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Seven-Hour Border Backup Opens Up a Can of COVID Worms, Chief Says

Calexico officials are keeping their fingers crossed that a repeat of the seven-hour, miles-long delay in all directions that gridlocked southbound border traffic June 26 won’t be a regular weekend occurrence moving forward, but the police chief fears it might be and says to avoid it is going to be up to “all of us.”

A still shot from aerial drone footage taken around 8:10 p.m. June 26 shows traffic at the border backed up in all directions. PHOTO COURTESY OF MI CALEXICO

City traffic controllers were already out tending to major intersections in Calexico as of 9 a.m. June 28 in anticipation of lighter but no less obtrusive traffic congestion that occurred to a lesser degree June 27 and is expected to last through 8 p.m. June 28 as part of a three-day enforcement detail by the city of Mexicali, said Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo and according to information from an internal email to Calexico officials from acting Calexico-area ports director Sergio Beltran of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

A recurring COVID-inspection enforcement on the Mexican side of the ports of entry in downtown Calexico and at the Calexico east port started with little warning from Mexican officials on June 26 and is planned into the future in weekend-long details scheduled to start on Fridays and end each Sunday night, Gerardo said during an interview June 28.

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“They haven’t reached out to us to give us an answer about why they’re doing it,” Gerardo said. “I wish we could do the same thing here.”

“Imperial County in the past has been known as a cocaine corridor to the United States. Right now, this is the COVID corridor into the U.S.,” Gerardo said he told Sacramento officials who were in Imperial County on June 27 for numerous discussions related to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s June 26 press conference. The chief brought the state officials down to Calexico to see some of the traffic delays associated with the border checkpoints.

A crackdown in Mexicali to limit travel and gatherings in Baja California’s capital to try to control the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the city of more than 1 million started over the Father’s Day weekend (June 19 through June 21), Mexicali Mayor Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda announced in the Mexican media June 19. She also sent advisories then to Imperial County counterparts.

Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo. COURTESY PHOTO

However, many Imperial County officials, including federal port authorities and Calexico police, were taken aback June 26 when a letter from the Mexicali mayor’s office was sent to CBP officials late at night June 25, and that letter was not sent on to Calexico city officials until the morning of June 26, seemingly at the same time that a strict enforcement detail was set up outside both ports of entry on the Mexicali side involving city-, state- and federal-level authorities, even Mexican military members, to screen every vehicle heading south into Mexicali, of both Mexican and American citizens, for signs of COVID and for violations of other issues tied to the June 19 crackdown.

As of noon June 28, Mexicali’s official COVID dashboard tallied 794 deaths from the virus, 4,694 total positive cases of COVID, only 348 of which are considered active, and 861 cases still awaiting confirmation for COVID-19.

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By comparison, there were 81 deaths recorded in Imperial County related to COVID, 6,041 total positive cases, 1,064 of which were considered active, and 11 cases pending investigation, according to Imperial County Public Health Department’s surveillance dashboard as of midday June 27.

Meanwhile, calls to a Mexicali city spokesperson, Edgar Covarrubias, were not immediately returned seeking comment on the timing and lack of outreach to Imperial County officials.

Gerardo thinks that there could be a repeat of June 26 ahead if some of the traffic is not eliminated by Imperial County residents heading down to Mexicali for non-emergency reasons.

Calexico City Council Member Morris Reisen. COURTESY PHOTO

“If you’re an Imperial County resident, there is no reason for you to go down to Mexico,” he said. He called it “selfish” the way locals are heading to Mexicali to eat or visit family members during this pandemic, not just because of the traffic, but because of the uncontrolled spread of COVID between border crossers on both sides of the fence.

“Our government should suspend all (northbound) SENTRI and Ready Lanes” that U.S. citizens and Imperial County residents are using to get home quickly after going to Mexicali, he said, adding maybe that would deter unnecessary travel.

Still, the bulk of the traffic jams experienced over the weekend and expected to continue every weekend are a combination of Mexican nationals with proper documentation that allows them to skirt ongoing U.S.-Mexico border travel advisories and those with dual citizenship or U.S. citizens living in Mexico, many of whom are coming to the United States to seek medical treatment related to COVID from local hospitals and local health practitioners, Gerardo said.

He said U.S.-side authorities in Imperial County have little they can do to affect Mexicali residents’ travel, short of those things already outlined in the ongoing travel restrictions instituted and extended for a second time by the U.S. President Donald Trump administration.

Mexican nationals with border-crossing cards and other low-priority legal crossing documents are barred from entry into the U.S. However, those Mexican nationals with work visas in “essential jobs” like those who work in the agriculture industry or at establishments that provide U.S. residents “essential” services or that perform “essential” functions are allowed.

Gerardo said Imperial County residents that make it through Mexicali’s checkpoints but who are still needlessly traveling can only choose to police themselves.

A Calexico Chronicle photo illustration shows where and when traffic back up June 26.

Anatomy of a Traffic Jam

Dramatic photos and aerial drone footage from Mi Calexico spread like wildfire through social media over the weekend, driving home how bad the delays really were. Gerardo said the traffic was at a near standstill the evening of June 26 for as long as seven hours and froze traffic for more than three miles on Highway 111/Imperial Avenue, and at least a mile on Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Anza Road/Second Street.

The correspondence sent to Calexico ports director Beltran appears to be one part of the problem with the city getting caught off guard. Through the chain of emails, it appeared Beltran did not receive the letter on the enforcement detail from Mexicali until after 8 p.m. June 25, who did not forward the email to Calexico officials until around 9 a.m. June 26, with the detail starting at 10 a.m.

To further complicate matters, it took Gerardo another 45 minutes to distribute the email among city officials. But, according to Calexico City Council Member Morris Reisen and Gerardo, some of the chief decision makers for the city were unavailable that early in the day and did not anticipate the epic gridlock that took place.

City Manager David Dale was out of the office June 26, Reisen said, and Gerardo was out having a medical procedure done. Gerardo said he was “groggy” through much of June 26 because of the procedure.

A still shot from aerial drone footage taken around 8:40 p.m. June 26 shows traffic at the border backed up in all directions. PHOTO COURTESY OF MI CALEXICO

The chief credited Reisen with jumping into action and getting Mexicali officials to ease up on the inspections for several hours until traffic could be cleared. Gerardo said he had traffic controllers out trying to direct motorists until 2:30 a.m. June 27.

Reisen said when people began to call him about the traffic backing up, he was eventually able to get in touch with Assistant City Manager Miguel Figueroa around dusk (7:30 p.m.) June 26, who called in six traffic controllers, but the situation was well out of hand by then.

At that point, Reisen said, southbound “traffic was backed up all the way to Heber Road.”

Still recovering himself from a 20-day quarantine lifted June 19 due to being severely ill from COVID-19, a fact he said he kept hidden from the media and many others, where he said he felt like he was “going to die,” Reisen had been fairly limited in his city participation.

However, on June 26, Reisen used all his contacts to help bust open the gridlock, which Gerardo acknowledged he successfully accomplished.

Reisen said he first called the “mayor” of the Mexicali ejido of Santa Isabel, who Reisen had met from when the Calexico Fire Department donated an emergency response vehicle last year. He told the “mayor” he needed to get in touch with Mexicali Mayor Avila Olmeda. While he fell several rungs short of that goal, Reisen was able to get another Mexicali city official to call him back and, in turn, put him in contact with the Mexicali municipal police chief, Maria Elena Andrade.

“I asked her to close the checkpoints and help us open up and flush these cars through,” Reisen said.

Initially she didn’t want to, Reisen said, but she agreed to close the checkpoints outside the downtown port from 8 p.m. to midnight. The checkpoints reopened during a “federal changing of the guard” around 10 p.m., Reisen said, but then Andrade closed the checkpoint again through 2 a.m.

A letter from the city of Mexicali to acting Calexico-area ports director Sergio Beltran of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. COURTESY OF CALEXICO CITY OFFICIALS

Andrade told Reisen this was a one-time occasion, he said, and he didn’t want to press the point.

“They gave us a hand and I didn’t want to take an arm,” Reisen said.

Gerardo said because he had the traffic controllers out till 2:30 a.m., he could not bring them back until around noon June 27.

So, when the congestion picked up again early in the day; that’s when Gerardo said he found out the backup started to get out of control at the Calexico East Port of Entry as well.

Gerardo said he called the California Highway Patrol to request some assistance, but he was informed that Highway Patrol officers had their hands full as early as 9:30 a.m. June 27 when traffic backed up from the east port to State Route/Highway 7, where he said CHP reported frustrated motorists in the single lane leading to the east port crossing into the northbound lanes to cut into line.

Gerardo said Highway Patrol also reported fistfights between motorists over cutting in line.

Fortunately, Gerardo said, the traffic backups in downtown Calexico on June 27 never got past Highway 98/Birch Avenue. However, even that is significant and will likely be ongoing through the remainder of the weekend enforcement details.

Mitigating Traffic Jams Moving Forward

Gerardo and Reisen said they both have a series of things they intend to do starting June 29 to address this issue going forward.

For the subsequent weekends, like he did June 28, Gerardo said every Friday through Sunday until the border details are lifted in Mexicali there will be at least six traffic controllers on duty at Imperial Avenue/Highway 111 and Highway 98/Birch Avenue; Imperial/111 and Fifth Street; Imperial/111 and Grant Street; Imperial/111 and Second Street; Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Second Street; Cesar Chavez and Grant Street; and Cole Boulevard and 111 when it gets particularly bad.

Fortunately, a new fiscal year starts July 1, so new funding will be available. For now, Gerardo said he is running on emergency funding and the traffic controllers called over the weekend were out of work due to the city being out of money.

There is no bright side to what is happening at the Calexico East port because traffic jams there only last until 2 p.m., when the port closes for the day.

Due to decreased border-traffic volume because of COVID and the federal travel advisories, U.S. Customs and Border Protection limited the hours of operation at Calexico East from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. for non-commercial southbound traffic, CBP announced in late April.

Gerardo said CBP needs to stay open or extend its hours, at least on the weekends. Reisen said he plans to call Imperial County District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar the morning of June 29 to enlist Escobar’s help in reaching out to ports director Beltran to extend the Calexico East hours to help take some of the pressure off the downtown port.

Reisen said he’s confident that can be achieved, but he also wants to revisit his conversation with Mexicali chief Andrade to ask about the possibility of doing random inspections of southbound motorists, rather than every car.

News reports out of Canal 66 in Mexicali on June 28 showed photos and film footage of Mexican officials running infrared thermometers over the foreheads of all occupants of each car passing through the port.

In addition to temperature scans and checking for other COVID-19 symptoms, each car is also being checked for four other things, according to the letter to Beltran.

Mexican authorities are checking for use of face coverings; that no more than two people are in a vehicle at the same time; the purpose of the visit to Mexicali (verifying residency or “essential business”); and limited possession of alcoholic beverages.

Although the letter does not say so, it is suspected that those in violation of the any of the listed terms, including prior curfews instituted by the mayor, could be subject to arrest, fine or confiscation of alcoholic beverages, which is what Mexicali Mayor Avila Olmeda said in a prior late May advisory.

“Authorities will verify that the persons subject to review prove their Mexican address or nationality, (and) failure to do so, they will be subject to fines ranging from $3,475 to $17,376 pesos, or up to 36 hours of arrest,” the June 25 letter stated.

Gerardo explained the alcohol crackdown was instituted after COVID began surging in Mexicali due to “parties” and “gatherings,” he said.

Readers might recall the beer-buying frenzy that occurred in Imperial County by Mexicali residents in early May as supplies of beer ran short in the city.

While it is not illegal to consume alcohol in Mexico during the pandemic, Mexicali residents have been under stay-at-home orders and government health officials in Mexico halted beer production and declared brewing a “nonessential” activity in late March/early April to limit gatherings.

However, after stockpiles of existing brewed beer ran out, shopkeepers in Mexicali and Mexicali residents made a run on stores in Imperial County to take beer home in large quantities.

Gerardo said after Mexicali officials noticed a surge in cases tied to house parties and gatherings, the importation of beer and alcohol from the United States through the Mexicali ports was limited to about a 12-pack for personal consumption.

Gerardo added that Mexicali doesn’t have the resources to police house parties and gatherings in a city of more than 1 million people, but the city can stop beer at the border.

He sees similar issues here. Calexico police don’t have the resources to stop people from gathering in their homes, just like police and sheriff’s deputies all over the county don’t have the resources to do that. He said that’s where personal responsibility comes in.

Although he didn’t directly attribute the issue to alcohol, Gerardo referred to a news story that broke over this past weekend in which 28 Southern California family members became infected with COVID-19 even though previously infected members of the family were quarantined and deny having get-togethers and family gatherings. It illustrated how easily families can pass the virus among themselves.

Aerial drone footage of the border traffic jam on June 26. VIDEO COURTESY OF MI CALEXICO

Chief Meets State Officials, Brings Them to Calexico

Much has been made about Gov. Newsom’s June 26 press conference in which he implored Imperial County health officials to “toggle back” stay-at-home orders that were never lifted in the first place, but as a result of the press conference, “high-level decision-makers” from Sacramento arrived in numbers June 27 to meet with Imperial County public health and government officials to talk about local conditions from a variety of angles, Gerardo said.

In addition to touring hospitals and healthcare facilities, and talking to business, government, health and law enforcement officials, Gerardo said they even caravanned to Calexico to see the border traffic backed up.

A lot of information was shared with the state officials and revealed among local officials, including reports that up to 80 percent of the COVID deceased whose remains are in Frye Chapel and Mortuary in Brawley, are Mexicali residents with dual citizenship or those who have a legal right to Imperial County residency.

If that is even remotely true, and Gerardo said that is an unsubstantiated report at this point, that could mean around 60 of the COVID-related deaths reported in Imperial County could have ties to Mexicali.

The chief said he told state officials it is common for Mexicali residents with dual citizenship or Mexican nationals with resident status to have U.S. post office boxes and other residential addresses in Calexico and other parts of the Valley.

That is why the numbers of COVID-positive cases seem so high in Calexico, Gerardo believes. As of June 27, there were 2,020 total cases listed out of Calexico, with the next highest listed as 1,587 in El Centro and 1,005 in Brawley.

What’s more, there have been reports that as many as 20 percent to 40 percent of the cases severe enough to be presenting at emergency departments at El Centro Regional Medical Center and Pioneers Memorial Hospital have been from Mexicali, but all of them are here because of dual citizenship or American citizenship. Gerardo explained they live in Mexicali and cannot be denied treatment in American hospitals.

These other discussions with the state officials led Gerardo to bring them to Calexico to see the border-traffic backup, describe the Valley as a “COVID corridor” and describe Calexico as a “northern suburb of Mexicali.”

“We’re the only true border town in the United States,” Gerardo said. He told state officials that every other sister city on the border, from Tijuana and San Ysidro in California, to Juarez and El Paso in Texas, has a built in “DMZ” that keeps them 10 to 15 miles apart.

Calexico is people-to-people, town-to-town.

Gerardo told state officials that first-responders in Calexico are outgunned and overwhelmed, and that more of everything is needed for police and fire, including rapid testing, same-day results, additional funding and help, additional personal protective gear, and what happened on June 26 with the seven-hour traffic jam, is part and parcel of all that.

“They were here for a different reason,” Gerardo said. But, hopefully, he said, “They left with a different perspective.”