BY ADRIAN FLORIDO -- Juan Manuel Alvarez is 25, and he makes a living shining shoes in the seedy bars of Tijuana’s red light district. Other than his clothes, his one possession is a shoe shiner’s kit, which he carries everywhere. His fingernails are perpetually stained with black polish.
Alvarez was deported from the U.S. last year, and since then, he’s been stranded in Tijuana, living in a shelter a short walk from the border, trying to collect enough for a bus ticket back to his hometown in Sinaloa.
But the funds are scarce.
He pays for food and a bed at the shelter. There are also setbacks. He claims he was recently picked up by police and taken to the station, forced to shine the boots of fifteen officers.
He says not a single officer paid him.
Like Alvarez many recent deportees in Tijuana face frequent conflict with the municipal police here and a daily struggle to eke out a living. It’s hard for many to come up with just the dollar a day it costs to stay at a shelter.
Margarita Andonaegui runs a hall that serves breakfast to more than 1,000 deportees each morning. She says many recent deportees have no choice but to wander the city, sleep in the same clothes, not shower or shave. If they’re arrested police might confiscate nice clothes and shoelaces.
It takes five days, she says, and then it’s common for men and women who arrive in the city simply disoriented to become filthy and indigent.
Who’s going to help them or give them work when they look like that, she asks.
Every afternoon, dozens of deportees who have failed to find work or a way back home linger at a barren plaza near the border fence.
They come here to wait for handouts of food. On this day, they’re lucky. A group of Mexican evangelicals has come. But the food will only be distributed to those who sit through a lengthy, fiery sermon.
Felipe Gomez is among the audience. He says he resents having to listen to what he calls an imbecile to get something to eat. He believes the missionaries are taking advantage of their desperation.
Deportees are among the most vulnerable population in this gritty, sometimes corrupt and violent city. Police often arrest them for loitering, which is all many deportees can do.
As I stood in the plaza, several municipal police in pickups cruised by scoping it out. Gonzalez says they generally don’t harass people while the missionaries are there.
Tijuana police acknowledge they are tough on the deportees, who they claim are responsible for three quarters of the city’s crime. But they do reach out.
At this meeting at a deportee shelter, an officer named Victor Alvarez listens to complaints of police abuse from a dozen men.
He tells them that if they encounter an abusive cop, theyshould note their patrol car number and go to the local station to report them.
The men laugh and say that’s pointless. Most just try to avoid the police -- if they can.
A man named Jesus, who was deported 18 months ago, shows me how he avoids the police. He takes me to the Tijuana River, a concrete channel that runs along the border fence and carries a stream of putrid green water.
This is where the most desperate deportees end up, often after succumbing to drugs.
Not long ago police destroyed makeshift tents deportees had pitched in the channel. After that, Jesus dug a hole at the edge of the river. He reinforced it with wood panels on the side so it wouldn’t cave in, he put a roof on it, covered it in sand and planted little bushes on top. He crawls in and out through a circular opening. He invites me in.
The police won’t get me in here, he says. The Tijuana river is pocked with these holes. Every morning when he slides out of his, Jesus can see the U.S. border fence, which is just a few steps away. He says he’ll cross it again some day.