By Derek Turner
The silhouette of a man materialized now and then on a mountain ridge to the south. He watched them and they watched him. They knew his deal.
The Marines, atop their own mountain, could do nothing but ignore him. He was committing no crime, not yet, so his lingering was a mere curiosity. What the Marines were doing, beneath hard hats and aboard heavy machinery, surely complicated life for the man on the mountain.
Between his perch and theirs lay an imaginary line, the international border separating the United States, just west of downtown Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico, just west of a city of the same name in the state of Sonora.
The man is a spotter. His job is to climb the rocky Parrajatio Mountains and report back about activity that might thwart his coyotes or mules, border slang for those who smuggle people or drugs, respectively, into the United States.
Within the populated portion of Nogales sits a legal port of entry. To its east and west runs a tall fence made of 6-inch-by-6-inch hollow steel posts, the insides poured with concrete. When the fence runs out, as it must in such inhospitable landscapes, the Border Patrol agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection have to work harder to win a potentially deadly game of hide-and-seek.
So they call in the U.S. military. Specifically, they call Joint Task Force-North, a component of U.S. Northern Command, and they cash in on the military’s hard-earned expertise.
In March and April, while the spotter watched from Sonora, 31 combat engineers and two Navy corpsmen assigned to Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 extended a road high up into the mountains. The road’s existence means Border Patrol can travel by truck deeper than ever before into the wilderness, areas that in some cases had been accessible only by horse or by foot.
“Something that took them an hour now only takes 10 minutes of response time,” said Staff Sergeant Donald E. Stehley Jr., the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the mission. “Anytime you lose 20 seconds where they have to go around something, that’s sight alignment and they lose their target. The big thing is keeping these drugs from flooding our borders and when you mitigate the time from an hour to 10 minutes, you might have just stopped 15 mules from coming in with all those drugs and now the citizens don’t have to worry about all that stuff.”
The Nogales Border Patrol station is the largest in the country, home base for more than 700 agents who work day and night to secure an area that stretches along 32 miles of border and roughly 25 miles north into Arizona. It is the hottest hot spot on the southwest border, according to Agent Shawn Palmer, the Border Patrol’s field operations supervisor.
“Marijuana is the big cash crop,” Palmer said. “Nogales is kind of interesting because it’s one of the largest land ports as far as agriculture coming out of Mexico—tomatoes, watermelon, things like that. So those are crops. Marijuana happens to be a crop, too.”
Lately, he said, agents are also seeing an increase in attempted smuggling of cocaine and methamphetamines.
“As far as the meth,” he said, “the cartels have figured out, ‘Hey, this is a pretty cheap thing to start doing ourselves. We can already get the chemicals in Mexico. The smuggling routes are already established. Let’s take the opportunity while it’s there.’”
Much of the cross-border crime in the area of Nogales is the work of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most prominent criminal organizations in Mexico. They deal mostly in trafficking narcotics but have never shied from violence.
In Tucson Sector, which includes Nogales, the Border Patrol apprehended 120,000 people in fiscal 2012. Agents seized more than a million pounds of marijuana and more than 400 pounds of cocaine. And 177 bodies were discovered.
Palmer, a 29-year veteran, is a major proponent of the partnership with Joint Task Force-North. Based at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, the task force employs few active-duty troops. Instead, it serves as a matchmaker, pairing a job request from a law enforcement agency with a capable military unit. There are plenty of engineering jobs—building roads and fences, etc.—but the military also provides surveillance from air, ground and sea, from Texas to California, as well as sharing technology and intelligence.
Troops never have law enforcement authority. They don’t confront criminals or make arrests, but they make sure the Border Patrol agents can.
Even the presence of dozens of uniformed troops doesn’t always deter those intent on crossing illegally.
Palmer recounted an instance when criminals attempted to smuggle drugs across within view of a JTF-North engineer crew—and within striking distance of Palmer’s agents.
A young soldier, amazed at the bold incursion, saw it all and reported back to Palmer.
“Sir, they’re running down below and your guys were chasing them,” he said. “They had bundles and you got the bundles but the guys got back to Mexico.”
“Can I ask you something, sir?”
“Why don’t you guys just shoot them?”
“Private, the rules are a little different here.”
Hearing the story, Army Major Aubrey Semien, the JTF-North engineer mission planner, chuckled and interjected.
“Honestly,” he said. “I don’t think you can do that downrange.”
The task force was created in 1989 under the moniker Joint Task Force–Six—it was redesignated JTF-North in 2004—and the earliest missions were basic.
“Those guys were doing some hardcore things for us,” Palmer said. “We’d point at a hill and they’d go embed themselves on that hill with [communications] and talk to us, let us know what was going on. They’d stay there 24/7 for a week at a time.”
Now technology rules. Soldiers on a JTF-North mission might scan the border from the ground in Stryker vehicles equipped with Long Range Scout Surveillance Systems or from above in OH-58K Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
“Big thing right now is ground sensors, especially since the military has branched out and they’re using video sensors,” Palmer said. “If something trips the sensor, it actually gives a very close to live image of what set it off. Helps me in my job because I know what to send out there to react. If a cow set it off, I know to ignore the sensor. If it’s 15 guys with AK-47s and bundles, I can send the appropriate response out there.”
To get there often requires the work of engineers.
A Real-Life Mission
Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina is nothing like Nogales, Arizona. Just a quick drive from Atlantic Ocean beaches, its terrain is flat and sandy and it limits training opportunities for the MWSS-272 engineers based there.
When the chance arose to do a mission for JTF-North, the Marines were eager.
“What makes it appealing is it’s not every day that you get to go out and build a road,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lucan Depas, the officer in charge of the mission. “All the funding is already there for you. It required zero unit funds. JTF-North and the Border Patrol paid for everything, so number one, budget-wise, that made it appealing. And number two, you just can’t replace this type of training anywhere.”
The unit’s Marines have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan and what they found is that the JTF-North mission mirrored those deployment processes in many respects. From planning and pre-deployment protocols through completing the mission and redeploying home, it’s all meant to replicate an overseas assignment, right down to the MREs for lunch.
“You go through all the phases of deployment,” Semien said. ”You just don’t have people shooting at you.”
In fact, the Alaska-based soldiers who built the first portion of the current Nogales road project in early 2012 began by parachuting into nearby Fort Huachuca from Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.
“That was awesome. They bailed out of planes. They all bailed out of planes,” Palmer said. “They made this real life.”
The New River Marines arrived in Nogales by more traditional means, but the mission was quick to provide a real-life benefit for the Border Patrol agents. As soon as a section of road was deemed safe for travel, the agents began using it. They blanket the area in pickup trucks and SUVs—Fords and Chevrolets and Dodges—distinguishable by their white and green color scheme. When the Marines left the work site at the end of a long day, it belonged to Border Patrol.
“I couldn’t make them stop if I had to,” Palmer said. “If it’s a new road out there, my guys are going to jump all over it, which is really great, and what I love with the military is they’re very, very safety oriented.”
But it was no easy task building a traversable road out of pristine mountains. The road climbs to an altitude of roughly 4,700 feet with grades as steep as 20 percent. The Marines’ mandate was to create a passageway at least 22 feet wide with a 6-foot drainage ditch along the inside to keep the road from washing out. Everything from the rocks that had to be removed to the steep drop-offs to the unpredictable weather created a challenge.
“We’re about as high as four skyscrapers in New York,” Stehley said as the mission wrapped up in April. “Yesterday at the bottom of the mountain it was 60 degrees. At the top it was snowing and sleeting.”
The Marines built the road with more than a dozen pieces of heavy machinery, including an excavator, two bulldozers, a front-end loader, a back hoe, a Bobcat, dump trucks, graders and water trucks.
Among the materials needed: 3,000 tons of top aggregate, 10,000 tons of riprap (large rocks positioned to protect against erosion), 10 tons of bedding beneath three culverts and truck after truck of water sprayed on the road before Marines rolled the surface to a sufficient level of compaction.
Sergeant Malcolm Deas has deployed three times and he’s built roads in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he called the Nogales job the most demanding of his career. Though project planners preached safety above all—hiring civilian contractors to monitor quality control and check the compaction of the road—there was still constant risk. Any careless mistake invites catastrophe.
“It does [take a little nerve],” said Deas, who figured he operated every piece of machinery short of the dump trucks. “We’ve been stressing to the guys not to get too close to the edges because the surface isn’t as compacted as in the center of the road, but with the bigger equipment such as the excavator, it’s been kind of hard to do those tasks.”
The Road Goes On
In the end, the Marines overachieved, finishing more of the road than they had expected, nearly a mile in six weeks. They even shaved off a peak and flattened it to create an area where a helicopter could land in an emergency. And before they left, they raised a wide swath of land six feet and leveled it to serve as a staging area for the next group of engineers to take up the project during fiscal 2014. There are four miles to go before completion, when the new road connects to an existing county road in the project’s final stage.
“I’ve got 33 guys here and they’re never going to be able to say that they were able to do a project like this, with this scope, with the end result being as finite, ever again in their lives unless we come back and work with Joint Task Force–North again,” Stehley said. “We’d obviously raise our hand and come back out again. It’s been a phenomenal experience.”
The work all but done, Stehley stood atop the mountain and looked south. The spotter was absent on the ridge. No action on their watch. All that lay between the Marines and Mexico were mesquite trees and ironwoods, junipers and cottonwoods and one brand new road.
–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.
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