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Police step up effort to evict homeless from Tijuana canals

February 25, 2016 at 8:05 PM EDT
About 1,000 homeless people live in Tijuana, many of them migrants hoping to make their way into to the U.S. Hundreds dwell in makeshift tents or storm drains in the branching tunnels of the Tijuana River canal, despite the local police force’s best efforts to evict them. But as the raids grow more severe, many fear for their safety -- and their lives. Special correspondent Jean Guerrero of KPBS Fronteras reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Among the homeless population in Tijuana, Mexico, are migrants on the way to the U.S. And because of police raids, they’re living in a rival canal, hiding in the canal’s branching tunnels.

KPBS Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero went inside the tunnels to learn about the struggles these migrants face.

A warning: Some of the images in this story may be disturbing.

JEAN GUERRERO: Jose Alberto Zavala is one of hundreds of migrants living inside the Tijuana River Canal’s tunnels. He says he doesn’t feel safe anywhere else.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA, Tijuana Migrant (through interpreter): They see us outside and the police pick us up.

JEAN GUERRERO: Zavala is known as Chapo, like the Mexican drug lord, because of his short stature. But the similarities pretty much end there. He recently rescued this cat from the side of the road.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA (through interpreter): She’s a girl. The other day, I banged myself up because the police were trying to put me in one of the rehab centers. But that’s a kidnapping. What they do is a violation of human rights.

JEAN GUERRERO: For years, Tijuana’s homeless were living out in the open, in makeshift tents in a Tijuana River Canal encampment known as El Bordo.

But, last spring, the municipal government evacuated the encampment, placing hundreds of people into rehab centers, many against their will. Officials say the migrants were hurting tourism and committing crimes. Many were using heroin or methamphetamine after being deported from the U.S., where they had families and jobs.

Some, like Chapo, say they don’t do drugs at all, but were sent to rehab anyway. Since then, hundreds have escaped or were released from these facilities. They’re now hiding in the storm drains. Police sometimes track them down and place them back in rehab. Others are taken to jail or put on buses out of town.

Police raids of the canal are sometimes proving fatal. The canal is flanked by Tijuana’s busiest highways, and when the migrants run from the police, some are killed by cars speeding past. Just last month, at least two were killed trying to escape police.

Chapo has erected memorial wooden crosses for several friends he says he lost during police raids.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA (through interpreter): The 18th, also Chapitas, and the guy from Oaxaca. But I don’t know why.

JEAN GUERRERO: Chapo says the police sometimes arrest migrants when they’re just standing on the street, trying to find work in construction, or washing car windshields with dirty rags.

A migrant who called himself Carlos Francisco says he was run over by a car while running across the highway during a police raid two days prior. He was injured so badly, he couldn’t walk.

He says the police came while he and his friends were sleeping in the canal.

MAN (through interpreter): They come and grab us. They — they beat us.

JEAN GUERRERO: Another man had a large gash on his head from where he says police threw him against the asphalt during the same raid.

Tijuana’s police chief, Alejandro Lares, defends his policy of flushing everybody out of the canal. He says he is planning a full-scale clearing operation in the coming weeks.

ALEJANDRO LARES VALLADARES, Tijuana Police Chief: We’re going to take over the whole ravine on Tijuana.

JEAN GUERRERO: The federal government has jurisdiction over the canal, but the Tijuana Police Department has permission to patrol the area.

ALEJANDRO LARES VALLADARES: 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.

JEAN GUERRERO: Lares says he has ordered 14 all-terrain vehicles to patrol the canal. He expects them to arrive any day now. When asked about alleged police beatings, he says migrants should file complaints so that he can investigate.

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

JEAN GUERRERO: Migrants say they think filing complaints would do them more harm than good. They fear being arrested if they confront police.

Back in the tunnels, Chapo says the current strategy of removing migrants from the canal makes life so hard for them, they have no choice but to turn to petty crimes, which can get them arrested. It’s a vicious cycle.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA (through interpreter): They kick you and say, you have to come with them. Why? Because you don’t have an I.D. You shouldn’t be sleeping here. 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.

JEAN GUERRERO: He doesn’t think Tijuana officials will ever succeed in ridding the city of homeless migrants.

JOSE ALBERTO ZAVALA (through interpreter): This is the border. There will always be migrants, always, always.

JEAN GUERRERO: But as police raids of the canal become more sophisticated and frequent, the tunnel dwellers face a growing challenge.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jean Guerrero in Tijuana.