An estimated 5,000 crosses adorn Mexico's side of the border fence. Each marks the death of a migrant during an unauthorized crossing.

My first foray along the international border between the United States and Mexico occurred nearly 30 years ago. When I opened my surveying business in 1981, I elected to focus my practice in the backcountry where the land was raw, the scenery unique and the survey work challenging. Indeed, paper maps do not do justice to this line, and no amount of topographic relief maps can tell this story.

The border was established by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. In addition to dividing two countries from each other, the line also demarcates the southern boundary of the great Golden State of California. Winding from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the azure-colored waters of the Colorado River, this politically devised line traverses hostile, rugged and aesthetically unequalled land. 

A sign indicates the U.S. boundary line.

Following the original treaty with Mexico, a second International Boundary Commission was convened in 1882. It was at that time that a series of rugged and permanent obelisks were set along the entire line. Strategically placed so that they would be intervisible, these monuments still fulfill their intended purpose more than 100 years later.

After the Mexican Revolution, which tore that country asunder from 1910 to 1920 and led to the infamous careers of Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata, the United States government established a 60-foot strip of land--a “no man’s land”--along the border in those sections it still owned in an effort to protect its citizens. Thus, private ownership and development could not extend up to the border line.

Meanwhile, the Southwest was still feeling the effects of the Indian Removal Act, signed nearly a century earlier, as well as the overall notion of Manifest Destiny, under which many of the remaining native Americans had been herded southwesterly, regardless of tribal ancestry or interrelationships, where they joined the hostile cactus-strewn canyons and, later, the disenfranchised Mexicans who were forcibly chased or shuttled south of the border. Not surprisingly, a large number of military deserters would prowl through these same hillsides, armed with Colt 45s and bad intentions. Those who were either brave enough or foolish enough to operate ranches, most of which were devoted to the raising of cattle, were of similar stock. In nearby Potrero, a fear of fences resulted in the removal and destruction of the government-placed markers. To many, removal of the monuments was a simple business decision. 

East of San Diego, throughout the townships surrounding the border town of Tecate, government surveyors eventually returned in 1919 to replace the stone mounds and old wooden markers with substantial lengths of pipe topped with firmly anchored brass markers, all in accordance with rigid government instructions. Additionally, the government wanted to know with certainty where the line was given the recent problems within the Republic of Mexico. As my work would soon bear out, this magnificent effort has withstood the test of time as the markers remain today. Modern surveying methods reveal a very close agreement with the measurements made by these post-war surveyors.

In the years to follow, there was little interest in the American side of the border until the early 1980s, when land values began to rise throughout the Southwest, fueling a revitalized interest in Tecate and all things southern California. An adventurous entrepreneur began formulating grand plans to form a water district for the sleepy little burgh since water was a vital component of settlement activities in this high desert country. His vision materialized after he purchased an old water tank with plans to extract the vital fluid from the hard ground so that it could be distributed to surrounding home sites. The success of the Tecate brewery was enough to convince everyone that the water was there; it just needed to be distributed. Unfortunately, the venture never got off the ground. Nonetheless, there was considerable interest in Tecate.

An Age of Innocence

With this economic activity as the backdrop for my pending adventures, my first client was a utility company executive who had purchased a five-acre parcel located on a small hill overlooking the Tecate Valley. Owing to the success of my introductory letters, I quickly developed a compact base of clients to join him in their desire to know where their property was located.

Besides the obvious challenges served up by the terrain and its indigenous community of exceptionally large rattlesnakes, one of the most important elements of rural land surveying is the establishment of durable control monuments, particularly in a region historically opposed to the placement of survey markers. In the end, and in spite of GPS and other modern technologies, solid control monuments remain the most valuable component of any survey. With regard to my work in Tecate, I was in it for the long run; I wanted to be able to recover my control years later if the need arose.

When I first approached this survey in 1982, I recalled how I and most other surveyors years earlier would have resorted to triangulation to establish a reliable control network. Now, I could use the latest innovation in land surveying equipment--the EDM or electronic distance meter. With just a push of a button, I was able to measure across vast expanses of earth, unaffected by canyons, cactus and coyotes. What a marvel, I thought. 

The border fence separating the U.S. and Mexico extends into the ocean. 

As was my usual practice, I had researched the project, deeds and maps and precalculated the control data before evaluating the preexisting survey work. Before heading out to the backcountry, I first obtained copies of surrounding tax assessor rolls so that I would know the names of all the neighbors in case I encountered any problems. It can also be helpful to know a person’s name when staring down the business end of a piece of weaponry. As an added safeguard, I also preceded my field work by sending a letter to the adjoining property owners to let them know I would be working in the area as well as to inquire about the existence of any survey markers or unrecorded maps. If nothing else, prudence dictates inquiry.

After recovering a few of the 1919 monuments and following the requisite comparison with previous government measurements, I became confident in the work of the previous cadastral surveyors. Following a number of calculations extracted from a handheld Hewlett Packard calculator (another incredible innovation), I was able to conduct what I refer to as “intelligent” searches for other monuments. As an added benefit and thanks to the ingenuity of garage denizens Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, I could check a survey closure in the field.

In addition to the 1919 government subdivision monuments, my work was controlled by the large metal obelisks set along the international border. Thanks to the judicious placement of my control stations, I was able to see several of these vital markers from a few elevated locations since they were clearly visible and accessible. Along the border itself, to the extent a fence separated the two countries, our national interests were protected only by a series of low bollards linked by a pair of 1-inch-diameter cables that wound through the rocks and cactus. If you wanted to walk in or out of Mexico, all you had to do was to step over the cabling. Security was minimal, and the notion of a terrorist threat was virtually nonexistent. It was a simpler time and an age of innocence, relatively speaking. As a testament to this era of political purity, I was greeted like clockwork every afternoon by the screams and shouts of boisterous school children as they innocently scrambled north across the border to play soccer in a large and level field located in the United Sates.

As I continued surveying more properties, I began extending my control network farther west toward mystical Mount Tecate, which peaks at 32.579444444o/116.688055556o. This dominant peak towers over the region and is reported to have religious qualities; at 3,900 feet above mean sea level, it is impressive to behold. To stand on the former Mount Cuchama and witness nature in all her glory is awe-inspiring--assuming, of course, you are not intimidated by rattlesnakes as thick as your legs and cactus as pointed as pins. 

Mike Pallamary and his son, Justin, working along the border in 2010 and 1982.

One of my clients had purchased a large swath of the peak, anxious to convert the mountaintop into a new age sanctuary. I remember the day I walked the property with him. (Indeed, it is doubtful anyone would forget that experience.) He was joined by several young women who parted the thorny brush and braved the angry hiss of rattlesnakes so that they could sprinkle rose petals in front of him, permitting him to tour the mountain. I suspect the snakes and reptilian-like scorpions were as amazed as I was at this sight.

The main entry into town and on to Mexico is accomplished by traveling south on State Route 188. As is fairly common with construction of a roadway, particularly in Southern California, development soon follows. Here in Tecate, an earlier subdivider had carved out a series of rectangular shaped parcels, five acres in size, from the 640-acre government land sections, all without the benefit of a subdivision map. Therefore, in order to find one of these parcels, the much larger section had to be broken down. After mathematically subdividing the section following the measurements of the controlling corners, I methodically placed permanent monuments of ¾-inch x 18-inch iron pipes with stamped brass discs at the corners of the five-acre parcels. Under California law, a survey of this sort clearly required the filing of a record of survey map to memorialize my efforts.

Pursuant to a mutual agreement with most of my clients, whenever I completed one of my surveys, I would meet with them over the weekend to show them where their survey markers were as well as to answer any questions they might have. Although these meetings were business-based, I had an ulterior motive as it gave me a chance to get away on an “expedition” with my two sons, Michael and Justin. These exciting trips left a lasting impression on my sons. My oldest, Michael, would eventually move to Alaska, where he resided for eight years living a large life, hunting, fishing and exploring that part of the country. My younger son, Justin, would eventually become a licensed land surveyor and the owner of his own surveying company.

Mike Pallamary and his son, Justin, working along the border in 2010 and 1982.

The Winds of Change

Over the next few years, I would periodically conduct more surveys through which I would extend control lines and set more monuments. To be sure, I always enjoyed those visits to Tecate and its ever-colorful hinterlands. However, dark clouds began to hover over my work. As my business grew, I began taking on more cases along the border that reflected a changing political climate and the realities of modern life straddling an international border line. A burgeoning market for illegal drugs combined with the business of illegal entry into the United States brought with it a change in policy and, worse, personal prejudices.

To the west, in Tijuana, located alongside the City of San Diego, the mouth of the effluent laden Tijuana River flows on the American side of the border. After crossing the border, the Rio Tijuana turns into a large slough. At the crossing, a large concrete-lined channel was installed to arrest any further migration of the river. To the west between the river and the ocean lies the infamous Smuggler’s Gulch, a region notorious for its topography and “coyotes” (illegal border smugglers). For years, there were few places in the United States as treacherous as this region.

One of my newer clients was a national law firm that defended Mexican nationals who had been arrested for entry, illegal or otherwise, into the United States. During this period of increasingly strained relations with Mexico, the river bed was a convenient and often productive route to gain entry into the United States. Unbeknownst to many citizens, along with well intentioned Border Patrol agents, the fence that runs along the border in this area was not located precisely along the border line. At the International Port of Entry at Tijuana, the actual border line is well south of the formal port of entry. Only a sharp eye or a surveyor would spot the discreet line of yellow paving markers that runs along the true line. It is not uncommon for vehicles driven by those with illegal intent to be identified well before passing through the port of entry, which is well ensconced in the U.S. The Port of Entry is, in reality, a formality. One is already in the United States before reaching any gates, fences or doors.

In other sections, the fence runs along irregular or skewed lines as it weaves along the border. This confusing alignment occasionally confounded Border Patrol agents who would apprehend what appeared to be illegal border crossers. The method used by the agents involved fixing a rough triangulation point based on the point of apprehension relative to existing fences and other perceived landmarks. Unfortunately, because of the odd jogs in the fences, some of these apprehensions occurred in Mexico and, as such, were under international law properly deemed illegal. (It is worth noting that as an expert witness on the location of the border, I never asked about the arrest or the charges leveled against the apprehended person. My role was simply to opine as to where the arrest occurred, irrespective of the nature of the arrest or the severity of the charges. To do otherwise could bias my role as an expert. In this role, one must always be impartial to be credible.)

A corner monument in Tecate before being rebuilt by Pallamary in 2010.

A Different World

After Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear we had entered a new and often frightening world, one sadly propelled by fear, suspicion and the ever-present mantle of national security. Homeland security, illegal immigration and old-fashioned bigotry became the impetus and foundation for the construction of a massive impregnable fence that now sharply divides the United States from its neighbor to the south. Overnight we went from amigos to wary neighbors. Regardless of the motives and justification, the border is quite different from when I first surveyed it some 30 years ago. It is a hostile zone of crime, fear and prejudice, all of which further complicate the business of surveying in the region.

In the later part of 2009, I was contacted by a fellow surveyor who had been engaged to map out the network of winding roads that were being used by Border Patrol to traverse the borderlands to monitor the line and to move from one end of the line to the other. The surveyor, an old friend, had asked me to review some earlier work in Tecate and to verify the location and existence of several old control monuments.

My son Justin decided to accompany me for another father-and-son adventure. This time we came equipped with a GPS unit. We would not be triangulating our control lines or running conventional traverses; instead, we were going to use satellites to recover the 1919 monuments. Besides the opportunity to spend some time with my son, this would be a good opportunity to compare my 30-year-old measurements with those taken using modern GPS equipment. Much to my delight, the results were rather impressive.

We prepared for this job by using AutoCAD to redraft the prior work, which had originally been hand drawn on 10 x 10 graph paper. This would efficiently permit us to rotate the control network and monuments into the statewide coordinate scheme with a simple push of a button. We were also aided by some old-fashioned tools, including a set of 200-foot scale topographic maps, now faded but still quite accurate. In spite of the usefulness of GPS measurements, there were still instances where GPS technology would not work since some of the canyons in this region are deep and well incised. Thus, we were prepared to augment our phase-based GPS control with conventional EDM measurements.

As we drove along the borderlands in early 2010, the first thing I noticed was the thick and permeable air of tension and constant scrutiny. When we commenced recovery of one of my original control monuments, we heard a steady drone of ATVs. Within minutes, a large number of Border Patrol agents came down the road churning up clouds of dust while filling the air with the rumble of four stroke engines. As they passed, I was amazed at the volume of armament each was equipped with. They were followed by several more vehicles, all of which were so well equipped that it appeared as if they could hold off a small army. This was not the Tecate I remembered, and it was abruptly evident that I was not going to share a taco and a cold drink with Justin in Mexico.

In spite of the distractions, we recovered our primary control station and, as with my previous experiences with my HP calculator, I was amazed at how close we hit my old monuments; the search locus brought us within 0.1 feet. As we sat and redundantly remeasured, the error ellipse continued to narrow. From there, aided by the yellowed 200-foot scale map, Justin, his chief surveyor Mark Forsley, and I went about recovering the 27-year old primary control monuments we sought.

Although I am a big fan of modern technology, the best tool we had for this part of the project was the old maps. By utilizing these as principal recovery tools, we were often able to recover monuments faster than the GPS unit could hone in due to the problems associated with acquiring a good satellite reading at the bottom of the steep canyon walls.

Needless to say, the one corner we were most interested in proved the most difficult. It was located on the south slope of a steep hill adjacent to several canyons and larger boulders. After many fruitless attempts to grab a GPS reading, we ended up locating the monument using a traditional total station.

Never one to miss an adventure, the brisk weather convinced me to hike down to the corner while Justin and Mark set up the backsight and EDM for measurement. Since it took awhile for them to meander down the multitude of switchback roads that were being mapped for the benefit of the Border Patrol, I busied myself rebuilding the stone mound that both defined and protected the quarter corner we recovered. It was this corner that had become the source of our consternation since there were conflicting signs of evidence. When the corner was originally set, the government surveyors reported placing a large and substantial pipe in a stone mound. They claimed to have set a witness monument several feet east as an accessory to the corner. When we recovered the corner in 1982, we did not find any evidence of the pipe; all we could find was a large stone mound. The initial intelligent search placed us within several feet of the rock mound. Following an exhaustive comparison with other recovered monuments, we decided we had the correct corner, and we proceeded accordingly.

Satisfied that we had recovered the old monument, I savored the moment as I scanned the valley. To my left lay the United States of America, and to the right lay the complex world of Mexico. I listened for the sounds of laughter and searched for the colorful clothing of children playing soccer. Alas, they were nowhere to be found. I watched as Justin sighted through his EDM and thought about him and my young grandson. These were different times. The landscape had changed, as had technology. I reflected upon how the practice of land surveying still followed the same fundamental rules. Equally, although the rules for working along the border were now governed by a new paradigm, it appeared as if no amount of satellites was going to change the border itself. After all, this was an international border, one that was in years past a source of great pride for the United States and the proud and talented land surveyors who had laid it out.

Author’s acknowledgement: I would like to extend a special thanks to David Ledesma for his friendship and expertise of all things related to the border. 

A Silent Witness

This obelisk, titled “In Memoriam,” was created by artist Roberto Rosique during the Tijuana Sculptural Symposium coordinated by the Committee for Tijuana's Image and the International Association of Events for Monumental Sculpture in February 2005. Below is a translation of the plaque at the base of the obelisk.

The three elements that this sculpture is composed of (the obelisk, the crosses and the color red) possess a familiar symbolic relation to the events that occur daily in this border zone, a controversial site, witness to infamous crimes that have culminated, on hundreds of occasions, with the death of our compatriots; those punished by poverty that were only looking for other options to better their lives and [were] hopeful in the belief that they would find it in the neighboring country. The landmark transformed to an obelisk represents that ignominious dividing wall. The crosses displayed penetrating the obelisk in a random form symbolize the ordeal suffered by the undocumented that venture on this sad odyssey. The color red, synonymous with violence, pain and injustice, denounces and represents, along with the crosses, the lamentable loss of their lives. It is the wish of all good men that this sculpture be a permanent reminder of the memory of those that suffered and lost their lives on this sad venture, whose only sin was the longing to be better individuals. (Translated by David Ledesma.)

A corner monument in Tecate after being rebuilt by Pallamary in 2010.

A Monumental Challenge

Surveying along the border is not for the faint of heart. Scott Fitch, president of San Diego based Southland Land Surveying relates the problems he had while surveying along the Mexicali Border crossing, east of Tecate. “Our crew chief had been placing aerial panels along the border and was setting the job up for an aerial map,” Scott says. “He had placed a tripod and glass at one of the control stations, and he headed over to his primary control station. When he turned back, he saw a small group of men run across the border. They snatched the equipment and took it into Mexico. He drove back and approached the men. After asking them what they were doing, they informed him that they would sell the equipment back to him for $200. He pondered the offer for a few minutes and then decided he would have to pass. Unlike the thieves, he would have had to legally enter Mexico and meet the men on their own turf, and he figured at best, he’d be robbed and at worst, he’d never make it back. He then decided to approach the Border Patrol to seek their assistance, but he was informed that they did not have any jurisdiction in Mexico and he was on his own.”

After returning to the office without the expensive equipment, Scott tried to obtain some corroborative documentation to support an anticipated insurance claim. “I knew they had video cameras running as we were in a fairly public area,” Scott says. “I then took the initiative to contact the Border Patrol to see if I could obtain a copy of the video to give to my insurance company. It soon became obvious it would take an act of Congress--literally--to get a copy of that tape.” In the end, after hours of discussions, Scott gave up and absorbed the loss.

One of Scott’s problems involved the the location of the international boundary monuments, which are on on the Mexican side of the fence. If they were on the United States side of the fence, they would have been accessible. Because they are located south of the fence, the only way to access them is by entering a Port of Entry, which in many instances is neither near nor convenient. Present policies require that American citizens carry passports to regain entry to the United States. Because of work prohibitions, entering Mexico with a truckload of surveying equipment introduces a host of complex international problems for most land surveyors. Legal confiscation is as real a problem as illegal thievery, and the results are invariably the same.