JACUME, Mexico — Javier Lopez glares at the steel border fence knifing eastward and wonders if it will split forever the unusual place he calls home--a pair of back-country towns that have existed nearly as one across an international divide.
"Jacumba and Jacume were united," Lopez said, clasping his hands as if in prayer. "There were never problems. Now we hope they don't cut off our freedom to cross."
For as long as anyone in this farming hamlet can remember, locals strolled freely through the old cow fence into Jacumba in eastern San Diego County to work, visit family members and stock up on goods that are not sold in their town.
But the era of low-key border enforcement in this boulder-strewn backwater is ending--the victim of increased immigrant-smuggling activity in the region attributed in great measure to successful crackdown efforts in more populous areas to the west.
The surest sign of this trend--and the hot topic in Jacume and Jacumba--is the 10-foot-high fence being built along a rugged border stretch where the two settlements touch in an otherwise desolate region of desert scrub.
Residents gather at the construction site to drink Budweisers and ponder what the fence will mean for the twin communities, which share numerous family links and a tradition of treating the border as little more than an abstraction.
People from Jacume with permits to work on the American side fret that they will have to relocate, or drive west to the crossing at Tecate--a route that would make a trip to Jacumba nearly 100 miles long.
The question on the lips of many locals is: Will the Border Patrol leave a gate so they can visit Jacumba?
"Absolutely not," answers Charles G. Dierkop, the Border Patrol agent in charge of the area.
Dierkop said Jacumba--population, about 600--is not a designated port of entry, so it is a violation of U.S. customs laws to cross there, despite the long tradition. U.S. immigration officials hope that the fence and an expected addition of more agents in the area will curb the flow of vehicles carrying illegal immigrants--and put a stop to the casual crossings by those with documents.
"We didn't make a fuss over it. Now it seems like it's being taken advantage of," Dierkop said. "How do I know a guy doesn't come across with a brick of drugs?"
Already the torrent of illegal immigrants through Jacume, which has about 300 people, has slowed, residents said. But the ordeal has left townspeople on both sides lamenting the loss of a more innocent time and feeling helpless before distant forces of politics, migration and out-of-town smugglers.
"It's because of the coyotes [the smugglers]," said Lopez, who has a green card and keeps a mobile home in Jacumba so his four children can attend American schools. "Because of their doing, we have the problems."
The geographic isolation that once bonded the two towns now may help yank them apart.
Crafty immigrant-smugglers in search of surer crossing routes have pushed east since the U.S. government launched Operation Gatekeeper to prevent illegal crossings around San Ysidro in 1994. During the past year, the Border Patrol and residents have reported heightened smuggling traffic in eastern San Diego County. The Clinton administration announced two weeks ago that it was adding 185 agents to clamp down along a rugged 16-mile stretch from Otay Mesa to Tecate.
As agents tightened the lid on the west, the towns of Jacumba and Jacume--outposts with sporadic drug smuggling in the past--watched a sudden avalanche of suspected smugglers pour through, residents said. A cluster of vacant buildings near the fence, including an abandoned Mexican customs house, became havens for people preparing to cross illegally.
Raul Gallego, 71, a Jacume resident who lives 100 feet from the border, said the vehicles snaking toward the crossing resembled a funeral procession.
"That's what it looked like--cars going to the United States," Gallego said. "Pickups. Vans. Cars."
The Border Patrol responded with construction of the mile-long fence and plans to add agents to patrol the area. The new barrier, made of steel panels welded to 10-foot posts, is welcomed by some U.S. residents weary of intruders trooping past. Last week, agents stopped a van loaded with 21 suspected illegal immigrants at a park in Jacumba less than a mile from the fence, Dierkop said.
"They're going to have to go farther east," said Jacumba resident Pete Severance. The retired oil distributor lives with his wife, Jeri, in a home that sits just 37 feet from the new fence. The couple said immigrants passing through their property have used their garden hose and trampled a bush but never caused serious trouble.
"[The fence] is a damn good thing to have," said another Jacumba resident who has reported smuggling activity to authorities. The man, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, blamed some Jacume residents, who he said helped smugglers for easy money. "There had to be something done," he said.