My Last Night in the Arizona Desert Waiting for the Drug Cartel

With a fully loaded AR15 in my hands I looked into the desert and my imagination ran wild. Were those Saguaro or were those people. Was that sand drifting in the breeze or a Sidewinder at my feet.

There are no shadows in the desert at night. That’s one thing that I noticed when I was in the middle of the *Mojave Desert just a few miles from Death Valley. There also isn’t any water, no cool midnight breeze and nowhere to hide.

I had come to Arizona at the request of a client to cover the “border wars”; the conflict between the U.S. Border Patrol, undocumented aliens, the Mexican drug cartel and the “American Freedom Fighters” or volunteers who patrol areas along the border on a routine basis.

It was my second week in Arizona and also the second time I had the opportunity to go out on “night ops”. With me were four fully armed volunteers who were ready to intervene if smugglers for the Mexican drug cartel made an appearance and got too close.

I carried an AR15 just in case.

As the moon rose slowly over the mountains in the distance, it began to appear not as a bright headlight like it can in the Smokey Mountains, but rather a dim night light meant to just give off enough light to let you see your way in the dark but not so much as to create shadows.

It had been a quiet night. Occasionally two of the four volunteers that accompanied me would double check their water bottles which were attached to their uniform by a strap and a carbiner and walk into the desert. With two leaving and two staying behind I was never alone.

When we talked, it was just above a whisper. Standing shoulder to shoulder and facing opposite directions, our posture allowed us to keep our voices to a level just above the desert breeze and still watch the others back.

Cigarettes were lit behind the back tire of the truck and smoked with one hand curled around so that the red ember wouldn’t be seen by cartel spotters hidden along the ridge line of the mountain just in front of us.

A turn in the wrong direction or a spoken word said just one notch too loud could bring the firepower of the Los Zetas down on us and everyone was hyper alert. Within 3 miles of where we were sitting, three photojournalists had been found dead and butchered in the last four weeks. While the U.S. government and mainstream media reported the deaths happened closer to the border, the truth is more disconcerting.

The government tries to paint the picture of the border being the most dangerous, the truth is that the greater danger lies further into the interior.

The Border Patrol sits up their defensive line at some distance from the U.S./Mexican line in order to catch illegals and smugglers that come across. Too close and the Border Patrol has no one to stop the runners once they get into the “backfield”. Too far away and the group scatters into the dark night of the desert. The gunfire, the screams in the night don’t happen along the border, they happen in the middle of the desert – right about where we were sitting.

I looked at the volunteer standing in the bed of the pickup. He was fully armed with an AR15 just like the one I held and was weighted down with body armor. Wearing a kufiya over his nose and mouth to keep out the desert sand and night vision goggles to see before he was seen, he looked almost like a mannequin in an Army/Navy surplus store.

Silently, I lowered the tailgate of the truck and had a seat. As I sat there staring into the desert my thoughts began to wander and questions began to form.

Why didn’t Sheriff Arpaio bring his deputies into the desert where they could do the most good against the cartel? How many undocumented aliens were passing within a stone’s throw of where we sat? What were the spotters for the Mexican drug cartel thinking as they watched us in the desert? So many questions – and then one more.

As I remained motionless on the tailgate of the truck, behind me I heard the unmistakable sound of the AR15 magazine being moved into position. And then my final question.

Would the next sound I heard – if in fact I heard anything – be the last sound I would ever hear.

By Jerry Nelson