Life on the Border: 10 Times When Heading ‘Across Town’ Can Be More Than You Bargained For

Serving at U.S. Consulate General Ciudad Juárez as a Foreign Service posting has had the unique benefit of proximity to the United States: El Paso, Texas is less than five miles away. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in many regards feel like one city. If you read about the history of this area and in particular the resolution of the Chamizal dispute in the 1960s over 600 acres of disputed border territory, you will start to see how the geographical, historical, social, and economic ties in the second-largest U.S. border community (behind San Diego and Tijuana) have been tightly interwoven over hundreds of years. And despite the border closure to non-essential travel between March 21, 2020 and November 8, 2021, those ties remain strong.

However, proximity doesn’t always equal easy or convenient access, even for the most privileged of us. FSOs could be forgiven for being lulled into complacency routinely traveling back and forth between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso when it feels like a run across town, only to be slapped with the reality of it actually technically being diplomatic travel to and from your country of assignment across an international border. This is highlighted only when something goes wrong and you realize, this would have been a lot easier were I only driving across town. Here are 10 examples (plus one bonus) of times going across town was more than I bargained for during the last year and a half.

1. First and foremost, the reality of the international border dividing the land into two nation states, and the different types of “expense” associated with that reality. It is indisputable. And not everyone who is part of this border community has a legal right to go back and forth. The promise of jobs, education, and access to opportunities in Texas is something that citizens of Juárez can literally see with their own eyes, but it might remain out of reach for some. So I’m just going to put that out there right from the beginning.

Ysleta ~ October 2021

And because FSOs and our family members (including kids attending school in El Paso) frequently travel through these land border Ports of Entry (POEs) and encounter immigration officials, it behooves us – even for a grocery or pharmacy run – to always carry our diplomatic passports, our Global Entry cards, and our diplomatic accreditation cards from Mexico’s Secreteria de Relaciones Exteriores (SRE), as well as to familiarize ourselves with the locations and hours of the bridges.

There are four main bridges in our area connecting Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and El Paso, TX, in order from east to west:

[1] Ysleta (also known as Zaragoza);

[2] Bridge of the Americas or BOTA (also known as “the free bridge,” “puente libre,” or Puente Internacional Cordova de Las Americas);

[3] the Stanton Street bridge (also known as Centro, Lerdo, or the Friendship/Good Neighbor Bridge);

[4] and Paso del Norte (sometimes called the Santa Fe Street Bridge, but often just short-handed as PDN).

Confused yet? It took me a while to figure this out. Texas and Mexico have a little over two dozen POEs across approximately 1,500 shared miles of border, but these are the ones in our immediate area.

To this day I’ve never crossed at PDN, but I use the others. We live much closer to Ysleta and only cross northbound from there (particularly because it is a 24 hour bridge and we have had a few middle-of-the-night ER runs), but I’ve started using BOTA more often to return southbound since the border recently reopened and Ysleta has been slammed.

Waiting at Ysleta in the 97 degree heat to cross northbound into El Paso for a meeting with law enforcement contacts – luckily it’s typically a short wait for Global Entry holders ~ August 2021

Currently, the U.S. sides of Ysleta, Stanton, and Paso del Norte are administered by the City of El Paso and they charge a fee southbound to depart. My understanding is the city contributes some percentage of the funds to maintain the bridges, but I don’t know the details. It has been $3.50 USD or 80 pesos since we have lived here; marginally less if you get a prepaid pass. I monitor the exchange rate to determine which currency I will pay with. BOTA is free southbound.

Students who attend El Paso high schools but live in Mexico (Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Americans, and/or third country nationals) return to Juárez after school across the pedestrian bridge, which costs 7 pesos ($0.32 USD) each way. This day was Mexican Independence Day, a federal holiday where schools in Mexico and the consulate were closed, however, in the U.S. it was a regular day.

We prepay on the Mexican side to travel northbound via stickers on our windshields obtained via Puentes Fronterizos, and we’re only eligible to do so because we have Global Entry, thus rendering us reciprocally eligible to use the Carril Exprés (express lane northbound to connect to CBP’s SENTRI lane for inspection). It frankly sucks that southbound there is no such expediting; everyone jams in together and it takes significantly longer, although you’re only waiting for the Mexican customs and immigration red light/green light system where no one talks to you unless you catch a red light.

But I digress. All of this is to explain that none of this is necessary if you’re just driving across town! And the costs for those who can and do cross add up. Is it worth it? Yes.

2. You need to care about what you’re traveling with more when you’re crossing the border than you do when you’re just driving across town. What shouldn’t you bring back and forth across the international border? You should consult official sources of information if you have questions, but generally, there are things you can bring as long as you declare them, like your documented pets and cash exceeding $10,000 USD. However, some things that are prohibited, like weapons, certain produce and raw meat that the U.S. considers may pose an agricultural hazard once brought into Mexico just shouldn’t be brought back. Since we go back and forth, generally what we have in our cars going one direction is coming back in the other direction (with the exception of grocery runs), so we try to keep this in mind.

There have been times I bought a banana in a U.S. grocery store, brought it home to Juárez, accidentally brought it across in my gym bag to physical therapy in El Paso, then brought it back into Mexico again. It’s especially ironic when the item says “Product of Mexico” and by the time I eat it, it’s visited the United States at least three times! Oops. But you know what’s a way bigger oops that I often encounter in my line of work that you should DEFINITELY avoid? That’s right ladies and gentlemen…

Ysleta ~ April 2021

3. Never bring your guns to Mexico. Or even a stray cartridge. You can drive around with a trunk full of hunting rifles registered to you in the great state of Texas, but you will find out rather quickly that your trip across town is anything but if you try to drive into Juárez with them. Guns in Mexico are a much more serious offense than at home in the States.

U.S. citizens and weapons or ammunition-related arrests at the bridges are not uncommon. Trust me, you don’t want to do this, whether it’s criminal activity, failing to make a U-turn, or plain and simple not paying attention to the contents of your baggage and vehicle. This is an error that can turn a trip across town into a trip to jail, and potentially even a trip to prison. That means being incarcerated in Mexico, in case I’m not clear. You don’t get the option to go to jail in Texas because it’s the laws of Mexico you’ve violated.

Waiting in traffic at Ysleta/Zaragoza to cross southbound provides plenty of opportunities to read that giant warning sign and ponder whether I may have a stray Glock or assault rifle floating around in my trunk. Note also the driver who lost patience and is off-roading on the right-hand side, looking for a quicker way to the border through the duty-free parking lot ~ October 2021

4. You will also feel the distance between the cities in those moments where you forget something important at home and are on the other side without it. Example: That moment I was driving on the freeway in El Paso as my contact lens folded in half on my eyeball. Where do you think my backup contact lenses were? In Mexico, of course! And I have a really weird prescription that has to be special-ordered and can’t be found on any shelf. I’ve remedied the problem by carrying a spare pair and some solution in my purse, which I should have been doing all along as a contact lens wearer of a decade who knows better. But you know, I felt like I was just across town!

Or that time I was approaching the CBP booth and realized I had driven away from the house without a mask. And my emergency masks that “always” stayed in the car? For the first time they were in the laundry. A perfect storm. I couldn’t exactly turn around and go get them – I was already in the lanes with concrete barriers on both sides. This was pre-vaccine, under mask mandates in both countries, so the only choice was to keep driving forward, talk to the CBP officer with my window cracked and my sleeve over my mouth, cross, and stop by Walgreens and buy a new pack of masks before going anywhere else.

Inadequate drainage of flood waters on the main road from the border in Juárez, driving home after crossing at Ysleta ~ August 2021

5. The traffic is bad in a lot of cities, but the border traffic may literally be the difference on whether you get where you’re going or not. I have unlimited SENTRI only for Ysleta, which costs over $600 USD annually for both cars. So several times when there has been something that fouls up my ability to approach Ysleta on the Mexican side, like flooding, a series of closed intersections, or a multiple homicide shooting, I couldn’t cross northbound. Sure, I could have driven to another bridge, but waiting hours and hours to cross to El Paso might just make you want to do what you need to do in Juárez instead. Before I had SENTRI, I waited three, four, and five hours to cross northbound, which I wrote about on a few occasions last year. (We always keep a minimum of half a tank of gas in both vehicles for this reason.)

And V and I have both been stuck in many grueling traffic jams southbound that made us regret even going to El Paso that day. But, you can’t always decide to go another route back to Juárez; for a long time, the road leading to BOTA was closed for construction on the El Paso side, and driving all the way across Juárez alone once crossing into Mexico at Stanton didn’t feel safe to me at night. So, I was stuck at Ysleta sometimes for 90 minutes or two hours trying to cross back into Juárez and get home.

Drivers at this intersection in El Paso approaching Ysleta can be particularly notorious for blocking the box, and the El Paso Police Department often arrives on Saturdays to direct traffic and prevent hours of chaos ~ March 2021

6. When the POE closes and you’re on the wrong side, it can be more than just “one road is unavailable, take another.” Along the same lines as the traffic issue, there have been a few times where I’ve crossed to El Paso after work in the evening and failed to notice that due to construction, Ysleta would close at 9:00 p.m. until early the following morning. This is probably less a big deal for FSOs who maintain an El Paso residence in addition to their Post housing in Juárez (which comes with its own logistical challenges, to be sure.)

But when I came rolling up to the bridge at 9:10 p.m. one evening, particularly tired and needing to get up early, I was dismayed to see the work crews and flashing lights. I realized I had missed the sign and it was too late to cross at Ysleta. My second realization was I couldn’t use BOTA either, where construction was also ongoing, but would have to drive half an hour up I-10 to downtown El Paso, cross at Stanton, and then drive all the way back across Juárez in the dark. That 10 minute mistake cost me an hour of driving, 30 minutes of waiting to cross at Stanton, and a significant jangle to my nerves. I only let that happen once.

V driving along the 375 (border highway) in El Paso, with Ciudad Juárez visible from the driver side ~ August 2021

7. One of my least favorite examples of the unexpectedly complicated “trip across town” is having car trouble in El Paso. The “low tire, get yourself back home” isn’t the same thing when you need to navigate the border and keep your car in operable condition in Juárez. One example of this is taking your car into the shop in El Paso and being offered a courtesy shuttle “home.” It’s funny to watch the reaction when I tell them where I live and because of my appearance they aren’t expecting it. Needless to say the courtesy doesn’t extend that far.

Or the time my engine light came on in El Paso and I was stuck over there all day afraid to drive it back into Juárez. I could have “two-bered” (take one Uber to the border and catch another Uber on the other side), but I resisted it like a stubborn child. I wanted my car. I tell myself this was 90% because of being immunocompromised in a pandemic and I think that’s fair.

Or the day before my epic road trip to California when, after an afternoon work meeting in El Paso, I was trying to zoom back to the office before rush hour but instead got stuck two miles from Juárez with a flat tire. The first person who helped me filled the tire up “just enough to get me home.” Again, I don’t think so. “I live in Juárez and it’s about to be rush hour on the border,” I told him. He instantly nodded and told me in Spanglish he did too, and to follow me down the road to his tire shop, where all was soon resolved.

Non-SENTRI northbound traffic waits a turn to enter El Paso at Ysleta, as seen from the pedestrian bridge during a meeting of consulate officials with CBP ~ October 2021

8. You may encounter CBP shift change. Driving quickly through Carril Exprés until it turns into the SENTRI lane at the top/halfway point of the bridge is great. You’re motoring along across town and suddenly you have to wait 10 or 15 minutes because you’ve hit CBP shift change. Your GPS says your dentist appointment is in 17 minutes. Having an orange cone placed in front of you until an officer comes to acknowledge your Global Entry card before you get to the booth wouldn’t happen if you were driving across town, because of course, you aren’t. (You can hear your mom saying you should have left earlier, because you just never know!)

Southbound traffic waits to enter Mexican customs and immigration at Ysleta ~ June 2021

9. You may be sitting in traffic at the bridge, and see a deportation or repatriation. I sat on the top of the bridge once waiting to cross northbound, thinking it was CBP shift change because a cone was placed in front of my car and I couldn’t go anywhere. Instead I watched a Border Patrol van roll up in the wrong direction nose to nose with me and deport a dozen people. The officer handed them each a bag of documents, they took their jackets, and walked back down the bridge to Mexico.

Myself and my colleagues have also walked in the opposite direction with U.S. citizens who needed consulate assistance to return to the United States across the bridge. Whether they were being extradited or deported from Mexico (law enforcement), or whether they needed assistance related to getting documented, mental healthcare, child welfare, or destitution (consular), we have walked with them out of Mexico and through the POE on the U.S. side. This is one of the parts of my job that I am the most honored to do. One man I walked and talked with I will never forget, as three large Border Patrol agents trailed behind us keeping a watchful eye. I’m sure people watching from their cars were curious, but all I could think about was getting him to the other side. (It all turned out OK, and I returned to Mexico on foot in my fastest visit to the U.S. on record.)

Northbound traffic at Ysleta ~ May 2021

10. Something else to jar you into remembering a trip across the border is more than a simple trip across town is navigating the car insurance no-man’s land between the United States and Mexico while you are crossing the bridge. There is never an awesome time to have a fender-bender, and having one in border traffic like V did a few months back was bad enough. Luckily the young lady who bumped him in line didn’t do any real damage, they hadn’t yet passed the toll area so were still in El Paso (albeit surrounded on all sides by waiting cars), and it ended up being a non-issue.

Approaching the Ysleta toll booth southbound ~ June 2021

But having a fender-bender between paying the exit toll on the U.S. side and entering Mexico on the opposite side begs the question: do I file a claim with my U.S. or Mexican car insurance? What country actually is it? Is it half and half, or is there no jurisdiction between exiting one and entering the next? And no matter how defensive a driver you are, it is very difficult to maintain space in a congested area packed with people where there is a general lack of order and everyone wants to be first.

Last summer I saw two women, one in a tiny car and the other in an SUV the size of a Tahoe or Denali, collide at a low speed due to a failure to merge. Six or seven toll lanes had funneled down into two or three channels, and would eventually merge into one lane to make it across the bridge.

Crossing the Ysleta Bridge, looking down at the dry Rio Grande ~ April 2021

As both women tried to jam into one lane, surrounded on both sides by concrete barrier, neither ceded and I heard a loud crunch.

To my surprise, both driver side doors flew open and they actually jumped out and started yelling and screaming at each other. After a heated exchange in Spanish complete with pointing fingers and getting all up in each other’s faces, they got back into their vehicles, and to my astonishment, the small car accelerated to be first and they collided again, even harder. This time everyone in both vehicles flew out (surprisingly, females all) and fisticuffs ensued. I sat in my car with my mouth hanging open, astonished. Toll booth workers looked on, alarmed, as CBP officers hustled over.

Getting arrested and losing four figure money when you could have just sat there and waited an extra minute doesn’t make a lot of sense. But then, the hot weather and hours-long waits can do strange things to people. It’s frustrating to sit so long and watch any number of pedestrian crossers on bikes, walking, pushing strollers, rolling suitcases behind them as they occasionally switch hands, hoisting children and appliances and shopping bags, all passing you by as you wish you could get out of your car and walk away. And someone edging in front of you or cutting in at the last minute when you’ve been sitting for an hour, even if it’s just a perception, can really leave you chapped.

I still don’t really know what would happen with a bridge fender-bender, but I’m doing everything I can to avoid it. Our U.S. insurance is so good that it let us keep our policy even though we garage in Mexico, as long as we keep our plates and registration in Virginia, which we’ve done. And we haven’t had to file on our Mexican insurance either; we’re required to have some basic liability but we got the premium package with full coverage anyway. Our goal is zero incidents. Things you can think about much differently… when you’re just driving across town.

Entering Ciudad Juárez vía BOTA ~ July 2021

11. Bonus: Your cell phones might work differently from one country to the next, even though you’re only going a short distance away. My Mexican work cell phone will roam while I’m in the United States, so I’m careful not to use it for anything other than essential work purposes. Going over my data a few times after participating in video calls with my team from El Paso when wifi wasn’t available also was a rude awakening. Every time I cross the border, I also get this bienvenidos text like I’ve never been to the U.S. before, and it makes me smile.

Fortunately, the plan we selected with AT&T for our U.S. cell phones provides unlimited talk, text, and data to, from, and within the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, so our phones work everywhere in North America and without roaming or additional cost. This has been excellent for us.

So, how do we fit into this community? Some of this discussion of visiting the U.S. to run errands or partake in services that could arguably be performed in Juárez may also cause one to reflect upon how much time an FSO should spend in their country of assignment, and why. I have wondered at times, if it would have been this easy to “get away” from the unfamiliarity of my other posts rather than coping with them, would I have? And is that what I’m doing? If so, to what extent, and what does it mean? This isn’t usually a discussion in the Foreign Service because the realities of staffing, leave, and the time and expense involved with traveling to the U.S. or other countries make it an impossibility to frequently “escape,” or be away from many countries where we serve. But here on the border that’s a little murkier, as I’ve outlined.

I have talked about this with some of my colleagues, who hold a range of views. Some FSOs at Post do not have cars, and do the majority of their shopping and errands in Juárez. At least a couple don’t have Global Entry, although that wouldn’t work for me for my job. Some get the majority of their medical and dental care here in Juárez, get their hair cuts and massages and nails done here, buy all their food here, do all their traveling around here, buy gas here, and so on.

And others maintain their primary residence in El Paso and sleep every night possible away from Post, living the majority of their lives in El Paso.

I think I come down somewhere in the middle, as I have enjoyed grocery shopping, medical care, and errands in El Paso but have always lived in Juárez and considered this our home. I have gone shopping here, to bakeries, to the drive-thru at Pizza Hut (for my office! And it was comical.) I wish I could have experienced more in Juárez during my time here to date, and I feel it is something the pandemic has taken from me.

Where I come down is that each individual FSO has the right to decide how he or she will spend their time outside of work and spend their money just like at any other post. We aren’t Peace Corps Volunteers integrating into a site and community in order to carry out our work. I’ve been both a PCV and an FSO, and I deeply understand the differences firsthand.

Diplomacy is sensitive work that requires cultural sensitivity, language skills, and understanding of one’s environment to accomplish. But I don’t believe my preference for doing a lot of things in El Paso, especially during the period of coronavirus pandemic that has marked my tour, belies an inability, hesitancy, or unwillingness to serve here. I’m not afraid of the shootings and the things that go on. What I do and where I go is simply what I’ve decided based on my own assessment of risk, needs, and preferences. Your mileage may vary.

If I never managed to fully settle into aspects of functioning in the spaces Juárez offers, it is a matter far more complex and private than the fact a border exists, and not something I will have clarity on until we come to a different stage of the pandemic and have healed some of our wounds and losses. I hope this trans-border community too can start to heal now that the border has reopened and ties long strained have begun to reestablish.

Ciudad Juárez and El Paso: One community? Absolutely. One town? Not exactly. #juarezfuerte #elpasostrong

  4 comments for “Life on the Border: 10 Times When Heading ‘Across Town’ Can Be More Than You Bargained For

  1. November 30, 2021 at 02:16

    All of my colleagues manning the FM slots at the border posts say that such assignments are truly unique. They all say that though the distance between the Consulate Generals and the United States is very close in distance, they are very different in many ways. There is a part of me that wants to experience life at a border post but there’s also that part of me that did not join the Foreign Service to be close to the United States.

    Liked by 2 people

    • April 13, 2022 at 18:11

      I can understand this sentiment. I felt the same way during A-100 when border posts were on our bid list in the multiples. It would have seemed so disappointing at that time to end up so close to where I’m actually from! I wanted to learn a language other than Spanish, too, which I’d already studied for years in California. However, if your FS career is long it may have several seasons, and there are times when it is convenient to be closer to the U.S. In a pandemic, needing medical care, parents getting older, and having been in Central Asia and then Australia prior, it seemed like a great time to be on the border. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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