In 1988, four Mexican military troops with automatic weapons 'invaded' San Diego. I was there.

On Sunday, March 13, 1988, at 10:25 P.M., four Mexican military troops wearing camouflage uniforms and brandishing automatic weapons penetrated a mile and a half into U.S. territory south of San Diego, Calif. Their entry point was an unfenced stretch of beach that separated Playas de Tijuana (Tijuana Beach), Mexico from Imperial Beach, Calif. Within sight of the first group of American residential condominiums at the end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach, the Mexicans accosted a group of a dozen Americans who were picnicking on the beach, pointing their loaded machine guns at the picnickers and ordering them to lie flat on the ground.

Before the tense situation could escalate any further, the group was spooked by a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter that spotted the incursion and landed on the beach. The Mexicans headed south but were arrested and taken into custody before they could reach the border. The American picnickers scattered into the night.

The local media got hold of the story the next day and it became a dramatic local lead story for about six hours. San Diego’s three network television affiliates began reporting the “invasion,” as two of them termed it, on their 5 P.M. newscasts on Monday, March 14. The story was also reported in print, in the San Diego Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and in several Associated Press accounts.

U.S.-Mexico border looking north toward Imperial Beach, Calif. 2019

The fence along the beach that’s there now was not present in 1988

U.S. government satellite photo ©  Google

Within 24 hours of the first media accounts appearing on March 14, 1988, the story disappeared and was never mentioned again – until I recollected it after reading about an analogous incident on April 13, 2019 in Texas. In that recent case, reported by Newsweek on April 19 and tweeted by President Trump on April 24, “five or six” Mexican troops armed with assault rifles crossed the Rio Grande and entered U.S. territory. There, they accosted two U.S. National Guard troops who were assisting the United States Border Patrol. One of the two Americans who was carrying a handgun was disarmed by the Mexicans. After a short time, the American prisoners were released by their captors and went on their way. The incident might never have come to light had Newsweek not gotten a copy of an incident report and published a story online six days after the event.

President Trump singled out the incident to highlight the ongoing crisis on the border. On April 24, he tweeted:

Mexico’s Soldiers recently pulled guns on our National Guard Soldiers, probably as a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers on the Border. Better not happen again! We are now sending ARMED SOLDIERS to the Border.

In response to President Trump’s tweet, CBS News, also on April 24, ran a story with the headline “Trump says U.S. is sending ‘ARMED SOLDIERS’ to border, claims [emphasis added] Mexican troops ‘pulled guns on’ National Guard.” CBS appeared to raise some doubt about the accuracy of the POTUS’s tweet: “It was unclear what incident Mr. Trump was referring to when he said Mexican soldiers ‘pulled guns.’” But then CBS went on to say: “But Newsweek reported last week, citing an [sic] serious incident report, that members of the Mexican military briefly held two U.S. Army soldiers at gunpoint earlier this month, believing the soldiers had crossed into Mexican territory.”

In an editorial on April 26, the Christian Science Monitor took President Trump to task for his tweet about the April 13 incursion.

It’s disappointing that President Trump continues to pelt our southern neighbor with demands and threats.

The president on Wednesday issued a series of tweets regarding a recent confrontation between U.S. and Mexican military personnel....

The missives apparently are a response to an incident earlier this month in which Mexican soldiers confronted U.S. soldiers in a remote area along the border. U.S. Northern Command, which oversees our military deployment to the border, attributed the incident to confusion over the location, which was in U.S. territory but south of the border wall. . .

Confronting armed encroachment...  is necessary, although they are sensitive matters that must be handled tactfully. Calling attention to obviously unintended confrontations is unnecessary, and rattling sabers over them is inappropriate.

The minimal coverage of the April 13, 2019 border incident made no specific mention of any previous ones, including the serious 1988 incursion in San Diego.

An eyewitness account – my own – to the 1988 invasion

I was there that night in Imperial Beach, 31 years ago, when four Mexican military troops penetrated the U.S. At the time, I was doing some reporting on issues in the border area. I was therefore familiar with the cat and mouse game that went on at all hours of the day and night between U.S. Border Patrol agents and thousands of illegal aliens every month who made their way north largely unimpeded along the beach into the U.S. Most of the illegals managed to avoid detection and arrest and quickly disappeared into the country.

In the journal I was keeping at the time, I wrote:

10:25 P.M. [March 13, 1988] – a Border Patrol helicopter is circling – spotlighting a group running this way on beach, but they’re picnickers. 4 figures were heading in the opposite direction. A helicopter landed, corralling the 4, apparently wearing fatigues. Many border patrol agents arrived, some took off on the dunes with flashlights. A 2nd helicopter appeared. A flashlit party wound its way with the prisoners. I stepped out to the street and counted 15 cop vehicles – Border Patrol, Sheriff clogging this end of the street – a cul de sac. 10 aliens were captured, 4 in fatigues. After the excitement, the area returned to calm.

X marks the spot: On March 13, 1988 the Mexican military got this far into Imperial Beach, Calif. 1½ miles north of the international border

U.S. government satellite photo © Google

In the 1988 incident, initial reports of what the Mexican military troops were doing in the U.S. were conflicting. One of the first print press accounts by the AP datelined March 14, 1988, was headlined “Four Mexicans Arrested After Interrogating Americans North of Border:”

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. _ Four armed Mexican naval personnel who said they were pursuing drug smugglers apparently interrogated a group of American picnickers on a beach more than a half mile north of the U.S.-Mexican border, authorities said.

The four Mexicans were arrested Sunday night, said San Diego County sheriff’s Sgt. Bob Ramirez.

The four men, whose names were being withheld, interrogated a group of 10 to 15 U.S. citizens who were picnicking on the beach, said Dale Cozart, chief agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego.

“It’s a very serious situation,” Cozart said today. “Our investigation is not complete at this time, but it’s possible the Americans were being interrogated against their will.”

Border Patrol agents scanning the area in a helicopter spotted the four men dressed in Mexican naval infantry uniforms and armed with fully loaded automatic rifles, Cozart said. The weapons were standard military issue, he added.

“Initial statements taken were that they were pursuing narcotics smugglers. But that has not been confirmed and there is no indication that narcotics were being smuggled in the area at the time,” Cozart said.

On Tuesday, March 15, the Los Angeles Times published an article by its reporter H.G. Reza which turned out to be the last published word on the subject. By then, the story had been watered down and its importance minimized.

Four Mexican marines in uniform and armed with loaded assault rifles were arrested on a beach south of here after they had walked about 1½ miles into U.S. territory and were spotted talking to a group of beach-goers, Border Patrol officials said Monday.

The arrests occurred at about 10:30 p.m. Sunday after a Border Patrol helicopter spotted them in Imperial Beach talking with about 15 people described as picnickers. [emphasis added.]

Border Patrol spokesman Mike Nicley said that the border area where the Mexicans crossed is clearly marked and charged that the Mexicans intentionally crossed the border illegally.

Harold Ezell, Immigration and Naturalization Service Western regional commissioner, said that the marines were repatriated at 5:30 p.m. Monday to a Mexican marine officer. The men and their weapons were turned over to the custody of Capt. Nemesio Ramon Matus, who apologized for the incident and said it was unintentional, Ezell said.

“The men (marines) were very courteous and conducted themselves very well. Capt. Matus was extremely sincere in his statement and said this will not happen again,” Ezell said.

Another article by Reza, also dated March 15, which may have been published in another edition of the Los Angeles Times, contained this sentence:

Despite initial allegations by the Border Patrol that the men crossed the border deliberately, Ezell said U.S. authorities accepted the Mexican government’s explanation that the incident was unintentional [emphasis added].

I remember at the time – having witnessed the events myself as they were unfolding – that the story seemed to go away too quickly. There was never confirmation and a satisfactory explanation of what had taken place and, most importantly, why the Mexican troops and their weapons were returned to Mexico eighteen hours after their arrest without further investigation.

Bill Redeker reports the border incursion, KTTV Los Angeles News at 10 March 14, 1988

KTTV channel 11 in Los Angeles led its 10 P.M. newscast Monday evening, 24 hours after the incident took place, with the story. “There are conflicting reports about what the soldiers were doing in the United States,” co-anchor Bill Redeker said in introducing the story. Reporter Tony Valdez, reporting from on the scene, said “The four young men are members of Mexico’s naval infantry, the equivalent of our Marines. Some of them told Border Patrol agents they were chasing suspected drug traffickers. Others said they were after gun smugglers.”

On the San Diego television news accounts of the incident, it was reported initially that U.S. authorities were trying to find the picnickers who were, as the AP account said, “interrogated” by the gun-wielding Mexican military. They never located them, either due to lack of interest or because the potentially embarrassing diplomatic situation had already been resolved at a higher level and needed to be downplayed.

Screen shot of Larry Roberts, KGTV News anchor-reporter, on the air in the 1980s

Only one newsman, Larry Roberts, an intrepid reporter and anchor at KGTV channel 10, the ABC network affiliate in San Diego, tracked down a number of the picnickers. Twenty-one hours after the original incident, Roberts and a camera crew returned to the scene on the beach with the witnesses and staged a re-enactment of Sunday night’s events. I was present at the re-enactment, and was able to interview several of the witnesses myself.

Quoting from the notes I took that evening:

“8 P.M. saw a camera crew and people re-enacting last night’s events… Walked out to the beach. It was Larry Roberts of channel 10 and some of the picnickers from last night. After they finished their filming they were conversational. One of the picnickers, all [of them off-duty U.S.] military who lived in the area, said in fact they were under the Mexicans’ guns. They came forward now, they said, to set straight [the] inaccuracies of tonight’s TV reports” [emphasis added].

Roberts’ account of the “invasion,” with video of the re-enactment, led channel 10’s newscast Monday night March 14 at 11 P.M. After that, the story – including the witnesses’ accounts – disappeared from the media.

Fortunately, I recorded several of the TV stations’ reports that day, March 14. They comprise an important part of the record of this event and, along with my handwritten notes from March 14, 1988, have helped me to refresh my memory of exactly what happened.

My takeaways:

1. The April 2019 incursion into U.S. territory by armed Mexican troops – who used their weapons to detain and search two members of the American military – is nothing new. This kind of thing goes back at least to 1988 in San Diego and 1986 in New Mexico, the latter event referenced in one of the 1988 AP articles.

2. The Federal Government has been downplaying these incursions and spiking the stories when they come to light and receive some coverage in local media. It is therefore impossible to know how often these kinds of events occur.

3. President Trump told the truth about the 2019 incursion in Texas and he was challenged by CBS News while most of the rest of the mainstream media did not even report the story.

4. A question raised by President Trump is valid: Are these recurring actions by Mexican military personnel part of a diversionary scheme to distract from scrutiny of illegal activities on U.S. soil?

5. Only one reporter in 1988 – Larry Roberts – got closer to the truth than anyone else, including the U.S. government, by tracking down and interviewing the American eyewitnesses to the Imperial Beach event. Roberts was employed by KGTV News starting in 1981 but he left the station in 1989.

Peter Barry Chowka writes about politics, media, popular culture, and health care for American Thinker and other publications. Peter's new website is  Follow him on Twitter at @pchowka.

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