Not since Joseph Wambaugh’s bestselling The Onion Field has there been a true police story as fascinating, as totally gripping as Lines and Shadows. The media hailed them as heroes. Others denounced them as lawless renegades. A squad of tough cops called the Border Crime Task Force. A commando team sent to patrol the snake-infested no-man’s-land south of San Diego. Not to apprehend the thousands of illegal aliens slipping into the U.S., but to stop the ruthless bandits who preyed on them nightly—relentlessly robbing, raping, and murdering defenseless men, women, and children.
The task force plan was simple. They would disguise themselves as illegal aliens. They would confront the murderous shadows of the night. Yet each time they walked into the violent blackness along the border, they came closer to another boundary line—a fragile line within each man. And crossing it meant destroying their sanity and their lives.
Praise for Lines and Shadows
“With each book, it seems, Mr. Wambaugh’s skill as a writer increases. . . . In Lines and Shadows he gives an off-trail, action-packed true account of police work and the intimate lives of policemen that, for my money, is his best book yet.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A saga of courage, craziness, brutality and humor. . . . One of his best books, comparable to The Onion Field for storytelling and revelatory power.”—Chicago Sun-Times
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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 uncoplike 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.