“U.S. Border Patrol! Drop your weapons!” The 12-second hesitation between command and compliance seems to span infinity. The bandits are weighing their options. Do they run? Do they engage this lone agent? They have advantage in numbers and in firearms but the agent has chosen a solid firing position behind concealment. “U.S. Border Patrol! Drop the *&%# guns or I WILL drop you.” The confidence of the agent forces the bandits to reveal their cowardly nature. An assortment of Eastern-Bloc rifles fall to the ground as the bandits meekly surrender. Supervisory Agent Daniel McClafferty had won again, without firing a shot.

The Arizona border between Mexico and the United States seems more like the gates of hell than the meeting ground of two democracies: 10,000-foot peaks tumble into valleys choked with cactus and other inhospitable plants as I follow McClafferty on an intelligence mission thru one of the ranges surrounding Tucson, a week after his confrontation with the bandits.

As the Border Patrol intensifies efforts to secure American borders, smugglers increasingly risk entering “Death Zones”—areas of the border where smugglers must endure days in unforgiving terrain to reach U.S. cities. Other, more geographically forgiving routes thru Texas and California are becoming untenable due to increased LE presence. While smugglers feel the dessert is the lesser of two evils, the terrain still demands a regular sacrifice of lives.

The Border Patrol is determined to lessen that toll, in 1998, establishing Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue Teams. Ten of these highly trained units have been established and they focus their attentions on the numerous “Death Zones” of the southern border. While the size of each team varies and is classified, the Tucson Sector BORSTAR team is the largest and most active.

borstar-weapons-fotos-005.gifThe Victims
I visited Nogales, Mexico to speak with a group of soon-to-be illegal immigrants. Desperate to leave a life of poverty in their native countries, they had gathered in Nogales to await nightfall to pass into the United States with the guidance of a professional smuggler, or “coyote.” The instructions from their guide were the first source of problems. They had been assured that Tucson is only a few hours away, but it is some 60 miles away. They naively believed their guide and only brought a few small bottles of water. Worse, the group ranges in age from mere infants to the elderly who are trying to reach the U.S. for medical attention.

Illegal immigrants must not only battle the elements but also face danger from drug smugglers and bandits. The smugglers are mostly physically fit Mexican nationals who do not want the attention that an immigrant group nearby might attract. The bandits are also illegal immigrants who live in the United States and make routine trips to border areas to rob the drug smugglers and/or illegal immigrants. Armed with rifles but cowardly in nature, they have no hesitation about leaving groups stranded in the desert after robbing and/or physically abusing them. Holding the line is the Border Patrol.

Most cops spend their entire career without using deadly force. BORSTAR agents work towards the same goal but because of the environment where they work, they are better armed than the average beat cop.

The standard sidearm of the Border Patrol is a variant of the H&K USP .40. Nothing fancy there. No lights or attachments because unlike most cops, the handgun is not their primary weapon. The anvil of history on which Border Patrol has been forged has instilled a belief in rifles, shotguns and submachine guns.

BORSTAR agents have to carry their gear in the bush more than most military units, so they keep the tools to the minimum.

borstarvert.gifWhatever Works Best
Agents are issued an M4 and given the latitude to build their rifle to their particular preferences. Since portability is a major factor, slings are a favorite accessory.

Scopes will vary: Most agents prefer EOTechs or Aimpoints. Although the agents are working in the field, they are law enforcement personnel. Although most people envision the desert as wide open terrain, it is not. Narrow gullies and high vegetation can limit visibility to conversational distances. If you can’t see it, you definitely are not shooting at it. Most smugglers take advantageous of this fact and maximize their use of cover and concealment. The bad guys are usually poorly educated but not stupid.

Attached lights are more or less standard: Surefire has complete domination. The M4s are functional and well used. Like testing a product by handing it to Navy SEALs, BORSTAR agents will find equipment weakness quickly thru the abuse of real-world deployment.

The Remington 870 is also available. However, most agents do not favor carrying the 870s as the ammo is too short range and  bulky.

The trend among agents is to carry the H&K UMP in .40. Lighter than the M4s and easier to control for the one-handed BORSTAR dog handlers, the UMP is a rising star in the inventory.

The weapons look functional and the agents are clearly comfortable handling them safely. But how do they shoot? I got to observe as one of the BORSTAR firearms instructors undertook his quarterly weapons qualifications and there was good and bad news. The good news was the agents, clearly comfortable and competent with the weapons. The bad news was the course of fire. I would be more comfortable with a BORSTAR agent backing me up than almost anyone else in law enforcement. These agents actively employ good field tactics every day. It is a dangerous game of hide-and-seek and these agents are motivated to win.

Most have military backgrounds and are allowed a degree of independence that allows their intelligence to shine. By himself, he must assume command of a situation where he is grossly outnumbered: By sheer presence, he must convince a large group not to attempt to overpower him, and to obey commands. To work alone in the dark, with backup miles away, and to tackle these large groups, takes true courage. Yet for these agents, takedown of large groups has become routine. As such, their operating methods much more proactive than any other law enforcement agency. While street cops move forward cautiously on a vehicle stop, BORSTAR agents usually rush the vehicle to minimize the attempts for escape.

The border is a dangerous place. If the natural environment fails to kill you, there are competing groups traveling thru these areas that are equally dangerous as the midday sun.

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