‘We Work Alone’—Tales From a Retired Border Patrol Agent

By Chris Karr
Chris Karr
Chris Karr
Chris Karr is a California-based reporter for the The Epoch Times. He has been writing for 20 years. His articles, features, reviews, interviews, and essays have been published in a variety of online periodicals.
April 30, 2020Updated: May 4, 2020

Patrolling the U.S. border is a dangerous job, and agents often work solo.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time, we work alone. You could be 50 miles out in nowhere land and you’re by yourself,” Chris Harris, a retired U.S. Border Patrol Agent, told The Epoch Times.

“I don’t think people get how, in a lot of areas we work, we’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

During the 22 years that he spent as an agent patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, San Diego resident Harris, 55, had more than a few close calls. And when you’re on your own in a dangerous situation, Harris explained, you have to depend on the training you received from the academy.

“When you’re trying to take down a group of 30 [by yourself], you had better look good, you better look sharp, you better convince them within seconds that you run the show,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re going to get hurt or killed.”

“They call it ‘officer presence,’” he added.

When Harris found himself in a particularly dangerous situation in 2001, it was officer presence—and a bit of luck—that saved his life.

‘This is not going well’

When Harris was stationed in Douglas, a small town in the southeast corner of Arizona, he was instructed to look out for activity along the border.

Relying on a hand-drawn map, he proceeded down a dirt road known as Ghost Town Trail. He heard dispatch report a large construction truck nearby crossing into the United States illegally.

Harris spotted the truck. “I get behind them and I light ‘em up, [but] they don’t stop,” he recalled. “Then it gets to the point where we’re just driving through clouds of dust and they veer to the side and … try to run me off the road.”

After a bit of a chase, the truck did pull over. When Harris walked up to it, the driver’s side door was open and the driver’s seat was empty. But two people were sitting on the passenger side in front.

“In border patrol, you’re always looking at the ground because you’re trained to look for signs, for tracks. There’s no tracks leading from that door,” he said, suggesting the driver did not leave the vehicle.

“So the driver just opened the door and slid over next to the passenger, because he didn’t want to get caught as the load driver.”

When the passenger closest to the driver’s seat denied being the driver, Harris said, “Dude, I know you’re the driver. I don’t care. We’re not going to set you up for prosecution. Just so you don’t think I’m stupid: I know you’re the driver, but I don’t care.”

Harris went to the rear of the truck, removed the tarp, and discovered 30 people in the back.

“So I get everybody out, I get them on the ground on the side of this dirt road,” he said. “Then I’m trying to call for somebody to come out with a van to transfer these people back to the station for processing. Nobody can hear me on the radio.”

“These guys start seeing that nobody could hear me.” That’s when things got tense.

Harris heard one of the men say in Spanish, “Hey, we can take him.”

“So I just grabbed him, slammed him into the car, handcuffed him, and threw him into the back of my ride,” Harris said. “Then a second guy gets up and does the same thing, so I do the same thing with him. I’m like, this is not going well.”

“All of a sudden, a UPS truck goes driving by. I flag the guy down, he’s got this old cell phone [that] you have to pull the antenna out [of], and thankfully I was able to get in touch with someone from the station and they sent a couple vans out.”

Officer presence and luck—Harris’s saviors in a one-against-30 encounter.

Epoch Times Photo
Chris Harris (Courtesy of Chris Harris)

‘You need barriers’

In 2000, Harris was sent on a detail to Ajo, Arizona, where agents “were getting overrun” with problems at the border. He was assigned to the south end of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation that straddles the border.

“Instead of having three or four partners in the area, I had none,” Harris remembers.

He was monitoring a section of a three-strand barbed wire fence that had an opening with a dirt road running through it.

“I was sitting on a little overlook waiting to see if anybody did what’s called a drive-through, [where they] just drive right through with people or narcotics,” he said.

“And sure enough, a convoy of three SUVs—if I remember correctly, they were all white—came roaring through; they looked like they were heavily laden.”

Harris raced toward them along a semi-parallel road that intersected before the fence. He was going to get behind them, but then they flipped a quick U-turn and sped toward him.

At that moment, he had two distinct thoughts—neither of which was comforting.

First, he thought, “they’re not going to stop.” Second, it occurred to him that he was 50 miles from his nearest backup.

“Worse than that, I was 50 miles from the nearest medical attention,” he said.

“I [thought], they’re just going to shoot me down and leave me there and I’m going to bleed out before anybody can help me.”

“I slammed on my brakes, I skidded to a stop about 25 yards before I intersected with them, and they just went racing past me back into Mexico,” he said.

“I succeeded in the fact that no narcotics came into the United States.”

Harris “was fairly new to patrol” at that time.” He worked border patrol from 1996 to his retirement in 2018. Before starting on border patrol, he had worked as a police officer and detective in Orange County, New York.

He explained that he learned a major lesson about border security that day by the fence opening in Ajo.

“You need barriers,” he said. “There was absolutely no barrier there. So you need infrastructure.” Even the barbed wire fence, though it wasn’t the “be-all and end-all” of barriers, he said, acted as a deterrent.

But with an opening and road running through it, that was an easy in for the SUVs.

Epoch Times Photo
A Border Patrol vehicle is parked next to a section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence as it ends at El Nido de las Aguilas, eastern Tijuana, Baja California state, on March 26, 2019. (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)

“If there’d been a barrier there, they couldn’t have easily just driven right through nonchalantly,” he said. “Without barriers and infrastructure, [it’s] easy to just flood narcotics into this country.”

‘Most scared I’ve ever been’

Harris recalled the time he was “probably the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.” It was a night when he was stationed in Douglas.

He received intel that drug dealers were transporting narcotics across the border in duffel bags. As he was “dragging,” or observing, a road west of town for activity, he came across footprints and marks left by a duffel bag.

He turned on his flashlight and held it low, covering the lens with his fingers so only a thin beam of light peeked through onto the ground.

As quietly as possible, he made his way through yard after yard of high grass. He followed the markings for about fifteen minutes, at which point he found himself in a densely wooded area.

He began to hear voices and a clinking noise that sounded like a weapon. He noticed what appeared to be flickers from a flashlight up ahead.

He moved deeper into the woods, determined “to make a good narcotics arrest. I get a little more tenacious when I get nervous because I don’t want to give up on something,” he said.

Early in his career, a supervisor once told him that he’s “just a speed bump” in the process; he could only do so much to prevent illegal activity at the border. “I didn’t like [being told that],” Harris said. “I didn’t want to be a speed bump. I wanted to be effective.”

Nervous, but determined, he groped his way through. Then, “all of a sudden it hits me,” Harris said.

“I’m in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how many of these people there are, it’s dark, and I have no idea what kind of weapons they have. All I have with me is my pistol.”

“So I freeze. I’m trying to keep my breathing low, I’m just trying to make no noise as I’m slowly—you can’t believe how slowly—reaching for my pistol, and I’m going to try to draw it as quietly as possible.”

“I’m just praying they don’t have automatic weapons,” he said. “I was like, ‘Lord, I will accept pistols. I will deal with that, just please not automatic weapons, because then I won’t have a chance.’”

“I really did think this is ‘all she wrote’ for Chris,” Harris said.

He crouched behind a tree for cover and pointed his flashlight in the direction where he heard the noise.

That’s when he was hit with—“a flood of relief.”

“There was absolutely nothing there,” he said.

“I don’t know what made the clanking noise, [but] the flashes of light that I thought were the flashlights were from [headlights of cars driving along] a road that was several miles away.”

He’d faced real danger so many times, yet the scariest moment in his life was just a trick of his imagination.

To this day, Harris says he can’t even bring himself to laugh about it.

“I can smile a little bit and grin about it, but it still doesn’t make me laugh,” he said. “Because it was an unpleasant feeling. It was funny. In kind of a morbid way.”

Life After Border Patrol

Now that he’s retired, Harris has earned himself time to relax.

He likes to cook, sit by the pool, and enjoy the occasional “adult beverage.” He loves spending time with his wife, whom he refers to as his best friend.

He’s an avid reader who gravitates toward military and detective fiction. His favorite go-to TV shows include reruns of “That 70s Show” (“It’s very true to life, it’s how I grew up”), the “Big Bang Theory,” and—believe it or not—“SpongeBob SquarePants.”

There’s a story behind that.

While on duty, Harris suffered a traumatic brain injury when an assailant hit him on the head with a rock. He was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered from panic attacks. At times, his headaches were so powerful that he would vomit.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he remembers. “So I would just put SpongeBob on and he doesn’t ask for much. I don’t usually watch crime stuff. I don’t like [to watch] a lot of real heavy, serious stuff. I want things a little lighter.”

Though relaxation comes fairly easily to Harris, faint whispers of the tension associated with his former career remain.

“It’s not every day, [but] there are days where I feel anxious,” he admits. “Like [I’m] waiting for the other shoe to drop, like something bad’s gonna happen.”

“[At night] I make sure all the doors are double-locked,” he said. “I walk around the house checking everything. So that’s all from law enforcement.”

“It was a good career,” he added. “[But] would I do it over again? I don’t know.”