Smuggling takes perilous direction
PINE VALLEY, Calif. — Motorists have become afraid to drive at night along a stretch of freeway outside San Diego, scared that a vehicle going the wrong way will come hurtling out of the darkness.
The wrong-way drivers are immigrant-smugglers trying to skirt a Border Patrol checkpoint in the pine-covered mountains east of the city.
The 30-mile stretch of Interstate 8 — the main route between San Diego and the desert along the Mexican border — has been the site of fatal crashes and hair-raising close encounters for years. But commuters and California Highway Patrol officers say incidences of wrong-way drivers have increased into an almost-nightly phenomenon since summer.
Smugglers seem to know that Border Patrol and California Highway Patrol vehicles will not chase them as they speed westbound in the two eastbound lanes of I-8.
Immigrants usually cross the Mexican border on foot in the rough desert, then cram into a van or pickup truck headed north. As they approach the flashing lights of the westbound I-8 checkpoint — where two Border Patrol officers peer into vehicles and search anyone deemed suspicious — smugglers steer up a 20-yard slope into the eastbound lanes. Smugglers often take the slope at night with their headlights turned off.
Mary Schoepper, a 67-year-old real estate broker who lives about three miles from the border, has been behind the wheel in two near-collisions with wrong-way drivers since spring — one at night and one in the middle of the afternoon. Now, she checks into motels rather than drive home after late nights at work.
Sandy Williams, 55, nearly collided with an oncoming pickup truck as she approached the Border Patrol checkpoint one night last year with her two grandchildren. She estimates the truck was going 70 mph — with the headlights off. She swerved twice and spun out in the dirt.
On Aug. 31, a Chevrolet Astro Van drove against oncoming traffic for about 17 miles before swerving back into the westbound lanes. The van, reaching speeds of about 100 mph, spun out of control and crashed, injuring 19 suspected illegal immigrants.
The increase in wrong-way driving reflects growing desperation among smugglers since federal authorities in 1994 made crossing the border between Tijuana and San Diego more difficult. The stepped-up patrols near metropolitan San Diego have led immigrants to try crossing the border farther to the east.
Neither the Border Patrol nor the California Highway Patrol keeps statistics on wrong-way drivers, but the outbreak appears concentrated in rural San Diego County.