“Think we can go around?”

We were parked on a dusty turnout. An abandoned red and white building, hacienda-style, sat tangled in weeds next to a pair of large, graffiti-scrawled, corrugated metal warehouses. Piled tires lined the sagging barbed wire fence, and a white semi-trailer, also overgrown with weeds, sat between us and the highway. Hermosillo was just over the ridge.

Jim and I were leaning over the hood of my Expedition, with a photomap of the area laid out on the hot metal. I shook my head. “It looks like we can skirt around the edges a little, but we won’t be able to avoid it entirely.”

Jim ran a hand over his beard. “Fuck. I don’t want to get in a street fight in fucking Hermosillo.”

“Getting out of Basra was probably worse,” I pointed out.

“That’s your benchmark?” He snorted. “That’s like saying a tire iron to the nuts is worse than a baseball bat to the head. I seem to remember that just about every one of us got shot, fragged, or both on that run, and we lost a couple of Team Hussein in the process.” He grimaced. “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have worried so much. But Hermosillo’s really gone to shit in the last couple months.”

He wasn’t wrong. We’d both done our research leading into this job. Hermosillo had been solidly a part of the Sinaloa empire for years, with tons upon tons of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and meth moving north without much trouble. Sure, there had been squabbles, with plenty of dead cops, narcos, and a couple of dead reporters. The cartels had never been so monolithic that there wasn’t going to be violence even in the heart of their territory.

But ever since the Mexican Marines had captured Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in 2014, the Sinaloa cartel had started to fragment. Little, regional capos had started to try to grab their piece of “El Chapo’s” pie. Hermosillo had become a prize in the struggle for territory. It was a choke point. About three hundred people had been killed in street fighting in the last two months alone.

The risk in venturing in there wasn’t just the Mara Salvatrucha thugs who wanted the cargo. It was the Sinaloa factions who would likely dog-pile on any fight that started.

“This ain’t the best quality overhead,” I said, squinting at it. It really wasn’t. I could barely make out city blocks. “But it looks like if we take this way”–I traced the route along the eastern edge of the city– “we can avoid most of the built-up areas.” I paused, studying it, then straightened up. “Fuck. I can’t pick out ambush sites on this piece of shit. But there it is. We can’t avoid the city entirely.” Well, we might, if we didn’t have box trucks to escort. I didn’t trust those fucking things on the dirt roads out in the desert; they weren’t all terrain vehicles by a long shot.

We stared out at the desert and the highway for a moment. “Well, there’s no point in wasting time procrastinating,” Jim finally said. “We can’t put this off until nighttime, and the sicarios are probably out in greater force when it’s dark, anyway.” That was a change from our time in the Middle East, and one we’d have to get used to. Darkness would still provide an advantage, particularly with the NVGs in our kitbags, but Arabs don’t like to be out after dark. Mexicans don’t give a shit. It’s easier to kill people and get away when the Mexican Marines are after your ass when it’s dark, anyway.

I agreed with a monosyllable, as I swept the imagery off the hood of the truck. Larry was still sitting at the wheel, watching us from behind his sunglasses. When I got in and slammed the door, he didn’t turn, but just said, “Well, that didn’t look too promising.”

“We were hoping we could find an alternate route around Hermosillo,” I said. “No such luck.”

Larry flashed his headlights at Nick’s Yukon, which was already poised to get back on the highway. Nick waved from the window, and started rolling.

“I’m really, really looking forward to when we can ditch these box trucks and get back to the way we’ve been working,” Larry admitted, as soon as we were back on the pavement. “This feels like having a bull’s-eye painted on us.”

Here are the facts about FLASH-BANGS: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Read Next: Here are the facts about FLASH-BANGS: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I had to chuckle a little. “Do you think any of us thought, back when we started this company, that we’d be doing anything besides this? I mean, realistically, what were the chances that we’d be doing shady paramilitary ops in foreign countries instead of securing warehouses or escorting rich assholes?”

“I think we all hoped, at least on some level,” he replied.

“That’s why I said ‘realistically,’” I pointed out.

We slowed to stop at another stop light. They were getting closer together as we got closer to Hermosillo, and they made me nervous, especially when Harold’s box truck, ahead of us, got through before we could. The two lead vehicles slowed and pulled over to the shoulder to wait for us. “I guess East Africa really was a windfall for us,” Larry said. “For certain values of ‘windfall.’”

That brought on a long silence, while we waited for the light to turn green. Both of us were thinking of the cost of making our name. We’d left Colton, Hank, Rodrigo, and a Ground Branch spook named Danny behind in East Africa. Bob, Paul, and Juan had gone down in Iraq. We’d lost fresh Al-Khazraji recruits on the way out of Basra. We’d seen more combat in the last three years than some soldiers saw in their entire careers.

The light turned, we started moving again, and came back to the present. The ghosts would come back when we slept. They always did. We couldn’t afford to let them dominate our waking moments, too, not when we had to stay alert to the here-and-now. We had work to do.

Sonora was enough like Arizona that it was weird. There was something inherently disturbing about being “in the hunt” when it looked we hadn’t left the States. It felt like we were running ops stateside. It wasn’t that we had ever really discounted the possibility, but it was still a bit of a shock after spending so much time in Arab countries.

Hermosillo at ground level looked an awful lot like Tucson. The only real difference was that all the signs were in Spanish. A lot of the stores were different brands, but it was all roughly the same. Even the dusty median, with scraggly palm trees every few dozen feet, looked the same.

There wasn’t a lot, on the surface, to show that Hermosillo was a city at war. We’d seen some seriously fucked up places in East Africa and Iraq. But the narcos weren’t using tanks, or even much in the way of heavy weapons. There was one store we passed that was dark and abandoned, with bullet holes still pocking the brick walls, but that was the only outward sign of the violence that had been lashing the city.

The strange normality of it threatened to take the edge off our vigilance. But as we continued through the city, little things started to stand out.

We hadn’t seen a cop or a police car since we’d left Santa Ana. We didn’t see one in Hermosillo until we were almost halfway through the city. We saw plenty of gangbangers, though. Flat-brim hats, collared shirts buttoned at the collar and left loose below, baggy pants with pistols openly carried in the waistband…the de facto uniform of the Mexican gangster was everywhere. Groups were hanging out on streetcorners in broad daylight, all armed, though we only saw pistols, never anything heavier. And they were all watching us, with that sort of arrogant, predatory stare that seems to be universal to the vato.

We kept expecting violence to erupt. I had one hand on my radio, and the other on the grip of my rifle, next to my leg. But block after block went by, we dutifully stopped at traffic lights, and nothing materialized. Once, we heard the rattle of gunfire, off in the distance, but nobody made a move toward us.

“All this calm is going to give me a fucking heart attack,” Larry muttered, as we turned onto Periferico Sur, heading back toward Highway 15.

“It’s like being back in Libya,” I said. “Rolling through town in a MATV. Everybody was watching; we knew most of them, even the ones who hated Ansar al Sharia or any of the other militias, didn’t want us there. We had to expect to get hit all the time, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we never did. It was number one hundred, though…” I trailed off, watching a burly young man with a shaved head talk on his cell phone as he watched us drive by. Was he a spotter for MS-13? For somebody else? Or just some dude on a cell phone? There was no way to know. Make the observation, log it in your mind, and drive on, staying alert in case he was calling in a pack of gunslingers to try to hit us.

“Maybe that’s why they haven’t tried anything,” Larry suggested. “They got mauled the last couple of times. Maybe they’re hoping that if they wait long enough, we’ll get complacent. It’s still a long way to Mazatlan, after all.”

It was a thought. And the bad guys who’d hit us had shown some real professionalism when it came to planning and executing their ambushes. Not enough to make them successful when faced by real soldiers, but more than might have been expected from gangbangers. If they’d executed against the kind of rent-a-cops who might usually have been doing an escort run like this, they probably would have killed everyone and taken the money before we’d ever gotten to Nogales.

The highway rose up into a double overpass, with the north-south lanes looming higher above us. We drove beneath the overpass, got off the highway, and crossed over to get onto the on-ramp leading south.

Less than two minutes later, we were out of the city and back into the high desert. It wasn’t time to relax yet; that wouldn’t be for a long time to come. But it would be easier to see any threats coming; the land was mostly flat, although the scrub was thick enough to provide some good concealment.

We cruised for about ten minutes, passing another gas station, a couple of junkyards, and several run-down mobile homes on the side of the highway. The road was wavering with heat mirage, and otherwise empty.

As we came to a wide curve, I caught a glimpse of the sun glinting off metal or glass near or on the road. There was too much scrub to be sure what I was looking at, but as the highway split, the box truck in front of us started slowing down. Looking ahead, I could see that Nick had, as well. That wasn’t good.

“Can you see what’s up there?” I asked Larry.

He shook his head, craning up to the ceiling to try to see over the brush. “I can’t see shit. There might be a vehicle on the bridge up there, but I can’t tell.”

Nick’s voice crackled over the radio. “We’ve got two pickups on the bridge, blocking both lanes. No one in sight. I don’t like this.”

“Pull us up alongside Nick’s truck,” I told Larry. “I want a look.”

As we moved forward, the bridge across the dry riverbed ahead came into view. Just as Nick had described, there were a pair of Chevy pickups, one white and one brown, sitting on the bridge, angled to completely block both lanes. They were facing north, too. The angle they were both sitting at meant someone could very well be hiding behind them, out of view. I suspected there was another ambush force back there, waiting for us to stop.

“Get over to the northbound lanes,” I said. “We’re not sitting here waiting for them to make a move. We’ll bypass them and get the fuck out of here.”

“There’s a lot of brush in that median,” Larry pointed out.

“I see a break just ahead,” I said. “Back us up so Nick can move to it.” I keyed my radio as Larry threw the Expedition into reverse. “All vics, go left,” I instructed. “We’re taking the northbound bridge. Push, now, before those clowns start shooting.”

Nick’s acknowledgement took the form of squealing tires as he threw the Yukon in gear and stomped on the gas. He plowed through a couple of low bushes getting across the median, throwing up a cloud of dust.

The box truck just sat there.

“MOTHERFUCKER, MOVE!” I snarled. I fumbled for my cell, speed-dialed Harold, and beat on the dashboard while we sat in the kill zone. I was starting to see heads appear over the beds of the trucks. We were too far away to tell if there were weapons, but I figured it was a very, very bad bet to say there weren’t.

Harold wasn’t answering. Or at least he wasn’t answering fast enough. “Fuck this!” I tossed the phone on the dashboard and bailed out, ripping the spare shirt off my rifle as I went. I slammed the door as soon as I was clear, and ran toward the box truck.

I skidded to a halt at the door, ripped it open, and hauled myself in, shoving Harold roughly into the middle of the cab in the process. “Get this fucker in gear and get across that median before they start shooting at us,” I barked at the driver, pointing at the gap in the brush. He hesitated. I caught a flicker from the direction of the bridge, then a rapid series of snaps filled the air around the cab. One round hit the body of the truck itself with a loud bang. “Now, motherfucker!”

The gunfire snapped him out of it. He stomped on the gas, hauling on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, a box truck isn’t exactly a high-performance vehicle. We didn’t so much sprint for the other side of the road as lumber, while more rounds smacked into the side of the truck, the impacts reverberating through the frame. I frantically rolled down the window, stuck my rifle muzzle out, and got one human figure in my sights. I was able to snap off one shot before we were off the pavement and the truck was rocking too much to aim properly.

I had a sudden, vivid flashback to Basra. Bullets punching through the door of a HiLux and into my leg. I was just waiting for the impact. Several more rounds smacked into the truck, and then we were back on the highway, going the wrong way in the northbound lanes.

Back on the pavement, the ride got smoother. The driver was pushing the engine as hard as he could, but the box truck just wouldn’t accelerate any faster. We were still going to be a slow, lumbering target for the mara gunmen.

There were still bullets cracking through the air overhead, chopping through the bushes that lined the arroyo, but I didn’t have a shot. I held my fire; there might be some suppression value to sending a few rounds back at them, but I’d rather not waste the ammo.

We hit the bridge still only going about forty-five miles an hour. The arroyo opened up below us, and we were completely exposed to the two trucks and half a dozen shooters on the opposite bridge. I got on sights and opened fire.

The firestorm went fast. A few of them were still shooting at us, but most were scrambling to get back in their trucks. I shot one high in the back as he was climbing into the passenger seat, saw the red splash across his white shirt, and caught just a glimpse of him crumpling to the ground, his head bouncing off the edge of the door, before I moved to the next. He was trying to climb in the back. The trigger broke, the rifle bucked in my hands, and he disappeared, hit or just ducking out of sight I couldn’t tell. I got one more snap-shot off at a gunman who was kneeling behind the truck bed, and then we were past, with more bushes obscuring the trucks and their occupants. A couple more shots split the air around us, but then there was nothing.

Beside me, I felt Harold relax. I ran a hand over my arms, legs, and torso, checking for blood. I knew I couldn’t rely on anybody else in the vehicle. When I found nothing, I started checking Harold. I wasn’t gentle or discreet about it, either. He tried to jerk away from me. “Hey! What are you doing!?”

“I’m making sure you’re not shot,” I told him. I still had one hand on my rifle, which was still pointing out the window. As soon as I was satisfied that Harold wasn’t leaking, I keyed my radio. “ACE reports.”

One by one, each vehicle rogered up, except for the rear box truck. Nobody was hit. None of the vehicles were seriously damaged. But we still weren’t out of the woods. Those bastards were going to be coming after us; I was under no illusions that they’d been scrambling to get back in the trucks to try to run away.

Jim called over the radio. “Hillbilly, Kemosabe. Hippie is getting the Sixty out of the back. You want to do a Somali brake-check?” He was referring to a couple of years before, when we’d made a break out of Hobyo, Somalia, ahead of a mob of Somali pirates. We’d gotten the vehicles on-line and slowed, raking the pursuing pirates with machinegun and rifle fire from the backs of the SUVs. We’d done enough damage that they’d broken off the hunt.

But I didn’t think it was going to work as well on a highway, with only one gun. It might, but I wanted to finish these fuckers off. Let them wonder why three ambush forces went out and never came back. Maybe that would send the message to leave us alone. I went to check my photomap, but it was still back in the Expedition with Larry. Fuck. “I want more than one gun on them. We’ll push a klick, then halt and engage with all hands.”

“What!?” the driver squeaked. He was white-knuckling the steering wheel. “You can’t be serious! They’ll kill us!”

“That’s why we’re here,” I reminded him, looking back out the window. I could see the trucks behind us, on the southbound lanes, pushing to catch up with us. The two halves of the highway were already coming together, and then there wouldn’t be any avoiding them. To my bemusement, one of the gangbangers stood up in the back of the lead pickup, leveled an AR at us, and opened fire. Flame strobed from the muzzle, and more rounds snapped and cracked around us. “Fucking gangbangers and their Hollywood bullshit,” I muttered. Professionals wouldn’t waste the ammo. I fought down the urge to send him some 7.62 love in return. “We haven’t got the gas to outrun them,” I threw over my shoulder to the Harold and the driver. “So we make a stand and we fuck these dogfuckers up.”

Just about any spot was going to be as good as any other. There wasn’t a lot of terrain to use; the desert out here was flat as a pancake for miles, and the road was heading south straight as an arrow. It may or may not have been a full kilometer before Nick stomped on the brake. The box truck hadn’t even come to a full stop before I was piling out the door and running to the side of the road.

I didn’t go too far. The brush on the sides of the highway was tall enough that I wouldn’t be able to see what I was shooting at. I dropped on my belly on the shoulder and aimed in. The ground was scorchingly hot, and gravel dug painfully into my knees and elbows. I blinked sweat out of my eyes as I peered through my scope.

They reacted quickly. The two trucks were already stopped, and the gangbangers were piling out and scurrying into the brush even as we opened fire. Derek must have simply dropped out of the back of the rear Expedition and started shooting; the rapid thud-thud-thud of the M60E6 was rattling across the desert before I was all the way prone. Dust was kicking off the roadway in front of him, and dust and sparks blasted out of the radiator of the white truck as he chewed it to pieces with a pair of long bursts.

I shot at a big motherfucker in a blue tank top who was sprinting out of the brown truck, missed, compensated, and fired again. He staggered, then disappeared into the brush. That was when I realized that most of them had run into the bushes. They were going to maneuver on us. I got up and ran, half-crouched, to Little Bob. I clapped my hand on his shoulder. “They’re going to try to flank us,” I hissed to him. “With me.”

Little Bob clambered to his feet. He was a six-foot-three-inch behemoth of a man, which was part of why he was called “Little Bob.” The other part was that he’d been the second Bob on the team. Bob Fagin had been killed in Iraq, but “Little Bob” had stuck. “With you,” he said. His Mk 17 looked small in his hands, but he was a fucking virtuoso with it.

I looked up toward the front, where Eric and Ben were on each on a knee, rifles trained out. Neither of them had had a shot down the road, with three of us taking up the shoulder, so they’d gone to covering the flanks. Good, but we had to push out. I got Eric’s attention, and pointed into the brush. He nodded, and got up to move with Little Bob and me as we plunged into the scrub.

It wasn’t as thick as it looked, at first. There was a lot of open, dusty ground in between the mesquite and creosote bushes. But they were spaced so that you couldn’t see much past about twenty yards. I waved to Eric, who moved up, angling slightly away and pushing deeper into the mesquite. We stayed close enough together to see each other, but now we had an angled line pushing out from the road, positioned to cut off any attempt to attack the convoy’s flank.

I led off from the center, pushing toward where I figured the bad guys were. I’d seen flashes of movement, but that was it. Nobody was shooting anymore; the desert was eerily quiet, though the wind and the sound of the engines running was enough noise to mask a lot of movement.

I saw a flash of blue and white ahead of me. I raised my rifle, canting it to use the offset iron sights instead of the scope. I heard muttered Spanish. I crept forward, staying in a half-crouch, careful to make as little noise as possible, easing around the bushes. When the mara gunman stepped, just as carefully, around the creosote bush he’d been behind, a P90 in his hands, I only had to raise my muzzle a couple of inches to put the front sight post on his chest as my knee touched the ground. The M1A roared twice. The bullets caught him halfway through a step, so close together that they might have been one hammer blow. He staggered backward, looked down at the growing red blot on his chest, then fell on his face. He hadn’t made a sound.

All three of us, almost at once, dropped to the ground. I don’t know what instinct told us to, but it was a good thing we did, because old boy’s buddies immediately opened fire, chopping at the vegetation above us with long, loud bursts of gunfire. They couldn’t see anything, but they knew somebody had just shot their buddy, so they weren’t taking chances.

The fire trailed off; they’d dumped a mag each, and had to reload. I got up, peripherally aware of Eric and Little Bob doing the same, and charged forward.

We burst into a clearing in the bushes, where three gangsters were hastily reloading. One had just sent his bolt home when I shot him in the face. Most of the contents of his skull splashed into his compadre’s face, who didn’t even have time to see what had hit him before Little Bob gunned him down. I had just shifted my aim to the third, and shot him at the same time Eric did. He was dead before he even hit the ground.

We swept forward, kicking weapons away from hands. I heard a couple of single shots echo across the desert from the other side of the highway, then silence descended again.

Once we’d pushed a good fifty yards past that clearing, I was pretty sure we’d gotten all of them. I started angling us back to the road.

The white pickup was smoking; Derek had turned its engine to metallic hamburger. The big guy I’d shot was lying just a few feet away from the road, behind a bush. I kicked him over and knocked his Tapco’ed out AK away from his hands. There was sand in his staring eyes. He was gone.

I really didn’t want to hang out out there. But we took the time to quickly go through pockets again. It was the same deal as up by Magdalena—phones, wallets, and not much else. Again, we took the phones and left the rest.

After five minutes of consolidation, we climbed back into our vehicles and got ready to move. I walked up to Harold’s box truck, yanked open the door, and gave him a hard stare. “I’m going back to my vehicle,” I said. “Can you move where, and when, Nick’s vehicle does?”

He nodded, still looking shaken. He hadn’t signed up for this. My sympathy was tempered by the fact that if he had had less of a “see no evil” mindset, he might have seen it coming. I just nodded, and headed back to the SUV.

“All good? No potentially disastrous holes?” I asked, as I levered myself in and pulled the door shut. There hadn’t been anything between the vehicles and the gunfire out in the desert.

“Not that I can find,” Larry replied. He sounded pensive. I frowned, looking over at him. Something was bothering him.

“I recognized one of those guys,” he finally said, after we’d started driving again. “Went back and checked the body after the shooting was over. It was him, all right.”

That was a bit of a shock. “Who?” I asked.

“His name was Hernandez,” he replied. “He was a Marine; he was in our trail platoon on the float before you and I went to the Philippines.”

That wasn’t just a shock, it was a straight hook to the gut. “Are you sure?”

He nodded gravely. “Absolutely. No question about it. He even still had his meat tags on his ribcage.” A lot of guys had taken to getting their dog tags tattooed on their ribs; they were known as “meat tags.”

“Fuck.” I slumped back in my seat a little. I’d heard stories of gangsters joining the military, getting trained, and then going back to the barrio. It shouldn’t have surprised me. But this had just gotten a lot closer to home than it had been before.