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Border Task Force to Go Back Into Action Soon, Police Say

Times Staff Writer

Federal and city law enforcement officials said Friday that they plan to redeploy their border anti-crime unit that recently shot two men, purportedly while they were handcuffed and fleeing back to Mexico.

“We’ll be back in the field very shortly. It could be a matter of days,” said Mike Rice, deputy San Diego police chief.

The unit has been mostly idle since the latest shooting, which occurred Jan. 4, but authorities attributed that inaction to the routine recruitment and training interval between shift changes and the standard evaluations that occur after shootings.

Officials denied that there had been any suspension of the task force, known as the Border Crime Prevention Unit and composed of members of the San Diego Police Department and the U. S. Border Patrol.

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Marco E. Lopez, a San Diego lawyer, has charged that witnesses saw the two most recent victims being gunned down from behind, while handcuffed, as they attempted to flee back to Mexico. Families of the men have retained the lawyer, who says he plans to file two $15-million, wrongful-death claims with the U. S. government. The incident prompted the Mexican Embassy in Washington to send a note of protest to the State Department.

Total of 18 Dead

The two were the fourth and fifth Mexican citizens killed by the unit within a three-month period. In its five-year history, the unit has been involved in 35 shootings that have left a total of 18 suspects dead and 26 others wounded.

All of the shootings have been ruled justified, which prompted charges by critics that authorities have failed to investigate the shootings adequately. That assertion is denied by the San Diego County district attorney’s office, which reviews all shootings involving law enforcement officers.

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Police maintain that the two most recent victims were suspected of being bandits and were shot near the border fence as they attempted to rob the police patrol. The shooting was done by three agents of the U. S. Border Patrol assigned to the police unit. All participating officers in the unit volunteer for the assignment.

The controversy is the latest to dog the unit, which is assigned to patrol the canyons, mesa tops, river bottoms and other rugged terrain between Tijuana and San Diego, the entry point into the United States for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens each year. The unit, modeled on a similar patrol that was disbanded in 1978 and chronicled in Joseph Wambaugh’s book “Lines and Shadows,” is designed to cut down on crime against the aliens by border bandits, who prey on the defenseless pollos (chickens), as the illegal border-crossers are known.

Thus, the unit is in the unique position of attempting to deter crime against people who are, by definition, lawbreakers. Furthermore, the officers patrol an area that is “probably the most dangerous police beat in the country,” in the words of San Diego Police Cmdr. Cal Krosch.

Officials say the patrol has been successful in reducing the crime rate against the undocumented immigrants. But critics maintain that the unit, although on a laudable mission, has been too quick to open fire.

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