“This is Ajo station calling Alpha 475. Agent Bowers, please respond.”
“Go for Alpha 475.”
“We have a situation at Crater Range. We have received a 911 report from Pima County Dispatch. Two hikers report finding a badly injured female Hispanic huddled under a ledge. Are you available to respond?”
“Ajo Station, I will respond. Show me being in route. ETA 30 minutes with Alpha 359, Agent Martin Hardcastle.”
“Well, Hardcastle, since the injured party is female, protocol mandates I stay with her. She may need to be coptered out, but the medics can make that decision. You get to deal with the hunters if that’s what they are.”
“Yeah, lucky me. Not likely she was alone. Either the so-called hikers are also illegals, or her companions are hoofing it back to the border.”
Mandy Bowers and Martin Hardcastle, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Tucson Sector, were currently working out of the Ajo Border Patrol Station. The Ajo Station area of responsibility encompasses eight thousand square miles of vast desert, including portions of the Organ Pipe National Monument, the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Department of Defense Barry Goldwater Range.
Bowers and Hardcastle were experienced in tracking drug and human traffickers. They operated an older Dodge Ram 2500 that had seen its better days from driving across the bumpy roads of the desert. Bowers, a senior agent supervisor, was a tough female who had paid her dues in a predominantly male law enforcement environment. Both were proficient in Spanish, but Hardcastle could never quite get the grammar.
When a group of suspected illegals was spotted by helicopter or MSC radar, agents on the ground were notified to intercept and detain. Most illegals were too scared to offer more than token resistance, but their coyotes or guides sometimes pulled guns or knives and fought back. However, by the time a party of illegals was as deep into the Arizona desert as the injured Hispanic’s current location, they were usually on their own. Their guides would be long gone back to the Mexican side of the border awaiting the next group to be smuggled across.
Most of these illegals were seeking work and a better life, but a not insignificant number offered more risk and danger to law enforcement. These were the human mules carrying narcotics to supply the insatiable thirst of addicts for that next high. These carriers, the lowest and most expendable rung on the drug cartel depth chart, were less predictable.
The least hazardous scenario for the border patrol, one that avoided direct confrontation, was advance notice to the mules that agents were nearby and closing in. These warnings were signaled from the cartel’s own spotters, some hundred and fifty strong, parked on mountain lookouts in the southern Arizona terrain. The mule’s best option was to abandon his pack and hotfoot it back to the border. The lost drugs were chalked up as part of the expense of doing business and figured into the street price to consumers. The downside for the agent was the missed opportunity to make a legal and hopefully productive arrest.
The walkie-talkie burped. A message from Ajo Station. “Just got an update. The pair are staying with the injured Chiquita. One is fluid in Spanish and has learned that she was with two amigos, purportedly making the journey to apply for asylum. Not carrying narcotics, she maintains, but that’s likely bullshit. So, approach with caution.”
“Ten-four. These guys have more cojones than sense staying with her,” Hardcastle opined.
“Yeah, wonder what their story is?” Bowers responded. “They obviously have ignored the posted signs along State Route 85. But a lucky break for us. Be even better if they are as innocent as advertised.”
“Well, we’ll soon find out. Almost there.”
They exited their vehicle on the opposite side of Crater Range. Hardcastle took cover from a hidden crevice in the rocks while Bowers approached. Her call as the senior agent, she likely chose herself for the approach because the suspect was female. The two hikers were sitting in the mid-morning sun, exuding casual in loose cotton trousers and long-sleeved shirts. These guys gave off the vibes of desert veterans more concerned with harmful rays than comfort.
“Hi. You from border patrol?”
“In the flesh. I’m Bowers and my partner is Hardcastle.”
Hardcastle stepped out from his cover. Although the agents would go with overt friendliness, they would be on the alert for any suspicious moves by either of the pair. However, they did request that the pair wait for a search and rescue team that would arrive shortly. Would they mind being interviewed?
The agents’ first objective would be seeing to the injured woman and checking for the possibility of abandoned contraband. Tracking down the other two illegals would likely be a task for the helicopter or for other agents on three-wheel ATV’s or horseback.
Bowers attended to the woman while keeping an eye on the pair. She had determined that the woman had a compound fracture of her lower fibula. The bone had pierced the skin and her foot was at almost a right angle from the lower leg. She was also suffering from a possible concussion from a head wound.
Obviously in great pain, she had managed to convey that she had fallen while she and her two companions, one being her brother, were scrambling from an arroyo. Her brother had walked her to this resting place where they left her to get help. Bowers did not buy this last bit. They were more likely headed back to the border. In any case, she required urgent medical care. She also looked badly de-hydrated from a journey of at least several days.
Bowers radioed Ajo that the injured woman would require Medivac while Hardcastle searched the area for evidence of the other two. He followed two pairs of footprints pointed south for approximately a hundred feet to where they descended into an arroyo.
A good eight feet deep with steep sides, it offered concealment to desert trekkers more interested in avoiding exposure than in easy, unimpeded walking. He found the backpack in the arroyo hidden in some mesquite bushes a hundred yards to the south. Inside were some bricks of marijuana and a bag of brownish white powder which Hardcastle recognized as heroin. This baggie would not find its way into an agent’s private stash, although not all agents were as scrupulously honest as Hardcastle.
He returned to the formation, where he found Bowers comforting the woman. The two hikers were still glued to a sitting position and sharing small talk seemingly oblivious to being in a veritable war zone under cartel control. What the hell were they doing there, anyway?
The relief team arrived ten minutes later. A medivac helicopter set down. Two first responders with air-lift supplies emerged and hurried to their victim. Bowers moved away to give them working room and walked over to where Hardcastle had engaged the hikers.
The hiker guys asked about the backpack, phrasing their interest as simply idle curiosity. Hardcastle said sorry, but he was not able to disclose the contents as he himself had not inspected the pack prior to it being officially processed. This minor deception was per protocol. “Likely nothing earthshaking,” he added.
The hikers offered that they had hiked in this area over the last couple of years. It wasn’t uncommon to see illegals in the area during a hike, and they were always on alert because the area was a well-known drug smuggling corridor. The hikers came across the woman and could see two males heading south in the distance. They determined the woman was severely injured and contacted 911.
Because the injured person was female, Agent Bowers would have to remain with her as she was transported out of the area. It was common practice for female Border Patrol Agents to be paired with female illegals while they were under guard.
Agent Bowers, the medivac crew and the injured woman were coptered to the Regional Hospital in Buckeye, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix fifteen miles west on I-10.
Agent Hardcastle broke away from the incident scene and began tracking the two male illegals on foot. He radioed for assistance for an agent on ATV, as his SUV was useless in the uneven desert terrain. By then the illegals had at least an hour lead on any pursuit so Hardcastle would have to make up some serious time.
After twenty minutes on foot, Hardcastle finally connected with Alpha 264, Border Patrol Agent Jason Rodriguez who was operating an ATV 4X4. Meanwhile, Hardcastle had tracked footprints indicating the males were continuing to head south towards the Mexican Border. If they were successful in reaching the border, they would be free to regroup and return another day.
Hardcastle jumped on the back of Agent Rodriguez’s ATV and they sped south. With the border in sight and tantalizingly close, the illegals could hear the engine of the ATV, and realized they could not outrun it on foot.
One of the illegals, armed with rifle and handgun, opted for an ambush. He handed his gun to his companion and pointed them to higher terrain. When the ATV closed in, the illegal with the rifle fired a shot that hit Rodriguez. He could not maintain control, causing the ATV to crash. Both illegals continued to fire from their positions, but with both agents hugging the ground they were no longer easy targets.
Hardcastle, an expert marksman with combat experience, took up a crouched position behind the wrecked ATV. This afforded him the necessary cover to return fire. Hardcastle was carrying the standard Border Patrol issued firearm a 40 S&W caliber H & K P2000 double action pistol that contained twelve rounds of ammunition, plus one in the chamber. He also had two additional clips of twelve rounds each. In a firefight, however, this was minimal firepower. He would need to conserve ammunition until backup arrived. Hardcastle radioed to Ajo Station and advised he was under fire.
The illegal with the rifle broke cover, probably seeking a better shot. Not a prudent course of action against an adversary of Hardcastle’s skill. He was able to take a bead on the illegal from about twenty-five yards, firing in double taps. With the fourth shot the illegal dropped and rolled down a small hill with the rifle dislodging along the way. Hardcastle could tell the illegal was not moving and focused his fire upon the second illegal crouched behind a large outcropping of rocks.
Hardcastle approached the illegal, yelling “Abajo, abajo.” Hardcastle was ready to shoot if the illegal disobeyed his command but the man wisely chose to hit the ground and allow his wrists to be handcuffed behind his back. Hardcastle prodded him over to the ATV so that he could check on the status of Rodriguez.
Hardcastle saw that Rodriguez had taken a potentially lethal rifle shot in his thigh that had grazed the femur artery. He was in danger of bleeding out if Hardcastle didn’t act quickly. While keeping an eye on his captive, he first went over to check on the illegal with the rifle. Found that his target had taken two lethal bullets, one through the chest and the other through the neck, putting him permanently out of action.
Hardcastle double-timed it back to Rodriguez. The other illegal had not moved. Told him in Spanish to remain motionless or he’d be muerto like his companion. Hardcastle pulled a tourniquet from the ATV first-aid box. He placed it above Rodriguez’s thigh wound and applied pressure at the wound site.
About this time, a team of agents arrived and relieved Hardcastle. The surviving illegal was transported to the Ajo Station for processing and interrogating. He was fingerprinted and his fingerprints run through the TECS System used by Customs and Border Security (CBS) for primary and secondary processing. TECS is a potent information sharing platform and is the principal system used by CBS for screening and determining admissibility status of arriving persons.
The system allows agents to access a diverse number of records and databases relevant to the anti-terrorism and law enforcement mission of CBs. It also serves as a data repository that supports law enforcement in any number of areas.
The deceased illegal was also finger printed and his prints sent with the rescue team to Ajo Station. His identity turned out to be a shocker. He was none other than one Pedro Jimenez, born in Chihuahua, and the younger brother of Angel Jimenez, boss of the Penasco cartel.
The identity sent off alarm bells in the drug enforcement arm of Homeland Security. Why would this high-level guy be risking a desert encroachment into US territory? If it was for a meet with another cartel honcho, the usual transit would be in the reverse direction. The U.S. based cartel member would travel to Mexico. Agent speculation favored an arranged meeting with a U.S. citizen, possibly military.
The surviving male illegal was identified by TECS as Oscar Diaz. He had been deported twice previously and had spent time in US prison for drug smuggling. He was visibly nervous pacing in the holding cell, no doubt aware he was looking at serious time for his involvement in the attempted murder of a federal agent. The injured female was confirmed by the TECS system to be his sister, as she had disclosed to Bowers.
Because the incident involved firearms, Homeland Security in the Phoenix Field Office were notified. A team of agents was dispatched to the Ajo Station. These agents would conduct the formal and detailed investigation into the incident that led to wounding of a Border Patrol Agent and the death of the cartel figure. Their objective was to determine the real and unfolding consequences of what occurred in the remote desert of southern Arizona.
Among the responders was a skilled interrogator. Interrogating the surviving illegal was a critical first step in getting those answers.
Diaz was brought to an interview room equipped with a two-way mirror behind which was seated a team of attentive agents. Their most skilled interviewer would be conducting the interrogation. Given the status of the dead illegal, any obtainable information from the survivor could prove valuable.
The interrogator entered the room and saw that Diaz was looking scared, not at all portraying the tough guy pose that some detainees showed.
“Hola senor, mi nombre es agent Carlos Silvester. Y usted, por favor?”
While the interview was conducted in Spanish, much of the remainder is here translated into English.
The illegal made no answer. He looked down and slowly shook his head back and forth, perhaps pretending not to understand what was being asked.
The interrogator tried another tack. “Have you been treated well?”
He nodded his head as a “yes.” Then added, “I was offered a bottled water or a Pepsi.” He paused briefly, then added, “But not a cerveza.”
“No cerveza for now. We prefer you to keep a clear head when talking to us. First question. Do you understand why you’re here?”
“No se, senor,” he replied with a shrug. “I’m a simple farmer. The land is worn out, and my last crops failed. I am here looking for work.”
“I can understand, but then tell me why we found a backpack containing marijuana and almost a kilo of brown heroin among your things?”
“I know nothing about this. The drugs were not mine. I met the other two on my journey. I do not know them. I was carrying the pack for the senorita. She was loco from the sun, so I offered to carry it.”
“Well, that may be true. But the senorita, your sister…”
“My sister?” Diaz made a show of surprise, but one hardly convincing to the trained interviewer.
“Yes, your sister, not a woman you happened to encounter like you first told us. Did you know that she was carrying a kilo of heroin hidden on her person?”
Diaz feigned a look of surprise.
“Please don’t lie to us. That will only make your situation worse. The deceased man lives in a mansion a few miles from your village. His brother is well-known. It would be very helpful to your situation if you could tell us more about him.”
Diaz looked visibly shaken as he was not an accomplished liar, only useful for transporting contraband as long as he was not caught. His previous detainment had cost him a year of freedom and subsequent deportation.
“If you answer our questions truthfully, you will not only help yourself, but also your sister. You don’t want bad things to happen to her, do you?”
Diaz shook his head, finally saying, “I will tell you what I know, but you must protect us. I can tell you things that will earn us a death sentence from the cartel.”
Following his capitulation, Diaz proved to be a forthcoming and valuable witness. Concern for his sister, with the prospect of leniency and an agreement of protective custody and witness protection, were persuasive in eliciting this cooperation.
The interview yielded information about the deceased cartel member and a hint of why he was personally accompanying Diaz. “The capo mentioned a bigshot military guy in the cartel’s pocket, but I don’t remember the exact name. It started with Major.”
Hmm. Likely his rank, the interrogator surmised. What was his relation to the cartel? Is he really in their pocket?
Clearly, the incident at Crater Rocks raised questions beyond the usual interdiction. A transcript of the interview was immediately circulated among the brass of the Tucson Sector. The brass suspected this was bigger than air force grunts smuggling a few grams of coke in their travel bags.