Soldiers place concertina wire on the primary U.S.-Mexico border fence. / Photo by David Maung

When U.S. Customs and Border Protection took the extraordinary step of shutting down the San Ysidro Port of Entry during the busy Thanksgiving weekend, it cited security concerns raised by a group of migrants protesting in Tijuana.

But several border experts say U.S. officials’ response to the caravan’s arrival has itself created an opportunity for drug organizations in Mexico.

Most drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico come in through ports of entry or by sea, and the San Ysidro Port of Entry is a particularly large gateway for narcotics.

With the exception of marijuana, the flow of most illicit drugs across the border have been steadily increasing.

“It’s always a very cat-and-mouse game,” said Miguel Unzueta, a former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge of the San Diego sector, who retired in 2016.

Experts say that the arrival of thousands of Central American migrants to Tijuana and the new uncertainty at border crossings may be a boon to criminal organizations operating in Tijuana.

After the five-hour border closure on Thanksgiving weekend, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it confiscated $2.7 million worth of drugs and made nearly 40 arrests at the six ports of entry in Calexico and San Diego between Black Friday and the following Tuesday.

The weekend after Thanksgiving tends to be a particularly busy one at the border. The holiday not only results in families crossing the border to spend time with each other, but it’s one of the biggest shopping weekends. The large amount of traffic often facilitates more drugs coming in, since the high volume of people makes it more difficult to track everything.

Taking Advantage of Post-Closure Traffic

Drug smugglers often take advantage of uncertainty and chaos at the border, said Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Interamerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has been writing about ports of entry for more than a decade.

“For a long time it’s been discussed at the border how drug organizations do things based on capacities at ports of entry,” Heyman said. For example, right after a border closure, when people are poring through because of the backup, criminal organizations may try to send more drugs through, hoping that CBP officers will want to accommodate people who’ve been waiting by keeping the line moving.

In general, Unzueta said when he was working, the holidays were a slow time for drug trafficking. From the beginning of December to the beginning of January, it would seem like the smuggling organizations would take a break and there would be a lull during that season, he said.

“Drug smuggling orgs are only in it for profits so for the extent they can take advantage of what is happening at the border, they will,” Unzueta said.

This year, the holiday season is coinciding with a concentration of military officers at San Diego’s border, and in addition to the five-hour closure, there have also been several 10-minute closures so border officials could conduct highly visible “readiness operations,” where officers donned riot gear, apparently to prepare for the possibility of migrants storming the border.

The influx in security may mean drug organizations will lay low for a while, Unzueta said. But that temporary hold won’t really hurt them financially, he believes.

After border closures, or after the military personnel leave, they may try to take advantage of the additional stress on officers to try and get additional loads of drugs through.

Unzueta said that authorities know the smuggling organizations are always watching. They often send people with video cameras to the border to see what is happening.

“The drug organizations will always react to what they see law enforcement doing and in turn, law enforcement will try and be as unpredictable as possible,” he said.

Victor Clark-Alfaro, a lecturer at San Diego State and director of Tijuana’s Binational Center for Human Rights who has been doing fieldwork with smugglers since the 1980s, agreed that smugglers often take advantage of high volumes at the ports, during busy crossing times or perhaps after closures, hoping that officers will be so overwhelmed that they’ll be less diligent.

But CBP said that the amount of seizures and arrests this Thanksgiving weekend after the five-hour closure were nothing unusual.

“In addition to dealing with the arrival of a large caravan of migrants and the processing of asylum claims, CBP officers within the San Diego Field Office continue to seize narcotics and arrest wanted individuals all while performing their traditional duties of processing lawful trade and travel. CBP officers are dedicated to protecting the United States and keeping our communities safe,” said a CBP spokeswoman.

The $2.7 million worth of drugs seized this holiday weekend was far less than the previous year, when CBP officials seized nearly 842 pounds of narcotics valued at $8.3 million in the five-day span from the Thursday of Thanksgiving to the following Monday.

Destabilization in Mexico Is Good for Traffickers

Heyman said a bigger issue may be that what’s currently happening at the border – militarization, closures, the slow intake of asylum-seekers that forces many to wait in Tijuana – could further destabilize Mexico.

Tijuana has had more than 2,300 homicides so far this year – a record. The violence has largely been attributed to drug organizations battling for turf in the city after the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Loera Guzman.

“Central Americans are vulnerable,” Heyman said. “We are destabilizing Tijuana. We are destabilizing Mexico, we are making money for criminal organizations. We are encouraging predatory behavior.”

Clark-Alfaro, said that the current situation with the caravan in Tijuana is a boon for criminal organizations in the city.

Clark-Alfaro said Central American migrants themselves are unlikely to be used to smuggle drugs across the border – organizations usually use people who have permission to regularly cross into the United States. But a tremendous amount of illicit drug sales happen in Tijuana.

While some of the migrants have gotten jobs in Mexico and are trying to get visas, some could end up as both consumers and low-level workers in the criminal organizations.

Deportees and immigrants from other parts of Mexico are often targeted by criminal organizations in the city because they are vulnerable, in the city without money and often without a support system.

Additionally, since some deportees were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after spending time in local jails and prisons in the United States and thus have criminal records, they face discrimination in Tijuana. Many employers won’t hire them, with the exception of call centers that need workers with English skills.

“The criminal organizations would offer them work,” Clark-Alfaro said. “Often they’re used as lookouts to let people know if the police are coming.”

Central Americans haven’t been coming to Tijuana to cross into the United States for very long. They’ve traditionally gone through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to cross into Texas – a path that is shorter, but deadly for many Central Americans. The criminal organizations there, like Los Zetas, extract profits from Central Americans, requiring them to pay up or be tortured or killed. They often kidnap migrants and tried to get ransoms from their relatives in the United States.

One of the worst examples came in 2010, when Los Zetas kidnapped and massacred 72 migrants about an hour south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Creating a Vulnerable Class of Potential Buyers

The route to Tijuana is longer but safer for migrants, though Tijuana isn’t a safe city. The city has already hit record homicide levels this year with more than 2,400 deaths.

Clark-Alfaro, who has done much work with migrants in the city, said he believes that bringing so many vulnerable migrants to Tijuana may have been irresponsible and could result in some of them getting swept up in the city’s drug violence.

Some Central Americans have started working in the city, and are trying to get humanitarian visas from the Mexican government. Some of them have faced police brutality and discrimination.

Those with tattoos will be thought to be parts of Central American gangs and could face discrimination that could make it difficult to find jobs if they stay in the city, like deportees. The U.S. government has

While some caravan members have already started working in the city, the Central American migrants in the caravan have faced pushback from many Tijuana residents.

Clark-Alfaro speaks often with sex workers in Tijuana’s red-light district for research and said they have told him they’ve noticed an increase in Central American young men starting to come. Clark-Alfaro said he worries that these men could become potential consumers or sellers.

“Desperate, without the ability to cross into the United States, they’re candidates for criminal organizations,” Clark-Alfaro said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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