Confusion and Poor Communication Among Border Security Agencies

“We’ve already had one blue-on-blue incident,” said the park ranger. “We don’t want any more. There are fourteen different agencies working in this part of the desert.”

“It seems like you guys don’t communicate very well with one another,”  I said.

He smiled. “There are fourteen different agencies.”

In the past year, I’ve traveled to a number of locations in the Arizona/Sonora border region where smuggling activity is considered to be high. Sometimes I encounter law enforcement; sometimes I don’t. I can’t say that I’ve met people from fourteen different law enforcement agencies, but I can say this: from what I can see, they aren’t talking to each other very well.

I’ve lost track of the number of times that an agent, officer or deputy from one agency has mistaken me for someone belonging to another agency, even allowing me to pass by them unchallenged. In one instance, I stood next to the border fence, in an area closed to the public, while wearing civilian clothes – as a Border Patrol SUV approached. The agent simply drove by me and threw up the “peace” sign.

In another instance – this one at night – deputies on a hilltop observation post, equipped with night vision devices, said they spotted me approaching two other deputies in the valley below. They didn’t even bother contacting the deputies below, because, as one said, “We thought you were with us.” When I reached the valley location, the deputies there were incredibly surprised to hear me call out to them from the darkness, and responded with an appropriate – and professional – level of caution.

Although there seems to be a coordinated effort to secure certain parts of the border, this level of coordination does not apparently rise to the use of a common radio frequency – or if it does, individual law enforcement officers are choosing to not use it. Officers sometimes work within several hundred yards of one another without knowing of the others’ presence, or if they are aware of their presence, they are not aware of their identification – and they make little effort to identify one another.

Communication with the Mexican Army, which is to be considered vital from a “total security” standpoint, is spotty. In some areas, liaison officers can have Mexican Army soldiers provide backup to Border Patrol agents – while staying on their respective sides of the border – within minutes. In other areas, there is little to no communication between the nations at the tactical or operational level.

The events of 9/11 brought about a new – and apparently temporary – mindset among officials in the federal government. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to increase coordination among intelligence and law enforcement agencies, but it would appear, from my perspective, that it has done nothing but add another layer of bureaucracy. I am not well educated about the amount of funding DHS is allocated, but if I were in an official position to question them about the efficacy of that spending, I would certainly do so.

“There’s a big push to secure this sector right now,” the Border Patrol agent said.

“Is it working?” I asked.

“Absolutely not,” he said, laughing.

Blue Force Gear Six Pack Bandolier

I was recently loaned a Blue Force Gear Six Pack Bandolier by Deliberate Dynamics and have been spending a significant amount of time with it.

Similar in design to the BFG TenSpeed line of products which sacrifice long-term durability for significant weight, cost, and size savings, the bandolier lists for $43.95 and is designed to hold six M4 type magazines in its elastic pockets. It has a shoulder strap and a waist strap, both of which are constructed from thin webbing. This piece of gear defines minimalism.

It naturally hangs below your arm opposite the shoulder upon which the strap rests, and stays in place quite well through a lot of movement and activity, though it can be moved farther back behind the torso if you wish to hide it from the view of those in front of you. Retention of items carried is excellent.

The elastic nature of the pouches has caused me to use them for practically everything but M4 mags; it’s a slim and lightweight solution for carrying radios, GPS units, pistols, flashlights, etc. I find that when asymmetrical items are placed in one pouch, it’s best to leave the pouch on the other side unused – so I limit myself to the use of three pouches.

Loading the bandolier up with an IcomIC-A4 radio, a loaded Lancer 20rd 5.56 magazine, and a Glock 22 for 14 hours of hiking in a 20 hour period resulted in an interesting problem – the thin webbing of the shoulder strap cut into my shoulder and apparently pinched a nerve, for about half an hour after I reached my destination, I was unable to move my right arm and had to place it in a sling to avoid an annoying pain in my neck. Granted, I had also slung a ~7lb rifle on that shoulder – but I noticed more discomfort on the hike coming from the bandolier strap than the rifle sling (which was also a Blue Force Gear product and made of thicker webbing).

On the next outing, I padded the area under the webbing and reduced the amount of weight carried in the bandolier, and experienced no issues with pain or limited mobility, although I had a heavier rifle slung on that shoulder for a significant portion of the day.

I’ve noticed some wear on the elastic where the edges of items carried caused stress. I’m not entirely surprised, as elastic material is not 1000D Cordura. The TenSpeed stuff is not intended for heavy and constant use. This is meant to be a quickly accessible storage and carry solution for M4 mags or similarly sized items, to be used only when needed, and it accomplishes this goal quite well. I do not think that this wear will negatively affect the performance of the bandolier for quite some time.

The only thing I’d change would be some type of shoulder pad or thicker webbing for the shoulder strap. Despite the problems outlined above and the wear, I absolutely love the bandolier and do not think it’ll be far from me whether I’m at the range or hiking in the desert.

Spike’s Tactical SAR Rails – Too Short

As many who read my blog know, I like Spike’s Tactical. Granted, they’ve given me a lot of stuff – but it’s all looked at with a critical eye, and I don’t often find things to complain about.

With the SAR rails, however, I did.

Spike’s sent me two SAR rails, a 12″ and a 9″. They’re very light – the 9″ weighs under 10 ounces – and I like the titanium barrel nut that makes installation very easy. They have 4 QD sockets for sling swivels, and the width and height are pretty slim, meaning that it’s easy to get a good grip on the rail.

My major issue with them is length. While the older BAR model rails left a short, perhaps 1/4″ gap, between the end of the rail and an FSB at any standard length (carbine, midlength, or rifle), the SAR leaves a gap of over 1/2″ – meaning that the gas tube is far too exposed. This 12″ rail should not leave such a large gap with a rifle length gas system.

I’m using KAC rail covers to cover the gaps, and they seem to do a fine job of protecting the exposed area. Still, it would seem that the SAR rails are intended for use with low profile gas blocks only, in lengths that would cover the gas blocks, not with FSBs placed at the carbine, midlength, or rifle locations.

What’s Really Happening Along the US/Mexico Border?

Although the issue has declined in popularity among the major news organizations recently, the proximity of the border between the United States and Mexico to my home keeps border security high on my list of concerns. I regularly travel to various desert locations where “activity” is high, and feel that I have a basic understanding of the real situation, rather than what is presented through various media outlets.

Law Enforcement Challenges

The most important factor to understand is scale. Even in one state – such as Arizona – there’s a massive area to cover. Not only must local and federal law enforcement watch the border itself, trafficking activities regularly extend almost 100 miles north, meaning that it’s practically impossible to lock down anything more than a token area.

Border fence near Lukeville, Arizona

Certain areas are known to have a high level of activity, and are thus selected for heavy monitoring by law enforcement agencies. However, because of the size of even one “small” area, Border Patrol agents can do little more than stay in their vehicles and either watch fences, roads, and trails, or drive along said fences, roads, or trails, while smugglers and illegal immigrants are free to roam the desert. Agents do occasionally use ATVs to travel deeper into the desert, but this is not exactly a frequent occurrence.

Even when driving slowly and looking carefully for abnormalities, individuals in the desert are practically invisible to passing Border Patrol agents.

As I was told by one agent, so many calls are received that the Border Patrol simply cannot respond to them all. This is partly due to efforts by smugglers to overwhelm law enforcement agencies with false calls for assistance. These are immediately responded to, for every report of a group of people stranded in the desert without water has the potential to result in multiple fatalities within hours if ignored.

Air assets are valuable, but scarce – one sheriff’s deputy told me about chasing two drug smugglers across the desert for almost an hour before a county helicopter was able to respond. By that time, he’d already apprehended both smugglers, who were armed with what he described as crude, homemade firearms, and shot at him during the chase.

Like their ground-based counterparts, CBP (Customs and Border Protection) fixed and rotary wing pilots sometimes spend their entire shifts “chasing ghosts,” or calls for assistance that lead them to far corners of their sector, only to find that no one is in need of assistance. I consider their presence to be rare, for in months of regularly visiting areas with trafficking activity – and sporadically in the years prior – I’ve never actually seen a CBP helicopter overhead. I have encountered them when I, too, am flying, but only in passing. They’re out there, but not in great numbers.

The majority of people encountered by law enforcement in these areas are unarmed, but the presence of heavily armed smugglers is a constant threat. While discussing various dangers with one agent, I was advised that if I stayed in the area long enough, I would encounter “multiple guys with AK-47s.” Coincidentally, early the next morning, I heard fully automatic gunfire that I tentatively identified as being from a Kalashnikov, though I never saw its source or its target, and believed it to be at least 500 yards away – given my location at the time, this may have been south of the border.

Southern Arizona terrain is far from being "open desert," and benefits those who are trying to hide.

Still, most of the law enforcement officers that I’ve encountered in the desert travel alone. I wouldn’t characterize any of them as being complacent – with the exception of the Border Patrol agent I found sleeping in his truck – but I’ve always spotted them first, and been able to choose the location and type of our encounter. This also meant that when I wanted to avoid them, I was able to do so with relative ease.

I cannot overstate the dangers that these agents face. Smugglers avoid killing them for the political pressure it would bring to bear on the issue, but if so desired, cartel “operatives” could easily ambush and murder a dozen or more Border Patrol agents or sheriff’s deputies in a day and disappear across the border before any possible response from other law enforcement officers. The level of coordination and organization required for this would be minimal. The cartels are aware of this. In other words, the only thing keeping a significant number of law enforcement officers alive at any given time is a lack of desire on the part of extremely violent and brutal criminal enterprises to kill them.

When agents do travel on foot to respond to calls or sightings, their abandoned vehicles are easy to spot.


Walking the Desert

For illegal immigrants and smugglers, the journey truly begins at the border fence – if one exists. Near towns or cities, tall fences discourage crossing or jumping, but these fences only extend a few miles past each town. Beyond that, they give way to shorter vehicle barriers, which present no challenge to those on foot. Farther from towns or roads, vehicle barriers change to barbed wire fences or even nothing at all. In other words, crossing the border is more of a milestone than an obstacle.

Were it not for the seriousness of the issue, the haphazard manner in which border fencing is constructed might be amusing. Here, tall "jump" and short "vehicle" fences meet.

Many times, those traveling on foot are dropped off right at the border, and are led by one or two “coyotes” who have made the journey numerous times. Rather than simply walking in the general direction of “north,” the paths chosen seem to be well organized and prepared in advance, though the trail markers are not always easy to spot or identify.

Some trail markers are easier to spot than others...although this arrow pointed south.

Trash is fairly common in remote areas of the desert, which smugglers use to their advantage. Finding two “arm covers” for couches or chairs next to one another marks the recommended direction of travel – the open end of the cover pointing the way. Sometimes, scraps of fabric were used in the same manner.

Trail markers disguised as trash. Other items were also used.

Every plant and animal in the area has adapted itself to desert life, either physically or through behavior modifications, while humans must carry water with them and carefully adopt behaviors that are not naturally occurring.

Not surprisingly, this organ pipe cactus is able to withstand drought better than humans.

Naturally occurring water is exceptionally difficult to find in the desert, but bottles and jugs can often be found under trees or bushes, left by various groups. Most of these are black so as not to shine in the sunlight and attract attention. The majority are empty or only partially full. Some are slashed open or shot, which I consider to be sadistic acts.

For a dehydrated individual crossing miles of desert terrain, finding an empty water jug is a demoralizing experience.

When water is not found, dehydration quickly turns to delirium. Discarded clothing – especially items that are very useful in the hot sun, such as hats – can be a sign that someone was in serious trouble.

I have covered a little more than 10 miles across desert terrain on a 95-degree day without water, and consider it to be a very challenging experience.

Discarding a hat in the hot sun is not the act of an individual in a clear mental state.

As mentioned above, hiding in the desert is a fairly easy task. Even when most plants aren’t in bloom, the amount of vegetation is sufficient to limit visibility on flat ground to as little as 20 yards, with a maximum of perhaps 200 in more open areas.

There are eight illegal immigrants in this photograph - obscured by vegetation.

A lot of foot traffic in this area follows washes, or dry creek beds, for several reasons. First, they tend to be lower than the surrounding terrain, providing natural concealment from observers on higher ground. Second, they generally run north and south overall, which is beneficial to those traveling from Mexico to the United States. Finally, temperatures can be significantly lower in washes, especially in the evenings and early mornings.

Entrances to heavily traveled washes are easy to spot.

Groups of illegal immigrants can vary in size from half a dozen to over one hundred. Most of the time, these groups have lead and trail elements, looking for dangers ahead of and behind the group.

The light reflected by this man's water jug immediately caught my eye.

Instead of shouting to one another, coyotes apparently communicate with one another using various hand and arm signals – none of which I know the meaning of, but I was at least able to tell that they weren’t just waving at me.

Charged with looking out for dangers, this point man was probably embarrassed to see someone watching him from behind.
This photograph shows the approximate distance between lead and main elements.
When they knew they were being watched, this group of illegal immigrants froze and simply stared.

Smuggling Operations

Daytime activity is reduced compared to night – cooler temperatures and the cover of darkness provide an advantage to those seeking to avoid detection and conserve water in the desert. Technology becomes a bigger foe to them at night, for agents generally have night vision equipment, and helicopters use thermal imaging to locate heat sources.

On moonlit nights, the use of night vision devices provides incredible - and undetectable - observation of terrain.

Smugglers are not unaware of these technologies, and take advantage of it whenever possible. Outside of the environment, the greatest danger to illegal immigrants is not American law enforcement, but rival smugglers or cartels looking to rob, rape, or kill. Most of this activity takes place at night.

Some trails are almost easier to spot at night and with NVGs than during the day.

As has been related to me by various Border Patrol, CBP and local law enforcement agents, hills and mountaintops are sometimes occupied by scouts and observers for smuggling operations. When they are captured, they are often found with radios, cell phones, spare batteries, automatic rifles, night vision devices, and binoculars or spotting scopes. Their purpose is to report on the movement of Border Patrol agents to smugglers or coyotes in the valleys or washes below.

I found evidence of longer-term "habitation" atop this hill just north of the border, but this had occurred at least three months prior. Smugglers constantly change routes and observation hills to avoid detection.

Many coyotes will lead their party into the desert, then demand additional payment – those who cannot pay are left stranded. When this happens, some give up and wait to be rescued by the Border Patrol or local law enforcement, while others continue north – but without knowledge of water caches or which routes to take, the odds are that their journey will not be successful. Those who give up often just sit under a tree and call for help, not wishing to avoid American law enforcement officials any longer. Several officers and agents told me about situations where illegal immigrants had the chance to escape, but did not do so.

In Summary

I’m hesitant to refer to those calling for increased border security as alarmist, for I, too, believe that current border security levels are inadequate. However, the real situation is not exactly what is claimed by some, that one can simply sit at any point along the border and watch drug mules pour across like ants, and so on. When descriptions of the border situation become too fantastic, the average person does not believe them, and starts to discount all reports of trouble along the border. The real situation is more frightening, but also more understated and not as exciting to talk about on TV or the radio.

It is possible for individuals armed with rifles or other weapons and equipment to walk across the border and travel to major population centers in the United States while avoiding contact with law enforcement. This is largely due to the relatively vast area that must be covered by relatively few agents and deputies, who are spread thin and exposed to great danger.

As I stated above, border violence is only limited due to the cartels’ knowledge that “turning up the volume” would cause increased enforcement. This results in an interesting situation, where the potential for violence is extremely high at any given moment, while the actual level of violence does not begin to rise that high – excepting crimes against illegal immigrants, which can be extremely brutal and most often go unreported.

Pistols vs. Revolvers: World War One

The following is an excerpt from the book A Rifleman Went to War, by Captain Herbert W. McBride, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the United States Army. He fought in World War I, mostly in France, and went from junior enlisted to officer during that time. Most of this book is a discussion of rifles, machine guns, or the war in general; all of it is fascinating to a history buff like me, and I found this section on pistols quite interesting. This was written in 1935.

As I was quite familiar with the new Colt Automatic, I was able to be of some assistance during the preliminary work of breaking them in, and it was not long until the officers were accustomed to the peculiarities of the gun and could make it behave to their satisfaction. Those who had had experience with the revolver entertained the almost universal prejudice against the automatic. Funny, isn’t it, how we hate to discard our old loves and take up with new ones – in the shooting game I mean, it appears to be easy enough regarding some other things.

But even the most conservative of the old-timers soon recognize the real advantages of the later type weapon. I staged several realistic demonstrations; including fast reloading in the dark and such stunts, and that converted most of them. As to reliability – dependability in an emergency -€“ there was little choice between the revolver and the automatic. Both types would function properly with the same degree of care. It is possible that there were instances of an automatic “jamming” now and then, but I personally never had it happen to me during the war, nor did I see or hear of any instance of it happening.

All these arguments as to the relative merits of the revolver and the automatic pistol will probably continue for another generation. Most of the old-timers who learn to shoot with the revolver have a deep-seated prejudice against the automatic€“ but when it came down to the root of their argument, it all seems to base upon the “hang” of the two guns – the newer automatic does not point right with the same old habitual “kink in the wrist.” I have used the 45 automatic ever since 1911, but for 20 years prior to that time had used the revolver.

Even now, I find myself having a sneaking sort of preference for the revolver and feel confident that I can make a better score on the target with it, either slow or rapid fire. But in spite of all of this, I unhesitatingly chose the automatic for actual use in war. To my mind, the great advantage of the automatic lies in the ease and rapidity with which it can be reloaded -€“ especially in the dark. Anyone who doubts this can easily satisfy himself by trying to hurriedly reload a revolver in the dark, with a crowd of roughnecks milling all around and trying to hit someone with clubs, knives and fists. Or, if this seems too rough just get some friend to jostle you about or run into you while trying it…

There’s just one little trick the user of the automatic should train himself to keep in mind -€“ and do -€“ reload while there is still a cartridge in the chamber; do not shoot until the gun is entirely empty. Even though you have fired but four or five shots, better drop out that old magazine and slip in a full one…

…”Close up” work is the only place that the pistol figures in warfare. Now I’m going to tell you the honest truth about something. During my war experience, which extended from September, 1915 to February, 1917 and included innumerable little contacts with the enemy and several major battles, I fired exactly 7 shots at an enemy with my pistol. Seven -€“ count ’em. I used up quite a lot of ammunition, shooting at rats, rabbits, and tin cans, but as to shooting Germans, well, I’ve told you, seven was all and the longest range at which I fired at these individuals was never more than 10 feet. But brother, those were seven badly needed shots. There may be a moral in this: I don’t know. If so, figure it out for yourself.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the mere possession of a reliable pistol -€“ and the knowledge how to use it – is a tower of strength for the soldier who goes up against any enemy. He may never use it, may never have a chance to use it, but it sure does give you a lot of confidence to know that you have the old “gat” handy, in case you do happen to bump into some wild eyed individual coming at you with a bayonet…

…The main thing in considering any military pistol is the matter of dependability. Will it work in all kinds of weather? In mud -€“ in sand -€“ in water? Well, we all know what tests were applied during the two or three years before our Ordnance officers finally approve the Colt. Two solid years of real, practical use, in service in the Islands and in the tests for what you might call durability in which all the others – there were only two, which shall not be named by me – fell by the wayside while the old Colt, refusing to quit, finally wore out the time and patience of the members and board and had to leave it with an unfinished run of some 10,000 rounds without stoppage or malfunction. I was present at that last test, and that may have had something to do with my attitude toward the ugly brute.

Still, I can say that my experience in France, as well as that of others of my acquaintance, only tended towards verifying the findings and opinion of our Ordnance board. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be armed with the .45 Colt Automatic found it to be a sufficient and dependable arm in every respect. Let me repeat that I’ve never had a failure to function properly while in action, nor did I ever hear or know of any such failure occurring with any of my associates or acquaintances. After I came back from the battlefield I commenced to hear of a great many instances in which the gun supposedly gave trouble, but these are invariably told by persons not in the Army or whose line of duty was such as to preclude their ever having actually participated in real fighting, or even front-line service for that matter.

Furthermore, I did not consider the automatic pistol to need any special care or attention to keep it in serviceable condition. We had trouble enough with all our firearms for that matter and any rifle, machine gun, revolver, or pistol had to be looked to daily to keep the mud and dirt out of its action and bore. If anything, our handguns were a bit easier to keep in proper shape than the others, because they remained in a holster or inside pocket of a tunic and were not laid down on the ground or exposed to the elements very often. Any military firearm requires daily attention and care to keep it in proper readiness for instant use, and neither pistol nor revolver is any exception to this standing rule.