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Changing conditions at the U.S.-Mexican border reflect changing relations between two nations. The United States is building hundreds of miles of new fence, doubling the number of border patrol agents, and getting tough on illegal immigrants. At the same time, the amount of cargo crossing in both directions continues to grow dramatically. And a drug war on the Mexican side of the border has killed thousands of people this year alone, which is scaring away U.S. tourists.

NPR's Jason Beaubien recently traveled the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Texas coast. And in the first in a series of reports, he looks at how the changing frontier is affecting Tijuana.

JASON BEAUBIEN: At the very northern edge of Tijuana, a row of rusty girders jutting up from the sand stretches out into the Pacific. These steel beams mark the beginning of a 2,000-mile line dividing the richest economy in the world from its impoverished neighbor. From the posts, a 15-foot-high metal fence extends inland up the hill. On the Mexican side, two little girls are playing with dolls. Their father and 10-year-old uncle are on U.S. soil in Friendship Park talking to them through the mesh.

Unidentified Mexican Boy: She's seven, and she's five.

BEAUBIEN: The uncle, who's in fifth grade, leans towards the barrier as he talks. He says he and his brother are waiting for their immigration papers to come through. And until they do, they can't leave the U.S. Given their immigration status, they don't want to give their names. In the distance behind them you can see the office towers of downtown San Diego. The fifth-grader says this is the only place where his family can get together.

Unidentified Mexican Boy: We go one week, and then two weeks no. And then one week we come back.

BEAUBIEN: Other couples hold hands through gaps in the fence. An ice cream vendor in Mexico sells popsicles to customers on both sides. Once a week, a minister from California offers communion through the mesh. The economic, social, and political changes that are occurring along the U.S.-Mexican border are particularly prominent in Tijuana.

As the Department of Homeland Security installs hundreds of miles of new border fence, some of it is going in here. Recently, the department put up a secondary barrier along most of the southern edge of Friendship Park, creating a no man's land between the park and Tijuana. Now only a small section of the fence is approachable from both sides. Border Patrol officials say the double fence is needed to secure the boundary, in part because Mexican authorities have done little to keep people from crossing. Captain Javier Cardenas is with the Tijuana police department.

Captain JAVIER CARDENAS (Tijuana Police Department): We are not against the immigration. So if I see a group of 10 or 20 people there that want to cross the border, I'm mean, I'm not going to stop them. Our officers are not going to stop them.

BEAUBIEN: And in the urban sprawl of Tijuana, which pushes right up against the border, there are plenty of places for people to gather before attempting to go over, under, or through the wall.

Captain CARDENAS: To be honest, the border, it's a federal zone.

BEAUBIEN: Captain Cardenas says federal police from Mexico City are responsible for patrolling it, which they don't. The heavily fortified fence here divides two sharply different cities. In parts of San Diego, barefoot, shirtless surfers pedal one-speed bikes to the beach. In Tijuana, barefoot, headless bodies turn up jammed into garbage cans.

Nationwide, more than 4,500 people have been killed this year in drug-related violence. The majority of those killings have been along the border, as the nation's drug cartels battle each other and the authorities for control of smuggling routes. I went to visit Captain Cardenas because he's the Tijuana police department's liaison with U.S. law enforcement on border issues. He said the American practice of deporting felons straight out of U.S. prisons into Tijuana was fueling gang violence here.

Captain CARDENAS: Most of the people, they are ending up dead on the streets. A lot of those people have backgrounds over there in the States. You can see the tattoos. You can see different things. And those are deported felons.

BEAUBIEN: Several weeks after this interview, Captain Cardenas was arrested along with 18 other Tijuana police officers. Federal prosecutors accuse them of being on the payroll of the drug cartels. Welcome to Tijuana, where criminals, migrants, smugglers, and police all mix together in a confusing, volatile, and at times deadly stew.

(Soundbite of sirens)

BEAUBIEN: White vans from the coroner's office converge on what will be their fourth murder scene of the day. At a strip mall on the south side of Tijuana, five bodies have been found in a stolen Ford Explorer with California plates. In October, the city ran out of space at its morgue as the coroner picked up more than one hundred murder victims in two weeks.

Mr. ROBERTO QUIJANO SOSA (President, Coparmex Tijuana) Well, right now it's totally out of control. That - we have to recognize that. Right now, it's totally out of control in Mexico.

BEAUBIEN: Roberto Quijano Sosa is sitting next to the golf course at the Tijuana Country Club. Quijano is the president of Coparmex Tijuana, an employers' group in the city. Despite the drug war, he says life and business carry on here.

Mr. QUIJANO SOSA: The most important activity in our city is maquiladoras. Maquiladoras have not really been affected by security.

BEAUBIEN: But in a sign of how closely Mexican border communities are tied to the American economy, these assembly plants all along the border started laying people off just weeks after the U.S. stock market's October collapse. The border checkpoint between Tijuana and San Ysidro is the busiest land port in the U.S. and one of the busiest in the world. Up to 65,000 vehicles and 35,000 pedestrians cross in each direction each day.

Tightened security at the checkpoints has increased wait times at the border to as much as three hours, and Quijano says this is a huge burden on businesses. The lush putting greens and palm trees behind Quijano contrast sharply with the gritty Tijuana streets just outside the club's walls. Quijano says Tijuana should be a paradise. It's got beaches, great weather. It's practically a low-cost Southern California. But the raging drug war is threatening all that.

Mr. QUIJANO SOSA: If things are not controlled, it's going to be hell. We have been seeing people thrown out on the streets, literally, five or six people. That's really affecting our community, and it's really affecting our standard of living.

BEAUBIEN: Behind him, a pair of bulletproof SUVs are parked on a putting green. They're display models for a company promising to stop everything from small arms fire to shrapnel from a grenade.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: It's 10:30 at night on Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana. While music is pumping from nightclubs and barkers are still positioned outside gentlemen's clubs, there's hardly anyone on the street. Restaurants are empty, and many storefronts on what used to be the main tourist strip here are shuttered. Andres Mendez Martinez runs a knickknack shop on the Avenida next to a tourist mall where only three of the 35 stores are still in business.

Mr. ANDRES MENDEZ MARTINEZ (Store owner, Tijuana): We hurt when something happens to the United States. Immediately people don't come, and that affects us.

BEAUBIEN: Mendez says that the Avenida used to be where Americans came across to stock up with the Mexican pharmacies, grab some enchiladas, get their picture taken with a donkey, or dance into the wee hours of the morning. But the drug war and the long waits at the border are making people all along the international boundary think twice about crossing. Mendez says Avenida Revolucion will reinvent itself, but the focus will be inward, offering art galleries and nightclubs that cater not to tourists, but to Mexicans. And he thinks this is the future, with the two communities that push up against either side of the border drifting apart. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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