M A Y 1 9 9 2
by William Langewiesche
THE boundary between the United States and Mexico is in places merely a trace in the dirt. Its permeability is famous. In the cities the boundary hardens into a steel fence to keep northbound immigrants out, and it does not work. In the open desert it dwindles to three strands of barbed wire to keep cattle in, and it works better, at least for the cattle. For more than half its length the border is the Rio Grande, a small, swimmable river. Given all this, what is most surprising about the boundary is its power to divide. For slightly more than a century it has cleaved the North American continent, and now it separates rich from poor, First World from Third World, with no Second World in between. Without ocean, high mountain, or other natural barrier, it is largely a human construct. And it has a human custodian. His name is Narendra Gunaji, and I spent a morning with him in El Paso, Texas.
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See the second installment of this article from the June, 1992, Atlantic Monthly.
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Rather than yielding to a sense of helplessness about the permeability of the Mexican-American border and giving in to demands for concessions to illegal immigrants in California, the United States can and should clamp down on points of illegal entry into this country.
Because immigration tends to select for those who are especially resilient, adaptable, and hardworking, immigrants are probably more of a boon to this country than a burden.
At age sixty-one, Gunaji is a trim, white-haired man with the accent of his native India and a severe disposition. He is an American success story -- an immigrant who rose to prominence. He has a Ph.D. and his résumé is ten pages long. For twenty-eight years he taught civil engineering at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, where he was also active in Republican politics. In 1987 Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission. His Mexican counterpart, Arturo Herrera Solis, is based across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Juárez. Together the two men manage the physical boundary -- the markers and water flows along 1,951 miles, from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a small task. Gunaji has 270 people working under him. When I got to his offices in El Paso, I heard a lot of "Yes sir, Commissioner." He seemed to relish it. He gave the day's orders easily, with his arms folded. Then he took me for a ride along the border in an official minivan.
The twin cities of El Paso and Juárez, with a combined population of 2 million, mark the midpoint of the border. This is where the Rio Grande, having flowed due south from its origin in the Rockies, snakes through a gap in the desert mountains and turns southeast. It is also where the two halves of the boundary join: to the west the line runs crisply across the deserts; to the east it rides a more ambiguous midchannel course through the curves of the Rio Grande.
As it flows between El Paso and Juárez, the river is hemmed in by levees. We drove for a time along the northern side. On the opposite shore the tin and cardboard shantytowns of Juárez sprawled over low hills. The Juárez slums are as bad as the shantytowns I know in West Africa. They are less crowded than but as bad as the slums of Bombay. A gully spewed black water into the river. Tainted upstream by agricultural runoff and sewage, the Rio Grande swallowed the filth easily. A family bathed among the bushes. Out of modesty the women washed themselves with their dresses on; the men had stripped down to their shorts. They stood in the water and watched us pass. Ahead the bridges between Juárez and El Paso spanned the river. A rowboat heavy with passengers nosed against the U.S. shore, bypassing Immigration. One woman couldn't climb the steep embankment. Others, who had made it to the top of the levee, went back down to help her.
Sealed in the air-conditioned minivan, we crept through the crowd on the levee. There were about a hundred people, getting their bearings and watching for the Border Patrol. Though the levee is technically U.S. territory, in practice it is neutral soil; retreat to the river is easy. The crowd was mostly local -- unemployed Juárez youths without border-crossing cards, going to El Paso for the day. Some were going farther; they might have come from the interior of Mexico, or from Central or South America. These travelers carried suitcases and scurried away from the van. The locals were not so shy. Recognizing the Boundary Commission seal on the door, they tapped on the roof, peered through the windows, smirked and joked. They begged cigarettes, which we did not have. Boys stood in our way nonchalantly, showing off for girls.
Gunaji seemed oblivious. He spoke about his decision to become an American citizen. His older sister objected, but he insisted. "I told her, 'I'm going to serve India by staying out of India.'"
I interrupted him. "Doesn't it seem odd, if you think back, to find yourself managing this boundary?" I gestured toward the crowd.
He looked annoyed. "In the United States I have always tried to participate in the workings of government. I served on the Las Cruces City Council. Now I serve as commissioner. I am happy such an honor has been bestowed upon my family. A nation needs its boundaries, no?"
I nodded yes. You need a themto have an us.
We drove downriver to the Free Bridge, so called because no tolls are charged. The Free Bridge belongs to the Boundary Commission. It spans the Rio Grande at a patch of river land named the Chamizal, after the desert shrub chamizathat once grew there. The Chamizal is Mexican territory that was lopped off and delivered to the United States by a southward shift in the river. This happened during a flood in 1864, and kicked off a century of squabbling. The remedy, finally agreed upon in 1963, was radical surgery: 4.3 miles of new concrete riverbed was laid and the Free Bridge was built. On December 13, 1968, Lyndon Johnson came to town, met Mexico's President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz at the border, and diverted the Rio Grande into its new course. Mexico walked away with a net gain of 437.18 acres. For this Johnson has not been forgiven by many on the U.S. side. The problem is, one nation's gain is another's loss. And the Boundary Commission is guilty by association. I learned this within minutes of landing at the El Paso airport, having mentioned to a pilot that I had come to visit the commission. "Those sons-a-bitches," he said. "They're the ones who gave away Texas." He assumed that I shared his sentiment, since I, too, had lived in Texas, and for several years had flown the border as an air-taxi pilot.
The remaking of the Rio Grande at the Chamizal was not the first operation of its kind. In the 1930s the Boundary Commission rectified the river downstream from El Paso. "Rectified" means this: the meanders were cut off, the river was straightened and run between levees, and the length of the boundary from El Paso to Fort Quitman was shortened from 155 to eighty-six miles. The two countries exchanged 6,920 acres of land in equal amounts, and none of Texas was lost. Here and there the commission has rectified the Rio Grande all the way to the Gulf.
But rivers make old-fashioned, troublesome boundaries. One problem lies downstream from Fort Quitman, where the rectification ends and the Rio Grande resumes its natural course, through faulted mountains. This 500 mile stretch is the emptiest section of the boundary: a rift-valley, a searing desert of canyons and badlands, two opposing towns (Presidio and Ojinaga) linked by the region's only bridge, and a string of isolated villages. The villages have adobe houses, adobe cantinas, cinder-block churches, maybe some Honda generators. Some of the irrigated fields are 500 years old. The villagers ignore the boundary, and move freely on both sides of the river. No one stops them unless they catch a ride and go too far, or try, after days of walking, to enter the modern world. The river is easy to cross, especially along the 200 miles from Fort Quitman to the confluence of the Rio Conchos. Starved of water by upstream diversions, heavy with silt, it braids through jungles of salt cedar. The location of the channel, and therefore the boundary, is often impossible to establish. This imprecision bothers the surveyors.
In the 1970s the commission decided on an engineering solution: if for these 200 miles the boundary cannot follow the river, then the river will be made to follow the boundary. The two countries agreed. The commission filed environmental-impact statements. It reached compromises with conservationists, and promised to "enhance wildlife." Finally, in 1980, it unleashed the bulldozers. The work continues today, shared by the two countries. The channel is being "restored" to a configuration six feet deep, sixteen feet wide at the bottom, and thirty-eight feet wide at the top. Floodways fifty-six feet wide are being scraped along both banks.
There have been difficulties with equipment and international coordination, and the project is years behind schedule. From an airplane the river looks as it has always looked. Floods have washed away the floodways. And cedar spreads almost as fast as it can be cleared. The conservationists must be pleased. They agreed to a compromise, but this is better -- the river itself is fighting back.
The engineers, however, show no signs of fatigue. Thev are armed with a 1970 treaty that resolved all pending boundary disputes, reaffirmed the channel as the dividing line, and outlawed any further unruly conduct by the water. The Rio Grande has become boundary first and river second. Time is on the side of government. Such is the power of Gunaji's line.
THE U.S.-Mexican border is of course wider and more intricate than a simple boundary line. Defining it is a problem that concerns members of a group called the Association of Borderlands Scholars. I have met only a few of them, but I have read their papers.
What is the border? The traditionalists confine themselves to the fifteen or so sets of twin cities that straddle the line. Seven million people provide ample material for study.
Others feel less constrained. They refer to a "zone of influence" perhaps sixty miles wide on either side. With one simple assertion they double their population base. And why not? If they stretch a bit farther, they can include Tucson, which is a nice city.
Diehard regionalists emphasize the similarities of language and interests, and talk about a unified border region as if it already existed. Some speak of a third nation, and call it MexAmerica. The radicals among them are ready to draw up new boundaries.
Finally, global thinkers go all the way. In Mexico they point to the explosive growth of the north, the recent U.S.-inspired economic reforms, and the corruption unleashed by drug smuggling. In the United States they point to immigration problems, industrial decay, and unlawfulness. They say the border encompasses all of both countries.
The border is a word game.
It is also grimy, hot, and hostile. In most places it is ugly. The U.S. side is depressed by the filth and poverty in Mexico. On the Mexican side the towns have become ungovernable cities, overrun by destitute peasants, roiled by American values. The border is transient. The border is dangerous. The border is crass. The food is bad, the prices are high, and there are no good bookstores. It is not the place to visit on your next vacation.
Neither the United States nor Mexico wanted this intimacy. The boundary was drawn after a two-year war of conquest, during which U.S. troops invaded northern Mexico and occupied Mexico city. By the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase (1854), Mexico was forced to cede the northern two-fifths of its territory -- a national tragedy it has not forgotten. The role of U.S. business in the exploitation that eventually led to the Mexican Revolution added to the resentment. For these reasons and others, anti-Americanism has long been a strong element of the Mexican national character. This has changed somewhat, but only recently, and -- despite the new political rhetoric -- unsurely.
The United States has less complex emotions: we would have preferred a second Canada on our southern flank. To put matters simply, the current move by Mexico and the United States toward some degree of economic integration -- under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would tear down trade barriers -- is an attempt to create, eventually, a more prosperous and stable Mexico. It is also a recognition of the fact that the border is no longer remote and no longer a buffer against our chaotic southern neighbor. Quite the opposite: growth on both sides of the border has physically bound the countries. Mexico's problems inevitably become ours.
In Mexico the sense of urgency is infinitely stronger. The free-trade agreement is only one element in an attempt to rework the very basis of national life. Diplomatic niceties do not make it clear that Mexico was terrified into action. For ten years the nation has been sick with debt, cynicism, and inefficiency. Mexicans use the word "cancer," and say it has metastasized. They hope desperately that in economic liberalization they have found a cure.
The carcinogen was oil. Mexico sits on some of the largest reserves in the world. The oil-price rise of the 1970s -- what we north of the border called the energy crisis -- meant that Mexico, flush with petrodollars, suddenly looked rich. U.S. and European banks rushed in to lend money. Counting on future oil revenues, Mexico overborrowed and overspent. When oil prices dropped, the petrodollars evaporated and the structure collapsed. In August of 1982 Mexico came to Washington and threatened to default.
If the Mexicans had stopped paying, U.S. bankers would have been forced to acknowledge enormous losses, an intrusion of reality they could not risk. The Reagan Administration answered with a multibillion-dollar emergency package. Eventually the loans were rescheduled, which worked on the ledger sheets, allowing the bankers to continue to show the questionable debt as an asset. But the banks were not eager to lend more. The peso collapsed, inflation ran wild, and the Mexican economy spiraled out of control.
In aviation, accident investigators sometimes write about "negative climb rates" before airplane crashes. By this they mean that the pilots wanted to gain altitude and couldn't. Economists writing about Mexico use a similar term -- "negative growth" -- to describe the 1980s. They mean that the rich didn't get richer as quickly as they once had, and the poor kept getting poorer. Most Mexicans are poor, and most are young. The country's population growth rate of nearly two percent, though lower than past rates, means that the 85 million inhabitants of today will be 100 million by the year 2000. The question is not only Will the economy keep up? but also Will it satisfy the population? The poor are better educated and healthier than before, and they are less willing to live in misery. This places enormous stress on the political system. I am sure someone has described the problem as a negative decline in human expectations.
All this bears on another word, "revolution," which on the banners of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) refers only to the glorious past. "Counter-revolution" is the best description of the PRI's present policies.
Their architect is President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a slight, bald, moustachioed man with something of an academic disposition. Salinas came to power in 1988, at the age of forty, for a single six-year term. He won the election with 50.4 percent of the vote, amid widespread allegations of fraud. His narrow victory was proof that the patronage system, which had kept the PRI comfortably in power for sixty years, was ailing. The new President arrested a few corrupt officials and set to work saving the nation.
Salinas has a doctorate in government and political economy from Harvard. He speaks excellent English and feels at home in Boston. U.S. officials call him a technocrat, because he thinks like us, or appears to; they try not to worry that he sends his children to a Japanese school in Mexico City. Salinas wants competition, entrepreneurship, and investment from abroad -- the American way. He acts by decree, slashing import duties, privatizing banks and national industries, and rewriting the laws that once excluded foreign companies. "Foreign" in Mexico usually means "Yankee," and the investments renew old questions of national sovereignty. Salinas sees little choice.
Inflation has dropped from 200 to 20 percent, and there are parallel signs of progress, notably in debt reduction. The United States often holds Mexico up to other Latin American countries as an example of good behavior. But for the PRI, the improvement has not come fast enough. Despite Mexico's sincerity and its promise of cheap labor, foreign investors still worry about corruption, political instability, and poor infrastructure. Several years ago Salinas concluded that the pot needed further sweetening -- for instance, a promise to those investing in Mexico that they would have unfettered access to the greatest consumer market on earth. A free-trade agreement came naturally to mind, since the United States and Canada had implemented one in 1989. As Salinas saw it, the point was not so much to eliminate barriers, which he had already reduced, as to guarantee continuity in the future. A free-trade agreement would add the force of international law to the changes under way, and would tie the hands of his successor in 1994. When Salinas approached the Bush Administration with the proposal for a deal, he found a willing audience.
In the United States we use sports analogies. We say that Mexico has joined the league and wants to play ball. The White House and Congress instituted "fast track" procedures, whose purpose was to shield the negotiations from opposition. It was said, probably correctly, that the Mexicans were too sensitive to withstand the battering they would receive on the U.S. political field. The idea was to present Congress with a finished treaty, to be accepted or rejected without modification. Nonetheless, the opposition has made itself heard. Labor unionists worry about the loss of factory jobs. Some economists worry about the U.S. balance of trade: without stringent rules of origin for goods coming across the southern border, other countries could use Mexico as a duty-free platform for launching trade attacks on the United States. Environmentalists worry about unregulated industrial pollution. There is also concern about the potentially enhanced ease of drug trafficking. With the proposed treaty, the border region will become even more freewheeling than it already is.
Whatever their opinions about specific details of the free-trade agreement, economists and Mexico specialists tend to approve Salinas's attempts at reform. No Mexico specialist myself, I was surprised by their certainty. In the wood-paneled office of a historian I said, "Don't the Mexicans historically have a reason to fear us?" He dismissed this notion with a pout and a flutter of his hand. "That's the old, divisive way of thinking. Learn to think ahead!" I admired his courage. He did not seem bothered by the long-term question: Is it wise for the United States, by committing itself to free trade, to assume some measure of responsibility for Mexico's gamble? He asked the other question: Can we afford to have Mexico fail?
IT was morning in San Ysidro, California, and the air blew cool with an ocean breeze. San Ysidro is the southernmost district of San Diego, where the city presses hard against Tijuana. I stood at the border fence while six boys came over the top. The fence here is a welded steel wall, and it supported their weight easily. The boys wore jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, and carried no luggage. The last one balanced on top and watched his friends dashing north toward a Kmart. He was thin, red-haired, and clearly disgusted by their haste. He glanced at me, seeking eye contact. I guessed he was twelve or thirteen. He wanted me to understand that he was unafraid. To prove it, he turned and dropped through a full backflip, ten feet down into the United States. He landed beside me with a thump and a grunt. In Spanish I said, "What's happening?" He answered, "Not much," and ambled off into the city.
In places the fence is new, and reinforced. Not everyone is athletic enough to go over the top. Enterprising Mexicans dig holes underneath it, and charge a dollar for each passage. Along older sections they also hack right through the steel. I watched a woman squeeze through a gap, careful not to tear her dress. A quarter mile inland the U.S. flag flew over the official port of entry. The "port" is, in fact, two gates -- one Mexican and one American -- big, boastful structures that span the north-south freeway. Together they tally 50 million crossings every year, and claim to be the busiest border point in the world. Southbound traffic slows but rarely stops. Northbound traffic backs up for hours. In 1991 U.S. gatekeepers blocked some 52,000 fraudulent entries, but for every unauthorized foreigner they turned back, perhaps twenty others hit the fence. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was meant to solve that problem. The gatekeepers still cling forlornly to it. "The law should have worked," they say. But California beckons, and the immigrants feel neither reformed nor controlled.
Border scholars believe that half of all illegal entries into the United States occur here. The immigrants choose San Diego not just because the crossing is easy (it is easy everywhere except in the harshest deserts) but because it is convenient. Three million people live in San Diego and Tijuana, and another fifteen million live in Los Angeles, to the north. The hustle is relentless. Even in recession there is opportunity. Ambitious workers from all over Mexico and Central America come to Tijuana by bus. Tijuana is the sort of Mexican success story that free-trade proponents promise: tourism has been supplemented by industrial development; the city claims full employment and factories that hire at seven dollars a day. Still, many of the new arrivals keep going. They are met at the bus station by "coyotes,"smugglers who can lose them into California cities. In California they can find friends and family. They can find work at five dollars an hour.
The boundary here is a fourteen-mile stretch from the Pacific through brushland and city streets to the first desert mountain. In daylight the immigrants trickle across the fence; after dark they hit it in waves, and come by the thousands. The San Diego sector of the Border Patrol has 800 agents, by far the largest concentration anywhere on the border, and they only touch the flow. If this is a war zone, it has its recurring battlefields -- places like Dairy Mart Road, McDonald's, Denny's, the borderland motels. The earth is hard-packed, and scarred by polished trails.
The morning's calm was a form of exhaustion. From the port of entry I walked along the fence, past the boy who had backflipped, to the point where the Tijuana River flows in from Mexico. The Tijuana River is an open sewer. After it enters the United States, it turns west and runs parallel to the boundary, between massive levees. An indignant San Diegan instructed me to "go look how the Mexicans pointed that river at us!" But the river was once a natural flow, and it still approximates its original short course to the ocean.
A bulldozer was clearing brush from the banks. Brush makes good cover, especially at night. Some congressmen believe that clearing it away and installing bright lights, thereby "sanitizing" the border, will reduce illegal immigration. But I watched a family cross within a hundred feet of the bulldozer. The father led, followed by four children and the mother. They balanced on old tires that had been laid across the shallow river like stepping-stones. After the family left, the bulldozer eased into the current and pushed the tires onto the south bank. I thought the tires should have been piled on the north side. The man on the bulldozer probably figured it made no difference.
Later I watched as a young man shepherded across a group of stocky, dark-skinned women. Wearing plastic bags around their legs, they bunched together and waded shin-deep through the filthy water. On dry ground again, they stooped and peeled off the leg protectors. The bank was littered with hundreds of these bags; vendors sell them on the south side for a dollar a pair, rubber bands included. The guide told the women to wait, and he scrambled up the levee to scout for the Border Patrol. He stood near me, breathing heavily, and checked the neighborhood. We did not speak. He beckoned to his group, and they started up, bent forward against the slope. Suddenly a green Border Patrol Bronco drove onto the levee, and accelerated toward us. The women retreated to the river. The guide took two steps down the levee and stood his ground. The Border Patrol agent stopped above him and didn't bother to get out. He was a burly man in a green uniform and a felt cowboy hat. My presence seemed to make him uncertain. He backed away and parked below the levee in a field. The guide returned and squatted comfortably. He seemed amused.
THE border patrol is the uniformed law enforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It deploys about 2,800 agents along the U.S.-Mexican border. Texans are heavily represented. Border Patrol agents have had various names for the people they catch. They used to call them wetbacks, even in dry country. Responding to the times, Washington encouraged the use of the term "illegal aliens." After critics objected to "illegal," Washington compromised on "undocumented." This was one change too many for the Border Patrol agents, who are not inclined to chase fashion.
Ninety percent of the people they catch are Mexicans. The other ten percent are "OTMs," which stands for "other than Mexicans," and means mostly Central and South Americans. The distinction is important, because OTMs cannot be shipped to Mexico; they must be flown home. Deportation is a serious setback for them; it may be months before they can return north. Mexicans move faster. They waive their right to a hearing, take the INS shuttle to the border, and if the night is young, turn around and come right back. The official estimate is that half or two thirds get through, but in the long run the real numbers are higher. Anyone who tries will eventually succeed.
Border Patrol agents simply do their job. One said to me, "Catch'em, write'em up, back to Mexico. Catch'em, write'em up, back to Mexico." In fiscal year 1991, which ended last September 30, they wrote them up 1,077,000 times. This number should not be confused with the number of aliens; the Border Patrol acknowledges that it includes people who have been caught more than once in a fiscal year. What it does not mention is that some are caught twice in a fiscal night. Still, the figures are not complete nonsense: they measure the labor performed by the agents and give a rough accounting of the flow.
In the afternoon I drove through the eerie flatland where the Tijuana River meanders its last five miles to the ocean. Few people live here, though the real estate is cheap. This is the war zone at its most dismal. There are killings, rapes, robberies. Placards with skulls and crossbones warn of contamination. The river is diseased, and the stench of sewage is inescapable. Coastal winds stir clouds of fine-grained fecal dust, making you want to cover your face when you breathe. There is a sod farm, a nursery, and a stable that advertises horse rentals. At an abandoned ranch house a hand-painted sign reads NO MAN'S LAND.
The boundary runs just to the south, along low hills that slope down into Tijuana. All day the crowds gather at the fence. By late afternoon you see hundreds out there, dark lines of people waiting for the sun to set. Vendors sell them drinks and tacos. Where the fence is torn, they swell through it and stand inside the United States. Border Patrol agents square off against them in a few scattered trucks, radios crackling, hoping that their mere presence will serve as a deterrent. They face a near riot every afternoon, and they keep a safe distance. For the city toughs who jeer at the agents and sometimes throw rocks, the fence is a shelter.
At dusk the line crumbles. Down in the flatland, a group of men and women hurry across Monument Road. They emerge suddenly from Smuggler's Gulch and disappear without a trace into the bushes. You wonder if in the twilight your mind has tricked you, but then you see another group, and another. The night turns black under ocean clouds, and fills with immigrants moving north. A dog barks viciously. A helicopter circles low in the distance, probing the land with its spotlight. The port of entry glows to the east. There are no birds, crickets, or frogs. You hear the muted roar of the cities, and the crunch of footsteps on gravel.
Two miles away, along Interstate 5, the first wave sweeps across the freeway. Interstate 5 starts at the port of entry and heads north, through downtown San Diego and Los Angeles. It is lit, but the immigrants hide in the shadows, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Some misjudge the speed of the oncoming cars; since 1987 more than 150 have been hit and killed. California has lowered the speed limits and installed flashing yellow lights above warning signs. The warning signs show figures immediately recognizable as immigrants -- they run, they hold hands, the women wear scarves. But people drive fast in San Diego, rarely under seventy. A local driver said to me, "Gee, those poor Mexicans. You know who I'm more concerned about?"
I thought, Let me guess.
He said, "The people who hit them. When you run out on the freeway, you make a choice. When you're driving the freeway, you have no choice. You go straight ahead or into the cars next to you."
"You could slow down," I suggested.
"They're causing people to have accidents," he said. "We ought to build a fence."
Most of the people who run onto the freeway go all the way across and melt into the city at San Ysidro. But others stop halfway, along the freeway's concrete median strip. The median is neutral ground, where the Border Patrol will not chase them. By midnight several hundred people have gathered there, under the glare of overhead lights. They wait with their guides for prearranged rides, or rest before moving on. They sleep, eat, play cards. I have watched them dancing. Some may have made love, or given birth. At dawn you see those who are stuck, afraid to move on. Like any neutral ground, the median can be a trap as well as a haven.
Copyright © 1992 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1992; The Border; Volume 269, No. 5; pages 53 - 92.