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— "Ant contraband!" say López. "That's what we call it. 'Contrabando hormiga.' They do it themselves. Lines and lines of people, each carrying his piece of mail back or forth [across the border.]" He's talking about San Ysidro's unbelievable mailbox phenomenon. "You have one government postal service," he says. But do you know how many [private] mailboxes are available in San Ysidro? There's one on every corner!"

Gladys Anderson, the manager of the San Ysidro post office, knows all about it. "I have never seen so many private-mailbox centers in my life. And I've been in San Diego for over 35 years in different offices. This is unique. Our post office here at San Ysidro has 6000 mailboxes alone. Plus we have around 40 commercial mail-receiving agents like Postal Annex, Mail Boxes Etc., in San Ysidro. That's around 25,000 additional boxes we service. There are [even] some commercial mailbox companies that pick up mail from here and take it across the border [to deliver to] customers at their 'Postal Annex'-type shops over there."

Which makes great business for the mailbox companies and the U.S. post office. But isn't the Mexican post office losing a lot of money?

"Of course," says López, who himself confesses to owning his own mailbox north of the border. And it's not just San Ysidro. NAFTA has brought a raft of companies to Otay Mesa wanting to take advantage of Mexico's labor but not its postal service, says Mike Cannone. One of the biggest at Otay is North American Communications (NAC), which prints bulk mailings such as insurance and credit card solicitations in Tijuana, only to truck it back up to San Diego for actual mailing. But Gary Fallowes, vice president of NAC's West Coast operation, says his company is not stiffing the Mexican post office.

"We can't mail from Tijuana. It's United States Postal Service mail. If we mailed from Tijuana it would become international. We create anywhere from 8 to 12 million pieces [of mail] a week. We pass 8, 9, 10, 12 trucks every day [across the border]. But we also do some mailing from Tijuana [to Baja California addresses]. The Mexican postal service is excellent. Getting better and better every year."

López concedes Tijuana could speed things up with some optical-sorting machines and delivery vans for each letter carrier. For those who do want to communicate by mail to families and businesses sometimes only 50 yards across the line, the problem of "snail" mail remains.

"It's definitely a cross-border phenomenon in terms of communication," says associate director Kevin Cottrell of UCSD's San Diego Dialogue. "But there's been no initiative [to streamline the cross-border mail service] that I'm aware of. And it's nothing that we have looked at. We always use courier or fax or e-mail." How closely do San Diego and Tijuana post office officials work together? A request for names of San Diego postal execs' contacts across the border elicits an illuminating answer. "Unfortunately no one can find the name or telephone number of [our] contact at the Mexican post office in Tijuana." Héctor calls. He finally got my postcard -- 11 days after I mailed it.

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