Friday, October 23

From Mexicali to Calexico

As the presidential election approaches, our columnist has taken a tour of the southwestern United States

Yves Boisvert
Yves Boisvert

(Calexico) Marco Burmel’s pickup is parked in the streaked shade of the wall. It’s already 37 degrees in Calexico. Even half the shade is welcome.

On the other side, the city that we see waving between the steel bars of the nine-meter wall is Mexicali.

Calexico, California: agricultural and goods transit village of 40,000 inhabitants.

Mexicali, Mexico: large city of 700,000 inhabitants.


The city of Calexico, California is located right next to the city of Mexicali, Mexico.

Two cities with destinies as intertwined economically, socially, culturally, personally, emotionally as their two names reversed.

When we go out, when we party, we go to Mexicali. Finally, when there is no pandemic. But without the Mexican workers, you might as well shut down Calexico. The essential workers, in this desert California as all along the border, pass from one country to another evening and morning to go to work.

“They call it the Trump wall, but it was already in the budget to replace the old one,” the border service officer tells me.

Here, the old “wall” was a sort of three-meter-high anti-vehicle barrier, in some places quite poor. For surveillance, the advantage of the new wall, apart from its height, is that you can see what is going on on the other side, since it is not full.

“At this height, and with the barbed wire, it must not pass many people…

– No, they still pass. In a shift, we can stop five, seven, ten right here. It’s been up to 60, 70 already, notice. It was three years ago, Indians, I don’t know why, just Indians …

– How are they doing at this height?

– A guy climbs up with a ladder. He cuts the barbed wire. He is leaving. He later returns with the ladder and climbs up. He tilts the ladder to our side and comes down.

– In broad daylight ?

– Yes. It’s easier to spot them electronically at night, with heat detectors. During the day, it’s too hot, it doesn’t work. We have to identify them visually. ”



A US border agency vehicle monitors illegal crossings in the shadow of the New Wall in Calexico.

On the American side, a large clearance space allows the vehicles of the Custom and Border Patrol to circulate. They are posted a few hundred meters from each other. They are waiting for something to happen …

But everything seems still on the American side, in this city crushed by the heat of the desert. The large shopping center is struggling for lack of Mexicali customers – only workers can cross the border at this time.

The air is dry and a salty smell of dust irritates your nostrils and sands your throat, but very finely. Sometimes a beige cloud hangs in a sky that would otherwise be a perfect azure. It hardly ever rains in this country.

You squint to see the horizon, but it’s not the sun that blinds you, it’s this light veil of particles that clouds the landscape.

“And what do we do when we see one passing by?”

– Well, we’re running after. ”

As much the American side is watched, as the Mexican side is organized. We’re not going to let just anyone go rock climbing. It is a private preserve of local cartels, and very profitable. It is currency, or it is exchanged for a transport of crystal meth, heroin …


The wall on the Calexico side; in the distance, Mount Signal

“The last time I checked I was told they were asking $ 3000 or even $ 4000 to arrange a passage. See the guy walking there? ”

He points to an athletic young man wearing a red tank top on Mexicali’s side.

“He does this all day. He walks at full speed along the wall. It’s a spotter. He’s checking where our pickups are. He gives the signal. Sometimes they’ll cut barbed wire in one place. We approach… They take the opportunity to go elsewhere. Other times, it’s in two places at the same time, then they go to a third, further… ”


Agent Burmel was born just on the other side of the wall. He arrived in the United States at a young age and was naturalized. He has been a member of the American agency for 13 years. He understands those who want to try their luck here, even if he disapproves of the method.

“Is your job hard?”

– At first, I found it difficult to stop these young people. But I realized that eight out of ten are criminals… The most difficult time is when we arrested two children, 8 and 10 years old. They had left Guatemala alone and had crossed Mexico. They said an uncle gave them money… They were sent to a juvenile detention center in New York… That was difficult. ”

Last year, 76,000 unaccompanied minors were arrested by US border services. This year, it was 30,000. But generally, they are teenagers …

Those arrested are mostly young men in their twenties. We take their fingerprints. We check their file. If they are not wanted and they are Mexican, they are sent back to the other side. If they come from elsewhere, they are detained until they are returned or their status determined.


The outskirts of the town of Calexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border


After a year of more than a million arrests, the 2019-2020 financial year which is coming to an end has seen the number of arrests cut by almost half. Because of the new wall higher up? Not much.

Most of the migrants came from Central America and were fleeing poverty and violence. But the US government put pressure on Mexico, which tightened its border with Guatemala. We facilitated the return of Mexican migrants to their country. The detention of asylum seekers in unsanitary prisons in Mexico was encouraged. Without forgetting the separation of the families of asylum seekers, made for the express purpose of sending a message to future refugees. The muscular message cut the migratory flow in half. The pandemic played a role, but it is difficult to assess: the deterioration of the Mexican economy has pushed more Mexicans to try their luck illegally.

“There are guys who are arrested two, three, five times,” said the patroller.

The official recidivism rate, usually around 10%, was 30% this year. In other words, one in three migrants who stopped at the border had tried at least once before.

“Through spaces, we can pass drugs, or throw them over, right?

– Obviously. It happens all the time. ”

True professionals still obviously prefer ports and truck transport, though. Last week, agents found a ton and a half of crystal meth in a medical equipment truck in San Diego.

Not a week goes by without such an arrest. It is the driver who is imprisoned, but go find out if he knows about it, or if he only had a choice …

“Have you ever arrested dangerous people?”

– Sometimes guys have a knife, you have to be careful. Last summer, we arrested a member of the Sureños, the Sur 13, a gang from Los Angeles. He had their tattoo. ”

Estimates vary, but there are around 10 million people without legal status in the United States. Studies suggest that their crime rate is considerably lower than that of the general population.

Of the 647,000 people arrested illegally in the United States last year, border authorities have listed some 20,000 convicted felons or wanted for a crime.


“Do you think your colleagues are more Trump or Biden?” ”

He smiles. Everyone knows the answer.

“I would say they’re pretty Trump. But I am not talking about politics… ”

He didn’t seem to be so much.

Trump touts the work of border officials and has visited “his” wall several times. Over the past 30 years, the number of border services officers has grown from 5,000 to 20,000, but the Trump administration has not invented anything. September 11 changed a lot of things. And militarization has been going on for a long time. In fact, the peak was reached under Obama, with 21,400 agents.

One of the arguments used to justify the construction of a higher wall and more difficult to cross is precisely the reduction of the surveillance personnel. But if I trust Agent Burmel, it will not be tomorrow the day before that we will get there.

Marco looks ahead. Another vehicle joins him. The radio is calling. They do rotations. Never stay in one place for long. We must stay alert.

For one who passes barbed wire, how many dream of ladders?

He watches the smugglers.

The smugglers are watching him.

So turns the wheel from Mexicali to Calexico to Mexicali…

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