4,000 Feet Up in the Pajarito Mountains

Wedged between rocks, I scan with my binoculars and notice a bunker complex built into the top of the opposite hill. I keep observing and see three men, wearing green fatigues, walking between each fighting position. All three are armed with AK-47s. That isn’t Afghanistan. It’s Mexico.

I had just made my way up a mountain. It’s hot – not scorching hot, but the temperature is high enough to be uncomfortable.

My AR-15, and all the combat equipment I wore, feel heavy and cumbersome. My mouth is dry. The cat’s claw bushes keep ripping into my multi-cams and the uncovered portions of my forearms as I make my way through the thick vegetation and steep ascent. I can feel the sun slowly burning small patches of skin on my neck uncovered by my clothing and desert scarf. My lips are chapped from the freezing temperatures last night, and the dry wind gusts experienced at an elevation of 4,000 feet in the Pajarito Mountains. Once at the top of this peak, I’m going to be baking all day, scanning a road, a few hilltops, and some footpaths, watching, and waiting, for something to happen. That is assuming something will happen. But, this is reconnaissance, and the very nature of the beast dictates that it’s possible not a damn thing will occur the entire time I’m out here. And, let’s not forget, I’m doing this as an unpaid volunteer. This is Arizona Border Recon (AZBR).

A week earlier I received the grid coordinates for the location of the next AZBR operation; as it turns out, it’s a well-known drug-smuggling route. I packed my vehicle and made the drive out Friday. Stopping only once to get a few hours of sleep, I made my way out to Arivaca, AZ, and then into the Coronado National Forest. The road eventually turns into a dirt trail as I head past Montana Peak, across valleys and ridgelines, until arriving in familiar territory, from previous operations, near the Mexican border. As I reach the grid point for our patrol base, I see guys in full camouflage and tactical vests stacking backpacks next to the makeshift operations center; every time another bag is stacked, dust clouds swirl skyward.

“We just had eight guys drop their packs and run back south,” Tim Foley, the storied leader of AZBR, relays to me as we shake hands and bro-hug.

“Not even 24 hours and you already got bodies running back to Mexico,” I reply to this wiry defender of our southern border.

We laugh and I set up camp and get my uniform on – another group of illegal crossers has been spotted and an AZBR patrol is heading out to monitor their movement. Like the group’s motto, the patrol will recon “One Hill at a Time,” and hopefully gather some good intelligence along the way.