Schar School of Policy and Government Associate Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera undertook a remarkable journey this summer: She, along with journalist Sergio Chapa of the Houston Chronicle, drove the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s the second time they’ve made the journey—the first time was in 2013—“but much has changed since then,” she said. “We thought we should repeat the experience given the enormous changes that the region has undergone in recent years.”
Her observations will enrich her research and teaching of migration, human trafficking, organized crime, border security, militarized drug cartels, and other issues that appear in headlines each day. Today ends the series with her arrival at the sea near San Diego; they traveled for 99 hours, covering 4,700 miles over 14 days, beginning in Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, Calif.
“Our finish line was the Playas de Tijuana where the border wall extends into the Pacific Ocean,” Sergio Chapa said. “The contrast was stark. On the American side, they’ve added razor wire and a second fence to discourage illegal immigration. They’ve also put cones and yellow tape to prevent visitors to a state park on the American side from getting close to the wall.
“On the Mexican side, they have painted the wall with murals and added butterfly gardens, while children play soccer on the beach, people go jogging, and musicians entertain diners at seaside restaurants.”
We headed towards Altar, Sonora. This is a very dangerous city in Mexico that people say is controlled by the Mexican cartels. We were there because it is a very important city for the human smuggling and drug trafficking businesses. There is a very famous migrant shelter there headed by a Catholic Priest, Rev. Prisciliano Peraza, a very brave man who provides humanitarian aid to migrants that are ready to start a very difficult journey through the deserts of Arizona and Sonora.
Since we arrived to the shelter, we saw murals and poems about the deaths at the desert—the desert of Altar, Sonora, is called the Desert of Death (El Desierto de la Muerte) because of all the people who die there in search of the so-called “American Dream.” We listened to very sad stories and learned about the mission of that shelter and all what they do to provide support to migrants. Father Prisciliano explained us the complexities of the area and the links between drug cartels and migrant smuggling in the region.
The role of the Tohono O'odham Nation (a Native American group that now opposes the construction of the Border Wall) was also mentioned in that very interesting conversation. Altar is known as a land of cartels. I asked Father Prisciliano how he maintained himself there. He responded: “God protects me and the work of the migrant shelter.”
We drove to Nogales, Sonora, where we had a late lunch and afterwards visited another migrant shelter. I very much admire the work of those who provide genuine help to migrants and do so in a responsible way. In the current times, not everybody provides aid to migrants with responsibility and ethics. I was thinking about some groups that mobilized the migrant caravan late last year.
We drove to Tucson to Rev. Hoover’s house where we met his adorable partner Barbara. They are great people. That same evening we left Tucson towards the West. We had few days remaining to finish our border trip so we needed to continue driving west. Sergio and I arrived to Ajo, Ariz., an important border town in the desert that connected us with the famous case of Scott Warren, a human rights advocate who worked with the human rights organization, “No More Deaths,”
gives water to migrants who travel along the Arizona desert.
We visited the city of Ajo in the morning and went to “The Barn,” a humanitarian aid facility in the desert where Scott Warren (a professor and activist) was accused of sheltering two undocumented migrants. This is a very complex case. Warren was arrested and on trial supposedly for helping migrants. However, the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the trial. Because of my conversation with many actors, including journalists and other human rights advocates, I still have many doubts about this case, particularly because of the apparent connection between Scott Warren and Irineo Mújica, a leader of the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, who has been a protagonist in the mobilization migrant caravans in the most recent years. The jury was unable to reach a verdict in the trial. Warren will be retried on November 12.
Then we drove towards Lukeville, Ariz., and passed by the organ pipe cactus reserve. It is so beautiful to see so many organ pipe cactuses and saguaros together. That is the landscape we think of when we mention the state of Arizona. We crossed the border to Sonoyta, Sonora, another city supposedly controlled by cartels. This region is allegedly the region of operation of Irineo Mújica of Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Irineo was recently arrested and then released by Mexican authorities for crimes connected to human smuggling. The case is still open and the Mexican authorities will make a decision about this soon.
We then drove to Yuma, Ariz., to visit the Border Patrol Station there where there is a big and controversial detention center. The political conversation at that exact time about the border and immigration in the United States was about the alleged deplorable conditions of migrants at detention centers. It was a worthwhile visit. We were not able to enter the detention center, so we could not confirm what others say.
Then we moved towards the border to the cities of San Luis, Ariz., and San Luis Rio Colorado. We took great pictures of three border fences in the same space, concertina wire, and learned about the water problems at the border. The Colorado River there was all dry; it was deviated for its utilization in agriculture and other activities mainly on the U.S. side of the border.
Finally, we drove towards Calexico and Mexicali in California. We crossed the state line and drove in to California through the beautiful dunes. We saw the sunset. It was a really beautiful landscape of red, orange, and yellow colors reflected on the sand.
We would spend the night in Calexico, on the U.S. side of the border, but had a meeting with some migrant rights advocates on the Mexican side, in the city of Mexicali. We had dinner in a Chinese restaurant; Mexicali is famous for its Chinese restaurants. Many Chinese live here. They came in the early 20th century to escape persecution in the U.S. following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. At the many Chinese restaurants in this border city, Cantonese food blends with Mexican ingredients. I did not like the food very much, but it was a great experience.
We were invited by one young man and two young women who work with migrants providing aid. They told us the difficulties migrants go through in complex cities like Mexicali or Tijuana. They told us that in Mexicali, migrant shelters are at their maximum capacity and that the city is not safe for families and children.
I went running along the border fence on the U.S. side of the border in the border city of Calexico, Calif. I saw several Border Patrol cars and again, a lot of concertina wire on the border fence. The way is ugly, but with razor wire everywhere, it is uglier. I was thinking about all the money the U.S. government is spending on unproductive projects, not benefiting border communities but only private contractors. There were not a lot of changes since 2013 along the whole borders, no visible developments. We just saw some new solar panels and windmills, the rest seem the same to me. After six years, I saw no major developments at the border.
We would arrive to Tijuana early in the evening. We stopped at one water station for migrants in California. It was very interesting to see how some organizations leave water for those travelers and place colorful flags so migrants can identify the water stations. We passed by Jacumba Hot Springs in California. We were there six years ago and loved the place then.
Border landscapes in California are so beautiful. We stopped to take some pictures of the border fence and the border landscapes, and a Border Patrol officer
s asked us for our documents. He was not friendly, but not aggressive either. To be honest, this time, most of the Border Patrol and CBP officials treated us very respectfully. Last time we traveled along the whole U.S.-Mexico border, we were questioned frequently and officers were even less friendly. This time, until that event, we had had not a single bad encounter with border enforcement officials or local or state police.
The Border Patrol officer asked us for our passports, saying that they had reports of smuggling activity taking place in that same region at that time. He checked our information and documents, returned them to us, and said goodbye. It seems that six years ago, border enforcement agents were concerned with drugs and with the effects of Mexico’s drug wars. Now they were focused on undocumented migrants, smugglers, and asylum seekers. I do not think we looked like asylum seekers. We think this is why they treated us much better. They even joked with us several times.
We would stopped at Tecate, Baja California, which borders Tecate, Calif. I love the city of Tecate, Baja California. They have a very famous Tecate brewery that in the past was owned by Mexicans but now is a subsidiary of Heineken International. We knew they would give us free beer and we were very thirsty. It was the summer and the weather was quite hot. A cold Tecate beer was a great present that day.
We crossed back again to the U.S. side of the border and drove west to get to Tijuana. This time, we would not cross to San Diego. My colleague Sergio Chapa would leave the next day to Houston. I would stay one more night and visit some friends and contacts in the city.
I would love to do research in the very interesting border city of Tijuana. It is such a dangerous and complex city, but there are many things to discover there. I would like to live there for at least three months to understand the dynamics of organized crime and human smuggling in the Pacific corridor of Mexico. I was very impressed by the dangerous and complicated dynamics of irregular migration and organized crime in both Tijuana and Mexicali, Baja California. I would also like to spend more time doing research along the Arizona-Sonora border. That is my next goal. This trip has been so important for my academic career.
We visited the Cross Border Xpress (also called Tijuana Cross-border Terminal), which is a bridge exclusively for Tijuana International Airport passengers who cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico. It connects the Tijuana airport with the airport terminal located in the Otay Mesa area of southern San Diego. I had never been there before, so it was an interesting visit.
We crossed to Tijuana and then went to visit Tijuana downtown and crossed the very famous Calle Revolución, where you can see a lot of bars, shops, pharmacies, and restaurants. This is a landmark of the city of Tijuana. It is a very noisy street. It was at some point the place where young Americans used to go to drink when they were underage.
Cartel violence and Mexico’s drug war changed things a little bit, but now this street is full of tourists—Mexican nationals and foreigners, especially from the U.S. We had dinner at Caesar's Restaurant-Bar, a very famous restaurant at Calle Revolución where people say they invented the Caesar
salad. We had dinner with Elliot Spaget, the Associated Press correspondent in San Diego. He is very smart and knows the region quite well. I like to talk to journalists since I always learn a lot. Elliot suggested to me to visit El Chaparral border crossing to see the very large number of trans-continental immigrants waiting in line to seek asylum.
A couple of days before I arrived, asylum seekers from Cameroon protested against the U.S. metering policy. Some said that very few people from the African continent had been admitted into the U.S. for Asylum processing in the previous weeks as the list was starting to grow.
We went to Playas de Tijuana to see the beach and the fence. The murals painted along the fence and the street are near the beach. I met there with my great friend Zulia Orozco, an academic who does research on organized crime and money laundering in Mexico’s Pacific coast and particularly in the state of Baja California. Zulia explained to us the dynamics of organized crime and undocumented migration in the city. She lives there and knows the city quite well.
I was able to see the building of “Embajada Migrante Shelter” that seems to be the headquarters or offices of an organization called Border Angels. This organization is also close to Pueblo Sin Fronteras and has supported the migrant caravans that arrive in Tijuana.
We had breakfast at Playas de Tijuana in front of the sea. I said goodbye to my great friend (almost brother), journalist Sergio Chapa. He left for Houston; I would stay one more night in the city and leave the next day for Mexico City.
Zulia gave me a tour around the city, and explained to me all about local politics, irregular migration, and organized crime in Tijuana. She knows a lot about these topics and is a great guide and friend as well. We gave the tour with her son Nicolás. The three of us visited the most dangerous parts of the city, when there was still daylight.
We visited “El Cañón del Alacrán,” or “Little Haiti” in Tijuana, that is a very poor neighborhood where Haitian immigrants have settled. It was a very sad experience. Poverty and violence are extreme there. There were pigs, and the houses were constructed with very simple materials. Many families live in very small houses. It is really disturbing to see how humans can allow this to happen. Inhumane conditions, misery, violence, death…this is what you can feel and see there.
We had dinner in downtown again. I love Tijuana…a very complex and violent city. I want to return and conduct field research there. This experience changed me in so many ways.
Zulia picked me up and we went to El Chaparral border crossing to see the asylum seekers waiting in line. We arrived a bit late. I just saw a few of them. Most of them were Afro-descendants from different African nations and some maybe from Haiti. I was able to talk with a person who worked for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He explained to me the dynamics of irregular migration in the city and the big increase in trans-continental migration that had recently arrived to the city.
We left the city and drove through El Valle de Guadalupe for a final wine tour…. I said goodbye to Tijuana and to the border….
I will be back soon.