This is the fifth and final article in a series on illicit drug and human trafficking along the Arizona-Mexico border.
ARIVACA, Ariz. – The first shots appeared to descend from the mountain across the Arizona-Mexico border, just east of Arivaca, where rival drug cartel factions are battling to death for supremacy.
Sam, my security guide, listened intently as more shots rang out.
They were hunters, no doubt, but not the sort one would generally expect.
“Where exactly do you think the blows are coming from?” I asked Sam nervously from the back seat of her van.
“I think they’re on the right,” Sam said, focused on the nearest mountain. “They could also be on top of this big peak.”
It’s not like we were invisible, clambering noisily up the winding dirt road in the border area known as California Gulch, part of the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona.
Our arrival in Sam’s gargantuan white Chevy Silverado on the sweltering morning of August 25 was about as clandestine as a megaphone in a public library.
“They could be warning shots” – for us, Sam said. “But that’s where they come from. Here.”
Sam is the pseudonym he uses to conceal his identity and that of his security company in Arizona. He was threatened by the Sinaloa Cartel for carrying out border surveillance activities. He now fears for the safety of his employees and his family.
Below our position, the unfinished Trump border wall and fence stretched east to west for miles, then came to an abrupt halt. On the American side of the border, cattle grazed among clumps of dry grass or basked in the imperfect shade of sparse shrubbery, squashing flies with their tails.
The jagged green peaks on the Mexican side of the steel chain-link border fence loomed up green and majestic. Strange, however, how nature does not immediately reveal its secrets. Hidden in the Las Guijas Mountains are some of the Sinaloa Cartel’s worst elements, Sam said.
“How strong is your stomach?” Kyle, Sam’s security specialist, had asked me the day before.
The fact that I love watching gory horror movies was enough for Kyle to share an actual cellphone video of a man mauled by two pit bulls in a Mexican border town not far from us.
Unfortunately, some things cannot be invisible.
Kyle said this type of cartel brutality is common in towns and villages on the Mexican side of the border fence.
“These guys are fighting for control of the Sinaloa Cartel. You have fights within fights,” Sam said, talking about both his background and professional intelligence gathering.
Sam believes the cartel mayhem will eventually spill across the US border with military force, bringing death and destruction to Americans, but not if a coalition of private citizens, law enforcement and corporate security security he envisions has a say.
The real battle, he said, is not about winning hearts and minds.
It’s about matching information with information, using superior surveillance techniques and equipment to defeat drug and human traffickers.
To that end, Sam’s company recently acquired a $33,000 JTI-branded drone that it frequently uses to perform border reconnaissance missions for customers and law enforcement.
The drone is a beast of versatility equipped with high definition and thermal cameras and powerful zooms.
Kyle operates the drone from the pickup bed using a console and laptop for imaging purposes. The drone has a maximum range of five miles traveling at speeds over 48 mph hundreds of feet above the ground. The batteries are interchangeable and last 45 minutes on a single charge.
You can hear the drone but rarely see it at higher altitudes, housed in fortified gray plastic with four propellers to carry it aloft.
Sam and Kyle’s mission today was to search and photograph cartel encampments near the Mexican side of the border fence.
Kyle pulled the drone out of a suitcase, then placed it in the middle of the fire road as he prepared for takeoff. With the push of a button on the console, the drone sprang to life, the propellers spinning like a supercharged weedkiller.
Up and down, the drone flew away with a simple turn of the joystick.
Kyle watched the action on the console screen while Sam watched on a laptop. The rugged mountainous terrain below looked foreign in both sights, taking shape as Kyle maneuvered at a lower altitude.
“I guess there are two factions here,” Sam said. “We try to keep [the other] to push towards the east, the other towards the west. We think they’re at the top just below us – oh, there they are!
One of the factions is Los Chapitos, whose founder is Ivan Archivaldo-Guzman Salazar, aka “Chapito”, a Mexican drug trafficker and son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Guzman was head of the Sinaloa Cartel until his arrest and extradition to the United States in 2017.
The other faction is El Mayo, led by suspected Mexican drug kingpin Ismael Maro Zambada Garcia.
Sam said the two factions are currently at war over control of the entire Sinaloa Cartel on Arizona’s southern flank.
Above the nearest mountain less than half a mile away, the drone camera suddenly spotted two blue tarps about 25 meters apart. In one of the tents, a man could be seen talking frantically on a portable radio.
As Kyle zoomed in closer, the screen showed another man in a body armor coming out of the bush, carrying what appeared to be an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle – definitely cartel.
“We found his [expletive]Sam yelled and punched Kyle, but it was too early to celebrate.
At that moment, the man looked up and saw the drone.
He raised his rifle and took aim.
“He’s trying to figure out where [the drone noise] come,” Sam shouted. “Wow! Wow! Get out of here!”
Kyle pressed the joystick and the drone moved to a safe distance, just before the man could fire.
He was now running in our direction. “He has a long way to go to the border wall,” Sam says.
But it was time to get out of there, quickly. Although getting out is harder than getting in.
Along the escape route, there were unexpected twists and a few dead ends that brought us closer to the border fence and the rifle-wielding cartel member.
Eventually, after many false starts and turns, we found our way back to the main fire and out of harm’s way.
Sam and Kyle promised a “hot spot” of cartel activity today, and they delivered.
For Americans living near Arizona’s southern border wall, however, it’s getting hotter every day.