Sandra Dibble
"The border is a big bottleneck: crossing is harder than ever and there are more people who want to cross"
American journalist Sandra Dibble has been living between San Diego and Tijuana for almost three decades. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, she talks about migration, drug trafficking and power in the hottest part of the border.

 Sandra Dibble has a path that distinguishes her. She was born in Egypt, lived in Washington and spent the most intense years of her life on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. With a diplomatic father who moved her and her family around to countries such as Turkey, Austria, Switzerland, and Syria, upon returning to the capital of the US, Dibble felt she did not fit in, as if she were a foreigner in her own country. Then in 1994, she arrived as an envoy in Tijuana without knowing that she was going to stay forever in that region: the main gateway for immigrants to the United States. After working as a chronicler for the San Diego Union Tribune for many years, Sandra has just poured some of her journalistic experience into a recent work titled Border City and is the author of the "Border Report" newsletter for the Voice of San Diego. Until the year 2000, she lived in Tijuana. She currently works from a location in San Diego, fewer than 20 kilometers from the San Ysidro crossing. "I'm still interested and passionate about the border," she says in an exclusive dialogue with LPO.

The border is a topic of permanent debate in the United States and an unresolved issue. Why did you decide to do this reconstruction of your journalistic life on the border at this time?

The origin of this project was to make a podcast about the border city. San Diego and Tijuana are border cities and I ended up inadvertently as the subject of this story, which normally does not happen to journalists. But after so long, I allowed myself to make a very personal narrative out of my work. I have worked sometimes as a local chronicler but also as a foreign correspondent, in a hybrid task. And I decided to do it because I was leaving the daily publication after such a long time, and it was my way to close that stage. Every moment in Tijuana was exciting and every moment seemed historic.

Why do you say that the stories of journalists sent to cover Tijuana fail to capture the pulse and essence of what life was really like at border cities?

Because they came in only during moments of crisis and capture one moment only. A few years ago, there was a caravan of Central Americans fleeing crimes, so the border was filled with journalists. Sometimes, it is about the crisis, or the floods, but those who arrive from outside can't grasp the daily lives of deep-rooted people living in this region, nor the close bond that exists between Tijuana and San Diego. I currently live in San Diego but much of my life has been in Tijuana and that complexity does not appear in their stories.

"When I arrived, anyone could cross in less than 20 minutes if it wasn't rush hour. Now, I have friends who cross every day for work, who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego, and must wait two hours every morning to cross the border."

You define the border not as a line but as a region, but crossing became increasingly complicated. What were the changes that took place?

The border is a region, but it is also a strict line. Checkpoint Crossings are currently busier because the population has increased. When I arrived, anyone could cross in less than 20 minutes if it wasn't rush hour. Now, I have friends who cross every day for work, who live in Tijuana and work in San Diego, and must wait two hours every morning to cross the border. It has been complicated in that sense but also by migration. The people of the region have visas and documents to cross but it is hard for everyone. Crossing is harder than ever and there are more people who want to cross. It is currently a large bottleneck. That did not exist before.

What was the crossing like when you arrived?

In 1994, the migration was Mexican and many of those who crossed went to work in the United States and returned to their homeland. It was a lot of coming and going. Nowadays, with the hardships of crossing the border, you will not be able to come back if you cross. You might send money to your family, but if you manage to cross the border, you won't go back to your town in two months. It is increasingly harder to cross the border, and it is on both sides. I have a special pass and I complain because I need to wait for an hour. Too many cars want to cross.

The most popular crossing is in San Ysidro.

Yes, ten kilometers to the East we have Otay Mesa, which is also a commercial crossing for trucks and, there is the city of Mexicali, which is similar. They are crossings throughout the border, but the most popular and symbolic one is San Ysidro.

"The border is a big bottleneck: crossing is harder than ever and there are more people who want to cross"

You said that when you look back you realizes how little you understood about the political and economic forces operating on the border. What didn't you see at the time?

I came blindly; it was an empty page. I did not come up with ideas about the border, all I thought was that the region of the Mexico-U.S. border was interesting. At first, I did not know about drug trafficking, and I lived through the heyday of the Arellano-Felix cartel. It was a strange situation because the reign was so absolute that there was no comparable violence to what came later. I was a little unaware and I wasn't interested in police stories. I was interested in politics and felt no danger. I didn't think that in 25 years everything was going to change so much and that I was going to have to cover that transformation. From 2008, the war between drug traffickers began and only then did I discover how they had gotten into the Tijuana society.

University of San Diego professor David Shirk says that when there is no violence it is because there is no competition between cartels. After the reign of the Arellanos, Sinaloa prevailed, but then violence irrupted, resulting from the disputes that had returned.

The era of the big cartels is over. When I arrived, Mexico was divided, and the Arellanos had the Plaza de Tijuana. The violence was not as noticeable. Now, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is fighting Sinaloa and sometimes allies appear with what remains of the Arellano. Added to that is the increase in drug use, especially methamphetamines. So, the violence is due to the disputes in the neighborhoods between drug dealers. It is not the same situation as before. There are two drug markets: one is for the market at the other side of the border, crossing into the United States, and the other is for addicts in Mexico. There is a growing market in Mexico, which explains the current disputes in the neighborhoods of Tijuana. Sometimes the dealers do not report to a group permanently; one day they are with one group and the next day with another.

Crossing into San Diego remains a desired goal.

Many residents of Tijuana work in San Diego and have dual citizenship. What needs to be understood is that many of those people are proud to be from Tijuana and have an intense sense of community and family. To some extent, it is a small town, and although there are two million people living there, many have known each other since childhood; their families know each other and go to the same schools. It is extraordinarily complex to understand that. One can assume that all residents of Tijuana would like to be in San Diego, but no! That's not true! That's not the reality! Tijuana is a very nice city.

" One can assume that all residents of Tijuana would like to be in San Diego, but no! ! That's not true! That's not the reality! Tijuana is a very nice city."

You said that at some point, the people of Tijuana began to return from San Diego and stay in Tijuana.

That's right. Those who go to San Diego are obviously the ones who have the income and the possibility to do so. In 2008 and 2009, as it was moredifficult to enter with drugs in the United States, there were criminal groups that were engaged in kidnapping, and they kidnapped the middle and upper class. That was when a lot of those people moved to the United States. But that is no longer the case and now many prefer to stay.

Being the daughter of a diplomat and having lived in different countries generated in you the feeling of being a foreigner in the United States. Do you think that is why you decided to stay and live on the border?

I think so. I moved all the time and that is how I was raised. And in Tijuana, a lot of people come from outside. It's like being in a room with all the windows open and being able to feel the current of permanent fresh air. This is Tijuana. It is not a closed established provincial society with closed doors. It is easier to stay in Tijuana. As the saying about the Rodriguez dam goes: "He who drinks water from the dam, always returns to it." If you drink water from the dam, you will not leave; you will love it here. It is a city that changes every day. The Ukrainians arrived, so did the Venezuelans, now there is a new caravan to the border. I sing in a choir and the teacher is Cuban. We are singing songs from Brazil and France.

Why did you say that Operation Gatekeeper, during the Clinton administration, brought about a strong change?

That was the first stage. By the late eighties, I had already been to Tijuana and people were crossing the Zapata Canyon. You would see them crossing in the hundreds. There were so many people that the Border Patrol could not do anything. The idea of Operation Gatekeeper was to curb crossings in urban areas where it was harder to stop them. From that moment on, everyone began to cross in the East, where there are mountains, deserts and where it is more dangerous to cross. In the desert, it is 45 or 50 degrees in the summer and people die of heat strokes, just as in the winter they die in the cold mountains. Now, there are several border barriers. Some places have three walls, other areas have three fences, but they are highly creative and always find other ways to cross. People come in trunks of vehicles, they hide in the trunk of the car, inside the chairs. There are permanent adaptations to guard the border. Those guarding the border look for drugs and illegal people, or those using fake documents in every corner they can. You stop them over there and they come here. It's overly complex.

"Now, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is fighting Sinaloa and sometimes allies appear with what remains of the Arellano. The violence is due to the disputes in the neighborhoods between drug dealers."

In 2018, when the caravan that began in Honduras, moved through Guatemala, and arrived via Mexico, Trump spoke of an invasion. What happened?

There was always the mystery of how it originated. For many years, migrant caravans started around easter time. There had always been Central Americans arriving at the border, but not in groups. As there were many police forces, as well as extortion and violence, they had the idea of coming in groups so that they would not be extorted and could feel safer. It was like a snowball; thousands of people came to Tijuana; it was unprecedented to see them all in groups. Naturally, Central Americans would go to the border with Texas because it was closer, but when they arrived, the reaction in Tijuana was mixed. The population was divided, there were groups that rejected the presence of migrants, but there were also relevant support groups. Some people say: "ah, Tijuana already rejects migrants," but that is not exactly the case. There are support groups and migrants continue to arrive in Tijuana because there are plenty of shelters and places that still take them in. We are next door to California, which is the richest state in the United States.

What is not seen from Washington, from powerful capital of the U.S., about what is happening at the southern border?

On the one hand, you really don't see how the legal crossings are full. People with full rights and documents, cannot cross in a timely manner, and no one knows why there are no more officers to facilitate daily crossings. This is stifling a very vital economy, considered important for the region. Why do you have to wait three hours to go to work or to visit your mom? They already know who you are, but there are still prolonged delays. What is that they do not understand? It is a great question. I've written a lot about migrants, and when you hear their stories... it's sad. The United States only grants you asylum if you are being persecuted personally, not if you live in a neighborhood where there are crimes.

"Currently, in the United States, it is difficult to find workers for low-paying jobs. So, on the one hand, there are fewer people to work at jobs in places like cafés or restaurants, and on the other, there are many people on the other side who want to work."

But the pressure to enter seems to be growing and uncontainable.

We are living in a new world of migration, of intense migration, and the laws will no longer work, so there must be some revision. Currently, in the United States, it is difficult to find workers for low-paying jobs. So, on the one hand, there are fewer people to work at jobs in places like cafés or restaurants, and on the other, there many people on the other side who want to work.

And can't get in.

And can't get in. I don't know how to solve the issue of migration. I don't know how, but I do know that there must be reforms. Something needs to change.

You said that geography shapes the people of the border and sometimes destroys them. How is that? Why?

Our geography is made of an artificial line; it is not a natural line. The natural border is like a river, but when it's a line like the one separating California and Mexico, that's when you start having problems. It is a geography traced by man, an arbitrary one and the product of a war, before 1848. And you see people dying trying to cross it; I documented one of those cases. Added to that is the tragedy of drug trafficking, the weapons brought to Mexico, or the drugs that cross and destroy lives. It is not an abstract concept, but real people and families torn apart.

You quote Victor Clark, a human rights activist who says that murders increased at one point because Tijuana was not under the control of the authorities, but under the control of drug traffickers. Who wields power in that border area?

Clarck said something like Shirk, that the dynamics of violence are related to deals and competition between drug trafficking groups. I believe that what increases or decreases violence has more to do with that than with efforts made by governments or the police to stop them. This violence is going to continue if people continue to use drugs in the United States.

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