Small Wars Journal


Mon, 04/29/2024 - 9:40pm


Michael L. Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt


No matter how many times I did these types of missions it always got me going. My heart raced as I reached the edge of the motel compound. Ulloa leaned the cheap metal ladder against the cement block wall and Fredricks went over first followed by Gomez and Ulloa. I climbed up and then lowered myself down the other side. My vest scraped against the concrete wall for a moment before I let go and plunged to the ground. A sharp pain shot through my left knee under the patella. Forty-year-old knees aren’t meant for this.

Fredricks was smiling in the green glow of the night vision goggles. “You good boss?” he whispered.

I gave him a thumbs up and motioned for the team to move out. We were in an unlit alley between the hotel rooms and the exterior wall of the compound. Gomez took point, moving toward the front of the hotel which was bathed in a neon purple light from the sign above the entrance. It wasn’t exactly a hotel or even a motel in the American sense.  It was a hotel for people’s private sexual encounters, ideal for cheating spouses and lovers. There was no lobby or reception.  Instead, people would just drive their car through the entrance, pull up to a private garage, park their car, lower the garage door, and enter an adjacent windowless room – all specifically designed for hooking up with a secretary, or the local police chief’s wife.

Gomez signaled a halt. There was a single SUV parked near the entrance to the property.

“Driver is outside the vehicle,” Gomez’s voice came through the earpiece.

“I have visual” replied Crowe.

I spotted the man smoking by the black SUV. Normally, Verdugo had a five-man crew with him, but he was coloring outside the lines, so he only brought his nephew to watch his back.


His head opened up in a green mist as seen through the night vision, and he fell to the ground. I signaled Gomez to continue. We moved to the front side of the rooms. There were about eight in this row, each with a metallic garage door, and a main wooden door next to it. The first two rooms were unoccupied, but the third had a purple glow escaping under the edges of the door. The team silently stacked up and listened to the moaning and grunting coming from the room.

“Overwatch, are we clear?” I whispered.


This motel was especially convenient because it was in the middle of the Sonoran Desert well outside of Navojoa on the two-lane road to Huatabampo. There was nothing but fields and an adjacent junkyard. Smart if you want to avoid getting caught hooking up with someone you shouldn’t be, but not great for avoiding isolation.

I flipped up my NVGs and switched to white light. The others did the same. I squeezed Ulloa’s shoulder. He moved forward with the sledgehammer, swung it back, and brought it down with a crash against the flimsy door which splintered and flung open. Ulloa stepped aside and I followed Gomez and Fredricks through the breach.

The man turned in surprise and dove for the side of the round bed. The woman rolled off the bed screaming and balled up in the opposite corner of the room.

The man pulled a pistol from a pile of clothes on a chair, but Fredricks put three bullets into him with his suppressed AR-15. He collapsed on the floor.

Ulloa’s light stayed on the girl and Fredricks transitioned to guarding the door. Gomez and I moved up to the body. I pulled up a photo and placed it next to the man’s face.

Gomez nodded. It was Eduardo Castelo Porras, better known as El Verdugo - the Executioner.  Up until a few seconds ago he had been the number two guy in the Fuerza Negra Oscura. Negra Oscura was a particularly awful criminal organization that emerged as a splinter group when the Fuerza Negra lost its leader in what was believed to be a Mexican military action.[1] After a year of infighting, Negra Oscura claimed dominance. Fuerza Negra was bad, Negra Oscura was even worse. It was more violent, poorly controlled by a new younger leader, expanding, and it was pushing the majority of fentanyl into the United States.

Gomez pulled out a bag and threw in Verdugo’s clothes. I found a couple of cell phones on the bedside table and tossed them in. Gomez kicked the pistol out of Verdugo’s hand, picked it up, and cleared it. He placed it in the bag as well. I circled the air with my hand fully extended and pointing up, and we moved back out of the room. The girl would live. If she was smart, she wouldn’t tell anyone about this. If she wasn’t, or if forced, she would tell her husband or the Negra Oscura that a group of armed men with CJNG patches busted the door and killed Verdugo. Since Negra Oscura and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – CJNG – were on bad terms this would push them further toward conflict.

It was the fourth operation since we started, and we were making progress.

* * *

Two weeks later, we finally had the leader of the Negra Oscura, Miguel Uriel Rodriguez Caro, in our sights. A flood of signals intelligence had been flowing in from the cell back in D.C. It was working just like I had intended. After tracking down terrorists and killing them in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than two decades, I knew what was required. A few months before, when I had received the call from the White House asking me to serve as an assistant to the Director of Counternarcotics in the National Security Council Staff, I was surprised. I had done some work against heroin trafficking Taliban, but I didn’t know much about drug runners or policy.

“We don’t need someone who knows about drugs, Angel, we need someone that knows how to target,” Paul had said.

“Please call me Andy,” I interrupted.

“Andy, perhaps you’ve seen on the news, fentanyl deaths exceeded 150,000 last year.]2] This is a new term, and the President needs to show results. The borders nearly decided the last election. He wants action. We’re going to do the kinds of things you know how to do. This thing is going to the next level.  But we need to do this quietly.  We just reestablished official diplomatic relations after Mexico pulled its ambassador last year when we closed the border to try to stop the flow of migrants crossing.  Mexicans are willing to support this mission, but no one can know. They are our top trading partner now.  Do you understand?”

I was always going to accept. I mean, if the President is asking you to do it, then why the fuck not? These bastards were killing Americans. More Americans than 9/11, and we invaded two countries for that. We had to do something.

I was given an office inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Putting together the team was somewhat more complicated than I had imagined. There was a Presidential finding, but the project was so compartmentalized that only a small number of people knew about it. It was also a bit unclear if Congress had been notified. Paul routinely mentioned “exceptional circumstances” when discussing the plan.[3] Worse, I quickly realized why I had received the call – the CIA had declined to take the job, no doubt worried that it would blow up and cause them a black eye. Rather than force the issue, the President and Paul opted to keep the operation in the NSC with me in the lead.[4] This was less than ideal. I had been worried it was like Iran-Contra, but hell, Oliver North ended up with a show on Fox, so I got it up and running.  

I finished connecting the commo gear and punched in a series of logins and passwords and the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) back at the NSC filled the small screen. The team of five analysts were milling about getting situated. The 6th floor vacation rental condo in the Sandy Beach area of Puerto Peñasco was not exactly a secure space, but it was suitable for our purposes. Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point was a popular vacation spot for Arizonans that wanted to visit the beach on the Sea of Cortez. As a Cuban American I could blend in decently in most places in Mexico. Fredricks and Crowe couldn’t, and their Spanish was limited. What was more important to me was that I could trust them. We had served in special operations units in Afghanistan together and they were tactically proficient.

Paul sat down in front of the camera. “Can you hear us, Andy?”

“I’ve got you Paul. Can you hear me?”

I was happy enough with Paul. He was young and annoying but energetic. He had no experience as a soldier or a spook. In fact, he was unqualified to be a senior director at the NSC, but he had a fanatical devotion to the President and loyalty mattered in the White House. That all meant I had a long leash.

“Yes, yes, we’ve got you.”

“We have eyes on Uriel. Thanks to Cathy for the great work on pinning down his location. We’re going to continue to develop his pattern of life and confirm a plan. Right now, it’s looking like he has significant security so –”

“–Andy, Andy,”

“Yes, Paul,”

“Are your Mexican team members in the room?”

“No, I’m the only one here. Everyone else is out on recon.”

“We still have eyes on, correct?”

I tapped a message into an encrypted messaging app on the phone and Fredricks replied.

“Still have eyes on, but he is inside the house.”

Paul turned to Cathy, “is that what the video is showing?”

“Yes, he hasn’t left.”

“Good. Andy, we have a change of plans. Based on recent events – “

“–What events?”

“The killing.”

“What are you talking about. I just got back to the room, Paul.”

Paul ran his hands over his neatly combed hair, “earlier this morning a family of Americans was killed in a shootout in Cabo San Lucas.”[5]

Cathy interrupted, “it appears to have been a case of mistaken identity. One of the splinters from the Sinaloa Cartel most likely. But, it was videoed and it’s now on the internet.”

“And the President has seen it, and the public has seen it. These weren’t Mexican-Americans, these were white folks from Ohio or Idaho or something,” Paul added

“Indiana” Cathy said.

I wondered why Mexican-Americans were somehow not really Americans in Paul’s mind.

“In any case, the public is blaming the President for not doing anything against the cartels.  The President needs to show strength and respond.  So, he’s authorized a strike. We’re calling it Operation Blackjack.”

“Okay, we’ll move fast on the planning and get this done.”

Paul snickered, “you’re not understanding me Andy, the President wants to send a message now. Your program is going from covert to overt.”

“What are you talking about Paul? My team has Mexicans on it. Gomez and Ulloa are on loan from the Mexican Navy, from SEMAR. It took a month to convince them to sign on and the agreement is that this stays covert, and we do this quietly. Do the Mexicans know about this?”

“The Mexicans are all corrupt Andy, you know that. Right now, we can’t lose these targets, so we’re not telling them. We have four strikes going in on four priority targets, and a Predator on Uriel right now. Don’t worry, everyone thinks the Mexican president will just roll over on this. She doesn’t want trouble and besides, she’s just going to tell everyone that we did it together and take some credit. I’ve been given assurances already.”

Cathy was shaking her head. This made me nervous since she had worked Mexico issues for more than three decades.

“Cathy doesn’t seem to think so,” I replied.

“Andy,” Cathy followed, “there are no guarantees here. The Mexicans are a proud people and it’s not clear how they will react.”

“Okay, enough Cathy. We all have our orders.” Paul looked at someone off camera. He picked up the remote and muted his sound.

I heard a loud, low-pitched thud and the windows of the sliding glass door shuddered. I ran out to the balcony and looked down the coastline. Close to the building, the moon and the stars created a pleasant white glow over the beach which was at low tide. To the left and further south the lights of central Puerto Peñasco flickered, and beyond that a bright orange fire with black smoke billowed up, obstructing the view of the stars. I knew immediately that it was the Las Conchas area, where Uriel’s house was located.

A bright flash in the sky flared out above the water, followed by a streak of light. A burst of flames erupted right before the sound of another explosion reached me. Other people were also coming out on the balconies to investigate. As I walked back in, I heard the sounds of sirens.

I got back on the call, “What did you do Paul!?”

Paul wasn’t there anymore. Cathy hit the unmute button. “He authorized the strikes. Good luck down there.”

I rushed back out to the balcony and called Fredricks. No answer. In the distance I could hear the popping sound of small arms fire. Crowe picked up.

“Kinda busy boss.”

Over the cellphone I heard an engine roaring and shots being fired.

“Two o’clock, policía, go left!” I recognized Ulloa yelling in the background.

“I’ll talk soon.” Crowe hung up.

* * *

An hour felt like days waiting for a response. Uriel’s smoking house was located to the south side of town. Down the coast, the number of flashing lights from police and fire trucks was growing. I was about to jump in my truck and head down there to see what I could do when I finally got the call from Fredricks.

“We’re alive boss.”

“Thank God.”

“Well, it isn’t all good. I assume you didn’t know the strike was going in?”


“Well, I almost shit myself. Me and Ulloa, we were sitting there keeping eyes on Uriel when the whole house explodes. We considered doing site exploitation for a second before another missile went in. I told Crowe and Gomez to link back up with me and they did. Problem was they brought a couple truckloads of bad guys with them firing away. I laid down some fire to slow them down and we hauled ass out of there with these narcos right behind us. Then in front of us we see police lights.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah. So, it wasn’t just cops. The marines were with them in those armored vehicles, the Sandcats. Ulloa tells me ‘we’re screwed’ says ‘no way they can tell we’re not Negra Oscura.’ So, I juke hard left and we go over a dirt berm and the truck gets stuck in the sand on the other side. Crowe follows me and he gets stuck too. Luckily, the marines and narcos start shooting it out. Ulloa starts screaming at somebody on the cell phone and then tells us all to lay flat on the ground and that his cousin was in the unit and that we would be good to go.”

“Damn it.”

“You see where this is going. The marines come over the berm. They don’t kill us all, which I consider good news. But, Ulloa and this guy have a big argument and all of us get detained.”

“We’re compromised?”

“Not sure, but we’re now at the Navy base in town. We’re not really locked up, but it’s very clear that we’re not going anywhere. Seems like the local commander is trying to figure out what to do.”

“I’m sorry Fred. This went sideways.”

“Don’t sweat it boss. I’ll call if anything changes.”

I hung up and saw a new message on my phone.

Cathy: Presidential announcement in 5min.

I swiped over to YouTube on my cell. The speech was live streaming. The President, an old man, was sitting at his desk in the Oval Office squinting at the camera or something behind it until he realized, or was told, he was live.

“My fellow Americans, I’m speaking with you tonight to tell you that I have taken action in Mexico against the violent cartels that are horribly killing our friends and family members everyday with terrible drugs like fentanyl. More than 150,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year and this is unacceptable. Earlier today, a family of American citizens, the Healys – John who worked in insurance, his wife Jessica, their daughter Gwyne – 10 years old, and their young son John Jr. who was just two years old. They were killed by cartel members while vacationing in Cabo San Lucas.”

“My most important job, as your president, is to protect Americans and to serve justice on those who do us harm. So, we, our Air Force, have launched strikes in four locations in Mexico and have killed several criminals that sell drugs to our children and were responsible for killing the Healys. We will continue to work with the Mexican government to take down these groups, but I will take action to protect the American people. Have a good night and God bless America.”

The feed cut out. Seemed reasonable, but why hadn’t they given me time to get out of here?

Cathy: State losing it. Not informed. This is bad. Standby, Mexican President will make statement soon.

I flipped on the TV and went to the local channel. After withstanding a Mexican narco telenovela for several minutes, the programming cutoff, and the Mexican President appeared, standing at a podium about to address the nation. I didn’t know much about her, but just looking at her, I knew she wasn’t going to just roll over.

“Mexico is not a perfect country. I was elected president, your first female president, to move our country forward and end the violence that torments our people. This is violence caused by an insatiable demand for drugs to our north.” She pointed an accusatory finger up and beyond the camera.

“We suffer because of their drug use. More than 30,000 Mexicans die every year from gun violence in this country.[6] How many Mexican families and children have been killed by guns produced and purchased in the United States?[7] Tonight, we learn that our friends to the north want to help us. Yes, they would like to help us. They, without authorization, flew drones into our airspace and launched missiles into our country.”

“Oh shit,” I said.

“The United States of America thinks it can treat Mexico like Afghanistan or Iraq. But we Mexicans know about the United States. The United States that invaded us in 1916 to chase the revolutionary Villa who wouldn’t bow down to them, the United States that seized Veracruz in 1914, and the United States that went to war with us and robbed us of half of our sovereign territory!”

“Many have counseled me to back down. Many think that because I am a woman, I lack the strength to stand up to the Gringos. Many think our trade is too valuable to challenge the Americans, that our honor is sold cheaply. I disagree. I will not back down. I will not stain our honor. If a foreign enemy would dare to profane our ground with the soles of their boots, Think, oh beloved Patria that Heaven has given a soldier in every son and daughter!”

“All American military personnel, all the spies in their embassies and consulates, and all of their law enforcement officials are ordered to leave this country in 24 hours or they will be subject to arrest. I have ordered the immediate closing of our border with the United States and a full mobilization of our military to prevent any land incursions. There will be no punitive expeditions. I have ordered our air forces to control our airspace. We will shoot down any military aircraft that are not authorized to enter our airspace. Our diplomats will call for immediate assistance from the Organization of American States and the United Nations. We will teach our neighbors to respect us and show other nations that feel threatened by their imperialistic attitudes how to stand up to this arrogance.  We will show the world Mexico’s strength.”

I turned off the TV and punched in the passwords on the commo screen again. Cathy answered. The other analysts were behind her hunched over their computers.

“Cathy, where is Paul?”

“I’m sorry. Paul is in the Oval.”

“Alright Cathy, we talked about this contingency before we started. I need to get my team out. What’s the embassy saying?”

“We can ask Paul when he gets back.”   

“Why didn’t someone tell me, Cathy?”

My cell rang. I held up my finger to the screen telling Cathy to wait.

It was Ulloa, “what’s happening?”  

“Fredricks and Crowe are arrested. They are flying them to Mexico City now. Gomez and I will report back to SEMAR headquarters tomorrow.”

I ran back out onto the balcony. A SEMAR UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter rose up from a compound next to the harbor and picked up speed headed east into the night sky.

“What the hell!”

“I’m sorry it ended this way, Jefe. I’m not supposed to be talking to you. There are orders to arrest you as well. Guardia Nacional are on their way to your position now. Good luck my friend.”

The building blocked my view. I ran to the front door opposite the sliding glass windows facing the beach. Sure enough, there were three or four Guardia Nacional trucks coming up from the center of Rocky Point with their lights flashing.

“Are you still there Andy?” Paul said.

“Compromised. I’m going to make my way to the border.”  


I held the power button down and turned off the device. There was too much gear to grab so I removed the small drive with the encryption key but left the commo gear and antenna. No time to destroy everything else. I had been lazy about keeping my go-bag ready. I grabbed my large civilian backpack. I picked up my kit bagwith my AR-15, gear, and ammunition. It was heavy and awkward making my way down the external flight of stairs.  My nighttime visibility was limited, but at each landing I could see the police lights getting closer.

I threw my bags into the back of the Chevy Tahoe. As I turned out of the parking lot, I noticed several people out on the exterior walkways looking around and talking to each other. I punched the gas and turned on to the short road to the gate of the condo complex.

It started to open.

I could see the lights reflecting off of another condo tower.

“Come on, come on.” I pulled the bumper right to the edge of the gate.

There was just enough space. I slammed on the accelerator. I clipped the edge of the gate, and it jolted open off of its tracks. I turned away from town toward Choya Bay and away from the Guardia Nacional.

I killed the lights and kept driving. In the rearview mirror, I watched three Guardia Nacional trucks turn into the condo. I flipped the lights back on and hit the gas to increase my distance.

15 seconds, then they will be on the stairs. I started counting in my head. I needed to go faster. The asphalt gave way to a packed sand and dirt road. The Tahoe shimmied as the tires struggled to grip the new terrain. The automatic four-wheel drive kicked on and the engine revved.

“Three, two, one.” I spotted a turn to the right into the open desert. I hammered the brakes and turned hard.

I stopped and switched off the lights.   

I looked back and could see the flashlights going up the stairs of the condo tower. I hoped that the moon wasn’t bright enough for them to see the SUV.

The damn NVGs were in the back. I cursed as I climbed over the seats in order to avoid turning on the interior lights. I dug through the bag and found the NVGs. I put them on. Visibility was good thanks to the moon. The NVGs were an old set of PVS-7s so they weren’t great, but they were available online so if we lost them everyone would assume they belonged to narcos. I then made my way out into the desert on one of the dirt tracks used by offroaders and Razors.

Once I was far enough away, I stopped and did a map check on my phone. I had messages.

Cathy: We need an update.

Cathy: Are you out there?

Andy:  I made it out. Where is my team?

Cathy: We’re not sure.


* * *

I spent the early morning hours inching my way toward the city of Rocky Point so I could get on the highway. Unfortunately, once I got close, there were cops and National Guard, and marines all over the place. The response was impressive. People had a vision of the Mexican military as being lazy and corrupt in their head, but when the President said jump, they jumped. And, there were more than 300,000 of them based all over the country.

I stayed put and waited for daylight.

As the sun came up a long line of vehicles began to depart the vacation high-rises of Sandy Beach.

The cell rang over the encrypted app.

“Andy -”

“-What’s the status of my team?” I barked.

“They are in Mexico City. We are working on getting them released, but all the official channels are closed.” Cathy said.

“Damn it. Where’s Paul.”

“They pulled him into a principals’ committee – all the cabinet members are there.”

“There’s another problem.”

“Another problem?”

“The strike in Jalisco was, well, it was off.”


“We didn’t have eyes on the ground there and we didn’t vet it with the Mexicans. We’re not sure if we hit the wrong vehicle or if it was just corruption. We hit a Mexican American businessman and a Mexican member of congress. It’s unclear if our target was there or not.”

I noticed I was clenching my fist around the steering wheel.

“Paul wants you to stay put.”

“I’m headed to the border. Fuck Paul.” I hung up.

I reset my gear. I put my NVGs back, moved my rifle behind the driver’s seat, and checked my Glock. No breakfast, but I was so pissed I didn’t notice. How could this have happened? We were doing good work withthe Mexicans. We could have taken Uriel out. Why the hell did they do that strike in Jalisco? Whose idea was this?

I made my way to the paved road and slipped into the growing stream of SUVs and cars headed toward the border. I turned on the radio. For the first 30 minutes they just replayed the statements by both presidents. I could hear the concern in the deep voiced radio host.

“The New York Stock Exchange just announced it has halted trading due to a seven percent drop after it opened this morning. The drop triggered the circuit breaker.” he said. “Mexico is the number one trading partner with the United States, and the current crisis has spooked investors.”[8]

I was pondering what that would mean for my Roth IRA when up ahead a pick-up and an SUV heading south stopped and pulled in front of the north bound traffic causing the cars to my front to slam on their brakes.

Two men got out. They were wearing tactical vests and sporting AK-47s. They moved up on the Toyota 4Runner two cars in front of me.

I reached back for the rifle.

They were screaming at the driver. The doors of the 4Runner opened and a family hesitantly climbed out of the vehicle. They screamed at the family to sit by the side of the road and moved to the next vehicle.

There were only two of them. Maybe more in the trucks, I thought. Options were limited. I could turn and head back to Rocky Point. They might try to follow. There was no talking my way out of this. I had seen enough online narco videos to know that getting abducted by these guys was not a great plan.[9]

They split. The second guy was closer now, he was young, maybe 16. He leapfrogged forward to the car in front of me and started threatening the civilians while the first guy moved the others to the side of the road.

I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly.

I opened my door and raised my hands where the kid could see them.

He glanced at me and turned back to his current target.

I brought the rifle up from the seat and placed the red dot center mass on his body. I fired off two rounds.   

He went down.

Between the suppressor and the noise of the vehicles, his buddy might not have registered the shots, but I picked up as fast of a walk as possible while maintaining my platform. I needed to get to the trucks.

His buddy turned around. I put two rounds into his side and then one into his head. I didn’t see him fall. I started running at full speed. If there were more, I had to hit them before they got out of the vehicles.

I got to the edge of the 4Runner and pulled up. I sent two rounds into the windshield of the SUV. Spiderwebs of cracks formed, but it didn’t penetrate. Armored! I switched to the truck. The rounds penetrated. I saw the driver slump over in his seat. No one else in there.

The SUV backed up. I fired into the grill and the hood. No armor there. Maybe I could disable it. In any case no one got out.

The SUV roared past me to the south. Steam was pouring out of the hood. Good enough. With luck he’ll break down.

The 4Runner nearly ran me over. A woman in the passenger seat yelled “thank you” as it raced north.

What the hell was going on? I jumped back into the Tahoe and floored it. I keyed up Cathy’s number.   

“Just had a run in with a narco roadblock. You need to do something. There’s a line of Americans trying to get back to Lukeville on Highway 8”

“All hell is breaking loose here. The market’s crashing,” Cathy said.

“I don’t give a shit about the market Cathy! The narcos were grabbing Americans out of their cars on the highway!” I was losing my temper. I needed to calm down, but the adrenaline was still pumping.

“We know! It’s not just there, it’s everywhere. The groups we hit are taking hostages and using them like human shields. After Gaza, Negra Oscura tried to take hostages mirroring Hamas. But this was always isolated and never with Americans. There are one and a half million Americans living in Mexico. We have no idea how many are there now on vacation, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million. Mexico gets like 12 million American tourists a year. Not to mention the Europeans. The Brits have been calling the White House non-stop. We can’t protect them all, there is no NEO plan for Mexico, there’s no evacuation plan. Especially without the Mexicans.”[10]

“You’ve got to be kidding me?”

“We think we have more than 100 kidnappings and it’s growing. The Mexicans are still not talking to us. We’re ramping up to deal with it. The President is furious. The Rangers, tier one units, FBI hostage rescue, everything we can find. The first operation just went into Tamaulipas. There were casualties. Not sure yet if they got the hostages out.”

The desert was a blur. I was doing a hundred.

“What does Lukeville look like? Can I get through?”

“I’ll check Andy, but it’s not looking good. I have to go, Paul is back. The Mexican President is going to speak again in 10 minutes.”

“Wait Cathy–”

She hung up.

Guess we’ll see, I thought.

Under an hour later as I came up on Sonoyta, the Mexican town on the other side of the Lukeville port of entry, there was a line of cars and semi-trucks that started on the edge of town. I cut through some side streets and was able to get closer. I left the rifle and walked toward the border. I looked down the main street which led to the crossing site. A sign flashed a message in Spanish:


I could hear voices in English screaming at the officials on the other side of the fences.   

“Nogales is closed too!”

“I’m an American! Make them open the border!”

They were joined by a large crowd of what had to be migrants yelling in Spanish, demanding asylum. A military truck pulled around the line of cars in the southbound lane and stopped next to the group. More migrants piled out of the truck, stretched their legs and reached up to help others to climb down. Looked like there was also about a platoon’s worth of Mexican soldiers on site, but they appeared content to watch the chaos and ensure no one came across to the south. They did seem interested in the HMMWV with a MK-19 grenade launcher posted on the other side of the border along with what looked like a company of U.S. soldiers, probably National Guard.

I was debating walking up and trying to talk my way through. Then the SUV I had shot up drove along the line of cars on the dirt shoulder followed by a pick-up full of armed men.

Time to go.

When I started up the truck the Mexican President was already on the radio.

“…and I would like to thank Vladimir Putin and the Russian people for the generous offer to provide S-300 anti-aircraft systems which will allow us to prevent drone strikes. We will not live like Pakistan wondering if the United States will launch a missile and kill our families. I would also like to thank Xi Jinping and China for their offer to mediate an end to our current conflict with the United States.”

I turned it off.

Cathy: Call me

I punched the callback button and put it on speaker. I turned the Tahoe around and headed west. I would follow the border fence till it ended and walk across. If Border Patrol grabs me, fine. At least I would be on the U.S. side.  

“Did you make it through?”

“Nope, it’s closed. No way through here. I’m going to walk across.”

I wove through the neighborhood streets on the edges of Sonoyta.

“Look it’s out of control here. Paul is fired. The President is furious. He was promised that this would be a limited operation and that the Mexicans would cave on this. Congress is talking about impeachment. Well, some of them. Some are calling for a full-scale invasion.[11] The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs resigned – I guess right before the first strikes went in. But, the National Guard has been mobilized by border states to help secure the border and assist Americans that are able to cross. 1st Armored Division in El Paso is being deployed along the border to do the same. They were supposed to be doing exercises in Europe next month to help show our commitment to Poland, now that Ukraine is on the ropes.”

“Cathy,” I breathed in and kept driving. “I, I, I need to focus on getting out of here.”

“What I’m trying to tell you Andy, is we are shutting down.”

“You can’t shut down. We’re still here. I’m still here. Fredricks and Crowe are still here!”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t know where these things go when you start them. There’s a group of former ambassadors and CEOs from big corporations on both sides of the border that are working to deescalate this thing, but I don’t know if they can.”

Cathy shook her head.

“Damn it, Cathy don’t let them abandon us down here.” I hung up before she could answer.

I managed to get to Highway 2 heading west, and I followed it waiting for the fence to end. It just kept going. It was getting close to sundown when I reached some small rocky hills. I guess I wasn’t the only one with this idea. There was a group of cars and busses on the side of the road. Along with maybe a hundred people. Some migrants and some that looked like middle class Americans.

I got out of the Tahoe. No use trying to haul my gear with me. I kept my pistol in the concealed carry holster and grabbed my backpack with some water.

I found an older Mexican man in the center of the group who looked like he was in charge. I told him I needed to cross the border. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes.

“You are Cuban or American?” he said in English.

“Cuban-American. I was on vacation.”

“Alright two thousand dollars.”

“I just need to know where the place to cross is. I don’t need someone to take me the whole way.”

“Think of it like a fee.”

“You get me to a place to cross, I’ll give you the keys to my truck.”

He glanced at the Tahoe. “Maybe we just take the truck after you leave?”

“Easier with the keys.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Fine.”

I sat for a few minutes and tried not to think. This must have been a regular jump off point, it smelled like trash and urine. There were different accents, Mexicans, Central Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and some others that were speaking Chinese.[12] A Mexican military convoy moved along the highway. HMMWVs and pick-ups with crew served weapons. A pair of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters raced to the west along the border.

The old man came over and told eight of us to follow him. Among the group was a middle-aged white couple. After a few minutes I saw about ten large quadcopter drones fly overhead. It was reaching dusk so I could barely see them.

“Whose are those?” I asked.

“Negra Oscura. Fentanilo.”

They were still shipping drugs. It was practically a war, their boss was blown to bits, and they were still shipping drugs.

He laughed and pointed to some of the migrants wearing cheap backpacks.  “If it cannot go in a car, we’ll make them carry it to pay their fee.”

I just shook my head and kept moving.

The border was marked by a metal fence that could stop a vehicle but not a person. I knew based on how far I had driven along the border, that this was because the desert was doing the work here. It was a long walk to anywhere. I passed under.

The American couple broke off and started walking the dirt road along the border toward Lukeville. I shook hands with the old man, and he continued with the migrants, and I guess drug smugglers, to the north. I was done. I sat down on the side of the road. Looking through the fence into Mexico.

I heard the sound of engines and the rumble of large vehicles. I looked up and saw a pair of MRAPs headed my way. These Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles were remnants from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They stopped and two National Guardsmen came out of the back.

“Don’t move.”

“I’m not moving.”

The young soldier frowned. “Did you come across the border?”

“I’m an American. Can you put the weapon down please.”

He lowered the barrel of the rifle.

The gunner yelled from his turret, “Williams, get back in. We have to move. Charlie two-one is in contact.”

The two soldiers mounted the vehicle, and I heard the hydraulics working to close the heavy ramp. The MRAPs drove off.

I watched them move down the road until I lost them in the dust and the darkness. Then I heard gunfire beyond the horizon. Maybe they were shooting down drones.  I shook my head and started to walk. Better to walk. Better not to know. I looked out at the desert. The moon was starting to come up. I could see the outlines of the barren mountains and the wide-open desert floor between them. I heard the distant buzz of a drone overhead. It felt like I was back in Afghanistan. We had left Afghanistan, but now we had brought it here, we brought it next door.


This FICINT essay is a companion to the authors’ article: “Perspective: War with the Cartels Is More Complicated Than It Sounds," Small Wars Journal, 23 March 2023.

Original US-Mexico border marker 165 (framed by a

Border Marker 165

border barrier) near Lukeville, AZ. The original was erected after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS, 2019), Public Domain.

[1] The splintering of Mexican criminal organizations has often resulted in increased violence. June S. Beittel, “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, R41576, 7 June 2022,

[2] “Drug Overdose Deaths,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

[3] William Daugherty, Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. pp. 109–110.

[4] David Rothkopf, Running the World. New York: Public Affairs, 2005, pp.134, 243.

[5] Will Grant, “Mexico Ambush: How a US Mormon Family Ended Up Dead.” BBC News, 8 November 2019,; “What we know about the 4 Americans kidnapped in Mexico.” CBS News. 7 March 2023,

[6] “Defunciones por homicidio, comunicado de prensa 418/23.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI). 25 Julio 2023,

[7] Ioan Grillo, Blood Gun Money: How America Arms cartels and Gangs. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

[8] “Top Trading Partners – February 2024.” United States Census Bureau. February 2024,

[9] Blog del Narco,

[10] “U.S. Relations with Mexico, Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet,” US Department of State. 13 September 2023; “Mexico Tourism Data and Statistics.” Relaciones Exteriores (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores), NEO – Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation.

[11] Some members of Congress have already proposed an Authorization for the Use of Force against Mexican cartels. US Congress, House, AUMF Cartel Influence Resolution. 118th Cong., J.R. 18.

[11] “MYTH/FACT: Known and Suspected Terrorists/Special Interest Aliens.” US Department of Homeland Security,; “Nationwide Encounters.” US Customs and Border Protection,; Sharyn Alfonsi, “Chinese Migrants are the Fastest Growing Group Crossing from Mexico into the U.S. at the Southern Border.” CBS News. 4 February 2024,


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Albert J. Marckwardt is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer where he served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as a Joint Task Force Liaison Officer in the US Embassy in Honduras, Mexico Desk Officer at U.S. Army North, and Colombia Country Director at the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions. He is the coauthor of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He is currently completing a Doctor of International Affairs degree and holds a Master in International Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Michael L. Burgoyne is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, he served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as the Army Attaché in Mexico, the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South, and the Senior Defense Official in Guatemala. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions and served as the Defense Attaché in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the co-author of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Studies from the US Army War College and an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He is currently a PhD student at King’s College London.