Editor’s Note: Many of our readers will remember Heath Hansen. He’s posted several pieces for us in the past during some of his deployments with the 82nd Airborne Division. This is another piece by Heath from when he deployed in the U.S. along the southern border.
Thanks again to Heath, much appreciated. — SB
“I sent the grids; we’ll be heading out by noon on Thursday,” Tim Foley informs me over the phone before I hit the road. Foley is a grizzled former paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne Division and leader of the volunteer group Arizona Border Recon (AZBR). For over a decade, AZBR volunteers have assisted Border Patrol by sharing intelligence concerning the movement or location of illegal immigrants crossing the international border. In the weeks before, I coordinated calls and emails between Foley and his men to ensure the proper paperwork and background checks were complete. Now, I can partake in their training regimen executed in the mountains of Southern Arizona.
Years ago, I learned of AZBR while watching a documentary about drug cartels south of the border. Now, I jump on the opportunity to get in the field and see how Foley and his men operate. Staying true to their motto: “One Hill At A Time,” these guys will be training in the same hills they patrol during operations.
It’s Wednesday morning and my vehicle is packed with everything I will need to survive in the wilderness for the next few days. It’s been over a decade since I served as an infantryman in the Army, making myself comfortable in the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Iraq. Hopefully, some of that training and experience will pay off during my stay with AZBR.
The drive through the Southwest United States eventually brings me to Arivaca, AZ. From there, I make my way into the Coronado National Forest. The roads are not paved, in fact, in some spots, they are almost non-existent. Treacherous, rocky, desert terrain greets me as I make my way into the mountains and wind my way higher towards the grid coordinates. Hawks hover above my car, tall saguaro cacti loom over the road, and deer hop out in front of me during the trip. I arrive at the campsite, less than a mile from the Mexican border. Surrounded by pick-up trucks, SUVs, and camping tents, I see Foley with his guys. They are wearing MultiCam camouflage and are sitting around a fire trying to stay warm.
I greet them all and shake their hands. A mix of veterans, law-enforcement officers, and civilians make up the group. They ask if I need help getting situated. I decline and tell them I’m sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the back of my SUV, so set-up should be quick and easy. After unpacking my gear, I head back to the fire to get acquainted with the guys.
Among the group is expert tracker Fernando Moreira. Moreira started his tracking career decades ago as a paratrooper in the Portuguese Army. He has used his expertise in several investigations, including the high profile manhunt for cop-killer Christopher Dorner. Moreira will be with us teaching a tracking class; that has me intrigued. It’s dark now and starts to get cold. We expect freezing temperatures going into the morning.
I wake up the next day and find my rucksack covered in frost. Hoping the sun’s rays will soon peak over the mountain tops, we gear up. I put on my old Army-issued, woodland patterned BDUs (Battle Dress Uniform), boots, ammunition rack, and grab my AR-15. We walk towards a clearing in the trees and start doing basic tracking. We study footprints, draw diagrams, take measurements, and look for signs of anything disturbed by the humans being tracked. Some of the signs can be obvious and seen from many meters away. Others are more subtle and require getting down on hands and knees to observe out of place dirt and debris. We eventually progress into small unit tactics and do drills involving fire-team and squad movements to contact. The training is similar to what I did at Fort Bragg preparing for my deployments; I start to feel nostalgic.
In the training area next to the clearing I find two pieces of carpet with straps and laces sewn to the non-carpeted side. Nearby, I also find a black, non-transparent, plastic bottle. Tim tells me these are “carpet shoes” used by the illegal aliens to hide the tracks left behind as they move across the border. Once they feel they are deep enough inside the U.S. and their tracks are well hidden, they will discard the shoes and continue on their journey northward into the States. The black bottle is made in Mexico and carried by the migrants during their trek into the desert. These bottles are popular because they do not reflect sunlight as much as the transparent bottles thus making them less detectable during movement. As our instruction continues, I find more of these carpet shoes and black bottles in the local surroundings.
At the end of the day, we head back to the camp and get the fire going again. As the fire grows and coals begin to form, we start dinner. I put a couple of cans of soup in the fire ring and wait for them to warm up. Some of the AZBR guys brought instant meals that only require hot water, while others brought marinated meats with grills and all the extras necessary for tasty food. These guys spend lots of time in the mountains. “Eventually, it’s all about being comfortable when you get to camp,” they tell me. They offer me cuts of meat as well as homemade desserts. It is quickly becoming apparent that this is a tight-knit group with a strong sense of camaraderie. We kick back and start trading stories about our respective careers and some of the things we have witnessed and experienced. The night sky is crystal clear. The planets are easily visible and shooting stars are abundant. I can see the allure in joining Foley and Arizona Border Recon.
The next morning we start training again. Moreira comes out wearing a ghillie suit. “Today, you guys are going to use what you learned to track me,” he tells us. Moreira heads out into the thick brush and disappears. The team leader establishes a plan and assigns positions for each man. I draw rear security: while patrolling I will need to check the six o’clock position regularly to prevent an attack from behind. A few minutes later, we head out.
The team tracker finds a good footprint and notes its characteristics. He relays the info to the team leader and we slowly and methodically make our way through the foliage looking for the suspect. At times, progress is slowed by bushes with sharp thorns that catch our uniforms and pull on our equipment. We have to duck and crawl to avoid tree branches and other thick vegetation. Eventually, the tracker finds a small piece of the ghillie suit worn by the suspect and we know we are on his tail. The point man finds a piece of fishing line set across two trees and notifies the team leader. We get down, and I take a sip from my Camelbak as the temperature in the vegetation starts to rise.
Then the team sees something about 35 meters ahead of us. The leader has everyone get into a column and begin honing in on the supposed position of the suspect. I head over and start scanning. The team moves closer and closer to the position.
“BANG! You’re dead.”
I turn around. Behind me, sitting on a rock, pressed up against a thick tree, is Fernando. I can see a smile behind the strands on his ghillie suit. I lay down. The team reaches the spot they thought was Fernando only to realize it was just a dark rock. One of the volunteers looks over and sees me lying on the ground. “You alright, Hansen,” they ask? “I’m f***** dead,” I reply. They try to get back in formation and regroup. But it’s too late.
“BANG! BANG! BANG! ALL OF YOU ARE DEAD!”
Fernando has won. Laughing, he tells everyone to come in and gives us a debriefing on the scenario. Fernando explained what we did right and wrong, and what was necessary for improvement. The training continued and included more iterations of searching for the suspect. The group became a more cohesive unit and during some run-throughs, we found the suspect without losing any men.
Later that night, at the campfire, Foley checks his satellite phone. He tells us some of the recently released statistics on the Border Patrol Tucson Station (covering 25 miles of border), for the past two weeks: 1,256 apprehensions, 1,289 “got aways,” 176 “TBS” (turn back souths), 656 outstanding. “There is not enough manpower to stop all the illegal crossings,” one of the AZBR members, whose career is with Border Patrol, explains while putting a dip of tobacco in his lip. Often, there will be multiple groups of 20-30 people coming across, but only four agents assigned to the shift. The agents will collectively pick a group and try to track it down before it gets too deep into the United States. The rest of the groups essentially get a free pass and may or may not be picked up at checkpoints within the U.S. or found by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) later.
The border is long and porous. The sentiment here is that Trump’s wall will help close some of the gaps. But ultimately, more manpower is necessary. For a while we are quiet. The fire snaps and smoke twists into the air disappearing into the endless night sky. I ask Foley why he has taken it upon himself to patrol the border. Pausing for a moment, he takes a drag from his cigarette, and, with no thread of uncertainty responds, “Because I love my country.”
The following morning, I pack up my gear and head home. For Arizona Border Recon, the training will continue for a few more days. Foley invites me to the next planned operation. If I’m still in the States, I might make the drive out. Foley and his men will be there, in the Southern Arizona mountains, helping the Border Patrol by tracking and providing intelligence on the movement of illegal immigrants across the border.
I watch the men as they fade into the thick vegetation. The Arizona Border Recon mission continues, day and night, One Hill At A Time.
This article was originally published on December 22, 2020.