Border Keepers: Alabamians travel 1600 miles to suppress drug trade, illegal immigration

The border between the United States and Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long. It passes through four states in the US, including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Along this often remote and hostile line, federal border patrol agents are responsible for ensuring the security of the border on the United States's side.

They face a tough fight. Every year, more than a million pounds of illegal drugs pass over the border of Arizona and Mexico into the United States. Unlike states like California and Texas, where the majority of illegal activity involves human trafficking, Arizona is ground zero for the war against drug smuggling, according to federal officials.

Drug Trade

Nogales, Arizona is more than 1,600 miles from Birmingham, Ala. In many ways, the two cities are completely different. However, they share one very important problem: they've both been impacted by the trade of illicit drugs, most notably heroin. Last year, heroin-related deaths were up by about 150 percent in Jefferson County, according to law enforcement officials. Heroin has been called an "epidemic" across our state by drug prevention groups. While not all of that product comes from Mexico, a large portion of drugs that make their way to Birmingham have been trafficked from out of the country.

Border Keepers of Alabama

In this way, what happens on the border has had a big impact on Birmingham. The drug trade is part of the catalyst for the creation of the Border Keepers of Alabama. It's a group of a few dozen men and women with the stated goal of preventing drugs and people from passing illegally through the border with Mexico. The organization, which calls itself "BOA" for short, has been met with criticism and praise. Critics call them vigilantes and racists, bent on preventing immigration into the United States. Supporters call them patriots and heroes, intent on doing the job Border Patrol agents have trouble doing alone--enforcing the law.

In the past several years, BOA's enrollment has grown. Along with more members, they've expanded their efforts in a big way. Several times a year they run special operations--or "ops"--on the border with Mexico. Between four and ten men usually go on these trips, joining up with dozens of like-minded groups from across the country. They call themselves "three percenters," a reference to the three percent of soon-to-be Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War.

The Border Keepers of Alabama have traditionally focused their attention on Brownsville, Texas, an urban area that has been a hotbed of illegal activity, from human trafficking to drug smuggling. Recently, though, they say Border Patrol in Texas has made running ops through that area very difficult, if not impossible. In April 2016, they shifted gears, sending men for the second time to an op near Nogales, Arizona.

The Camp

CBS42 News followed the group of six Central Alabamians to their camp site, where we accompanied them on day patrols, night watches, and tried to get a better understanding of exactly what is happening on the border. The men did not use their real names, but "call signs," which is how they asked us to refer to them for this report.

They all had different reasons for coming to Arizona on what could be a dangerous mission to patrol the border. One man, whose call sign is "Trigger," told us he's concerned about the drugs coming across the border. "You know, we're all not crazy zealots. Somebody's got to do it, and our government's not doing it, so we've got to answer that call where we can," he said.

The Border Keepers' efforts are not authorized by the federal government, and they are entirely a volunteer organization. In fact, each man must bring his own supplies. They even pay $15 a day for the cost of hot food and water at camp. However, in Arizona, we saw them work with Border Patrol agents, occasionally running ops in conjunction with them.

"You know, we're all not crazy zealots. Somebody's got to do it, and our government's not doing it, so we've got to answer that call where we can," - Trigger

"They're happy we're here. It helps them out," said "Ghost," the Arizona op's commanding officer. He's part of the Three Percent United Patriots of Arizona, and he's the person who coordinates with volunteers from other states.

"It's their party. We just came for the cake," said "Bull," a Central Alabama native who made the trip to Arizona.

The Conditions

The camp itself is set up about two miles from the border. It's in a remote section of the Patagonia Mountains, about an hour's drive south of Tucson and a half hour's trip north of Nogales, Arizona. There's no cell phone signal, no restaurants or hotels nearby. The houses here are few and said to be owned by supporters of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which Border Patrol tells us controls the drug trade through this area.

"Everything out here is trying to kill you," said "Bull."

During the day, the temperature soars to 80 degrees, but at night, it can get below freezing. There are scorpions, snakes and bears that live in the desert surrounding the camp. The biggest danger, though, comes from across the border itself.

The men are told by camp commanders not to fire any weapons, even though they carry them, unless their lives are in danger. If they see a person attempting to cross the border illegally, they're told to let them cross, then try to convince them to sit down and wait until Border Patrol can get to the scene.

Related: Video diary from the U.S. and Mexican Border

"We're not an assault force, we're not here to arrest anybody. We're here to observe and report," said "Doc," who came from North Carolina for the op.

"Everything out here is trying to kill you," - Bull

During the pre-operation meetings, "Ghost" tells the men their assignments. During the day, that can include recon missions and familiarizing themselves with the area and popular crossing locations. By night, they find their posts and wait for illegal activity.

"It's not like we want somebody here that this is the first time they've ever had a gun on their hand or the first time they've been away from their family. We've got to have people here that are level-headed, that have experience," said "Geezer," another Border Keeper from Alabama.

The Fence

"{Donald} Trump talks about building a wall. Well, we're the wall right now," said "Ghost."

That night, the Border Keepers take us to see the fence. With the naked eye, it looks just like any normal fence, the kind that could keep livestock in or coyotes out. There's no marker to indicate it's a national border. The fence is made up of three wooden boards that run horizontally, covered by barbed wire about an inch thick. In some places, the wire is missing.

"{Donald} Trump talks about building a wall. Well, we're the wall right now," - Ghost

"It's shocking. I've seen it with my own eyes. That's originally why I came down. I hear about this, I want to see it," said "Doc."

On our first day with the Border Keepers, they take the forty or so volunteers on a tour of the area. In the middle of the tour, we're told something has happened. Another group patrolling the nearby mountains has found a cache of drugs. They quickly secure and search the area. We're told to wait in the car while armed men cordon off the dirt road. After a few tense minutes, they move on. The group on the mountain has called Border Patrol to catalog, inventory and turn in the drugs. It's a small load, just five pounds of marijuana altogether.

"You know, we come down for ten days, they can't run their drugs down here, so it costs them two or three million dollars. To the cartels, that's nothing. That's $100 to you and me, literally," said "Ghost."

"We're not even probably putting a dent in what the cartels are sending across, but we're setting an example," said "Nashville," who came from Tennessee for this op.

It's this belief that they're making a difference that brings many of these men to camp.

Night Watch

nightfall

That evening, we see the team's first night patrol. They split up into groups of three or four, then stake out strategic locations along the border. They wear all camouflage, carry weapons, and turn off anything that can emit light. A truck drops them off along their designated areas. From there, they crouch in the brush, flatten themselves among trees, and wait for something to see.

Related: What happens if you need to make a phone call?

Shortly into the watch, we hear the sound of a car engine near the Mexico side of the fence. We can see the vehicle, but we can't hear it. "Bull" tells us this is common for cartel operators. They stake out the area to make sure it's secure and safe before trying to cross over. The vehicle moves away.

Another hour into the patrol, "Bull" points to a group of lights in the distance. He tell us they are drones, that the cartels often use them to watch the fence. He says it's another way the cartels can keep an eye on what's happening on the border.

On this night, we're out until 3 a.m. when the group is picked up by a command vehicle and taken back to camp. It's been a quiet patrol. No drugs or illegal crossing attempts have been reported. They'll wake up the next morning for another day of operations.

The dangers faced while ‘enforcing the law’

To see part 2 of this special report CLICK HERE

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