of harsh deserts into major agricultural interests in the region, including eastward into the Imperial and Mexicali Valleys. Tijuana entered a golden age for tourism when the 1919 Volstead Act brought Prohibition to the US. Thirsty Americans flocked south across the border in search of liquor and entertainment to slake a thirst that could not be legally quenched at home. The Agua Caliente racetrack became a casino and tourist complex and by 1930, Tijuana’s population had risen to 8,400. (Around the same time, Ciudad Juárez added two new international bridges over the river boundary to cope with increased tourist traffic.) The booze- and gambling-fueled boom couldn’t last, of course. The Volstead Act was terminated in 1933, and Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas shuttered all gambling establishments in the country.

At the opposite end of the continent just before the Gulf of Mexico lay Brownsville, Texas, across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo River from its border twin, Matamoros, in the state of Tamaulipas. Matamoros was the only border town that had built fortifications for self-protection, and border twin towns remembered many conflicts: the Texas Revolution, the Mexican–American War, and the Battle of Palmito Ranch which was the final land battle of the US Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, Brownsville had around 7,000 inhabitants, over half of whom were Mexicans accustomed to the ways of their American neighbors. An 1893 almanac recorded that the twin towns were so integrated that it was hard to believe they were parts of separate republics:

It is interesting to watch the tide of travel between the republics. […] The Mexican women, with their almost uniform dress of black and white, with heads bare and graceful “rebozos” draped about their shoulders; the “ranchero,” with jingling spurs on his high-heeled boots, a gaudy sash, white shirt, and heavy, broad-brimmed “sombrero”; merchant and clerks, intent upon the business to be transacted at the Customhouse, the banks, or the market of the sister city; Spanish ladies tastefully and richly dressed, sparkling with jewels and shielding their bright eyes from the glare of the sun on the water with their proverbial weapon, the fan, which is also the only sunshade they ever carry; Englishmen, Frenchmen, American, Irishmen, and Africans; and they nearly all use the Spanish language or its Mexican “patois,” in the affairs of daily life.

By the end of the twentieth century, Brownsville had grown into a sprawling settlement of around 180,000 inhabitants. Prosperous Matamoros had half a million residents. Every year, a ceremony is held celebrating the Brownsville–Matamoros concord. The six border states in Mexico (from west to east: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas) contained 18.2 million people, or sixteen percent of Mexico’s total population. The four US border states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) were home to 66.9 million, or twenty-one percent of the US population. Taken together, the ten border states would have comprised the third largest economy in the world.

IN 1945, THE US GOVERNMENT CONSTRUCTED THE FIRST FENCES designed to curtail the flow of unauthorized migrants from Mexico, along both sides of the All-American Canal near Calexico, California and Mexicali, Baja California. The barrier was over five miles long, and consisted of posts connected by chain-link fencing recycled from camps where Japanese-Americans had been interned during the Second World War. On a much grander scale, the 237-mile Western Land Boundary Fence Project was mostly constructed between 1948 and 1951, extending from Tijuana to El Paso.

A half-century later, undocumented immigration into the US had reached chaotic proportions. Crowds of unauthorized crossers would sometimes assemble at the border crossing and literally rush the barriers. In the mid-1990s, the US responded by building more elaborate fences to deter unlawful crossings in major towns and cities, including San Diego, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Texas. This time the fencing was constructed from steel mats that had been used to provide temporary landing strips for US aircraft during the war in Vietnam. Still, beyond the major cities, most of the borderline remained open territory.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush created a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) charged with ensuring operational control over the nation’s borders. The general consensus among borderlanders is that life got nastier along the line after 9/11.

The centerpiece of DHS operations was the “Secure Border Initiative” (SBI), which included constructing 700 miles of fencing along the land boundary with Mexico, at a cost of over $2 billion. “The Wall” took various forms, including steel ramparts, wire-mesh fences, closely-spaced concrete pillars and bollards, vehicle barriers, and razor wire. In some places, no fewer than three layers of fencing divided the two countries, and the intervening tracks were groomed to permit high-speed chases. Paradoxically, the US was also investing heavily—in cooperation with Mexico—to increase the number of Ports of Entry connecting the two sides. Meantime, determined migrants managed to find ways over, under, through, and around the Wall. FIG. 1.4

Anti-immigrant sentiments quickly resurface in the US. The “Minutemen Project” was a high-profile vigilante group who volunteered themselves to patrol the border. In 2008, I visited the “Mountain Minutemen” encampment on a prominent hilltop called Patriot Point, near Campo, California, just east of Tecate, Baja California. In the clear desert morning, flashes of sunlight sparkled on small aluminum plates fixed to a short informal fence that Minutemen volunteers had constructed to protest government delays in defending the borderline. Each plate was engraved with hostile messages directed toward migrants, such as “Drop dead” and “You are not welcome in the USA. Stay out or die.”

Captain Robert “Lil’ Dog” Brooks was a former military man and retired offshore fisherman who’d been on self-appointed guard at Patriot Point for three years. Armed with a gun and wearing a black baseball hat with the motto “Mountain Minutemen, Patriot Point Posse,” Brooks gazed in disgust at the fencing, saying: “What a place! If you were going to give America an enema, this is where you’d insert the tube.” One year later, Brooks was gone from Patriot Point. I heard from someone that he’d gone back to ocean fishing in Alaska; but a US Border Patrol officer told me that Brooks was now in prison in Arizona, having been caught running illegal immigrants across the line.FIGS. 1.5, 1.6

US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA ASSUMED OFFICE IN 2009. Throughout his first term and much of his second, he continued the policies of his predecessor: “Prevention through Deterrence” involving fortifications, policing, and surveillance to discourage unauthorized crossers; and “Enforcement with Consequences,” aimed at deterring migrants by imposing tougher penalties. Only later in his second term did Obama introduce changes that improved the circumstances of migrants in the US, including curbing abuses of authority by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel.

Bush’s SBI regime was a free-spending, loosely-targeted bonanza for the security, intelligence, and detention industries. The subsequent Obama era was described to me by a senior US diplomat as “calming.” His administration closed programs that were ineffective or abusive and improved the situation of some migrants already in the US. It also oversaw record levels of deportations.

By January 2013, DHS contractors had installed a total of 651 miles of fencing, mostly along the land portion of the border—regarded as the practical upper limit on wall-building, since some terrain was too precipitous to build on or was interrupted by bodies of water. The consensus of expert opinion is that the Wall had no effect on rates of undocumented migration across the US–Mexico boundary line. Any decline in the rate of border apprehensions was associated with the presence of more agents on the ground, increased raids in the workplace, the proliferation of interior checkpoints, and draconian prosecution and deportation policies. Also significant was the decline in job opportunities in the US due to economic recession, and improvements in the Mexican economy that gave Mexicans less reason to migrate. FIG. 1.7

THE LAND BOUNDARY PORTION OF THE US–MEXICO LINE TERMINATES AT THE RIO GRANDE RIVER – known in Mexico as the Río Bravo del Norte (Wild River of the North) – at the twin cities of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. According to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the international boundary follows the deepest channel in the river, historically a problem because the course of the river has constantly shifted over time. FIG 1.8

  Over 430 women were murdered in the state of Chihuahua in the ten years following 1993, and hundreds more simply disappeared, mostly in and around Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua’s largest city. One third of the victims had been sexually assaulted; others had been mutilated or showed signs of torture. Their bodies were dumped in desolate desert places. The femicides attracted international attention to Juárez, but news coverage dropped off as violence associated with drug cartels exploded in Chihuahua and other border states. In the five years after 2006, the Mexican national murder rate was 14 per 100,000 inhabitants; but in Juárez, the rate was 189 per 100,000. (The US rate in 2011 was 4.7 homicides per 100,000 persons, the lowest since 1963.) FIG 1.9

At first, the corpses of femicide victims were discovered in remote locations beyond Juárez. Then, in 2001, eight bodies were discovered within the city limits. When I visited the site three years later, eight tall pink crosses had been erected, each bearing the first name of a murdered woman. The memorial lay in a small depression formed by the intersection of two major traffic arteries that were slightly elevated above ground level, creating a curious feeling of intimacy even in the midst of traffic. While I was photographing there, three vehicles approached me at speed, clearly not looking for a parking spot in the shade. I knew that they were not local police who tend in border cities to travel around standing in the backs of flatbed trucks carrying automatic weapons. Today’s intruders were federal police from the since-disbanded Agencia Federal de Investigación. They were firm but not aggressive in questioning, explaining that I was trespassing on an “active” crime scene. After some long tense moments, the matter was resolved amicably. I felt most threatened when they took away my passport to verify my identity.

The mid-2000s were bleak years of drug wars along the border. In 2004, I was driven to a Juárez conference in a special bus along closed streets accompanied by a large police motorcycle escort, and watched over by groups of police posted along the route. As the violence metastasized, the city’s population fell by over a quarter of a million as residents fled from the violence. Many crossed the river to El Paso. Around this time, an artist friend told me that no one was safe now because the “bullets no longer have names on them.” FIGS 1.10, 1.11

I WAS ALWAYS CAREFUL ALONG THE BORDER, never deliberately courting danger (as many sensation-seeking border writers are prone to do). My travel etiquette was simple: Keep alert and use your common sense; having some Spanish always helps; but traveling with people with local knowledge is the gold standard in personal safety. There’s one other caution: Be prepared for the unexpected.

 One fine day in 2014, I was having difficulty finding a monument just outside Nogales on the Sonoran side of the line. I noticed a cluster of three teenaged males hanging out near the border wall. On a nearby house there was a handwritten note: SE RENTAN A SOLTEROS Y SOLTERAS, basically, “Rooms for rent to singles.” It was targeted at migrants without papers who were intending to cross over into the US. The young men were cartel lookouts, employed to monitor all activities at this informal crossing site. I was ready to leave, but my local host approached the boys and began an animated conversation. He returned to tell me that he knew the boys’ mother, so we were “family.” He also knew that lookouts always had binoculars at hand, so he asked them if I could borrow a pair. One of the teenagers returned with a pair of binoculars powerful enough to spot life on Mars, and I located my monument instantly. We thanked them and waved goodbye. I felt as though we were leaving a family reunion.

Another time, on my own, I was literally ambushed along a California line by two heavily-armed men in camouflage uniforms resembling combat soldiers from some desert war. (They really did jump out from behind bushes, brandishing guns in my direction!) It took me a long time to convince them that I was none of the following: (a) an undocumented migrant, (b) a drug runner, or (c) a threat to American national security.

DURING MY EARLY DAYS ALONG THE RIVER, I RECEIVED A WARM WELCOME at Marfa Border Patrol station in Texas. As usual, the interview was mediated by a communications expert employed to protect line officers from people like me. As I was leaving, one veteran agent gestured for me to join him outside. He began talking about life on the line: the camaraderie between agents, the traditions, the challenges and thrills of “sign-cutting” (tracking), the great beauty of deserts, and his worries that transportation upgrades on the Mexican side would increase the flow of undocumented people crossing along the Marfa sector. He seemed aware that a way of life was passing. FIGS 1.12, 1.13

The advantage of small places is that you see things more clearly. After 9/11, the informal ferries that crossed the river between Mexico and the US were suspended. Small villages like Boquillas del Carmen, in Coahuila, were devastated by the loss of tourist income. So women across the border in Terlingua, Texas collected fabric that they donated to Boquillas women, who sewed it into quilts and returned them to be sold in Terlingua. The proceeds from the sales were then delivered back to the quilters in Boquillas. The Big Bend is a beautiful impassable jumble of massive mountains and boulders. People say it’s where gods dumped the leftovers once the task of creation was completed.

Laredo, Texas has a population of nearly 300,000 people, ninety-five percent of whom are of Mexican origin. People told me: “You can move the borderline twenty miles north and not many people around here would notice.” The masthead of the local newspaper is emblazoned with seven flags of various sovereignties that have presided over Laredo in the past: France, the Republic of the Rio Grande, Mexico, the United States, Texas, the Confederate South, and Spain. Things are always more complicated than they seem in Texas, and memories are long. FIG 1.14

Further downriver, McAllen, Texas has the distinction of drawing a greater share of Mexican spending than any other US city, affecting everything from retail sales to home purchases and vacation destinations. Most of the money comes from the major industrial metropolis of Monterrey (in the state of Nuevo León), only two hours away by fast toll-road. Many McAllen malls run special bus services to attract shoppers from Mexico. So common is the trip from Monterrey to McAllen that a new Spanish verb was coined: macalenear, literally meaning, “to do McAllen.”

IN 2016, DONALD J. TRUMP WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, after running an election campaign that demonized Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He promptly launched a crusade to build more walls, even though his advisors stated publicly and plainly that walls did not work. His plans met intense opposition and moved very slowly until a mad rush late in his term. Ultimately, he claimed to have completed 402 miles of fortifications. However, only twenty-five of these miles covered locations where no barriers had previously existed. The rest of the new construction either replaced dilapidated sections of existing barriers or duplicated existing structures.

Trump ignored evidence that the main source of undocumented immigration into the US was now people who arrived legally and overstayed their visas. Instead, he adopted virulently anti-immigrant policies: increasing detention, prosecution, and deportation rates; deliberately separating parents and children of families detained while crossing the border without documentation; attacking “sanctuary” cities in the US—municipalities which limit their cooperation with the federal government on immigration enforcement—through the courts; and removing protections for hundreds of thousands of children, known as Dreamers, born in the US to undocumented parents. On the international scene, Trump prohibited entry into the US by nationals from predominantly Muslim countries deemed hostile to the US, and curtailed programs assisting refugees and asylum seekers.

The new president of Mexico, a left-leaning populist named Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) treated Trump with courtesy and spent most of his time trying to avoid bruising confrontations. Trump was no friend of Mexico. He unceremoniously retired the NAFTA agreement, replacing it with a United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), ratified in March 2020.Under pressure from Trump, AMLO adjusted Mexican practices for dealing with immigrants from Central America, preventing them from crossing over to pursue claims for asylum in the US. And as cartel-related violence began once more to rise, AMLO seemed unwilling to challenge their authority. Many civic officials, political candidates and journalists were murdered.

After his 2020 inauguration, President Joe Biden was confronted by the legacy of Trump’s daunting catalogue of anti-immigrant policies launched by Trump. He took immediate executive action to undo many of Trump’s edicts, adjusting the enforcement practices by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), lifting travel bans on nationals from Muslim and African countries, and protecting certain at-risk immigrant groups from deportation. By 2020, the annual US border and immigration budget exceeded $25 billion, a 16-fold increase since 1994 when it was $1.5 billion. 

IN TODAY’S ALTERED BORDERLANDS, LIFE IS TOUGHER. The wall has created a mean place. Arizona residents refer to the occupied zones as a “police state.”

A Mexican teenager was shot ten times in the back in April 2014 by a US Border Patrol officer firing without any provocation across the line from Nogales, Arizona into Nogales, Sonora. The teenager, José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, died as he was walking at night, just blocks from his home, along the border fence through which officer Lonnie Swartz fired. A civil prosecution of the assailant was pursued by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of the boy’s mother, all the way to the US Supreme Court. A key point in the prosecution’s case was that the protections of the US Constitution apply across the fence into Mexico because the twin Nogales towns are an integrated single community. (They are commonly referred to collectively as Ambos Nogales, or Both Nogales.) I helped prepare and signed an amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” brief. It ended with this astonishing conclusion:

In considering this case, amici urge the Court to recognize that Ambos Nogales—though it extends into two countries—is a single community of families, workers, and businesses. When a person who lives here walks beside the border, he walks beside a fence that is a mundane and unremarkable fixture in his world. He walks past shops that cater to tourists; he walks where his neighbors come to work. He walks through the middle of his community.

However, the US Supreme Court voided the lower-court decision that gave Rodríguez’s family standing in American courts, having earlier ruled in a separate case involving a cross-border shooting that constitutional protections did not extend across the line. A US agent could fire a gun through the fence into Mexico, but a victim’s family could not seek justice in American courts.

And yet. Not so long ago in Arizona, I struggled to photograph a boundary monument that had been concealed behind a new fence. A passing Border Patrol officer suggested I should climb the fence to get the photograph. (Was he messing with me? Tempting me to break the law? Or was he a practitioner of Mexico’s ley de fuga, or “law of flight,” whereby police would free prisoners only to shoot them as they fled?) I declined. Sensing my reluctance, the agent scaled the fence and took the photograph I sought.

Surveys of residents in cross-border twin cities confirm that the borderlands are increasingly regarded as an economically integrated and bicultural society, where two countries, two languages, and two cultures come together to become one. And people want their lives back. For them this adds up to: ending the Occupation by police, immigration, and national guard authorities; removing the border wall and replacing it with other more effective methods of border surveillance and control; repairing the damage caused by wall construction and security operations, to be paid for by the governments and contractors who created the mess; and diverting the billions of dollars earmarked for wall construction to expanding the number and capacity of cross-border Ports of Entry. FIGS 1.15, 1.16

PLAYA BAGDAD IS ON THE GULF OF MEXICO, just south of the principal mouth (desembocadura) of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo River. This small port was established in 1848 but lost its significance after the Civil War; today it is little more than a cluster of beachside buildings. I had reached the eastern limit of the Mexico–US boundary line. I started walking north along the beach. After a half hour or so, a truck pulled up alongside me. The two men inside were in uniform, but I couldn’t see if they were police. They warned that the desembocadura was more than five miles away, and they offered me a ride for the price of a couple of sodas. I gladly accepted and jumped into the open back of the truck. Truth be told, there’s not much to see there: just two small dunes separated by a narrow river channel. Some picnickers lounged near a lighthouse, though not in great numbers. There was no physical evidence of a boundary monument, even though years earlier I had seen one marked on the original nineteenth-century survey maps at the Mapoteca archive in Mexico City. I sat watching the ubiquitous Border Patrol vehicle on the opposite side of the river. It had arrived moments after me, followed as I ventured upstream, and lingered after I departed.

TWENTY YEARS AFTER MY BORDERLAND ODYSSEY BEGAN, I retain two enduring impressions of border life. First, it is a miracle how borderland residents on both sides of the line manage to transcend the hideous intrusions of the Walls and armies of Occupation and to maintain the connections that have characterized cross-border lives for centuries. The second miracle is how much civility still lingers along the line.

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