By Luis Alonso Pérez and Mariana Martínez
Colonia Libertad is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tijuana, with its little sheds and houses, stretching along the rusty border fence.
It is a place known for great food and the best car repair shops, but lately, it’s also notorious as the place where tear gas canisters fired by Border Patrol agents have hit garages, gone into kitchens thru open windows, and even hit some people directly.
According to the agency, agents stationed along the whole border with Mexico have been attacked, mostly with rocks, nearly 1,000 times during the past year. Of those attacks, 254 have been reported in the San Diego sector, and 170 of them have been in the area just north of Colonia Libertad.
The answer for such attacks has come in the form of at least ten incidents of tear-gas canisters fired onto Mexican territory in the past three months, and so far, eleven people have been injured as a result, including a pregnant teenager, an elderly couple, and a 15 year old boy.
But now the San Diego area Border Patrol has deployed a newly formed protection team, wearing helmets and camouflage gear, and carrying more powerful compressed-air guns, that can now shoot pepper-spray canisters up to 200 feet.
They are also equipped with “flash bombs” that emit blinding light and “sting ball” grenades that disperse hundreds of tiny rubber pellets.
“Here! one of them hit me right here. Here is the canister that they launched, that’s the one that hit me…They have been doing it for several nights now. But we have to work, there are families here, older ladies, we are trying to sleep.”
This 45 year-old man’s leg was hurt by one of the tear-bomb canisters. He refused to give his full name for fear the US government might revoke his visa.
The Foreign Relations office in Mexico has condemned the attacks and the Human Rights Commission has opened up a file to demand further investigation into de attacks and has even suggested taking the case on to the Interamerican Human Rights Court.
But U-S Border Patrol spokesperson Gloria Chavez makes no apology for theses actions. She considers this a response to increasing aggression from the Mexican side of the border in the past year.
“These are delinquents, criminals that are here to create chaos along the border. This is not the type of violence we experience with your “regular immigrant” who comes into this country illegally. We are now talking about delinquents who make a living by mocking the authorities along the border.”
Chavez adds that US authorities are working with the Mexican government, asking them for more surveillance in the areas, as well as the arrests and prosecution of those caught attacking agents.
But each night that is disrupted by attacks leads to growing frustration and anger, even resulting in verbal confrontation amongst Border agents and Mexican police over the border fence.
A few weeks ago local reporters captured the following exchange of words between a Tijuana municipal police officer and Border Patrol officer after pepper spray canisters where thrown onto Mexican territory.
- You should not be throwing those things, they throw you rocks but, you respond with bombs?
-We are not here to be thrown rocks at.
-We understand that, but you should be reasonable too, can you imagine if I throw a bomb at you for just throwing some rocks?
This Tijuana police officer is using an argument expanded on by father Luiz Kendzierski, activist and director of an immigrant shelter.
“We are aware of the presence of some groups in the area that are very violent, on the Mexican side. It’s important that the authorities both form Mexico and the United Status have clear policies on the way they should act, so they don’t respond to simple pebbles with a bullet…as they have done in the past killing immigrants from the back.”
Border Patrol officials argue that greater vigilance in the mountains has lead to a return of smugglers onto this area. The San Diego Border Patrol has seen a 7% increase in arrests along the border in the past year, the only such increase along the Mexico/US border.
But the district police sub-comander in Tijuana Galo Hernan Carrillo disagrees
“This is a place where you can see constant surveillance by the Border Patrol. So to me it’s very illogical that they think that there are many undocumented in this area.”
Mexican Consulate spokesperson Alberto Lozano said the consulate has sent formal complaints to the Department of Homeland Security and directly to Border Patrol headquarters, documenting the attacks and number of injured.
“Regardless of the reason there is no way, that we can accept that Mexican nationals can be hit by tear gas devices or whatever in Mexican soil.”
But complaints coming from police, activists or even the Mexican Consulate don’t seem to take any effect on Border Patrol politics or tactics.
“To these people we say: we are going to keep being there preserving the order” said Gloria Chavez spokesperson for the Border Patrol San Diego Sector.