On the Ground in Tijuana

Sitting in a car late at night during in Tijuana, the mando único patrol rolls by—three vehicles of state police, federales, and soldiers. The trucks slow down to a stop. Fifteen men in balaclavas wielding assault rifles order the occupants out of the car. The officers surround them and pat them down, making a mess of the back seat and glove compartment. No one know what’s going to happen next, but after they see US passports, they ask some cursory questions and leave, this time without a bribe.

Meanwhile, a video goes viral of a Honduran migrant in Tijuana who speaks out against racist, nationalist slander by right wing Mexicans who want to deport him. This time the consequences are more severe. The next video that appears of this man’s face shows the results of a tortuous interrogation by the Tijuana Cartel, narcos who work hand in hand with the Mexican and U.S. governments in controlling the border.

This happened in Tijuana, in November 2018. Many others from the recent caravans have been murdered and “disappeared” as well, both there and on the journey. In Tijuana and other parts of Mexico, nationalistic narcos often do the work that the government can’t be seen doing but is required to maintain its thin hold on power: disposing of undesirables and terrorizing the discontented, including migrants fleeing violence in their nations of origin.

The way the American media has covered it, one might think that these waves of migrants are a new development for Tijuana, but for decades the city has played a central role in migration through the Americas.

The U.S. Government’s “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994 made it harder to get from Tijuana to San Diego, but the Clinton years also precipitated massive waves of migration via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which reamed the Mexican economy. Tijuana remains a point of departure from the “global south” to the U.S. For those who don’t make it across, or who decide to stay, as well as the thousands of immigrants the US deports to Tijuana without knowing their nationality, tourism offers marginal opportunities in an informal economy. Like New Orleans, Tijuana is full of hustles.

For years, Tijuana has been a city full of migrants—on the streets as well as in camps, a multitude of shelters, and houses and apartments across the city. But these recent high-profile arrivals draw attention to Tijuana’s new reality as a permanent refugee camp. This status as both staging ground for the leap north and purgatory for an excluded population, squeezed between the terror they are fleeing at home and the brutal US border policies that hem them in from the north, is being further solidified.

From afar, it’s easy to get caught in the big picture and miss the human stories. Up close in the chaotic tangle of daily life and autonomous support efforts woven through this slow crisis, it’s impossible to escape the details. The situation shifts rapidly from day to day. As the Mexican authorities change laws and enforcement to keep people guessing, Trump announces new policies, resources ebb and flow, and volunteers and supporters come and go. The needs are immediate: shoes, food, cough medicine, a cellphone so that a 17-year-old can get in touch with his family to get a picture of his birth certificate that was stolen on the journey.

As of January 2019 there are some five hundred Central American migrants still in El Barretal, the state run “shelter” 40 minutes outside downtown Tijuana, an institution that functions as an open-air prison camp. Three weeks ago, there were thousands living there. Some have begun the daunting and increasingly restrictive U.S. asylum process, some have headed back South to try and accompany the next caravan, some have decided to try their luck at getting a humanitarian visa and assimilating into Mexican society. The military and police control access to the camp, requiring state issued migrant ID cards for those who live there, shutting off access after 10 PM, refusing entry to most visitors, and doling out small portions of whatever donated food the guards haven’t pilfered.

Another major shelter was Benito Juárez, an old sports complex. When its occupants were kicked out, a tent city sprang up just outside it. In the ensuing weeks, many from the tent city moved into a warehouse that was rented on the same block. Those remaining in the street were violently evicted by police. In mid-December, the main effort coming out of Enclave Caracol–Tijuana’s anarchist social center, which became a temporary base of autonomous migrant support–was cooking and serving two meals a day for this population. As of this writing, those in the warehouse have lived through a brutal December 29th eviction attempt and now a multi-day police siege that has slowly dwindled the shelter’s population. Many have left for Barretal and other refuges. By the time this paper is printed, this shelter, dubbed Contra Viento y Marea, will no longer exist.

Life in these places is rough, but as in any crisis, the tenacity and self-organization among those most affected provide signposts for the way forward. People who joined together for safety and community traveled thousands of miles, much of it on foot. Much of the cooking effort at Enclave was carried out by people from the caravan, and at its peak, it was a hub for people from Central America, Mexico, and the US to get to know each other and establish real relationships.

Folks in Barretal are finding ways to kindle fires of autonomy and communal support despite the atmosphere of extreme control. The siege of Benito Juárez has led to what are hopefully lasting ties of solidarity between the migrants living there and those with US passports who decided to stay inside and use their position to hold off a violent eviction.

For better and worse, the situation in Tijuana is also a window into our futures. Here in New Orleans—a city with some 25,000 Hondurans, some of whom have family currently in Tijuana— hurricanes, chemical spills and other disasters of increasing frequency and severity are a fact. The refugees of climate crisis will not be fundamentally different from the refugees of drug wars and global economic policy. Some of them may be us. We can learn from what’s going on in Barretal and Benito Juárez. The borders that are imposed on our world, the barriers of inclusion and exclusion, are not strong enough to keep us separated. We know we can’t count on the state, and why would we want to? We will count on each other.


To plug in to mutual aid along the border: www.commotion.world

For further reading: “Designed to Kill: Border Policy and How to Change it

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