"Two times a week Willie takes a friend’s truck to get eggs up in Boulevard. The local sheriff, who knows the truck, knows Willie, pulls Willie over to search an uncovered, open truck with ten trays of eggs in it."
  • "Two times a week Willie takes a friend’s truck to get eggs up in Boulevard. The local sheriff, who knows the truck, knows Willie, pulls Willie over to search an uncovered, open truck with ten trays of eggs in it."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Jacumba, California, sits at 4000 feet just east of the Tecate Divide, 90 minutes from San Diego on I-8, three miles shy of the Imperial County line. At first sight, the town of 440 appears little changed since the 1940s. The two-block downtown accommodates two family-owned grocery stores, a gift shop, health center, insurance agency, real estate office, auto-repair shop, and motel. The village is without fast foods or slap-up Southwestern mini-marts. Their absence adds a feeling of frontier, of Old California, of less orderly times.

Kids walking home from school, Jacumé. Citizens of each country have been free to cross the border whenever they wished. Mexicans have gone north to pick up their mail at the Jacumba Post Office, shop, find casual work.

Kids walking home from school, Jacumé. Citizens of each country have been free to cross the border whenever they wished. Mexicans have gone north to pick up their mail at the Jacumba Post Office, shop, find casual work.

Jacumba is on the border, by that I mean, on the border. A five-minute walk from downtown takes the traveler to the house of Herb Naanke, resident of Baja California Norte, Mexico. Two miles farther south is the village of Jacumé, Jacumba’s twin. Jacumé is a Mexican community of 400 built at the end of a dirt road seven miles off the Tijuana-Mexicali highway.

Bob Mitchel: "People around here aren’t concerned about illegals. They’re concerned about being harassed by all these cops every place and everywhere they go.”

Bob Mitchel: "People around here aren’t concerned about illegals. They’re concerned about being harassed by all these cops every place and everywhere they go.”

Since both towns are largely unnoticed by their respective countries, citizens of each have been free to cross the border whenever they wished. Mexicans have gone north to pick up their mail at the Jacumba Post Office, shop, find casual work, or, if they have legal papers, seek regular jobs. Fewer Americans have walked south, but at least a dozen have regularly hiked over to Jacumé to visit friends, attend weddings, funerals, coming out parties, and village fiestas. Two Jacumba residents own homes in Jacumé. This informality has gone on for generations.

And then they built a fence.

At least a dozen Americans have regularly hiked over to Jacumé to visit friends, attend weddings, funerals, coming out parties, and village fiestas.

At least a dozen Americans have regularly hiked over to Jacumé to visit friends, attend weddings, funerals, coming out parties, and village fiestas.

Robert Mitchell is a 20-year resident of Jacumba and publisher of the weekly newspaper. The Plain Speaker. We are sitting in the dining room of his home. The domicile is built around indigenous, massive, milky white boulders. The immense rocks protrude into the kitchen, hallways bedrooms and living room. The house is set on the peak of a ridge that runs north-south overlooking the town and valley. Nowadays the dwelling also overlooks the new border fence, designed according to the WWII -internment-camp school of architecture. I should add that I’ve known Bob for eight years and am a regular visitor to the town.

Old spa at Jacumba hot springs. Out back are two spring-fed pools that are naturally heated at 90 degrees.

Old spa at Jacumba hot springs. Out back are two spring-fed pools that are naturally heated at 90 degrees.

Mitchell is in his 50s five feet ten inches 150 pounds, sports a charcoal-colored stubble of a beard three days a week. The other four days his countenance is clean shaven and as scarlet as a rooster’s comb. Bob is trim, has a respectable head of gray-black hair and fierce brown eyes. He comes at you with the attitude of a 23-year-old male looking for a fight, a woman, or a job. One is not entirely sure which one comes first.

“They built the fence here allegedly to stop cars, but they built the fence on the hilltop in a totally rocky terrain. "

“They built the fence here allegedly to stop cars, but they built the fence on the hilltop in a totally rocky terrain. "

Evening is an hour away. Bob, shirtless, leans into an oak dining-room chair, his bare back turned toward his terrace, swimming pool, guest house, and, farther down the hill, the village of Jacumba. Mitchell takes a grip on a bottle of Miller beer, launches a coconspirator’s grin. “Here’s the chronology of the thing. We had a few hundred people coming across the border in this area. Then the San Diego fence went in. As the fence was completed to the west, in the San Ysidro area, that forced a lot of traffic into East County.

Border fence construction, Jacumba, April 1996. "It was, ‘Oh, no, we have to put in a fence, we’re in the fence business. What will happen if we don’t have a fence?’"

Border fence construction, Jacumba, April 1996. "It was, ‘Oh, no, we have to put in a fence, we’re in the fence business. What will happen if we don’t have a fence?’"

“They built the fence here allegedly to stop cars, but they built the fence on the hilltop in a totally rocky terrain. The fence portion [made of surplus landing mats] was built in a field of boulders on the hillside. No car ever drove across there in a hundred years.”

Mitchell rolls his eyes. “Now, this big, ugly, high fence that is supposed to do all this stuff sits up there with the boulders and is nothing other than an eyesore. All the property owners have been abused. This whole community has been abused, and furthermore, these guys didn’t even do an environmental impact study before they built the damn thing.”

I look out mahogany double doors to Bob’s swimming pool and observe the pink reflection of the setting sun. “So, they just rolled out here and began building the fence?”

“Yeah, and that was all Pete Wilson.” Mitchell snorts. “Federal money didn’t build this fence. That was Wilson’s and Duncan Hunter’s personal wet dream. You recall the last election when Hunter was getting beat and he had all those overdrafts in the bank and so on. Some little old lady Democrat from school, a retired grandmother, almost kicked his butt. That was when Wilson suddenly got laryngitis, because he was too short to be president. The two of them were in trouble. Wilson wasn’t going to get reelected and Hunter was on the edge, so they invented the Invasion of the Mexicans to get their asses back in office.

“But, they didn’t have any money to build the fence. So, Hunter gets this bill pushed through Congress, but Congress didn’t allocate any funds. ‘Well, fucking A, we’re getting closer to election time and we have to have a physical demonstration that we saved the voters from the Invasion of the Mexicans.' So, they sit around and shoot the shit for a minute and figure out, ‘Well, Jesus, Wilson’s got the National Guard. He owns those guys. He can make them do anything he wants. He can make them build fences.’ And they get all this surplus landing track, they get the National Guard, and they go ahead and build the fence. There was never any allocation of funds from Congress for that fence.”

Mitchell stops for a breath. I break in, “Hold it, Hoss. Portions of the Guard were federalized and the money..."

“That came later, that was a year after they started the fence.” Mitchell sails on. “So, they got the Guard in here, they got a thing called JTF6. JTF6 stands for Joint Task Force 6 — it’s operated by some general out of El Paso, Texas. He coordinates the National Guard, Army troops, DEA, CIA, ING, PCP; whatever fucking three-letter thing you can think of, we got it here.

“The absurdity of this particular section of fence and the blighting of this area,” Mitchell shakes his owl head, “it’s just offensive what they’ve done. The fence is only a mile long, and it’s open on both ends!”

This time I shake my head. “The entire valley is open. The barrier fence on the valley floor consists of three strands of wire attached to wooden posts, which are, all of what, four feet high?”

“They built the fence on the floodplain.” Mitchell looks up at the ceiling in wonderment. “Instead of realizing the obvious and not putting the fence in, it was, ‘Oh, no, we have to put in a fence, we’re in the fence business. What will happen if we don’t have a fence?’ So, people who live here go through months of ugliness, and the military, and the noise, and the pollution, and now when the wind blows it picks up the dirt on the road they created and the dust blights the whole town.”

Two women and a man walk through the dining room, slip out double doors on their way to the swimming pool. Mitchell continues. “The guy who runs things out here, Dierkop, he’s been here for years. He’s a pretty good guy, understands the duality of this situation, vis-à-vis Jacumé. Of course, the entire problem, in my opinion, is density. When you put that much law enforcement into a community — a nice little hamlet — but when you move beyond the local-agent reality, and start bringing in trainees, you’ve got problems.

“A few weeks ago they brought in 55 border guys from San Ysidro. And these guys are real cowboys. We’re talking gung ho. We got a lot of testosterone, we got some people with seriously questionable psychological profiles carrying badges and guns. Having said that, in all fairness, the substantial majority of these guys are good guys, they’re hardworking and do their jobs. But there is a significant fraction who are poorly trained, seriously overaggressive, and regularly engage in unacceptable to felonious behavior under the cover of a badge.”

“Like what?” I look out the patio window, see no felonies occurring in the valley; in fact, I see no movement at all.

“The problem is the number of cops placed here and the lack of training and lack of orientation on who is a local and who isn’t. Every one of these agencies has a subagency: their drug departments. Those guys are really gung ho. And they are outrageous in their behavior. There have been incidents such as pulling citizens over while knowing full well they were not Mexican. Then, citizens were pulled out of their car and handcuffed. One officer shoved a resident against his car while telling another officer, ‘If that guy moves, shoot him.’ These agents have applied handcuffs to the extent that tissue and nerve damage occurred. The citizen had to go to the hospital. And the cops did not even apologize when they found nothing.”

A young woman sets a plate of salami, cheese, ham, and wheat crackers on the dining-room table. I mumble, “Thanks,” and reach for the salami. “This is the ’90s. Apologies can be construed as an admission of guilt. Everybody is a lawyer.”

The entrance of food does not interrupt Mitchell’s train of thought. “They speed, follow too close, and run up behind cars. Running up behind cars is the biggest one. Every person in this town has complained. These guys will zoom within five feet of your bumper, stay on your ass, and try to see if you’re going to do something wrong. They do this even when they’ve clearly identified that there isn’t a Mexican person in the car. Their authority to stop and search and seize and so on has to have some reasonable cause. But they operate as if they can do any damn thing they want.”

“This is a surprise?” I get up and walk down three steps into the kitchen, retrieve two beers from the refrigerator.

Mitchell calls out. “Look, the sheriff s department has a drug division, and there's another group called the ‘Interdiction Guys.’ ”

I pause for a moment and admire the four-foot boulder that forms part of the wall next to the stove. “Who owns the Interdiction Guys?”

“They’re part of the sheriff and Border Patrol inter-joint-task program.” Mitchell laughs. “And they have DA guys too. And then we have the Army and the National Guard, who consistently go on private property without authority. They trample in and set up lookout stations. In one instance a National Guard unit, who had already been warned, in writing, who had already been kicked off the property, reappeared in the same place. A local couple was hiking with their dog. They had permission from the property owner to be on the property. They ran across these Guard guys sitting in their garbage and cigarette butts. The Guard guys chamber and go down on them, go crazy on them. The couple’s dog is barking and the Guard threatened to shoot the dog for giving away their lookout place.

“Willie, a grocer in town, he’s lived here, I don’t know, 50 years. Two times a week he takes a friend’s truck to get eggs up in Boulevard. The local sheriff, who knows the truck, knows Willie, pulls Willie over to search an uncovered, open truck with ten trays of eggs in it. And who has the sheriff got with him in his car? One of the interdiction, secret service, undercover, CIA, DIA, INC, drug guys.”

I place a beer before Mitchell and grab three crackers from the plate. Bob proceeds, “There was no probable cause for that stop. To the contrary, the sheriff knew full well that Willie was not a smuggler, was not engaged in smuggling, was a local citizen, and a merchant in Jacumba for 50 years. You can’t stop people because they’re driving down Old Highway 80.

“Now, the cops do have some capacities. If you look Hispanic, they’ll stop you. If you’ve got an old car — this is all racist-orientated shit — basically, if you got anything that makes you look like a Mexican, they’ll stop you. But the thing is, they stop everybody. If it’s moving they’re stopping it, if that’s what they feel like doing at the moment. It’s like they just got out of school and were given this valley to flex their muscles in.”

“So, you got the Army, the National Guard…

“Also, we have a barrage from the air. I mean, we have helicopters flying over all the time. They have a helicopter based right over that hill,” Mitchell turns in his chair and points east. “They have a sheriffs department helicopter, a border department helicopter, DEA helicopter. Army helicopters, and all these fuckers are all flying under the 500-foot ceiling. Again, in all fairness, Dierkop, who runs this thing, and Spanky, the local guy, are cool guys. But they are being buried by trainees, people coming in from other areas.”

Outside, the last purple tendrils of light fade to black. “Well, so what. You got too many cops in River City. It’s a pain in the ass. What else is new?”

Mitchell frowns. “Our illegal-immigrant traffic has gone down 80 percent in the last 60 days.”

“Because?”

“Because of the lookout. [Just below Mitchell’s house, on the valley floor, is the Jacumba baseball field. A few yards south of the field is an eruption of earth, a mound that is approximately 50 feet high.] The Border Patrol started to park on the mound, and in three weeks the traffic was down 80 percent.”

“And that’s because of the lookout?”

Mitchell moves his right arm in a large circle. “The lookout there. The lookout there. The lookout there. Quote-unquote, ‘We see everything.’ That’s from the head of the Border Patrol.”

“Well, hell, Bob, there you go. Things are great, cotton is high, children dance underneath lawn sprinklers, dogs chase butterflies, there’s a chicken in every pot, and the Border Patrol has run off all them Mexicans.”

Mitchell grunts. “No, that’s not the point. This is still a training area. They get these kids out of Texas, just out of Border School College. We get Imperial County sheriffs and Imperial County drug agents up here. They’re part of the joint cooperative venture program. A lot of these guys are in unmarked vehicles, they wear camouflage. I’ve been personally stopped. I’ve had a cop vehicle come up my ass, nearly ride over me, blinking his lights. I pull over, the guy gets out, totally camouflaged, asking me for ID. And he’s a local. I asked him, ‘What are you doing in camouflage? How do you think that impacts on the citizens of this town? You’re supposed to be our local sheriff, the guy that’s supposed to be protecting us, and you look like a goddamn warrior raider coming in here to kill people.’ ”

“What did he say?” I sadly note that there is no more salami.

“ ‘We got to get our job done.’ The net result of this density, this cowboy behavior, this lack of familiarity with the locals, and the abuse that they’re suffering, is contrasted by the fact that when there is something going on you can never get a cop here. There was a car stolen out of the spa’s (Jacumba Hot Springs Spa) parking lot the other night. They call'd the police and the cops said, ‘We don’t want to wake up a sheriff. Is it an emergency?’ ”

I secure the last two pieces of cheese. “How long have you been overrun by cops?”

“Three, four months. Over the last 60 days they’ve doubled the number of personnel in the area. Plus, they bring in these special units on weekends. You’ll have sheriffs, sheriff drug departments, Border Patrol, Border Patrol drug division, DEA, Imperial County Sheriffs, Imperial County Sheriffs drug division, interdiction, the Army, the helicopters...”

Mitchell interrupts himself. “It’s very quiet now. They’ll tell you it’s quiet because they put all these agents out here. That’s horseshit. It’s quiet because nobody is coming across. They’re not coming across because of that simple move of putting a lookout on the mound down there. That made crossing here inconvenient. So, now the activity has moved east of Jacumba.

That’s a war zone out there.” Well, yeah, makes sense, put a Border Patrol Bronco on a mound 100 yards from the border and people won’t cross in that spot. Happens every time. I get it. Finding it more difficult to appear interested I respond, “But, the crossings are down dramatically?”

“Just these two miles.”

“So, I assume the Border Patrol harassment is down too?”

One plus one equals two.

“Nooo, don’t you understand?” Mitchell is genuinely annoyed. 'That’s the whole point. People around here aren’t concerned about illegals. They’re concerned about being harassed by all these cops every place and everywhere they go.”

Ding-ding. I see the problem. It’s one thing to behold cops on the street, quite another when they move next door, unpack binoculars, and take notes while you make breakfast. Mitchell has gained my focus. “And that’s still happening?”

“Oh yeah. Up, up, up. That’s the whole thing. Our border traffic went down six weeks ago, but we keep getting more and more cops. They’re all over. I mean, every place you go you’re going to be jumped. Probably, right now, there has got to be at least 50 cops — between the DEA, Border Patrol, druggie this, druggie that, whatever—within a quarter-mile radius of this house.”

I wince.

“It would take the cops little time to put every local's license plate in their computers. It would take a couple of days of orientation to acquaint them with what’s going on locally. What happened to the concept of community policing? When we had resident guys here it was different. But now they’re bringing in people from outside the area and I’m not talking about 1 or 2 people. I’m talking about 50, 60, 100, 200 people.”

Early next morning I slip out the back door of Bob’s house. The scent of morning dew sinks deep into my flaring nostrils. Keeping low to the ground, I run from bush to boulder to tree all the way into town.

Actually, that’s not true, but I definitely wore new eyes as I drove to meet Richard Spencer. The “drive" can be measured in yards, from Bob’s house down a quarter-mile driveway/dirt road to Old Highway 80, turn right, travel four blocks, turn left, and continue three blocks. Along the way I saw four Border Patrol vehicles.

Richard Spencer is a 12-year resident of the Jacumba- Jacumé metroplex. He is one of the Americans who owns a home in the Mexican village. Nowadays, he lives on both sides of the border, spending a few nights a week in Mexico and a few in Jacumba.

Spencer is in his mid-70s perhaps five feet six inches tall, 150 pounds. He has close-cropped gray hair, a tanned, egg-shaped face, and green eyes. We sit on green metal lawn chairs set on a friend’s front yard. The morning’s oblique sunshine makes my eyes squint, the air is fresh and a touch too cool for comfort. I sip black coffee out of a to-go cup. “What’s the deal with all the Border Patrol and cops?”

Spencer thinks for a moment. “This may be inaccurate, but I was told that you can come straight from high school and go into their academy or whatever and become a Border Patrol agent. These guys are relatively young guys, just good old American boys. And they’re from all over.

“The problem, as I see it, is that the man who runs the Border Patrol here, like most bureaucrats, doesn’t keep his eye on the Kill. There’s no indoctrination, nobody takes these new agents around and says, ‘Here’s Jacumba, and here’s the rundown on who’s who.’ ” Richard sighs, “When people come over from Jacumé to get their mail you might as well let them get it. They’re not into drugs.”

A man in a Ford truck drives by and waves at as. “What about the density of law enforcement in town?”

“I don’t think we’re being overrun by the Border Patrol. I think we’re being overrun by Duncan Hunter. He’s determined to light up the border and keep this thing going.” Richard brushes a fly from his shoulder. “For a while we had National Guard in here doing surveillance, doing stuff at night. My friends Kirk and Cynthia were stopped. They were walking their dogs and the Guard pulled guns on Kirk. We have drug-enforcement agents, Border Patrol, sheriffs, and undercover drug-enforcement teams.” Spencer shrugs. “Oh, it is crazy. The problem is, I don’t think there’s any real administrative direction, any coordination between all these agencies.”

I sip coffee and wave back at the truck. “So, is the Border Patrol out of control?”

“I think with a little direction the Border Patrol is all right. But you got to remember the whole point of having a Border Patrol here is so politicians can say, ‘Boy, we’ve beefed up the border.’ Actually, all these agents have little effect on the traffic; they’re stopping neither drugs nor so-called illegals. All they do is drive around. They drive up and down the border looking for tracks.”

“What kind of volume are we talking about?" The red truck turns into a nearby driveway. “How many illegals cross?”

“I would guess, from walking around town, every week I’ll see a total of 50.”

“That’s not many.”

“That’s just here in town, and a lot of them make it. I was sitting up on the rocks at the end of town yesterday, and there was a group that had already gotten across. A car pulled up and stopped right in the middle of Old Highway 80, picked them up, and drove off.”

The red-truck guy climbs out of his cab and is greeted by a woman standing outside the kitchen door. The woman bellows, “Where the hell have you been?”

Busted. Another good morning gone to hell. I turn back to Spencer, who is enjoying the scene, and remark, “I see the Border Patrol has installed a lookout next to the baseball field.”

“What the Border Patrol does is sit on that hill and look down at the fence. Everybody on the other side knows that’s happening so they just go up a mile and cross there. They may come to Jacumba and put a fence up, they may do a double fence, they may do all this kind of stuff and it’s not going to have any effect People will cross somewhere else. It’s going to keep on depending on the economy of Mexico.

“There’s a guy named Dierkop who’s head of the Border Patrol out here. If Dierkop was doing his job, he’d see to it that his guys were indoctrinated as to what’s what. The way it is, they have to learn on their own. I’ve had a number of new agents stop and chat with me. I ask them where they’re from and so on. They’re from every place but here. One agent was from the state of Maine. I asked him. What do you think of it here?’ He said, ‘I didn’t think there was any place like this on earth.’ ”

The Jacumba Hot Springs Spa is the only motel in town, but it’s a great deal more than that. The roadhouse is the social club and meeting place of Jacumba Valley. Felix and Lisa Bachmeier arrived from Chicago 11 years ago, bought the property, and have been fine-tuning ever since. The motel consists of 24 rooms. Out back are two spring-fed pools that are naturally heated at 90 degrees. Tucked to the east side of the entrance is an outside patio and small restaurant. The spa’s cuisine is inexpensive, generous, and carries my highest accolade, to wit: I’ve never had a meal that tasted like restaurant food.

The spa is also home to the only bar in town, albeit a beer one. People arrive in the morning for newspaper and breakfast, return in the late afternoon for a beer and a chat. You can arrive most any time of the day, sit for an hour, and say hello to a good portion of town.

Right now, it’s 2:15 in the afternoon. I’ve finished lunch with Robert Mitchell and am led into the bar to meet Leroy Hendricks. I’m told Hendricks was in the National Guard and worked on a crew that built the border fence in Jacumba.

Hendricks is 35 years old, lanky, I estimate 190 pounds spread evenly over six feet three inches of human. He has military-trimmed black hair, and, using that as a measure, is in need of a haircut. His face is clean shaven and set with an expression of indistinct need. The feeling I have is that he wants something from me but isn’t precisely sure what that something is. Hendricks wears standard mountain garb: tennis shoes, jeans, and a checkered long-sleeved shirt. With him is a middle-aged blond woman, five foot seven, say, 15 percent overweight. Her accent is British. Mitchell introduces me around, announces he has some work to do back at his house, and departs.

Hendricks tells me he has been in the military for 12 years and made a guest appearance in the Persian Gulf War. For him, the military consists of the soldiering in National Guard interspersed with periods of active duty in the Army. I ask, “When did you come here to build the fence?”

“Ninety-six. February.” “Were you in the Army or National Guard when you arrived?”

“Both. I was activated. I volunteered to be activated.”

I motion to the bar keep, order Hendricks and his companion a round of beer. “Where was your home unit?”

“Sacramento.”

Sacramento seems a long, long way from here. “How did that work? Did you walk into a Guard meeting one day and somebody told you, ‘You’re activated. Go build a border fence in some obscure village a hundred miles east of Tijuana’?”

“No. We were laterally transferred from state activity to federal active duty. ‘ADSW,’ they call it. Active Duty Special Work. You get federalized, you’re subject to the UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice], and if you do anything wrong it reflects on your DD-214 [separation papers].” Hendricks takes a gulp of beer and smacks his lips.

I instantly decide to avoid ADSW, UCMJ, and DD-214. “Where did you stay when you got down here?”

“In Campo. I rented an apartment with a friend. I had a PCS [Permanent Change of Station], which means they authorize you and your whole family to move. They pay for it.”

I add PCS to the list. “How many people were in your National Guard-Army group?”

“At that time, about a hundred. Now it’s grown. The number goes up and down. They gave us six months’ active duty at first, from February to September of ’96. Then they said, ‘Okay, we got the funding dear/ and we got an extension. Like I said, the manpower goes up and down. It’s based on available funds.” “What, exactly, did you do?”

“I operated heavy equipment, did some welding.”

The woman interjects, “He’s a very good welder.”

Eyes forward, I march on. “Was your job solely to build the border fence?”

“The fence and the barrier. The barrier is made out of railroad track. The wooden track is used as poles, and they’re set four feet apart. What we built in Jacumba was an open barrier and fence, and then we continued to the next valley and built an open barrier only.”

The woman, who has been wiggling on her chair in impatience, breaks in. “The Army fired him. He’s got two kids and he’s about to be evicted. He’s a skilled construction worker. There’s no work around here.” Hendricks looks down at his beer bottle, sadly. I turn to the woman and gravely mumble, “I see,” then turn back to Hendricks. “How long did it take to build the fence in Jacumba?”

“Four months. February of ’96 to about June.”

“What did people in your outfit think about it? It’s not like the fence you built is going to stop anyone. Sure, there’s a ten-foot fence [made of surplus landing mats] up the side of that hill, in a field of boulders, but in the valley there is no fence at all, just post and wire.”

“The EPA had their fingers in that. They said we couldn’t build a closed fence in the valley, we’d cut off the animal migration.”

One finds common sense in the oddest places. “Didn’t you guys look at what you were doing and say to yourselves, ‘This is ridiculous’?”

“Oh yeah, the guys said that all the time. But it’s the job. And it’s better to do some work than do nothing. Also, the work of building the fence is a completely different aspect of the question. You lose sight of all the political issues. To be honest with you, people were enthusiastic about it. Once you got to the work aspect, everybody was enthusiastic about their work.”

“He worked in El Centro in 120-degree heat.” The woman is sputtering. “It was unsafe. They didn’t have safety equipment. He worked his butt off for those people.”

Hendricks smiles weakly. I order a beer for myself. “How about the officers? Did they think it was a joke?”

“The captain was gung ho about it. I thought he was crazy.” I pause for a long moment and visualize Hendricks working a jackhammer, digging holes out of boulders in Westfuck, California. I let the vision soak in. “Well, what the hell, was it a good gig?”

Hendricks grins. “Yeah. Oh yeah.”

“What was your rank?”

“Sergeant, E-5.”

“How much money did you make when you were building the fence?”

“Twenty-six hundred a month.”

“Throw in a housing allowance, dependents’ allowance, and free food. That’s not a bad wage.”

Hendricks nods his head. “It’s reasonable, but at times we would work 21 days straight, nonstop, right through the weekends.”

Yes, sir, got to get that fence up. It’s a long way to Brownsville. “Did you work on the fence anywhere else besides Jacumba?”

“Five of us that worked in Calexico. The fence was already built, but it was not fully welded, so we tacked and welded everything down so it wouldn’t fall apart. See, the panels in Calexico are different than the ones we used here. In Calexico, the panels are turned vertically. So, it’s like a sheer wall and there’s nothing, no little grooves, for your toes to stand on. The panels are 12 feet high, so you get the full length of the panel compared to the ones out here, which are only 10 feet high, because they are turned horizontally.”

Details are the most interesting part of every job. “Let’s go back to when you were building out here. What was the daily routine? How was the fence actually built?”

“We had seven guys on the crew. The material is landing mats, the one’s they use to build airfields in swampy terrain. They’re all surplus. We latch three mats together and run them horizontally. That, basically, is the fence. We had railroad track that we used for the open barrier. We actually went and pulled up 12 miles of railroad tracks from Camp Pendleton. We knocked that out in two, three weeks.” Hendricks beams.

“So, you’re out building border fences for a year and a half, making decent money, building your pension, and nobody’s shooting at you.” I glance over to the woman and back to Hendricks. “What happened to you and the Army?”

“I had a little incident. One morning I was trying to beat my crew to the job site. I drove the back way. I wasn’t too familiar with the roads in the Calexico-EI Centro area. They have these huge agricultural fields and the roads go through them, sometimes they T and deadend. I came to a T, I saw the stop sign. I was really blasting because I wanted to surprise the guys. I hit the brakes, and the truck tipped over. I ended up waiting in a water canal for the guys to come and get me.” Hendricks smiles. “Nothing happened to me, and the truck only got a little dent. In fact, they’re still using the truck today.”

I look into sad brown eyes. “When was this?”

“Four months ago. It took them two months before they came to me and said, ‘You’re fired.’ See, the thing about building the fence, it was voluntary active duty. They can let you go any time they want. You get an honorable discharge, nothing follows you, or so they' claim. But they do railroad you. They tell you, ‘This is what we’re going to do, you either leave voluntarily or we’ll throw you out.

“But you’re still in the National Guard?”

“Yeah, I’m off active duty and back in the Guard.”

“And you’re no longer making $2600 a month.”

Hendricks grunts. “No.” The woman leans over the table. “He’s too broke to leave Campo. He doesn’t have the gas money to leave, not to mention first and last months’ rent somewhere else. This man has two kids and they’re out of food. He can’t get a job around here. He’s a qualified welder, and there’s no work. He’s going down to El Cajon tomorrow and apply for welfare.”

Hendricks adds, “I thought the military was supposed to take care of me.”

Charles Dierkop’s stats read as you would expect. He’s 47 years old, six feet in height, 205 pounds, with blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. He’s married and has one 11 -year-old son. He has been with the Border Patrol for 24 years and is currently patrol agent in charge of the Campo Station, which means he runs the border from Tecate to the Imperial County line. Thirty-two miles in all.

Dierkop and I have been playing a serious game of telephone tag for a month. There have been days when I have repeatedly dialed his office and received busy signals. Then, one morning in January I reach a secretary and leave yet another message asking Dierkop to call. Three hours later my phone rings and I hear, “This is Charles Dierkop.”

I am flabbergasted, unbelieving, and just manage to sputter, “Let’s see, you oversee everything from the Imperial County to Tecate. How many people are working for you?”

“I’ve got them spread all over the place. There are 270 agents in the district.”

“How many illegals are you catching?”

“That fluctuates an awful lot. Last year at this time, we’d catch from three to five hundred a day. Now we’re catching under a hundred a day.”

That matches what Mitchell said. “Where have the illegals gone?”

“They’ve moved to El Centro, and of course we’re getting hit hard in the Tucson area. Their numbers are going up over there, and our numbers are coming down. Illegals are taking the path of least resistance.”

Well, yeah, so does everybody else. “I look at that fence across from Jacumba and it strikes me as ludicrous. The actual fence is built up in the boulders where nobody can drive through.” Dierkop laughs. “We’ve logged hundreds of drive-throughs in those boulder areas.” I visualize that hilltop of boulders. Hard to believe somebody’s Mustang ever drove through there. Did I walk every meter? No. “How about the post-and-wire fence on the valley floor — what is the purpose of that?”

“That’s a barrier fence. If you take a look, it’s made out of railroad ties, and that’s to keep vehicles from coming through. You can’t put a steel fence up at that point due to environmental problems and water, that area is a floodplain. But, even a barrier fence makes it a lot more difficult for illegals and helps funnel the traffic to certain locations, which, of course, we key on with intrusion devices.”

I’d like an intrusion device for my home. Please. “People I’ve talked to in Jacumba complain about the overwhelming presence of Border Patrol, San Diego Sheriffs Department, Imperial County Sheriffs Department, DEA, undercover drug teams, and more.”

“There are no Imperial County sheriffs working up here.”

“No undercover drug agents?”

“No, no. If they did that they’d surely go through us. Now, the San Diego Sheriff s Department has officers that they’ve added and we’ve added new agents. You can’t have it both ways. A lot of people want more Border Patrol presence. Other people give me the attitude that they feel like they’re living in a police state. Our intent is to drive the illegal traffic out of here and get things back to a normal level, like it was before Operation Gatekeeper.”

“What was it like before Gatekeeper?”

“Well, if you’re talking about the Jacumba-Boulevard area, it was very slow, they were probably catching a couple thousand a year, last year they caught 25,000.”

Over the last ten years, the Border Patrol has provided statistics indicating the percentage of illegal aliens captured. The numbers range from 1 out of 10 to 1 out of 4. That is, of every 20 aliens who cross illegally, the Border Patrol will catch 2, or, on the high end, 5. In either case, whether it was 100,000 or 250,000 illegals who crossed in the Jacumba-Boulevard sector last year, that’s a phenomenal number. “What’s the number this year?”

“Well, the year has just begun, but the numbers are already down 30 percent over last month and the month before. This time of year is our slowest, we don’t know what kind of volume we’ll be faced with yet. I’m assuming and hoping that our operational plans are going to work and we’re going to keep pushing these people farther to the east, making it continually more difficult for aliens to come over in this area. We’ve pushed them out of the San Diego area and that was something we’ve tried to do for 20 years. We finally got the resources to do it, and we did it.”

I hear a note of bureaucratic pride. “What is the policy, formal or informal, about people walking back and forth from Jacumé?”

“First of all, it’s not a legal place to cross. In years past we did not have the resources to deal with an alien coming over for a loaf of bread.”

“ How about the other way around? I know at least two Americans who own houses in Jacumé...”

“We’re going to stop that. As a matter of fact, we’ve ordered signs that will be posted on the border formally warning people. And we’re going to have a news blitz to let people know that we’re going to start taking action on those who are crossing the border now that we have the resources to do so.”

We build fences because we’re in the fence-building business. “What is the reason for that? People have gone back and forth for generations without a big disturbance, why...”

“Well, stop and look at it this way. The alien traffic has moved out here. I’ve got all these smugglers hanging out in Jacumé. That created a real big problem. We have people who live in Jacumé who have been smuggling for years. With our intel gathering we do know who lives in Jacumé, who is involved in narcotics and alien smuggling. It’s no secret. I now have enough agents to post the border, and we’re going to stop people.”

“I saw a Border Patrol Bronco parked on the hill south of the ball field in Jacumba. Is that what you mean by posted agents?” “That’s one spot. We have another place further to the west behind Mr. Mitchell's property, and we’re going to put another agent in between. Everybody that comes over that fence is going to be arrested. Little by little we are educating them.” “Again, how about the Americans who cross going south?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m working with the Customs attorneys right now on that. That’s not going to be allowed. It’s not a legal place to cross the border. As far as what sanctions we’re going to place on citizens who still want to go back and forth, that’s something for the attorneys to decide.

“Do you want an agent out there questioning a U.S. citizen when he’s got 25 aliens running right behind the U.S. citizen? That’s the way it’s been. We haven’t had the problem with U.S. citizens crossing back and forth, but now the area has gotten so hot with traffic of all types.”

“But, you said a few minutes ago that the area had quieted down and aliens were moving to El Centro.” We build fences because were in the fence-building business.

“Yeah, but they’re still moving through the area. I mean, that’s the area that we still don’t have under control. Quite frankly, U.S. citizens are going to have to find another method to go down to Jacumé. Now, the legal way to do it would be to...

“...go through Tecate.” “Go through Tecate. If they want to make a port of entry in Jacumba, they’re going to have to approach Congress. They can’t have it both ways.”

“Well, I don’t think Jacumba has a great need to be a port of entry, but being able to cross informally is a convenience, and it seems to be a fairly harmless one — it saves a 50-, 60-mile drive.” Silence. Okay, moving on. “I have never read or seen or heard of a long-range plan regarding the border fence. Is there a master plan? You say the aliens are moving east. Do the fence-building people move along with the aliens?”

“We have a plan on that. In fact, I worked on some of the fence project today. A lot of it has to do with funding, appropriations. If we had our druthers, we’d fence the whole darn border. It would sure help in doing our job as far as controlling the border.”

“So you’re building a fence a little at a lime?”

“Well, yeah, that’s what we’ve done. We’re years ahead on our fence project in this sector. We weren’t scheduled to have done as much as we have. We weren’t scheduled to have finished what we’ve finished until 1999,I believe.”

“How much of the fence is finished along the California-Mexican border?”

“I can’t speak for the rest of the border. I can speak for my area. This area is from the port of entry in Tecate to Imperial County. The whole area isn’t fenced; there are some places where we don’t need a fence. Saying that, I have all the areas we’re going to fence except 5 miles. I have 32 miles in this sector. I’m somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent complete on our fence right now.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment