A New War on America's Old Frontier: Mexico's Drug Cartel Insurgency

Author:Nagesh Chelluri
Position::Judge Advocate, U.S. Army
“We don’t have to go overseas to see a war; there is a
war on our homefront right here on the Rio Grande on
the southwest border.”1
I. Border Incursion: A Short Story
One mile from the United States–Mexican border east of Nogales,
Arizona, the large green and white Border Patrol Chevy Tahoe lumbered
slowly and deliberately on the bumpy, dusty unpaved trail. It was an
exceptionally hot day, and Border Patrol agents Reese and Reeves knew
Judge Advocate, U.S. Army. Presently assigned at the Kabul Military Training Center
as Senior Curriculum Advisor for the Afghan National Army Legal School, NATO
Training Mission–Afghanistan and Combined Security Transition Command-
Afghanistan. LL.M., 2011, The Judge Advocate General’s School, U.S. Army,
Charlottesville, Virginia; J.D., 2001, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois; B.S.,
1998, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. Previous assignments include
Headquarters, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, 2008–2010 (Administrative and
Civil Law Attorney, 2010, and Rear Detachment Deputy Command Judge Advocate,
2008–2009); International Operations Officer, Defense Institute of International Legal
Studies, Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, 2007–2008; Trial Counsel, 35th Air
Defense Artillery Brigade, Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, 2006; 1st Brigade Combat
Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, 2004–2005 (Trial Counsel, 2005,
Command Judge Advocate deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, 2004);
U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center and Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Leonard Wood,
Missouri, 2003–2004 (Chief, Legal Assistance, 2004, Trial Counsel deployed to Joint
Task Force Guantanamo, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 2003–2004, Legal Assistance
Attorney, 2002–2003); Aide-de-Camp, Deputy Commanding General, 416th Engineer
Command, U.S. Army Reserve, Darien, Illinois, 1999–2002; Platoon Leader, Delta
Company, 1st Battalion, 123rd Infantry Regiment, Illinois Army National Guard,
Pontiac, Illinois, 1998–1999. Member of the bars of Illinois, the United States Court of
Appeal for the Armed Forces, and the Supreme Court of the United States. This article
was submitted in partial completion of the Master of Laws requirements of the 59th
Judge Advocate Officer Graduate Course. I would like to thank my wife, Karin, for her
love and tireless support during the writing of this article; as well as Lieutenant Colonel
(Ret.) Eric T. Jensen for his inspiration and friendship; and my advisor, Lieutenant
Colonel Jeff A. Bovarnick for his leadership and intellectual acumen during the entire
writing process. Finally, I’d like to thank our fantastic International Law Faculty
members who graciously lent their names to the introduction of this paper: Lieutenant
Colonel Jeremy Marsh, U.S. Air Force; Major Shane R. Reeves, U.S. Army; and
Lieutenant Commander John B. Reese, U.S. Navy.
1 Border Wars (National Geographic Channel broadcast Nov. 17, 2010) (quoting
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Joe Ramos).
that when darkness fell and the rugged landscape cooled down, the
narcotics and human smugglers would more than likely make their move.
With the drug cartels firmly rooted less than a mile away in Heroica
Nogales, Mexico, desperate people will take desperate measures to
escape, and bodies of Mexicans attempting to cross have occasionally
been found. About to make a radio check, Agent Reese notices
movement in a small wooded area. Reese points toward what he saw and
pulls out his binoculars as Reeves drives toward the movement. The ride
is jarring and Reese has a difficult time focusing. He makes out ten to
twelve men in what appears to be black battle dress uniforms in the
brush. Reeves stops the vehicle and reaches for the radio while Reese
picks up his M4 carbine steps out to investigate.
Agent Reese walks toward the group when suddenly multiple shots
are fired and two rounds pierce his open door. With years of border
experience, Reese reacts quickly and returns fire as he runs toward a
ditch for cover. Not fast enough, a round grazes his left leg and he
tumbles into the ditch and drops his weapon. Reese quickly regains his
composure, secures his weapon and assesses the situation.
Reeves drives the vehicle closer. As more rounds strike the vehicle,
Reese gets into a position and returns fire at a moving black uniform that
drops, but he is unsure if he hit his target. Another man carrying a hand
held radio points at the vehicle and ducks for cover. To Reese’s surprise,
shots are fired at the vehicle from another direction. The vehicle stops:
tires are flattened, the windshield is pocked with bullet holes, and blood
is spattered on the passenger window. He hears the familiar voice of
Supervisory Agent Marsh from Command Post reassuring him help is on
the way. Reese provides him a report of his tenuous situation, including
the possibility that Reeves is dead. As they talk, Reese ducks to avoid
shots fired in his direction. He sees the second group bound up and over
the hill as the first group fires, pinning him down in the ditch. The first
group on the hill disappears over the top as the Customs and Border
Patrol helicopter and ground patrol vehicles arrive. Paramedics race to
the shot up vehicle as Agent Marsh helps Reese out of the ditch.
“What the hell happened?” asks Agent Marsh.
“I have no idea, but I think these guys were professionals. They had
a radioman, and bounded back over the hill as the guys at the top laid
suppressive fire. I couldn’t return fire. What do you think, another
Mexican Army incursion? Zetas?”
“Who knows, this kind of thing has been going on more frequently
than we’d like. Don’t worry about Reeves, the medics are on him,” says
Agent Marsh as he helps Reese toward an arriving ambulance. He
continued, “The helicopter reported that they jumped in a couple
Humvees and raced back across the border.”
In the ambulance, Reese sits oblivious to the paramedic attending to
his wound as he listens to the traffic on his handheld radio; the area
where the attackers fled yielded a cache of 500 pounds of marijuana. The
best news was yet to come. Agent Reeves was alive but in critical
condition and being airlifted to the nearest emergency room.2
II. Introduction
Unfortunately, the previously described attack is not merely a
creative anecdote. While some specific details above are fiction, the
event is a true story. Given the military-style tactics, the attackers in this
story may have been Los Zetas,3 one of seven cartels battling each other
and the Mexican government for supremacy in the drug trade—a struggle
2 The short story is a work of fiction by the author, but based on actual reported events.
See Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act of 2009 and
Rapid Response Border Protection Act of 2005: Hearing on H.R. 98 and H.R. 4044
Before the H. Homeland Security Subcomm. on Investigations, 109th Cong. (2006)
(statement of T.J. Bonner, President, National Border Patrol Counsel).
June 30, 2005, at approximately 12:30 p.m., east of Nogales,
Arizona: Two U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered a group of ten
to twelve men wearing black military-style uniforms about a mile
north of the international border. Some of the men opened fire on the
agents, and at least one of them utilized a hand-held radio to direct
gunfire of several hidden shooters. A total of more than fifty high-
powered rifle rounds were fired at the agents, both of whom were
seriously wounded. The gunmen retreated back to Mexico using
military-style cover and concealment tactics. Nearly five hundred
pounds of marijuana were recovered during a search of the area.
[The] . . . assault may have been perpetrated by henchmen of the drug
cartels, a significant number of whom are former Mexican soldiers or
law enforcement officers. One such group, Los Zetas, works for the
Gulf Cartel, and many of its members received training from the U.S.
military and/or law enforcement agencies while they were employed
by the government of Mexico.
(Los Zetas is a cartel composed of former Mexican Army Airborne Special Forces
Groups, or GAFE in Spanish, discussed further below.).

To continue reading