Federal Agents Under Siege in the Southwest
DEA, Customs and Border Patrol officers encounter increasing violence from Mexican drug traffickers.
By ESTHER SCHRADER, Times Staff Writer
COCHISE COUNTY, Arizona—When they come looking for him at the shopping
drug agent Bernie Minarik slips out a back way. When his wife drops him off at work, she takes a
roundabout route back home in case she's being followed.
But when he discovered a highway flare that Mexican drug traffickers had planted in the gas tank
of his car in an attempt to blow him to bits, Minarik nearly called it quits.
Minarik has been a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Arizona's border country for eight
years, and he didn't take the job expecting it to be danger-free. But he didn't count on the violence seeping
into his home life, on his kid going to school scared, on his wife biting her lip as she watches him
fasten his bulletproof vest every morning.
Violence against federal agents, which used to be rare, is becoming more common along the Southwest
border, where cocaine, heroin and other illicit drugs are pouring into the United States from Mexico in ever
Increasingly, the men and women on the front lines of the drug war are being targeted by traffickers
who outgun them, outman them—and are out to get them as never before.
Violent assaults against federal agents along the Southwest border—ground zero of the biggest drug
trade in the world—soared from 156 in 1992 to more than 500 last year. Since 1994, two agents have been
killed. In 1997 alone, the last year for which detailed statistics are available, agents were shot at 97 times.
They were rammed with cars or trucks 64 times. On 20 occasions, assailants planted bombs.
Nowhere is the escalating threat more pervasive than in southern Arizona, where vast expanses of desert
and a network of back roads leave law enforcement forces more spread out and vulnerable. Through
November 1999, there were 208 documented incidents of violence against federal officers in Arizona.
That's more than in any other border state. As recently as two decades ago, assaults by drug traffickers
on federal agents working the U.S. side of the nation's Southwest border were so rare as to be almost
unheard of. Better to dump the dope and run back to Mexico than to risk time in an American jail, the
smugglers apparently calculated.
But these days, Border Patrol, Customs and DEA agents patrolling the Arizona border have been drawn
into gunfights with traffickers who hang out the windows of their Broncos and spray rounds from AK-47s.
Agents have been pelted with rocks, ball bearings and sharpened metal shards, and have been knifed, beaten
Those like Minarik, who work undercover, are often found out by drug underlords who live in the
same small cities as they do and who have the money and the technology to track their movements,
DEA officials say. Agents listen to plots being hatched against them via cell phones. Their wives use
their maiden names to provide an extra margin of safety. They rotate the cars they use for work.
And despite their increasingly intricate precautions, sometimes they are killed.
In June 1998, four traffickers associated with one of Mexico's most violent drug gangs fatally shot
Border Patrol agent Alexander Kirpnick on a dirt road in Arizona at point-blank range. Four days
later, two Border Patrol agents were shot outside McAllen, Texas, by coked-up heroin traffickers. In
1994, DEA agent Richard Fass was shot dead foiling a methamphetamine buy.
"Even though I used to be a churchgoer, I don't go to church anymore," said Minarik, special agent
in charge of the DEA office in Sierra Vista, a middle-class town about an hour from the
Arizona-Mexico border. "You never know who's going to be there."
Said another DEA agent who works with Minarik: "It's a constant state of vigilance because
everyone knows who you are. It just never stops. You can't go to a Circle K without seeing someone
associated with someone you put in jail. You learn to accept it."
The amount of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana smuggled across the border in this
corner of Arizona is less than in other border areas. Baja California, the base of the Arellano Felix
brothers' notoriously violent drug mafia, has long been a prime conduit of drugs into California.
But it is in remote areas like Cochise County where smugglers, armed and paid by powerful
Mexican organizations, increasingly face off against federal agents on quiet desert roads. Emboldened
because they often outnumber the law officers they confront, and often under intense competitive
pressure from other smugglers, they are more willing to risk attacking U.S. peace officers, officials say.
"People have no clue what's going on down here. It's the Wild West, and there just seem to be
more bad guys every day," said Larry Dever, sheriff of Cochise County, a rocky, mountainous corner
of Arizona that has been adopted by Mexico's drug gangs as a preferred route for moving their
Dever once regarded his main job as keeping the people of his county safe from one another. But
these days, he said, he spends most of his time helping the more than 600 DEA, Customs and Border
Patrol agents who have flooded into the county to battle the drug trade.
Four exchanges of gunfire a week between U.S. agents and drug smugglers is the norm, officials
say. High-speed chases of traffickers are common. Drug runners are regularly stopped carrying
automatic rifles, and two underground tunnels used to transport drugs across the border were
discovered last year.
In January, Border Patrol and Customs agents chased two Ford Broncos loaded with 2,600
pounds of marijuana 10 miles across the desert from Naco to Palominas as a drug smuggler in one of
the vehicles fired round after round at them with a semiautomatic weapon. No agents were hit.
The next night, Cochise County sheriff's deputy Jerry Sevier came across a pickup that had been
used to run cocaine through a hole in the border fence near Naco. The truck was empty. But on the
front seat was what Sevier interpreted as a message: a fully loaded 45-caliber revolver.
Like most of the law enforcement professionals in Cochise County, Sevier lives in Sierra Vista, a
high desert town that, with its malls, cinema, supermarkets and well-endowed private schools, is
somewhat removed from the seediness of the county's two dusty border towns, Naco and Douglas.
At least that's what Sevier thought a few years ago, before he became a sheriff's deputy. In those
days, he was a computer engineer working at a high-tech firm. He almost never drove into Naco, a
cluster of trailer homes and wooden houses, or Douglas, with its strip of nightclubs. Violent drug
trafficking seemed to have nothing to do with his life.
Then Sevier took this job because he wanted to work in law enforcement. And he learned that the
violence was being hatched by his neighbors down the street.
"Before I became a cop I thought I lived in a nice Arizona town," Sevier said, maneuvering his
patrol car down a sandy border road where he had chased some heavily armed traffickers the month
"When I became a cop I realized, hey, this is my neighborhood. The bad guys are living here too."
For those who work the border, there is no escape from the anxiety. Minarik and his colleagues
work out of a low-slung, nondescript building whose few windows are made of bulletproof glass. The
building is on a side street in Sierra Vista, but the capos of the drug trade know it's there.
At the Border Patrol headquarters in Tucson, about two hours away, the lobby is dominated by a
large plaque draped in black crepe. Engraved on it are the names of Border Patrol officers killed in the
line of duty.
"Warfare along the border has become a lifestyle and a business," Dever said. "The worst is yet to
come. No matter how much we spend, the traffickers can spend more."
Like many places along the border, smuggling has been a way of life for generations in Cochise
County, with its 83 miles of border snaking across rock-strewn desert and windy plateaus. A century
ago it was Chinese workers who made their way across the frontier to work the copper mines. During
Prohibition, the economies of Naco, Douglas and other border towns were powered by bootleg
liquor. And since the 1960s, at least, marijuana smuggling has fueled a thriving illicit economy.
But about a decade ago, the drug underworld upped the ante. That was when successful American
interdiction efforts in the Caribbean began to force as much as three-fourths of the cocaine grown in
Colombia and the other Andean countries to reach the U.S. through Mexico.
Mexican smugglers, who had usually been paid in cash to transport drugs, began taking their cut in
the cargo. As the Mexicans expanded their own wholesale drug business in the United States, their
earnings shot up dramatically, making them significantly richer, more violent and more defiant.
"The stakes are very high. The competition is very fierce among deeply entrenched smuggling
organizations. These guys just have more to lose," said James Woolley, assistant special agent in
charge of the DEA's Tucson office. "The guys we run into have instructions to shoot any resistance
they might encounter. Gun battles and gunfire exchange is becoming the norm rather than the
Washington has responded to the rising violence by pouring more agents into places like Cochise
County, and arming them with deadlier weapons. Nationwide, the number of DEA agents in border
counties grew 155% between 1994 and 1998. The Border Patrol is increasingly taking a role in the
anti-drug battle, in part because its total number of agents has more than doubled since 1993. The
Customs Service is on the front lines as well, its heavily armed investigators roaming border roads in
search of "mules" loaded down with drugs.
Critics of the buildup decry what they call the militarization of the border, and point out that it has
done nothing to stem the growing tide of drugs headed for American cities and towns.
"What we have on the border is a slippery slope of more use of military-style practices and
equipment by these agencies, and for what?" said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the New York-based
Lindesmih Center, a drug policy research organization that has consistently criticized the drug war.
"The cocaine, heroin and other drugs just keep coming."
Even those who insist the buildup is necessary recognize it's easier to say you're getting tough on
the border than to do actually do it. The Border Patrol has not been able to recruit people fast enough
to keep up with congressional mandates. According to a December report by the General Accounting
Office for the three-year hiring period ending Sept. 30, 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization
Service had a net hiring shortfall of 594 agents. In fiscal 1999, failure and dropout rates among Border
Patrol agents were higher than ever before, the GAO found.
"It's difficult to get [agents] to come in," said David Aguilar, director of the Border Patrol's Tucson
sector office. "A lot of times we hire the people, we train them, they look at the place, they look at
Douglas, Ariz., and they change their minds."
Agents on the front lines say they need all the help they can get. But they recognize the deadly calculus
of which they are part: The more heavily armed agents that Washington stations in one area of the
border, the more people the trafficking organizations, with their seemingly endless resources, hire and arm
to fight back.
"The drug smugglers seem to be of the mind-set that they don't want to be deterred by the increased
interdiction effort that we've mounted in the last two years," said Woolley of the DEA.
"We are at war, and we're experiencing the consequences of that war in terms of violent encounters,
and I only see that increasing. A lot of the drug dealers wear bulletproof vests now. They are prepared
to battle, and they are prepared to win."
Lee Morgan is a big man who favors cowboy boots and belts with massive buckles. He has been
working the border for the federal government since 1974, first with the Border Patrol and now as a
special agent for the Customs Service. He remembers when he could pull over a truck that he knew was
loaded with illicit drugs and the driver would stop, get out and put up his hands.
"Now you put red lights on a loaded vehicle, he's gonna run. And more than likely, he's gonna shoot,"
Morgan said. "They use their vehicles as weapons."
Morgan said that more than half of the agents he supervises at the Customs office in Douglas have
had to use their weapons or have come under fire in the last year. The other half have been assaulted
in some other fashion.
Two years ago, his agents were being stalked by drug traffickers so frequently that Morgan
decided he'd had enough. He trailed one known trafficker who had been driving close behind one of
his agents for weeks. By asking about him around town, he tracked down the trafficker's address: a
spacious house on a winding street in Douglas. Then he talked to the U.S. Attorney's office and got a
warrant for his arrest on charges of intimidating and threatening a federal officer.
The trafficker has been a fugitive, apparently in Mexico, ever since.
"That's the way it goes down here," Morgan said. "At home, we live in glass houses down here. At
work, we never know what's gonna happen to us or what kind of shape we're gonna be in at the end