Crossing into Mexico from San Diego has become a major challenge since last year when U.S. authorities began cracking down on the weapons and cash flowing into the hands of drug cartels.
U.S. officers have been conducting random southbound checkpoints more frequently at border crossings and that has resulted in long waits, particularly at the busy San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Business leaders don't know yet the economic impact of the waits to enter Mexico but estimate the northbound waits into the United States alone are costing the region billions of dollars annually. The people affected the most by the checkpoints are those heading to Mexico to visit, conduct business or return home.
"We're used to waiting to enter the U.S., not to return to Tijuana," said Sylvia Ferrero, who works in Chula Vista and lives in Tijuana.
Ferrero, 25, recalls waiting three hours to cross into Tijuana earlier this year and arriving an hour late at a meeting.
"My hope is never to run into one so that I can get home early."
Fabian Wong recently moved from Tijuana to take a job in San Bernardino partly because he got tired of dealing with border waits in both directions. He got a frequent border crossing card last year but then ran into the southbound checkpoints.
"The border is something you have to accept but I wish they would fix these problems," Wong said.
U.S. officials say the checkpoints are done sporadically and supplement the inspections taking place on the Mexican side of the border.
"The Mexicans do have their own programs and we've also conducted operations with them," said Debra Crawford, the San Ysidro port's assistant acting director.
Mexican customs stepped up their operations last year with a program called SIAVE. But they have little control over the U.S. checkpoints, a Mexican customs official said.
"We can't do anything," said Luis Torres, a Mexican customs administrator. "We're prepared and have the infrastructure to handle normal conditions."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials said the checkpoints have resulted in large seizures of money and that adjustments have been made to address traffic concerns. In May, two additional southbound lanes were added at the San Ysidro land port to help ease traffic into Mexico.
Complaints about the U.S. checkpoints and long border waits persist, however.
CBP officials won't say how often the checkpoints are conducted. "The element of surprise is our best weapon here," Crawford said.
Mexican customs officials said they happen frequently, which is the reason they continue to raise concern.
Business leaders from both sides of the border have been vocal critics of the checkpoints.
"It's just another impediment to commerce," said James Clark of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. "South Bay businesses are particularly affected."
"We're opposed to southbound inspections, unequivocally," said Jason Wells, director of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce. "Mexico has set up their own system to do inspections. We believe we should let them do it."
Juan Manuel Hernández, president of the influential business owners' association in Tijuana known as Coparmex, said the checkpoints are hurting tourism, including hotels and restaurants, and forced the cancellation or postponement of meetings.
"We're not against using this to combat organized crime," Hernández said. "But U.S. authorities need to have better coordination and respect for the average citizen.
They should add more inspecton lanes to avoid this chaos."
At the San Ysidro port of entry, the checkpoints slow down traffic coming from the Interstate 5 and 805 freeways. Officers stand on the six lanes heading into Mexico, waive cars through and stop others to question their drivers.
"When we see that it's getting out of control we will make adjustments to let some of the traffic go through," Crawford said.
One of the lanes is used as a secondary inspection area for any additional questioning. At times, they're aided by contraband-detecting dogs, mobile X-ray machines and density readers.
People are required by law to report currency of more than $10,000 when entering or leaving the United States. Mexico has stringent gun laws, which is the reason cartels purchase them in the United States.
U.S. authorities long have employed southbound checkpoints or as they call them "outbound inspections," but stepped up their use early last year as part of a Southwest initiative designed to weaken Mexican drug cartels.
"We are guided by two objectives," U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said. "First, we're going to do everything we can to prevent the violence in Mexico from spilling across the border. And second we will do all in our power to help President Calderon crack down on these drug cartels in Mexico."
The checkpoints have been more effective in the seizure of cash than weapons. Border officers across the Southwest last year confiscated $37.1 million, up from $11.1 million three years earlier. There have been some high-profile cases, including the conviction this year of two Ensenada men who were caught trying to cross into Mexico with nearly $500,000 in a duffle bag. In April, a Riverside man was arrested after officers found nearly $100,000 in the waistband of his jeans.
Meanwhile, officers seized 109 firearms last year, compared to 257 the previous year. Officials say the low number of weapon seizures does not reflect how much officers have disrupted gun-smuggling to Mexico.
San Diego business leaders said the U.S. should focus more on the drug distributing channels inside the country.
"To completely handicap the entire border traffic for the amount of guns and money you're going to find in personal vehicles is ridiculous," said Wells, of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce.
Omar Millán and Abraham Nudelstejer contributed to this story.