I remember using the Jeep Cherokee's door for cover, moving fast, hunched over, running zig-zag from tree to boulder to tree for cover, instinctively, as if I was still in the sniper hell of Ramadi. This was the very first time I had dismounted on a recon mission near the border in southern Arizona. Given that we were scouting an extremely rough, remote dirt road that we had been told was only used at night by Mexican cash mules heading south to Mexico, and given that it was surrounded by perfect hilltop sniper hides, this made sense. As disorienting as it was to be doing this mere miles form my home, it just made sense.
Sign on the other side of American Rancher X's fence
The day ended without incident, and the next day began the same. We were heading to another key trafficking area, and were going to go right up to the border. Two of our team, non-journalist, non-militia civilians, wanted to engage in a little for-the-camera horseplay, and piss on Mexico. Despite knowing better, I told them it was okay, and that I'd take the shot. I had begun to think that I was taking things too seriously the day before, and should lighten up.
Getting closer to the border, we continued our regular task of finding, tracking, mapping, and decoding what we were discovering to be a vast network of illegal immigrant trails. Many of the trails were strewn with every type of human debris imaginable, some of it layered so thick it was clear that the layers were years in the making.
We tracked the trails toward a hill, and remounted our vehicle to overtake it. Cresting it, we made our way forward down one of the typical dirt roads through this ranch land, and about a mile later found ourselves finally smack up against the border for the first time. How did we know? About ten feet in front of us was a rambling, rusted fence with a gate featuring a small hand-painted sign that read, "Mexico."
We got out and horsed around. Grizz and Reloader did their comedy routine, and I shot the comedy video. We all took more photos around the sign. The whole 15 minutes wasn't too terribly silly, but it certainly wasn't up to operational standards, especially security-wise. Fuck it, we were on simple ranch land in motherfucking Arizona, USA. We mounted back up and followed the dirt road, parallel to the ramshackle fence, east over a hill. Cresting it and rolling down, we noticed our second vehicle hadn't followed over. Nailer, its driver, suddenly appeared at the top, waving his arms. Something was wrong. We doubled back.
Reloader, back to camera, Grizz, having climbed American Rancher X's gate into Mexico
Nailer had disappeared from the top but we saw him stopped about halfway down the hill, looking up, waiting for us. When we reached him, he sidled up and pointed further down to where Black Flag and Havoc were being confronted by a man on a horse, gesticulating with his cowboy hat.
"That's the fuckin' rancher. He wants us to get off his ranch. He says we're gonna get him killed."
"Yeah?" I responded to Nailer.
I looked at the trio again. Black Flag was nodding and heading back toward his vehicle.
"He says we're in the middle of some bad shit here."
"Yeah? I wanna go to talk to this fuckin' guy." I grabbed a pen and a little notebook and jumped out of the Jeep. As I closed the 30 meters between us, I caught the rancher's attention. He stiffened back on his horse, pulled his hat off his head, closed it to his heart, and then swept it out to his right until his arm was at a full 90 degrees. That arm suddenly appeared to be ordering me out as I closed the last few steps and he first spoke to me, "I'm sorry, but I have to ask you to leave, because they're watching us right now, and they will kill me."
Keep in mind, all of us were toting very serious combat rifles and pistols.
“Well, first of all," I started as I stopped, "This is your land, so we'll just go if you want us gone, you don't have to give us an explanation." I stuck my hand up to shake his. "But my name's Pat Dollard, and I'm a journalist, and I'm tryin' to figure out just what the fuck's going on down here," I said, as we shook and he introduced himself, "X."
"I'm just tryin' to get the truth, because I don't think anybody's down here, really getting it, or down here at all."
Grizz, in Mexico, saluting something
"No, no they aren't."
X looked relatively young and healthy to me, 43 maybe, but he was tense, and he looked beleaguered. Tired, brittle, coiled even. Thin, leathery skin, hat and arms banded with sweat, average height, imperfect and stained teeth, old Lee jeans and a faded white cowboy shirt.
Grizz, a very religious medical marijuana dealer, suddenly interjected with some shit about the truth and God, and I cut him off fast before he stained me with his syrup. I understood his emotionalism given X’s introduction, but I needed this rancher to respect and trust me.
"I'd like to get your story, and get it up on one of Andrew Breitbart's websites. Andrew runs the sites Big Government and ...."
"I know who he is," he interrupted with a tight nod.
"So, are you telling me fucking cartel guys are looking at us right now?"
"Yeah. And they see you, and they don't know what the fuck you're here for, but they presume you're here to steal their money and their drugs. And if you do, after they've seen me talking to you, I'm dead. And maybe they just don't want to wait that long, and they drop us both right now."
X was country, but at the same time, sharp as a New Orleans street hustler, and a tough little fucker, I could just tell. You've seen enough shit, and been around enough men who deal with it, and you get a read for them, fast.
"With binos, on us, right now?"
"Where in the fuck are they?"
Nodding to a different hill with each mentioned location, "Right there, right there, and right there.”
I immediately imagined Grizz's chest exploding as he pissed on Mexico. And I was just as immediately disturbed at how close our situation here on the border, right here at home in the USA, really was to the sniper hell of Ramadi, according to X.
“Look," he said, leaning forward on his horse, "here's how it works." And we were off to the races...