This is an article I wrote for a boating magazine in 2003. Considering what's happening down on our southern border nowadays ...well ... don't tell me we didn't know.
On the Edge of America
(Photos in the original article, which I don’t have, were done by Greg Johnston)
Those of us involved in boating have noticed the increase in security on our home waters since the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded, and more recently since the invasion of Iraq began on March 19 this year.
But “home waters” covers a greater expanse than those of us on the nation’s coasts may realize. Along our northern border, boats play an important part in national security. But it’s – surprisingly – in the arid areas of cactus, wide-open spaces, Longhorn cattle, bad-ass sun, Stetsons and scuffed cowboy boots of America’s Southwest where boats have been put to their latest use in protecting our nation.
As unlikely as this venue is for boating, are the people who man these boats. It’s an unheralded service, usually not even an after-thought in most American’s ideas of who our protectors are. While they patrol both northern and southern borders, the main responsibility for monitoring and interdicting incursions – with virtually no assistance from the abutting government – across the 1,989 miles of border separating the U.S. and Mexico falls to the U.S Border Patrol (BP).
The Border Patrol Agents in this story are rugged individuals working in small teams, sometimes alone. Their deeds usually go unsung, yet they perform their job with relish, professionalism and integrity. They are excellent outdoorsmen, trackers, hunters, public relation specialists, intelligence operatives, search-and-rescue personnel and, yes, boaters, all wrapped up into a quintessentially Western breed of law enforcement officer. They are people who are matter-of-fact in their approach to a job that is difficult by definition, and grows more difficult everyday. Yet, they’re also enthusiastic, intrigued, compassionate and dedicated to preserving the security of America.
Amistad – “friendship” – National Recreation Area is the American side of a beautiful international recreation area in western Texas about two-and-a-half hours west of San Antonio. The park is administered by the National Parks Service (NPS) out of a headquarters in Del Rio, Texas, and its main feature is the Amistad Reservoir, formed by the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils rivers, the flow stemmed by the Amistad Dam. The reservoir sports 850 miles of coastline and shares 310 miles with Mexico. The dam provides hydroelectric power, water reserves for agriculture and recreation for millions of people on both sides of the border.
Spying the lake for the first time shocks the eye; an expanse of blue water nestled in the jagged, arid, limestone-beige terrain spotted here and there with barely discernible patches of greenery and the bright white wakes of bass boats running hither and yon.
The only thing as startling as the water’s color is the boat ramp at the Diablo East put in. Concrete, it’s about as wide as an eight-lane freeway … it’s also a loooong way downhill to the water.
“The lake’s down about 40 feet from its full height. The last time it was full was 1992, but it’s still plenty deep,” says Jeffery Parsons, the assistant chief of the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector, and a dead ringer for every western-movie, square-jawed, good guy marshal you’ve ever seen.
There are approximately 1,000 agents in the Del Rio Sector that includes 10 forward stations covering 59,541 square miles of land and 205 miles of Rio Grande River. The agents perform the gamut of BP duties: flight ops, highway interdiction, undercover work, special tactics work, search-and-rescue and marine enforcement, the relative newcomer to the service’s repertoire having been in existence barely two years.
The NPS had the responsibility of patrolling the lake, but security concerns have required round-the-clock ops since September 11, and thus the BP boat patrols. NPS Ranger Dennis Anderson and his boat crews were instrumental in getting the BP crews up to snuff. The NPS uses bright orange RIBs as patrol craft. “We do a lot of boardings for safety inspections and whatnot,” said Anderson. “Guys would get a little touchy if we pulled up to their $30,000 bass boats in a hard boat, so we figured the BOBs were the way to go.”
BOBs? “Big orange boats,” clarifies Anderson with nary a smile. If you’re going to play with Texans, you have to get used to a dry humor that’s hard for this Easterner to detect. And be prepared to let no foible go by unnoticed or unmentioned ... dryly.
Agent Ernie Carrillo, a 19-year veteran with the BP, is the boat unit’s supervisory agent. “The purpose of the Whiskey boats is high-profile deterrence,” he says, as he hands me a SOSpender self-inflatable PFD. “And we mean high profile, literally. We’re standing about nine foot tall, and most of the bass boats out there aren’t but about two feet.”
The boats – two 23-foot SeaArk aluminum patrol boats – have a nice cabin atop which are mounted a beam-wide halogen light bar, radar tower and blue emergency lights. Bass boats at a distance can only be recognized by their wakes, so the Whiskey boats – the two boat’s callsigns start with the letter W, “whiskey” in communication parlance – definitely stand out. The boats have eight-foot, six-inch beams, look narrower, yet ride surprisingly dry and stable. “We’ll get six-foot swells and 30 knot winds out here,” said Senior Agent Travis Konkle, our helmsman. “These boats handle it pretty well.” And Konkle handles the Whiskey boat pretty well.
Powered by twin counter-rotating Merc 200 EFI’s, the boats have a Kohler 800 generator mounted forward of the engines to power the halogen light bar and the heater and a/c unit; temperatures reach extremes on both ends of the thermometers. Konkle sits in one of the two Air-Ride electric chairs in front of the full-size wheel, Raymarine radar and Furuno GPS. Boaters on the lake generally use cell phones; the Whiskey boats have Motorola FM radios allowing them contact with other BP and NPS units.
Aside from all the requisite boat gear, Carrillo and Konkle carry backpacks containing their personal gear of first-aid supplies, radio, water, food, handheld GPS and Gen-IV night vision scopes. Weaponry consists of .40 caliber Beretta semis, Remington 870 .12 gauges and the M-4 submachinegun. It can get dicey for two men out in the wilds of the desert that comprises much of the western end of Lake Amistad (from the Amistad Dam west, Mexican territory is on the south and west. East of the dam is all Texas), and should trouble arise the two men – sometimes one-man – can be 30 miles from backup; not a thought the agents dwell on, but a reality they accept.
The boat is merely a means of reaching patrol areas, then the agents quietly beach the craft, secure it, and head inland on foot. “A lot of our work,” says Carrillo, “is gathering intelligence and looking for patterns of alien traffic and narcotics transport. We also have Mexican commercial fishermen hauling people and drugs that we keep and eye on.” The bottom line according to both agents is that the boats provide a presence, and by virtue of that presence, a deterrence. There are no patrol patterns, and with the access the SeaArks provide, the agents can appear anywhere.
We cruise west making slalom turns at the buoys as we adhere tightly to the international border’s contours, working our way up the Rio Grande towards the confluence of the Pecos River. We pass Mexican and American recreational anglers along the way, with both seeming to adhere to their sides. Everyone gets a wave from Carrillo, but you can also see him mentally running the boat through the list of suspect “bad-guy” boats the NPS and BP have amassed. Carrillo is quiet and unassuming, but you can tell there’s little that escapes his attention. Every inch of coast we cruise provides a different moonscape of small, twisty, side canyons, caves, rock scree and cactus – hard, tough terrain.
“When they cross from Mexico,” said Carrillo, “the object, obviously, is to get into America. We stand an excellent chance of grabbing them when they come across close to towns, but those are still the favored routes. The ones that really want to get in will head overland and hit someplace way deep in the state.”
“How far will they travel,” I ask.
“Virginia,” says the Texas born-and-raised Carrillo, a reference to where Konkle was born; ergo: Texas humor. “There’s a route that runs 90 miles to the first town,” he adds. “They’ll try and go windmill to windmill, staying out of sight. Most of the land is privately owned ranches, and the windmills provide water for stock. Sometimes they make it,” he says, “and sometimes they don’t. Regardless, we’ll start a group [cross their trail] and track them, sometimes for three weeks before we get them.”
One of the more interesting – and in today’s climate, scary – facts I learn is that it’s not just Mexicans. “Central Americans, South Americans, sure. But we also are seeing lots of Europeans – Hungarians, Czechs, Yugoslavs – just about every nation in eastern Europe. They get into Mexico City and make their way to cross here,” said Carrillo. The import of this internationality is not lost on the agents; not with the country at Alert Level 4.
Konkle spots something on a bluff and spins the boat around. “See those two kind of black balls on that bush on the bluff?” he asks. I don’t see it till he runs the boat aground at the base of the bluff.
“It’s a marker for a crossing point,” explains Carrillo. “Those black dots are catfish heads.”
We tie up the boat and are joined by NPS Ranger Anderson in a BOB, and scramble up the loose scree and boulders. There’s a fire circle of rock, and a few other traces of use. The two catfish heads are about the size of footballs. Everything is bigger in Texas.
The men are consummate trackers and quickly work the site, but there’s no sign of recent use. Carrillo takes me over to where I crossed the rock surface and points out where I stepped. A pebble overturned shows its dark side, the sun-baked shine of a point of rock is dulled, the slightest shoe toe print stands out to him in a rare patch of loose dirt.
“This guy weighs about 150 and has 59 cents in his pocket,” Konkle says to me, causing me to give him a mouth-breathing look of wonder. He shakes his head as I feel for the large “L”-for loser on my forehead. “It’s my foot print,” he finally notes, “but I’ll tell you this: if you learn how to track in west Texas, you can track people anywhere on earth.”
And track down and nab violators are what the agents do so well: the boat patrol drug seizure numbers for Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 (five-and-a-half months into it) should exceed 2002’s if they stay on the same pace ($5,861,949/7,328 pounds in FY2002 versus $2,973,294/3,718 pounds). Alien apprehensions look like they will be down or even with 2002 – a factor due to increased manpower and patrol activity (1,265 apprehensions in FY 2002 versus 456 as of March 25, 2003). The smugglers in both categories rely heavily on boats and the Amistad Reservoir; and thus must deal with the likes of Carrillo, Konkle and their fellow agents.
We scramble back to the boat and head down canyon to another area. You can’t muffle the sound of the big Mercs and the canyons are natural reverbrators, so any interdiction is usually accomplished by overland foot patrol or coordinated boat/land ambushes. We beach the boat again, and Carrillo and Konkle shoulder their packs. We take a few steps when photog Greg Johnston steps on the first booby trap.
“Dog pear,” says Carrillo, removing the spiky sea urchin-on-steroids-looking ball of pins from Johnston’s calf. The dog pear has long, rigid spikes that, when brushed upon, jump off the ground and impale. “You’ll have a nice welt there,” says Konkle. “That’s why we wear these 10-inch boots.” Alas, Johnston and I are dressed in boating shoes, since we thought we were doing a boating story. I spot another patch and studiously avoid it, but trip over something else in the process. “You want to watch out for rattlers, too,” notes Konkle.
Forty-five minutes and we are back at the boat and headed down river. The patrol will last 12 hours and gobble huge amounts of the lake and shore. Sometimes we’ll double back to where we’ve been, sometimes we’ll make long runs to other landings. The job goes on day and night, everyday in all weather, and then there are special ops combining the forces of the boat; ground and aerial assets; the job is relentless.
The next morning we spend some time with the airboat patrols on the downstream section of the Rio Grande, with Mexico 50 feet away. Agent Kevin Czechowicz drives us through what looks like a farm equipment graveyard to the launch site and introduces us to Senior Patrol Agent Rowdy Ballard, and Patrol Agent Landon Schaffner. Along the way he points out bent fencing where people have crossed.
The airboat, an 18-foot, 330 horsepower, Panther Lightning, is one of 10 in the sector and is used on the below-dam portions of the Rio Grande as well as on the skinny parts of the Pecos and Devils rivers. We cruise up the Rio Grande past a huge soccer field crowded with Sunday players and families on the Mexican side, under the international bridge to a low-head dam where two Mexican fishermen are working the eddy below the dam. Just downriver from the dam are several raw sewage outlets from the Mexican side that add, shall we say, a certain pungency to the beneath-bridge climate.
“There’s a monitor tower there,” says Ballard, pointing to the US side, “that keeps an eye on the fishermen in case they decide to slide over to the US.” One fisherman is actually in American territory, but turns and waves to the agents, seemingly intent on his fishing.
“There are a bunch of spots that are monitored by camera and various other means I can’t tell you about,” says Ballard, not having to add “or I’d have to kill you” to the statement. “Those are all usually at the known crossings … yup, there are regular crossing spots. Hell, there’s a horse down river that knows how to transport people by itself,” he says.
“The other day we got a call that one of the monitors picked up some folks crossing,” said Landon. “We were nearby, so we went on down there, and then hit the road tracking them.” On the heaviest travel crossing spots, a drag trail – a road of powdery dirt – has been constructed, which allows the agents to spot footprints easily. Then it’s a matter of directionally leap frogging ahead of the illegals to intercept them. The tactic, along with precision cooperation and planning with their compatriots on ground patrol, works.
The BP’s motto is pride, integrity and vigilance. It is a truly unique organization combining a variety of disciplines into one unit. Recently reassigned as part of the Department of Homeland Security, the BP is, with the exception of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the only paramilitary arm of the Federal government that has their own academy and trains their own people from scratch. It’s the only service that demands their agents maintain a working fluency in Spanish, the only service where you can ride a horse, airboat, 4x4, helicopter and a boat in a day on the job. It’s an outfit that mandates all its agents work in the field … pilots, clerks, boatmen, regardless, you’ll spend three years pounding the ground first. It’s the only service where you’ll guard and patrol against incursions onto our shores, save people lives, interdict drug smugglers, work undercover, and spend all your time outdoors.
The Border Patrol is a superbly trained, professional force of unsung men and women who are literally acting as our first line of defense.
And I gotta say, I feel a whole lot better having met them.