Boulevard rancher Bernie Tucker often herds truant cows and goats back across the border to his Mexican neighbor--who receives his U.S. mail in Tucker's mailbox.
When Campo dry waller Bill Clevenger recently stayed in Tecate drinking margaritas past midnight--the hour the border crossing closes--he snipped the flimsy barbed-wire fence and drove home the back way.
The border in rural East County--nothing more than a four-strand cattle fence--is porous and always has been, but since the U.S. Border Patrol erected a solid steel-mat fence from Otay Mountain west to the beach, more and more drug traffickers have been barreling across the border to the east. Marijuana seizures for the San Diego sector are up three times over last year, and cocaine seizures are up tenfold.
Most of those seizures were made in the open desert between Tecate and Boulevard.
In the past two weeks alone, the Border Patrol's Campo station has reported seizing more than 4,500 pounds of marijuana from three vehicles that drove across the border onto the maze of rutted dirt roads that scar the scrub and sage on the U.S. side. On Monday, agents arrested a Tijuana man suspected of driving across with 302 pounds of the drug.
The increased activity has alarmed the loose community of goat herders, small-time ranchers, recluses and retirees, most of whom listen to Border Patrol chases on their personal scanners. Others have had to contend with vehicle chases that rammed right through their gates, as well as drug drop-offs on their property at night. Although most tolerate illegal immigrants crossing on foot--which the Border Patrol says is also on the rise in the area--the drug activity has frustrated some residents and frightened others.
L. C. Masterson, a 66-year-old World War II veteran who lives on a swatch of land south of Boulevard with an assortment of geese, horses, chickens and cows, has been hit hard by the upswing. His 13 acres hug the border, and his dirt drive connects Mexico with Tierra del Sol Road, one of the only blacktopped roads in the region and a straight shot to California 94 and Old Highway 80 for speeding smugglers.
Masterson put up two gates to seal off his property and keep his 10 cows from heading for the border when they break out of their wooden enclosure, but smugglers have been stubborn.
First a man in a fancy new Jeep Cherokee showed up at the gate. "He wanted to know if he could go through. He just kept on and on," said Masterson, a lanky man with two gold-capped teeth whose labored walk shows the mark of years. "I told him the gate was there because I wanted it there." Although he said he can't be sure, Masterson's hunch told him the man was a drug runner.
Grinning shyly, he said he "packs a piece" and wasn't afraid. The man finally left in search of another route, but Masterson's problems had only begun.
About three weeks ago, a truck involved in a Border Patrol chase tore through a cable on the side of his property and damaged his back gate. He fixed it.
The following Sunday, while Masterson was attending church in San Diego, it happened again.
A citizen reported seeing a black pickup drive through a hole in the fence near Masterson's land. Border Patrol agents caught up with the suspects on Interstate 8 and chased them back down Tierra del Sol--right through both of Masterson's gates.
Just before the truck reached Mexico, it got stuck. The two men inside bailed and fled across the border, leaving 2,033 pounds of marijuana behind.
"They just crashed on through," Masterson said, glancing at the twisted remnant of his back gate that still lay in the rutted road, about 40 feet closer to Mexico than it belonged. "I feel pretty bad about it. It's rather discouraging, to be honest with you. The fences hadn't been up a week yet."
Though a federal Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman said drug apprehensions are up nationwide, both the DEA and Border Patrol agree that the 10-foot-tall steel fence from Otay Mountain to the beach has pushed vehicle crossings east.
"We have a higher concentration (of law enforcement agents) in San Ysidro to combat drugs than we do out in Campo," DEA spokesman Jack Hook said. "If you put that together with the big border fence, they're going to have to go somewhere. It's like a balloon effect. You push it down in one area and it's going to pop up somewhere else."
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began building the Otay Mesa section of fence, made of surplus corrugated steel sheeting, in October.
"That has stopped a lot of the vehicle drive-throughs, where they've just come crashing through the holes in the fence. It's pushed the drive-through area east to the Campo region. In a lot of places there is no fence," Border Patrol spokesman Mike Gregg said.