Read an Excerpt
“It would do my stress level some good to punch an asshole smuggler really hard. Hearing you bitch about how this surveillance sucks doesn’t help.”
FBI Special Agent Tom Eriksen withheld a smile from his older partner and instead said, “I didn’t say it sucks, I said it stinks. This place physically stinks. Just a comment, not a complaint.” Behind him was one of the safest cities in America, and in front of him the little highway that ran southeast of El Paso next to the Rio Grande River. He had no idea what caused the odor he was currently battling, but it did seem to be traveling on the light southern wind just to slap him in the face. It smelled like a mix of industrial chemicals and poor waste disposal.
His partner, John Houghton, a veteran agent of Homeland Security, said, “Sure it stinks. That over there is Juárez—just as deadly as El Paso is safe. Figured you’d be used to the stench of corruption after spending three years in D.C.” John’s dark face was barely visible in the ambient light.
The terrain was nothing like the grassy hills near Baltimore where he had grown up. This hard, rock-covered ground looked like it couldn’t support weeds, let alone the giant cacti and bushes that sprang up everywhere. The uneven ground provided cover while they looked down on the low valley where they expected trouble.
Eriksen was happy to smell something other than the alcohol on John’s breath as he looked over the scrub brush and scanned the road and trails in this isolated industrial area. Technically it wasn’t part of El Paso, but there was nothing else around to call it. He couldn’t even see the reflected light from the city. Another half mile east were the well-guarded grounds of TARC, the Technology and Research Center; a few miles to the west, residential areas started to spring up. This was a favorite spot for Mexican coyotes to smuggle undocumented people across the border. Plenty of access points and room to flee if needed.
John Houghton sighed loudly.
Eriksen said, “C’mon, John, where would you be if not out here on this?”
“At home watching Bill O’Reilly.”
“That’s what a hotshot federal agent does with his free time?”
Houghton smiled. “The smart ones do.” He checked the ridge they were watching one more time. “Besides, he’s a Harvard man like you. I’d think you’d like him.”
“I do, but scheduling is a problem.” Now he checked the ridge and stared in wonder at the Texas landscape he still wasn’t used to.
Tom Eriksen didn’t care how dusty it got here, how much it stank, or how many nights he had to work, he’d still take it over Washington, D.C., anytime. At least under the circumstances he’d faced before his transfer.
John said, “Why you bitchin’, anyway? I thought you were a real cop, not the typical FBI college boy. You can do more than read spreadsheets, can’t you?”
“College boy? You went to college, too.”
“Yeah, if you can call ASU a college. Not a super-special Ivy League school like you went to. Besides, I’m a black man working for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That gives me the right to bitch. Not enough brothers to have any power and too many to claim discrimination. No one pays any attention to me. That’s why I drink so much.”
“You do okay. Last I checked you were at the top of the pay grade. GS-13, topped out, you gotta be pulling in about a hundred and thirty grand. Somehow I think you’ll survive.”
“You’ll get there. The feds rely on longevity to make money. Just takes time. Besides, having a degree from Harvard makes people take notice.”
“Not too much notice. I’m still sitting here on the border with you.”
His partner smiled, filling out the laugh lines on his fifty-three-year-old face. “Look at me. I was a Customs agent for fifteen years till that day they merged us into the goddamn Homeland Security and I became an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. Now I’m technically an agent for Homeland Security Investigations and looking for illegals on a stupid task force, in a shitty town, with a whining partner.” He held up his hand and said, “I know, I know, the term ‘illegal’ is no longer politically correct, but that’s what we’ve used for years, and it’ll take an old-timer like me some time to correct it. That doesn’t change the fact that my talents have been wasted.”
Eriksen had to laugh out loud at that one.
John continued, “It’s a crime. A damn bureaucratic crime. Someone should go to jail for wasting our talent out here like this.”
Tom Eriksen just nodded at his partner on this border task force he’d been exiled to. But John was right. It wasn’t the stress of violence that ruined most cops, it was the bureaucracy. He felt like the FBI had been trying to kill him for the past two years. It was a long way from what he dreamed of doing.
Eriksen stretched his arms and looked over to the three Border Patrol agents sitting with them. They were all about his age, in their late twenties and close to his six feet. One was pudgy, one looked like he spent too much time in the gym and liked to show off his biceps in a tailored shirt, and the last one had a lean runner’s look like Eriksen. The radio crackled, and then Eriksen heard one of the Border Patrol agents in the other group, a few hundred yards south of them, say, “We got movement.”
Tom Eriksen liked the Border Patrol guys. They were tough and smart and worked hard at a job seemingly no one wanted them to succeed at. He’d heard more than a few senior ICE or HSI guys say all federal agents should have to start their career in the Border Patrol. Be assigned an impossible job, informed they wouldn’t be allowed to actually secure the border, and told not to apprehend too many undocumented people or risk their careers if they tried. Their bosses took care of the real bullshit: keeping a straight face while the politicians told the public what they wanted to hear, that the border was finally secure. The Border Patrol bureaucracy tended to weed out the weak. At least they learned to speak Spanish, and the ones who survived and then moved on to another federal job appreciated what they had. He knew most of the FBI agents and even some of the HSI guys thought they were too good for this kind of duty. Not his partner, John Houghton. He just wanted to work. He would prefer to work something more substantial, at least in his mind, like narcotics or money laundering, but if they assigned him to a task force to cut off the flow of people entering the country improperly, he threw himself into it as best he could.
Eriksen admired that. His father had instilled the need to work hard in all of his children. Eriksen’s sister was at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His older brother was a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, and his younger brother was finishing up his business degree at Columbia. They all worked hard and they all felt sorry for Tom. He would’ve preferred to be working hard by fighting terrorists, but now he was just glad to have a job. Punching a supervisor usually turned out worse. Thank God for the FBI’s desire to maintain its public image.
Now, looking through binoculars, he saw some movement by the supposedly secure culvert that ran under the highway. Smugglers had dug hundreds of tunnels along the border, and many connected directly to storm sewers. Here the Rio Grande kept that from happening, but they had still found a way over. His heart beat a little faster even though he dreaded the idea of chasing fleeing women with little children in their arms or old men just looking for a job in the land of opportunity.
Maybe this time it would be different.
* * *
Joe Azeri’s neck cartilage clicked as he scanned the ridge from inside the smelly drainage pipe. For a career criminal from New Jersey, he felt like he had hit the Lotto with this gig. The corporation didn’t ask that much of him, so he let late nights like this slide by without complaint.
He’d been told there would be immigration officers on the ridge tonight but to go ahead with the plans anyway. It was a complicated way to handle things. If he were in charge, operations would be much more direct and to the point. But this is how they wanted it done, using a porous spot along the border near El Paso, with ways to come through wide open desert, across the highway, or through one of a dozen gullies. Every time the Border Patrol figured out one route, the ingenious smugglers came up with something new. Tunnels were all the rage for a while, but they took time and money to build. They didn’t want to waste it on illegals. The tunnels were mainly used to smuggle dope across to the U.S. and sometimes to bring money back to Mexico. Lots of money. It was the poor freelancers that got caught at the border crossings. The cartels all had ways around the checkpoints.
Even close to the city of El Paso, this was wild country as far as he was concerned. There were coyotes (the real canine ones, not the human smugglers like him), snakes, and even a pack of wild dogs that made the news occasionally. The rolling hills had a sharp edge to them, and the ground had just enough loose rocks and gravel to make any upward trek a scary proposition.
Joe Azeri had used this same culvert to help get deeper into the U.S. before emerging with illegals. It was part of a drainage system that started right on the Rio Grande. The high culvert stank, and he imagined armies of roaches crawling up the walls and along the top of the pipe. In fact, he had only seen a few insects and three rats. It was the green mold that worried him now. What would shit like that do to his lungs?
He felt a soft tap on the shoulder and turned to see the youngest of his assistants, a twenty-year-old from Chihuahua who spoke much more English than he ever let on. No matter how many times he had told the young man to dress in simple, dark clothes, the boy had to express himself with neon-bright Nike running shoes and always wore an orange Texas A&M baseball cap.
The young man said, “Estamos listos, Cash.”
Everyone called Joe “Cash.”
He just nodded. Then, when he turned back to look out the culvert grille, a smile crept across his face. He liked his nickname. He didn’t make friends with the men he worked with, at least not the Mexicans, and he never gave them his name. At first they just called him jefe, Spanish for “boss,” Then not quite a year ago, on one of his first runs, he didn’t have time to change and wore a black dress shirt when they brought across thirteen Mexicans. He liked it that the shirt was so hard to see at night and started wearing only black clothing. After that they started calling him Cash because they were all fans of the American country star Johnny Cash, who always wore black. He still heard “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” playing in Mexican bars.
His Spanish was outstanding, but he kept his commands short and to the point. As a result, his Mexican assistants somehow formed the opinion that he was originally from Colombia and not Passaic, New Jersey. His dark hair and eyes—a gift from his Italian father—made him look Hispanic. He liked the idea that if one of them ever got caught, all they could say was they worked for a Colombian named Cash. It could not have worked out better if he’d planned it.
At the moment, Cash was just happy they had a culvert big enough to walk in. He couldn’t stand all the way up; his five-foot-eleven frame wouldn’t allow it. But on the other hand, his thirty-eight-year-old body didn’t complain too much about walking hunched over compared to crawling through a damn tunnel. This wasn’t a bad job tonight.
Tonight he had eleven widgets, which was how he liked to think of the people he brought across the border. If this was a business, they were his product. He didn’t want to talk to them, get to know them, or have any of them be able to identify him other than a vague description. Three of the widgets had extra value to the company: the older couple and the tall, lanky guy, who wasn’t even Mexican but slipped back and forth across the border on a regular basis. Cash knew a little bit about the guy named Eric, but kept it to himself.
Cash also had three of his assistants with him. Only one of them had anything on the ball, and he was going to be the scout for the group tonight.
He moved forward and peered through the steel grating that covered the culvert. They were passing one of the tunnels that cartel members had cut into the drainage system of El Paso in a dozen places. None of them had ever been found by the Border Patrol. Just the outline was visible as they walked past. A crude gray paste was spread across the edges of the board concealing the tunnel entrance.
He had been told what to expect, but one thing he’d learned on this job was never listen to anyone who told you exactly how things were going to work out.
Cash looked behind him and called one of his helpers to the front. He motioned for the others to move the group back a dozen feet. He leaned in close to his comrade and said in a low voice, speaking English, “All right, Vinnie. You and Juan are going to scout ahead of us and call for us when it’s time. We’re not taking any chances, so keep your pistols out and be ready to lay down fire if we have to run.”
Vinnie ran a hand across his long face and said with his thick Brooklyn accent, “I don’t want to be running wetbacks for the rest of my life. This ain’t what I signed up for.”
“So you’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen. I don’t care what plans you have in the future, but tonight you gotta get your head out of your ass and do what I say. This is not the time to be discussing your career path.” Cash looked down the line to make sure everyone was ready to move. He pulled out the key that unlocked the giant padlock holding the grid in place.
Vinnie said, “How’d you get the key?”
Cash smiled. “Easy. A week ago I used bolt cutters to take off the real lock and changed it with one that looked like it. The Border Patrol doesn’t check each lock every day. It’s the flood control and water utility people who insist on the culverts and maintain them.” He left the lock open as the door swung out. He gave Vinnie a shove to let him know what he thought of him being overqualified for the job at hand. It was this kind of bullshit that made management a pain.
* * *
John Houghton made a few comments about the odors and the bugs so his partner knew he was alert. The catclaw acacia bush he was crouching behind with Tom Eriksen and the Border Patrol agent smelled like a skunk and had thorns that pricked his cheek. He made sure to joke about it. Houghton liked to give off the vibe that he was disgruntled, but in fact he was as happy as a Baptist during Prohibition when he could do real police work like this. He didn’t care that much about the undocumented people from across the border; it was the coyotes he was after, the smugglers, who would rob and kill the refugees as often as they would deliver them safely. He understood what it was to be out of place. As a black man raised in the southwestern United States, he never felt completely comfortable. But he also listened to his mother’s stories about growing up in South Carolina, and with each generation before her, the stories became more horrific. Now John had a job where he could, at least occasionally, protect the helpless. He had a hard time not thinking about his own son or daughter when he looked at the young Mexicans crossing with their parents.
Sitting here under the star-splashed night sky in close quarters behind the ridge with a cool breeze blowing in from the north made him appreciate all he had in his life, even if it wasn’t perfect. He liked it.
He also liked this sharp FBI agent. Tom Eriksen was a hard worker and didn’t complain. It was something they needed to teach more thoroughly at the FBI Academy in Quantico. There seemed to be an institutional arrogance that filtered through many of the agents, but this kid from Baltimore was smart and, more importantly, tough. He also had a light sense of humor that would serve him well in the harsh world of law enforcement. John wondered why the FBI dickhead who supervised the agents on task forces treated him so badly. The supervisor wasn’t so much stupid as dismissive and insisted on knowing everything the young FBI agent was doing. The tubby FBI supervisor, whose name was Mike Zara, claimed that he treated all the agents under him the same and it was important for him to know what each task force was doing. John thought it was more of a babysitting job.
Tom Eriksen would be a good boss one day. He was interested in catching criminals, not bullying people to prove he was in charge. He was twenty-nine but looked younger, with light hair and blue eyes. If the kid wasn’t so serious about his job he’d have women lined up to date. But he worked eighty hours a week and had to work out another ten. Throw in time to sleep and eat and that didn’t leave much time to chase women.
John focused his attention down the hill toward the culvert and scanned the area with his powerful Browning binoculars. It took him a moment to notice that the grate on the culvert was wide open. Before he could see the smugglers, one of the Border Patrol agents called over the radio, “We’ve got two males creeping toward you guys from the culvert.”
John Houghton scanned directly in front of him until he saw the two men, one of them with something in his hand, scurrying along the edge of the brush, scouting the area.
Tom Eriksen whispered in his ear, “We could grab those two before they knew we were here.”
John shook his head. “Those are just scouts. God knows how many are stuck down the culvert. Let’s give ’em a chance to all come out and see what we’re dealing with.”
John pulled his SIG Sauer .40 caliber from a tactical holster. He liked the feel of the heavy metal pistol in his right hand. He’d kept the gun from when he was still part of the U.S. Customs Service. Unlike most of the other federal agencies, which dictated a narrow selection of handguns, the Customs Service always allowed its agents to show their creativity in arming themselves. Tonight the pistol was going to be more for show, because these guys didn’t want to tangle with law enforcement agents who were lying in wait.
No one ever did.
Copyright © 2014 by Lou Dobbs and James O. Born