Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S. – Mexico Border by Sebastian Rotella Norton

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Reviewed by Alan Cogan

Cogan’s Reviews

“The action never stops at the border. There is no other place like it on the globe. The international boundary stretches for almost two thousand miles, from the Pacific Ocean through the mountains, the deserts, the valleys of the Rio Grande to the Gulf of Mexico. The region is a vast world unto itself. And the westernmost, fourteen-mile strip between San Diego and Tijuana, the border’s biggest and richest cities, is the most intense microcosm of that world. The U.S. Border Patrol records half a million yearly arrests of illegal immigrants here, accounting for almost half of all its arrests. This is the corridor for billions of dollars worth of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana smuggled by the international drug cartels that have converted Mexico into the supply route to the United States, the world’s hungriest consumer of narcotics. And Tijuana has historically served as a hub for gambling and money laundering, as well as southbound guns, stolen vehicles and trunkloads of drug profits.”

Thus Sebastian Rotella starts his book about a really interesting piece of real estate. Rotella is the Los Angeles Times Bureau Chief for South America. He knows his stuff. His book is a well-researched document.

I just had no idea that the traffic was quite as heavy as it is. The San Ysidro port of entry alone records more than 40 million legal crossings a year. The surprise to me, however, is that the number of illegal crossings is as high as it is. In my ignorance, I believed that there were “coyotes” who, for a price, escorted small groups of illegals across after dark, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. The actual numbers, however, would appear to be in the hundreds of thousands. One Mexican family was estimated to be making a million dollars a month smuggling people across the border. Some are simply driven through border crossing points manned by officials who have been bribed not to ask questions. Others go on foot. Here, for example, is how the author describes that process:

“The guide led them across at dawn, taking advantage of the Border Patrol shift change. Sunrise illuminated a mile-long trek through marshes that brought them to the Robin Hood Homes. It was one of those housing tracts that fulfill California’s promise to the working middle class: relatively affordable, generic-looking. The placid air was deceiving. The first neighborhood past the marshes constituted a second border, a bastion on the edge of no-man’s land. Frenzied guard dogs barked all night at the hundreds of border-crossers hurrying through the streets, yards and driveways, racing the Border Patrol to the freeway.

“The smuggler led the way over a wall that was scuffed and blackened with footmarks from previous climbers. The group crept through backyards, a shortcut to the I-4 freeway that angles northwest beyond the subdivision. The houses bristled with bars and barbed wire. Fences sagged. A few homeowners had simply left their gates open, giving in to the trespassers whose dashes were as much a part of neighborhood rhythms as cars pulling out of driveways and children walking home from school.”

Then there are the migrants who have been working illegally in the U.S. for years and have moved their families up close to the border, on the Mexican side, who routinely – and illegally – cross back and forth every weekend to visit.

It’s just a joke when one reads, on page 29 about presidential candidate Pat Buchanan holding a press conference at the border and promising more ditches, more walls, more barbed wire, more agents, more troops, to protect against this “national disgrace”. I loved the comment made to the author by one observer of all this prehistoric posturing, a man who might just have been an illegal pausing for a moment in mid-crossing: “Ask him if he can give me a lift to Los Angeles.”

Rotella does an excellent job of describing the attitudes of people on both sides of the border, many of whom are only too happy to employ the migrants – for low wages, of course. The migrants, for example, are regarded as enterprising people. And there’s a really interesting chapter on the Border Patrol, the cops who make more arrests than any other police force in the nation – except that they catch the same people over and over. The job is a metaphor for futility. As an ex-agent describes it: “The Border Patrol is a band-aid on a hemorrhage.”

It’s impossible to see how the situation will ever improve. There’s just too much money involved. The Mexican mafias earn up to $30 billion a year in profits from all their activities. They spend an estimated $500 million a year exclusively on the bribery of public officials. As one Mexican human rights advocate states: “Their talent is to convert corruption into a practice that overwhelms everything.” Indeed, as I read this book I asked myself the question: What would I do if someone came and offered me a hundred thousand dollars cash to look the other way?

Where “Twilight on the Line” slowed down for this reader was when it moved back into Mexico. Rotella has a chapter on the murder of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Ocampo in Guadalajara airport and another on the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tiajuana. These stories of corrupt politicians, bribed officials, crooked cops, drug lords, youth gangs, killers-for-hire, investigations that go nowhere by corrupt attorneys-general….these stories become almost too depressing to read. Ultimately, you know you’re never going to learn the truth. And the sleaze factor is unbelievably high, at all levels. In the aftermath to the murder of the Cardinal, for example, a Vatican emissary acts as an intermediary between President Salinas and the two drug lords most widely believed to be responsible, the Arellano brothers. “My conscience is clear,” says the Papal emissary piously. “I have not acted outside the law.”

This is a book that makes me very angry. But in the end the people I’m angriest at are the millions of American drug users who pay billions of dollars to sniff and snort and ingest and inject just to make their unhappy selves feel better. They’re the ones who are most responsible for the mess that Sebastian Rotella describes so vividly. The world’s biggest drug consuming nation has a lot to answer for.

Verdict: It provides valuable insight into what is NOT a normal International Border.
It will probably make you angry.
Read it anyway.

Twilight on the Line
Underworlds and politics at the U.S. – Mexico border
By Sebastian Rotella

Norton. 1998

Available from Amazon Books: Hardcover

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Published or Updated on: January 15, 1998 by Alan Cogan © 2008
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