The last boundary monument along the San Diego-Tijuana line sits atop a steep craggy mountain. No fence or wall exists. The monument, like most others, is made of iron. The Mexican IBWC is responsible for the upkeep of this monument, however, it looks as though workers are either unable or unwilling to make the trek. The marker is full of graffiti and the actual number “251” has been pried off.
Border Patrol agents were kind enough to take me to this spot. The only way to get there is through unpaved roads owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 4.6 miles consists of narrow dirt pathways and although I wish more history lovers would take the boundary monument tours, #251 made me change my mind. Point blank: it’s just too dangerous to come here alone as a tourist.
Thanks to Border Patrol agents, Gerardo Gutierrez and Brandon Cazares, I can write about this little gem of a boundary monument. Along the way, they also offered me a glimpse into their work.
A Few Facts About Border Patrol Stations
A total of eight Border Patrol Stations exist in San Diego County. Two stations are inland: Murietta and San Clemente. The other six reside back-to-back along the U.S.-Mexico boundary line. The Imperial Beach station patrols the line from the Pacific Ocean to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The Chula Vista station takes over from the SYPOE and runs for 60 miles, ending deep within the Otay Mountains. After Chula Vista, the stations along the border are: Brown Field, El Cajon, Campo, and Boulevard, California.
For the entire San Diego Sector, there are about 2,500 agents.
Border Patrol training is a rigorous 19-week course. Once completed, you are considered a border patrol agent. Agents, similar to the military, rise through the ranks, becoming watch commanders, then first line supervisors. Each station has their own patrol agent in charge. The San Diego Sector is overseen by a Chief Patrol Agent who is currently Richard A. Barlow.
Gutierrez explained that every day the San Diego Sector makes an average of 80-90 apprehensions. The location of apprehensions change, but “it’s always busy,” he says. Here in the San Diego Sector, last year their apprehensions for the full fiscal year of 2014 — from October to September — was 29, 911 people.
Cazares explains that their peak year was back in 1986 when Border Patrol apprehended about 620,000 people in the San Diego Sector. Out of the 20 sectors, San Diego is one of the smallest sectors, but in that year they had the highest number of apprehensions.
Bureau of Land Management
To get to Boundary Monument #251, the border patrol agents took me in a 4-wheel-drive SUV and drove into a no-access dirt road near Donovan Prison. The road was extremely bumpy and very steep. The agents needed to communicate often with other patrol agents to make sure no other vehicle planned to drive along the same path, the road too small to accommodate more than one SUV at a time.
The BLM is responsible for maintaining this land and CBP has a working relationship with them for use of the property. BLM agents are also law enforcement. They are armed and can write tickets to those who may be off-roading in these parts or wanting to use the mountains as a shooting range.
The White Cross
When we reached our destination, a White Cross overlooked a vast view of Tijuana below. Nobody knows when or how the White Cross got there. Just below this cross, boundary monument #251 edged off the mountain. The monument is in terrible condition, with graffiti on all sides.
Glaringly, there is no fence or wall here. Gutierrez explains that of the 60 miles patrolled by the Chula Vista Sector, only 46 miles have a primary fence going along the boundary line. That leaves approximately 14 miles of no fencing. The terrain provides a natural barrier where border patrol agents can respond to crossings quickly.
Fencing is important within a city where agents don’t have time to respond. An undocumented individual can jump over a fence within minutes and blend into the general population. Out here, however, it’s not that easy.
The Barlow-Blanco Commission: A Grueling History
This “Wild West” territory is an important location in history. In particular, it visually shows the harrowing work once done by the Barlow-Blanco Commission between 1892 and 1894. Although a boundary commission surveyed the line initially after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, a new Boundary Commission was appointed in 1889 to resurvey the line and mark it with 258 monuments of iron or stone.
The iron monuments were all made in El Paso and shipped westward along the Southern Pacific Railway. Most of the monuments were cast whole and each monument weighed no less than 500 pounds. The Commission placed them at distances apart of no greater than 8,000 meters, or about five miles. The monuments were set in places which seemed impossible. It didn’t matter if the precise boundary point fell on the side of a bristling cliff or upon a dizzy mountain peak, the monument was placed exactly there.
Still today, like #251, the iron monuments are six feet high, two feet square at base and twelve inches square at top of shaft, with a pyramidal top. They are bolted to concrete foundations or to solid rock.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on November 25, 1894: “The American Commissioners met again at El Paso about the 1st of February, 1892, engaged employees to the number of about sixty; organized the various field parties; procured necessary animals, wagons, camp equipment and supplies, and on February 12th went into camp near the site of monument 1 on the Rio Grande.”
The article went on to explain that often the 800-pound monuments couldn’t be carried by the men, so they used pack mules to carry them. Water for the employees and the animals had to be hauled by rail or by wagon from Yuma, nearly 100 miles. Temperatures often reached 126 degrees. As a consequence, the men got into the field as early as possible in the morning. But from 11a.m. until 3p.m. no outside work was possible, the heat causing the atmosphere to visibly waver or flicker. This rendered the instruments useless for a time.
An African-American History
Another San Francisco Chronicle also reported the Commission’s work, although in more shocking terms. It wasn’t just the terrain that was harsh. Among other things, the article shows that African-Americans contributed to erecting these monuments, but explains it in way that today we would consider shocking testimony. The journalist reported on October 13, 1893:
The writer accompanied the monument party from Nogales to near Dog Springs, in New Mexico, which constitutes the parallel of 31 deg. 20 min. This party, under the direct command of Colonel Barlow, consisted of an assistant engineer and two rod men in the surveying department. Then, under the orders of Major Logan, the quartermaster of the expedition, came an array of teamsters, laborers and cooks. A photographer and a stonemason completed the monument party proper. The medical department was represented by Captain Mearns, U.S.A. a hospital steward and two colored privates of the hospital corps. The military escort, under the command of a second lieutenant, was made up of a detachment of colored infantry of the Twenty-fourth and some ten cavalrymen of the Second. The entire party numbered some sixty people.
The Mexican party, having nothing to do with the actual construction and reaction of the monuments, was necessarily much smaller. It was composed of Commissioner V. Gama, Engineer Manuel Rancalari, a few mozzos and some Mexican soldiers of the Twenty-fourth Battalion, the latter was wild-looking villains as ever cut a throat. Every one of the undersized, dark-skinned fellows was serving out in the army a long sentence for some deed of violence and blood.
It was anticipated at the time of our departure from Nogales, on the 25th of July that some of these soldiers would desert as soon as they found it convenient and safe, but it was for the United States to take the initiative in this respect, as one day out of town one of our negro privates deserted with all his belongings, which, as he had sold everything portable just previously, consisted of the clothes he wore and his rifle. But to counter-blanace this, when we arrived at Ochonville, on the San Pedro river, the Mexican contingent left en masse, including the non-commissioned officer, and was never heard of again, except one man who returned after a week in the bush, and was made a corporal for his heroic conduct.
The article went on to talk of drinking, fighting and a cook of Chinese descent who was beaten up.
Apaches Were Here Too
The San Diego Union reported on September 21, 1894 that the Commission also came across Native Americans during their work. The newspaper reported: “The Apache Kid and his band hovered about us a little in the San Luis and Guadaloupe mountains, but did not disturb us. They probably concluded we were too many to attach. The Kid, anyway, is a sneak thief, and only attacks travelers or isolated ranchers.”
Colonel Barlow went on to explain that during his work on the boundary monuments, he saw many antelope, deer, bear and mountain sheep. A trained naturalist also went along with the commission and collected between 7,000 and 8,000 speciments of plants, animals, birds, fish and insects.
Migrants Weather The Terrain
All these images of the Barlow-Blanco Commission come to mind when standing atop the Otay Mountains at Boundary Monument #251. It seems impossible to walk through this terrain. Its rugged and rife for falling and twisting an ankle or breaking a leg. The area looks as though nobody can possibly make it through these parts. And then — the border patrol agents spot a man sitting in the bushes right next to the White Cross. They approach and he immediately puts up his hands.
The agents ask if he is alright and then ask if he has papers to be in America. After a short time, another border patrol car arrives and the man is taken into the car, apprehended. Agent Cazares mentions as we walk toward the monument, “I’m a little worried about that guy.”
Agent Gutierrez explains that border patrol work can often be very dangerous. The roads are rocky and narrow. Agents are required to patrol this area when it gets foggy and during the pitch black of night. People that come through these parts can carry firearms, but rocks can also be used against them as weapons. Also, approximately 3 out of every 10 people apprehended have criminal histories.
What will happen to this man specifically?
He will go into the station and be fingerprinted. Depending on his case, he might get a voluntary return to Mexico or all the way up to criminal prosecution, depending on what his criminal and immigration history is. Nowadays, the technology is pretty efficient. Border Patrol agents have have a database and can quickly do a background check.
Many times also border patrol agents encounter individuals who have been injured or are in distress. CBP will often be the first to render aide, especially in these parts where falling and hurting oneself is common.
Cazares explains: “It is also very common, more so in mountainous areas because people dehydrate, it’s very hot, as you saw walking on somewhat of an established road, it would be very easy to twist an ankle, fall and so, just in general our culture here in the United States, like for me personally and for every agent I know, when you do see somebody injured, the thought of enforcement is completely out of your mind. It’s just a humanitarian thing, “I need to help this person.” It’s irrelevant whether he’s here unlawfully or whether he’s a citizen hiking around. It’s the fact that you need to render aide or try to do your due diligence and get this person the help that they need.”
A Few Interesting Facts About Fences and Walls
“Our main mission is to protect our country,” Agent Gutierrez explains. The immigration issue is actually secondary to protecting the U.S. from criminals and terrorists.
What many people don’t know, explains Gutierrez, is that the military landing mat was put up not to keep pedestrians from climbing up, but to keep vehicles from driving through it. Prior to 1994, cars would drive right through the chain link fence, often carrying drugs or people. If they saw border patrol, they would then just drive right back through the fence. As a consequence, border patrol had to be involved in a lot of pursuits.
“It doesn’t stop them completely. They can still ramp over it or cut the panels and drive through them, but a lot less than what it used to be.”
The secondary fence, however, is pedestrian targeted. While the primary military landing mat is 8-10 feet high, the secondary fence is made of meshed metal and is approximately 16-18 feet high. It is harder to scale, although people do put ladders up. What the secondary fence does is give border patrol agents time to respond.
Regardless of fences or natural terrain, border patrol agents are kept busy. The man I saw at the boundary monument is not uncommon. Agent Cazares says it happens every single day. Whether there’s fence or no fence, even where there are two fences with stadium style lighting or steep mountains, crossing the border happens no matter what.