October 8, 2004

10th anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper in Tijuana

Text and photos by
Luis Alonso Perez

Last Friday a procession walked through the streets of Tijuana, starting in Playas and ending in Otay, in front of the airport. A group of 30 migrants and social activists carried the coffin, as they walked nine miles next to the wall that divides México from the United States.

But in this case, they weren’t carrying only one dead body, they where carrying the 3,000 dead immigrants that have died in their attempt to cross illegally into the United States, since operation Gatekeeper began ten years ago.


Father Luis Kindziersky giving a blessing before the march

The coffin was filled with the names of the three thousand immigrants who have died from drowning, dehydration or injuries on the rough and dangerous areas they have been forced to cross through, since the operation began.

The procession started at 7 am after the director of the YMCA in Tijuana, Oscar Escalada, explained the path they would travel. Before leaving, father Luis Kindziersky, the director of Casa del Migrante, gave the crowd a blessing and began the journey.

It only took the group a few minutes to leave Playas behind. To their left they could see some members of the Border Patrol, a group who ten years ago began to grow and reinforce.

More vehicles, radars, helicopters, night vision goggles, concrete walls with barbed wire, remote control planes and 10,000 agents of “la migra”. A powerful army waiting north of the border, leaving thousands of immigrants dead on the battlefield.

In front of the march walked Jesus Lopez, carrying a sign that said “Gatekeeper… it started here, 10 years later, caused 3,000 deaths”.

Sweat ran down his forehead as he walked up the hill of “El Cañon del Matadero”. Around eight o’clock he reached the top. He had already walked a quarter of the whole distance and he sighed of relief as the wind refreshed his skin.

Mr. Lopez came south to Tijuana all the way from Salinas, California. He decided to join the march because he wants people to be conscious of the immigrants needs. “It’s not fair that simply because they want to have a can of beans in their children’s table, immigrants have to give their lives”.

For many decades, the bad economic situation south of the border has made Mexicans look for better job opportunities in the United States, but in 1994, the American government decided to act with iron fist, and created operation Gatekeeper, in an effort to put a stop to illegal immigration.

It was said that in just a few years the operation would reduce the flow of immigrants into the state of California, and that people trying to cross would desist, because they would know that it was almost impossible to make it through.

Besides, with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Mexico was on his way to be a “first world” economy and would be capable of creating enough decent and well paid jobs, so there wouldn’t be a need to leave their country to work.

Only ten years have past and total failure is evident.

Shortly after the NAFTA signing, Mexico got stroked with one of the hardest recessions in their history. The promised jobs never arrived, in contrary, thousands of people lost their jobs.

The illegal immigration into California didn’t stop. The only thing it caused was that people that wanted to cross had to do it though the desserts, mountains or rivers.

The number of people who died trying to cross the border grew at a startling pace. In just five years since Gatekeeper started the number of fatalities reached an all time high, with 499 deaths in 1999.

Even with all those deaths, immigrants haven’t stopped trying to get to the other side of the border. This failure has cost thousands of lives, but it has also cost American taxpayers 10 billion dollars.

Around nine o’clock the group arrived to the San Ysidro crossing point. They where half way there, so they decided to take a little break in a street of “colonia Libertad”.

One of the migrants taking a break from carrying the coffin was Junior Trochen, a young man from Palenque, Chiapas. As many migrants, he had never heard about the operation Gatekeeper until he arrived to Tijuana a couple of weeks ago.

Junior is in his twenties, the same age as most of the people who die in their attempt to reach the other side of the border. It’s estimated that in the last years the number of women and children who try to reunite with their families, and die while crossing has grown significantly.

The march continued through the streets and alleys of “colonia Libertad”. Three hours have already passed. The sun began to heat up and the protestors started to get tired. But Ricardo Robles remained strong, holding up a cross with the phrase “not forgotten”.

Robles was born in Guadalajara and lived many years in San Francisco, but was deported in a highway checkpoint near Los Angeles. He has been in Tijuana a couple of weeks, and during this time he has been deported more than six times while trying to cross to San Ysidro. His economic situation and the need to reunite with his family make him continue trying.

The procession came to an end when the group reached Otay, around 12 o’clock.

There was a ceremony with the press in front of the Tijuana airport. There, migrants read the names of some of the 3,000 people who have died during the last ten years.

In the end, the papers with their names and cause of death where deposited in the coffin and nailed shut, so they could hang it up on the metallic wall, next to the other nine coffins. One for each year of dead immigrants Gatekeeper has caused.

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