Tuesday, April 3, 2007 | It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night and the party is just getting started at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Law enforcement officers from around the county have turned up to help the San Diego Police Department with Operation Safe Crossing, a multi-agency initiative aimed at keeping minors from crossing the border into Mexico and arresting drunks who cross back into California from the bars and clubs of Tijuana.

Binational Hangover

  • The Issue: Thousands of people cross the United States/Mexico border each weekend to drink in the bars and nightclubs of Tijuana. San Diego Police Department officials say this causes county-wide problems with drunkenness and disorderliness. This weekend, the police department joined forces with other law enforcement agencies to limit the problems caused by the Spring Break party crowd.
  • What It Means: Operation Safe Crossing, a multi-agency effort, has two stages: Stage one aims to stop unaccompanied minors and unauthorized military personnel from crossing into Mexico. Stage two targets people crossing back into California who are drunk or disorderly.
  • The Bigger Picture: Due to a lack of funding, this operation only goes into effect on the busiest weekends of the year. During the week and on other weekends there are far fewer officers posted at the border.

The first stage of the operation concentrates on juveniles and military personnel. A checkpoint has been set up in front of the turnstile that spins travelers from California into Mexico. A San Diego city ordinance forbids anyone under the age of 18 from crossing the border without the supervision of or written permission from his or her parents. Tonight, law enforcement officers are checking IDs for anyone who looks remotely like they’re underage. It looks like the entrance to the world’s biggest nightclub.

With the legal drinking age in Mexico three years lower than in California, young drinkers and thrill seekers line up on busy Friday and Saturday nights for Tijuana’s all-you-can drink happy hours and wild nightclubs. On a few weekends a year, the police come out in force to limit the countywide effects of so many people drinking so much alcohol in such a short period of time.

Not everybody who is under 18 and unaccompanied is stopped.

“There’s lots of discretion,” says SDPD Officer Jason Weeden. “If someone has a backpack, and they’re obviously coming down to see their parents or relatives, we’re less likely to stop them.”

“But if someone is obviously dressed up to party, that’s another matter,” he adds.

Probably 80 percent of the crowd that’s lined up to cross through the police blockade looks like they’re dressed up to party. But in among the 20- and 30-somethings are a few faces that look a bit too fresh, and veterans of the San Diego Police Border Crime Suppression Team can spot the under-18s a mile off.

Juveniles are pulled out of the crowd individually, in pairs and in groups. Two young boys with slicked-back hair and earrings look no older than 12. A group of young girls in high heels is turned away and a young Latino boy is told he’s not allowed to enter Tijuana and walks back into California in disgust.

“It’s not fair,” says the boy, Omar from San Ysidro. He says he’s heading across the border to see his father, who lives in Tijuana.

“I think if it’s a Friday, we should be allowed to cross, to go to parties and stuff,” Omar says.

Sending 14-year-olds into the maelstrom of Tijuana’s entertainment district to go to “parties and stuff” is exactly why the police department sets up these roadblocks on busy weekends throughout the year, said Capt. Tony McElroy of the SDPD’s southern division, who was in charge of Friday’s operation.

“The main purpose is to prevent underage children from being involved in the parties and all that alcohol that is flowing down in Mexico,” McElroy said.

This evening some of the juveniles are simply turned away and told to go home. But if they have the wrong attitude, lie or otherwise give the police officers grief, the minors are brought behind the police barricade and questioned further. Officers with hand-held computers scan the youngsters’ IDs and complete field interview reports, or FI’s, which they hand back to the juveniles.

The police also contact parents and ensure the young people have some way of getting home safely.

Because it’s after 10 p.m., officers can also issue citations or even arrest anyone under 18 for violation of city curfew. Last weekend, 42 juveniles were arrested for curfew violations but this weekend, due to a lack of resources and personnel available, the police are simply writing FI reports for the offenders.

But the law enforcement team is not just looking for juveniles. The other main target of this phase of the operation is military personnel.

Junior enlisted personnel are not allowed to cross the border into Mexico unless they have authorization from their superiors and they are accompanied by a “buddy” — an individual who has been approved by their chain of command.

As the throngs of people press through toward Tijuana, a couple of imposing figures in jungle fatigues stand at the checkpoint and pick out potential Marines, sailors or soldiers.

“You can always tell them by their haircuts,” says Master at Arms Edward Rivera of the Navy Boarder Shore Patrol. “Chances are, if they have a buzz-cut haircut, they’re military.”

Suspected military personnel are brought aside to be questioned by the Shore Patrol. As the clean-cut young men stand, defiant, Rivera quizzes them over and over:

“Are you military?”

“What rank are you?”

“Who is your superior?”

Some of the military men — and this night they are all men — remain stubborn, insisting that they are civilians in from out of state. After a couple of chances, Rivera asks the men to open their wallets. Some have military IDs, others have military credit union ATM or credit cards.

“You’re busted,” Rivera says to one young man who has protested over and over that he is not in the military. “You wait ’til you get back to base, they don’t like people denying service.”

At about midnight it is time to pack up the checkpoint. The police have FI’d and turned away 24 juveniles. They have arrested eight juveniles, in from Costa Mesa, for breaking curfew and have turned away 17 people for being unable to prove they are old enough to enter Mexico on their own.

The Shore Patrol team has turned away 13 members of the military and has arrested another 13, mostly for denying military service.

It’s been a pretty average night so far and the police officers, sheriff’s deputies, University of California, San Diego police, probation officers, transit police and Shore Patrol team break for “lunch.”

Back at the southern division substation, Weeden enjoys a carne asada burrito and helps his fellow officers fill out the paperwork for the group of juveniles that were arrested for violating curfew. The gaggle of teenage girls sit in one interview room while their friend, a young man, sits in the room next door.

None of the kids seems particularly upset about being arrested. The girls are laughing and joking with the policemen and the young man sits, calmly, looking a bit baffled but not particularly upset.

MA3 Levertt O’Neal (U.S. Navy Boarder Shore Patrol) interviews a border-crosser to see if he’s an authorized member of the military. Photo: Will Carless

The girls don’t want to give me their names but they tell me they are in town from Costa Mesa and that they planned on heading down to Tijuana for the night, but never planned on drinking. They had no idea the police would be waiting for them at the border and, while they label the 10 o’clock curfew “ridiculously early,” they acknowledge that the police are probably doing a good thing.

One of the girls asks Officer Brett Punches what their punishment is likely to be. Punches tells them their parents are likely to get a $200 fine. Some of the girls’ sassiness evaporates but they keep their spirits up, joking and laughing about their predicament.

It’s 2 a.m.

The second phase of Operation Safe Crossing focuses on the fallout from the Tijuana party scene. Police officers set up camp in a trailer just outside the federal building that marks the entry point into the United States and set up a long fence beside the exit from the building. From this point on, anyone entering California must walk past at least a dozen police officers.

Inside the police trailer is a huge stack of plastic trash containers lined with bags. I ask what they’re used for.

“You’ll see,” Weedon says with a grin.

At 2:15 a.m. a few police officers, two heavyset deputy sheriffs and the usual border crossing security guards are standing inside the federal building, impassive, watching the trickle of people crossing into the United States. Some of the young people look a bit unsteady on their feet as they run the gauntlet past the officers and out into the chilly night where still more police personnel are waiting for them

I ask Weedon what he and the others are looking for.

“We’re looking for the obvious signs — people who can’t support themselves, who are being dragged along by their friends,” he says. “Also people who are already covered in their own vomit or urine. Or girls who have lost their shoes — that’s a telltale sign.”

At 2:34 a.m. the first casualty arrives. The young Latino man is wearing sunglasses but they can’t hide the stream of dribble that’s hanging out of the side of his mouth. He is being supported by two friends and can hardly walk. Two police officers walk over and handcuff him. His two friends seem rather relieved to see him go.

“Sleep it off,” they call after him.

The next person arrested is another young Latino man, probably in his early 20s, with two long braids hanging out of his black baseball cap. His oversized white T-shirt is filthy and as he looks up at the officers with blurry eyes, the young man almost falls into a deputy sheriff.

On go the cuffs, and the man’s sober girlfriend says, “I told you so. Go to detox and I’ll pick you up in the morning.”

Weedon looks at her and the two share a smile.

“She knows better,” he says. “I arrested her last week.”

At 3 a.m. the line of border crossers snakes out of the Mexican side of the building and people flow through the border turnstiles thick and fast.

I decide to take a look inside the trailer.

A row of young men sits along one wall, hands cuffed behind their backs. The wall behind the drunks looks like it’s rocking but it is the rhythmic sway of the men that creates the illusion of movement. Each man has a plastic bin between his legs and three are vomiting, violently. A police officer has covered a rogue pile of vomit with flour — they have run out of desiccant — and is scraping it up with a dustpan and brush. The air is thick with the smell of bile.

Half an hour later, the man with the braids has gone berserk. Punches tells me the man started by screaming abuse at the officers and the other drunk people in the trailer, so the police moved him into a squad car. Sgt Alex de Armas tells me that the man then spat into his face out of the car window. One of the officers then sprayed the man in the face with pepper spray.

By the time I get there, the man who has been sprayed is writhing on the floor in agony. The young man with the sunglasses who was the first person arrested that evening also turns out to be the first case to be turned over to the paramedics. By this point, he’s sprawled on the sidewalk behind the pepper spray victim and is covered from head to foot with his own vomit.

Sunglasses is deathly quiet. Pepper Spray can’t stop shouting.

“I didn’t do nothing, I didn’t do nothing,” he calls to the street. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

The paramedics arrive and, looking disgusted, wrap Sunglasses in a yellow plastic sheet and strap him to a gurney.

“Those guys love us,” says Punches sarcastically.

By 4 a.m. the crowd of young people is still pumping through but it has been joined by the occasional construction worker or laborer. The old, wrinkle-faced men look at the fashion and festivities all around them without emotion. They have seen all this before.

At 4:25 a.m., just as things are starting to quiet down a bit inside the federal building, a banshee-like howl shrieks through the terminal. Somewhere on the Mexican side of the building, a man is shrieking “Get off me, get off me, get off me,” in a voice that is so high-pitched it sounds barely human.

All the security guards sprint across to the Mexican side, followed by the burly deputies and a couple of police officers. Thirty seconds later, six security guards come through the gate holding a kicking, screaming bundle.

The young man looks about 22 or 23. He’s lost a sneaker and his shirt is pulled up over his belly. The cops place him on the floor and his head lolls to one side onto the cold tiled floor. As quickly as he began to scream, he’s silent, passed out in the corner of the room. One security guard stands over him while another dials 911. The paramedics are headed over again for their second casualty of the morning.

As the paramedics pick the man up, the screaming starts again, “Zed, get off of me, Zed get off of me.”

The medics hold the man down and place restraining straps over him. On goes the yellow plastic sheet and he rolls away like a Day-Glo body bag on wheels.

At 5:15 a.m. the first trolley of the weekend rolls into San Ysidro and the crowd that has been building for several hours seeps onto the train, glad to be out of the chilly morning air. As the crowd dissipates, two men square off against each other by the ticket machine, right in front of the police who swarm in and cuff them: Two more for the booking sheet.

At about 5:30 a.m., a group of tough-looking young men pushes through the glass doors of the federal building into the open air. The police officers stiffen instinctively. One of the group, a young black guy, points his nose in the air and sniffs.

“Free at last, free at last,” he says. “Smell that sweet American air.”

The officers and the group of men all laugh, cutting the tension, and the men move on and board the trolley.

By the time the night’s operation is over, the police have arrested 32 people and made 24 FIs. One man (Sunglasses) has been handed over to the paramedics for alcohol poisoning and two fights have been prevented or interrupted by officers.

Who knows how many drunk men and women have passed through the border. Nobody has counted how many thousands of juveniles have crossed illegally into Mexico in cars or buses. There’s no estimate of how many hundreds of over-the-limit drivers have escaped the throng of police officers assigned to the border.

“I’d say this was a typical Friday,” Punches says as the early morning sun starts to light up the slums on the hills above Tijuana.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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