For four weeks in the summer of 2012, I was “embedded” with a volunteer group of men who patrol the desert between Phoenix and the Mexican border. An empty stretch of no-man’s land comprised of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation where the Border Patrol can’t go and tourists are afraid to go is occupied by illegal immigrants, Mexican drug cartels, militia, vigilantes and a vicious breed of rattlesnakes called sidewinders.
The strain and stress of this shoot has been so great that it has taken me three weeks to clear my head enough to commit the story to paper. There is more to tell, much more. As I continue to decompress from the experiences in the desert, I will write further. I’ll tell you about Sheriffs being paid off by the cartel, Border Patrol agents on the take, and a U.S. backed gun smuggling operation that is still going on despite claims from the American government that it has been stopped.
The night was hot. Not hot as in the east coast sense where the temperature is aggravated by humidity. It was hot like grandma’s kitchen on Thanksgiving.
In the desert you don’t sweat. The penetrating, dry heat from the kitchen absorbs any sweat almost before it reaches the surface of the skin. You only sweat when you go inside. When the skin hits the air conditioned air, the sweat pours off of you like lava coming down Mt. St. Helens.
These are the conditions I lived in for four weeks in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. I was in town to shoot the “border wars” as they’ve come to be called. The struggle between the militia groups, the vigilantes, the Border Patrol, the illegal immigrants, the drug smugglers and the human traffickers.
It has been the only gig that I’ve been on where I was given a loaded AK47 for protection; mine and the men that I would go into the desert each night with on “night ops”. The protection wasn’t needed – we didn’t get involved in any gunfights. And the AK was something that was better to have and not need than need and not have. The first night out with the men I was two miles from where three photojournalists had been killed in the past four weeks; and one mile from where a Border Patrol agent had been savagely cut down in a firefight with smugglers.
A little background.
In the 80s and 90s the Medellin Cartel was the threat and danger in Central America. A violent, ruthless group of people led by the notorious Pablo Escobar, they would not let anything or anyone stand in their way. Judges, police, competitors and innocent by standers were all caught in their deadly fire.
As their cocaine superhighway into Miami and southern California began to be shut down by the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies, the cartel started looking for another route into America. They found it on the backs of illegal immigrants who were flowing northward looking for work in the wake of NAFTA which eliminated thousands of jobs when American industrial farms moved south with their large combines and harvesters.
One combine could put 30 laborers out of work; hundreds of combines were shipped into Mexico and thousands of Mexicans lost their backbreaking livelihood.
The cartel observed what was happening and knew they had found another superhighway to push drugs into America. They started loading down illegal immigrants headed for the border with backpacks filled with cocaine. Afraid at first to resist, the border crossers obediently carried the product of the cartel northward through Nogales, El Paso, Sasabe and southern California.
When caught with drugs, the immigrants were sentenced to harsh prison terms in the U.S. Not believing the stories being told about the cartel, the U.S. judicial system locked them up and – many times – threw away the key.
As word of the punishment started to make its way down the stream of immigrants, many started to refuse to be shippers for the cartel. Not being afraid to die, the threats of murder by the cartels didn’t faze them. When the cartel stepped up the penalty to murdering the family of the immigrant, then immigrants caved under pressure and the superhighway again was flowing with drugs.
As the drug smuggling business grew, the cartel started looking for something in addition to cocaine to ship in. Cocaine was a high dollar item requiring processing and when a kilo was lost so were many dollars in profits. They switched to marijuana. Easily grown in the backwaters of Mexico and very little processing – mainly harvest and dry, marijuana came to be the cash crop for the cartel. While cocaine and other drugs continued to be smuggled, marijuana quickly became the profit maker. And big profit it was.
And small cartels grew. With dollars at stake, violence erupted. First it was contained in Mexico and then started to spill over into Texas and Arizona and then moved into the rest of America.
Frustrated by a “War on Drugs” that wasn’t succeeding and couldn’t be won, the American government colluded with the Mexican government. An elite band of Mexican soldiers – their counterpart to our “Delta Force” – were brought to Fort Benning Georgia and trained in hi-tech weaponry, hi-tech tactics and other super secret methods to defeat the cartels.
After a couple of years of unsuccessfully fighting the cartels and comparing their paychecks to those of the drug smugglers, much of the elite band deserted the Mexican Army and formed their own cartel – The Los Zetas. Another group which grew large during the same time frame was the Sinaloa Cartel.
The Los Zetas and Sinaloa Cartels nurtured and grew the business until today more than $19 BILLION dollars of drugs – mostly marijuana – is brought across the border annually.
Unable to win the drug wars, America’s CIA and other agencies decided to get in bed with The Los Zetas and Sinaloa Cartels. Agreeing to allow guns to be smuggled into Mexico from America and free movement of drugs northward across the border, America thought they could use the Los Zetas and Sinaloans to gather intel on other, smaller cartels as well as turn the guns shipped into Mexico onto the others and maybe the drug beast would destroy itself from within.
This went on several years until December 2012 when a Border Patrol agent, Terry Bryan, was killed in a small firefight with drug smugglers. The resulting investigation found that the guns used to kill Bryan were smuggled into Mexico under the Obama administration’s “Fast and Furious” program. Additionally, two of the three Mexicans accused of killing Bryan were found to be working for the FBI as informants; they also had been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for a period of time.
So you had guns which America provided to Mexican drug cartels used to kill an American agent. The guns were fired by paid FBI informants who were being investigated by another government agency. It doesn’t take long to understand what a tangled web is occurring along the border.
Enter the vigilantes
One of the earliest vigilante groups was the “Minutemen”. Volunteer militia who outfitted themselves at their own expense with military regalia and arming themselves with AK47s and AR15s, the militia started to patrol the desert between Phoenix and Sasabe seeking to stop drug smuggling and illegal immigrants.
One of the founders of the “Minutemen” was J. T. Ready. Ready served in the U.S. Marine Corps, achieving the rank of lance corporal. After attending MCRD Parris Island, he went to the School of Infantry in North Carolina. Ready was assigned to MCB Camp Pendleton with Reconnaissance Company and 1st LAR Bravo Company.
Showing early problems with discipline and authority, he was booted out of Reconnaissance Company and eventually became a Scout for a LAV-25 with a M249 light machine gun being his main weapon. Other disciplinary problems led to a Bad Conduct Discharge from the Corp in 1996. Ready’s attitude towards authority combined with his neo-Nazi leanings led to him parting ways – less than amicably – with the co-founders of the Minutemen.
Ready started his own group of vigilantes and continued to patrol the wastelands of the Sonoran Desert with them. Going out several times a week, Ready would lead a group of anywhere from 4 to 15 men who felt that they needed to do what the American government had failed to do – secure the porous borders and stop the drug smugglers.
One night in April 2012 while on a night operation, Ready and his men came across some drug smugglers walking through the Sonoran Desert under the light of a full moon. While exactly what happened is disputed, there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Ready’s group might have killed one or more of the smugglers and “confiscated” the drugs they were carrying.
Many rumors abound in southern Arizona about what happened to the drugs. Some say they were turned over to the Border Patrol and others say that only half of the amount was turned over. Regardless of which version is true, the cartels were upset that their inventory – and profits – had disappeared into the desert heat.
A month later death came knocking on the door of Ready’s home in Gilbert, AZ. Five people were killed. Ready, his live-in girlfriend, her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend as well as her daughter’s 15 month old child.
Some say that Ready had gone on a murderous rampage brought on by years of rejection. Others say that the Mexican Cartel had ordered a hit in return for the stolen drugs. And still others are convinced it was another hit by FBI informants. While there is evidence to support each of the possibilities, no one knows – or at least now one is adamantly stating it outwardly.
Ready’s group floundered for a few weeks and then reconstituted. Under different leadership, the mission and goals remained the same: secure Arizona’s border with Mexico by any means necessary. It was this environment that I found myself in during the summer of 2012.
When I was in Boise I was contacted and told about a group in Arizona that was doing “humanitarian aid” in the desert. They were conducting regular “search and rescues” missions, seeking out people that were in danger of dying in the dry desert heat of the Sonoran.
When I got there, I found out different. They were the same group as that founded by the late J. T. Ready, only operating under a different name. Realizing that the terms “vigilante” and “militia” were keywords that America’s law enforcement had zeroed in on, the group polished their marketing, changed some terms and continued to do business as usual.
While in Arizona I stayed in a spare bedroom at the home of my host and his wife. The bedroom I was allowed to use was directly opposite their bedroom and each night I would find a loaded automatic rifle sitting outside their door in the hallway. My host was confident – with some reason – that the cartel might come crashing in at any moment to carry out the same work that some say had been carried out at Ready’s house in April.
It was their first night operations after I had arrived in Phoenix that I went along to get photos and information for the story that I was given a loaded AR15. The tension and stress were constantly high and palatable 24 hours a day. Carrying a weapon while on assignment and sleeping just a few feet away from a loaded rifle meant to stop a home invasion started to wear on me.
During the day when my host and his wife were at work, I’d roam the streets of Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe trying to find anyone that would talk to me about the issue of drug cartels and illegal immigrants. In four weeks of searching, I could only find one man that would talk to me. However, in our conversation he also shared his belief that earth was populated by aliens from outer space, so anything he had to say about drug smuggling and immigration were suspect also.
Apparently, my snooping around raised the eyebrows of some of the cartel members that lived in and around the Phoenix metro area. Word got out that there was a photojournalist asking questions that he shouldn’t be asking.
Two days before I had to leave Phoenix prematurely, I got a call from a cop that I had gotten to know. Aggravated with the ringing phone while I was trying to get out another story where there was no story, I snatched up the phone. It was Ron – my policeman friend.
“Where are you,” he asked.
“I’m down at Starbucks at the corner of Fifth and Mill. Why?”
“Stay there, don’t go outside.”
Within minutes the place was swarming with cops. Uniformed police officers, bicycle cops and cops in civilian clothes but with their badges and guns plainly seen. There was also a Border Patrol agent or two in the mix.
Walking over to my table, Ron asked, “Do you have somewhere you can go to NOW?”
Nodding yes, I told him I did. I reached for the phone called another friend I had met in Phoenix and told my friend that I needed a safe place to go quickly. My friend lived in a gated apartment complex on the outskirts of Mesa and if I could crash there, I’d be safe.
Putting the phone down, I asked Ron what was up. He told me I needed to get out of town as quickly as possible, and then he told me the eight scariest words I think I have ever heard.
“The cartel has put a mark on you.”
Packing up my gear, I crossed the ten foot wide sidewalk in three steps and climbed into the car as my friend was driving off.