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Friday, Dec. 29, 2006| The car shook violently on the gravel road, clouds of dust rattling up behind it. The U.S.-Mexico border was somewhere up ahead, miles away in the unpaved distance.

But as we negotiated this anonymous vein of road south of Interstate 8, something stopped us in our dusty tracks.

A friend and I were in search of Blue Angels Peak, a rocky bump on our 1,951-mile border with Mexico. I believed the border there was unfenced, marked only by one of the 268 monolithic stone markers that trace the border from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. What a picture that would make.

But a man loomed in the middle of the road. Blank stare, scraggly face, bad-dude demeanor. He’d emerged onto the unmarked desert road east of Jacumba simply to stand in our way. Jacumba borders Jacume, Baja California, a place the Los Angeles Times earlier this year dubbed a “black hole” of human and drug smuggling.

We approached, clearly looking non-threatening – two youngsters, eager hikers in a Volvo station wagon – when my friend asked: “Is he holding something?”

He was.

In his grubby mitts he clutched a gigantic black pump shotgun. And he was staring through us. Not at us. It was as if we did not exist. But that gun surely did.

I waved. He didn’t blink. I turned around, slowly but nervously. Like a satisfied troll, he went back into his rusty trailer, to await another border-bound photograph-seeker.

This goes down as 2006’s Best Photograph That Never Happened.

Conflict was rife in 2006, both along the border and on my beat. Guns were too common. Verbal grenades – the types that drew gasps from stunned audience members and stern looks from public-relations managers – occasionally exploded.

A superlative look back at the year in conflict:

Best Standoff

It is June 5, 2006. In this corner, in the dark suit, San Diego City Councilman Tony Young. And in the far corner, wearing dress greens, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who commands most Marine bases west of the Mississippi.

Young, who sits on the airport authority, was supporting a proposal to move the region’s international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. He and Lehnert had already sparred. Three months earlier, Young had announced this: “I believe it in my heart as an American … the question is: ‘What do the people want for their city and for their nation?’ The military should act accordingly.”

Now, the airport authority is on the verge of voting to affirm what everyone in the room knows is coming. They are going to choose Miramar as the best place to put a new international airport. The military isn’t holding back in its criticism. Young reacts.

Young: “I understand there is going to be an expansion of work at Miramar. Is that what I heard?”

Lehnert: “The F-18 (fighter jet) will be phased out around 2035 and replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I assure you it will come with an engine and it will make noise.”

Young: “That’s very funny, general. … You’ve just made a lot of accusations about me personally.” (Lehnert had accused the airport board of predestining the results of the site-selection process.)

“I didn’t have any preconceived plans,” Young continued. “You don’t know me. I’m here to serve the people of San Diego.”

The audience let out a guttural groan.

Lehnert got in the last word, which was meant to discourage any thought that the military might someday change its mind and let Miramar become a civilian airport.

“Hope is not a viable course of action,” he said. “And that was not meant to be humorous, sir.”

Most Damaging Press Conference Gaffe

Sixteen media, six television cameras, a gaggle of curious air travelers and a group of senior airport officials greeted Joe Craver & Co. home from an airport authority trip to Washington.

They strode through Terminal One, baggage in tow. Lights flicked on. Questions flew at Craver, the airport authority’s former chairman.

Reporters could hardly hear him. Terminal One was awash in the airport’s frenzied sounds. Travelers were arriving and departing, baggage click-clacking past. Outside, traffic was chaotic. Inside, the public address system blared.

Through the noise, Craver addressed the meeting in generalities. It was productive and informative, he said. Then he let one specific detail slip out. He said the Navy “will cooperate with us.”

Trouble started. Reporters pressed him. Did that mean the Navy was going to listen to proposals to use a local military base as a civilian airport? Did it mean they’d cooperate with joint-use plans?

“To me cooperation means they will work with us,” Craver responded.

And that was serious trouble. Ted Sexton, the airport authority’s vice president of operations, symbolically drew his hand across his neck. The military had suggested no such thing.

Nine months later, the military was not cooperating (see Young v. Lehnert) and the authority’s three-year site-selection process and Miramar airport proposal were overwhelmingly rejected.

Most Conflicted Ribbon Cutting

Oscar Romo stood at the window of the van, delivering what sounded like a warning in a stern, paternal monotone. Romo, coastal training program coordinator for the Tijuana Estuary, had arranged a gun-toting police escort for a group of biologists, land planners and state officials headed to Tijuana for a ribbon-cutting.

Drug-fueled violence had escalated in Tijuana in the preceding weeks. In our van, we swapped details about the cops who had turned up dead. Would we be driving past the highway shoulder where one had been killed? The spot where 180 bullet casings were found?

For a ribbon-cutting?

Romo was succinct. The escort would have two police cars. Two police motorcycles.

“And an ambulance,” Romo said.

Sarah Emerson, our intrepid van driver, was aghast. She shrieked.

“An ambulance?!”

“Just in case,” Romo said.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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