By ELLIOT SPAGAT Associated Press
SAN DIEGO — The Border Patrol, reacting to a breach it discovered in a steel-pole border wall believed to be used by smugglers, gave activists no warning this month when it bulldozed the U.S. side of a cross-border garden on an iconic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
On Saturday, after a public apology for “the unintentional destruction,” the agency allowed the activists in a highly restricted area to plant sticky monkey-flowers, seaside daisies and other native species in Friendship Park, which was inaugurated by first lady Pat Nixon in 1971 as a symbol of bilateral bonds. The half-acre plaza separating San Diego and Tijuana has hosted cross-border yoga classes, festivals and religious services.
The garden’s rebirth is the latest twist in a sometimes-adversarial, sometimes-conciliatory relationship between security-minded border agents and activists who consider the park a special place to exercise rights to free expression.
“It’s hard to reconcile because we have two different agendas, but we’re both in the same place, so we’re trying our best,” said Daniel Watman, a Spanish teacher who spearheads the garden for the volunteer group, Friends of Friendship Park.
During an art festival in 2005, David Smith Jr., known as “The Human Cannonball,” flashed his passport, lowered himself into a barrel and was shot over the wall on the nearby beach, landing on a net with U.S. Border Patrol agents nearby. In 2017, professional swimmers crossed the border from the U.S. in the Pacific Ocean and landed on the same beach, where a Mexican official greeted them with stamped passports and schoolchildren cheered.
The Border Patrol has been less receptive to events that carry an overtly political message or that, in its view, take things too far. In 2017, it rejected the Dresdner Symphony Orchestra’s plans for a cross-border concert named, “Tear Down This Wall.” It also nixed a “Let Them Hug” signature campaign to allow “touch time” across the border on weekends.
Agents briefly opened a heavy steel gate several times a year but ended the practice after an American man and Mexican woman wed in a cross-border ceremony in 2017. They were furious to learn later that the groom was a convicted drug smuggler whose criminal record prohibited him from entering Mexico.
Friends of Friendship Park, which advocates for “unrestricted access to this historic meeting place,” said the garden was created in 2007, shortly before a second barrier created a buffer enforcement zone that the Border Patrol opens to the public on weekends only. People can barely touch fingertips through a steel mesh screen during those weekend encounters.
The Border Patrol said in a statement after the garden was bulldozed that it was being used “as cover to hide smuggling activities.” It released photos that showed a padlock on the Mexican side, which smugglers apparently used to keep the roughly 18-inch (46-centimeter) opening to themselves.
Walls are often breached. Manny Bayon, president of the National Border Patrol Council union local that represents San Diego-area agents, said some have cut through President Donald Trump’s new wall of high, concrete-filled steel bollards. Smugglers use cordless grinders that cost about $100.
Friends of Friendship Park met Jan. 15 with Douglas Harrison, the Border Patrol’s interim San Diego chief, and settled on a plan to resurrect the garden. Harrison said the intent was to trim, not destroy, it.
“We take full responsibility, are investigating the event, & look forward to working with (Friends of Friendship Park) on the path forward,” Harrison said on Twitter.
A compromise called for the garden to be set back 4 feet (1.2 meters) from the wall to give agents better visibility with minimal planting on the next 4 feet to better facilitate temporarily removal when construction crews replace the existing barrier with Trump’s wall.
There was last-minute misunderstanding Saturday when Watman said the group’s willingness to set the garden back came with permission to plant over a larger space, which the agents on duty wouldn’t allow. Watman agreed to shrink his blueprint and take it up later.
“Things are always up in the air somewhat,” he said. “There’s a little bit of playing it by ear.”
The Border Patrol released a statement Saturday that said it values “the friendships we have built over the years with the community.”
“We are confident that this relationship will continue as we move into a new era of the bi-national garden,” it said.