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BEYOND THE LAW

A `Black Hole' on a Porous Border

Corrupt police and complicit citizens make Jacume a forbidding redoubt where smugglers of drugs and immigrants operate with a sense of impunity. `They own the place,' says a Mexican official.

May 21, 2006|Robert J. Lopez, Richard Marosi and Rich Connell | Times Staff Writers

After snaking through town, the SUV rolled up to the international divide, where a pickup truck waited. Its driver yanked open a section of rusty fence that had been pre-cut by smugglers.

A hand-painted sign on the Jacume side of the border fence bade the migrants farewell: To the north is work and prosperity, but don't forget where you came from.

The SUV driver shot through the gap toward Interstate 8, a couple of miles away.

A short while later, a Border Patrol anti-smuggling team saw the SUV driving slowly and a California Highway Patrol officer pulled the vehicle over. As the officer stepped out of his car, the SUV driver made a daring move. He switched off the lights and raced up an offramp heading west toward San Diego in eastbound lanes.

CHP officers chased the vehicle. Up ahead, more patrol units weaved across lanes with their lights flashing, trying to hold back traffic and prevent a head-on crash.

Spike strips were thrown on the road. But the Suburban sailed over the devices. The migrants inside later told investigators the SUV had hit speeds as high as 90 mph. One remembered praying as sirens blared and lights flashed around them. "Get down and don't move!" the driver yelled in Spanish.

Seconds later, he smashed into a patrol car. The SUV veered to a halt and the driver bolted into heavy brush, escaping toward the border.

Five migrants were rounded up. They identified the driver as 26-year-old Jovanni Mendoza, according to court records.

Border Patrol agents had a thick folder on Mendoza, court records show.

In 2002, he was arrested by Border Patrol agents after a foot chase north of Jacume, suspected of driving a van crammed with 31 illegal immigrants. He was released after the migrants refused to identify the driver.

Last spring, Border Patrol agents fired at a blue Suburban registered to Mendoza as it allegedly tried to run them down at a U.S. checkpoint northwest of Jacume. The SUV took off on the wrong side of Interstate 8. Agents could not identify the driver.

A week after the wrong-way crash, Border Patrol received reports of a Suburban on a suspected smuggling run near the same stretch of Interstate 8. A vehicle matching that description was stopped at a checkpoint.

Mendoza was behind the wheel. He now faces 12 counts of smuggling humans and drugs and has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in San Diego. His arrest has done little to slow the pace of cross-border crime in Jacume.

Earlier this month, residents alerted Border Patrol agents when they saw a vehicle using metal ramps to drive over a low section of the fence near Jacume. When the vehicle fled, agents threw spike strips on the road, shredding its tires. The vehicle lost control and flipped. One thousand pounds of marijuana was found inside.

Within days, two more loads of marijuana -- 700 pounds each -- were intercepted coming out of Jacume.

"There's no bottom to their well," said a Border Patrol agent, standing guard one evening near the bullet-riddled fence below the A-frame house. "It just keeps coming."

Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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