Calexico, CA experienced unprecedented seven-hour traffic jams as cars headed south into Mexicali, Mexico earlier this week on June 26. The gridlock extended for miles in every direction as a sudden and recurring COVID-inspection checkpoint was set up on the Mexican side of the border. The traffic continued on June 27 and 28, and is expected to become an issue every weekend due to the security details beginning on Fridays and ending on Sunday nights.
Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo has not been able to find out the reason for the increased security checkpoints from Calexico specifically, a tactic that has not been used on the U.S. side of the border.
It was announced that COVID-19 has spread much more quickly in Mexicali since gatherings took place over Father’s Day weekend (June 19-21). Mexicali Mayor Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda notified the Mexican media and Calexico officials that she would be making efforts to minimize travel and gatherings to help slow the spread of the virus. However, the notification did not arrive to Calexico officials until the morning of June 26, giving no opportunity for city authorities to plan for the checkpoints, which began around the time that the email notification arrived.
Mexicali has reported 794 COVID deaths; 4,694 positive cases (348 active); with 861 tested individuals awaiting results.
Imperial County, where Calexico is located, has reported 81 COVID deaths; 6,041 positive cases (1,064 active); with 11 cases pending investigation.
The majority of those that travel freely between Calexico and Mexicali are Mexican nationals with proper documentation for travel, those with dual citizenship, and U.S. citizens living in Mexico. Many of the U.S. citizens residing in Mexicali travel into Calexico for medical treatment related to COVID.
Mexican nationals with border-crossing cards are currently barred from entering the U.S., but those with work visas for “essential” jobs are free to come and go.
Calexico Officials Worked Long Hours and All Angles
Calexico City Council Member Morris Reisen stepped in to help contact Mexicali officials and have the checkpoints lifted to ease the traffic situation. Traffic controllers were also called in, but too late in the day to make a meaningful impact on the gridlock.
Reisen called a series of contacts that allowed him to eventually get into contact with Mexicali municipal police chief Maria Elena Andrade, who reluctantly agreed to close the checkpoints from 8 pm – midnight. Reisen was unable to reach Mexicali Mayor Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda.
Andrade was clear that the closing of the checkpoints would not happen again.
The checkpoints remained closed until 2 am on June 27, and traffic controllers stayed on-site in Calexico until 2:30 am.
Now that the checkpoints have been established as recurring each weekend, Gerardo and Reisen have plans in place to minimize gridlock in the future.
Six traffic controllers will be on-duty in Calexico every weekend.
Gerardo has also reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to extend the hours of the Calexico east port, which has been closing at 2 pm each day since April, due to federal travel advisories. Extending the hours will take some of the pressure off of the downtown port.
Reisen also plans to reach back out to Andrade to explore the option of performing random checks on southbound vehicles, instead of inspecting each vehicle.
What is Mexicali Looking For?
The inspections of vehicles include 5 points:
- Temperature scans and COVID symptom checks
- Use of face coverings
- The presence of no more than 2 people per vehicle
- Verification of residence or “essential business” in Mexicali
- Limited alcoholic beverages
Violators are subject to fines, arrest, and confiscation of alcoholic beverages.
Alcohol has been of particular interest in Mexicali during the pandemic, as house parties and gatherings seem to be the main sources of transmissions of the virus. Government health officials halted the production of all Mexican beers in late March, deeming beer brewing a “nonessential” business.
Mexicali residents have been traveling to Imperial County to obtain beer, prompting border officials to confiscate all but a 12-pack for personal consumption by the driver.
The COVID Corridor
Previously dubbed the “cocaine corridor,” the Valley is now being described as the “COVID corridor,” with cases being brought into Calexico by Mexicali residents. It is common for those with dual citizenship and Mexican nationals with resident status to enter the U.S. to seek medical treatment.
Calexico has a much higher incidence of COVID cases than neighboring cities in Imperial County; 2,020 total cases have been listed in Calexico versus 1,587 in El Centro and 1,005 in Brawley.
There are no plans for Calexico to institute checkpoints of their own. Gerardo, Reisen, and other city officials are busy planning how to mitigate traffic jams caused by the Mexicali checkpoints.