Friday, November 20, 2009

Crossing the Border

by Jean Mead

Drug detection has changed since I covered the Mexican border as a San Diego news reporter. At that time a tall chain link fence marched along the border with large holes cut in strategic areas. The border patrol acquired a small Bell helicopter to patrol the area in 1977, after 23 years on the waiting list, and I was fortunate to have been one of the first from a crowd of reporters to fly in the new chopper, along with a TV cameraman.

What we saw were hundreds of trails leading from the border to dirt hovels from San Ysidro to San Diego, where illegals lived while they looked for a job. Anyone who has driven to Tijuana remembers the long lines and equally long wait to cross back into this country because border agents are searching for drugs and other contraband.

One late night a dark blue van attempted to cross the border with a ton of marijuana on board. The driver might have gotten away with it if he hadn’t tried to run the border without his headlights. No drug sniffing dogs were employed at that time although I’m sure the scent of that much pot was detectable from half a mile away.

Smugglers hide their contraband in strange places--in tires, the engine bay, front and back differentials, seats and exhaust systems. So border patrol agents are allowed to completely dismantle a suspicious looking vehicle without benefit of a search warrant. Customs and Border Protection agents (CBP) are trained to recognize the slightest modifications to cars and trucks, and when they spot one, the driver is pulled over.

One Sunday my family piled into an old VW bug to make the trip from San Diego to Ensenada on the Baja Peninsula. We decided to take the old bug because car accidents south of the border are not covered by most American insurance companies, even if your car is totalled by a native driver. On the return trip, we were pulled over at the border because we were riding in a disreputable looking car. We had to stand by on the hot asphalt as agents conducted a thorough search. An hour later we were allowed to cross the border.

Now, drug sniffing dogs make searches easier for CBP agents. Smugglers, in an attempt to disguise the scent of marijuana, run it through a trash compactor and pack the 4 x 6 inch blocks in plastic garbage bags. Although the contraband used to be transported in large vehicles, smugglers currently use their own cars filled with friends or family members to disguise the purpose of their trips. They’ve also been known to smuggle drugs in motorcycle and bicycle tires.

In addition to marijuana, the Mexican border is the the main thoroughfare for cocaine traffic—some 90% that enters the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.

Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, American citizens must now carry a passport, passport card or RFID (electronic chip)-enabled ID. Prior to last June, only a driver’s license and birth certificate were sufficient identification.

If you’re contemplating a trip by car to Mexico, don't bring along the following items: pets without proof of vaccinations, more than one laptop, prescription medicine without a prescription, and firearms without a previously applied for hunting license.

Remember to have your I.D. documents handy and resolve to be both patient and flexible on both sides of the border.


Anonymous said...


Was your stint as a San Diego reporter before or after you lived in Hanford? Interesting post!

Mexico was one of two places I avoided like the plague when I was a travel agent. My customers loved it, for some reason. The other place I avoided was Russia -- after I heard tales of Aeroflot stewardness with hairy under arms and sidearms strapped to their hips, nothing else I heard tempted me to go to Russia. (-:

Pat Browning

Helen Ginger said...

We used to zip across the border to go to border cities, eat dinner, or visit the shops and museums. Not any more. I haven't been south of the border in a couple of years.

Straight From Hel

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting list. We drove to the border a while ago, but were still on UK passports then so we didn't cross.

Jean Henry Mead said...


It was several years after Hanford. A few trips across the border were enough for me although it was fun to practice my high school Spanish.


There's no such thing as zipping across the border from San Diego. You need to spend hours in the process.


Anonymous said...


In the late 60s or early 70s, a Hanford friend hired Leo Watson to fly a party of four to Tijuana. It was a short, scenic hop to San Diego, and from there we simply walked across the border.

We had called ahead and were told there were bullfights that day. Surprise. No bullfighrs. My rude awakening to the fact that tourist desks/cabdrivers/guides will tell tourists what they want to hear.

I wouldn't have touched food or drink with a 10-foot pole that day, but I bought some gorgeous big paper flowers. Had them for years. Wish I still had them. (-:

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

The US now has an electronic surveillance wall from balloons tethered at high altitude along the border. The equipment on these balloons can detect virtually any flying object, but has limited affect on people crossing on foot. Regardless of how many inventions we come up with to control the border, there will always be ways to get around them. Perhaps it’s time we re-think the immigration and drug issues by figuring out ways to tax drugs and control the immigrat flow.