* Existing barrier is falling apart, unsightly
* Beachfront park already looks like a jail, locals say
By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO, Calif., Feb 7 U.S. authorities are building a steel and concrete barrier 300 feet (90 meters) out into the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego to curb dangerous attempts by illegal immigrants and smugglers to slip through the breakers to California.
The new maritime fence is being built at a cost of $4.3 million at the point where the U.S.-Mexico border plunges into the ocean between San Diego and the industrial powerhouse of Tijuana, in northwest Mexico.
The new "surf fence" is a steel-and-concrete barrier up to 18 feet tall that replaces a rusted and uneven line of posts.
"It was falling apart, it was out of alignment, it looked like a bad set of teeth," said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Ralph DeSio.
"This is going to be much more aesthetically appealing to that area, but it also strengthens our abilities to prevent those dangerous smuggling attempts along that shoreline."
Federal authorities have in recent years added fencing and Border Patrol agents along the southwest U.S. border with Mexico in a bid to stop illegal immigrant crossings and drug smuggling to the United States .
Congress also mandated building a further 650 miles (1040 km) of fencing along the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) border.
Recent attempts to slip north through the surf and inshore waters to Imperial Beach, south of San Diego, have included two smugglers nabbed with marijuana piled onto a surfboard in 2009, and a pair of wetsuit-clad illegal immigrants arrested last February with self-propelled underwater dive scooters.
Illegal immigrants have also taken to the sea to swim around the existing barrier to Border Field State Park in southern California. One man drowned attempting the trip last November.
The upgrade comes at a time when smugglers are increasingly pushing further out to sea in open-topped "panga" fishing boats to run illegal immigrants and tons of marijuana up the coast as far as Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
There have been 14 incidents there since last October.
In a bid to make it more resilient to the pounding Pacific waves, the new barrier, due for completion in March, is coated with protectants inside and out and filled with concrete. It has an estimated life of up to 30 years, DeSio said.
The effort underway to ratchet up security at the beach, which includes a stretch of fencing that runs 900 feet inland, is raising some eyebrows in Tijuana.
Policeman Cesar Ochoa is struck by the transformation to Parque Amistad, or Friendship Park, just back from the beach, where families separated by the border would chat informally through the bars of the fence beside a historic monument.
A double fence now walls off the area and prevents visitors from getting within a few feet of each other. "The only thing that remains from that time are the cement tables where people used to meet. There were Border Patrol agents watching over them ... but they let people interact," Ochoa said.
Local government employee Adriana Medina, 33, remembers families picnicking and playing ball and even partying in the park when she was growing up and is surprised by the upgrade that pushed "steel posts right into the sea."
"It looks like a jail," she told Reuters. "I think it's an overreaction." (Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Daniel Trotta)