december coverOn the Front Lines

Few issues are as polarizing as immigration. For Latinos and non-Latinos alike, it presents a series of extremes with no compromise in sight. Open borders or a wall? Mass deportations or a path to citizenship? A closed, homogenous society or one that is open and multicultural? These abstractions often blind us to the human beings actually forced to make
these choices. In Desert Duty, Bill Broyles and Mark Haynes reveal the men and women charged with guarding our borders, in their own words. Following the introduction is the story of Alvaro “Mike” Obregon, a native of Tucson, Arizona who served in the Border Patrol from 1980 to 1992.



If you have traveled or lived near America’s southern border, you have seen the forest green uniform, the white vehicle with a green slash and bold letters, and the agents wearing ball caps. They are the men and women who run highway checkpoints, eye passing cars, and pursue groups of smugglers and undocumented aliens across open country. But have you met the agents themselves, those people behind the sunglasses, the humans at the wheel of the patrol truck, your neighbors down the street who shop at your mall and coach your kids’ peewee teams, the fathers and mothers who live and work near the border and wear the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol?

They are the mobile, uniformed arm of the federal government charged with patrolling between the official borderline ports of entry. Their authority to enter private lands to patrol for illegal aliens extends twenty-five miles from the border, and they may legally stop all vehicles to check for aliens as far as one hundred air miles from the border. Based upon reasonable suspicion of the commission of a criminal act or upon procurement of a warrant, they may investigate immigration offenses anywhere in the country.

They are the border police, and like your hometown force, they both protect and serve. In a day’s work they may catch a load of narcotics, apprehend groups of people entering the country without permission, and intercept a potential terrorist. The day undoubtedly will include rescuing aliens from death by thirst or murder by border bandits, preventing neighborhood assaults and burglaries, and administering first-aid to accident victims, and may involve delivering an untimely baby or helping stranded motorists. If you don’t know them, you should.

What follows is a set of interviews documenting the trials and triumphs of U.S. Border Patrol agents who have worked the southwest border between the United States and Mexico. They represent two-thirds of the patrol’s history, which dates back to 1924. It is written as told by those who have “walked the line” and is dedicated to their often unsung achievements.

We relay the stories in historical sequence, from the older guard now retired to those still wearing the badge, for one name leads to another, policies progress, and equipment evolves. The common theme is duty to country.

These are self-told stories of working folks doing desert duty at Wellton Station, just as they are at dozens of other Border Patrol stations along America’s borders. Names like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Fort Stockton, Douglas, Ajo, Calexico, and Campo signal stations with proud histories. The agency’s motto is Honor First, and uncommon dedication is required. The work is rigorous and dangerous. Agents must be vigilant, self-sufficient, and honest.

As you will read, the stories of these law officers reflect the fact that they are actual people with smiles and frowns.

Whether you are an alien downed by fatigue, battered by heat, or threatened by thirst or border bandits; a fellow agent in hot pursuit of drugsmugglers or holding suspects at gunpoint; or a citizen lost in the wild borderlands, these are the people you’d pray were on your trail and on their way. If you are a smuggler evading the law, these are the relentless forces you fear.

In their own words, these are the stories of men and women working the border where, before you had breakfast this morning, someone crossed the line and now someone is looking for them.

I joined Border Patrol by a fluke. In 1978 I walked into the Superior Court building in Tucson. A poster said, “Now hiring Border Patrol.” So I filled out an application and eventually got hired. I was toldto report to Del Rio, Texas. I remember calling the airport and telling them I wanted a one-way ticket to Del Rio. They said, “Just a minute, sir.” They come back and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but we never heard of it,” so I rode the bus all the way down.

I was there from 1980 to 1984 doing mostly sensor activity, city patrol, and highway checkpoint. We normally did the still watches on the crossings on the canal. You’ve got the river, Rio Grande, the canal, and certain areas. It was pretty interesting. There was a lot of smuggling. But I wanted to work in my hometown, Tucson, so I took a position at Tacna, Arizona, and figured I could then transfer to Tucson.

Tacna was a different area, very hot and dry. At Tacna the bushes are not even big enough to give shade to the lizards. We used to jokingly call them stick lizards. They would carry a stick for a while, and when it got too hot, they would climb the stick to cool their feet off. And they carried canteens.

It was interesting down there. I caught a group of aliens, one time, down there right at the border. They were only about a hundred yards from the drag road with 25 miles to go. They only had a gallon of water apiece and I knew they wouldn’t make it. We picked up a lot of dead, too many. Women, kids, men. They don’t know the area. They can’t carry enough water to survive that desert trek—it was just too hot and harsh. You’d find them dead there by the highway. You’d find them dead there by the canal. They just didn’t make it. Kids. . . . I remember cutting the lower drag. There were tracks of three women, two kids, and two males. I called Glen Payne, told him what I had, then I went up Papago Well Road and found their tracks. I took the

Ramcharger up and found them on top of the sand dune. The little kid had died in his mother’s arms. The other one crawled about ten feet and died.

The other gal walked away—we found her later, dead. The guys we found out on the highway. They said they had left water. We backtracked their trail . . . they never left nothing. It was tough. Little kids . . . the only way we could track them was because the youngest kid was dragging a little bag with toy soldiers and cars in it.

I’ve been around that sort of thing. I served thirty months of combat duty in ’Nam, so I’ve been around death since I was seventeen. You just brush it off. In ’Nam I served all over, from Phu Bai to Chu Lai. You just learn to live with it. Thirty months there with the Marines, and they wanted me to stay in. I said, “No, thank you.” I’d had enough.

Tacna was a small, tightknit station. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody knew what everybody else was thinking. We knew each other and how we cut, and where we’d go next, and where the aliens would go next.

Congress and politicians took away our farm and ranch checks and took away city patrol. They said we profile. We don’t. After you work the border for a while, you can tell who is here legally and who is not here legally. By patrolling the highway and watching the cars go by, you can tell. It’s just the way the driver and passengers look at you. The way they freeze up. It’s just an instinct that you pick up. Nine out of ten cars I stopped were loaded with illegal aliens.

I remember a trainee I had at Yuma, named Ramirez. We were sitting there on Dome Valley Road. Cars would be passing by late at night. He said, “That one, Mike?” “Nope.” “That one, Mike?” “No.” Then a truck passed by with a gal hugging the driver and she waved. I said, “That one.” So, we chased them all the way down to Wellton. They bailed out in a hayfield—fourteen of them. He said, “How did you know?” I said, “You’ll learn.”

How can it be profiling? I live by the Mexican border and I grew up in the U.S. You can ask me any day or stop me any time, and I’ll tell you I’m a U.S. citizen. It doesn’t bother me, but some people take offense to that. I don’t know why. There should be no American citizen, whether he be Hispanic, black, white, or whatever, who is offended if asked where he’s from.

When you ask some people where they’re from, they say, “What do I look like, a Mexican?” “I didn’t ask you that. I asked you where you were born.”

It’s a simple question, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” “What do I look like?” I don’t know what you look like. A simple question takes a simple answer.

If we’re going by the law, agents must have just reasonable suspicion, not probable cause. If you’re an American, you’re an American. You can tell Mexican nationals or Swedes or Canadians by their haircut, from their clothing, their mannerisms. It’s just something that you learn.

Sometimes Mexican nationals tried to play that game of “You’re Miguel Obregon. You must be my friend.” I had people offer me their daughters.

I’ve had people offer me their money. I always said, “No.” I’d always call for back-up. It’s strange, but they said, “You should let us go.” I’d say, “Why should I let you go? I’m working. This is my job. If I let you go and they stop you over there in Dallas or in Phoenix, they’ll find out someone—me—let you through. I’m not that dumb.” No, I would just do my job.

That’s why, for a long time, they wouldn’t hire Mexicans to work Border Patrol. They thought they would be, how would you say, lenient. And sometimes you would feel sympathy for the people. There’re a lot of hardworking people who just want to make a better living. But I’ve got to make a living, too. “I caught you, you’re mine, let’s go.” That’s it. End of story. I suspect that Border Patrol’s OIG (Office of the Inspector General) sometimes ran sting operations trying to test agents with bribes, but I wasn’t tempted.

Now we’re getting a whole different type of alien coming in: fighters, runners, smugglers, criminals. They just want to fight, and now they’re carrying more guns. And our agents are younger, with less real-world experience.

They have more education, but less common sense. In a job like this, you’ve got to be street smart. You’ve got to know when the aliens are scheming up stuff because they talk among themselves. You can hear them. Back in Eagle Pass, Texas, I stopped a group of about forty. It was the middle of the night, and one of the guys said, “Aren’t you afraid?” I said, “Why should I be afraid?” He said, “You’re all alone. There are so many of us.” I said, “I’m not alone. I’ve got my friend here.” At that time we were carrying .357s. I said, “The first six of you die. Who wants to be first?”

“Well,” he said, “You’ve got a point there.” I said, “Sit down.” So they all sat down.

But you get people like that. If you’re afraid, you’ve got no business there, because you are all alone. You’ve got no communication out in the canyons, especially out from Tacna or Tucson. Just before you go in there, you’ve got to let somebody know where you’re at and what you’re trailing.

If it’s backpackers carrying marijuana, they’ll send some agents out to back you up, but back-up may be four hours away. You’re way out there with not enough people working. We’d have two or three agents pick up forty or more crossers. If we had been trailing forty and only picked up thirty-five, then we’d have to backtrack, because we knew that five were in trouble, possibly dead. We did pick up a lot of dead.

We made a lot of rescues. Aliens would get exhausted, dehydrated, injured, lost, sick. We didn’t have a trauma team then. It was just us. We carried water and food, whatever they needed. We care. We’re compassionate.

But we can fight if we have to. I always told my guys, “You treat aliens the way they treat you.” They respect you, you respect them. If one mouths off, take that one down. Don’t let them start up. A little mouthing off will just get them excited. Cuff him, and sit them down.

Tacna was a nice place, because you had a lot of camaraderie there. I lived on the main drag in Wellton when I was in Tacna. Everybody could see the house and the driveway. When I’d fire up the barbecue, they’d all stop by. I was only going to cook one steak for the family, but all of a sudden I had to go to the store and get more because everybody was showing up.

Highway patrol officers, marshals, sheriffs, and Border Patrol agents, we just had a big old party there. “What are you doing, Mike?” “I’m going to cook a steak.” “I’ll be right back.” And they’d join us.

Right now, our agency is so big that hardly anybody knows anybody. We need more gatherings. Let agents get to know each other and their lies. Basically the only family you have is your other agents. Just like any police work, you’re an outcast to other people, because you carry a gun and badge. They think that you’re a different person, but you’re not—you’re just a regular old Joe doing your job. You get home at night, take that gun off, and you’re the same as anybody else.

For our agency you have to bring your work ethic. We had some lazy people. And we had some good people who all they want to do is work.

One, for example, is George Gonzales. He goes out and looks hard for trails, and when he gets on one, he won’t quit. He’ll stay on it two or three days. Some other guys may not even see anything, but there’s a few of that kind everywhere.

I started working when I was twelve years old. I asked my dad for a bike.

He said, “You want a bike? Let’s put you to work.” So, I went to work for him. He built houses. There I was working for my bike and I never stopped.

I joined the Marine Corps at the age of seventeen. I figured I’d find better pastures, but—whoo!—they didn’t offer anything but rice paddies and bullets.

The Marine Corps gives you discipline. They make you and bring out strengths you never thought you had. When they push you and push you, you find you do have something special in you. When they say they build men, they do. That’s another family, because once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine.

A good agent has good ethics, strong will, knows the job, and tries to improve every time. You’re compassionate, you do your job, and you do it in a fair way. There’re a lot of good agents and a few bad agents, but that one bad one makes everybody look bad. Good agents can’t tolerate the bad ones, because if you see something happening and you don’t report it, you’re just as guilty. For example, you stop a smuggler’s vehicle. Inside the load vehicle there’s a radio, there’s watches, or whatever, and you see an agent take one. If you see that and you don’t report it, you’re just as guilty.

So, we police each other. We have to, otherwise we put our own job in jeopardy.

I had an agent come up to me and say, “I just witnessed an agent kick a handcuffed suspect.” I said, “Is that a fact?” He said, “Yeah.” So I say, “Write me a report.” I called the other agent in and had him write a report, too. I made my report to higher up and that guy got drummed out, too. It doesn’t take five people to bring down one person like these city cops do, jumping on their neck with three others holding them down and yelling,

“Quit resisting!” I’ve stopped people and said, “Where are you from?” “I’m from Belize” or wherever. I say, “You got any documents?” “No.” “Get in the car,” and they open the door and get in. You don’t have to be a butthead. Just do your job.

After 9/11, Border Patrol hired so fast that it had little time to check out recruits. When you do that, you’re going to get a bad apple in there. Even if their background checks aren’t done yet, Congress is pushing to have them hired. I sat on some hiring board oral exams in Minneapolis and wastold not to flunk anybody. I flunked one candidate, and they said, “Mike, you’re not supposed to turn anybody away.” I said, “I can’t have him in the Patrol. He’s going to hurt somebody or get somebody hurt.” They said, “You’re going to have to write it up.” I said, “I’ll write it up. Do you want to work with him?” “No.” “I don’t either.”

The oral boards are looking for common sense and logical-thinking people. We highlight officer safety. No Wyatt Earps. No trigger-happy people. You can’t be a John Wayne; that only works in movies. You can get hurt out there. A lot of people have quit because of that fear.

The Border Patrol is hiring more women now. The women are good. Some other supervisors were reluctant to take them. I took the women into my unit and they kicked ass, because they work good, and they’re not afraid. Some of the gals were better than some of the guys I had there.

I don’t pay attention to minority numbers. I might be Hispanic, but I don’t ever worry about race. I grew up with everybody in town. I went to Pueblo High School in Tucson. Black, white, brown, green—they were all my friends. I never knew prejudice until I went in the Marine Corps, then I found out what the meaning of the word was. Some of them had real strong feelings. There was a guy from Odessa, Texas, who served with me in ’Nam. He said, “You know, Sarge, where I come from if we’re walking down the street and a Mexican is walking toward us, he better cross the street.” I said, “Is that a fact?” But he said, “Sarge, I want you to go home with me and meet my folks.” I said, “Your folks taught you that, and you want me to go home with you? No, thank you.”

I always treated my people fairly, even when I was in ’Nam in Third Platoon. There was a guy in there from Second Platoon that got a Dear John letter, and I happened to be within range of his anger. He looked at me and said, “You know, Sarge, I’m going to kick your ass.” I said, “Fine.” Then, the squad leaders stood up and said, “You have to go through us first.” The guy looked around and said, “No thanks,” and walked away. You must treat people fair when you’re a supervisor. There are supervisors that don’t do that. They think they’re God. They forget that they were down there once.

Border Patrol was the best job that I ever had, and to me, it was so well worth keeping that I always tried to do the right thing. I loved it. I loved being out there and tracking people. What was it Ernest Hemingway said? “There’s no hunting like the hunting of man.” You know aliens try everything to evade you but eventually you just walk up on them and say hello.

“How did you find me?” “You left your footprints behind.” One time in Tacna, we went in the orange groves and I found a guy. I asked, “Are you going to run?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, just go ahead and run.” I just walked behind him and followed his tracks. He got tired, climbed up a tree. I walked to the tree and said, “Okay, come on down.”

Really, I did more than I expected to do in my lifetime, because when I left ’Nam I was screwed up. I never knew Border Patrol existed, but I found a job and accomplished what I set out to do. I got to be a supervisor. I never hurt anybody that didn’t need hurting. I’m satisfied with what I did. I’ve got good kids who never got into trouble. I enjoyed what I did. I really did. I loved it.

Not everybody is cut out to be a Border Patrol agent, a city cop, or a state cop. If you’re in it just for the paycheck, then you’re going to get hurt because you get complacent. Border Patrol takes a lot of stamina, a lot of common sense, and wanting to work. A lot of these college graduates have been a little pampered. You don’t get spring breaks in this job. It’s not a party—it’s a job, a dangerous job. If you don’t have any common sense, you’re gonna get hurt. Not everybody is your friend, especially in this business.

College is good. If I could have afforded it, I would have gone to college, but what would I have done different? Probably nothing. I don’t think I’d like a desk job.

Excerpted from Desert Duty, by Bill Broyles and Mark Haynes. Copyright©2010 by the authors and reprinted by permission of the University of Texas Press.