Gabriel got into trouble with police in Tecate after cutting into the middle of the line.
Police at the border have been getting involved in line disputes as line-cutting tactics have grown more sophisticated, and extortion of Americans crossing north more prevalent.
“On our way back from Ensenada we came back through Tecate and I cut in front of this lady,” said Gabriel V. “The guy that was two cars in front called the Mexican cops.”
“On you?” I asked.
A Tijuana police cruiser passes a concrete barrier that has been moved to allow access to the border line.
“Yeah,” Gabriel responded, “they showed up and made me get the ‘f’ out of the line. They wanted me to turn around and [return to] the very beginning of the line — or go to the station with them.”
Gabriel is a 50-year-old American that lives in Encanto and drives his “beat up SUV” down to Baja when he visits his racing-buddies and family in Rosarito and Ensenada.
“There’s neighborhoods on the side streets over there by the border, so I pulled over, and the cop was waiting for me to turn into the closeby side street,” he continued. “My car overheated and the smoke started coming up from the grill. The cop left; I waited for the car to cool down, put some water in the radiator, and cut back in line to cross.”
Cement barriers separating lanes at San Ysidro Port of Entry
Americans who cross the border have been blaming long waits — “up to eight hours” one complained — at San Ysidro on Tijuana’s “confusing” signage and rerouted entrance points that haven’t been updated on certain GPS apps.
Eight hours is an exaggeration of the usual situation. As I write, the time to cross back into the U.S. via San Ysidro is 80 minutes through the seven open standard lanes; 70 minutes through the open ten Ready Lanes; and 15 minutes through the eight open SENTRI (Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection) lanes.
And through Otay Mesa, the wait is 40 minutes through the two standard lanes; 30 minutes through the five Ready Lanes; and no delay through the two SENTRI lanes.
A man illegally moves oversize traffic cones which to direct traffic at the San Ysidro port of entry.
Through Tecate, the wait is 60 minutes through the two standard lanes and on the Ready Lanes and SENTRI lanes here, it stated “not available.”
“The [San Ysidro] line starts to build at about 2:30 - 3:30 a.m. every workday,” said Russ P. in an October 31 San Diego Union-Tribune article shared on Facebook which was headlined: “Tijuana police arrest 90 for allegedly extorting U.S.-bound drivers.”
“I would hear the honking daily as people cut in line,” Russ continued, “and frequently see police actions against persons who moved barricades so people could enter the lanes in an advanced position with help of vendors or persons who appear to live in the [Tijuana] River.”
According to the article, the vendors were arrested by Tijuana municipal police on the morning of Halloween for “allegedly charging fees to move U.S.-bound drivers from the wrong traffic lane.”
“The problem are the people (some Americans) who pay the window cleaners,” said one Tijuana resident, “they should be punished too.”
Ramon from southeast San Diego, is one of these American “rule breakers” that pays the window cleaners.
“On Memorial Day, the Tijuana police blocked our normal routes back home,” he said. “And we kept going in circles for about six hours, until a man selling window shades with the suction cups suggested that we drive all the way to the Hospital General de Tijuana, and come back around and enter through the Ready Lane.”
Ramon tipped the solicitor, and requested that he hold back traffic, so that he could cut into the right lanes, which is a no-no, because only police officers or city approved hired staff can legally control traffic here.
“It wasn’t as bad as the guys moving the cement [barriers],” he said. “I’ve had them do that before, too.”
In the last few months, videos were posted online of groups of men moving large cement barriers that separate the lanes and lead into the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Some travelers reportedly get into the SENTRI lanes which are the least congested, then they pay people down the way to move the barriers so that they can move out into the standard or Ready Lanes.
“Non-members who attempt to cross the border in the SENTRI lanes may be subject to fines of up to 5000 (USD),” says the Baja Bound insurance website.
The website provides detailed instructions, with photos, on how to return to the U.S. through San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.
In May, I traveled to Ensenada to get our Toyota detailed and eat mariscos and birria. On my way back to the U.S., we were stuck in traffic leading to the San Ysidro Port of Entry three-four hours because of the closed off roundabouts by Plaza Rio. I was going in a circles by the Cinépolis movie theatre and the nearby roundabouts.
I was offered by a solicitor to cut into a different lane for $20; I declined. Another driver that I saw in my rearview mirror took the offer and he was escorted through an area sectioned off with caution tape wrapped between delineator posts. Another female driver with California license plates allowed a solicitor to jump into her back seat — I assumed to help her navigate through the side streets to return to the U.S.
“It happens all the time,” Noel said on a Facebook post, “[you] gringos are easy targets and willing to pay to cut the line.”
Gabriel, the American driver who was almost busted in Tecate for cutting a woman off, said he pays solicitors to speed up his return travel to the U.S.
“I’ll pay them $5 and they stand in front of another car,” he said, “and they would get honked at, but it’s just enough [time and space] for us to get a quarter of the car into the lane. I also pay the elote cart guys: I’ll order a cup [of corn, sour cream, and parmesan cheese] and throw in an extra tip for them to move their cart in front of a lane I want to cut into.”
In April, a Tijuana resident went onto Twitter and posted a photo of man by the San Ysidro Port of Entry and captioned it: “Report this person, he is charging people to pass through the SENTRI, and enter into the Ready Lane.”
When I was returning into the U.S. in May via the Ready Lane, I saw groups of people carrying and sliding the cement barriers; I saw a man carrying a large plastic barrel that once guided traffic.
On May 19, multiple Mexican news outlets reported that the Tijuana municipal police busted 35 individuals from “causing nuisance to citizens queuing to cross into the United States.”
Ramon recounts when he, his wife and two kids, drove their Lexus down to Ensenada to pick up their abuelita (grandma). “Coming back home to the U.S. was a nightmare,” he said. “The line was backed up at the Vía Rápida at the old and abandoned tourist shops; I thought we had enough gas at less than a quarter tank.”
Three hours passed, and Ramon said his SUV had moved less than a half-mile.
“Then the freakin’ gas light turned on,” Ramon said. “I was panicking because the lines were not moving and my wife kept saying: ‘I told you so — you should’ve stopped at that Pemex gas station.’”
Ramon added that their kids in the back grew restless because they had to “pee pee,” their Kindle devices ran out of battery power, and abuelita was asleep and snoring.
“I then saw a guy holding up a gas container and I thought to myself: “What if that gas had other ingredients besides gas: like water or sugar,” Ramon said. “Do I risk it?”
Ramon said he placed the Lexus gear shifter in the park position, looked down, and saw that the gauge needle was resting on the last indicator line.
Ramon said at this point, his wife stopped with the “Pemex is back there” comments, and gave him the go ahead to buy the gas being peddled for “$20 U.S. dollars a gallon.
“I honked the horn, but the gasolinero dude was gone,” he said.
Instead, a guy ran up and began cleaning their Lexus’s windows and paint finish with dirty rags.
“I asked him how much it would cost to move the cement barriers, and he said: ‘$20,’” Ramon continued. “My wife pulled out a $20 bill, and the guy whistled [enlisting] three others to help: one walked behind and stopped traffic, while the other three lifted and dragged the cement barrier and moved it out (in an angle) so we could drive in. I paid them and we barely made it to Pemex.”
The closest gas station to the Ready Lane is the BP station located at Avenida de la Amistad. It’s within eyeshot on the way back to the U.S., although the route to get there is about 2.5 miles from the Ready Lane. There’s also a BP gas station on Avenida Melchor Ocampo and a Pemex on Vía Rápida.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Idling can use a quarter to a half gallon of fuel per hour, depending on engine size and air conditioner use.” And although the site suggests to “Turn off your engine when your vehicle is parked [because] it only takes about 10 seconds worth of fuel to restart your vehicle,” it also states as a best practice to “Limit engine starts to about 10 times per day on average — unless your vehicle is equipped with a start-stop system; occasionally exceeding this limit should not cause excessive starter wear.”
“We charge about $250 if you’re stuck in Tijuana and need a tow to Chula Vista,” said MJ of A & D Towing, “and about $350 from Rosarito. It’s common for Americans to call us that are stuck down there.”