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Smuggler's Gulch cut off at the pass as fencing project transforms region

Posts were installed for fencing to run along the canyon on the Mexico border known as Smuggler's Gulch. Posts were installed for fencing to run along the canyon on the Mexico border known as Smuggler's Gulch. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)
By Richard Marosi
Los Angeles Times / January 18, 2009
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SAN DIEGO - Smuggler's Gulch lived up to its infamous name.

For a century, the narrow canyon leading into California from Mexico provided cover for cattle thieves and opium dealers, bandits, and booze runners. More recently, it has hidden thousands of illegal immigrants on their journey north, sealing its place in border lore.

Now, it's a fading memory.

The canyon has been all but wiped off the landscape, its steep walls carved into gentle slopes, its depths filled with 35,000 truckloads of dirt as the US government nears completion of an extensive border reinforcement project at the southwestern-most point of the United States.

In 2005, the Bush administration waived state and federal environmental laws to overcome opposition to the massive earth-moving effort, which entails cutting the tops off nearby hills and pushing about 1.7 million cubic yards of dirt into the gulch and neighboring Goat Canyon.

Environmentalists and conservation groups fear that the project, scheduled to be completed in May, will harm the Tijuana River estuary, threaten endangered species, and destroy culturally sensitive American Indian sites. With construction well underway, it's clear that few of the 500 miles of new border fencing projects are transforming the environment as radically as the 3 miles from the Smuggler's Gulch area to the coast.

Once a breach in the coastal hills, the gulch is now more like a dam than a passage.

Anyone attempting to cross confronts a 150-foot-high berm that soon will be topped with stadium lighting, video surveillance cameras, and 15-foot-high fencing.

Eventually, an all-weather road will run atop the filled-in canyons and smoothed-out hills and mesas all the way to the ocean.

For those who see the canyon border as blight, the gulch is a victim of its notorious past and deserves to be buried forever. "Good riddance," said Donald McDermott, a former US Border Patrol assistant chief who once patrolled the area. "Anything that makes it easier to control the border is a good thing."

Smuggler's Gulch started earning its nickname in the 1880s after the US government established customs duties at the port of entry at San Ysidro a few miles east. Ranchers took to the hills, leading their herds of cattle, horses, and sheep through the canyon.

Later, to avoid paying duties, people smuggled cigars and even Mexican-produced lace undergarments through the gulch.

In the 1980s, the canyon became a symbol of illegal immigration run amok as tens of thousands of immigrants funneled through the pass into California.

It became a dangerous no man's land, filled with bandits who raped and robbed immigrants and charged tolls for safe passage. The occasional sniper targeted Border Patrol agents. For many years, agents were not allowed to venture alone into the gulch, where their radios didn't work.

Rampant crime in the area prompted the formation of a daring San Diego police unit that was featured in the Joseph Wambaugh book "Lines and Shadows." They dressed as bedraggled illegal immigrants and pounced on bandits who tried to assault them.

Border Patrol agent Jim Swanson, who was not part of the team but patrolled the area, remembers hiding in a bush and jumping on suspected robbers, one of whom turned out to be a Tijuana police lieutenant.

"That whole area was very chaotic," Swanson said.

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