January 31, 2003

The Silent War

By: Mariana Martinez

(Editor’s Note: On January 9, 2003 a pickup truck carrying 17 people was involved in a high speed chase with the Border Patrol. The 15-minute chase ended when the truck ran over a spike strip, tossed by the Border Patrol, crashing into a bridge abutment on I-8 near Descanso. Three of the passengers in the truck were killed.)

I’m Agustín Santos, I’m 21 years old, from Tejupilco, México State. I first came to the U.S. with a friend because neither of us wanted to cross alone. We crossed trough Canenea, with 15 other men, at dawn. Six hours we walked in the dessert and then, we remained hidden for a whole day, until they came to pick us up and took us to Santa Barbara. I was working there as a construction worker to pay my debt to those who helped me cross: 1200 dollars, first one half and then the other. Those who helped me where also from Tejupilco, they know me and I know them, otherwise I wouldn’t have crossed, you’ve got to have trust.

Tijuana.

They say it every day, a thousand times, the speakers in the border repeat “you are about to solicit entry to the busiest border in the world, please have your documents ready” but, how about the millions that don’t have documents? The illegal crossing of this border has been for many people all over the world, especially Mexicans and other Latin-Americans their last choice.

Hidden in a car, in the back of a trailer, walking trough the dessert or mountains are the only ways to a sufficient salary and a better way of life. The crossing has always been hard, but has become even harder in recent years.

Approximately 9 years ago, new obstacles arose for those who wanted to cross illegally, in the matter, Claudia Smith from California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation Border Project, in her text titled ‘Migrants at deadly risk’ states: “Towards the end of 1994 when anti-immigrant sectors in California infected national politics, the Clinton administration seeking votes announced the foundations for a new approach in border safety”.

Since then the total number of deaths has been of 1,700 people.

Currently, in the 3000 kilometers from San Diego, Cal to Brownsville, TX someone dies every day. In the year 2000 an average of 1.4 immigrants died per day.”

As if this wasn’t alarming enough, 9-11 and the anti/terrorist efforts have hardened anti/immigrant politics. Father Luis Kendzierski C.S. Director of the Migrants House in Tijuana says “There has been a change in the use of United States law, it is more strict now, especially against immigrants, that’s what I’ve seen and felt: a higher number of people being deported from the U.S in the last two years, people who had been there for a long, long time are now being deported to México, to Tijuana and then, they have to establish a new life here.”

I’m Agustín Santos, they arrested me in Santa Barbara where I worked as a construction worker. They kept me locked up for a whole month. It was like a jail, but they let us out on to the patio. One night, they took us on a truck to Tijuana, we arrived at three in the morning.

We walked downtown until dawn.

We got stopped by the police, who asked to see our deportation slips and asked me, where is your name bracelet? I had taken it of, what good was it back in México?

The Migrants House along with other organizations from both sides of the border, working to preserve the rights of the immigrants, have created Stopgatekeeper.org.

In their web page, they provide alarming statistics about immigrant deaths. Statistics also show a rapid decrease in the number or arrests done by the border patrol in recent years: In 1995 561,548 people where arrested, just in California, by the year 2002 it was less than half.

As father Luis explains it “there have been significantly fewer arrests than before, but the death rate does not follow that trend. That means the gatekeeper is making it really hard and dangerous for people to cross towards the United States”.

The last battle.

January 9, 5:15 p.m. 17 people in a pick-up truck -hidden, scared- covered only by a plastic sheet. A check point. They don’t stop. The chase begins high speed, joined by the border patrol and a helicopter. The chase continues about twelve miles then spikes, then more spikes, then... Spikes. The driver looses control of the vehicle and they have a car accident. Is it a car accident if someone fires on your tires in order to cause it?

The result: 2 women dead. Juana Hernández Gamino, 50 años, from Jalisco. Victoria Sánchez Gasca, 17 años from Guanajuato. A one year old with a broken arm, the driver under custody, eight more hurt and scathed around San Diego hospitals. The first victims for 2003.

Alberto Lozano, press counselor for General Mexican Council in San Diego declares outrage against the incident calling it “an unnecessary persecution, an operation that could have been done differently, we had a non written agreement with the authorities from the border patrol and highway patrol, for them to minimize the risk of injury in this type of chase, to locate and arrest illegal Mexicans, Mexicans without permits…Why not follow the vehicle until it stopped? Or close in on them? They were on a freeway. It was really simple, why did they have to fire spikes to the tires, three times?

One of the officers from the highway patrol checked the speed on the pick up, with the tires already flat, they were going 96 miles/hour, with the tires already flat, how fast where they going before? They could have died, all of them.”

A few days after the incident, two men who were being treated at a local hospital, got away. According to Alberto Lozano, Roger Hedgecock radio personality from KOGO 600 AM states on his show “that members of the Mexican Consulate where carrying INS credentials and went to the hospital to help the suspected smugglers-polleros-escape”, Lozano denies the allegations and adds, “This guy was mayor of San Diego and everybody knows him for his anti-mexican politics, he has anti-mexican audience and well, they are the ones who started this allegations of impersonation, something that is a crime in this country”.

But, how did they get away? According to Lozano, the answer lies in money matters, “It doesn’t make sense to me, that in this country, patrol cars chase a group of Mexicans, even if they don’t have papers, chases them to their death and then let the rest of them simply walk out of the hospital. Why? Because they don’t guard hospital prisoners. And why don’t they? Because if they do, they would have to pay the hospital bill! It is very simple: If the border patrol is outside the hospital ward room, making sure the injured doesn’t get away, the people from the hospital come out and hand them the bill, so what do they do? They don’t assign any surveillance for them”

San Diego January 15.

A week after the accident, the third victim dies in the hospital. Elvira Rumbo Leyva, just 26 at the time, she was from Guerrero, México. Her body and the two others will be taken to México with the help of the Consulate. Three people dead before January is over.

Serious questions are in the air about the Border Patrol’s policy on high speed chases. Without proof of immigration status and the extent the Border Patrol will go to catch what would be victimless criminals, people whose sole goal is to improve their life and community members are appalled by the actions of Border Patrol. It was a case of “Border Patrol zeal overriding good sense to the point of recklessness,” said Latino groups at a January 14 press conference.

The group, consisting the Carlifornia Rural Legal Assistance, Chicano Federation, and the Latino/Latina Unity Coalition, stated that “such pursuits are not unusual and dozens of migrants have died in the ensuing accidents since Operation Gatekeeper began eight years ago, say the groups. They have called a press conference to demand that the Border Patrol curb its high-speed chases. The groups question whether agents and supervisors are even following existing policy, which say that ‘in most cases, if an apprehension is not made quickly and at a reasonable speed, the most intelligent action for the agent is to discontinue the pursuit.’ “

With an average of one person dead every day, the ongoing war goes continues every day of our lives, a war between those who have and those who want. Between the ones who monopolize wealth and those who barely survive with what’s left.

Saddly, the subject of immigration, and the particular climate it creates around Tijuana and San Diego is forgotten by those who live here. It is perceived by most as a dull thing, compared to the war on Irak or the Super Bowl.

Death and rusty metal wires are being mixed into the landscape. Our sight hardened by it every day. But we have to fight the numbness, as father Luis reminds us “ It is something that we need not to forget, the immigrants, the pain and suffering they face, the persecution they endure here in Tijuana when they try to get across. Let’s not forget the dead, because if we do, then everything will be admissible.”

I’m Agustín Santos, I’ve been here at the Migrants House for three days now. I’m looking for a job, and then I’m getting out of here and renting a room with some friends. Some friends I made here at the House. From there we are planning to go back to Santa Barbara, or even farther north. Fear of death? I’d rather try, what is there to live for?

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