Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
LIFE FOR THE 3.3 MILLION people who live in San Diego County is, in large part, defined by one’s travel patterns. A complex of freeways and interchanges carve up the landscape: I have experienced several two-mile journeys that involved three freeways. There’s the 5, the 54, the 805—these numbers contribute to each person’s identity, establishing patterns that relay something about income bracket and lifestyle; they facilitate relationships and intensify alienation. This persists in the eastern part of the county, where crosswalks give way to cattle gates but locals still orient using highway numbers—Old 80, Route 94.
Even those who use public transportation can’t avoid this dynamic: buses use the slow lanes and many of San Diego’s signature red trolleys run parallel to the freeways—the sound of sweet, soft bells is enough to terrify any driver within earshot who realizes a trolley is about to temporarily block an intersection or freeway on ramp.
I grew up in the region and don’t remember hearing adults reference north or south, east or west. Giving directions always sounded more like “out toward the 15” or “head over to the 73.” When I was eight I had no idea how to use a compass but could tell you which freeways led to the beach, the mall, church—any integral part of my life.
Now I’m reacquainting myself with the roads after two decades away, and I’m letting The Wall determine my travel patterns. I’ve been searching for a way to figure out what a border really looks like in an increasingly interconnected world. I am hopeful the prototypes will help me get to the bottom of this. And not just the construction itself, the crews and the 50,000-pound concrete panels, but the people living and working and crossing the border in the same county where construction is happening, the same county where, every day, 70,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians use the San Ysidro border crossing, the busiest in the Western Hemisphere.1
I want to know how the reality of the region comports, or doesn’t, with all the ideas and expectations we form when viewing the border as a clean line on a map.
So far I have discovered that clean lines generally mark the most complicated places. None more so than the 8 Freeway. Everyone in San Diego County is familiar with it, either by commute or reputation. It runs from ocean to desert, parallel to the line dividing Mexico and the U.S., and it may be fifteen miles to the north but I have become convinced it is the real border. Not because the residents of the South Bay are any less American than the locals in Del Mar or Encinitas, to the north of the freeway, but they are not generally incorporated into the county or the state or the country in the same way. The roads in Nestor do not look like the roads in Torrey Pines, neither do the public schools or job markets or emergency services. And there is a broader disconnect between those who live north of the 8 and those who are south. For many people north of the freeway, going south means tacos at El Gordo or surfing the slews at Imperial Beach, special trips to special places outside the quotidian. Otherwise, the band of land between the 8 and the international line has, historically, functioned more like a U.S.-controlled buffer zone between the two countries.
Congress allocated $20 million for the prototypes to go up south of the 8 Freeway, but the federal government hasn’t finished perusing all the bids for the job. The process was supposed to move faster: it is August of 2017 and the Department of Homeland Security originally scheduled contracts to be awarded two months ago—by June 14, with construction to start “eight days later.” Those dates passed without so much as a cement mixer showing up. The revised timeline is increasingly unrealistic: completion by next month.
There is no barricade on Enrico Fermi yet, no fencing around the construction site. The rocky drive across the desert is ill advised in my budget rental but still I risk it regularly, parking near the spot where the secondary fence comes to a sudden end and the empty staging area begins. I sip coffee and wait for action. When I get tired of the quiet and the stillness I work on a list of all the things I’ve ever seen or read about borders and walls—every song and image, every history lesson, story and myth. Two memories from childhood:
- —Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, vintage episode, King Friday builds a wall to fortify his castle.
- —Memorizing Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” in the sixth grade: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
Every now and then there is action at the construction site but it’s generally subtle, meetings between Border Patrol representatives and the local companies contracted to provide everything from porta potties to chain link fencing.
Then one morning, finally, I see a small crew: three men with hammers and a pickup truck full of lumber. They do not wear uniforms, only yellow neon T-shirts and faded jeans; something seems entirely unofficial about them, particularly in anticipation of a major federal government undertaking. The spot where they work is about a hundred feet to the north of the staging area so something is
a little off. They start by getting posts in the ground and use the rest of the lumber to build two basic frames, at least 15 feet tall.
When they stop for a break I walk over to ask what they’re up to. I ask in Spanish because they’ve been bantering in Spanish. They don’t respond, either ignoring me or unable—perhaps unwilling—to interpret my mangled Spanish, I can’t tell. I shrink away and turn to look at the Border Patrol agent staked out on the ATV under the shade of a scrub oak about a hundred yards to the north. He is unmoving, slumped over his handlebars. The three men seem to be doing work that is at once rogue and sanctioned.
A couple of days later I return to see what’s become of the frames and now they’re both billboards with identical advertisements:
San Diego’s Only Full Service Truck Stop
Truck Net is owned by Roque De La Fuente, as is the land where the new billboards stand.
If Aurelia has the closest seat to the prototypes on the Mexican side then it is definitely Roque De La Fuente on the U.S. side. The staging area is trapped between the primary border fence made of corrugated metal and Roque’s 2,000-acre spread of mostly undeveloped desert land. He has the government essentially surrounded at the border and they are well-acquainted neighbors (see various lawsuit briefs2
). Roque positioned the billboards perfectly, to be captured as backdrop for the prototypes, anticipating the moment the cameras arrive. Roque knows theater when he sees it.
His global portfolio of commercial properties fluctuates regularly with new acquisitions, new sales, but in California alone Roque currently owns property in twenty-five different cities. He is often on the move, ubiquitous but nowhere to be found. I have been struggling to meet him in person. He is generous with his time on the phone; sometimes we talk for more than an hour, but he remains noncommittal regarding his location on any given day. He is always dashing off to Mexico City or Chile or talking
about dashing off to these places—it isn’t easy to discern which. Once, we spoke for an hour and a half and the whole time I thought he might have been in Uruguay but toward the end of the conversation I realized he was in San Diego, downtown getting a pedicure and manicure days before his daughter’s wedding. (It was “give the girl the extra ten”—softly, in the background—that gave him away.) After offering to meet him in various places at various times, I asked what would increase my chances of making it happen. “Luck,” he answered. He easily gives an hour spontaneously but has very real difficulty committing to a specific place at a specific time. He keeps the irregular travel patterns of a person who answers to nobody.
Sometimes I randomly stop in at the offices of National Enterprises Inc., the real estate company Roque founded. I’m looking for that luck he spoke of but haven’t caught it yet, though I have had a few minor breakthroughs: on one visit a friendly receptionist phoned Roque to tell him I was looking for him; he sent his regards from Santiago and told the receptionist to give me a tour of the place, which, more or less, doubles as a Roque De La Fuente Museum. There is the cover of the Los Angeles Times
with a picture of Roque walking across the Otay Mesa pedestrian border crossing, the first to do so when it opened in 1985. There is a framed picture of a jumbo billboard, Roque2016.com!
, which is still up in the desert near Tecate, long after his unsuccessful run for president. The conference room is adorned with proclamations and resolutions from the State of California and the County of San Diego, all involving Roque, and newspaper clippings, mostly featuring Roque. Also multiple credenzas showcase a couple dozen awards, the majority made of engraved glass, cut into one abstract shape or another. Most of them celebrate hitting certain financing benchmarks: $75 million with this bank, $15 million with that bank. There is enough artwork in the lobby to give it the feel of a gallery, and it continues into the hallways leading to offices. A few paintings—including an oil portrait of Roque’s younger self—but mostly sculptures, standing and hung on the walls, all revealing an acute aesthetic: intensely bronze and very tough guy.
The walls of the lobby are covered with pictures of Roque standing next to notables, or perhaps I should say fellow
notables: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Gray Davis—Roque treats political parties like he does geography: very noncommittal. Before running for president as an Independent in 2016, he had entered the primary for a Florida Senate seat as a Democrat. More recently he tried to get on the 2017 ballot for mayor of New York City as a Republican but got blocked by a co-op board that wouldn’t let him buy an apartment to establish residency. (Lawsuit pending.3
) Currently he is mulling a 2018 run for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat in California as a Republican.
Roque was born in San Diego in 1954. “But my parents lived in Tijuana,” he told me on one of our phone calls. “At that time, Tijuana did not have good hospitals, so if you had a little bit of wherewithal, you just cross the border and buy your meat or your grocery or you went to the dentist or doctor.”
Roque’s fortune traces back to a sunbaked lot where his father, Roque Sr., sold used cars in the Otay section of Tijuana. That business grew enough for Roque Sr. to start taking German lessons and, eventually, travel to Wolfsburg to convince Volkswagen to give him a dealership in Kearny Mesa, a growing suburban area north of San Diego. That dealership opened in 1968 and over the next thirteen years Jr. and Sr. added twenty-seven more in Southern California, stretching out east to El Centro in neighboring Imperial County. Somewhere along the way, in pursuit of cheap land for still more dealerships, the family got distracted by real estate.
On one of my office visits a colleague of the two men described the pivot like this: “Mr. De La Fuente Sr. realized, wow, in the car business, you have to be there at the start of the day and at the end of the day—seven days a week—to make sure people show up for work and don’t steal from you and you make a nice living. But in real estate, you can sleep in until ten o’clock and show up at a meeting and buy a property right for $1 and sell it for $2. The key is buy it right.”
The $1-to-$2 example is central to the De La Fuente orbit, the bright light around which their business model gravitated during its formation. By the time he was twenty, Roque was watching and learning: “The first property my father bought, he bought for $1.00 a square foot. He then sold it for $2.00. Then he bought it for $1.50 then sold it for $3.00, then he bought it for $2.00 and sold it for $4.00. My father enjoyed the growth in the Kearny Mesa area. It was phenomenal. The last property my father bought in Kearny Mesa, he paid $11.00 and sold it for $20.00. At that moment he said, ‘I doubt I can buy it for $20.00 and sell it for $40.00.’ So, he decided to take that cash and buy property in Otay Mesa.” Anything less than doubling your money was, apparently, unacceptable.
As the family branched out with acquisitions, Roque was the first to discover Otay Mesa, and he did so from 5,000 feet in the air. “I got a pilot’s license,” he said. “At that time in 1974, the practice ground was Otay. One of the things that fascinated me was, you go to Europe, all the border towns happen to be thriving on both sides. And here was Tijuana built up to the border, all the way to the border, from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the mountains but that wasn’t the case on the U.S. side in Otay.
“Otay Mesa is flat. Mesa
, flat, and historically, people build on flat lands before they go to the canyons or to the mountains. Why was it that Otay Mesa got passed over? If you take a look at Dallas–Fort Worth, basically Dallas was built and Fort Worth was built and in the middle it becomes one huge metropolis, no different than Los Angeles and Long Beach. Why was it that this area, Otay Mesa, was left untouched with so much growth all around?
“It’s very simple: San Diego did not want to become a border town. The board of supervisors did not allow that area to develop. They basically said, ‘We don’t care that you own the property, we’re not going to allow you to develop it.’ I’m talking fifty years ago. They sold it for agricultural uses, tomatoes and lettuce, but if anybody wanted to put a factory there, it was not allowed. Housing was not allowed there. They did not want to become a border town. Luckily for me, we saw an opportunity. That area should have been developed in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. But it waited for us.” Roque smiles, like he really does believe the land, the money therein, was just waiting for him.
In the late 1970s, Roque and his father started buying up Otay Mesa at 10 cents a square foot. “We bought the biggest piece of land in ’82 from bankruptcy court. It was a matter of timing and luck. Not only timing and luck, it’s taking advantage of the opportunity because a lot of people can have the timing and the luck but they’re afraid.”
It is nearly impossible to drive around Otay Mesa without happening upon De La Fuente Lane or De La Fuente Circle or some other incarnation of De La Fuente. The family name is integral to the Otay Mesa landscape.
As his interest and time drifted more toward political activity, Roque started relying on a man named David Wick to run NEI for him. David has been with Roque since NEI’s founding in 1992, and now he has a 5 percent stake in the company. “He’s the hardest-working person I know,” Roque once told me. “He earned
5 percent of the company, and he runs
100 percent of the company.” NEI, which has 186 employees, is not publicly traded and does not have investors. Roque Sr. passed away in 2010; David and Roque own the company in its entirety.
Eventually my drop-ins at the offices earn a sit-down with David. We meet in the conference room, surrounded by images of Roque. David is amiable but serious; he might always veer toward a smile but the pugilistic negotiator never goes away. It is easy to see why Roque trusted him with so much—the two men have a similar tone and energy when they speak. Their mix of exceptional affability and ruthless deal-making requires some reckoning, and I think David is aware of this. “Some people call us grave-dancers,” he says. “Other people call us bottom-feeders. I guess the best way to describe us is opportunists, constantly looking at the future and how to evolve the business plan and keep the bell curve going as long as possible. Every relationship, every business is a bell curve. Sooner or later, it comes to an end.”
When David and Roque started working together, the end was near for savings and loans, or thrift banks, across the country. By the time Roque formed NEI, the Resolution Trust Corporation, a government-run asset management office, had closed 747 thrift banks that had been making bad loans.4
And that was after another government agency had already closed 296.5
Over a thousand financial institutions were shuttered and the country was awash in over $400 billion in bad loans.6
The government had to find buyers for all of it. David and Roque were ready. “The bad loans we were buying,” says David, “we were buying these loans for pennies on the dollar. And later, when we would go to sell these properties, typically, the dialogue would be: ‘David, we know your company bought this home for 10 cents on the dollar. Why do I have to pay you 100 cents?’ So I say, ‘I took the risk, I had the money, I had the smarts to do it.’ ‘No, you’re a grave-dancer. You’re taking advantage.’ ‘Well, that’s what you say. I’m saying I’m being reasonable. Why don’t you pay me 80 cents and we’ll call it a day?’ ‘Yes, but you bought it for 10 cents.’ Human nature dwells on things like that.”
When I mention the advertisements next to the prototype site David beams with pride. “That’s our property, Truck Net—we have the largest truck stop in San Diego County. I can’t wait to see photographers trying to get angles without that,” he laughs. “It’s really great I have to say; it was very enterprising.”
NEI, which has owned as much as 4,500 acres in Otay Mesa, is the largest property owner in the area. Historically, Otay fell under county management but in 1985 most of the land was annexed to the city of San Diego—about 9,000 acres, leaving only about 2,200 unincorporated. The De La Fuentes played a big part in that transition. “Roque Sr. saw it as a way to develop Otay Mesa easier and quicker,” notes David. “From the city’s perspective, you have this huge tax base potential without the burden of the residents to have all the amenities that are necessary, the police and fire and so on. So it has become a city of industry.”
Otay Mesa does not actually touch the rest of San Diego on a map. In fact there are two sections of the city that are altogether geographically separate: Otay Mesa and San Ysidro, both of which run along the border, both of which have a terrestrial port of entry—the only two in the county. Otay Mesa and San Ysidro are seven miles south
of the city. In order to incorporate them, San Diego had to get inventive, using a shared body of water, the South Bay, as the connecting geographic feature. By finding a way to incorporate San Ysidro and Otay Mesa, the city has had a bigger say in the development of the liminal zone.
Since 1985, about a third of the incorporated Otay land has been developed, much of it once belonged—or still belongs—to Roque and David. The industrial landscape is hard to navigate from a passenger vehicle; big rigs define the Otay Mesa experience. There are warehouses and office parks for logistics companies, trucking facilities with vast lots storing shipping containers, scrap yards, auto shops, body shops, and tire shops with hubcaps stacked fifteen shelves high. Chain link fences topped with razor wire are everywhere—Mexican flags and U.S. flags. Eighteen-wheelers are coming out of every facility, turning at every intersection, busting down all the wide lanes, on their way to clog up the Otay Mesa border crossing, which is primarily a commercial port. With 2,000 big rigs passing through every day7
it is an aorta for North American capitalism, the place where products flow north to fill strip malls and showrooms.
“We have a tenant,” says David, “it’s a logistics company. They own their trailers and trucks. They have a factory in Tijuana, and they have a warehouse in Otay. They typically do what we call the ‘donkey run.’ They go across the border with raw material and they come back north with a finished product.”
Burreros, drayage operators, make the donkey runs. Their short-distance hauls exist because of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Provisions in the agreement make it harder for foreign truck drivers to move goods more than twenty-five miles past any U.S. border.8
The idea is to protect American truck drivers, even if they work a hundred hours a week without health benefits or a living wage, as many of them do. After dropping off finished products in Otay Mesa, the burreros return to Tijuana with a trailer full of raw goods. If it’s a good day, a burrero will make three runs, defined by eight or nine or ten mind-numbing hours spent waiting in traffic at the port of entry.
“Take Toyota Tacomas,” says David. “Parts will come into the port at Long Beach, get trucked down to our yard in Otay. The truck that brought it from the port typically will switch out the tractor with a local truck that will bring the trailer into Mexico to the Tacoma factory just past the border. The Tacoma will be assembled there in Mexico, picked up as a finished product and brought across the border back to our drop yard. Then an American driver will connect to the trailer with the finished product and bring it to dealerships.”
The factories along the border in Mexico are called maquiladoras and, like the trucking stipulations, they’re codified by NAFTA. The maquiladoras allow multinational companies to assemble products in Mexico, paying lower wages than they can pay in the U.S.—and they get to skip duties and taxes.9
But there are a few catches: the raw materials can only enter a designated Free Trade Zone near the border in Mexico and all of the finished products must be sold in the U.S. The goods pass freely but the people who make them do not.
With maquiladoras thriving along the border, Tijuana has been growing for decades, absorbing migrant workers from all over the country and region. The Tijuana that Roque saw from overhead in 1974, with 341,000 inhabitants, was nothing compared to the metropolis of two million in 2017. But the asymmetry he observed persists: the maquiladoras of Tijuana and the foothills behind them, crowded with listing houses and drying laundry, pulse in a way that still contrasts with the industrialization and emptiness of Otay Mesa. On the north side of the border, eighteen-wheelers pull into drop yards, completing donkey runs between 5,000-square-foot factories and the markets they serve. A line separates two countries but does not faze the travel patterns of capitalism.
It is into this landscape where work is set to begin on eight prototypes of The Wall. The sheriff contacted David and Roque about the possibility of major protests near the construction site. “We signed documents with the Sheriff’s Department,” says David, “to give them the right to arrest anyone on our properties.”
“I did get some calls from some protesters. They basically said, ‘Would you mind if we came on your property?’ I said, ‘That’s probably not a good idea. There is no upside, only a downside.’ In my mind I thought, we’ll have a mess like at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Now, if you want to pay rent, we can put up bleachers, have some hot dogs and hamburgers, and have a good time—that would be different.” He laughs at the idea but also ponders it.
“Why is Trump doing this on the border, anyway?” he asks. “Those prototypes could have been built at Camp Pendleton. They could have been built at Area 51 in Nevada, but instead he is in the face of Mexico saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ If you’re the sheriff, you’re thinking you’re going to have all hell break loose. You saw what happened in North Dakota. Things could get ugly.”