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On a moonless night, chosen for that reason, I was with some guys in my SWAT Team that were temporarily working the Border Crime Prevention Unit (BCPU). That was in, January, 1986. My name is, Dan Berglund. I was there particularly to familiarize some new SWAT Sergeants with night tactics experience...how to move and direct operations at night and in "the bush". I was then the Commanding Officer of the San Diego Police SWAT Team.
We were miles back into the bush...deep into what is called "bandit country". The border between San Diego and Mexico is the busiest border in the world. We were watching "illegals" move across the border, using night viewing devices. We were making our way through an area called "Robbers Gulch". We were on high alert...you get jumped by bandits in this area frequently. We made it through "Robber's Gulch" to the other side. We were divided into three teams: Charlie was on the high ground, Alpha was our "point", Bravo bought up the rear. I was with Bravo. So, we're moving through the canyons. It was dark as hell. My radio wasn't working too well. All of a sudden, I see movement.
Author’s note: The area Dan was in and involved in field training is dotted with countless places with names like Robbers Gulch. The Southern California/Mexico border is the heaviest legally crossed border worldwide. It is, as well, the heaviest illegally crossed border worldwide, and especially where Dan was that night. The place-names in this particular area originate from past crime scenes or, more often, places of ongoing crimes. So, who’s robbing who out there in the middle of the night, way back in the bush…miles from a town or highway? Mexican crooks are ambushing the groups of illegally crossing Mexican men and women, then robbing, raping, and, of course, killing some. The robbery profits can be high, but so are the risks: San Diego police and/or Border Patrol Officers are usually in the area. High profits? The “illegals” carry only cash for their trip north. Some are carrying well over $1,000, and always in U.S. currency. Multiply that by the 8-10 in a typical “group” of “illegals”! Most groups have a “Coyote”, the guide or, in our definition, a human traffic smuggler. Of course, because of the high profits, many of the Coyote’s are in partnership with the Bandits. The first San Diego Police “robbery suppression” effort in this backcountry area was in 1976. The Team was know as, BARF, Border Area Robbery Force. They were not SWAT, but trained by our team. The first 13 nights of BARF Operations resulted in nightly shootouts with DOA bandits every night. That period and the border action was the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s book, “Lines and Shadows”.
We all stood upright to see better over the bushes. Alpha relayed, Bandits...25 yards… at three o'clock. They had spotted us, too. The Bandits "froze", then disappeared. My team, Bravo, moved toward Alpha. Then, I could see the bandits moving through the brush. Suddenly, Bravo was separated from Alpha and Charlie. So, because I was on Point, I decided to move Bravo toward a trail called Mike's Trail, near "Robbers Bush”, That’s Robbers Bush not Robbers Gulch. We lost sight of the bandits again. Suddenly the night lit up with gunfire. I hit the deck...had my head buried in a little indentation in the ground...dirt was flying all over me. The Border Patrol Agent with us, they’re always with us in this backcountry, yelled, I'm hit! I'm hit! He was...in the abdomen, but his vest stopped it. I was also hit, in the chest, but my vest also stopped it. I shouted, Stay down…pop flare! The flare went up...now the place is really lit up.
I yelled back, Stay put, I'm moving forward! I started moving up through the brush...first saw a guy lying on the ground...crumpled on his side...no movement. I moved up on him. He had a gun in his hand. He was DOA...one of the Bandits. It was now eerily quiet and dark again, over as quickly as it started. The bandits had slipped away, leaving one of their gang.
This is what happened...the Bandits got between Alpha and Bravo teams. When the shooting started, Alpha and Bravo were shooting at the bandits and each other.
Our new sergeants in SWAT must acquire a new mindset…new for even seasoned cops of which all SWAT Sergeants are…that’s why these new sergeants were with me that night. They must get beyond fear of being shot themselves. In place of that fear, a natural one, they must first fear a botched mission, and their men being injured due to their negligent leadership. Many of us in SWAT were Marines, so you can see the similarity in leading SWAT Officers and leading Marines. SWAT Sergeants place their mission and their men above all. SWAT training for new sergeants practically begins with this admonition: ‘…your call-outs (respond to a mission) will rarely not involve gunshots at someone. Your duty is for your team to survive, and complete the mission”.
During my tenure as commanding officer, we had 95 missions in two years. Some involved serious shooting; most involved suspects who gave up…once they realized SWAT had their scene sealed. That’s pretty much SOP for crooks; they’re tough guys until the professionals show up; then they have an attitude change.