TIJUANA, Mexico — As the U.S. government built its latest stretch of border wall, Mexico made a statement of its own by laying remains of the Berlin Wall a few steps away.
The 3-ton pockmarked, gray concrete slab sits between a bullring, a lighthouse and the border wall, which extends into the Pacific Ocean.
“May this be a lesson to build a society that knocks down walls and builds bridges,” reads the inscription below the towering Cold War relic, attributed to Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero and titled, “A World Without Walls.”
For Caballero, like many of Tijuana's 2 million residents, the U.S. wall is personal and political, a part of the city's fabric and a fact of life. She considers herself a migrant, having moved from the southern Mexico city of Oaxaca when she was 2 with her mother, who fled "the vicious cycle of poverty, physical abuse and illiteracy.”
The installation opened Aug. 13 at a ceremony with Caballero and Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s former foreign secretary who is now a leading presidential candidate.
Caballero, 41, is married to an Iranian man who became a U.S. citizen and lives in the United States. She and their 9-year-old son used to cross the border between Tijuana and San Diego.
Since June, Caballero has lived in a military barracks in Tijuana, saying she acted on credible threats against her brought to her attention by U.S. intelligence officials and a recommendation by Mexico's federal government. Weeks earlier, her bodyguard survived an assassination attempt.
Caballero said that she doesn't know who wants to kill her but suspects payback for having seized arms from violent criminals who plague her city. "Someone is probably upset with me,” she said in her spacious City Hall office.
Shards of the Berlin Wall scattered worldwide after it crumbled in 1989, with collectors putting them in hotels, schools, transit stations and parks. Marcos Cline, who makes commercials and other digital productions in Los Angeles, needed a home for his artifact and found an ally in Tijuana's mayor.
“Why in Tijuana?" Caballero said. “How many families have shed blood, labor and their lives to get past the wall? The social and political conflict is different than the Berlin Wall, but it's a wall at the end of the day. And a wall is always a sphinx that divides and bloodies nations.”
President Joe Biden issued an executive order his first day in office to halt wall construction, ending a signature effort by his predecessor, Donald Trump. But his administration has moved ahead with small, already-contracted projects, including replacing a two-layered wall in San Diego standing 18 feet (5.5 meters) high with one rising 30 feet (9.1 meters) and stretching 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) to the ocean.
The wall slices through Friendship Park, a cross-border site inaugurated by then-U.S. first lady Pat Nixon in 1971 to symbolize binational ties. For decades, families separated by immigration status met through barbed wire and, later, a chain-link fence. It is a cherished, festive destination for tourists and residents in Mexico.
At an arts festival in 2005, David “The Human Cannonball” Smith Jr. flashed his passport in Tijuana as he lowered himself into a barrel and was shot over the wall, landing on a net on the beach with U.S. border agents nearby. In 2019, artist Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana covered the Tijuana side of the wall with paintings of adults who moved to the U.S. illegally as young children and were deported. Visitors who held up their phones to bar codes were taken to a website that voiced their first-person narratives.
Cline said he was turned away at the White House when he tried delivering the Berlin Wall relic to Trump and then trucked it across the country to find a suitable home. He said the piece has found “its second life” at the Tijuana park alongside the colorful paintings on the border wall that express views on politics and immigration.
The U.S. government has gradually restricted park access from San Diego over the last 15 years in a state park that once allowed cross-border yoga classes, religious services and music festivals. After lengthy consideration, the Biden administration agreed to keep the wall at 18 feet for a small section where some access will be allowed.
Dan Watman of Friends of Friendship Park, which advocates for cross-border park access, said the 60-foot (18.3-meter) section that will remain at the lower height is only a token gesture. “The park on the Mexican side has become sort of a one-sided party,” he said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that it anticipates replacing the “deteriorated” two-layer barrier by November and that the higher one under construction ”will provide much needed improvements."
The Berlin Wall installation has gotten rave reviews from visitors.
Sandra Flores, 55, who vacationed from the Mexican port city of Mazatlan, drew parallels between the Berlin slab and the U.S.-built wall.
“It's a little less severe here than it was in Germany but it's a wall that divides nations, lives, social and economic lives and everything related to the United States,” she said.
Lydia Vanasse, who works in the financial sector in San Diego and lives in Tijuana, said the relic took her back to her 20s when the Soviet empire fell and Germans were suddenly allowed to move freely.
“San Diego and Tijuana are sister cities," she said. “The wall separates us, but we are united in many ways. It would be better if there wasn't a wall.”
Direct criticism of any U.S. president or policy has been rare.
Tijuana's mayor said she understands the need for the U.S. to enforce borders and she has warm relations with U.S officials, including Ken Salazar, the ambassador to Mexico. She said Salazar asked her to evict migrants who camped with hopes of getting asylum in the U.S. and blocked access to a U.S. border crossing in 2022. She heeded his recommendation.
Any failures at the border are a collective responsibility of governing nations, the mayor said.
“We are against violence, we are against family separation, we are against division, and that's what the wall represents,” she said.
Associated Press video journalist Eugene Garcia in Los Angeles contributated to this report.