San Diego 'Hi gang! Having a wonderful time in Tijuana. Wish you were here. Write back soon." I address the postcard, a view of the Jai Alai Fronton Palace on Revolución to myself in San Diego. I take it up the steps of Tijuana's main post office, on 11th and Negrete. It has a similar feel to San Diego's downtown post office. If anything, it's larger, airier, with shorter lines, a more relaxed feeling.
The teller charges me 4 pesos and 20 centavos for the stamp, around 45 cents. The distance the card has to travel is 20 miles. The card arrives in my mailbox in San Diego...ten days later. Two thousand years ago Julius Caesar was able to get a letter from Paris to Rome (around 1000 miles) in a week. On Roman roads, on horseback. Average speed, six miles per hour. I figure that my post card averaged two miles per day. Average speed, a quarter of a mile per hour.
On the brink of the Third Millennium Mexican mail is 24 times slower than pre-Christian Roman mail. Not to jump to conclusions, I try it the other way around. Last July 26 I mailed a card in the other direction, from San Diego to Héctor, a friend in Tijuana. Ten days later (on the 5th) Héctor tells me nothing has arrived yet. What's going on here?
Personal correspondence makes up 4 percent of today's mail, so it's not just birthday cards to friends and family that are affected. It's trans-city invoices, direct-mail advertising, offers of credit cards.
"Part of the lengthy time it takes is due to us," admits Mike Cannone, communications manager for the post office's San Diego postal district, "because mail addressed to San Diego from Tijuana doesn't come directly to San Diego. A little over a year ago, the postal service was instructed to reroute all incoming Tijuana mail up to Los Angeles first, where U.S. Customs could review it. I guess they have sniffing dogs or something. Only then does it come back down here for delivery. There is an issue about drugs in the mail and contraband and so much of it getting across the border."
Nobody seems quite sure why Customs can't come to San Diego to do their inspection work. Cannone says the other problem is the difference in automation and operating budgets between the USPS and its Mexican counterpart, SEPOMEX (Servicio Postal Mexicano). "In Mexico, by and large, there's a big difference in the way they process, distribute, and deliver their mail. The carriers use bicycles. They don't have a lot of mechanization. The sorting is by hand.
"To give you an idea, there are still postal zones in Tijuana, like back in the '40s, when you had 'New York 17, New York.' They only have zones in their largest metropolitan areas, and that's as fine as you can break down the destination of mail: to a postal zone in Tijuana, for instance. And a zone could be as big as Pacific Beach.
"In the United States, we can break down a delivery location as fine as part of a block. When we're sorting the mail here at our processing center, we can group mail to even one address and sort it to the carrier, and the carrier gets the mail in delivery sequence. Their route is a set pattern, every day, because it is the most efficient line of travel. When they get the mail in the morning from our processing center, almost 90 percent of it is already sorted in delivery sequence. So they don't have to stand there at their case and sort it up as they used to.
"All of our mail-sorting is automated. Electronic optical character readers. In Mexico, they get all that mail, and very little of it has been sorted by machines. So they're virtually hand-sorting almost everything. And it takes many, many different sortations to finally get it down to the zone in Tijuana. So it's a different concept.
"Our letter carriers deliver their mail in compressed natural gas vehicles, state-of-the-art stuff. Tijuana carriers use bicycles for their routes, or they use public transportation, or their own cars. Or they walk."
Enrique López (not his real name), who works within Tijuana's Mexican postal service and asks to remain anonymous, says Cannone's analysis is substantially correct, but that U.S. post office officials are also to blame for mail delays.
"A lot of people, even within the U.S. Postal Service, don't realize there is a direct-mail service between San Diego and Tijuana," says López. "Our van and a San Diego postal truck meet every morning at around 8:00 at the border at Otay Mesa. They exchange mail. Direct. Daily! People [in Tijuana] should receive letters within two or three days. But many people -- officials themselves in post offices like, say, Escondido or El Centro -- don't know this. So they fill up their sack with mail for Mexico. They tag it, and they ship it via San Francisco or Dallas and overland to Mexico City. They don't realize they could come straight through the border here. Of course, by air, everything goes through Mexico City. If you're in [San Diego or] Oklahoma and you're sending an [airmail] letter to me in Tijuana, Oklahoma will send it direct to a central point, El Paso or Dallas, then they fly it to Mexico City airport, Benito Juárez. There, everything has to go through customs, before your letter comes back up to me in Tijuana."
The result of all this is predictable: direct post-office-delivered mail between the four million-plus people of San Diego/Tijuana is down to a relative trickle. "I imagine that we deliver probably 30 trays of letter mail a day to Tijuana that we exchange over the border," says Mike Cannone. "One 30-foot truck does it. It's not a whole lot of mail. We get more mail to San Diego's smallest community, say, Paradise Hills, each day than we send to Mexico through Tijuana each day." "Our van brings maybe three, five sacks to the border each day," says López. Both men acknowledge it's not a lot. So what happens when Tijuana, a burgeoning city of 1.5 million and growing, receives less mail from San Diego than does Coronado, a city of 20,000?