TIJUANA, Mexico — There is a moment each evening, as the sun melts into the Pacific, when Colonia Libertad is at peace. The dimming light blurs the hilltop slum’s rough edges, camouflaging piles of trash in long shadows and making it difficult to tell that some of the tightly packed homes clinging to vertical canyon sides are made of old packing crates and cast-off plastic tarps.
The stadium lighting that towers over the corrugated metal wall marking the U.S.-Mexico border is dark, permitting residents a bird’s-eye view of Tijuana, where lights are blinking on, blanketing hills that lead toward the ocean. Farther inland, the dark shadows of mountains are sketched across the sky.
No helicopters reverberate overhead, no all-terrain vehicles drone. Even the bony guard dogs chained outside their homes respect the silence. Fathers stroll lazily behind children steering beat-up tricycles along the rutted dirt paths that serve as streets.
For a moment, residents are reminded of what it was like before the wall, when children ducked under a barbed-wire fence to play soccer in U.S. territory and returned home for dinner. When smuggling meant giving directions to migrants who simply outran border agents and melted into the crowds of tourists.
But it is only a moment.
The floodlights click on, bathing the neighborhood in blinding light. The clattering helicopters return. The smugglers arrive with their ladders, blowtorches and groups of people desperate to escape a fate similar to the one residents of Colonia Libertad long ago accepted.
As the U.S. government battles environmentalists and residents to build hundreds more miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, both sides would be well served to take a long look at Colonia Libertad - Freedom Neighborhood.
In the early 1990s, Colonia Libertad became one of the first places to coexist with the recycled corrugated-iron barrier that has become a symbol of the conflicted relationship between a First World superpower and the developing nation that lives in its shadow.
The fence didn’t stop the migrants, and it didn’t stop the drugs. It merely pared down the hopeful crowds that used to flood San Diego hillsides, diverted the drugs underground and into the mountains, and helped create a ruthless smuggling industry dedicated to beating the U.S. Border Patrol at its own game.
That’s not to say the sections of fence that have been built haven’t been successful. The barriers, combined with high-tech security measures such as surveillance cameras and ground sensors, have made getting into the United States extremely difficult. As security has increased in recent years, the number of people trying to cross has fallen dramatically.
The downside, residents on both sides say, is that the border has become a violent battleground, shattering a shared American and Mexican history that is blind to things such as fences and borders.
Once, the only barrier between Colonia Libertad and San Diego was a barbed-wire fence.
Colonia Libertad residents would squeeze between its rusty spikes, escaping the crowded barrio for the open hillsides of U.S. territory. Adults roasted meat in barbecue pits while children ran free.
“It used to be fun, because we’d cross and play soccer or baseball or volleyball,” says Jaime Boites, 35, whose home is steps from the border. “Nobody cared. When we were done, we’d just go back to our houses in Mexico.”
U.S. Border Patrol agents left the picnickers alone. Sometimes they even strolled over and shared a taco.
They were more concerned with the other side of Colonia Libertad, the smugglers who used the neighborhood as a staging ground for vanloads of people or drugs or some other kind of contraband that the gringos legally didn’t want but were always willing to buy.
It wasn’t hard to get to the United States, which had few agents and little security. Sometimes, migrants gathered at the border in large groups to rush past outnumbered guards, like a crude game of sharks and minnows. Others packed into vans that raced drugs or people across the hills.
“Back then, there used to be vans going through U.S. territory, just like nothing,” Mr. Boites said. “Vans full of people, any time of day.”
Mr. Boites was 8 when one van struck and killed a 5-year-old girl.
That was the main reason the wall went up: to stop the vehicles.
When the first stretch of wall went up, made of material recycled from landing strips left over from the Vietnam War, Mr. Boites was a teenager living in San Diego. Back at his family home, the fence cut off the view of the United States.
Little changed in Colonia Libertad. Smugglers cut holes in the fence and drove their vans through. Migrants scrambled over the wall, using the corrugated ridges like the steps of a ladder.
To people in Colonia Libertad, however, it was still a slap in the face, proof the gringos weren’t willing to acknowledge that they needed Mexicans to cut their lawns and take care of their children.
“Sometimes. we get the feeling that we aren’t wanted over there,” Mr. Boites said, gazing at the graffiti-covered wall.
Americans saw the fence as a necessity because millions of illegal aliens and tons of illegal drugs were streaming into their cities.
However, it had consequences they never intended: Seasonal workers unable to go back and forth easily built permanent lives north of the border. Migrants were pushed into the searing desert of Arizona, and more than 1,600 have died, often of thirst and exposure.
In Tijuana, the United States kept increasing security, using the area to test new anti-smuggling methods and expanding the ones that worked. It added a second layer of fencing at some points, redesigning each barrier to make it more difficult to overcome.
Smugglers responded by charging migrants more money and becoming more violent. They used slingshots to launch rocks, bottles, nail-studded planks and Molotov cocktails. Sometimes, they wanted to hurt border agents, but mostly they were trying to create diversions while they moved people or drugs across at another point.
Since last October, there have been 340 assaults on Border Patrol agents patrolling the California border. The Border Patrol says it doesn’t know whether any agents were injured in those attacks.
High-powered cameras look in every direction from atop towering poles. Ground sensors let agents know when someone is moving through the fields.
“We’ve got bodies,” a voice crackles over James Jacques’ walkie-talkie.
In the distance, a few people dressed in black jump from lightweight handmade ladders they used to scale the second layer of fencing. They run into a ditch, but agents catch them within seconds. A van pulls up, and they are loaded inside to be driven back to Mexico.
Those are the easy ones. Mr. Jacques said many smugglers have become violent, once stringing a nearly invisible wire across a path to knock agents off all-terrain vehicles. One took out a camera tower with a shotgun.
“Before, they wouldn’t fight back if caught,” Mr. Jacques said. “Now it’s military-style tactics.”
He defends the use of tear gas and pepper balls, saying the alternative is worse.
Studying Colonia Libertad through binoculars, Mr. Jacques sees not a neighborhood of families, but a smugglers’ den.
“That’s a lookout tower,” he said, pointing to a small room built on top of a house. “You’ll see them all along the border.”