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Lines and Shadows
By Joseph Wambaugh
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1984 Joseph Wambaugh
All rights reserved.
Burl Richard Snider had journeyed half a lifetime from the hotel in San Ysidro. He had gone from the U.S. Border Patrol to service as a park policeman on the other side of America, in Washington, D.C. He had remarried, returned west and had two more children. And he had joined the San Diego Police Department.
In the fall of 1976 Lieutenant Dick Snider, now a sixteen-year police department veteran, old enough to know better, was lying flat on his belly in a canyon watching a nightly ritual. The aliens gathered by an imaginary line between two cities, two countries, two economies, and when the sun was about to set they moved. In the old Border Patrol days a few dozen might try it on a given night. Now, in a zone of only a few square miles, in effect a no-man's-land between the cities of Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, U.S.A., they came. Sometimes ten thousand per week. And in those canyons lurked Tijuana bandits and cutthroats who fed off the pollos as they crossed the frontier in the night. One of the slashes of earth in this no-man's-land is called Deadman's Canyon, for good reason. It is a mean, blood-drenched gash of mesquite and cactus and rocks within the city limits of San Diego, one of the richest cities in the richest state in the richest country....
The illegal aliens saved and borrowed and sold and carried the net worth of their lives in their socks and underwear, and sometimes in bags and bundles. Bandit gangs formed near that imaginary line and enjoyed a nightly bonanza in the canyons. Aliens were ambushed, robbed, raped, murdered, occasionally within screaming distance of United States officers at the land port of entry.
The bandits were no fools. They lived in Tijuana but operated on the American side where it was safe. Tijuana lawmen can be very unpleasant, as the bandits well knew.
And the bandits were without mercy. During one robbery, a young pollo father was shot with his baby in his arms. He lay dying ten feet inside the promised land while the bandits stripped everything of value from the living members of his party. An orphaned blood-spattered baby with fat knees was carried screaming in agony back to Tijuana with shotgun pellets in his eye and brain.
All of this troubled Lieutenant Dick Snider, just as it had troubled him twenty years earlier. He lay in the scrub at night, alone in those canyons, the binoculars cupped in his big leathery paws, watching through slate- colored eyes forever squinting from the smoke of a dangling cigarette; His life had changed very much for the better in these intervening years. But the aliens? The Mexican economy was fearful. The rest of Latin America was desperate.
In 1976 there was already lots of rhetoric about the alien phenomenon. The American State Department had been forced to admit that the overall dilemma was insoluble, and was publicly promising to try to "manage" it a bit better. The five hundred Border Patrol officers in the Chula Vista sector were catching more than twenty thousand aliens a month, almost all of them having crossed in those few square miles of canyon inside the city limits of San Diego, near the busiest land port of entry in the world. The agents used helicopters, horses, four-wheel-drive vehicles, infrared scopes magnetic sensors, seismic sensors.
Sometimes a border patrolman had been known to stroll into an asparagus field on the west side of Interstate 5 and illuminate a pollo with his light, commanding him to stand and submit. After which he would suddenly find himself surrounded by fifty other aliens who thought he was talking to them.
The nearby city of Oceanside, for example, had a population of some seventy thousand and grew by fifty thousand during fruit-picking season, from undocumented stoop laborers. The law said that a farmer was not violating the law by hiring the illegals, but was by housing them. Therefore they slept in the brush, under trees, in cardboard boxes. The nights in San Diego County can get cold.
And it came to pass that labor organizers and farmers did much shouting into the wind. The farmers said that if they must pay and house American workers (assuming they would do stoop labor) a strawberry would cost what you now pay for an avocado. An avocado would cost what you now pay for a Mercedes. And so forth.
And Chicano activists entered the picture and argued that the American government could not separate a Chicano from a Mexican (with which most native Mexicans would disagree) and called the frontier "The Vietnam of the Southwest."
The director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service had, by 1976, publicly commented that the alien situation appeared almost hopeless, far beyond the control of his uniformed force, the U.S. Border Patrol.
In the summer of 1976 Dick Snider was forty-five years old, too old to be lurking around the boonies, they said. Pretty dopey, they said, to be taking the department's four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco to clatter up into those godforsaken canyons, one mile and one century away from the Southern Division substation of the San Diego Police Department. But he did it with ever more frequency, usually alone, and pondered the fate of those pollos being brutalized out there in the darkness as he lay concealed in foxtail grass and cactus and tumbleweeds.
Sometimes in the late afternoons, while he watched the multitude of aliens gathering on the mesas and plateaus waiting for sunset, he would see groups of Mexican schoolchildren being led across the invisible line by teachers conducting excursions into the canyons for flora and fauna. Oil-rich jojoba beans grew wild. Wild anise flourished, and scrub oak, stunted and tough, relentlessly surviving. And everywhere the threat of cholla cactus. Dick Snider watched through binoculars the throngs who played soccer and baseball and bought tamales and soda pop from the Tijuana "roach wagons" which also came to take a buck or two from the pollos before the canyon crossing.
He watched children with empty jars, and milk cartons full of water, flooding the burrows of tarantulas and scorpions, capturing the wretched creatures alive to peddle to Americans in the bars or to Mexican entrepreneurs who ensconced them in plastic molds to sell to tourists as paperweights. Everything was for sale to Americans in the border city.
It was not more than a short walk from a low-rent hotel where a young border patrolman once occupied the bridal suite. And in essence, he was still contemplating the same dilemma: the aliens.
It occurred to him that almost nothing had changed in all those years. It was as though, well, something as uncop-like as destiny had marked him, linking him to this place, near that imaginary line. But there had been one change in recent years: the bandit gangs. And it was insupportable to him that some pollos were actually attacked within screaming distance of his substation. Even Deadman's Canyon was only one mile (and one century) away.
It didn't seem to trouble very many other people. After all, they were illegal aliens, criminals by definition. But some of the criminals were only three years old, and some were younger. And the bandits were not sentimental about mothers and babes. Finally he became obsessed with the incongruity of it. This was the prosperous, beautiful, tourist-filled city of San Diego, U.S.A. His city. His outrage agitated the cerebral cortex where ideas live. And one came to him.
The best way to convince bureaucrats of anything is to quote statistics. Police administrators can toss around more numbers than baseball managers. And like baseball managers, pollsters, politicians, or Pentagon generals, they can make statistics do just about whatever they wish. But there are certain statistics which even the most resourceful police pencil pusher would have trouble explaining away. One is homicide. There is a dead body on your beat or there isn't. And too many of them were turning up around an imaginary line which Dick Snider had long believed was used to divide two economies. No one knew for sure how many murders actually occurred on American soil, because there were verified episodes of bereaved pollos carrying their slain husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, back over to the Mexican side for burial.
And every cop who has ever worked among illegal aliens knows that pollos assaulted in the night would not routinely report the crime to the U.S. authorities, since these people generally feared the authorities of both countries, not to mention deportation. Therefore, the San Diego police statisticians only got wind of the crimes where the Border Patrol or police stumbled upon some victim who had been gutted like a fish, or hamstrung by the bandit wolf packs, sometimes making bloody circles in the dust before bleeding to death. Sometimes raped so brutally that hospitalization was required prior to deportation. The real body count was anybody's guess.
Dick Snider finally tired of crawling around those canyons at midnight, listening to gunshots and cries in the darkness. He remembered the old Border Patrol days when they used to track one alien ten miles because illegal entry was then considered a big deal. He wondered if nowadays any overworked, frustrated, dung-shoveling border patrolmen unconsciously approved of the Tijuana bandits for culling the migrants in no-man's-land. In fact, he wondered how many ordinary compassionate citizens would tolerate the bandit gangs, who probably scared away a fair number that might otherwise have joined the ragtag migratory battalions of the night.
That year the U.S. Border Patrol was estimating that they would arrest more than 250,000 aliens. The wishful statistic they always gave to the press was that they probably caught one third. Which the cops called "a hallelujah batting average." Prosecuting aliens for illegal entry was a nightmare. After three or four arrests it was possible to get a conviction for a misdemeanor, which might mean five days in jail. Reentry after formal deportation was technically a felony, but very hard to prove. The Border Patrol investigator would have to get certification of the existence or nonexistence of records in Washington. Aliens are rarely fingerprinted, don't carry identification, and often change their names on later tries, so it was nearly impossible to prove identities. If the Border Patrol caught 10 percent of all pollos, they were doing remarkably well, the cops figured.
Border patrolmen talked wistfully of La Ley de Fuga, The Law of Flight. If you flee you are shot. The law of Mexico. The law of many "developed" countries. But alien smugglers have been known to make a million dollars a year. It's lucrative, and everyone knew that if the aliens were somehow miraculously all rounded up, half the restaurants from San Diego to the Oregon border would have to serve buffet style on paper plates. And wealthy Californians would suddenly be washing their own cars and cutting their own grass and cleaning their own houses and tending their own children. And who in the hell would pick the crops? And what of the small factories? And what would happen to the garment industry? And so forth.
So with this incredibly complicated headache, only too familiar to the people of San Diego living just north of that imaginary line, it wouldn't do for Dick Snider to approach the police administration with do-gooder talk about the tragedies inflicted by bandit gangs. The way to approach it was to present cold, incontrovertible numbers, and to tell the police administration how he could make those big numbers get smaller.
It wasn't easy, in that things move very slowly in a bureaucracy. At first the brass was not particularly troubled by the numbers. But the reported alien crimes, which Dick Snider had always estimated to be a tenth of the actual occurrences, were causing some damage to the overall portrait of "America's Finest City," whose tourist bureau touted the most temperate climate on earth. A city where tourism was huge. A great retirement community and an enormous military base. Very unlike the bigger city "up the road"—meaning Los Angeles—San Diego was advertised as being lovely and smog-free. And safe.
But the San Diego Police Department daily occurrence sheets were telling another story:
Saturday, 2300 hours. Spring Canyon, alien robbery. Two males armed with a gun. Three victims.
Saturday, 2100 hours, Deadman's Canyon, three suspects, two victims. Knives and machetes used.
Wednesday, 2000 hours. Alien robbery, E-2 Canyon. Clubs and rocks used. Ten victims. Five suspects.
And the aliens were not only being robbed by bandit gangs, but others were finding the pollos too tempting to resist:
Wednesday, 1930 hours, alien robbery, Monument Road. Three victims. Armed Tijuana police officer ambushed them.
Wednesday, 2245 hours, alien robbery. Three victims. Monument Road. Border Patrol interrupted robbery. Tijuana auxiliary policeman (unarmed) in custody. Other uniformed officer (armed) escaped into Mexico.
Friday, 0700 hours. Alien robbery. Suspects were two Tijuana police officers. Victim struck in face, threatened with gun, maced in eyes.
Thursday, 2230 hours, alien robbery. Three victims robbed in gully by two male suspects dressed in tan Tijuana police uniforms.
Then the robberies began getting steadily more ferocious, the log entries more grim:
Wednesday, 0950 hours. Body found 1/3 mile east of Hollister, 200 feet north of border fence. Male, Mexican, 30's, throat cut.
Friday, 1430 hours. Border Patrol found body on mesa near mouth of Spring Canyon. Badly decomposed male.
Tuesday, second watch. Border Patrol says Tijuana Police Department notified them of murder by soccer field in Spring Canyon, 0100 hours.
If the pollos were lucky enough to run the gauntlet in the canyons, there awaited the Mexican-American youth gangs of San Ysidro. Who could resist? The pollos were so timid. So easy:
Wednesday, 2300 hours, alien robbery, San Ysidro View Park. Victim struck from behind. Face beaten in. Hospitalized.
Friday, alien robbery, 0100 hours, 8 male susps, 17–20 years. Armed with knives and clubs. Two victims and their children robbed.
And if the pollos were lucky enough (and fit enough) to outrun the bandit gangs in the canyons, or the moonlighting Tijuana cops, or the Mexican-American youth gangs, or the helicopters and four-wheeled vehicles of la migra, they found other perils awaiting them in their crossing:
Saturday, third watch, Interstate 5 under pedestrian bridge. Alien struck while running across freeway.
Monday, third watch, Otay Mesa Road, vehicle ran over fleeing alien. Broken pelvis.
Saturday, third watch. Another alien hit by car on Highway 805, running across freeway. Taken to Bay General. Not expected to live.
And if the male aliens managed to survive the bandits in the canyons and the moonlighting Mexican cops, and the Mexican-American youth gangs, and the speeding cars, there were additional perils for females between the ages of ten and seventy:
Sunday, 2300 hours, Border Patrol chopper interrupted gang rape. Five suspects. Spring Canyon.
And so forth. There were some San Diego police administrators starting to get a very large headache from all these statistical entries, and the last thing in the world they needed while they pondered the border phenomenon was civilian pressure. But that's exactly what they got. Articles started appearing with regularity in the San Diego newspapers:
Alien Boy Paralyzed By Robbers
Sixteen-year-old has spinal cord cut
Seventh alien robbery this week
During the summer, investigative reporters interviewed a Mexican-American youth gang member in San Ysidro for his lurid account of alien robberies. In a short career he had beaten and robbed countless victims, and raped fifteen alien women, one for every year of his life.
By midsummer 1976 the Tijuana mayor was sweating out all the reports of his police officers ambushing aliens on American soil. A spokesman for Mayor Fernando Marquez Arce told U.S. reporters: "We are sure these are bandits impersonating Tijuana police and not members of our department. There are stores in Tijuana where uniforms resembling police uniforms can be bought and we are sure there are people buying these and posing as police."
Finally, by summer's end Mexican President Luis Echeverria Alvarez addressed the U.S. government on the fate of pollos being robbed, beaten, raped and murdered at the American border.
Excerpted from Lines and Shadows by Joseph Wambaugh. Copyright © 1984 Joseph Wambaugh. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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