The Soft Spot

geoborder[Image: Close-up of the 2010 State Geologic Map of California].

An interesting story published last month in the L.A. Times explored the so-called “sweet spot” for digging tunnels along the California/Mexico border.

“Go too far west,” reporter Jason Song explained, “and the ground will be sandy and potentially soggy from the water of the Pacific Ocean. That could lead to flooding, which wouldn’t be good for the drug business. Too far east and you’ll hit a dead end of hard mountain rock.”

However, Song continues, “in a strip of land that runs between roughly the Tijuana airport and the Otay Mesa neighborhood in San Diego, there’s a sweet spot of sandstone and volcanic ash that isn’t as damp as the oceanic earth and not as unyielding as stone.”

More accurately speaking, then, it is less a sweet spot than it is a soft one, a location of potential porosity where two nations await subterranean connection. It is all a question of geology, in other words—or the drug tunnel as landscape design operation.

border[Image: Nogales/Nogales, via Google Maps].

With the very obvious caveat that this next article is set along the Arizona/Mexico border, and not in the San Diego neighborhood of Otay Mesa, it is nonetheless worth drawing attention back to an interesting article by Adam Higginbotham, written in 2012 for Bloomberg, called “The Narco Tunnels of Nogales.”

There, Higginbotham describes a world of abandoned hotel rooms in Mexico linked, by tunnel, to parking spots in the United States; of streets subsiding into otherwise unknown narco-excavations running beneath; and of an entire apartment building on the U.S. side of the border whose strategic value is only revealed later once drug tunnels begin to converge in the ground beneath it.

Here, too, though, Higginbotham also refers to “a peculiar alignment of geography and geology,” noting that the ground conditions themselves are particularly amenable to the production of cross-border subterranea.

However, the article also suggests that “the shared infrastructure of a city”—that is, Nogales, Arizona, and its international counterpart, Nogales, Mexico—already, in a sense, implies this sort of otherwise illicit connectivity. It is literally built into the fabric of each metropolis:

When the monsoons begin each summer, the rain that falls on Mexico is funneled downhill, gathering speed and force as it reaches the U.S. In the 1930s, in an attempt to control the torrent of water, U.S. engineers converted the natural arroyos in Nogales into a pair of culverts that now lie beneath two of the city’s main downtown streets, Morley Avenue and Grand Avenue. Beginning in Mexico, and running beneath the border before emerging a mile into the U.S., the huge tunnels—large enough to drive a car through—created an underground link between the two cities, and access to a network of subterranean passages beneath both that has never been fully mapped.

This rhizomatic tangle of pipes, tubes, and tunnels—only some of which are official parts of the region’s hydrological infrastructure—results in surreal events of opportunistic spelunking whereby “kids would materialize suddenly from the drainage grates,” or “you would see a sewer plate come up in the middle of the street, and five people would come up and run.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of a great anecdote from Jon Calame’s and Esther Charlesworth’s book Divided Cities, where the split metropolis of Nicosia, Cyprus, is revealed to be connected from below, served by a shared sewage plant “where all the sewage from both sides of the city is treated.” The authors interview the a local waste manager, who jokes that “the city is divided above ground but unified below.”

In any case, the full article is worth a read, but a tactical geological map revealing sites of likely future tunneling would be a genuinely fascinating artifact to see. I have to assume that ICE or Homeland Securitylet alone the cartels—already have such a thing.

(L.A. Times article originally spotted via Nate Berg).

Assassin’s Creed

In Mexico, the widespread assassination of mayors indicates that cartel violence “is evolving far beyond the drug trade. Cartels now fight for political power itself.” The murder of Gisela Mota, newly elected mayor of Temixco, “was part of a regional campaign by [a local cartel] to control town halls and rob the towns’ resources.” Ominously, while “kingpins rot in prisons and graves, their assassins have formed their own organizations, which can be even more violent and predatory.”

Working the Line

Tomorrow night in Los Angeles, at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, David Taylor will be presenting his project “Working the Line.”

[Image: U.S./Mexico border marker #184; photograph by David Taylor].

Taylor has been documenting “276 obelisks, installed between the years 1892 and 1895, that mark the U.S./Mexico boundary from El Paso/Juarez to San Diego/Tijuana. He will present this work, and describe his experiences along this often remote and dramatic linear and liminal space.”

As geographer Michael Dear—who spoke about border issues back at Postopolis! LA—describes these obelisks:

The monuments erected by the boundary survey played a pivotal role in securing the line after the Mexican-American War. These obelisks and stone mounds literally marked on the ground the southernmost edges of the nation; they became fundamental points of reference in subsequent boundary disputes (of which there were many) and in the resurvey of the border that took place at the end of the 19th century.

In the context of Taylor’s project, it’s interesting to read a 2006 discussion about “GeoCaching the Mexican Border Obelisk Monuments,” in which a project nearly identical to Taylor’s was presented as “extreme & dangerous,” and thus all but impossible to achieve. Rhetorically speaking, I also want to point out CLUI’s use of the terms “remote and dramatic” to describe what the geocaching site sees as “extreme & dangerous”—an intriguing insight into the spirit of the two approaches. In any case, the ensuing conversation there includes fascinating technical details of the obelisks themselves—their materiality and scale—as well as precise coordinate locations for several dozen of them.

The talk kicks off at 7pm, on Wednesday, August 4, at CLUI’s gallery space in Culver City; here’s a map.

(Random book link: Obelisk: A History).