The driver of the stretch limousine, red-blue-striped tie on a white shirt, is waiting for his guests. They come from the other side of the border and will descend in one of the restaurants advertised by the limousine: Las Chavelas, Hotel Cascadas or Hong Kong Gentlemans Club. Places with expensive champagne and half-naked women. Immediately behind the long vehicle, a few commuters stumble through the metal revolving door. They were still in the USA, now they are in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s the end of the day and the cross-border commuters come home. Many of them are Mexicans, but Americans have also established themselves here. They can no longer afford to rent in the United States.
On the road towards San Diego, as always, the cars jam. Tijuana is considered one of the most frequented border crossings in the world. People queue for hours until the authorities check papers, film faces and often search cars with dogs.
While some want to enter the US, others are thrown out. Almost every day, a bus with deportees parks at the gates of Tijuana. At the border, the men are handcuffed and shackled, then they go through the revolving door to the new, old freedom: Bye bye United States of America, Bienvenido México! Deportees have to wait ten years before they can re-enter the United States legally. But because many of them have long since established themselves in North America, they do it like the desperate refugees from Central America or Africa: they cross the Green Border.
The list on the line
It is just after seven o’clock in the morning, still it is quiet at La Linea, the border fence in Tijuana. The first migrants sat down under the motorway bridge on the Trottoir, they remained silent and watched. On the site of the Mexican Border Guard, directly opposite, a few men and women line up under a parasol and place a list on the table: a thick book with names and numbers, sometimes scribbled only in pencil. Under the motorway bridge, the rumour is circulating that a few of them will finally be let through today.
That has not been the case for the past few days. “On five out of ten days,” Greg tells us, who comes by every day to distribute porridge for free, “not a single person was let through. That’s why people are starting to get nervous.”
Lubrication under the parasol
The list system has been in place in the Mexican border town of Tijuana for about two years. All new arrivals receive a four-digit number, are noted and then have to wait until their number is called. The aim of the exercise: to create a kind of buffer zone between migrants and the actual border, according to aid organizations, there is no legal basis for this.
In the beginning, the process lasted a few days, then a few weeks, but now the migrants wait for months before they can speak to the U.S. authorities. Until recently, a Venezuelan who has been stranded in Tijuana since the end of May tells us that the list was publicly available. Everyone could see when they were called. “That is no longer the case. There is arbitrariness and the people who manage the list are lubricated.”
This observation is confirmed by eyewitnesses. A volunteer from San Diego tells us that she saw a pregnant woman give a man under the umbrella 400 dollars and was promptly let through.
A humanitarian drama has been unfolding on the Mexico-U.S. border for years. For Donald Trump, however, this is not a problem, but a campaign issue. What the president’s foreclosure policy is doing is reflected in the deaths of those migrants who have not made it across the sea, through the river, or through the desert. “Everything is being done to deter or rub off migrants,” says Greg, drawing porridge into a homeless man’s cardboard cup. In the United States, it was not at all clear what hardships these people had taken on and the dangers they had been exposed to. “Now they are here, and they cannot simply go back the long way.”
Greg believes that Tump’s delay policy is aimed solely at provoking an escalation on the Mexican border. Then, he is convinced, the US has a reason to close its borders.
2681, 2682, 2683 …
Suddenly the table empties under the umbrella and two women pose behind the barriers: one with the list in hand, the other with a megaphone. Behind them are a few stocky men who repeatedly insist that they are not photographed. In the meantime, around 150 migrants have gathered in front of the area, most of them from Africa, Central and South America and Haiti. Then the numbers are called: 2681, 2682, 2683. The callers walk past the two women and sign some papers on the way to the USA.
Later, Guerline Josef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, one of the many aid organizations on the ground, tells us that up to seventy people were let through every day. Today it is ten to twenty, sometimes less.
The Mass Grave in the Jungle
After a few minutes, the women retreat with the list back under the umbrella and the crowd slowly dissipates. Jeremy from Liberia has seen us photograph the scenes at the border crossing and stops. Are you a journalist?," he asks in English, and then says: There is a lot to tell. Without much fuss, Jeremy pulls up the sleeves of his skinny sweater and shows off his two elbows. Scars from stab wounds, along with a broken collarbone.
Those who did this to him demanded that Jeremy take part in a ritual murder and drink the blood of the slain man. In some African countries, such occult rituals are still practiced. This is what is expected to be extraordinary forces. “I am a Christian,” Jeremy says several times during the conversation, “I cannot possibly participate in such rituals.” The 39-year-old paid for his refusal with torture. And while people from his entourage kept disappearing without a trace, Jeremy realized that the only way to live on is to escape.
Like many other migrants from Africa, he bought a plane ticket to Quito. Unlike other Latin American countries, it is very easy to enter Ecuador. It was the beginning of a several-week odyssey, on foot and on the bus. Between Quito and Tijuana are several thousand kilometers.
Jeremy smeared the border guards in Colombia and also paid his smugglers for the most difficult part of the journey: the five-day march through the jungle in the border area between Colombia and Panama. With well over a thousand other men and women, he had been on the road, waved through swamps and swam through rivers. At night, he tried to sleep as well and safely as possible for a few hours. Those who had no water and nothing to eat drank from the river and ate what they found – or became part of the mass grave. “I’ve seen well over a hundred dead,” says Jeremy. Stayed lying on the side of the road.
A month and a half ago, he arrived in Tijuana and received a number: just over 3800. Today he sleeps in an apartment and shares kitchen and bathroom with other men from Africa. Money is sent to him by friends and family who have lived in the US for a long time. “Otherwise I couldn’t survive here. After all, I don’t have a work permit.” And the walk across the Green Border is out of the question for him either. “I want to abide by the law here.”
The people from Africa who are waiting for entry in Tijuana come from Eritrea, South Sudan, Senegal, Liberia or Congo. The largest community, however, comes from Cameroon. According to the online portal “Heraldo de Mexico”, hundreds more migrants from the East African state arrived in Tijuana in mid-July. Many of them have no money for food or a roof over their heads. But staying in Cameroon was not an option for them. Because they belong to the English-speaking minority, they were persecuted, oppressed or tortured by the French-speaking majority for months. Civil war is now raging. According to the UN, there are more than half a million displaced people.
Go to Canada!
They include those Cameroonians who have set up in a run-down house on the other side of the Rio Tijuana, just a few metres from the tourist ‘security corridor’. Jeff, in his early 50s, is also standing in front of the house. He is also originally from Cameroon, but has lived in San Diego for more than twenty years. Today he crossed La Linea to see what he can do for his fellow refugees, as he says.
Apparently he had to drink some courage, his breath smells strongly of alcohol. “I’ll tell you,” Jeff begins, gesticulating wildly, “it doesn’t help if you want to go to the United States. There only death is waiting for you. Better is Canada, where entry is much easier.” The men who listen to him, model him from top to bottom. He may be one of them, but he has not been threatened or tortured in recent months, nor has he had to go through the jungle.
The dead sister in her arm
A little off the beaten track, we ask one of the listeners, barely older than 25, the baseball cap deep in the face, whether the horror stories from the Panamanian jungle are actually true. He takes his phone out of his pocket and shows us two videos. In the first, about a dozen Africans wade through a river. Some of them have the water up to their chests, others up to their necks. They carry their belongings on their heads.
The second video shows a young man standing in the water. But instead of his belongings, he holds the lifeless body of a woman in his hands. “That’s his sister,” says the Cameroonian wearing a baseball cap, waiting a few more seconds for him to push the video away. The man on the screen screams and cries into the camera, trying to get his sister’s soaked bra right. At least now that it is no longer, it should regain its dignity.
The helpers with their backs to the wall
If you want to go to the Espacio Migrante Cultural Centre, you must first pass a bouncer. He asks for the name, ID and reason of the visit and then checks with his superiors whether or not to open the heavy metal door. A high fence was built around the building, a few metres from La Linea. It is intended to protect migrants who seek legal advice, participate in individual or group therapies, attend English or Spanish courses or stay overnight in the hostel. The Mexican migration agency has recently been patrolling Tijuana, accompanied by the military. It checks passports and papers and locks up those people who do not meet the requirements. They are the harbinger of what all the country’s border towns will expect in the coming weeks. The government in Mexico City has since yielded to pressure from Washington and ordered 15,000 Guardia Nacional forces to crack down on migrants.
Racism in Tijuana
After a few minutes, Paulina Olvera Céez, founder and president of the non-profit organization Espacio Migrante, welcomes us. Just a few days ago, Paulina says, a pickup truck drove by the migration agency, in tow a military vehicle. “Over forty minutes they watched what was happening around the cultural center.” The next day, a resident of Espacio Migrante was arrested on the open road, yesterday the whole thing was repeated with a man from Haiti. Both were released thanks to the intervention of lawyers.
“Of course, this has caused great fear among our residents,” says the 31-year-old. Individuals hardly leave the accommodation and hope that their number will soon be called at the border crossing. Others are preparing to stay in Tijuana for a longer period of time. “The city is no longer just a transit point,” Paulina says. “Tijuana is the catchment basin of those who have not made it to the USA, but for which a return to their homeland is not an option.” The local authorities would have a hard time with this new situation. “There is little willingness to grant migrants their basic rights, for example when it comes to education,” says the Mexican. ““It’s more likely to be ignored or discriminated against.”
Dirt work in the USA
In southern Mexico, on the border with Guatemala, controls were tightened as early as June– in part by state security forces, who are barely trained in dealing with migrants. That is why local aid organisations are on high alert and are trying to record any violation of human rights in writing.
A closer look will now be taken at the northern border as well, and migrants will be better informed about their rights, says Paulina Olvera Coez. “In Mexico, migrating is not an offence. Our country is simply doing the dirty work of the United States. But the responsibility for the current situation lies in Washington.” Finally, it was the US government that supported the coup in Honduras in 2009, for example, and still holds the bar for various presidents of Central America – even though their countries are in poverty and violence. Sink. “The U.S. government doesn’t want to realize,” says the specialist in Latin America, “that a large part of migration is triggered by its aggressive foreign policy.”
Hardly any space left in the accommodations
A few hundred meters west of Espacio Migrante stands another of the nearly twenty refugee shelters in Tijuana. In this area of the city, the trottoirs are wiped off, puddles of engine oil line the roadside. Near the entrance to the property, a young family from El Salvador walks past a man who is putting a syringe in his knees.
A journalist and a photographer from the USA leave the office of José Maria Garcia Lara, short for Chema, who is a popular interlocutor because of his experience and openness. The 52-year-old is the director of Juventud2000, a citizens' initiative that houses around 140 people in its tents. Many of the inhabitants are from Honduras and El Salvador, until recently they lived on the other side of La Linea. They were deported a few hours or days ago and face nowhere.
Chema is concerned about the Announcements by the U.S. Government that it will soon be pronouncing massive Mexican sans-papers. Initially, it was said that around 2,000 people in twelve US cities would be targeted. “We are not prepared to take in so many people at once,” Says Chema, referring to the high occupancy of Tijuana’s hostels. He himself could take in a maximum of ten people.
Rumours are currently circulating in the city that the central government wants to start building a huge accommodation soon. However, it is not known when and where.
Clothes wash in the cloake
The arrivals and deportees, to whom no one from the family regularly sends money, ultimately have only one option: the road. At the Rio Tijuana, a few migrants have set up at a shaft, despite the unbearable stench. Some wash their clothes in the toilet, others have long since given up, possibly years ago. They sleep on park benches, eat from garbage cans and have self-talk.
“This is the other side of the current migration policy,” comments Chema, “those that no one wants to hear and that no one wants to talk about. At some point, people are so desperate that they fall into depression, consume alcohol and drugs, and end up in the gutter.”
Those who manage to leave the misery of Tijuana behind beforehand usually do so quietly. “It is very rare for migrants to say where they are going next,” says the director of the citizens' initiative.
Pregnant women out of the freezer
Maria has made it to the other side of the border. After several weeks of escape together with her husband, she spent the last three nights in one of the so-called “ice boxes” on the outskirts of San Diego. She left her village in the province of Michoacan on Mexico’s Pacific coast because of bloody fighting there for years. In the middle of the firing line is her family’s house. Time and again, she had to hide under the bed during the shootings, says Maria. At some point, the situation became unbearable. Then Maria and her husband packed their belongings and set off for California. Family members and neighbors are already there, “yes almost half the village”.
They waited in Tijuana for more than two months for their number to be called. Then the two were separated: the man came into a cell tract for men, Maria in one for children and women, many of them pregnant. There, the air conditioning system was therefore called “Ice Box” around the clock. The light also burned without interruption. “You didn’t know if it was day or night,” recalls Maria, “the cell had no windows.” She shared the room with eight other people, as well as the toilet, which was also in the 20-square-metre cell, separated only by a waist-high wall with no door.
The cold was unbearable, “but our requests to turn off the air conditioning were ignored.” One of the women had been in the “ice box” for more than ten days and had severe breathing problems. But the doctor, after asking for it, never showed up.
Worrying about the husband
“Everything is being done to deter or rub off migrants,” said Greg, the young activist with the oatmeal. Maria was deterred and bruised. But after three days, she was suddenly released and put on a bus to Los Angeles. Even the ticket for the onward journey was paid for, apparently by a relative in the USA. In other than her suitcase, mobile phone and the clothes she wears, she left everything in Michoacan.
The man in her tout tells all this early in the morning at “Dennys”, an American restaurant chain, while she waits for the next bus. As soon as the sun rose on this 4th of July, the Independence Day of the USA, parents flock to the restaurant with their children and order huge breakfast satmen. Maria sips on her cup of coffee, doesn’t really like to eat the pancakes. After her stay in the “Ice Box” her stomach is confused and she worries about her husband. He is still awaiting his release in his cell in Tijuana. Whether he will witness the birth of his first child in the United States is uncertain. Maria is seven months pregnant.
Some Names of helpers and refugees changed.