At this point, it’s like a bad joke we share with each other: “Remember that time I took leave so we could go hunt Mexican cartels in the desert?” Please keep in mind that the following is an abbreviated version of the events as they unfolded, to the best of my memory, and all decisions were made by a retarded 22-year-old kid.

It was spring of 2012, if my memory is correct. I was a 22-year-old corporal in the Marines, and I was eagerly counting the days until my EAS later that year. Naturally, I was into everything gear and gun related; every weekend, we did a trip to our local shooting spot off base. If we lacked the funds to sling lead in the desert, we would have a day of dry-run CQB training at the house, accompanied by a big case of beer and BBQ. Anything to give us an edge and pursue the perfection of our craft as warriors.

Well it just so happened that one of my friends was running a YouTube channel at the time, and he would routinely post videos of our range trips. Eventually, this guy we’ll call “J”, who also had a channel, reached out to him about living in the same area and wanting to meet up for a range trip with his group. He had also alluded to having close ties to the U.S. Border Patrol, and claimed to routinely go on drug-interdiction operations with them on the southern border. We checked out his channel and everything seemed legit, or maybe we were just fucking idiots. We figured, “Fuck it, we’ll go to a new shoot spot and kill a Saturday, and if they’re douchebags, we will cut ties.”

Plans were made, and we met up a few hours north of where we’d been. Everyone there seemed all right. We spent the day doing shooting drills and talking shop, as you do when you get around people with similar interests. A few shooting drills were run, and it was pretty fun, I guess. Looking back, it should have been a red flag that the drills themselves were absolutely pointless as skill-builders, serving no real purpose other than shuffling around and wasting ammo. I suppose we had tunnel vision because we had been invited to go with on the group’s next border operation. A chance to enter a gunfight with heavily armed cartel members? Sold.

The time one young Marine went hunting drug cartels on the Mexican border

We were all down with it. Why not? The three of us could cover each other’s backs if shit went south, and apparently it would be a joint operation with Border Patrol, with us serving as a volunteer auxiliary unit. The only problem was, we had to put in for leave since we were active duty. One of us, who we’ll call “Doc,” could not get approval. His command was shit and he couldn’t catch a break, which left me and my buddy “Ski.” So I put in for 10 days, which would give me some extra days on top of the week-long op. I applied for the leave under the guise that I was going on a road trip to the Grand Canyon; this was as close a location to where I would actually be that I could think of. It worked, and I was approved. Time to follow the rabbit down the hole.

A couple of weeks later, we all met up at a gas station to fuel up and convoy down to the area on the border we would be patrolling. I’ll spare you the details of a stupid long drive, but we got there in one piece. We stopped off at an abandoned rest stop when we got close, donned our kit, and got our rifles out. J had informed us it was a very dangerous area from here on out. Upon arrival on site, we were met by a group of men clad in camouflage and tactical gear, carrying AR15s. They had arrived not long before us, but seemed to have settled in and had done a close-range recce of the area. The place we were basing out of was an abandoned ranch house with a cattle run and few small buildings—even a water tower. It would have been a nice place to live in another world. Apparently, it had been occupied not long before, but when the family couldn’t be bought off or persuaded to move, the cartels had executed the family in their living room. Bullet holes adorned the walls and had riddled a large window adjacent to the wall.

The time one young Marine went hunting drug cartels on the Mexican border

A few more guys showed up that afternoon, and gradually the sun set. At this point, Ski and I decided on our firewatch routine. We figured we’d just wake up J and someone else when we got tired, since no one had thought it pertinent to set up a rotation despite our location. Red flag number one. But fuck if I was going to have some cartel asshole creep up and decapitate me while I slept.

Finally, we’d had enough. It was about 3 a.m. We’d reached the point where we were falling asleep standing up. I walked over to the truck J had passed out in and tapped on the glass. He stirred and rolled the window down, looking confused. I asked him who was going to take firewatch next, to which he replied, “We’ll worry about it tomorrow.” He didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. Someone else ended up waking and rogering up, but how the hell did J, this Navy veteran, not know what firewatch was? Maybe he was just confused from being drowsy, or didn’t think it a major security concern.

The time one young Marine went hunting drug cartels on the Mexican border

Eventually, morning came and everyone got up, ate breakfast, and got prepped for the day. We did a sand-table brief (fucking surprised at that, in retrospect) and launched a mounted patrol across the desert for a good few kilometers—a good way to get a feel for where and what we were working with. We rolled around the vast wasteland, along dirt backroads, scanning our sectors for anything that might indicate cartel activity. It was a fairly uneventful day, to be honest, and rather disappointing. That all changed when night hit.

We had finally established a firewatch routine, and once again, Ski and I found ourselves on first watch. This time I was stationed at the entrance to our area with another guy from the group. We stood there making small talk, listening and watching in the darkness. The guy I was with, Joe, was a team player, and the same guy who had relieved us on watch the previous night. Suddenly, a noise in the cattle run caught my attention. We raised our weapon lights to scan. Just as we were beginning to think it was nothing, my light swept across him—a man in tan clothing broke from cover about 75 meters out in a retreat through the cattle run.The time one young Marine went hunting drug cartels on the Mexican border

We shouted alerts to the camp and took off after him in a fast duck walk, muzzles up. Ski, having proper training, had the instinct to stay on his post in the event it was bait to lure us away from camp. I was hauling ass, scanning right to left hastily, trying to find him. Joe was on my far left with several other guys in tow. We rounded the back of the fence line. I kept pushing until I realized I had been moving too fast. I was alone. I pulled my head out of my ass and egressed to the lights of the other guys. My aggression had gotten the better of me, and I was lucky I wasn’t ambushed. A real boot mistake. I reached Joe, who had a huge grin on his face. He was holding up a pristine Nike shoe. He exclaimed with delight that we had run him out of his shoes, but man was he fast, and he must have known the terrain. To be sure, we did a quick sweep of the cattle run itself and returned to camp, where Ski and another guy were waiting for a quick debrief of what had just transpired.

At that moment, a howling was let out in the distance, a sound we never heard again while we were there. It certainly wasn’t the sound of an animal. Suddenly, I realized who we were dealing with and just how good they were. He had crept to within nearly 75 meters of our position before, lucky for us, making a mistake and revealing his position. He had been scouting/probing us. These guys were good.