The Lore of Manny Lopez
This onetime hero-in-blue, one of San Diego’s wildest icons, has segued into his 60s with an easy smile and a never-ending string of stories. Once the driving force behind the city’s Border Crime Task Force, now a private eye, Lopez is featured in an upcoming documentary.
IT’S 1970, AND LOS ANGELES IS IN FLAMES. A days-long anti-war demonstration has turned into a riot, and the police are targets. Manny Lopez, meanwhile—in his third year with the San Diego Police Department—has gone dirty. The American-born Spanish speaker with a quick smile and contagious laugh has infiltrated the Brown Berets (a Latino version of the Black Panthers) and almost accidentally worked himself into the organization’s third-ranking position.
But even rank doesn’t calm agitated nerves when a cop is that deep undercover.
“I thought to myself, ‘If something had happened to me tonight, nobody would have known.’ I mean, it would have taken several days for them to figure out I was even gone. Yet the more I did . . . you become confident in your ability to survive. I mean, it’s just you. You’re calling all the shots.”
Sitting with a small group of Brown Berets in a San Diego house, the night before driving to Los Angeles with a car full of grenades, rifles and kerosene, Lopez moves to pull something out of his jacket—and two Berets go for their weapons. The move illustrates how little Lopez is trusted. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose in the next room, as another batch of Berets confronts a member they believe is a cop (he isn’t). They beat the man and shoot him in the leg.
The following day, Lopez drives the group of Berets to the riot in his car—which is packed with weapons he doesn’t know about until the last moment. He’s able to leave one cryptic message for his superiors before pushing off. By the end of the weekend, he’ll be beaten by L.A. cops, jailed and later set free by officials in police intelligence. He’s not yet 25 years old.
IF THE NAME SOUNDS FAMILIAR, it’s probably because Lopez was the fiery and animated sergeant in charge of an elite undercover unit described in Lines and Shadows, Joseph Wambaugh’s best-selling 1984 book. That story follows Lopez’ Border Crime Task Force, manned by cops most sane people would call nuts. The cops themselves called it the Border Alien Robbery Force—BARF for short—which gave them their battle cry when they attacked the bad guys: “Barf! Barf! Barf!” Wambaugh paints them as good (albeit particularly animated) cops. They’re hard-drinking, women-loving gunslingers, and they’re tasked with crawling through the dark canyons separating San Diego and Tijuana, in search of bad guys.
The border was far more porous in the 1970s, and undocumented immigrants lined up nightly to make the trek across the line. It didn’t take strong arm bandits long to realize many of those immigrants carried their life savings with them. Robberies and rapes spiked in the area before then–San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender tasked Lopez with developing untried tactics to turn the tide. The position brought Lopez and his gun-wielding squad (who dressed as undocumented immigrants, setting themselves up as targets) to the attention of Wambaugh. It also earned Lopez top-cop honors for the entire nation, in 1978, from both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Parade Magazine.
A private investigator for the past 30 years, Lopez has a trove of riveting stories. There was the time he tracked down a serial burglar in Pacific Beach, only months after leaving the academy. Or the story about falling into a bust in New York City—on the trip to pick up his Cop of the Year award—taking a gun away from a perpetrator and being credited with a Gotham arrest (as one of his New York brethren exclaimed, “Manny got a colla!”).
The stories are so good and so plentiful, they raise philosophical and epistemological questions. Is a modern-day gunslinger’s life written before he’s born? Or are some people drawn to certain situations magnetically—the way Jim Morrison was drawn to trouble, or Cool Hand Luke to headbutting with authority? Lopez ponders the notion for a few moments before another story spills out—a near-death experience one would expect to offer some kind of arcane answers.
“The first guy I ever shot was a Mexican immigration official robbing aliens on the U.S. side,” Lopez says. “It was February 1, 1977, 5:30 in the afternoon, and he had a brown leather jacket on. Officer Joe Castillo and I are walking down this creek bottom, and we had reports there was this immigration official out there robbing aliens. We thought he was going to be in uniform—I mean, that’s the way I pictured it.
“So Castillo and I are walking out there, and all of a sudden we come around this little bend, and there’s a guy with a .45 and some short guy—his aide or something—standing there. We come around and the guy yells, ‘Migración!’ and points his gun at us. I think, ‘Oh, shit!’
“Our training was that you squat down, like the aliens do. So I squat down and I reach into my jacket,” Lopez continues. “That was the first day I wore a shoulder holster—another sergeant had loaned it to me. So I grabbed the gun, but the immigration guy doesn’t see it. He walks up to me and points his gun at me, real close. All of a sudden, things went into slow motion and . . . I left my body, to the left.
“Maybe it was because Castillo was to the right, I don’t know. But I went to the left, and I said to myself, ‘Too bad you’re going to die.’ And then I answered myself, ‘Yes, unless I do something.’ What happens when you’re about to die or suffer great bodily harm? Well, I think your mind does all this so you don’t feel the pain.
“At that moment, the guy turns to Castillo, and I pulled my gun and shot him five times—boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Down he goes, the other guy takes off, and Castillo goes after him. I grab his gun and there’s one in the chamber and it’s fully loaded, that little bastard.”
The Mexican immigration official survived (leaving Chief Kolender to sort out another of the hairy international incidents the Border Crime Task Force dumped on his desk). Lopez left unscathed (though he’d already been shot by a Mexican cop in another canyon-bound incident). Thirty years later, he’s left with strange nuances and unanswered questions. Why was it that he borrowed that holster on that day? And how was it that one man could fall into so many violent and absurd situations? They continued coming, long after he left the task force. It’s enough to make a person think about guiding forces and ephemeral connections with the afterlife.
But with the right set of ears and enough of those compelling stories, one begins to realize Lopez has had agency in that rich tapestry of his own narrative. In any given encounter, one is a spectator or a participant—and Lopez, a hands-on type of guy, is no spectator. It may have been fate that decided his ultimate outcome on many occasions, but it was Lopez who flipped the coin.
Now 61, he looks back with laughs and a sense of wonderment at all the close scrapes. Though still a P.I., he’s traded in existential coin-tossing for relaxed weekends at his vacation place in Big Bear, or time with his two best friends—his college-age grandsons. He’s remarried and has four grown children and a new office downtown. Most of his life is spent dealing with highbrow attorneys, the source of most of his work. Given the thinning hair and ubiquitous smile, the uninitiated might peg him for an everyday businessman.
But his legend has already been set in stone by Wambaugh, and now an amateur filmmaker is working on a documentary about the task force that will surely revive some of the lore (thelastofthegunslingers.com). Lopez, who knew from the age of 3 that he was going to be a cop, says if he had it to do all over again, he’d probably forgo the family life (that’s how they get you in the end, he says, by going after your family) and just be an ass-kicking good guy.