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Lost in Tijuana

(Illustration by Tra Selthrow)

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.

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.

The story trickled into the Spanish-language news in L.A., then into Tijuana. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California spotted the case and filed a lawsuit, claiming Pedro Guzman’s constitutional rights to due process were violated by the deportation. Describing Guzman as “developmentally disabled,” the suit casts his deportation as “banishment” and “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In mid-June, although he admitted it would be the “right” and “moral” thing to do, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson denied the ACLU’s request to order the Department of Homeland Security to intervene and conduct a search for Pedro in Tijuana. Consular officials south of the border were notified to be on the lookout, but beyond that, both the U.S. and Mexican governments have done little to assist in Pedro’s search.

In the news, Guzman’s case sounded like a real-life version of the 1987 Cheech Marin movie Born in East L.A., in which Marin’s character is accidentally deported and spends most of the film comically searching for a return home from Tijuana. But it wasn’t the first time such a real and not-so-funny case had made the papers. In September 1977, a U.S. citizen named Daniel Cardona was wrongfully deported from Clovis, near Fresno. The L.A. Times reported in 1981: “The mentally-disturbed young man, who is unable to care for himself, wandered the streets of Tijuana for almost five months before his frantic family found him. He had to be hospitalized for two weeks before he was allowed back into the country.”

Like Guzman, Cardona signed a statement claiming Mexican citizenship. The paper reported back then that some Border Patrol officers admitted to feeling expected to “forcefully dispute claims of U.S. citizenship that they believe[d] to be false.” And as in Cardona’s case, the task of locating Guzman in Tijuana has been left entirely to his family. More specifically, his mother.

As she searches for her son, questions swirl around her: Why was Pedro singled out to be screened by immigration? Why would he lie about his status? Why hasn’t he called us back? Did he find work? Did he go farther south?

“Only he knows how to answer that, when he is present,” Carbajal says. Lawyers fighting for the government and for the ACLU have a lot of questions too: Is Guzman mentally disabled? Was he coerced or convinced at some point during his time in county jail to sign a voluntary deportation order? Could it be possible that he wanted to be deported?

It is late June, six weeks since Pedro entered Mexico at San Ysidro, the southernmost district of San Diego. He hasn’t been heard from since his initial phone call home. Carbajal left her job on the night shift at a Jack in the Box to stay behind and keep up the search. It took some time, she says, to get used to daylight again.

“I don’t have a schedule. I find someone who says they saw him, or saw someone who looks like him. I’ll go meet them, it doesn’t matter what time it is,” Carbajal says. “But nothing, no one has given me anything.”

We come to a pink house with a lush garden. “Two Christian sisters” live here, Carbajal says. Her flier of Pedro is posted on a pink stone fence outside, next to a flier for a missing old man. Two L.A.-area-code phone numbers are listed. “Excuse me, sir,” Carbajal says to a gardener on the other side of the wall. “Have you seen the man in this photograph? Has he come by?”

The gardener shakes his head no. We keep moving. I offer to drive Carbajal to Colonia Libertad, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where my father was raised. We stop at a Salvation Army center on one of Libertad’s main streets, a plain building with an ongoing rummage sale near the entrance. Carbajal displays her flier of Pedro to a woman in a white suit sitting behind a desk in a tiny office. “Ah, yes,” the woman says, “I’ve heard of this case.” She examines the photo closely. She says the Salvation Army headquarters distributed a letter about Pedro Guzman, but it did not include a photograph. “Is he of poor faculties?”

“No,” Carbajal says shortly. “He is normal.”

“But in the letter they said he had mental problems.”

“No, he is normal,” Carbajal repeats. “Sometimes he forgets things, and in school in the second grade they classified him as needing special education. He was slower to learn than the others.”

“Ahh,” the woman says. She suggests Carbajal make a photocopy of the flier at an Internet café across the street. She will post it on the missing-persons announcements wall outside, she says, with the others. And that’s that.

Outside, we meet a young guy on the sidewalk. He peers at the photograph of Pedro, before deciding, predictably, that Pedro looks familiar. He lingers and begins to talk and talk to us as we stand and wait, unable to decide where to go next. The migrant, barely a young man, tells us he too got deported a year and a half ago. He’s been wandering the streets of Tijuana ever since. His arms are covered with dirt. His jeans are dusty and torn. He says he is from Guerrero. “Why haven’t you returned to your mother?” Carbajal asks.

“I know, I know,” the kid says, drawing his gaze down to the sidewalk. “I would go back, but the addiction is too strong.”

“No addiction is stronger than your mother,” Carbajal scolds. “You will have your addiction all your life, but you will not have your mother all your life. And when you need her, it will be too late.”

When we shake hands to go, the boy offers us the back of his wrist rather than his palm, a polite gesture.

As we head back to the banana depot, Carbajal says she can’t understand how these men don’t try to locate their families. She worries Pedro is so disoriented in Tijuana, he’s lost track of time, maybe even forgotten how to reach her. “I brought him to Tijuana when he was young. It’s very different than today. I’ve always told him, ‘Watch where you are, make note of the streets,’ and he’d always say, ‘No, for what? I’m always with you.’?”

It was good advice. While Tijuana has significantly cleaned up and modernized its central districts in recent years, much of the city remains a place of delirium-inducing physical transience. The landscape is in a constant state of broadening, expansion, abandonment. People who are from here, like my own parents and many of my relatives, are still prone to getting lost in the city’s twisting roads and dead-ends. The ground is hot. Tijuana is also a place defined by human transience. Migrations, forced or of necessity, press against Tijuana from north and south. For decades migrants have been pouring into the city from Central America and the Mexican interior, hoping to make it across the border, only to sink into the urban stew. Many settle into the shanty villages that dot the hillsides.

From the north, busloads of fresh deportees are ejected from the United States at the San Ysidro crossing. The buses come right up to the boundary’s revolving metal gates, unloading migrants who are usually carrying nothing but what they had on themselves when caught. Mexican immigration officials briefly process them at a low square building, then they are released into the city and the vast Mexican republic. Some make it back to jobs and families in the U.S. Some fall into drugs, succumb to illness or disease, or are simply never heard from again. Getting “lost” is part of the social fabric here. It’s as if Tijuana swallows people.

A day after my first outing with Carbajal, I look for her at the banana depot. It’s nothing more than a few wooden buildings, painted white, lining a dirt courtyard. A few cats and rabbits live there. Carbajal has been staying in a windowless shack upstairs. I’m told she’s away, and decide to walk from the Zona Norte to the border crossing. On a well-worn footbridge over the Tijuana River, I spot her standing against a ledge, peering intently at a cluster of Tijuana police who are investigating a matter in one of the drainage ditches in the concrete riverbed. She is finishing a cigarette. She says she was passing by and she noticed the commotion. She now wants to make sure that they’re not pulling out an addict, a dead body, a homeless person, or her son. It is late afternoon and a sharp Pacific breeze is coasting through the basin. The river looks a lot like the L.A. River. There are wide concrete banks and a slow-moving stream of green sludge running north to the ocean. Carbajal is deciding whether to give up the day-to-day search for her lost boy and return to her night shift at the Jack in the Box. She has six other children to care for. She may come down on weekends.

“I feel like now, well, now I leave it in their hands, because I have to return to work,” Carbajal says calmly. “I would come back every now and then, for shopping, see if I run into him, here, where they sell things. If they find him, they’re going to call me right away, unless someone calls me and says, ‘Here he is, he’s working, he’s okay.’ But if that happens I’m going to tell them to not let him get away, until I get there.”

The following weekend, Carbajal decides to return to Lancaster. She’s still consumed by questions. “Who is going to tell him what to do? The people in there with him. I feel like someone must have told him, ‘You sign whatever, so that you can get out, and then they’ll come and pick you up.’?”

Two of her granddaughters are watching loud cartoons in the next room, at a brown stucco ranchhouse belonging to Juan Carlos. Carbajal looks out a window, to a shiny old trailer out back perched upon a heap of yellow desert dust. “I’ve always told him, ‘Don’t let anyone convince you of anything. You alone decide what you need to do, the good and the bad. Don’t trust no one.’?”

“But he’s always had bad luck,” she laments. “Always.”

Pedro Guzman was born on September 25, 1977, at L.A. County Medical Center in Lincoln Heights. He grew up at first in South-Central, then in Lancaster, where his mother says they moved in order to avoid gang violence. His father lived in Farmersville, near Fresno. He later died in a car accident, but for years the split family had a good, loving relationship. They liked Lancaster, especially Pedro. The wide-open spaces, the heat, the silence. “He liked it the way it is out here,” says Michael. “It’s quiet, nobody bugs you. There’s no cars, no noise; it’s peaceful.”

Pedro, known to his family as “Peter,” dropped out of Littlerock High School in Lancaster in the 11th grade, his brothers say. When it came time to take his written exam for his California driver’s license, Pedro failed seven times before passing. He only succeeded after memorizing as many practice-test questions and correct answers as he could in order to pass. “He worked on the only thing he honestly knows how to do, and that’s throwing cemento,” Michael says. “He knows everything about cemento. Anything you ask about throwing cemento for a pool, he knows all that.”

On the afternoon of March 31 of this year, Pedro Guzman appeared unexpectedly on the runway at Lancaster’s Fox Field Airport. According to court papers and interviews, Guzman ran up to a private Cessna Citation and yanked at a passenger door as it was preparing to take off. “This guy came from basically out of nowhere, and decided that through whatever mental means he had that he was going to meet an aircraft, and an aircraft was going to take him away,” says Steven Irving, the airport manager.

The Sheriff’s Department arrest report says that Guzman “made two more attempts to board the plane without attempting to pay for air fare.” Airport personnel stopped him, the pilot shut down his engines, and passengers on the private flight returned to the airport’s administration building to wait to reboard. As Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found Pedro sitting in a truck that he described as “not his,” on airport property. The report goes on: “He said he found the truck ‘behind some house’ with the keys in the ignition.” Guzman was arrested for tresspassing and felony auto theft, then booked on vandalism charges. Irving says they later reviewed security-camera footage and saw that Pedro drove in behind a fuel tanker authorized to enter the airport.

On April 19 a Superior Court judge sentenced Guzman to 120 days in county jail. On his medical screening form, under the question, “Does the suspect appear to be developmentally disabled/retarded?” the county jailer marked “No.”

It wouldn’t be his first time there. In 2000, Guzman was arrested and convicted on charges of drug possession with intent to sell. No other information about the incident has so far been filed in the federal court case. Juan Carlos tells me his younger brother spent close to a year in jail as his 2000 case was adjudicated, then Guzman served “six or seven months” in state prison before being released on probation.

Following his April sentencing this year, Maria Carbajal was able to visit Guzman once at Twin Towers, and not long after, Guzman’s family say they received word that Pedro would soon be released, his sentence downgraded to probation and house arrest.

Ordinarily, this would be when someone in his situation is allowed to go home. But in late 2005, the Sheriff’s Department entered into an agreement with ICE, now an agency in the Department of Homeland Security, that permits Sheriff’s officials to perform immigration screenings inside the jails. Getting released for probation comes with an added step for some. Inmates must now sit down with a Sheriff’s “custody assistant” for an interview to determine whether one is eligible to be released to ICE for deportation. The program, referred to as a Memorandum of Understanding, has been highly touted by law enforcement authorities as a way to both relieve overcrowding in the jails and to actively enforce immigration laws.

The process appears fraught with potential loopholes. For starters, there are few safeguards to verify what an inmate says in an immigration interview is true. Inmates’ names are run through an ICE database and a criminal record database, but it is unclear how or if the information is cross-referenced, says Mary Tiedeman, director of the ACLU’s Jails Project. Tiedeman has broad access to the county jails as part of a consent decree imposed on the Sheriff’s Department, but she says she is not aware of how inmates are chosen to undergo an immigration screening before being released. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s legal director, says the likely standard amounts to racial profiling.

“It’s a system that’s built on the stereotypes that most Latinos are presumptively illegally in the country,” Rosenbaum says. “That just mocks the notion of process. It’s just a deportation manufacturing machine.”

Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, says that the agency regularly comes across inmates who lie about their status — saying they are legal U.S. residents or citizens, when they are not — but that it is “highly unusual” for an inmate to lie in reverse in an immigration interview, to claim illegal status when the opposite is true. Pedro Guzman did exactly that.

It’s unclear why. From his initial arrest through his court proceedings, Guzman referred to himself as a native of California. But a month later, in his immigration screening with a Sheriff’s custody assistant named Sandra Figueras, Guzman said he was from Mexico. “Throughout the questioning Mr. Guzman was alert, responsive, and nothing unusual was noted in his behavior. He did not appear to be mentally disabled,” Figueras says in a court statement. “Mr. Guzman stated that he was a native and citizen of Mexico and that he was born in Nayarit, Mexico.”

Even as his family continues to search for him in Tijuana, law enforcement authorities in Los Angeles seem to be indifferent to the fact that he’s missing. The speculation has arisen that perhaps Pedro wanted to be deported, that maybe he was escaping something or someone. Michael Guzman says he recently had an unpleasant telephone conversation with Pedro’s probation officer, who told Michael that if his brother didn’t appear at a scheduled hearing, he’d face a warrant for his arrest. “They made it seem like he’s on vacation,” Michael says.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of law and politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been following the case, says it wouldn’t make sense for Pedro to orchestrate his deportation knowingly. “What would be the motivation? He’s gonna get home release anyway. He had to not understand something.” In addition, the ACLU is arguing in court that Guzman’s prior drug conviction, categorized as an aggravated felony, should have made him ineligible for voluntary deportation.

Meanwhile, federal lawyers have been using Guzman’s statements and those by his own mother to challenge the ACLU’s assertions in court. They filed Guzman’s “voluntary deportation” form, bearing Guzman’s signature. In another filing, U.S. Attorney George Cardona included a declaration by an officer at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, who writes: “Mr. Guzman’s mother told a Consular Assistant that Mr. Guzman is not mentally impaired in any way.”

But when pressed, Carbajal admits her son has cognitive problems. “Yes, he forgets what he’s going to do, or what he did. For example, if I say, ‘Pedro do this, Pedro I need this,’ and later I say to him, ‘Didn’t I tell you I needed this?’ he says, ‘Oh, I’ll do it right now.’ But not like they’re saying on the news, that he’s mentally retarded. He’s not mentally retarded.”

Michael Guzman says that Pedro, older by a year, cannot read or write very well. When Pedro drives, he must either follow another driver to his destination or have someone drive behind him. “I don’t see him as being sick at all, I see him as my brother, no matter what stupid things he’s done,” Michael says. “But I mean there’s certain choices that he makes that a normal, sane person wouldn’t make. My mom is the one that makes his choices, my mom is basically the one that takes care of him.”

On one of her weekend return visits to Tijuana, I drive with Carbajal to the Otay mesa near the airport, where she is chasing another lead. A tall young man had been seen begging for change near the Otay border crossing. He told people he’s not from here and was asking for money to figure out a way to return home to “el otro lado.” That’s as far as she gets, but on the drive down the mesa’s scratchy hills, Carbajal spots a tall, thin homeless man, maybe in his late teens, early 20s, covered in dirt, wearing only rags, and a mop of messy hair. He is standing on an empty sidewalk, staring at nothing, dazed and filthy. She tells me to stop the car, and gets out to check if it could possibly be her lost son. Not Pedro.

“Would you believe that?” Carbajal then asks herself out loud. “Him, bearded and dirty like that? He would never be on the streets looking like that. He’d get embarrassed. When he asks you something, he doesn’t give you his eyes.”

In early July, Carbajal takes a break from her search. On the seventh, Michael, who also works at the Jack in the Box with his mother, weds his longtime girlfriend at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. Pedro was supposed to have been his best man.

Los Angeles del Desierto, or the Angels of the Desert, is a binational immigrants’ support group in the San Diego–Tijuana border area. The group gathers every Saturday just before midnight at the San Ysidro crossing to distribute coffee and food to migrants who have just been deported. Weekend revelers — San Diego teens and college students — are clanking through the metal gates of the crossing, under the watch of U.S. customs agents, and barely notice as they pass four Angels volunteers, mostly seniors, at a folding table topped with a bin of coffee and plastic cups, a carton of creamer, and a box full of sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. Carbajal says I could come along with her tonight; she’s been volunteering with the group on its Saturday-night excursions into the Tijuana River to feed and clothe the homeless migrants and addicts who live there, hoping, by chance, that she might come across her lost boy.

Juan Carlos and Vicky are down for the weekend too, sleeping in their white minivan on the lot at the Platanera Ramirez while helping Carbajal search for Pedro. Tonight, I ride in Juan Carlos’ van as we caravan slowly past the glowing nightclubs nearest to the border crossing. I am seated next to a woman named Rosa, who says that she’s been volunteering with the Angels since she lost her son about a month ago. “He walked out of the house on me one day, went walking, and since he’s not well in the brain, he hasn’t found his way back home.” Rosa sighs deeply, her voice quivering. She says she comes down to the river in the hopes of finding her son, or finding someone who has seen him or has word of him. “He was born in Hidalgo,” Rosa says, as if to give me a reference point if I ever come across him.

We take up a darkened ramp that leads to the top of the river’s embankments. The Angels truck is sounding a low siren, weeo-weeo-weeo. This is the call for the transient men who live in the drainage ditches to come out. The river crosses the international boundary with California at a gentle curve, heading toward the Pacific at Imperial Beach. You know the moment it becomes an American river when it is lined by harsh, stadium-style floodlights, a sign of warning to any potential illegal crossers, courtesy of the U.S. Border Patrol.

We emerge from the vehicles on a gravel embankment, and the group leader, Rafael, instructs us to don blue medical gloves as we set up tables from which to distribute food and clothing. Already the men are emerging, crawling up the banks. They look haggard, out of their wits, like zombies, but they know the drill.

“A single line, gentlemen,” Rafael calls. “All right, muchachos, no fighting. There are ladies with us tonight.” We hand out small paper cups of coffee and Gatorade, paper bags with tortas and burritos, toothpaste and toothbrushes. “Coffee or juice?” we ask.

Among the men is Jorge, who has wide, enormous and clear blue eyes, a soft mouth and well-defined cheekbones. He says he is 26 years old. My age. His skin looks ravaged by a lifetime of dope or junk. The women volunteers listen as Jorge begins thanking them, then sharing his life story. He says he knows he has his mother and his sisters waiting for him, but he can’t bring himself to find them. Jorge begins to sob uncontrollably, heaving like a child. The women surround him and rub on his back and speak to him about Jesus Christ, the savior. Drugs and alcohol are a disease, they say. Now is the day . . . to stand up . . . because Christ is here with you . . . but you must do your part. Jorge nods and nods as he weeps. The other men are already scurrying back down the riverbanks, into the shadows.

Maria Carbajal stands back, watching motionlessly. Her daughter-in-law is by her side. “That’s what I think Peter’s thinking,” she says to Vicky. “That he’s embarrassed, he doesn’t want to worry us.”

We climb back into the van and ride along the bumpy embankment in silence, down the ramp, and back onto the streets of Tijuana. Everyone is looking out the windows, searching the darkness.

At press time, Pedro Guzman had not been found. Watch laweekly.com for updates.