Outside magazine, September 1997
It's a slightly off-kilter version of an everyday pursuit. Three guys on mountain bikes are cruising down an isolated dirt track in southern Arizona's Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The terrain is gently rolling desert grassland, home to pronghorn antelope, coyotes, and roadrunners: perfect mountain-biking country. The time, however, is just past midnight, and the men are carrying Beretta .40-caliber pistols and have outlandish sci-fi devices strapped precariously to their heads. The moonless night is actually crypt-black, but thanks to the Generation III night-vision goggles, their world glows electric green. The men can even count the individual strands on the barbed-wire fence to their right — the border between the United States and Mexico.
The three, led by 46-year-old veteran Cameron Hintzen, are members of the U.S. Border Patrol's mountain-bike division, the first such unit of its kind, charged with defending a seemingly indefensible stretch of American frontier. The virtually uninhabited, 116,000-acre Buenos Aires is a lively corridor not just for illegal immigrants, but for "mules" — couriers hired by narcotraficantes to backpack loads of drugs across the line. It is vast, open country. The howl of a coyote carries for miles. And the sound of a Ford Bronco, the usual means of conveyance for the Border Patrol, carries even farther. Thus the low-tech/high-tech combination of bicycles and night-vision gear, which lends Hintzen's squad a stealthiness that is astonishingly effective — in a single night last year, riding another patch of desert 50 miles to the west, they intercepted 476 pounds of marijuana and 60 illegal immigrants.
The normal beat for this trio, which in addition to Hintzen includes 23-year-old Jorge Reza and 34-year-old Carl McClafferty IV, takes in some of the grittiest areas of Tucson, a nether region of soup kitchens and bars where undocumented workers try to find jobs and through which a massive flow of drugs from Mexico is distributed. Street-corner deals are commonplace, and attempted arrests often turn into chases pitting agents on Stumpjumpers against heavily armed perps in Plymouths. Thus these wilderness ops, fraught with potential danger though they are, seem like respites from reality. Indeed, taking a break against a mesquite tree overlooking the stunted vegetation of a dry arroyo, with goggles magnifying ambient light by a factor of 40,000, the mood is nothing if not otherworldly. Overhead the stars — thousands more than are visible to the unaided eye — are so eerily reminiscent of a certain MOMA-hung image that one can't help but wonder whether Van Gogh hadn't somehow managed to get ahold of a pair of night-vision specs. Meteors streak through the constellations every few seconds, while bats scour the air for insects. Javelinas and kit foxes wander casually by, their alertness seemingly turned off for the night. "When we're out here, it's sort of a decompression stop," says Hintzen. Then, his eyes losing the distant quality of a man in the midst of a sabbatical, he snaps back to the taxpayer-funded here-and-now. "Of course," he says, "occasionally we get lucky."
This is one of those nights. Stopping to survey a north-running ravine, the agents hear voices and muted thumps coming from across the fence. In the chartreuse glow of the night scopes, they see four men crawling under the wire, each dragging a 40-pound bale of marijuana crudely wrapped in plastic and burlap.
The smugglers shoulder their loads and start heading up the ravine, moving clumsily in the dark, choosing to risk cactus and rattlesnakes rather than light and the attention it might bring. Nonetheless, their journey is cut short. The agents charge, bellowing, "Alto! Somos la migra!" in unison. The night is split by the glare of lithium-powered flashlights, which pin the drug-runners like jackrabbits frozen by a set of high-beams. Alas, also like jackrabbits, the four men drop their loads and bolt for the fence, spilling over the top and disappearing into darkness on the Mexican side.
Later, sitting on 160 pounds of dope while waiting for an SUV to haul it away, Hintzen is philosophical. "The main thing is to get the drugs," he says. Then he lies back on the bales and flips down his night scope, gazing up at a suddenly luminous sky.
Photograph by Timothy Archibald