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US-Mexico border park lures smugglers as well as sunbathers. It's rangers vs. Border Patrol in this park to promote friendship

After an 1,800-mile wind through mountains, desert, and rangeland, the often-breached United States-Mexico border fence abruptly ends. It stops at the winter storm high-tide mark of a rugged Pacific beach, dozens of yards above the usual water line. The international frontier slides down the cliffside and fades into pebbly, white sand. The low-slung surf, incognizant of current US immigration policies, invites traffic north and south.

The wire fence (so full of holes that locals call it the ``Tortilla Curtain'') comes to an unceremonious halt in California's Border Field State Park. The four-square-mile park, much of it wilderness, lies along the Tijuana River estuary in the southwestern corner of the US, 15 miles south of San Diego.

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In 1974, it was dedicated by First Lady Pat Nixon as a ``Border Friendship Park.'' Although entirely on US soil, the park was to be as accessible to people from Mexico as to those in California, says suntanned ranger Randy Hawley of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

``The original idea was that there would not be a fence so people from each country could mingle and get to know each other,'' says Ed Navarro, district superintendent of the state park.

``It never worked out that way,'' explains Mr. Hawley, who has worked in the park for four years.

On the beach, it appears that people wading in the broken waves and children playing on the sand can cross the invisible border at will. But a glance upward at the edge of the bluff overlooking the beach reveals two light-green US Border Patrol vans, and a dark-blue uniformed agent peering through binoculars. Behind them, a gate in the border fence, designed to let Mexicans into the picnic area and grassy soccer field, is chained shut.

The presence of the Border Patrol, which oversees the national boundary for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), has led to an uneasy compromise of park goals with policies mandating strict control of the border. It is a compromise that usually leaves Mexicans who want to use the soccer field and picnic area with their faces pressed to the fence, unable to come in.

``The Border Patrol and the park rangers seem to have different philosophies about what the park is for,'' says Hawley.

``We rangers really don't care from which side of the border our visitors come,'' he says. ``There's not a lot of green space in Tijuana, and Mexicans like to play soccer here. Others come to meet relatives. It's really frustrating when they are denied access.''

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But INS spokesmen say the Border Patrol is only doing its job. The beach, they explain, is one of the most popular smuggling routes into the US, especially on weekends when it's so crowded that it is almost impossible for agents to keep an eye on everyone.

``It's a `pick-up' park - drugs, people, babies,'' says one on-duty Border Patrol agent from behind his binoculars. And Michael Gregg, supervisory Border Patrol agent for the Imperial Beach station, explains: ``Marijuana is buried in the sand on the Mexican side to be picked up by others on the American side. We've even found hollowed-out surfboards stuffed with drugs.''

Ranger Hawley says the Border Patrol uses the park as a buffer between the heavily urbanized cities of Tijuana and San Diego. As a result, its trails are bugged with listening devices and are under surveillance by nightscopes.

``We call it adult hide-and-go-seek, and our side has all the equipment,'' says Hawley. He adds that rangers occasionally trip invisible sensors mistakenly and find themselves surrounded by Border Patrol agents.

The only legal way to enter the US is through a port of entry, says Mr. Gregg, and the closest one to the park is five miles east at San Ysidro.

``We don't allow people to freely walk the beach,'' he says. ``We try to prevent them from doing so just by our presence. If that is not enough, agents warn them to return. If they persist, they are apprehended.''

The park attracts up to 500,000 visitors from the US side each year, many of whom come on horseback to ride park trails, says Mr. Navarro. That doesn't count Mexicans, who make up most of the park's visitors on weekdays, when the Border Patrol presence is less obtrusive, he says.

The rangers have their hands full protecting the environment from raw sewage, pesticide residue, mercury, and debris that float into the estuary from Mexico.

The conflict in goals between the Border Patrol and the park service, says Hawley, comes to the fore when Border Patrol agents in all-terrain vehicles race through estuarine marshes in hot pursuit of illegals.

``I tell them, your job is a political one,'' he says. ``You could be gone tomorrow if the politics change. We like to think our park is here forever.''

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