By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
She showers, dresses, clips on her fanny pack and sets out once more from the dusty lot in Tijuana’s Zona Norte at 3:30 p.m., another day of searching for her lost son Pedro. Her pace is sure and quick on the crowded sidewalks caked with decades of grime and refuse. She passes stalls selling secondhand shoes, old video-game systems, car parts, television sets. The faces — vendors, prostitutes, junkies — are becoming familiar.
“They say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, I’ll come back.’ And they never come back,” says Maria Carbajal, 49, in Spanish. It’s a Wednesday in June, one of several times I am with Carbajal on her search. “Look, here are some alleys. There are two guys there lying down. Let’s go look.”
I follow her down the sort of narrow street you’re warned to never enter when in Tijuana. There are women with ragged hair and twisted faces eyeing us with a violent suspicion, wondering if we came to compete with them for space or for a fix. Carbajal walks straight through, to two young men lying down on a thin concrete sidewalk, under a slice of shade. One of them just might be her Pedro. She walks quickly past, not slowing her pace to peer at their faces. No. Not him.
Every day that passes, I am losing hope that I will find him.(Photo by Gregory Bojorquez)
This neighborhood, abutting the triple fence of the U.S.-Mexico border just above downtown Tijuana, is called “la Coahuila” by the locals, after its major avenue. It is Tijuana’s red-light district. Pretty brown-skinned hookers, not yet 17 or 18, stand nervously in doorways, in a uniform look of tiny skirts and outrageous platform heels. We pass a six-foot-tall transsexual leading an Anglo man who is easily 60 or 70 years old up into an hour-rate motel, in broad daylight. A hippie addict, his skin so dirty and sunbaked it is black like coal, stoops on the walk and raps on a bongo drum.
Carbajal stops at an auto shop, where six men crowd around the white piece of paper she is holding up, printed with a color photograph of Pedro Guzman, the second of her seven children. “Searching for this person,” the typed message reads. “He’s been missing since May 10. He is thin, 6’5”.” The men concentrate. Carbajal stands patiently. “Is he from Sinaloa?” one asks.
“No, from el otro lado,” the other side, Carbajal says, shifting the paper politely from side to side, as if demonstrating a product for sale.
No, the men shake their heads. Never seen him. We keep walking.
“Every day that passes,” Carbajal tells me, her voice even and plain, “I am losing hope that I will find him.”
It has been weeks since Carbajal began walking the streets of Tijuana looking for her son, yet there is no readable outrage or sadness in her voice. No anger in knowing that Pedro Guzman would not be missing in Tijuana were it not for what officials are calling a “highly unusual” encounter with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and its notoriously overstretched jail system. After serving about 20 days of a 120-day jail sentence for vandalism and car theft, Guzman was transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Santa Ana, where he signed a “voluntary deportation order,” claiming Mexican citizenship. But Guzman is an American citizen, born in L.A. The circumstances surrounding his accidental deportation have his family and authorities still scratching their heads.
Sheriff’s officials who are trained to perform immigration screenings in the county jails primarily work off an inmate’s statement when determining whether they are in the country illegally. They believed what Guzman told them was the truth, given that most of the time they screen inmates who claim American citizenship, not the other way around. Deepening the mystery, Pedro Guzman did not seem to understand what he got himself into when he made one distraught phone call to his family from the border at San Ysidro. His sister-in-law Vicky picked up.
“He called and told her to ask us, ‘Who is going to come get me in Tijuana?’?” Carbajal says. “And she asked, ‘Why?’ ‘Because they deported me.’ ‘But why?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’m confused. I don’t know why I’m here.’?”
Then the line went dead. Carbajal raced to Tijuana with her two older sons, Juan Carlos, who is married to Vicky, and Michael. There must have been some kind of mistake, they thought. They knew where to start the search, at the Platanera Ramirez, a banana distribution plant in the Coahuila district run by paisanos from Carbajal’s home state of Nayarit. Maybe Pedro would find his way there. A day passed. Two. Her other sons returned to their jobs in Lancaster. Carbajal stayed behind and started venturing into Tijuana’s streets, searching for Pedro at hospitals, police stations, morgues, halfway houses, Salvation Army outposts and along the banks of the Tijuana River. She posted missing-persons fliers. She went south to Rosarito and Ensenada, and east to Tecate. She even monitored the Tijuana morgue’s Web site, which posts photographs of unidentified or unclaimed bodies.