By Barbara Zaragoza
El Nido de Las Aguilas is a Tijuana neighborhood located where the U.S.-Mexico border fence abruptly ends. Residents can go back and forth between the two countries, but the steep mountainous terrain makes crossing pointless, if not foreboding. People live quietly here with a few small convenience stores and public transportation that runs through the main streets every fifteen minutes or so.
Homes in this neighborhood are constructed mostly of recycled materials, such as tin, wooden garage doors and car tires. In a few parts of the neighborhood the border is used as a fourth wall for residents’ homes.
To get to the end of the border fence, you must climb a steep dirt hill glutted with makeshift homes. Once you arrive, the urban sprawl of Tijuana stops.
On the American side, the only human mark is an asphalt road. Residents of El Nido de Las Aguilas say that the border wall used to allow rainwater to flow evenly down the mountain and through their neighborhood. Then, construction crews came and built the road. That changed the existing landscape.
Residents remember how on an afternoon in February 2015 a flood came through their community, destroying three homes and filling many other houses with water and mud. Some residents maintain that border construction caused the damage.
One resident explained, “There used to be a hole under the wall and when they built that access road, they filled it in all the way to the bottom of the wall. That created a pressure that wouldn’t let the water go through. That’s when everything got flooded.”
Historic Floods At The Tijuana-San Diego Border
Periodic floods have been a reality for the San Diego-Tijuana region dating back to 1891 when Tijuana City—which existed near today’s San Ysidro Port of Entry—washed away. Residents fled to higher ground three hundred feet above sea level exclusively on the Mexican side. Floods again destroyed homes and neighborhoods in 1895, 1916, 1921, 1924, 1937 and even up until the 1990s. With El Niño expected to bring heavy rains during the next few months, flooding in this region once again is anticipated.
The unintended consequence of border construction, however, may make these neighborhoods even more susceptible to flooding. Another resident of El Nido de Las Aguilas said that if the border wall wasn’t there, the water “would find its own way. Every time someone builds something like that, it changes everything. If people built houses before the wall was there, so now their houses are in danger because the water can’t find its own way.”
A Brief History Of Border Building
Three wire strands were erected at the San Diego-Tijuana border in 1910, mostly to prevent animals from wandering back and forth between the two countries. Then in 1955, mostly due to Cold War fears, the government erected a chain link fence that ran from the Pacific Ocean to the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Over the course of a decade that fence wore down and border residents recall walking back and forth through its dilapidated holes. The Carter Administration vowed to re-erect a new chain link fence, despite protests in 1979 against what became known as the “Tortilla Curtain.”
In 1994 the chain link fence was replaced when the Clinton Administration’s Operation Gatekeeper erected recycled military landing mat stretching from El Paso to San Diego. This wall, however, couldn’t be contiguous because there were too many places along the line where the terrain became rough and dangerous. Sheer cliffs, for example, made building a wall impossible.
In 2008 under the Bush Administration the federal government built a secondary fence approximately 300 feet away from the existing military landing mat. It was a thick white concrete wall with concertina rolls on top.
Continuous Border Construction Since 2008
As El Nido de Las Aguilas shows, even that double wall doesn’t stretch contiguously throughout the entire border–it’s nowhere near this Tijuana neighborhood. Nevertheless, since 2008 border construction has been a regular reality. Construction is presumably contracted out by the Department of Homeland Security to the company Kiewit that has its cranes and equipment across from Donovan State Prison in East Otay Mesa.
Border construction typically goes unannounced and seems to have unlimited federal funding. How much construction contracts cost, when & where construction takes place, who authorizes the smaller contracts and for what reason: all these questions tend to be a mystery to the public. One example was in January 2015 when a small construction crew put up bollard fencing along what once was a sheer cliff near the Pacific Ocean. The crew razed down portions of the cliff to create a smooth access road.
If border construction caused flooding in El Nido de Las Aguilas last year, it would not have been the first time. In 2009 Gringo Pass Inc. in Lukeville, Arizona, sued Kiewit for flood damage after the company built a 5.2 mile steel mesh fence. Gringo Pass maintained that the border acted as a dam during a storm. Debris piled up against the fence, stopped subsurface water flow and caused a flood that damaged their property.
The likelihood of residents of El Nido de Las Aguilas proving their claim and suing Kiewit are slim. When homes in their neighborhood washed away last year, some residents moved away, others simply rebuilt. If El Niño hits this year, the reality is that the human costs to our Tijuana neighbors may end up going unnoticed.