A heroin addict shooting up along the Tijuana River in Mexico. Image by © Louie Palu/ZUMA. Mexico, 2012.
Mexicans look through the U.S.-Mexico border fence into the United States from a Mexican beach west of Tijuana, Mexico. Image by © Louie Palu/ZUMA. Mexico, 2012.

My journey to Tijuana starts when I take a cab from Chula Vista, California, to the San Ysidro port of entry. I walk across with my bags, right past Mexican soldiers and customs officials. I do not have to show any identification or the contents of my bags.

Tijuana seems to have much more energy on its streets compared to other Mexican cities I have seen along the border. Only a few years ago Tijuana was ravaged by cartel violence, but it has been able to recover. Most people attribute this truce in fighting to the Sinaloa cartel that has now taken control.

The police and army presence is much less obvious than it is in many other cities I visit. I have not seen a single Federal Police patrol since I arrived. With many people on the streets you don’t feel the tension as you do in the more violent cities. I next went to “El Bordo,” aka the Levee, the concrete structure in the city on both sides of the Tijuana River.

The area first became well known for migrants who were homeless waiting to cross into the U.S. With heightened border security it is now mostly populated by deportees, many of whom are heroin addicts. Increasingly over the last several years more and more heroin has become available cheaply in Tijuana. Drug addiction on the Mexican side of the border has been skyrocketing as drugs sit longer on the border waiting for the right time to evade U.S. interdiction efforts. Many of the addicts say only the worst stuff is sold here—the high quality drugs all go north.

Several of the addicts in front of me are passed out and some are shooting up. They inject in several parts of their arms, some in their necks. Some mix a cocktail of meth and heroin and shoot up. Abraham Gonzalez from Guadalajara, age 30, and a father of three girls in the U.S., is injecting. Having lived in the in U.S. since he was one year old, originally in San Diego, he was deported several years ago.

Some addicts claim the local Mexican police abuse them. In one case they allege that the police burned blankets left for them by various community groups and government branches that help the homeless. Many addicts who live on the levee or in sewer exhausts say the police are trying to force them further down the river out of sight of the downtown core.

I visit an organization that operates a needle exchange program for addicts called “Prevent Casa” (House of Prevention), a Mexican NGO funded by various organizations such as the UN and Baja California Health Dept. I accompany three of the NGO’s staff on one of their weekly excursions to hand out bags full of syringes, injectible water (as some addicts once used sewer water to liquefy their heroin), condoms and various hygiene products.

Their rickety old van drives down a ramp into the levee on the river and passes a handful of addicts hobbling side to side like zombies. Some addicts begin to chase the van along with wild dogs in tow. Every time we stop mostly male addicts and the odd woman line up to re-supply themselves with the tools to get high again. Some are mentally ill, some shoot up as soon as they get needles, and others hand in numerous used needles. I lose count of how many addicts I see—it seems well over 80 addicts over a distance of approximately 2 miles.

As we move from one pocket of addicts to another I meet many deportees. One was a murderer and some are ex-gang members. The reality of this needle exchange program is that it is a stopgap measure to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted diseases in high-risk groups such as intravenous drug users. Sadly many of these addicts are beyond any rehab available, if any real effective rehab program really even exists here.

Some of the men I speak to have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives. Many of them became hooked on heroin while in the U.S. They were sent back to Mexico after falling into some sort of crime or being caught in an immigration violation. As the handing out of needles ends, one man shoots up and then does jumping jacks. The NGO packs up and we head back up the ramp and out of El Bordo.

Click on the markers for more information.

I wake up early and plan to cross the border by foot. The line is so long and snakes in so many directions it is impossible to see the end. People offer various more efficient ways to cross for different amounts of money. There is a micro-economy built around crossing that involves food, coffee and of course crossing faster. Many jump the line. No one complains. It seems to be a way of life. The line takes over two hours—it’s controlled normal chaos for everyone in line.

Once across, I take a trolley to San Diego and arrive at the rental car agency at the San Diego Airport. A line includes about 30 renters who just flew in from various parts of the U.S. Many are angry and frustrated that they have to wait 20 minutes for their rental. The young smiling man at the counter who helps me is friendly and funny and apologizes for the wait. We chat. He tells me he lives in Tijuana and travels the route I did everyday to get work.

Louie Palu is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation.

Project

Louie Palu explores the U.S.-Mexico border where violence runs rampant: What does it look like? How has the immigration policy evolved? And what are the economic and security issues?

Recently

September 12, 2014 /
Lauren Shepherd, Meghan Dhaliwal
Reviewers and exhibit-goers reflect on gun-violence photography juxtaposed against an extensive exhibit of arms and armor.
January 23, 2014 /
Louie Palu
Photojournalist tells how he began documenting a war closer to home-the U.S.-Mexico drug war-and what he thinks is missing in coverage of such issues.