Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The San Ysidro border crossing into Tijuana is the busiest in the world. An average of 40,000 vehicles through it each day. Here's a view of the border, from the perspective of a Mexican customs official.
TIJUANA, Mexico Jorge Cabrera Gutierrez is 29 years old. He’s a native of Guadalajara, located about 1,500 miles south of Tijuana. His job as a customs official for Mexico has taken him far from home. Today, sitting in his small office overlooking the bridge that spans the border crossing, Cabrera Gutierrez says that when he was a kid, his family gave him the nickname “El General” or "the general," because he dreamed of being in the army.
“I’ve always been interested in public service," he says. "My father and other people in my family worked in local and federal government, and I liked the idea of serving my country. When I had the opportunity to start out in Reynosa, I decided to go into customs.”
That was two years ago. Reynosa, on the border with Texas, has since grown into a violent city and a hotbed of smuggled guns. Five months ago, Cabrera Gutierrez was transferred to Tijuana. Now, he oversees 85 other customs agents here.
“Fortunately, this part of the border is much more peaceful," he says. "We haven’t had any incidents where our physical well-being or that of the crossing have been hurt. Obviously, we do our work under a lot of pressure and uncertainty, but we have the military who back us up in case of any problems.”
The Tijuana border may be a safe place these days, but what crosses through it isn’t always legal. According to U.S. and Mexican officials, a large number of guns and millions in illicit cash are smuggled into Mexico via the border on a regular basis. In the last year, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the flow of guns south, before they reach customs agents like Cabrera Gutierrez.
“Being here, at the crossing, is difficult because you have to deal with many different types of people," says Cabrera Gutierrez. "We have to stop contraband, and we have to keep guns, ammunition and laundered money from getting into Mexico. So we play two very important roles while we safeguard national security, 24 hours a day.”
According to Mexican officials, almost 35,000 people have been murdered inside Mexico in drug-related killings in the last four years. Many of them were killed with weapons allegedly smuggled into the country from the U.S. Cabrera has no comment about this; but acknowledges that guns do show up with some regularity inside the cars he inspects, heading into Tijuana. When that happens, Mexican customs agents work with their U.S. counterparts.
“We’re only about 100 feet from them, and we’re always in communication with each other," he says. "They also ask us for help, whenever there’s a runaway car or they detect something strange headed our way.”
Cabrera Gutierrez heads out of his office at sundown, eight hours into his 12-hour shift. He’s surrounded by the massive cement wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, barbwire and cameras pointed in his direction. Straight ahead, is the traffic entrance into Tijuana, where dozens of cars are waiting. Cabrera Gutierrez spends about half of his day here, checking documents, inspecting cars, and asking people questions.
“All these people here are bringing goods into Mexico and need to pay their taxes on them," he says, standing next to a pick-up truck full of goods. "They line up, the customs official must check what type of merchandise they have and whether there’s anything else in there that is illegal. If nothing is wrong and they pay their taxes, they can get into Mexico without a problem.”
Most of the crossers, he says, are average people headed home after school or work in the U.S. For the most part, they’re bringing back groceries or gifts. But Cabrera Gutierrez says he’s always watching out for traffickers. Thinking about what makes its way into Mexico, he says, often keeps him up at night.