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Exclusive: An Inside Look At America’s Most Protected Border

Mexican street signs point drivers toward California. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC) Mexican street signs point drivers toward California. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)  

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Guarding the southwestern-most point in the continental United States is considered a rare privilege for Border Patrol agents.

It’s not hard to see why.

The “still watch” agent who sits here for long hours in the driver’s seat of his truck is treated to some spectacular views.

To the north lies Southern California’s largest coastal wetland, stretching for miles. On a clear day, downtown San Diego rises on the horizon in full relief.

California's largest coastal wetlands sit between downtown San Diego and the southwest corner of the United States (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

California’s largest coastal wetlands sit between downtown San Diego and the southwest corner of the United States. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

To the west is the Pacific Ocean, unrelentingly beautiful with its tropical blue tones and legendary California sunsets.

To the east: a series of steep hills, including what Border Patrol agents call “Bunker Hill,” the site of an abandoned military lookout dating back to World War II.

That was when the United States was concerned about a Pacific invasion.

Now the government keeps its eyes on the south — on Mexico.

A Mexican bull-fighting stadium — Monumental Plaza de Toros — a short block from the border towers above the double-wall system erected by the U.S.

Just past the water’s edge, the fence comes to an abrupt end.

The fence comes to an abrupt end as it hits the ocean. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

The fence comes to an abrupt end as it hits the ocean. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

The Border Patrol agent camping out here sits with his car facing that spot, on the lookout for anybody who would attempt the easy swim around the barrier and into the United States.

A Border Patrol agent watches the southwest corner of the United States. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

A Border Patrol agent watches the southwest corner of the United States. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Overhead, a Border Patrol helicopter swoops by and hooks south to continue down the beach.

On this day, the ocean is putting on a show, with perfect curls breaking near the shoreline — presumably screaming out to surfers looking for a remote challenge. On the Mexican side, beachgoers relax and splash in the waves.

But nobody’s on the American beach here.

“The river’s so polluted, nobody really wants to go down,” Shawn Moran says, explaining that the ocean water is mixed with the endless pollution that fills the Tijuana River and flows out to the Pacific near this very spot.

A collection of makeshift tents sit on a currently dry section of the Tijuana River (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

A collection of makeshift tents sit on a currently dry section of the Tijuana River. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

The United States does its best to treat it where the river touches U.S. soil, he explains, but the treatment plant can’t catch it all.

Hundreds of people roam around the currently dry basin of the Tijuana River. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Hundreds of people roam around the currently dry basin of the Tijuana River. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Moran is an 18-year veteran of the Border Patrol and the national spokesman of that agency’s powerful union. Ninety-five percent of Border Patrol agents are members of the union — the highest membership rate among government labor groups.

He drives a weathered Nissan Pathfinder and during a bumpy ride on the restricted-access gravel road between the two American-built walls, he reveals that even the most fortified looking sections of the border are breached each day.

They try everything, he says.

They’d have to.

The wall nearest Mexico is constructed out of old “landing mats” — sheet metal structures that were once used to patch up divots on battlefield landing strips. Now the material stands on its edge, each piece welded to another, snaking up and down the treacherous hills and valleys that dominate this section of the border.

The border wall nearest Mexico is built out of old "landing mats." (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

The border wall nearest Mexico is built out of old “landing mats.” (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

It wouldn’t be hard to scale this first wall — a simple ladder or a boost from an amigo can get anybody up and over.

At some spots, horizontal panels of the wall are punched out. The holes — created by the Border Patrol — are just big enough to see through, but not to climb through. They were cut out as a safety measure, Moran says.

Before the holes were cut out, agents weren’t able to see where the rock attacks were coming from. Now, at least, they can see their assailants.

Rocks — such primitive weapons. It almost seems impossible that someone would use them to attack an armed agent. But for this section of the border, they represent one of the biggest challenges these men and women face every day.

Border Patrol agents patrol the space between the walls. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Border Patrol agents patrol the space between the walls. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

As he winds along the border, there are times when Moran seems wary to be driving through areas known for the stone slingers. He points out one such spot near the heavily trafficked San Ysidro port of entry.

It’s a location where illegal immigrants who successfully outmaneuver the Border Patrol can easily evade capture once they blend in with the huge Mexican population congregated on the American side of the border.

Moran’s voice drops a few decibels as he stares out the window. “You’re so close to the fence that it’s a huge ‘rocking’ area, so I always get a little nervous.”

He points to his skull. “I almost took a rock to the head right here.”

“We’ve had agents who have been seriously injured. Luckily, none of them have been killed by rocks, but it’s a real possibility.”

The innermost wall is an intimidating barrier, made of hard mesh-like material that acts as the connecting tissue between towering steel beams. Triple stacked barbed-wire lines the top. Watchful cameras and sensors seem to be everywhere.

Two walls separate Mexico from the United States in Southern California. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Two walls separate Mexico from the United States in Southern California. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

But for all its impressive hardware, even the inner wall lacks complete stopping power.

The fence is littered with the evidence — thousands of patched-up scars, all remnants of past attempts at cutting through with whatever tool an enterprising illegal immigrant can get his hands on.

Thousands of patches line the inner fence. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Thousands of patches line the inner fence. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

“You name it, they will try and use it,” Moran explains. “Circular saws, reciprocating saws, hacksaws — whatever they can do to try and get through it. … They’ve tried to use vehicle jacks to spread things apart. … They tried to use acid to eat away at the concrete.”

“They have all day to come up with ideas,” he says.

The Border Patrol employs a team of workers dedicated to patching up the fence every single day. Moran drives past a fence worker who’s welding shut a fresh gash.

A worker repairs a fresh gash in the border fence. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

A worker repairs a fresh gash in the border fence. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Every so often, a small rectangular cutout appears along the fence line — again, for deterring rock attacks.

Agents use those ports to fire non-lethal pepper ball guns at rock throwers who invade the space between the two walls.

A cut out square in the border fence allows the Border Patrol to fire pepper ball guns at assailants. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

A cut out square in the border fence allows the Border Patrol to fire pepper ball guns at assailants. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Those walls, while designed to keep people out, can also pose a safety hazard to the agents who patrol between them. The American agents are always prepared for physical confrontations — especially with illegal immigrants who have a lot to lose by being captured.

It’s not just the rock attacks.

“We’ve had agents shot, we’ve had them stabbed. There are people who are willing to do whatever they have to do so that they don’t get caught.”

Those people often include criminals who are wanted by Mexico or the U.S., human traffickers and drug smugglers.

Agents who come face-to-face with bad actors are typically outnumbered and far from an easy retreat into the United States.

Also, it seems no one has a partner. Every couple thousand feet, Moran exchanges a friendly wave with the lone occupant of a stationary Border Patrol vehicle.

A Border Patrol agent sits at a still watch position overlooking the Tijuana River. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

A Border Patrol agent sits at a still watch position overlooking the Tijuana River. (Photo: Vince Coglianese/TheDC)

Many agents pass the time by listening to talk radio — it’s a very conservative workforce. Occasionally they’ll get out to stretch their legs and comb for footprints, only making them more vulnerable.

“I think most people don’t really realize what it’s like,” Moran contends. “They hear things from the administration and a lot of people pay lip service to it.”

“When you’re a Border Patrol agent by yourself, you’re almost always outnumbered,” he says, “and you’re stuck in between a fence, and the decision you might have to make in a split second is often second-guessed — dissected by people who have little to no law enforcement experience or any experience that would relate to this.”

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Meanwhile, in south Texas, Central American immigrants continue to flow across a far-less protected border.

“We’ve arrested about 60,000″ Central American juveniles already this year, Moran says.

And why do they say they’re coming to America?

“Originally what we’d heard was violence and bad economic conditions,” Moran recounts, “but now, it’s overwhelming — probably about 70 percent are telling us it’s because they’ve heard from a friend or a family member that they’ve heard you could come here and you’ll be released.”

“So the overwhelming message is that we’re not enforcing immigration laws here — that permits or permisos are being handed out. So that’s what we’re seeing.”

Moran says that while “permisos” aren’t being handed out — a point the Obama administration has been quick to make — these young migrants are still getting what they want.

“They might not be giving out permisos, but they are releasing juveniles to family members pending an immigration hearing, which may be two to three years away,” he says. “So it’s still accomplishing what the illegal aliens are looking to accomplish.”

“Some will qualify for asylum. Most will not. But the ones who don’t probably won’t even show up for the hearing.”

And with so many children in U.S. custody, many Border Patrol agents have been pulled off patrolling the border to care for the families.

“We all know it’s part of the job,” Moran explains. “Once you catch somebody, you have to take care of them. But we’re just concerned that — especially in south Texas — it’s so overwhelming right now that almost half our people are doing non-patrol duties.”

With so much of the workforce acting as childcare providers, Mexican cartels have only increased their activity, he says.

“The cartels are taking advantage of it and using it to occupy border patrol agents, distract us so that they can go way outside of where all the juveniles and families are crossing. And they can bring their drugs across unimpeded.”

Since the Central American influx really exploded earlier this year, Moran says the Border Patrol agents he talks to have seen an explosion in drug trafficking as well.

“We’ve seen an increase in the amount, in the loads, just in terms of weight coming across,” he says. “The problem that they’re relying upon is that we’re unavailable to go work some of those more distant areas where they’re bringing the drugs through. I’ve talked to agents out here and they’ve said that the coke and the meth loads that they’ve seen has doubled or tripled.”

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