Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

Human cargo

Human cargo

Dec. 4, 1979: Five men are found in the trunk of a car stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol near the San Onofre nuclear plant on the 5 Freeway. The car contained 16 people who were trying to cross into the country illegally.

This photo was published on Page One of the Dec. 10, 1979, Los Angeles Times. The Times no longer uses the phrase “illegal aliens” to describe people who are in the United States illegally. On that day, staff writer Tom Gorman’s story on the Border Patrol checkpoint began:

They are paid between $11,000 and $20,000 a year to stand in the middle of Interstate 5 near the San Onofre nuclear power plant, fighting the exhaust fumes, noise and reckless drivers in order to peer inside your windshield to see if you are hinky.

They maintain a formal but polite profile as they wave tens of thousands of cars past their checkpoint every day. The children and some of the motorists wave. Others only tolerate the men in their Smokey the Bear hats, annoyed by the delay of a rolling stop before returning to cruising speed.

The motorists smuggling human contraband in the vehicles, however, act differently. When they approach the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint 50 miles north of the Mexican border, the agents say, they look hinky.

Maybe they will avoid eye contact with the border patrolman. Or they may sit so erect and so stiff that they seem ready to yank the steering wheel off its column. Or they may try to act so nonchalant they will take a sip of Pepsi just at the moment they pull up to the stop sign in the middle of the freeway. …

A 20ish young man with blond hair approached the checkpoint in his 1968 Dodge. He looked like any of the thousands of surfer-type motorists who pass by the checkpoint regularly, but there was something about the driver that bothered the agent working “the point” – behind the stop sign between the two lanes of traffic.

The agent motioned the young man off to the side, just behind the Border Patrol van on the shoulder of the highway. Two other agents walked up to the vehicle, one on each side of the car.

One agent looked into the backseat as a Mexican alien peered out from underneath a blanket. This was a load car.

The driver got out of his car and was immediately handcuffed by one agent as the second one took the keys out of the ignition and opened the trunk.

Three more Mexicans covered their eyes from the midday sunshine as the trunk lid flipped open. The three were helped from the trunk and instructed, in Spanish, to sit on the curb, next to their friend who was found in the backseat. None looked bothered. Chances are, they were familiar with the routine.

After some initial paperwork, the four Mexicans and the young driver were paraded into the Border Patrol office for questioning and detention.

“The smugglers are doing a lot of this now – using surfer kids,” said Coy Wells, an eight-year veteran of the checkpoint. “They figure we’ll let the surfer kids through – especially one with surfboards on top of their cars.” …

During a recent 12-month period, Border Patrol agents captured 23,889 aliens – most of them Mexicans – who hoped to sneak by the last barrier between poverty and the promise of an awaiting land of opportunity. …

Below is a similar photo from 1954:

Officers Ken Bouey, left, and Emmett Drennen find illegals Alipio Sanchez, left, and Manuel Ferreira in trunk of car. This photo was published in the May 12, 1954 Los Angeles Mirror.

Officers Ken Bouey, left, and Emmett Drennen find Alipio Sanchez, left, and Manuel Ferreira hiding in the trunk of a car. This photo was published in the May 12, 1954, Los Angeles Mirror. Credit: Del Watson/Los Angeles Mirror.

No comments yet

Add a comment or a question.

If you are under 13 years of age you may read this message board, but you may not participate. Here are the full legal terms you agree to by using this comment form.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they've been approved.


Required, will not be published

Browse All Photos »