It was the early 1990s, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Gulf War had recently ended. The military was scrambling to justify manpower, means, and technology to a Democratic Congress and the Clinton administration, which foolishly saw to cuts in defense until 2000. In the midst of this scramble a security and technology deployment was conceived for the Mexican border.

Joint Task Force-Six, now known as Joint Task Force North, reinforced by a signal detachment from Fort Drum were ordered to Nogales, Arizona to assist and improve border protection efforts with tactical advice and new signal and surveillance technologies. In Nogales, JTF-6 command and staff met with local law enforcement and federal agencies, predominantly with Border Patrol, to discuss the area and the intent of the operation that JTF-6 was going to conduct in their backyard. JTF-6 needed to know the lay of the land, the tactics, techniques, and procedures of the bad guys just as well what was being done on the American side of the border and by whom.

JTF-6’s operation was simple, deploy advanced sensor and surveillance technology along the border with JTF-6 soldiers in near-hides and patrols to respond to intrusions in conjunction with Border Patrol. The operation was viewed positively and given the full support of local law enforcement and the Border Patrol. JTF-6 armed with solid local intel, support and lots of new toys was confident and assumed that this operation was set to be a resounding success.

Singal detachment soldiers guided JTF-6 soldiers on the deployment of the sensors and surveillance equipment as they monitored from a remote headquarters. The headquarters was separate from local and federal agencies, including Border Patrol, but operated through liaison officers. From the JTF-6 headquarters, soldiers ran twenty-four operations, a capable presence was always in the field, with a JTF-6 quick reaction force on standby to respond to any incident. Border Patrol was impressed, the soldiers were seen as the utmost professional, a Border Patrol agent I spoke to about the operation said: “They really had their shit together, they had everyone standing tall, and the Capos were panicked.”  The soldiers of JTF-6 did not screw around, and their commanders were adamant about meeting and exceeding the expectations of the mission, confident that they were going to bag the highest number of narcotics and smugglers to date.

The deployment carried on for six months, and nothing happened. There were zero arrests, no sensor alerts, even though their communications security was a solid lock, and the soldiers were not known to have been compromised. The deployed and monitored sensor and surveillance technologies were not disturbed, it remained active and untouched. Additionally, JTF-6 soldiers had brought with them powerful spotting scopes, night and thermal vision devices, which they individually deployed at overlapping positions along the border. Yet nothing happened, and no one attempted to cross the border. The cattle fences once smooth from illegal border traffic were now rusted, the trails nearly undiscernable, and there was no known tunnel or waterways activity. Nogales was a ghost-town for Narcos.

This was unacceptable for JTF-6 command, who recalled their soldiers and invited Border Patrol for an after reaction review (AAR). The AAR was a devastating point-by-point review, recounting the entire operation as a failure from start to finish. To JTF-6, the operation was a total disaster. Near the end, Border Patrol was permitted to provide input, and they saw the operation from a different light, and as a complete success. In their eyes, the border was narcotics free for six months, a task Border Patrol could have never achieved within their limitations.

 

An after action review of a Key Leader Engagement. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Dawan Dorsey/Released)
An after-action review of a Key Leader Engagement. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Dawan Dorsey/Released)

There are two keys to the effectiveness of the JTF-6 operation. The first is that JTF-6 is the military, and the military is not law enforcement and cannot be bypassed, contained, or corrupted by standard cartel means. The soldiers of JTF-6 do not live around the border, they are not connected to the border by life, love, or money this was just another deployment for them. There is no family connections or local pressures to compromise their decision making or locals to mingle in conversation with friends or associates in daily life with them. This transitions to the next point, JTF-6 communications remained secure as did their operations.

Border Patrol and all other border-centric local, and federal communications security, as well as operational security, is often compromised. The chain of events as to how this happens is often different, but the same; cartels deploy many of the same tactics that foreign intelligence services do to compromise agents. Intel is primarily leaked by Border Patrol, DEA, DHS, local law enforcement and other federal agents. Cartels seek out agents who are financially insecure, other times through a honeypot who may even become a girlfriend or the wife of an agent, other times capturing an agent in a compromising situation for blackmail, or just an agent not knowing when to shut up. This again was not a problem for JTF-6, they were not interwoven into the fabric of border life.

Despite JTF-6’s success in deterring illegal trafficking across the border, JTF-6 packed their bags and went home. The next morning, the rusted fences were smooth and the trails were again visible. The cartels once again knew what was happening and could listen in on the radio traffic of the known local and federal agents once again.

Joint Task Force North, returned to the border again in 2012, with a short deployment to El Paso, Texas in support of Customs of Border Protection agents.  Their success was again resounding but this time, they made sure that numbers could be made into bullet points on evaluation reports. Their actions in the field were more detached from direct interdiction and deterrence, relying on the operation as a pre-deployment training exercise for forward-looking infrared (FLIR,) familiarity on AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter platforms.

 

JTF-North, with CBP Agents in detecting illegal activities along the US/Mexican border. – DVIDS

While the air show was going on, JTF-North then deployed advanced sensing in ground penetrating radar to detect tunnels. JTF-North subsequently coordinated the destruction of these tunnels using Combat Engineers. The destruction of these tunnels was also wrapped up into the pre-deployment schema for JTF-North and the Combat Engineers.

Several separate JTF-North operations by the names of “Nimbus,” and “Nimbus II,” took place in of 2012, soldiers assigned to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood with additional DoD assets were deployed along the Arizona, Texas, and Mexican border. Their mission was to act as scouts, along the mountainous, desert border between the United States and Mexico, on two 24-hour reconnaissance and ground surveillance operations in support of CBP and DHS using optics and sensor equipment.  The units these soldiers were assigned to had recently been reactivated in the force restructuring cycle at that time. The mission was seen as an opportunity, for commanders to test their personnel and equipment in a nearby, real-world situation. On the mission, the JTF-North scouts provided observational support to Border Patrol agents.

Joint Task Force-Six or Joint Task Force North is not connected to the Texas National Guard’s Operation “Phalanx.”

Featured Image -82nd Airborne Division photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull/Released