By Edgar Castillo
“Don’t bother picking up the trash. You’ll fill your vest in a matter of minutes and you won’t have any room for birds,” called Spencer.
I looked at the opaque, black, plastic bottles with disgust. They’re made in Mexico and toted by illegal migrants carrying precious water during their illicit, yet perilous travel into the U.S. They’re often used instead of transparent water containers as they don’t reflect as much sunlight, making them less detectable by Border Patrol agents. Strewn about the sandy ground were other signs of trash from clandestine activity. Scraps of carpet with affixed straps and sewn laces on the non-carpeted side were evident too.
“Carpet shoes,” I muttered.
I’d never seen any myself, only in PowerPoint presentations at narcotics and gang training conferences. They’re tools of the cartel drug trade, allowing the criminal element to move about leaving little trace of their presence. As a former law enforcement officer of twenty-six-plus years, I worked on task forces with various federal agencies. I knew of the overwhelming activity on the southern front; however, this trip to chase Arizona desert quail was my first time seeing it in person.
We hunted arroyos and deep ravines encountering fast-flying Gambel’s quail, but also “slicing the pie” around catclaw bushes and finding abandoned camps set up as lookout points. Lucky for me, I was born in Central America and speak fluent Spanish. Important, if the need arose to give loud commands as every terrain feature held the possibility of ominous contacts with outlaws.
Shiny CDs dangled in the wind from branches, serving as beacons for travelers. Even further south, as we positioned ourselves for flushes behind staunch pointing dogs in Mearns’ country, scatterings of backpacks and heavy footprints from “mules” in single-file lines at the bottom of ravines were the norm. Moments later, holding plump polka-dotted, blue-billed clowns made us forget the illicit goings-on in the area.
A year later I found myself once again back in Arizona. Spencer’s goal was to shoot the quail trifecta in one day. Damn scalies wouldn’t cooperate so we focused our attention on chasing topknots in endless cactus fields and dried out washes. His four dogs did their jobs in finding birds. I did mine. The shooting was fast and frenzied. Our journey found us deep into the desert where a hollowed-out metal skeleton of an old van lay rusting in the high sun. Vans and big SUVs are commonly used by drug traffickers to haul large loads. Bullet holes on either side of the exterior could’ve been from people target shooting. Maybe not. The seats in the back had been removed. Inside were small, shredded pieces of burlap. Indicative of transporting bales of narcotics or cash wrapped in gunny sacks. A faded and peeled sticker of Santa Muerte, patron saint of drug traffickers, stared back at me from the van’s beat-up dash.
On the way home, we passed through a few checkpoints outfitted with vehicle x-ray scanners. The only bodies we had were two vests full of Gambel’s. My weekend hunt ended with a grill full of tasty quail before flying home to KC.
For my third trip, we opted to drive instead of flying and camped in the southern part of the state, near the border wall. This time we were met with warnings from Spencer and Homeland Security to area travelers AND hunters. I reached out to some Border Patrol buddies, and they confirmed the increase in violence below the U.S. set “demarcation line”.
“Stay alert down there Edgar. Watch your six.”
In the nearby mountains, Spencer told tales of “scouts” positioned high up on the slopes with optics (including night vision), watching and radioing information to help guide smugglers.
The beauty of the desert and mountains were occasionally interrupted by motionless blimps in the sky. Add to that: buzzing ATVs, white and green SUV’s creeping along sandy roads, Black Hawks, and the occasional drone high overhead, all made for a surreal experience. Besides shotguns, we all wore sidearms. A first.
We said our goodbyes to Spencer with promises to return. A few miles into the trek home, we found ourselves in a line of vehicles waiting to pass a Border Patrol checkpoint. A large billboard stood as a warning for those entering into the area: “You are now entering an active drug and human smuggling area and may encounter armed criminals and smuggling vehicles at high rates of speed. Stay away from trash, clothing, backpacks, and abandoned vehicles. If you see suspicious activity, call 911. Use public lands north of Interstate 8”. Below the sign lay scores of empty water bottles and other discarded items could be seen a hundred yards out into the desert.
It was our final day in Arizona and I couldn’t shake my thoughts on the situation there. The invasion of our southern border by narcotics traffickers and human smugglers has severely impacted our ability to use and enjoy our own lands. The cat and mouse game played by my brethren in uniform is a constant struggle. Even the natural resources have fallen victim.