Mario is a Tijuana cop. Mario died not long ago, but driving with him through the streets of downtown was always a journey into the reality of the border. Mexico is a young country, in terms of the average age of its inhabitants. The average age of border crossers is even younger – 20 years old. And in the streets of Tijuana live hundreds of street children even younger than that. As Mario pilots his patrol car, he talks about the kids we see in a very matter-of-fact way. “There are so many living on the street here,” he says. “Some are abandoned by their parents when they go across the border, or when they arrive in Tijuana from other parts of Mexico. As the kids get older, they learn to steal or to become prostitutes, and they leave the street.”
We drive through the honky-tonk area of downtown. Some of the buildings at the bottom of Avenida de la Revolucion, as it gets close to the border, are falling down. Others have broken boards and doorways on their front facing the street. There are small, dirt-paved alleyways through the blocks, where the bands of street children live. According to Mario, “they sleep in hotel rooms, under food carts, or in abandoned buildings during the day. Some rob people at night. They take drugs – mostly crack, crystal or glue.”
His stories sound like tales from Oliver Twist. “Doña Lupe,” he says, “has thirty three children. She used to be a pollera [someone who guides people across the border]. Then she taught her kids to sell roses in the street in front of the clubs. They’d surround a customer, and while they’re asking him to buy roses, they’ve hidden a knife in the bunches. Someone cuts the pocket of the pants of the customer, and their wallet falls out. She taught them to be robbers and prostitutes, and as the kids have grown up and had kids of their own, they were taught to be prostitutes and robbers too. It’s passed down from generation to generation.”
Mario had been a policeman for 21 years the last time we drove through downtown together. He was a member of the Grupo Beta, and says, when he started, he believed that those crossing the border without papers were just criminals. “I thought they deserved to be caught and punished because they were breaking the law,” he says. “But after a while, I began to understand that immigration and undocumented people exist in many countries – that it’s a global phenomenon. After that, I began to look at myself as their protector, rather than as their enemy.”
Mario describes many situations in which he just hung out with border crossers at the border and talked. “Once I felt the same fear that they feel,” he remembers. “I was sitting with a group of people in an area of the border where there was no fence – quite a while ago since places like that don’t exist anymore. They got so involved in their conversation that they didn’t notice the migra pulling up until it was on top of them with the lights on the truck flashing. When the truck came up, everybody ran. I ran too. I felt the same fear inside me that they did. If I had identified myself, they would never have arrested me, but I didn’t think about that. I just felt afraid and I ran.”
Mario remembers another incident that helped him understand the fear. “Once the Grupo Beta squad was called to a place where a lot of pollos [border crossers] had assembled to jump the fence,” he recalls. “A whole lot of them jumped over, and began to run. The border patrol was about a hundred yards away. There were two brothers among the pollos, and the migra got one. After they had him, his brother began to throw rocks at the agents, to get them to let him go. So then the migra began to chase the one throwing rocks. He ran to the wall and began climbing back over into Mexico. As his hand grabbed the top of the fence, and he was hanging there, the agents grabbed his legs and pulled him down. They threw him down into the dirt, and one of the agents put his foot on his neck. Then he pulled out his pistol, and shot him in the head.”
There’s not much love lost between the US Border Patrol and Tijuana cops. Border Patrol agents think the cops are all on the take from drug gangs, Mario says. And the cops think the Border Patrol is filled with agents who look down on Mexicans. He says he was mistreated by the migra himself once. He was standing with a group of pollos at the border crossing, and they were standing just at the line. A Border Patrol vehicle came by and sprayed water from a puddle on them, and they began to yell. One of the agents got out of the car, and came at them with his club drawn. He called Mario an “hijo de su madre.” “He didn’t speak Spanish well enough to say the insult properly,” he laughs. “I told him to calm down, or the people would get mad and start throwing rocks. The agent challenged me again, asking me if I wanted to make something of it.
“Later I met him at a dinner the Border Patrol gave for the agents in Grupo Beta. ‘Do you remember me?’ I asked him. You told me that I was an ‘hijo de su madre.’ The agent said he was sorry. ‘If I’d known it was you, I’d never have said anything,’ he told me. Then I told him that my boss had known I was hanging out with the pollos, I’d have been in trouble too. We both laughed.”
I once asked Mario what he thought the border should be like. “I’ve thought about that a lot,” he says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK the way it is. Every country has the right to protect its sovereignty.” At one point, the Mexican government sent him to the border with Guatemala after the Guatemalan government had asked the Mexican government to investigate many complaints of beatings and rapes. Mario says he found that these crimes were being committed by former police and border guards themselves.
“They were committing horrible abuses of people,” he says, “much worse than anything that happens here in the north. We criticize the U.S. government for sending army troops to patrol the border here, but the Mexican government sends troops to the border with Guatemala, and nobody says anything. What would happen if our roles were reversed? Lots of Americans live in Rosarito, and have houses and jobs. The government doesn’t say anything because it thinks they’re good for the economy. But what would happen if the U.S. fell into the same kind of crisis we have now in Mexico, and millions of people wanted to come here? We’d build a wall twice as tall as it is now.”