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The San Ysidro Port of Entry between the United States and Mexico is one of the busiest land-border crossings in the world. More than 100,000 people cross the San Diego-Tijuana border every day to go to school, work, to see a doctor or to go shopping. Customers can choose from an array of buses and vans to take them to their destination – but as the saying goes, “Buyer beware.”

For many years, “wildcatters” – unlicensed bus and van operators without proper inspections or training – were operating openly. Passengers were at great risk.

poster warning passengers about illegal transportation carriers

Marco Polo Cortes initiated a public-education campaign with the Border Transportation Council aimed at educating passengers about the risk of traveling in an unlicensed, “wildcatter” bus or van.

Licensed transportation service providers serving the U.S.-Mexico border take pride in operating safely, passing inspections and keeping licenses current. But these transportation providers found themselves competing with illegal operators who were ignoring the rules. Bald tires, failing brakes and drivers without valid driver licenses were among the concerns raised by industry advocates and several high-profile vehicle accidents involving wildcatters drew attention to the issue.

“Safety, customer service and quality of the experience are essential to the transportation business,” said consultant Marco Polo Cortes, who represented the Border Transportation Council in its efforts to enhance enforcement of unlicensed carriers. “You’re connecting people with their families, their employment, their medical care. If they can’t get there in a safe, reliable manner, the whole industry gets a black eye.”

The Border Transportation Council was formed as a nonprofit business organization by concerned operators of vans and bus lines serving the border. Approximately 18 interstate carriers with a total of 1,500 employees were operating out of San Ysidro to destinations throughout California, such as Santa Ana, Los Angeles and Fresno – carrying over 400,000 passengers a year. Since forming in 1993, the industry group advocated for better enforcement against wildcatters but had little traction. The Border Transportation Council retained Cortes from 2008-2013 to advance its efforts to educate law enforcement about the need to enforce the law.

The effort was complicated because multiple agencies have responsibilities for enforcement, including San Diego Police Department, the San Diego Metropolitan System (MTS), California Highway Patrol (CHP), the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Tijuana Mayor’s Office and Mexican law enforcement agencies also played a role.

“The transportation industry needed to bring to light the lack of regulation at the San Ysidro Port of Entry and the lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies,” Cortes said.

Cortes built relationships and began to achieve better attendance at the monthly interagency meetings among the law enforcement agencies. He worked to increase the visibility of the issue, bringing together stakeholders, policymakers and elected officials as well as community leaders in San Ysidro. He partnered with the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce & Business Association, the National City Chamber of Commerce and the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce to hold public forums and secured media coverage.

The first forum was held April 8, 2011 and the second was held May 4, 2012, both in San Ysidro. Discussions focused on the formation of a transit center in San Ysidro. The forums included participation by a U.S. Congressman, a San Diego City Councilmember, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, a California State Senator, the California Department of Transportation, the California Highway Patrol, the Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Highway Administration, Customs & Border Protection and General Services Administration.

The forums were “a major accomplishment,” said Juan Antonio López, then-President of the Border Transportation Council and regional vice president for Greyhound.

“With Marco’s help we were able to bring all these folks together not only to attend but to collaborate together and to understand the community wanted a solution,” López said. “That really put the Border Transportation Council on the map. It gave us a lot of legitimacy in San Ysidro and beyond. It opened up a lot of opportunities to get help with other issues, including wildcatting.”

With guidance from Cortes, the Border Transportation Council partnered with the nonprofit Alianza Civil to launch an education and awareness campaign aimed at commuters. The campaign was active in San Ysidro, California and in the city of Tijuana, Mexico. The campaign included video billboards and handout material to pedestrians on both sides of the border, with information in English and Spanish.

The initiative resulted in stepped-up enforcement against unlicensed bus and van operators – as well as more educated and aware consumers.

“Public safety should always be a top priority, and I’m proud that these efforts resulted in safer transportation options for commuters at the San Diego-Tijuana border,” said Cortes.