Slagle: The Night of the Burning Bush

NOTE: What follows in this first part of a multi-part series, is an opening overview leading to the event which created turmoil in D.C. and sector management. The Marines recieved a commendation, the agent was hamstrung which is becoming S.O.P. ~ JS

December 13, 1989, a night which will live in Infamy in the annals of U.S. Border Patrol History, albeit a very incongruous type of infamy. As a member of the Tucson Sector Emergency Response Team (ERT) specifically assigned to drug interdiction along the US / Mexico Border, I had the honor of being accompanied by a 3 man fire-team of US Marines. These Marines and I were assigned to set up an LP/OP (Listening Post/Observation Post) on a remote mountaintop in Southern Arizona, a 6 night mission in a very remote, rugged, mountainous area where drug smuggling was continually being encountered. So much so, that one could say the smugglers were entering our country illegally with impunity. They were literally, ‘running amuck.’

This area of Arizona is along the US/Mexico border and runs from the New Mexico State line to the California Border. The Tucson Station AOR (Area of Operations) are from 10 miles west of Nogales, Arizona, to 10 miles west of Sells, Arizona, an area running approximately 60-70 miles. This area is very mountainous and includes much of the Coronado National Forest, Federal lands to be exact.

Most of the rest of this area is State owned property and/or private property. The dirt roads along this area were numerous. The roads are so rugged, rocky, steep, and sandy that it will literally take over an hour to drive just 3-4 miles, 4 wheel drive is the norm, and there are many areas of the roads washed out where vehicles must be parked and foot travel is now required. We tried to use ATV’s and motorcycles in these areas in the past, but the only effective way to work this area was to have plenty of time to drive or by the use of foot traffic or horses patrols. We opted to abandon ATV’s, motorcycles and vehicles and use foot patrol as our mode of travel. That way we were less likely to be detected. There is a lot of brush and rocks in these mountainous areas along our border which will hide and conceal large horse pack trains as well as people. Before arriving in Arizona after being hired with the USBP, I thought Arizona was a barren wasteland of sand and snakes. Quite the opposite is true. While there are thousands of square miles of just sand and cactus, there are many more thousands of square miles of mountains, washes, brush, trees and areas of very inhospitable terrain.

There were a lot of gold mines and copper mines in our AOR which had long been abandoned. There were all types of trails along and in these mountainous areas which lead from one mine area to the next. One area in particular was the town of Arivaca, Arizona. Formed as a mining and ranching center about 14 miles north of the Border, it had a population of about 150 people, mostly ranchers attempting to raise cattle, but also hippies, societal dropouts, recluses, and yes criminals attempting to evade the law. There were people living in old travel trailers in the mountains miles from town, no running water and no electrical power. Hermits in fact who conspired with smugglers for years in order to obtain a payoff of a small amount of personal use narcotics. The town of Ruby, Arizona, now abandoned contains one individual caretaker living in a ghost town which once boasted a population of over 5,000 miners. All of the buildings are now abandoned and it looked as though it was a magnet for smugglers to ‘load out’ their smuggling loads. Warsaw Canyon Mine, Oro Blanco Mine, LongShot Mine, were all dotted along the major road leading out of Arivaca. If one could fly over this area, you could actually see all of the roads and trails coming out of Mexico and most all leading to the area around Arivaca. The trails are so deep with the hundreds of thousands of pounds of narcotics and alien traffic using these trails, they appear the same as the trails in the Grand Canyon National Park.

To set the stage even further regarding this mission, a brief history of operations along our border during this period in time must be reviewed. The history of our operations is essential in understanding how the politics and the publicity backlash of this incident virtually dictated or changed the entire role of management. The history of this time period and I believe to a very great extent, affected the US Border Patrol and their operations in general along the southern border. So much so, that policy changes, procedures, rules, and training has changed the mentality in the way we conduct operations today. I truly and honestly believe this incident changed the Border Patrol to discipline, reprimand, and prosecute Agents for relatively minor violations of their policies, rules and procedures.

For example, Alexander Kirpnick, an outstanding U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed by drug smugglers a few years after my infamous encounter. If you read the reports, Kirpnick was in uniform, his badge displayed, his uniform leaving no doubt as to his identity and his authority to arrest drug smugglers and illegal aliens. Kirpnick ordered the suspects to sit down and when they became non-compliant, he assumed he could handle the situation by physically restraining them, w/o the use of the escalation of the force continuum. Kirpnick tried to wrestle at least 2 suspects to the ground where more extreme measures were obviously needed. One suspect pulled a weapon and shot Krupnick in the head. I remember a supervisor, an ACPA (Assistance Chief Patrol Agent), personally tell me that I could never have risen to the same level of integrity of such a fine hero who lost his life, because he follows the rules of engagement. He followed the rule of law. He told me I could never be in the same class as this hero. He followed the rules, I disobeyed them. This was years later after my encounter with drug smugglers. Management still had this animosity against me even to this late date; I had brought humiliation upon the US Border Patrol and was thus ‘ostracized by management for years upon years. But I went home that night, I did not give the smugglers any advantage, I lived by Kilvinski’s law. The Border Patrol re-issued orders shortly after my incident to conduct training in the rule of law and the rules of engagement, and the escalation in the use of force continuum. All agents were required to take this mandatory training to assure that all Agents comply with the rules, laws, policies and procedures as dictated by the US Government. Did this have any effect on Alexander Kirpnick’s actions? Where were his officer survival instincts? His Officer Safety? Why would someone attempt to control multiple suspects who became aggressive and non-compliant without escalating his use of force? Perhaps he thought he could control the situation, perhaps he just didn’t want to get into any trouble.

Alexander Kirpnick
Date of Birth: September 9, 1970
Entered on Duty: September 25, 1996

Border Patrol Agent: End of Watch: June 3, 1998

Details: On June 3, 1998, Border Patrol Agent Alexander Kirpnick was assigned patrol duties at Ephraim and Mariposa Canyons in the Nogales area of the Tucson Sector during the midnight shift. He and his partner responded to sensor traffic. About an hour after setting up, they heard foot traffic approaching and spotted five individuals carrying what appeared to be illegal contraband. When the suspects came closer, the agents identified themselves as Border Patrol Agents and moved forward to contact the suspects.

Agent Kirpnick moved toward two suspects close to him and his partner moved toward three in his area. Agent Kirpnick’s partner heard Agent Kirpnick order the two suspects to sit down and soon after heard a gunshot. He then went to Agent Kirpnick’s position and found him prone with a wound in the head. Agent Kirpnick passed away at the University Medical Center in Tucson.

Agent Kirpnick, an immigrant from Ukraine, was a graduate of the 322nd session of the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. (Source:

Juanita Santana, a very capable U.S. Border Patrol Agent, was shot twice in the chest, once through the forearm and a round had taken off her speed loaders on her duty belt. She had made a traffic stop on suspected drug smugglers and was approaching the driver’s side of the vehicle. The driver just turned his gun on Agent Santana and emptied the magazine. As she lay on the pavement after the rounds impacted her super shock plate and body armor, she un-holstered her revolver and placed 6 rounds into the trunk of the suspect’s vehicle as it sped away. Her immediate reaction (she later told me) was that “oh my god, I’m going to get into trouble now for firing my weapon against policy.” Really. Can you imagine that would be the first reaction of an Agent who was just involved in a justifiable shooting confrontation? I can. That was the mentality that was drilled into us after my encounter, if you do not have justification for every aspect of doing your job, you had better stand-by to answer questions. From justifying your use of physical restraint, pepper spray, baton, even raising your voice to a suspect, and especially, if you un-holstered your weapon where someone else may have seen you do so. You had better be able to articulate that rationale sufficiently because you will be guilty of something until you prove yourself innocent.

Another example of the politics of the day resulting from my incident on the mountain, was the placement of placards in the holding areas of the aliens apprehended. These placards were large signs, in Spanish, explaining that if the aliens thought they were abused in anyway, they should contact the office of the Inspector General, or what we referred to as ‘Internal Affairs.’ This started a very, very negative impact on all Agents at the station, if an alien believed he was ‘mistreated’ he simply had to call the OIG and report the mistreatment. In more than one instance, OIG immediately responded to talk to the alien to take statements from the poor little illegal entrant. 99% of all complaints were unfounded.

~ Part II ~

NOTE: True names were not stated and replaced with letters for agents involved. These were events leading up to the Marine Corp fire team assistance. ~ JS

1988 was a good year for me as a USBP Agent in Tucson, Arizona. I could do nothing wrong. Everywhere I went, everything I did, turned into some sort of seizure. I soon became very adept at working highway patrol and stopping smuggling loads. Not a day went by that I didn’t stop a load of illegal aliens attempting to enter the US. In the third and fourth quarters of 1988, about August to December, I had stopped numerous illegal alien smuggling loads. It was also the drug season. On September 8th or 9th, 1988 I made the largest single marijuana seizure in Tucson Station History totalling 1600 lbs of pot. The next day two agents stopped a van carrying over 3,000 lbs of marijuana. The day after that and during the next 60 day period, I made 45 drug seizures, one being the largest narcotics seizure in Tucson Station history, stopping a U-Haul truck carrying 5,000 lbs of marijuana. This record held for many years. Because of the amount of aliens I was apprehending and the amount of narcotics I was seizing, (in excess of 20,000 lbs of marijuana) I was awarded the Tucson Sector U.S. Border Patrol Agent of the Year award. The first year that this award was presented to anyone. This was presented in early 1989. Agent X and Y had been the Supervisors behind my nomination for this award. They were allowing me into the world of the elite, their world. I quickly entered this world of the ‘elite’ Border Patrol. I became very good friends with Agent X and Y and all the other agents wanted to work with me because of my ‘status.’ I was quickly assigned as an FTO and then assigned as the Tucson Station sensor agent to install sensors on all the known drug trails. I did not relish this position because I have been so successful at working the highway in a sedan and making a lot of apprehensions.

Later on, perhaps months later, after Agent X and I became good friends, he told me that he thought I was a ‘slug’ the day he arrived at the Tucson Station in his Hawaiian shirt. He said that I was bitching and moaning and processing the OTM load unassisted and that he had a low opinion of me at that time. Then he said, ‘had I known that you were catching at least one load a day, I would have thought better of you.’

Agent X asked me to work at installing sensors in the 1300 area so that we could gather intelligence on the known narcotics trafficking trails. I was really in the loop now, holy cow, I installed sensors, I got to know the mountainous area very intimately, every damn trail in our area of operations and basically took to it with a new outlook. I loved the mountains, it was a beautiful area and I was thrilled to be out hiking all day long and working alongside the elite. Then the new idea came along, basically from Agent X, to begin an Emergency Response Team, a team especially trained by the BORTAC team to essentially be a local BORTAC team. Our assignment was to be trained and equipped to work narcotics interdiction along the border. As a trained sensor agent, we could install sensors on all the known trails which were the heaviest travelled by the drug smugglers. I jumped at the chance to participate and quickly signed up. In early 1989 we had a group of about 40 agents pass the P.T. test and interview for the team. We conducted our training at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona and I was the eldest of the agents trying out for the team. The only other Agent older than me was J.G. one of the most hardened, elite, former US Army Green Beret and well trained U.S. Border Patrol Agents in the nation. There was no better USBP Agent. I was very proud to know him, respected and liked him very much, an outstanding agent. I really looked up to him. Everyone said that J.G. is hard and will make you drop out of the course faster than anyone else. We had lots of drop outs in this class, we finished with about 6 Agents, me being the eldest, most of the drop outs were very husky well built 20 somethings. It was a proud moment for me; I was still in great shape at 37 years old. I thought it was a cake walk, very enjoyable; I had a great time in training as an E.R.T. member.

After training, we started working the drug smuggling trails by conducting daily observations of certain routes. Literally, we could get into an aircraft, fixed wing or helicopter and fly the border and visually see the trails coming across the border from Mexico. The trails were that well used because they had been crossed by drug smuggling horse trains ‘with impunity’ for years. We would map, identify by G.P.S. location, and name the specific trails. We ‘signcut’ each known trail, everyday and determine which nights the smugglers were entering the country. We soon became so adept at intelligence gathering, we knew which nights the smugglers would be using which trails. We planned to put our operations into gear and started to conduct ‘lay-in’ operations, that is, setting up apprehension ambushes to catch these smugglers.

The first of the nights we set up was in Sierra Canyon, south of Arivaca, Arizona, and east of the Tres Bellotas Ranch. We drove to the area, Agent X and I and two other agents, J.H. and J.G. both of these latter agents were not members of the ERT. We ‘laid-in’ or set up our ambush area and waited. Agent X knew the smugglers were coming, all of our Intel said they were coming and this was the night. Well we waited for maybe six hours; it was pitch black, no moon, no flashlights allowed, just a black abyss.

Agent X ordered J.H. and J.G. to hold their position and he decided that he and I would walk down the trail toward the border fence slowly just to see if we could see or hear anything, we were tired of waiting. I also believed that he wanted to make sure he was right; this was supposed to be the night. We walked approximately a hundred yards south from J.G. and J.H. and ran smack dab into two mounted riders. We were literally face to face, not more than 5 feet from each other. We all stopped, I shouldered my shotgun slowly with as little motion as possible. Even in this very black night, we could make out the mounted riders but they were not carrying any dope. It was obvious, they were scouts ahead of the main body of the horse train smuggling narcotics. Suddenly, they wheeled and began galloping south. Agent X raised his Remington 1100 automatic shotgun with an extended magazine, and began firing. I was amazed, we had not been fired on and in the darkness I don’t think he could possibly have hit anything. He then told me to fire my weapon, which I did, but I fired in the air. The dope scouts got away which was good, no witnesses, no injuries. Agent X immediately said that we had to come up with a story to tell J.G. and J.H. and not to say a damn word about firing our weapons. Agent X said ‘the ends justifies the means’ we need to stop these dopers anyway we can, this is a war zone, a free fire zone, there are no rules out here.’ Agent X said that we would tell J.G. and J.H. that the dopers fired a shot and we returned fire with no injuries.Agent X said he would take care of all the reporting and made sure that both J.G. and J.H. were not to tell anyone, absolutely no one, not even wives. Agent X swore them and me, to secrecy. Do not say a damn word about this incident. Agent X was the supervisory BP Agent. I did what I was told, or rather, I told my wife about the incident and swore her to secrecy. Another example of the ends justifies the means in this environment. It literally was a different way of conducting law enforcement. A week later, a rancher in the area told us (they live on the border and have close ties with numerous other ranchers on the Mexican side) that the group we encountered was an extremely large narcotics group and that there were perhaps 20-30 horses behind the 2 scouts we encountered that night. Wow, had we waited we could have had a large seizure that night. Who knew? After this incident, we contacted a local rancher in the area who advised us that the leader of this group of smugglers was a very hardened Mexican cowboy by the name of Reuben Escalante. The ranchers in the area conduct business with the local ranchers in Mexico, buying and selling cattle, horses, etc., they knew each other very well. Reuben always carried a gun, was supposedly always intoxicated and Reuben boasted that he would never be taken alive.

No one said a word, ever! We went back to sign-cutting the trails. About two weeks later, we decided we would try it again, same trail. The horse sign had again been cut coming across the border using the same Sierra Canyon trail. We set up; this time all 4 agents were E.R.T. members. I was assigned with agent V.R. further north on the trail, we were to make contact with the horse riders and then Agent X and C.R. would be a little bit south on the same trail. They would let the riders pass by and then when we challenged the riders, if they run back, they would ambush them on their way south. This night was a full moon; we could see for a half mile down the trail and plainly observed 4 riders northbound on the trail. We could even see the dope they were hauling on their horses.

V.R. and I could not see X and C.R. and did not have contact with them, for whatever reason, our radios weren’t working as usual. The 4 riders became a bit separated from each other the closer they came to our position. Two riders were right on top of us, and without anything being said, Agent V.R. threw a ‘flash-bang’ grenade at the horses. We could hear one of the riders say in Spanish to ‘watch out!’ as the flash bang ignited, which was a small pop, not a large huge explosion. The horse riders wheeled around and began galloping south. As with the previous incident, I raised my shotgun in the air and fired several rounds in the air to get the horses running, and to alert Agents X and C.R. that we had made contact. These riders released their dope loads which left them on the trail. As the riders galloped south, X and C.R. also made contact with the two riders who were lagging behind the first two we made contact with. Numerous shotgun rounds could be heard being fired, from both agents. Those two riders turned around and began galloping back towards the north and then ran into the first two riders we had encountered, they found a wash and turned and galloped south again. We could heard them yelling in Spanish, ‘the Border Patrol (la migra) is everywhere.’ ‘They are everywhere.’

V.R. and I made it back to X and CR. We immediately saw a dead horse with saddle and bridle. X said that we need to get together on our story here. X said this will be the story, now everyone stick with this and never ever say anything different. X said he would report this incident as he was the supervisor and this is what happened. X said the horses were coming straight at him and were going to run him down, which was a life threatening situation, so he fired. (X and C.R. actually said they were off the trail and could have let them pass by but didn’t want them to get away again) Agent X had said “I heard you guys make contact and I was so excited that I said “fuck em up Bobby, fuck em up.” Well, this was the norm out here, we had to achieve our goals at the best way we could, none of this getting away bullcrap. The ends justified the means was his motto. We had not been shot at, we achieved our purpose where the smugglers had dropped their loads and galloped away. We found on the dead horse, the loops or ropes the dopers used to secure their loads which were tied in such a way as to be quickly released if they needed to drop them immediately. They would pull on small rope ties looped around their saddle horns and the lines would quickly release and the dope bundle would fall. From then on, this small hill, a mile north of the US/Mexico Border, in the Sierra Canyon area of Arivaca, Arizona, became known as “Dead Horse Ridge.” The same informant, the rancher in the area stated again, Reuben Escalante’s operation. Escalante was not the cartel leader, he was ‘La Guia’, the Guide, he knew every trail and every inch of the border, on both sides of the fence. He was the man to get the drugs through. Again, he always boasted that he would never ever been taken alive by ‘La Migra’.

Agent X reported the incident, no one said anything different and the night was considered a huge success. We were happy, management was happy, everything was kosher. This type of ambush continued now with incredible success. Our Intel was just incredible, we had people out every day, cutting the trails and getting to know when they entered. We began knocking their butts in the dirt. Every night we went out, we got a dope load, sometimes 2 and 3 a week. Flash Bang grenades were the norm, a few rounds fired in the air and the dopers would drop their loads and run back to their little mamasita’s. We seized numerous horses by now, over 50 by my count, and thousands of pounds of dope. The dopers would pull a pack train now and if ambushed, they simply released their lead ropes and left the pack horse on its own.

Another night in particular was the Fresnal Canyon trail ambush. This was another rugged, mountainous trail, beginning on the border east of Sasabe, Arizona, and ending just north of Arivaca, Arizona. Perhaps a 12-13 mile trip. Fresnal canyon is an extremely picturesque canyon, with lots of Mesquite trees, large huge boulders, grassy hills covered with Mesquite trees, just a very pretty area. This is my favorite area to work. I had walked this trail many many times. I had had made contact with narcotics pack trains on this trail several times and was very intimate with this area. We had laid in for a straight 8 nights in freezing temperatures, extremely cold and bitter. We finally hit pay dirt when the horse pack train approached on that eighth night. The only difference on this night, was a challenge from the lead contact units. We had two Agents positioned right on the trail facing south. As the rides approached, these agents challenged them and told them to stop. The rest of our team was situated to the side of the challenging agents in a typical ‘L’ shaped ambush, so in case of any shots fired, our agents would not be caught in a crossfire. Of course that was not the case so our flash bangs were thrown, several rounds fired, several hundred pounds seized as well as several horses but no suspects apprehended. Again we had to ‘get the story straight’ so that everyone would be on the same page. The same rancher in the area, my go to informant as I was in the area every day stated, ‘you guys are gonna have to kill Reuben Escalante to get him to stop.’ But why all of his boasting about never being taken alive, carrying a gun and a tequila bottle everywhere he went, why no shots from Escalante. Only he would know the answer to that menacing question. I always, always thought, when is it going to happen, when are we going to get someone hurt.

The point of this history is, this was the norm, getting the story straight, doing what needs to be done in order to seize the drugs.

~ Part III ~

December 13, 1989, Jap Tank Trail, Warsaw Canyon, Cobre Ridge area of Arivaca, Arizona, was my downfall. At least in the eyes of the Border Patrol, not in my eyes though. This was my 15 minutes of fame. I had been named the Tucson Sector BP Agent of the year, received all kinds of accolades and even a pay raise. I was held in high regard at our station, we were knocking em dead, so to speak. We began an operation with the U.S. Marine Corps through JTF-6 and Operation Alliance to interdict drugs on the border. We were so successful that other agencies and groups now wanted to participate and get some action. (The U.S. Customs Investigations Office from Tucson ‘laid in’ on the Fresnal Canyon trail one night as they wanted some ‘action.’ We tracked a group of horses right past them as they were sleeping and when they awoke to see our flashlights approaching, we found the narcotics load literally less than 100 yards from where they were)(The dopers dropped off their load of pot right under the noses of the Customs Agents) The U.S. Marines hadn’t been doing anything so they requested, through JTF-6 and Operation Alliance to conduct training operations for their elite group, the Recon Marines and we were all too readily agreeable. We held meetings, made plans, set up logistics, etc.etc. We started out by setting up an LP/OP on Cobre Ridge, on a peak we named Grasky (after the very tough elite B.P. Agent Jim Grasky) because it was very remote, very rugged and tough to get to, no doper would ever suspect they were being watched from such an inhospitable location, hell, no one would climb up that thing. Well the Marines would, and the U.S. Border Patrol would also climb it, and spend 6 nights in the freezing weather, a cold camp, no fires allowed and observe for the 6 nights. We were to listen and observe at night and sleep during the day, the dopers ran at night, not during the day. To set up an LP/OP for 6 nights, 3 Marines and 1 U.S.B.P. Agent requires a great deal of logistical planning. Each one of those individuals was carrying in excess of 100 lbs of gear. They could be resupplied by helicopter, but if the doper scouts saw a helicopter in the area, they might put two and two together, avoid the area and the operation would be a total loss. So we were ordered to carry all our gear and even the incredibly large and heavy night vision scope. We also set up a command post on Fraguita Peak, just a mile or so south of Arivaca. We had ‘chase’ agents so that if the LP/OP made an observation, they would relay that info to command and the ‘chase’ group would attempt to locate and apprehend the smugglers.

Our communications were non-existent in this area, because it was so rugged, remote and mountainous, we could not communicate with each other, we had terrible commo equipment. The Marines could not communicate either. The only way we did have commo was if an Agent stayed on top of Fraguita peak and the other on top of Grasky peak. We still did not have commo with agents on the trails and in the canyons. At any rate, one of the ‘chase’ agents saw a flicker of a cigarette being lighted (with the aid of night vision goggles) on the Fraguita Peak trail. Hell, a rider was riding right by the command post. We went down to check the trail after seeing this light and confirmed the horse sign. We had not set up an ambush so we had to track the horse to the load out area, which we did, and located 705 lbs of cocaine and a load vehicle. Suspects had already absconded.

After that first week, it was my turn to accompany the LP/OP team, 6 nights of freezing cold weather, only it hadn’t been too bad the past week or so in Arizona, not super cold anyway. 3 Marines and I were driven to our off load area, Jap Tank trail, Warsaw Canyon road. Grasky Peak was over a 2 ½ mile hike, uphill. Our gear was in excess of 100 lbs each. We had about 2 miles of walking uphill before beginning our climb up Grasky Peak. I knew this trail intimately because I had walked it many times and personally buried several electronic sensors on this trail, at the high points, so the signal would reach the repeater antennas if activated. I knew this trail like the back of my hand. I had walked it alone many times, taking along an M-14 in case of trouble, that was our only back-up at times, your own firepower. I always carried my M-14 while working sensors along these dope trails. This particular night, with the Marine Corps fire team, I was carrying a Remington 870 pump action shotgun and my side arm, a Sig Sauer .45 caliber pistol, as well as 2 flash bang grenades. The Marines were loaded for bear with fully automatic M-16A2’s, with an M-203 grenade launcher on the bottom of the gun to fire flares, not real grenades. They also carried Pop-up flares which were hand held and did not have the length and power of illumination as the M-203 launched flares.

We began our hike up the trail at about 7:30 PM and I instructed the Marines that it would always be possible to encounter a dope load on this trail although it was very early in the evening and nothing had ever been encountered this early. I told them we would climb about a mile and then rest in the saddle before making the 2nd leg of the journey towards Grasky Peak. It was extremely slow going, the trail going uphill, each one of us carrying over a hundred pounds of gear apiece. I don’t care who you are, even if you are a muscle man (which each one of these Marines appeared to be extremely well muscled and buff) or a wimp, you had to stop and rest frequently to avoid getting wore out and even to avoid injury. There was a full moon, the wind was blowing and it wasn’t super cold, but we were sweating, huffing and puffing. Besides, we had 6 nights to stay out here, what matter would it be to take our time to get up to the top.

We finally made it to the saddle and approached the fence and horse gate, yes, there is a horse gate in this saddle so we had to open the gate, go through and close the gate. The dopers would need to dismount and open the gate, get their horses through it and then close the gate. It is an obvious choke point and one which I had buried sensors in the past. Although this trail had not been used for several months, I had pulled the sensor from this gate. I usually placed 2 sensors on a horse gate, one on the south side of the gate and another on the north side of every gate, usually about 40 to 50 yards from the gate on each side. That way, if the sensor activates, you know darn good and well that someone approached, opened and went thru the gate, usually at an internal of 1-2 minutes, maybe 3-5 minutes at the most. A wandering cow would not open the gate and go thru to activate both sensors; it had to be a human being to activate each one.

We went thru the gate and I decided to take a ‘sit down’ break before proceeding on the next leg of our journey, we walked up the hill from the saddle and gate about 50 yards into some trees so conceal ourselves from the trail. Although there hadn’t been any activity on this trail, we took precautions, besides the Marines always take precautions. We were sitting there resting when I turned on the radio and heard one of our Agents calling me, he was close and telling me that sensor activity had been detected on this trail at the border. He had driven to our off load area a mile away and was in a vehicle so we had commo. I had also placed sensors on this trail at the border, one on the south side (yes, we placed sensors south of the border with the knowledge of management) of the fence and the other on the north side of the border fence. You know darn good and well if the south sensor activates first, which this did, and several minutes later the north sensor activates, you know you have traffic approaching. I knew from setting up these sensors that if there was activation, only 1 or 2 ‘hits would register because it was very rugged in this area and the signals were not strong enough to reach the repeater antennas. So when this agent told me that the sensors had registered 10 hits, I explained that it had to be a cow, it couldn’t possibly be a dope load or pack train coming. I told him I would climb up hill and try to get high enough to call the command post. I then climbed uphill and reached an elevation where I had commo with Supervisor Agent X. Agent X ordered me to go to the ‘border’ not the trail, to check the sensors for evidence of an entry BY MYSELF, and to leave the Marines where they were. I told Supervisor X that I would not do that for obvious officer safety reasons, (X was an BPA with no prior law enforcement or military experience) as it was still more than 3 clicks to the border and I was not going by myself, that was ridiculous. Agent X then told me to go by myself again, and then said “I order you to go by yourself and I order you to do it now”. I again told him no, I was not going to obey that order. I did not understand why X would make such an order; IF there was a pack train approaching he wanted me to be by myself? Are you joking me, I had a fire team of Marines, why would I go alone? I knew what the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) stated, that the US Marines were not to have contact with dope smugglers except in a defensive situation only. Hell, the Marines were spoiling for a fight. There weren’t any wars going on, they had not had any type of conflict, only training. They would absolutely enjoy going along. I was also in the Marine Corps, but it was a long time before this night, I was in the Marines (also the 1st Marine Division) from May 1970-May 1973. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Well, I was still not going to walk 3 clicks to the border by myself to check for sign so the back and forth continued with X. He telling me to go by myself and I told him I would not. (This should have been recorded on the Tucson Sector Radio Dispatch Center, but somehow was mysteriously ‘not recorded.’) This must have happened 4-5 times before I told him that I would just go down to the trail at the saddle and check that. We were already there.

In that short time period, I walked back down the hill to where the Marines were waiting in the trees and told them we had sensor activity and I was going, with them as backup, to the trail to check it, which was only 50 yards away.

We left our rucks and walked towards the trail. It was a full moon, the wind was howling pretty good coming out of the east and the temp was still mild. I was in the lead with the Marines behind me in single file and spread out because we don’t ‘bunch up.’ As I approached from behind the trees I immediately saw at least 8 horses packing dope and at least 6 riders mounted on horseback. It appeared to me they were preparing to dismount and open the gate to ride through. It was windy, they did not hear us approaching from the side and the rear and I came to within 10 yards of the lead rider. I had my flash bang grenade in my jacket pocket, reached in and grabbed it with my right hand. I then pulled the pin on the grenade and gently and underhanded threw the grenade at the lead rider striking him in the back when the grenade exploded with an extremely large bang. (I did not mention this in my official memos to management; I simply stated I threw the flash bang at the riders) This explosion had no effect on the horses or riders except for them to turn their horses towards us and at this time I racked a round in my shotgun, approached the rider nearest me who turned towards me, very close now, closer than 10 yards and fired a shotgun round in the air. This finally had the desired effect, which was to send the riders and horses fleeing and to abandon their dope loads which had always happened in the past. (Another point here, in the past, when we knocked down a load of dope and horse pack trains, we wanted them to disperse to minimize the chances of them trying to fire guns at us from horseback which is difficult, also to drop their dope and run thereby not apprehending anyone so that we would need to do tedious paperwork back at the station. We could achieve our main objective, to make a narcotics seizure without doing a lot of crappy paperwork, this was always our main goal, no paperwork, and to go home at the end of the shift, with a load of dope. Another reason we hated the paperwork, the courts always viewed these individuals as ‘poor little peons just hauling dope for money, people just trying to make a living. If they did not have prior criminal convictions, they were released after pleading guilty to drug smuggling and sent home. Why do all that paperwork for nothing. Even if they had prior convictions, if we did not have a set of fingerprints locally to identify their previous criminal history, it took months to send fingerprint cards to the FBI for analysis. It was nothing like our modern day IDENT systems, so apparently, the dopers were very, very adept at fleeing the scene without getting caught, wink wink)

As I fired my shotgun and the dopers released their dope loads, they began to wheel around to run. The Marines at this point, because I fired my weapon, started yelling at me, “Should we shoot, should we shoot?” I replied ‘if you want to fire, fire in the air only, do not shoot at any horses or riders, shoot in the air only’. Well, this was the start of July 4th in December as the Marines opened up with their fully automatic weapons, and flares, shooting in the air and screaming “ooooh raahhhh”. Well it was a sight to behold and I was downhill from them so I was somewhat concerned but the dopers were fleeing over the hill to the north, they never got through the gate. The flares illuminated the area to a very bright white and everything was very clear, I could see the dope bundles left behind by the dopers. It was very chaotic at this time and to make matters worse, the flares were magnesium flares and contained parachutes and it was very windy. The flares were blown straight towards the hill to the north and landed while still burning. This is Arizona and it is extremely dry with lots of tall dry grass on the hillside, it started a grass fire immediately and began to spread rapidly, but I was still concerned with the riders to make sure they were all high-tailing it out of the area. The Marines seemed to stop firing and then yelled, ‘lay down suppression fire’ and it began again, they were firing on full auto and firing into the hillside to the west, their weapons were all filled with tracer rounds and it was indeed a 4th of July celebration in December, what a show, it was beautiful with all the tracer rounds, the flares, and now the fire starting on the hillside. The dopers were gone, galloping their horses back towards the border, the dope bundles littering the trail and hillside and the gate was opened! They had dismounted and opened the gate. They were already waiting to go through when we made contact; the lead rider must have just gotten back up on his horse when he was hit with the grenade. We had not heard them approaching because of the wind and we did not see them because of the heavy brush in the area.

I believe we made contact at the right time, while they were mounted, had they been on the ground, it would have made it easier for them to use weapons. (had they had any, none were confiscated at the scene, I didn’t want to find out if they did have weapons anyway, that would have given them an opportunity, and the means to shoot at us, while being on the ground, the intent is subjective) Weapons are rather difficult to use while on horseback trying to control a horse and gun at the same time. It isn’t as easy as the movies would have us believe.

The Agent who advised me that we had sensor activity on the trail had driven to our insertion point about a mile from our location. Because he was in a vehicle, he had better radio communications and informed the CP that I had made contact. Although anyone within a hundred miles could have seen the flares the tracer rounds and the fire burning the entire hillside, I made sure that Agent V.R. call on his radio to relay info. The Marines and I began fighting the fire as well as we could, and in so doing we located more bundles of marijuana and located a horse on the north side hill whose bundle of dope had shifted and slid under her and became a hobble. The horse could not move and the fire was rapidly approaching so I ran over to the horse and cut the ropes to release the bundle and get the horse moving. By the time I walked the horse to the saddle, tied it up on the fence and got back to the bundle of marijuana, it had lit on fire and completely burned. It was a large bundle, perhaps as much as 100 lbs., the Marines were making fun and wanted to stand downwind from the smoke. We were all experiencing a sort of euphoria at this event, the marijuana was seized, a horse was seized, no one apprehended, no injuries, lots of ammo expended, overall a very good outcome. Much the same as before, only, the Marines and I did not conspire to tell a story or make something up. If we had, perhaps the politics and disciplinary action would never have occurred. (The same informant/rancher on the border again stated that this was Reuben Escalante’s, loss, the doper bandito from northern Mexico)

My Supervisor, Agent X, arrived about an hour after the incident and was waiting at the bottom of the trail. I was using the horse we seized as a pack animal to transport the marijuana down to the bottom so it could be loaded in a vehicle. When I met X at the bottom of the trail, he had the Marine Corps officer in charge of their unit with him, Lt. Kucera, as well as a Mr. Doug Hunter, a regional Immigration Commissioner or some honcho from HQ. X immediately began yelling at me “you really fucked things up, this is a fucked up mess” and this occurred in front of these individuals as well as other BP Agents and Marines. I was on top of the world and in an instant, berated like a little boy causing trouble at church. I approached X, in front of all of those folks and said “ let me tell you what happened” and he just said “I don’t want to hear it just don’t say anything, this is a fucked up mess, we’ll have to shut everything down stop the whole operation now.” I tried reporting this incident at the scene, even after gathering up another load of dope and bringing it back down, I approached X again and told him that I need to tell him what happened, he again said he didn’t want to hear it and dismissed me like a little kid. We all loaded up and drove back to the Tucson Station to complete reports. I went into Supervisor Ron ‘Pops’ Laughlin’s office because it was vacant and had an electric typewriter, not a manual to do the paperwork. I was followed by a dozen Agents who wanted to hear the whole story. As I was relating the events of the evening, Agent X came into the office and I again told him “ I need to tell you what happened out there” he just said “don’t say a damn word, just don’t say anything.” Luckily this occurred in front of a dozen agents so I had their statements to back me up, and even one agent at the scene who heard me try and relay the events to him and backed me up regarding this info.

I completed my report, w/o reporting that I fired a shotgun round because Agent X didn’t want to hear it so I went home to shower, it had been a long night. A couple of hours later, X called and asked if I had fired my weapon and I said yes. He told me about the Marines saying that they exchanged gunfire with dope smugglers at the scene and that all hell was breaking loose on a national level and to come back into the office and get this straightened out. So I drove back to the station, met with X and he said “I wish you had told me what happened out there” I said, I tried but you didn’t want to hear it, I tried several times”. He replied, “Yes I should have listened to you but let’s get this done now”. An Assistant Chief was present. Both told me they would keep me in an on duty status for reporting purposes. So I told them the whole story. The Marines maintain they were fired upon, I said we were not, basically that is the whole story. I fired my shotgun in an attempt to disperse the smugglers rather than try and make an arrest. Any BP Agent knows that when he tells a group of illegal aliens to stop because they are under arrest, they usually or at least half of them, run. This is 99.9% true of smugglers who are smuggling narcotics, they don’t want to go to jail and will not submit to arrest. I have been knocking down horse packing operations for months now and this is the proper procedure, the supervisor had taught me and taught all of us how do conduct these operations. I truly believed that my supervisor,Agent X, would back me up in this situation or any situation. I would quickly learn that a person has no buds in life, period.

After relating the incident to Agent X, and the Assistant Chief, as well as my wife who had come along to listen to the story (she was a Tucson Police Officer and retired from that department) I believed that there was not going to be a problem. Agent x actually said, in front of the Assistant Chief, “Yes, I should have listened to you.” A couple of days of writing reports etc. etc. I again met with Agent x who wanted more details. I was told by management, by the Chief Patrol Agent, Ron Dowdy, that I would probably be receiving disciplinary action but it would not be too serious. I said that is fine, I guess I should have done things differently, and I accept full responsibility for the embarrassment this incident has caused with HQ, the JTF-6, Operation Alliance, and the Pentagon. This incident went immediately to the Pentagon, to HQ Washington DC, JTF-6, Operation Alliance, and made all of the major newspapers including the NY Times, Washington Post, as well as the local papers. I’m very sorry and it will not happen again, that I believed would be the end of the story, it was just the beginning. I met Agent X at the station and he was upset again. This was a couple of days afterwards and he was pissed. He said “what are you going to tell them”, and I replied, “I’ve already told the truth, if it comes down to problems, I will tell them that I tried to report the incident to you and you didn’t want to hear it”. Agent X replied much to my astonishment, “I don’t remember saying that, no I didn’t say that, and that’s just what I’m going to tell them.” This was after what he said in front of the ACPA when he said “Yes, I should have listened to you.” I was absolutely amazed that he was refusing to back me up after all of the incidents we had been involved in and all of the bad shit I’ve seen him do and back him up regarding his bullshit. The Assistant Chief also kept quiet regarding this statement made by Agent X; I believe his response was “I don’t recall Agent X saying that.” This is management in the Border Patrol. This is what management will do to their own people, throw them under the bus rather than back anyone up or take their own responsibility for their actions. I immediately lost all respect and lost all confidence in management. A day after the incident, several members of JTF-6 had arrived at the Tucson station; one in particular was a Deputy Commissioner of JTF-6 Operation Alliance by the name of Robert Goldman. He was the only one of the group to approach me and tell me that I did an outstanding job, he was gracious. He called me an outstanding Agent that knew what enforcement was all about. He told me that we had a ‘war going on out there’ and he was absolutely behind me 100 percent. All the others kind of looked at me as though saying ‘look at him, that’s the guy over there ‘

A couple of months later I was given a proposal for a 2 day suspension from Chief Dowdy regarding this incident. I told the Chief that would be fine, a 2 day suspension that will come off your record after two years, not a big deal. The chief told me that the proper procedure is for me to write a response to this proposal and explain why I do not agree with the suspension and why it should not be imposed. I told him that was fine, I’ll take the suspension. He told me, “no, no, write a response and explain any extenuating circumstances and we’ll take everything into consideration, we have no enemies here Bob, we are all on the same team, so just write something up and we’ll take everything into consideration.” I went to every supervisor at the Tucson Station, including Agent x. I told all of them that the 2 day suspension was fair and I will take it and they all told me to write a response and explain why I shouldn’t be suspended. All of them told me the same thing. I even talked with all of the Assistant Chief’s who said the same thing. They said there is nothing personal and to write it up and they will consider all information, just do it, its okay. They all told me, ‘go ahead and write something up Bob, it’s okay, go ahead, we’ll look at everything and made an honest decision on how to proceed, it’s okay, don’t worry about it.’

So I obtained statements from all of the Agents present the night of the incident and asked them to explain what they heard me tell Agent x and how he responded. All of them wrote a memo saying they heard me say to Agent x that I need to tell him what happened and he didn’t want to hear it, so I submitted that info in my rebuttal.

After submitting my rebuttal against the charges of “Failing to report firing my weapon as a warning shot” Chief Patrol Agent Dowdy called me to his office and stated that he had changed my disciplinary action from a 2 day suspension to a letter of reprimand because of the failure of management to listen when I tried to report the incident. Dowdy and his D.C.P.A. Coffin, read me the riot act, they were extremely angry, telling me that I should have reported it to some other supervisor if agent x didn’t want to hear it and then berated me for about half an hour, saying that I should have taken the suspension and not written a rebuttal and should not have shined a bad light on management. Dowdy said that he had lost all respect for me and especially after presenting me with the Tucson Agent of the Year Award the previous year, and that my record belittles my behavior in this incident, and lastly, he literally walked to his office door, opened it and said he wanted me to “get out of my office.” This is management, this is what is leading our U.S. Border Patrol ? Give me a break. First I told them I would take the 2 days, then they practically begged me to write a rebuttal (all of them told me to write a response, all of the supervisors) and when I did, I shined a bad light on them and I had absolutely no integrity. I got the impression that H.Q. had really come down on management at the Tucson Station, from the Chief to Supervisory Agent X. They threw me under the bus at the station level because they looked bad and were embarrassed at the national level. Thanks for the backup Agent X, thanks for looking out for me Chief, especially in all of those prior situations where we had to ‘stick to the story’ and ‘keep your mouth shut’. In all of those prior incidents where I had to back up agent x and did so without blinking, where was he now? Unbelievable. When it comes down to you or them, trust me, you have no friends, you have no back-up, I never did. We were all expected to back him up, however, he would never ever do the same for his agents. We did not know that until this incident.

I became an instant celebrity again among some of the Agents in the station, the veteran agents who know all about management and their two faces. Some of the agents who were ‘buds’ with the supervisors had shunned me because of this incident. That was okay. They were suckasses who wanted to sit on their butts and fly a desk someday. The only way to do that was to kiss ass to the Supervisors and not go out on the street and desert trails. I know the truth and I know what happened, from the time I started in the Patrol to the day I retired.

Now comes the 2nd round of Operation Alliance and JTF-6 operations. Just after all of this bullshit, the U.S.B.P. and the U.S. Army started a joint training operation along the border to train Army units in the use and placement of electronic sensors. You guessed it, I was assigned to conduct the sensor training and operations installations and to take the Army units out into the field. Boy, I sure didn’t get this or understand it one bit. I had a job and I guess I had better keep it, but I did protest about being assigned to this operation again. We drove to Ft. Huachuca, Az., where this U.S. Army Tactical Unit would meet for classroom instruction and then we would travel out to our A.O.R. to conduct the on-site portion of the training. We arrived at the Fort early one morning and were ushered into an office area which also contained a ‘day use’ area for soldiers to sit and wait. There were numerous metal folding chairs and a T.V. set was on, about 2 dozen soldiers sitting around. There were a few minutes of down time now as we had to await the Army officer in charge to arrive for the briefing. I took this opportunity to walk over and introduce myself to the Soldiers who were watching TV, as we would be working closely together for the next couple of weeks out in the bush. I was flabbergasted ! These guys all looked about 16 years old, they were extremely young compared to the U.S. Marine Corps Recon team we had just worked with. And to top it off, after I said hello to most all of them and shook their hands, they turned away and back to the TV set. They were watching cartoons, that’s right, cartoons. Not the modern day cartoons, but stuff like bugs bunny and daffy duck, it was just incredible to think that this was our modern day Army. The officer in charge of their unit was young and he did not inspire an air of confidence in his abilities either. Geez, what is going on here, just do the job and get it over with, that was my attitude at this point. We conducted our training during the day, instructing the Army unit on placement and location of sensors. The U.S.B.P. would not allow us to stay out after dark. They did not want the same sort of incident occurring as last time. The thing was, most all of my sensor placement was at night so that we could avoid being detected by scouts and smugglers. I didn’t care anymore if we were discovered and lost sensors, they weren’t my sensors and yes, we lost sensors on this operation. The smugglers located them, dug them up and destroyed them, one was stolen and never recovered.

I had plenty of trouble with all of the supervisors from that day forward. I had to work very hard at being a good agent and doing my job. I always did the same in the field, I made sure I went home at the end of my shift. I looked out for myself, kept one hand on my weapon when working the field and never, ever, let a suspect have any sort of upper hand. I have many stories of each supervisor and how they treated me after this incident. I kept every document, every I-44 seizure document, every memo, every time card, even made copies of I-213’s the booking sheet we use to return aliens to Mexico, you name it, I kept it. I wanted a record of everything I did. As it turned out, I would need all of that information. When appraisal times came around, the Supervisors would give me less of an appraisal than what I believed was fair. I actually had to bring out my paperwork and show them and prove to them what I was doing.

Out of 13 years in the US Border Patrol, I received 9 Outstanding Performance Appraisals. The year I left the Tucson Station, I received a $1,000 cash award for providing assistance to an illegal alien who had broken an ankle while running away from us. I carried him for about a ½ mile through extremely rocky ground to a waiting medivac helicopter. He was a backpacker, a dope smuggler. I would have rather he got away without injury so I would not have to do paperwork, but oh well, I did my duty and carried the backpacker to safety. A complete turnaround from the Jap Tank Trail.

I went from being a hero as the Agent of the Year, to being the ‘Shitbird’ of the year. I quit the Emergency Response Team because Agent X remained in charge of the team. I became a shop steward for the Union and thrived in that environment. Everyone who had any sort of disciplinary problems would come to me for assistance and I enjoyed the role of representing Agents against management. I worked extremely hard at proving why Agents should not receive certain disciplinary actions.

A more recent example was the murder of Agent Terry resulting from the politically inflamed “fast and furious” debacle. Agent Terry and his team were instructed to use ‘bean bag’ ammo (non-lethal) in an attempt to apprehend drug smugglers, rather than carry regular ammo. We have become such a nation of political correctness and attempting to follow the rule of law that the same principle applies in the conflict in Afghanistan. Fighting an enemy, in a combat zone, or along our own combat zone on the Border, is just that, a combat zone, not a law enforcement action. Why are we fighting a drug war utilizing these rules and who on earth would demand bean bags be used in potentially lethal confrontations? When we finally realize that we have a credible and imminent threat along our Border, we will finally take action. It will probably be too little, too late.

A rancher, a Mr. Barnett along our southern border near Douglas, Arizona, is not allowed to protect his property; he is not allowed to take action. He must ‘pay a very heavy price’ for making a citizen’s arrest, he ‘upset the illegals’ coming through his property and is therefore the criminal himself. What an incredible crock of bull this country has become.

This is the carryover from incidents along the border for many years. Follow the rule of law, give these criminals their rights, you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to a lawyer, don’t say anything against yourself because you have these rights, the regular agent does not. We must follow our rule of law, the criminals do not. I believe that we must NOT follow the rule of law, but the rule of combat. If we put our own lives in our own hands, follow our own common sense about every encounter, we will survive these encounters. We cannot survive these combat encounters by asking these criminals to ‘please stop, you are under arrest and must submit to my commands’ to have your day in court. Bullshit, if you take action to assure that you go home at the end of your shift, that is the bottom line. Make sure you survive the situations you encounter, if it results in an arrest where the suspects have a right to trial and possible freedom for some stupid technicality, then so be it. But if you take action to survive an incident, achieve the same result as seizing a load of narcotics without anyone being injured, that should be a successful operation, not a politically motivated, ‘oh my gosh my administration and I look bad in some else’s eyes’ what is going to happen to me and my command. Make sure that I look good, to hell with the agent in the field. Throw that bastard under the bus.

Management will make every effort to protect themselves, even to the point of ostracizing the field agent. Another prime example of this idiocy was the Elmer and Watkins ‘murder’ incident in Nogales. Criminal charges were filed against Agents Elmer and Watkins in this case, the Agents were exonerated at trial but lost their jobs. (Watkins was Tucson BP Agent of the Year after me, and Agent Gracie Mata after him, who was also involved on the same team when this shooting took place)

The two Texas agents, Ramos and Compean, actually imprisoned because they shot a drug smuggler in the ass, who had been arrested multiple times for drug smuggling by the way, was one of the greatest travesties of justice our nation has encountered. Johnny Sutton, the prosecutor, should be ashamed of himself. What a sorry, sorry human being.

~ The Author ~
John Slagle, has been a long-time reader and frequent contributor to The Federal Observer, and spent over 32 years defending this nation and was on duty September 11, 2001 at HQ Intelligence. After retirement in 2002, returning to his home in Arizona, the borders were over-run with illegals, death was an everyday occurrence, the Mexican Military was escorting narcotics shipments and shooting at our Border Patrol Agents. When Park Ranger Kris Eggle was murdered in an international incident involving Mexican Hit men, narcotics smugglers at Lukeville and politicians with the exception of Colorado Congressman Tancredo ignored the problem. The same situation existed with mainstream media. Even a load of illegal aliens whose vehicle was riddled with Mexican military machine gun fire was not worthy of attention.

Like many people, he tried to contact elected officials on the problems, and received standard form replies in return. Finally, he had enough and wrote ILLEGAL ENTRIES which is now published and shows three decades on the Borders, and how politicians have created the problems in illegal immigration from 1972 to 2004. Like many of his partners, some who were killed enforcing immigration laws, Amnesty for lawbreakers is a “kick in the face” to our honored dead. As a longtime conservative, he will not vote or support any elected official whose interests are not for U.S. Citizens or lawfully admitted resident aliens.

One thought on “Slagle: The Night of the Burning Bush

  1. John Slagle'

    The original article was submitted to the Federal Observer and Jeff by an outstanding retired border patrol agent, Vietnam combat Marine NCO and friend who preferred to remain unnamed at the time he presented and wrote “The night of the Burning Bush,” events during the drug wars of 1989 and politics.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *