In a flash the two men were over the double fence and into the San Diego parking lot.
As a waiting pickup truck sped them away, the smuggler who boosted them over the 15-foot walls scrambled toward Mexico.
Border Patrol agents could only tag Juan Garcia's black sweatshirt with pepper spray bullets as he escaped back over the wall to Tijuana, red-eyed and coughing but $30 richer for a few seconds of daring labor.
It's just another night along the most heavily guarded stretch of U.S.-Mexico frontier, where Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal crossers have increased 28 percent since 2005 — even as apprehensions have dropped nearly 40 percent border-wide over the same period. While illegal crossings are impossible to count, experts look to Border Patrol apprehensions as the best indicator of migrant traffic.
Booming business for daredevils
The Tijuana area's surprising increase is a booming business for cut-rate daredevils like Garcia, who are willing to try almost anything to get their clients across.
"I'll get you a bicycle, and I'll throw you over the fence with the bike," said part-time smuggler Giovanni Lopez, 28, after watching Garcia climb over. "But I'll also get you a little helmet and everything, so the Border Patrol thinks you're...what's the word in English? Exercising.
"And I cross over with you until a certain point, and I come back like this," he said, brushing away his tracks with an imaginary tree branch.
The Border Patrol's San Diego Sector — which covers 60 miles (97 kilometers) of border from the Pacific Ocean through strip malls and shanty towns into a boulder-strewn desert — is no stranger to such cat-and-mouse games. But its recent growth in traffic is driven by a curious convergence of strategies by both immigrants and the U.S. officials who chase them.
Analysts say the migrants encountering ever-increasing enforcement in the Arizona desert are bouncing back to California's traditional smuggling corridors, which offer shorter, cooler treks to cities and highways. The Border Patrol, meanwhile, takes migrants caught in Arizona to San Diego for deportation, hoping to break their ties to desert smugglers and daring them to try again against the border's toughest fences and highest concentration of agents.
"We're getting the right mix of personnel, technology and infrastructure there in San Diego, which allows us to take on that kind of surge," said Border Patrol spokesman Jason Ciliberti.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also is adding a growing number of deportees from the country's interior to the Tijuana corridor, where they quickly try to return to the lives they left up north. Immigration authorities removed a record 349,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 21 percent increase over last year and a 77 percent jump since 2005.
It's impossible to divine the split in Tijuana-area traffic among new arrivals choosing California over Arizona, apprehended migrants transferred between the two and deported illegal residents now trying to get back.
No specific deportation statistics
The Border Patrol declined to release numbers of migrant detainees moved from Arizona to Tijuana since it started relocating them in May, and immigration authorities do not release its deportation statistics by repatriation point.
But other indicators are much clearer. In Arizona, increased enforcement and Operation Streamline — which slaps illegal crossers with criminal charges and possible jail time — have proven to be a sharp deterrent in the Border Patrol's Tucson and Yuma Sectors.
Yuma has seen apprehensions drop from 118,000 in 2006 to only 8,000 in 2008. Tucson apprehensions have fallen 20 percent in the same period.
Whatever the balance among factors, their combined effect is clear: San Diego Sector agents apprehended 162,000 illegal immigrants in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, up from 127,000 in 2005. Border-wide, the 723,000 apprehensions this year were down sharply from 1.2 million in 2005.
Statistics from Mexico's National Migration Institute show Tijuana has received more than 40 percent of all Mexicans deported from the U.S. this year, or 50,000 more displaced migrants on its streets than last year. Indeed, the San Diego Sector traffic remains far below its peak of more than 500,000 apprehensions in 1993, the year before the U.S. launched Operation Gatekeeper, which erected fences to stop crowds from rushing across the open border nearly every night.
The current surge "is a function of the most flagrant problems having been addressed in San Diego first," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies which advocates stricter immigration control. "Once the migration flow moved to Arizona, then enforcement efforts moved to Arizona, and some aliens and smugglers thought they would try their luck back in San Diego."
Crossings coordinated by cell phones
The weekend cyclist ruse is only one method. Throughout Tijuana, spotters watch the Border Patrol's movements day and night, coordinating runs northward by walkie-talkie cell phones.
Smugglers have even tried to take advantage of a $57 million project to extend double fencing between San Diego and Tijuana: Agents recently found 49 migrants packed inside the tank of a water truck stolen right off a Border Patrol construction site.
Others try to cross by water. San Diego immigration authorities have stopped 33 boats smuggling migrants or drugs north to area beaches in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, up from 10 in 2007.
But most Tijuana-area crossers still head into the deserts east of town. Near the sleepy border city of Tecate, crossing points are marked by piles of shredded blankets migrants cut into improvised moccasins to cover their tracks.
Santiago Rivera, 27, has been deported to Tijuana twice since May after serving a 25-month sentence for dealing heroin. He's lived most of his life in Los Angeles and said he no longer knows any relatives in his home state of Michoacan.
His pockets empty, he recently headed to Tecate to try crossing again.
"My sister lives in Beverly Hills. She goes to UCLA," Rivera said and proceeded to list the other US cities where relatives are living. "My mother is a cosmetologist and a nurse. She lives in Culver City. My girlfriend lives in Granada Hills, and she's manager of a restaurant. She's born over there. My daughter's born over there.
"What do I have here?" he continued. "Look at me. You think this is life?"