The Reaper's Line

Excerpts from an account of justice--and injustice--on the Mexican border by a retired U.S. Customs special agent

I. The Reaper's Line

For 28 years I've been under the spell of a fabulously infatuating mistress.

In the blink of an eye her charm could lull a man to sleep, or leave him stranded on the brink of death. My lust for her nearly cost me my family, as well as my life. My aging mistress has gone by many names. To Mexican suitors she is sometimes known as La Frontera or La Línea. You may know her as The Border. Another alias of hers is The Reaper's Line--grim, but true.

Want to know what's really happening on the Mexican-American border? Here's a firsthand account of a love-hate relationship, based on 28 years of federal law enforcement experience. As you read, you may feel shock and surprise, sadness, bitterness and occasional hope, like me, but I can't offer easy solutions, folks, because nothing about this situation is simple. Don't believe anyone who tells you it is.

I'm going to introduce you to the Reaper and the Beast, and to a group of border lawmen who made a stand in the face of growing corruption, on both sides of the border. I'm also well acquainted with shootings, vehicle chases, cocaine-laced orgies, death-dealing outlaws, greed, corruption, kidnapped babies, narco-tunnels, dirty money, deadly wells and rock-and-sand-covered graves. It's a rough story and some of it is unprintable here. Some of it I can never really communicate.

Once I tried to tell an assistant U.S. attorney why witnesses wouldn't testify against a Mexican drug cartel. But the AUSA never had to view the tortured body of an informant for identification purposes. He wouldn't take the case.

I'm sure that white-collar proper gentleman never woke up at night in a soaking wet sweat after seeing the remains of such a body. I can only imagine that it must be nice to work 120 miles away from the border's violence in a federally protected building.

I began my federal law enforcement career in 1974, in a little border town called Douglas in Cochise County, Ariz. Directly across the line from Douglas lies the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. While nearby Tombstone was recognized as "the town too tough to die," Douglas is a place where the illegal trafficking of drugs, as well as human cargo, is a way of life--and death. Douglas and Cochise County are one of the main pipelines for drugs coming into the U.S., second only to Miami.

We fear and/or hate what we don't understand. To know the Mexican people is to love them. After living most of my life on the border, I have come to warmly admire the Mexicans, although I despise their outlaws and corrupt government. I much prefer to hunt criminals over the regular illegal aliens who are just crossing to find jobs.

The U.S.-Mexican border is one of the most violent places on Earth. Since 1995, it is estimated that somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 Mexican citizens alone have met their ends while attempting to cross the border illegally. And the number of people murdered on the border since the drug wars began is probably five times that total, or more. Not since the days of bandit revolutionaries like Pancho Villa has the U.S.-Mexican border run so red with blood.

I got my first taste of that when my partner, Red Smith, and I came under fire one February night in 1975.

"Halt, U.S. Border Patrol!" was about all I got out of my mouth before the drug smugglers capped the first round and all hell broke loose.

The first shooter was so close to me that his muzzle flash temporarily blinded me. My heart started pounding so hard that I could feel the pressure building and hear the thumping in my ears. The adrenaline started rushing. It felt great!

OK, calm down. Feed off the adrenaline and think. Be cool. While these guys are losing their marbles and blowing holes in the dark, you have to ride the adrenaline flow and think!

The "mules" had started the gunfight. I opened up first and emptied my shotgun by pumping five buckshot rounds in rapid succession in the direction of the muzzle flash. I heard the retreating mules screaming and breaking brush as we took several more rounds of incoming fire. Then Red started warming up his carbine's barrel.

The freakiest things happen in gunfights. You sometimes see a particular defined vision that sticks in your memory or subconscious years later. No matter how many years go by, it's as though it happened yesterday.

What I remember is a weird, twisted profile of Red's face: Red was smiling in sheer ecstasy! His no-fear face was downright comforting and gave me confidence that we'd win this little scrape, and we did.

It was the first of many.

II. Hungry Babies

One snowy winter day a few years ago I sneaked up on a van where I thought a dope deal was happening. I could hear voices inside, a loud Spanish-speaking male and an English-speaking female who sounded like she was about to blow a gasket. I drew my weapon and stepped into the open door of the van.

When he saw me, the man's expression turned to one of dismay. The female, in contrast, displayed sheer relief: "Oh, thank God, officer! I don't speak any Spanish and can't understand what this man wants."

He kept pleading in Spanish that he was starving and only wanted some food. But until I knew exactly what his intentions had been, I had to take him into custody. As it turned out, the gringa lady was a Yankee gal from New Jersey on a solo vacation who had simply stopped in the wrong place at the wrong time. She said this Mexican feller really didn't assault her but he kept pointing at the food boxes and yelling. Now she just wanted to put as many miles between her and the Mexican border as possible. I thought that was the smartest thing she would probably do on her vacation.

The little Mexican guy was shivering uncontrollably. A smuggler had abandoned him to die in the ice and snow, and he hadn't eaten for four or five days. So I invited him into my truck and made the guy sit right under the truck's heater while I doled out some food to him a little at a time, so as not to make him sick.

As the little feller ate he told me his sad but true life story.

He was raised on a small farm in Mexico where the family struggled to grow enough to eat. He didn't really know how to read or write. His parents had gone to New York to work and he was just trying to join them, having sold all his earthly possessions, and now he was completely broke, freezing, lost, and still 2,000 miles from his family. He broke down crying as he wondered where his next meal would come from.

Folks, it's stories like this that can rip your heart away from your duty. It was stories like this that inspired me to pursue and imprison the death-dealing alien smugglers and the dope lords who are poisoning our children. Until the day I take my last breath, I will never regret my total dedication to those two parts of my life.

No matter how much I wanted to let this feller go, I couldn't ignore my sworn oath. Besides, if I had let him go back into the desert, where would it get him? Only frozen to death. With a heavy heart I called the Border Patrol.

As we waited for them I thought how crazy being a border agent was. In a matter of an hour, my contact with this guy had gone from possibly having to shoot him, to saving his life. And to compound these emotions, he was no longer a perceived enemy, but a hungry little guy who I now felt terribly sorry for.

Sometimes, too many times, we come too late, and the Reaper has already finished his work. I will not go into grim details here about the bones, the hair, the severed legs, the swollen body bags, the stench, or the wild coyotes I once caught dragging a dead lady away.

I want to tell you about the baby.

Just when you think you've become so calloused that you'll never be able to cry again, a case comes along that proves you not to be the man of steel you may have thought you were.

In December of 2004, a baby-kidnapping investigation kept us all up for several days in a row. The young mother was an illegal alien who was being smuggled at night with a group of other unfortunates when several bad guys accosted her and ripped her newborn baby from her arms.

In so doing, they left her terribly wounded and disfigured for life. One outlaw used a blade on the little gal. Her gums and facial bones were exposed as her flesh dangled down toward her throat, and we couldn't understand a word she was saying until we got a doctor to reattach her chin and lips.

Then we set a trap for the bad guys, wired the baby's father for sound, and watched and listened as he was supposed to pay the ransom money to two kidnappers. We learned there was a third suspect holding the infant elsewhere. But something went wrong, and we rushed to save the father's life when all hell broke loose. And the two bad guys had made a cell phone call before we could take them into custody.

The Reaper was closing in again.

We knew we had mere minutes or even seconds before the third suspect would dump the "evidence" in the desert for the coyote packs to finish off. Everyone was screaming and freaking out trying to figure out how to get to the baby before she was whacked. It got to be a pretty unruly and frenzied scene. I knew I was going to have to have a long talk with the U.S. Attorney's Office about suspects' rights.

But how about the rights of a poor defenseless baby? Her right to continue this journey of life she had just come into?

Life or death. We chose the path that would save the baby's life. And you know what, I can live with that decision for the rest of my days.

We got to the location within five or so minutes of the initial contact with the two suspects. The bad guy was running out the back door with the baby wrapped in a filthy blanket when we caught him. After we cuffed the suspect and secured the baby, I looked down at a rat- and roach-infested, feces-covered mattress where a little body had made a tiny impression. On the dirty floor was an open container of putrefied milk. I lost it. I wept like a baby.

On this night, just a few days before Christmas, U. S. Customs special agent heroes Richard Flannary and Billy Hamilton returned the infant to her mother, who had traveled from afar looking for a new home and life for her baby. (Sound familiar?) Just about everyone who worked on the case was present when we gave the baby girl back to her tearful momma. Even John Wayne would have been misty-eyed.

For those of us who were part of this investigation, Christmas will always have a reborn meaning and intensity.

Right now, folks, we're about to throw millions of dollars away on a wall that will never work. I know; I've lived on the Reaper's Line for the majority of my life. People who want to cross it will go over it, under it, around it, and right smack dab through the middle of it.

So what's the solution to illegal immigration? I'm not going to lie to you like the politicians competing for your votes and tax dollars do. There is none. If there were, we would already be doing it. However, the next best thing is this: Spend the money on helping to develop Mexico so the folks down there can stay home and feed their babies. You might as well face up to the fact that it's time to embrace and educate them, because you will never keep the Mexicans from coming to America.

However, it will be imperative that the Border Patrol remain in charge of sorting out the outlaws, dopers, smugglers, terrorists, and other criminal elements from the crossing Mexican population.

III. The Well of Death

Along the bloody U.S.-Mexican border--or the Reaper's Line--illegal immigrants are not the real enemy. Do you remember the words I told you were written on a kilo of smuggled cocaine that we U.S. Customs Special Agents once seized?


This declaration of war is coming from an enemy that has enough money to build its own submarines. They finance their own armies with better equipment than all the U.S. border law enforcement agencies combined. This ultimate threat is coming from a formidable, vicious foe that launders $21 billion a year through the Mexican economy and another $5 billion a year through American Fortune 500 companies.

How formidable? How vicious?

That kilo of cocaine belonged to a drug cartel entrenched in the Mexican community of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, but also entrenched in the American economy, politics, law enforcement, and social life just across the Reaper's Line in Douglas, Ariz.

Drug money flows north to Douglas, and early in 1989 we were able to seize about $2 million of it. Detained at the border, one of the money couriers asked to talk to me, and only me, alone. I figured, great! This is it! He's going to roll over and we'll have a live witness against the cartel!

Standing damn near nose to nose, the guy said, "I was sent to tell you, they're going to kill you and (your associate) Arturo Bernal."

When the contract on us, and on my fellow agent Butch Barrett, was verified by other sources, our bosses wanted to move us. But do you have any idea how stupid that is? No, it would only open the door to unending bullying if we ran. So we stayed ... for the oncoming messy slaughter.

The cartel stole, cheated and fought among themselves over the lost $2 million, among other things. And on March 27, 1989, five bodies were found tortured and executed in Tucson. On March 30, 12 bodies were discovered in the bottom of a water well on Los Alamos Ranch, several miles west of Agua Prieta near the border.

It was satanic. These bodies resembled anything but humans: Slimy skins--raw flesh--flies--maggots--beaten faces--stench--blowfish--open eyes--gaping mouths--festering brains--women's severed fingers--now-silenced terror. Only animals kill like this! And that is just what the cartel is made of.

Before the bodies were pulled from the Well of Death, I'd sometimes gone unarmed when I was off duty. After the well, that changed permanently. After the well, I never took the trash out from my own kitchen without having a pistol on me.

I know some may think it was paranoia on my part. But do you realize how stupid it would be to get whacked because you didn't take the proper precautions?

It's virtually impossible to stay on your toes 24 hours a day. However, we all agreed that there was one advantage to being continually armed: It would make them kill you. This way you would cheat them out of their pleasure of making you scream all night while they slowly dissected you.

You must understand that the federal government, as a whole, isn't going to do much to help you.

On March 31, 1989, word was put out from the Mexican police that one of the main suspects in the Well of Death murders was the owner of Los Alamos Ranch, Hector "Tombstone" Fragoso, first cousin of the former Douglas police chief, Alvaro Fragoso. Tombstone was an enforcer and assassin for the cartel.

In April of 1989, Tombstone Fragoso was arrested near Three Points, Ariz., where he had been hiding in a mobile home, and Bernal and I interviewed him at the federal prison in Tucson. We had heard about the red-hair dye job Tombstone had tried in an attempt to alter his appearance on the run. And we had also been told that the "'do" didn't quite work out. But I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined how comical Lucifer himself could look in bright orange clown hair.

Bernal and I knew that if we laughed or even smirked at the hairdo, Tombstone would put us on his death list and call off the interview. So we concentrated on looking him in the face and eyes. And that in itself was enough.

Tombstone possessed cold, dark-brown, never-ending eyes from hell. I'd seen such eyes before in Vietnam. His eyes held the same blank, thousand-yard stare of mercenaries and soldiers who bathed themselves in the lust of killing. The Beast was as strong in Tombstone as it had been decades ago in a young Marine I once knew, Charlie Whitman.

Tombstone was a killing machine with arms as big as most men's thighs. And those 12 in the well were by no means even close to his total kills. Fifty? A hundred and fifty? No one knows for sure. Tombstone was later deported to Mexico, where he was tried and convicted of the 12 murders. The Mexican government has no death sentence, although I find that somewhat curious since their own federal agents continually murder people.

Anyway, Tombstone was sentenced to 30 years in prison. As of this writing, I am told by my Mexican sources that he is let out of prison on weekends and holidays to travel in Mexico as he pleases. Convicted and sentenced or not, he's still a cartel member with the usual privileges.

No other members of the cartel were ever indicted or tried for ordering the murders, though several were later murdered in their turn. Bernal, Butch and I are still looking over our shoulders, but the dead guys don't worry about it much anymore.

It is imperative for the survival of America that our approach to the war on drugs be revamped. We are rapidly heading toward legalizing marijuana because we must. We need the resources and space in courts and prisons for those who traffic in hard drugs that really do kill, such as smack, coke, and meth.

The threat we are going to have to deal with is guerrilla narco-terrorism, and the enemy is people like Tombstone and his masters. You should never forget those words on the kilo of cocaine: "THIS IS OUR WAR ON THE NORTH AMERICANS!"

VII. Geronimo Drex

One of the grandest men I ever knew was a U.S. Border Patrol supervisor by the name of Drexel Atkinson.

Drex's weatherworn face and arms testified to years of trailing bad men and illegal aliens in the unpredictable desert. To most folks the crusty old lawman was a cross between an Old West gunslinger and a Southern backwoods sheriff. To me, he looked amazingly like the Apache renegade leader Geronimo, reincarnated.

But the old man hid a heart as big as Texas under his 250-pound, 6-foot frame. I learned a lot about compassion for aliens from this old man. In fact, I learned a lot about compassion for all people under his guidance. Drex even had mercy on me on more than a few occasions.

One evening around 10 o'clock, a sensor on the border behind the La Copita bar went off. This bad-ass bar was located no more than 50 yards from the border fence, and the back door of the dank, foul, smoke-filled saloon faced south toward Mexico. That made it easy to dive into the La Copita after making an illegal entry into the U.S.

But you couldn't ever expect to just go in and simply grab your suspect and depart in peace. Oh, no. So this particular night McMahon and I gave a quick peek at the usual crowd of whores, desperados, dope smugglers, and alcoholic scum, but we didn't see anyone huffing and puffing after running the infamous La Copita 50-yard dash. So I said I'd check from the back door to the border if he'd keep an eye on the ruffians in the bar.

Before I got to the hole in the fence where the sensor had gone off, I heard boots shuffling over the rocks in Mexico. I stopped dead in my tracks. In the darkness I could just barely make out four or five black figures slinking along with large bundles on their backs.

A dope load was on the way across and I was going to be badly outnumbered. They were too close for me to use my walkie-talkie. I instinctively went prone on the ground, thinking of my father's saying: "Don't ever ride your horse into a canyon that you ain't willing to crawl out of."

When the lead smuggler was almost ready to step on me, I stood up, illuminated the outlaws with my flashlight, and jerked my Magnum from its leather, shouting, "La Migra! (Police!)"

The entire mule train simultaneously reversed direction. The fence was no more than 15 yards away. Foolish as it may have been since I was alone, I holstered my pistol and jumped the mule closest to me. We hit the dirt and rolled with each other in a mano-to-mano death grip, gouging, biting, and choking until he was "legally subdued."

I had one cuff on him when I felt the Reaper's hot breath on the nape of my neck. The mules may have abandoned their dope but not their compadre. It was time for somebody to die.

VIII. Codes One to Four

All I can tell you is that there were three or four of them and they hit all at once like a pack of starving dogs. They beat me to the ground, and I could feel somebody's hand trying to free my revolver from its holster. I felt the Reaper's breath turning graveyard cold.

But my body immediately kicked into a high-gear survival mode. I heard bones snap as I broke the hand backwards and away from the pistol, and I jerked the iron up and forward and fired the first round over the toes of my boots. After that I fired the next five in a rising arch until the pistol was empty directly over my head.

The smugglers disappeared. The only bad guy left was the one I had tried to cuff before the war started. I was so exhausted I didn't care when he managed to slither back to Mexico on his stomach.

When McMahon got there he found me lying in the middle of six or seven burlap bags of marijuana totaling around 500 pounds. I figured I was gonna have to face the wrath of Drex again for going up against the smugglers all alone, but for whatever reasons, the old man took me under his wing from that day forward.

It was around 1980 when Drex decided to retire, but first he had a score to settle. Evidently, he had never forgotten about the ass whipping the La Copita smugglers had given me.

It was late October, marijuana harvest time, and the Mexicans had a bumper crop that year. Since most of your dope is smuggled at night, Drex had most of us working the evening shift with him.

On this particular fall Friday, Drex dropped the news that he was retiring. No one was happy about it. This bunch would never come right out and say it, but each and every agent loved the old man like a father.

Friday nights were always jumping in a major rock-and-roll way. That's why McMahon and I were surprised when Drex said he was going to lie in the brush behind the La Copita. It wasn't something that an out-of-shape senior citizen needed to do, but we didn't have the gall to say so.

Drex made McMahon and me his designated backup guys and told us his plan and radio codes. He had received information that a couple of hours after dark, seven or eight smugglers were going to load a car with dope in the alley behind the bar.

The old man said when he radioed Code One, that meant the mules were approaching the hole in the fence with the dope. Code Two meant they'd crossed. Code Three meant the smugglers were on the trail toward La Copita. Code Four was the signal for McMahon and me to move in and help Drex bust everybody involved, both inside and outside of the saloon.

Just before dark, the old man got his gear ready. Now, most younger agents just take a dark cotton poncho to spread on the ground and sit on. But that night we noticed instead of a poncho Drex was taking one of those little sawed-off folding chairs that older folks go fishing with.

McMahon and I knew this wasn't going to work. Risking great peril, which was the wrath of Drex, we tried to talk him into letting one of us take his place. We both knew that Drex was going to be about as inconspicuous as a 200-pound Caribbean sea tortoise in a herd of Mexican cattle. But the old man wouldn't have it any other way. So that was that.

McMahon and I made a pact that neither of us would get farther away than a one-minute response time, and all evening we cruised the border area of Douglas within several blocks of Drex's position. We were worried to death that the old man would get hurt or, worse yet, whacked just before retiring.

It was about 10 or 11 in the evening. Drex had been out in the brush now for some four hours. We hadn't heard a peep on the radio, not so much as a Code One. Now McMahon and I were really concerned. What if the radio battery had gone dead?

What if--?

Finally Drex broke radio silence. The old gravel-throated voice was urgent.

"Code Four, Four, Four!"

Panic! As we raced our patrol cars, sirens wailing and flashing red lights bouncing off the border fence, we screamed on the radio to each other, "What happened to Codes One, Two, and Three?!"

About a block away we heard the old man's second garbled transmission. "Onetwothreefour! Onetwothreefour!" he screamed.

Then we heard the report of Drex's special engraved commemorative Border Patrol .357 Magnum meting out its final night of justice behind the La Copita. Ka-Whoom! Ka-Whoom! Ka-Whoom!

We skidded our cars sideways into the alley. As my headlights crossed over Drex and illuminated his Geronimo face, not only was I relieved to see him alive, but it was one of those golden photo opportunities that will be permanently framed in my brain.

The old man stood there swaying and laughing like old St. Nick catching a kid sneaking a peek under the Christmas tree. But instead of red, this Santa was dressed in Border Patrol green.

In Drex's left hand, pointing toward the ground, was his .357 Magnum. A well-defined line of smoke was still pouring from the barrel into the crisp desert night air. He held his right arm straight up, gripping a little drug mule by the shirt collar.

Drex was so large and the outlaw was so small in comparison that the Mexican's feet were completely off the ground. But that didn't stop the little guy from running because he was moving his feet as fast as he could go, suspended in midair. Drex was bellowing that big, bad, graveled, gotcha laugh, like Santa in Florida posing by a hanging marlin he'd just hauled out of the Gulf.

There were bags of dope lying all around Drex's feet. The getaway car was there, motor running, trunk open. I could hear the smugglers who'd gotten back into Mexico whimpering and cursing in pain.

Later, we accompanied Drex through the back door of the La Copita where he proudly proclaimed to the occupants that it was being closed down. All in all, the old man was pretty pleased with himself by the time we got back to the office.

Old Drex would never tell us what had happened out there in the brush on his last dope load, so we just let it go. Years later we finally found out.

The old man had settled down in his fishing chair and found it pretty comfortable. While Drex was sitting there all cozy and comfy, the sandman caught him, causing Drex to doze off. When he woke up, the smugglers were hauling the dope right past him into the back of the bar. So much for Codes One, Two, and Three.

But then I reckon other Western legends didn't put much faith in numbers either. If Geronimo had, he would have surrendered much earlier.

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