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Why Tijuana's 'Tunnel People' Take The Risk


Across the border from California, hundreds of people live in storm drains beneath Tijuana, Mexico. They dream of entering or returning to the United States. They're hiding from police who would put them in jail, in rehab centers or on buses out of town. Here's KPBS Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero.

JEAN GUERRERO, BYLINE: The tunnels that stem from the Tijuana River canal rumble with the sound of cars speeding above on the Via Rapida, Tijuana's busiest highway. Jose Alberto Zavala sleeps on a damp mattress in the dark here.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA: (Through interpreter) I live here because I'm an immigrant here and I don't have anywhere else to live. They see us outside and the police pick us up.

GUERRERO: Zavala is one of hundreds of people, indigent and with few other options, living in Tijuana's literal underworld. The police conduct weekly raids that sometimes end in bloodshed.


GUERRERO: Zavala shows me where he and others have recently erected wooden crosses on the highway. They're in memory of friends hit by cars while running from police.

ZAVALA: (Through interpreter) Because of their fault, they've killed so many friends of mine - the 18, also Chapitas and the guy from Oaxaca. But I don't know why.

GUERRERO: Officials say the tunnel dwellers hurt tourism and commit crimes. For years, about a thousand lived out in the open. They slept in makeshift tents along a section of the Tijuana River canal adjacent to the border. Many had families in the U.S. and clung to the dream of re-crossing, but increased border security caused them to stagnate in Tijuana.

Last spring, the mayor forced everyone out of this homeless encampment and into drug detention facilities. Hundreds escaped or were released from these centers. They're now back in the canal. Police continue placing them in rehab, jail or on buses out of town. Zavala says police leave the tunnel dwellers with no choice but to turn to petty crimes.

ZAVALA: (Through interpreter) Where do you want me to sleep if you don't let me work? If I go collect cans, you pick me up. If I go to the dumpster, you pick me up. Why am I so filthy? Because you don't even give us a chance to bathe. What do you want me to do, official, sir?

GUERRERO: Tijuana's police chief, Alejandro Lares, was asked to resign a few weeks after I interviewed him for this story. He said he planned to flush everybody out of the canal in the coming weeks.

CHIEF ALEJANDRO LARES: It's a no man's land. So for that, it's easier for them to buy drugs, sell drugs and obviously to consume drugs.

GUERRERO: When asked about alleged police beatings, he says he doesn't know of any. But if they're happening, he says migrants should file a complaint so that he can investigate.

LARES: I'm not going to tolerate any abuse from an officer to a citizen.

GUERRERO: Human rights activists in Tijuana call the city's treatment of homeless migrants a humanitarian crisis.

DARINKA CARBALLO: (Through interpreter) Homeless people are considered a bad image for the city.

GUERRERO: That's Darinka Carballo, a Mexican lawyer who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping migrants in Tijuana.

CARBALLO: (Through interpreter) It's important for all of us to have the same rights, and not just because you don't have an ID or passport you longer have access to the protections of the law.

GUERRERO: Later on in the canal, about 40 people gathered around campfires in the dark. Many bore wounds they said were from recent police raids. One man said he'd been run over by a car during a raid two days prior. His injuries were so severe he couldn't walk.

CARLOS FRANCISCO: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRERO: He begged for a blanket to support his broken legs. Then he spoke to me, using only his first name, Carlos Francisco, because he feared retaliation.

CARLOS FRANCISCO: (Through interpreter) They come and grab us. They beat us.

GUERRERO: Carlos Francisco says he's been living in the canal for eight years. He's never felt safe anywhere else. But now even the canal is become a perilous place for him.

For NPR News, I'm Jean Guerrero in Tijuana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jean Guerrero
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