The singer/guitarist was driving home from a mind-clearing cruise along the county's coastline when she noticed a vehicle tailing her. "A white Jeep began following me for a really long time," Mendez recounts during a lunch break from work. "We passed the downtown area and up into the hills. That's when and where he turned on his red-and-blue lights and decided to pull me over."
The white male approached the minivan--weathered by many DIY interstate tours over the years--and identified himself as Border Patrol. The musician says the agent, who had a badge hanging around his neck, spoke of people crossing the border and landing ashore on the beaches. News articles from late last month recall an incident in nearby Crystal Cove State Park, in which a woman reported seeing nearly a dozen or so people unload from a fishing boat that washed ashore. She couldn't definitively say what ethnicity they were, and authorities apparently never found them.
"We recognize there is a threat with the maritime smuggling," replied Border Patrol spokesman Steven Pitts when asked if there was an increase in patrol activity along the coastlines since the incident. A multi-agency task force--the Maritime Unified Command (MUC)--was created in April 2008 in response to those activities, he said, and the Border Patrol is one of those agencies. He would not confirm whether operations are being ramped up in 2011.
The conversation between Mendez and the man who identified himself as a Border Patrol agent continued. "He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was just driving around," she said. "He asked me if I had ever been arrested before, and I said no. He then asked to see my license, and I provided it. At that point, I asked him if I had done anything wrong, and the man said, 'No, not yet.'"
Authorities note that cars park at coordinated "drop-off" spots near coastal highways and freeways to pick up incoming undocumented immigrants. "That's another area we are looking at when there is intelligence," Pitts says. "I can't speak to the specific incident, and I can't really say if it's Border Patrol or not without the information in front of me. But we do have agents in the field in areas where we see an increase in maritime smuggling, and our agents act whenever there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion."
The Border Patrol agent that pulled over the local musician found no one in the minivan but the driver herself. That fact didn't end the encounter, however. "He went back to his patrol vehicle, and another vehicle pulled up," Mendez said. "I overheard two men discussing searching my car for marijuana.
"The agent returned, came up to me and asked me if it was okay to search my vehicle," she adds. "I gave him permission, and he opened my bag, which was filled with clothes that I was going to donate. Then he saw my blue suitcase. I told him I am a musician, and I stored my guitar cables in there.
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"He asked me once more if I had ever been arrested, and then finally let me go."
Even though Mendez was pulled over in the dark, early-morning hours, she contends she was racially profiled. "I'm pretty sure he got a look at me before pulling me over because he drove parallel to me in the next lane, going at the same speed, through the well-lit downtown area of Laguna Beach," the singer says. "The nightlife was still out and about."
In response to the experience, Mendez has called and left messages about the incident with Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig, as well as city council members, in order to inform them of what happened. The ordeal earlier this week still brings up feelings of anger and frustration for her. "I was really upset throughout the whole scenario," Mendez says. "Laguna Beach, I love that place.
"If I go back, I'm going to feel like people are watching me."